Sunday, May 26, 2013

Sermon - "Acts of God"

Rev. Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
May 26, 2013 – Trinity Sunday
Psalm 8; Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31

“Acts of God”

By a show of hands, how many of you knew before coming here this morning that today is Trinity Sunday?  That’s what I thought.
To be honest, outside of theologians, church staff, and whichever deacons are on duty today, very few people know or care that today is Trinity Sunday.
I doubt if any of you woke up this morning, roused the kids out of bed and hurried out the door shouting, “We can’t miss church today, it’s Trinity Sunday!”

Admittedly, Trinity Sunday is a pretty low-key celebration on our Christian calendar.  We don’t spend weeks preparing for it and we don’t have any rituals associated with it.
We don’t have a Trinity Pageant where we dress our children up as the three aspects of God and reenact the workings of the Holy Spirit.

But maybe we should…
because Trinity Sunday is a celebration of a pretty amazing thing:
It’s a celebration of the many ways that we live in relationship with God.
It’s a celebration of the sheer awe that we feel when we encounter God in the form of our transcendent Creator; It’s a celebration of the brotherly bond we feel when we encounter God in the human form of Jesus; and it’s a celebration of the sustaining energy we feel when we encounter God moving through us in the form of the Holy Spirit.

Yet because this celebration is about a feeling or an experience rather than an event, like Pentecost, or the birth, death, or resurrection of Jesus, we often don’t know what to do with it.
It’s too vague and ethereal for us to wrap our minds around.
For many of us the mere mention of the word Trinity causes our eyes to glaze over. 
I knew I was in trouble in seminary, when my theology Professor, Mark Heim, ended a 3-hour lecture on the Triune nature of God by saying,
“If you find that you are thoroughly confused by all of this - Good! Now you understand the Trinity!”

But truth be told, we really don’t have to fully comprehend how God can be three in one or one in three to understand that the Trinity is all about relationships.
God is by nature a relational God.
God relates to us through Creation - through nature and through other created beings;
God relates to us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, who showed us how to live, love, and transform ourselves anew; and God is relates TO us and THROUGH us in the movements of the Holy Spirit, who in keeping with the tradition of Wisdom and Sophia, guides and inspires us to act creatively, compassionately and justly in our world.

These are the three faces, or three relational experiences that we have with God - as Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.

Now theologically, we can say much more about the doctrine of the Trinity then this.
But I’m not going to.
Believe me I could.  Three years ago while in seminary I wrote what I thought was a pretty decent sermon on the Trinity, but when I re-read it this past week I put myself to sleep.
So I will spare you a lengthy explanation of the doctrine of the Trinity, partly because I don’t want your eyes to glaze over to the point where you start thinking about your grocery lists, but mainly because the mystery of God is not something that we can capture in doctrines, creeds, or statements of belief.
I believe the mystery of God is best encountered in experience and in story.
So allow me, if you will, to shift gears here for a few minutes and tell you a story.

It’s a story about how I encountered the mystery of God through the experiences of my father.

My father was a veteran of World War II.
He served in the Navy on a Tank Landing Ship that moved artillery, heavy equipment, and large groups of marines and infantryman across the ocean, depositing them on the shores of foreign lands in Europe and the South Pacific.
The Tank Landing Ships were called LSTs.
My dad used to say that LST stood for “Large Slow Target.”

When I was growing up, my father would tell us stories of his experiences during the war, but because we were children he tended to focus on the adventure and the humor of his exploits, without revealing the harsher realities of war.
I suspect he did this for his own well-being as much as he did it for ours.

There was one particular story that he loved to tell.
The story began with my father and several of his shipmates wandering around aimlessly on a beach on the island of Sicily.
It was April 1943, and they were in the midst of unloading a battalion of marines on shore.
When this wayward group of 18 and 19 year-old sailors began to get in the way of maneuvers, a Marine commander ordered them off the beach.
My father and his buddies piled into an unattended Jeep and headed up the road to see what was on the other side of the dunes.
 Not five minutes later they came careening back onto the same beach they had just left.

