Sunday, September 22, 2013

Sermon: "Is There a Doctor in the House?"

Rev. Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
September 22, 2013
Psalm 79:1-9; Jeremiah 8:18-9:1

“Is There a Doctor in the House?

The Balm of Gilead was a healing compound made from the resinous gum of a bush which grew plentifully in the area of Gilead during biblical times.
The sticky balm was thought to cure a whole host of ailments, from skin diseases to headaches to easing the pain of broken limbs.

We may snicker at the simplistic remedies of ancient times, but I wonder how many of you are familiar with a product called BAG BALM.
Bag Balm is an ointment developed in VT in 1899 by a dairy farmer.
The farmers rubbed it on the udders of their cows to soothe irritation after milking.  When the farmers' wives began noticing the softness of their husbands' hands, they started using the product themselves. Today, Bag Balm can be found in drug stores, ski resorts, and of course farm and feed stores, as it’s still regulated by the FDA for use only on animals. It’s used to soothe psoriasis, dry skin, cracked fingers, burns, acne, diaper rash, bed sores, sunburn, tattoos, and even pruned trees. It’s also used to lubricate rifles, shell casings, and squeaky bed springs.

Basically, Bag Balm is the duct tape of medicine.
It comes in a 10-ounce green square tin with a cow's head on the lid.
The packaging, and the balm, have remained unchanged since 1899.
Further proof that there are some sources of healing that withstand the test of time.

After hearing our two scripture readings this morning, we may be asking ourselves if there is a balm in Gilead.  
Between the Psalmist’s lament and Jeremiah’s tears, we may be left wondering, “Where is the Good News?”
How did these people find healing in the midst of such despair?
This can happen when we hear passages without knowing their full context.
We find that we’ve stepped into the midst of an ancient people’s pain with a limited understanding of where it’s coming from.
The truth is, there’s a lot of pain present in scripture.
About 1/3 of the Psalms in our Bible are categorized as Psalms of lament.
Laments are just as the word describes – a passionate expression of grief or sorrow.

For some of us, the last thing we want to hear in church on Sunday morning is a lament. We have enough grief and sorrow in our lives, and we come here to find a soothing balm and a clean dressing for our open wounds – an infusion of hope, that will help us to go back into the world with a little extra padding between us and our pain.

Even if we’re not experiencing a personal sorrow at this time, the Psalmist laments can be difficult for us to hear.
When we read Psalms that call on God to pour out anger and destruction upon nations for the wrongs they have commited, we get dismissive.
This is not the God that most of us worship - This God of vengeance and judgment who smites entire peoples for their transgressions.

But let us not confuse the words and actions of God with the words and actions of a people in pain.
The scripture texts we heard this morning are the words of a people trying to understand the role that God plays in the world.
Amidst war and destruction, they can’t help but ask,
“How is it that our enemies have overrun us when God has promised to protect us?”
“How is it that worshiping God seems to do little to alleviate our suffering?”

Jeremiah calls out to God, and asks, “Is there a balm in Gilead? Is there no physician here to restore us to health and ease our pain?”
The people of Judah were in desperate need of a balm, a soothing remedy to heal their wounds.

When Jeremiah was a young man a new king came to power.
King Josiah.
One of the first things that Josiah did was renovate the Temple in Jerusalem; to return it to the glory it had known before the Assyrian invasion.
During the renovation of the Temple, workers discovered a book hidden in the recesses of the walls. It was the book of Deuteronomy. 
Believed to have been written by Moses himself, the book contained a detailed institutional code: Laws governing worship, the appointment and regulation of religious leaders, and blessings and curses for those who keep and break the law.

Using Deuteronomy as his guide, Josiah banned the worship of all other Gods, reinstated the celebration of the Passover, and launched a program of religious reform that made the Temple the center of all Jewish life.
Local shrines were closed and the people were required to bring their offerings to the Temple in Jerusalem. Only the priests who practiced in Jerusalem now had the power to absolve sins.

There is an interesting sidebar to this story.
There is an earnest debate among modern scholars over how much of the discovered book of Deuteronomy was original and how much of it was amended by Josiah and the Temple Priests. It is curious that the “discovery” of the written code during the Temple renovation conveniently moved all power to the Temple priests and provided a scriptural basis for the reforms that Josiah had already begun putting into place.
God is still speaking indeed.

Regardless of how the reforms came about, the result was that Judaism became centered and strengthened by the elevation of the importance of the Temple and Temple worship.
And then King Josiah was killed in battle.
A new King came to power. One who did not value the reforms that Josiah had put into place. The new king was not as attentive or as passionate about managing the Temple. The priests and the people became content with going through the motions of ritual and sacrifice and saw no need to demand more of themselves in the service of God.
When the threat of outside invasion returned to Judah, the people blamed God for abandoning them, and the hollow rituals of the Temple provided little balm to soothe their pain.

It is in this atmosphere of an ineffective Temple and a weakened spiritual resilience that Jeremiah offered up the lament that we heard in our scripture reading today.