At this point in telling the story my father would start waving his arms around as he imitated the red-faced Marine Commander running toward their speeding jeep and yelling at the top of his lungs, “I thought I told you Navy guys to get off this beach!”
This was right before the commander stopped dead in his tracks as he noticed the convoy of enemy tanks coming up the road just behind my father’s jeep.

With no time to think, my father and his shipmates abandoned the jeep, dove into the water and swam back to their ship, which was anchored less than a mile off shore.  Reaching the anchor ropes, they climbed up and landed soaking wet on the top deck. 

My father went below to change into a dry uniform and 10 minutes later arrived at his newly assigned gunnery post back up top…. just as a passing plane dropped a bomb out of the sky and right through the center of the ship.
The force of the explosion blew my father overboard and into the water. 
Acting on instinct he clawed his way back up the anchor rope and onto the deck of the now burning ship.
As the heat beneath the deck burned through the soles of his shoes, the official call came out to abandon ship and my father found himself jumping back in the water he had already come out of twice before, this time with his uniform in shreds.
After treading water for nearly an hour he was picked up by another ship.
His LST sank off the coast of Sicily and he was sent back to the States to await a new assignment.

After several days of traveling, my father finally arrived back on Long Island on a crowded troop train wearing a borrowed uniform that consisted of navy dress pants, an army infantry shirt and boots that were two sizes too big.
As the train pulled into his hometown he stumbled out of the station and unknowingly right into a neighboring barbershop where he collapsed with exhaustion into the first chair he saw. 
The barber approached him, placed a cape around his neck and broke into small talk as he began to cut my father’s hair.
“So, home from the war are ya?” he said,
“Did you see much action over there?” 

 I heard this story many times when I was growing up, and I suspect over time there was some conflation or exaggeration of the actual events both in the telling and the hearing.
But as I got older, my father began to add details to the story that he hadn’t included before.
He revealed that when the bomb hit his ship there were more than 500 men still on board, and he was one of only 68 to survive. He watched his friends disappear from sight within feet from where he was standing.
If he had been assigned to his regular post in the engine room he would have been lost as well. 

He told us that there were Marines who were thrown into the water with him after the blast. Marines who were each weighted down with over 70 pounds of equipment, and try as he may my father could do nothing to help them stay afloat. In desperation, he had to let go of their grasping hands, or be dragged below himself.

At the tender age of 19 my father was a first-hand witness to suffering that I cannot even comprehend.
Suffering that he was powerless to prevent or alleviate in any way.
Suffering that he carried within himself, hidden behind his wartime adventure stories and pushed aside by the everyday demands and routines of life.

My father came home from the war, married my mother, had a houseful of children, and lived a long and happy life until he passed away a few years ago at the age of 79.

But for most of his life, his experiences in the war left him with a question he could not answer:  “Why?” – Why did he survive when so many did not?

Listening to my father story’s evolve over the years mirrored my evolving experience of God.   
At first I delighted in the adventure and mystery – not knowing what was going to happen next but feeling certain that all would be well in the end.
God, like the image I had of my father as a child, was all powerful, all knowing, and in control at all times.
No matter how many times my father got blown off that ship, he’d always land on his feet and live to see another day.
And no matter how many bad things happened in the world, God would always keep me and the people I loved safe and away from harm.

It doesn’t take long for most of us to question this experience of God; to let go of this feeling of certainty.
Someone close to us dies, a parent loses a job, a natural disaster hits too close to home, or some other tragedy rushes into our life and suddenly we’re left questioning whether God is as all powerful and as in control as we once thought.

When my father began to reveal the gritty details of his war experiences, this time as an elderly man reduced to tears because of what he had seen, he no longer seemed as invincible as I once thought.
My experience of God was shifting as well.
“There but for the grace of God, go I,” is what we say when others experience a loss.
Was my father blessed for having survived when others died?
Or was he just lucky?
Was God rolling the dice with our lives? Was our suffering somehow part of God’s plan?
Or worse, was God powerless to stand in death’s way?

We hear these questions raised every time a natural disaster strikes, as we did early this week when tornados flattened entire neighborhoods in Oklahoma and Texas.
Insurance companies call these disasters “Acts of God” because there is no apparent human cause to blame.
While some Christians believe that God sends such disasters as punishment for humanity’s sins, there are plenty of us who believe that a loving and compassionate God would never be the cause of such suffering.
When children are pulled alive from piles of rubble we praise God for saving their lives, but we don’t dare take the next logical step and question God’s goodness for allowing other children to die.

In the bleak wake of war, tragedy, and disaster, it is evitable that our experience of God is questioned, if not found lacking entirely.
In the aftermath of the 2004 Tsunami in Indonesia, where 200,000 people were lost to the power of the sea, a group of refugees approached a Jesuit priest in one of the many camps that sprang up after the disaster.
The refugees told the priest that they were interested in converting from Hinduism to Christianity.
“Our God has failed us,” they said. “Maybe yours will do better.”

These Acts of God are a far cry from the Acts of God that Lady Wisdom speaks of in our text from Proverbs, where she stood beside God at the beginning of time like a master worker, rejoicing in the beauty of the world that God created and delighting in the human race.
Likewise, Psalm 8 speaks of God’s power over heaven and earth, and the glory and honor we received for being created in God’s image.

Creation is glorious. We are glorious.
We hear these themes repeated in scripture over and over again.
So why doesn’t creation or humanity seem so glorious when tragedy strikes and our lives come crashing down around us?

Perhaps because both God and God’s Creation contain a much deeper vein of mystery than we’re comfortable accepting.

We can’t explain why bad things happen in this world.
We can’t explain why some people die while others live.
We can’t explain why my father was pulled from the sea off the coast of Sicily, while someone else’s father never came home.

We can’t explain why God created a world in which Creation itself seems to possess Free Will as much as we do, and randomness and chaos seem to be built into the natural design of our universe.

For many of us, our first images of God were formed in our childhood –
in Sunday School, through Bible stories, and in the stories heard at our parents knee. God was a doting Father who watched over us from above.

Ideally, as we grow into adults we come to expand our childhood understanding of God as the ‘Great Protector in the Sky’ to include an image of God that is more ambiguous and complex. To accept a God who created a world in which bad things happen to good people.
To ask questions knowing that they can’t always be answered. To tell our own story in its entirety, without leaving out the details of our pain and our not so wondrous experiences of this world, because we know that God is with us throughout it all.

God is a mystery, and much, much bigger than the God shaped box we’ve constructed to contain our image of the divine.
The Holy Spirit wasn’t designed to fit in that box either.
Neither is Jesus.
All three are much more than we can ever imagine.

The Trinity by definition is described as a “mystery of the Christian faith.”
Thus anyone who says they fully comprehend the Trinity is missing the point.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate the Trinity in ways that we can comprehend.  

God is love. God is hope. God is light. God is good.
Whenever we experience any of these acts of God - through Creation, through Jesus, through the movement of the Spirit -we are experiencing God.

In contrast, when we experience hate, injustice, tyranny, evil, or brokenness of any kind we can say that these things are not of God, but instead grow out of our own fears -
Our fear of losing control, losing power, losing face, losing our identity or our faith.
God is the force that pulls us away from those fears, away from our brokenness, and towards healing and wholeness.

God is that which we cannot even begin to define or comprehend yet God lives in relationship with us through our world, our experiences, and our stories.

 If you are still thoroughly confused by all of this - Good!
Now you understand the Trinity.

Thanks be to God, and Amen.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Sermon: "Teach Your Children Well"

Rev. Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
May 5, 2013
Acts 16:9-15; John 14:23-29

“Teach Your Children Well”

What if Lydia had decided not to go to the river on that day?

What if she had decided to not travel to the outskirts of Philippi on the Sabbath and to sit and listen to the men and women of Judea speak about their God of love and wonder?

Lydia was not a Jew by birth or practice, she was a Pagan, and while she was fascinated by this all-powerful God that the Jews held up above all other gods, she was not quite ready to buy into the faith hook, line, and sinker.
In fact, she may have been contemplating whether it was a productive use of her time to spend a Saturday morning listening to these Yahweh worshipers say prayers, sing hymns, and tell stories about this God who ruled over all creation.

She had a business to run, and the affluent men and women who sought out her fine purple fabrics would be waiting for her to open her stall in the city’s market place.
I imagine that it was difficult for Lydia to not think about the sales she was losing as she sat outside the city gates observing the Jewish Sabbath, while her customers took their business elsewhere.

What if Lydia had decided not to go to the river on that day?

Then she would have not have met Paul.
Or heard him speak about the ways of Jesus.
Or been moved to invite these people who called themselves followers of Christ into her home.
Or had her heart spread wide open to the point where she consented to be baptized herself.

If Lydia had not gone to the river that day then it may have been some other random worshiper or seeker who had their name preserved in the Book of Acts as the first Christian convert in the western city of Philippi.

But as a person of faith, I believe that Lydia was right where she was meant to be on that day, and she was having the experience that she was called to have, because she had opened her heart to God.

Lydia’s conversion is symbolic.
She was Christianity’s first convert outside of Asia Minor, in what is now modern day Europe. She was not a Jew, but a Gentile.
She was not male, but female.
She was not a poor fisherman, but an affluent businesswoman who had the means and the influence to plant the seeds of a church in a city that had no idea what a church was or why it was needed.

Lydia was everything that the first disciples were not.
Lydia represented the future of the church as God carried it outside the confines of Judea and western Asia and opened it up to the world.

I like to think that Lydia went to the river that day because God was eager for her to meet Paul.
And Paul went to the river that day because God was eager for him to meet Lydia.

I love stories of chance encounters… and I find it fascinating to contemplate how things could have gone very differently had the players made different choices along the way.
Lydia could have decided not to go to the river on that day, but it was just as likely for Paul to have taken another path, as well.

We may call it fate, but it’s in this encounter between Paul and Lydia where we see the Spirit of God at work.
In the book of Acts we’re told again and again of how the Spirit moves Paul -
first to conversion himself, and then to take the message of Christ outside of Judea to the Gentiles.
Paul is nudged and redirected by the Spirit over and over again as he travels from city to city, and it’s only after experiencing the vision of the man pleading with him to come to Macedonia that Paul travels to Philippi – a city that was outside the perimeter that the Spirit had directed him to stay within.
But this time, shipwrecks, getting blown off course, and unexpected imprisonments do not stand in Paul’s way.
It was time for something new to take root in the world.

Paul meets Lydia because he opened his heart to the guidance of the Spirit of God.
Lydia meets Paul because she did the same.

The Spirit is the advocate, the guide, the teacher that Jesus promises will descend in his place after he has ascended to God.
In John’s gospel, Jesus tells the disciples, “Peace I leave with you, and my peace I give to you. I am going away, but the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.”

There’s an old Buddhist proverb that says, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” 

All it takes is the slightest opening of our hearts to new experiences and a budding awareness of our desire to change for the better, and the Spirit of God will seep into that crack and pry us open as wide as we’re willing to go.

There are many ways in which the Spirit moves in our world.
The Spirit of God manifests in our lives in the form of human teachers –
Those who inspire us to discover our divine gifts and to take risks as we develop those gifts and learn to share them with the world.

The Spirit of God also comes in the form of teachers that we might not easily recognize.
In people who try and test our patience, our compassion, and our willingness to love.
Often it is the most difficult people in our lives who become our greatest teachers, as we learn how to live in community with those who have different beliefs, conflicting ideologies, or who just get under our skin or rub us the wrong way in a multitude of ways.

Most surprisingly, the Spirit of God can appear to us in those nudging forces that we often dismiss as something other than God’s presence in our lives:
Chance encounters, coincidental events, a gut feeling or intuition that causes us to choose one action or path over another.

Some of us are inclined to chalk these occurrences up to the randomness of the universe, to our instinctive need to find patterns of meaning in unrelated events, or to our own fears or desires manifesting themselves and influencing the choices that we make.

If we lean towards the rational and the pragmatic we can easily miss the times when the Spirit is moving in our lives.

On the other hand, if we lean towards the belief that everything happens for a reason and that God directs every minute event in our lives, then we might be challenged to explain why God would arrange for us to win the lottery or to get a good parking spot at the mall, while seemingly doing nothing to thwart the plans of those bent on causing pain and suffering in the world.

We can’t explain how God’s Spirit moves among us… or why some hearts are open to feeling and responding to God’s presence and others are not.

But even those who consider themselves to be jaded realists, can name at least some ways that they see God at work in our world.

Last week, 27 members of our Senior High Youth Group spent 7 days in New York City being the presence of God in the world.
Our teens pushed themselves miles outside their comfort zones to serve people who have had very different lives than they have had.
They met men, women, and children who have no homes, no families to fall back on, and little hope that their lives will change for the better in the near or distant future.
The teens cooked and served meals, carried heavy crates of food, washed dirty sheets, sorted through piles of fruit and vegetables pulling out what was spoiled, and played with smiling children who went home to neglectful parents and empty cupboards. The stories they heard were heartbreaking.
The work was endless. Yet the teens came back to the church where we stayed each night, rolled their sleeping bags out on the floor without complaint, and thanked God for the blessings in their lives and their chance to serve and make a difference in the lives of others.
We have much to learn from our kids.

Two weeks from today, the 21 members of our 8th grade Confirmation class will stand before this congregation and make a decision about their level of commitment to our church community and to God.
For those of us who choose to join the church as adults, it can be difficult to find time in our busy schedules to attend the required 2-hour orientation session before making the decision to join.
Even then, it’s not an easy decision to make as we consider whether we want to officially commit our time, talent, and treasure to a church when we have precious little to spare as it is.

In comparison, our 8th graders spend a year committing their Thursday nights to confirmation classes, their Sunday mornings to attending services here and at other houses of worship, and countless other hours writing reflections and spending time with their mentors, as they learn what it means to be a Christian in the world today.
Finally, each Confirmand will meet one on one with Pastor Dick, our Confirmation leaders, and their mentor, to discuss whether or not they feel ready to join the church as a member at this time.
It’s not an easy decision to make as our young teens think deeply about what they believe about God and Jesus and how they wish to express their faith in the world.
Again, we have much to learn from our kids.

The Spirit of God continues to teach us in ways that we least expect.

Through the spiritual questioning of a child, the selfless acts of a teenager, the audacious hope of a person living in poverty, the challenging behaviors of our adversaries, and the everyday chance encounters with the divine that leave us shaking our heads in amazement.

What if Lydia had decided not to go to the river that day?
What if she hadn’t opened her heart and allowed God’s Spirit to find its way inside?

What if each of you had decided not to come here to worship today?
What if you decided not to walk in the Crop Walk, or donate food to SHARE, or volunteer at Ann Marie House, or sing in the choir, or gift your time and talent to a committee, or teach Sunday School, or mentor a Confirmand?
What if you hadn’t opened your heart and allowed God’s Spirit to find its way inside?

We have wonderful and compassionate kids and teens in our congregation because they learned about serving God from watching all of you serve God.

God calls us to teach our children well, just as the Spirit teaches us well, as we learn to walk in the ways of Christ, together in community.

Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled…” ….for the Spirit of God will always be with you.

Thanks be to God, and Amen.