By following the letter of the law without nurturing the spirit of the law, the Temple and the people were ill equipped to handle the challenges and the unrest of their time.

Some would say that we are in a similar situation in our own time.

With the ranks of the religiously unaffiliated growing year by year, we wonder if the message of Christianity has lost its appeal.
The institutional church is no longer seen as the place to find healing in a hurting world.
The people are asking, “Is there a balm in Gilead? Is there a doctor among us who can restore us to health?”
And while we in the church wring our hands trying to figure out how to pay our utility bills, the people continue to seek that healing balm elsewhere.
In work and busyness, in money and material goods, in pharmaceuticals and fad diets, in addictive pleasures and distractions.

The lament that we raise as modern day believers is worthy of its own Psalm.
“What must we do, oh Lord, to bring healing to our hurting world?”

When Jesus was walking the roads of Palestine, people flocked to him because he had the power to heal whatever ailed them…whether it was withered limbs or hemorrhaging bodies. But more importantly, Jesus had the power to heal their withered and hemorrhaging spirits.  
He spoke of a loving and forgiving God who welcomed all, and his words were like a soothing balm spread upon dried and cracked skin.

When the apostle Paul took the message of Jesus and set up house churches in towns and cities far and wide, Jews and Gentiles alike poked their heads through the doorways to see what the fuss was all about.
Some walked away thinking he was just another charlatan selling snake oil, but others stayed to listen, and found healing they had not expected to find.

Over the course of 2,000 years the church has repackaged and refurbished Jesus message to speak to the needs of hurting people in all ages and all corners of the world.  Jesus is a balm that has withstood the test of time.

How is that the words of this first century Palestinian Jew have resonated with so many – Greek philosophers, medieval peasants, renaissance artists, stoic Puritans, African slaves, civil rights marchers, immigrants, refugees, and people of all times and places who’ve sought the liberating love of God. 
And how is it that those same words of liberation have resonated with Kings, wealthy business owners, and white middle and upper class Americans whose lives are far removed from the suffering experienced by so many?

Because regardless of our life circumstances, we’re all human beings.
We all experience pain – the pain of loss, grief, and despair.
And we all experience joy -  the joy of creation, compassion, and love.

Being a part of a spiritual community is the primary way human beings throughout the ages have sought to express their joy and heal their pain, and I don’t expect that to change anytime soon.
Our challenge as a church in the 21st century is to envision the ways that we might be the healing balm that the people of our time are seeking.

How might we find meaning in the context of our faith communities?
How might we use tradition and ritual AND creativity and innovation to both anchor and liberate the next generation of believers? 
How might we take a page out of Paul’s book and encourage people to poke their heads through our doorways to see what the fuss is all about, and hopefully have them stay to find unexpected healing?

Perhaps we could start where Jesus and the original disciples did.
In the gathering of community, nurturing our faith through prayer, reflection, and worship.
And out on the street, serving others and living our faith in the world.
As the body of Christ we’re called to both receive and offer the balm of healing.

The church is meant to be a sanctuary – a place where we come to find respite from our busy lives, to find communion with God and other people, to share our joys and shed our burdens, and to discover the gifts that we have to give to the world.

And the church is meant to be a prophetic presence – challenging the status quo, speaking out against injustice, demanding sacrifices of each of us so that all might share in God’s bounty, and moving against the grain of a culture that elevates consumerism, nationalism, and individualism above God and our call to be the body of Christ in the world.

There is a balm in Gilead.
To make the wounded whole
There is a balm in Gilead
To heal the sin-sick soul

The Good News is that the laments of Jeremiah and the Psalmist did not fall on deaf ears. 

As author Brian McLaren writes:

The good news is that God loves the world and didn’t send Jesus to condemn it but to save it; the good news is that God’s wrath is not merely punitive but restorative; the good news is that the fire of God’s holiness is not bent on eternal torment but always works to purify and refine; the good news is that where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more.

What pain are you hoping to have soothed by coming here today?
What pain is the person seated beside you carrying with them?
How might we come to understand and be a healing presence for one another?

Might we let God in, to make our wounded world whole.


Sunday, September 1, 2013

Sermon: "A Slice of Humble Pie"

Rev. Maureen Frescott
The Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
September 1, 2013
Hebrews 13:1-8,15-16; Luke 14:1, 7-14

“A Slice of Humble Pie”

When I was 17-years-old, I got my first job working at a bike shop on Long Island.
I worked at the parts and accessories counter ringing up sales at the cash register and helping customers who needed bicycle tubes and water bottles.
I loved cycling, and gradually I worked my way up to helping out in the stock room, ordering parts, and in my mid-20’s I became manager and buyer for the entire department.
It was a large and busy shop, and every year we hired a new crop of high school students to work the counters and the cash registers, just as I did when I started.
This was a tough job, as some of our customers came in with technical questions or specific requests and quickly lost patience when met with a dumbfounded stare from the 16-year-old behind the counter.

I remember one customer in particular who came in looking for a part for a 1935 Schwinn. He gave a detailed description of the part to Katie, the young girl working the counter. Katie yelled out, “Hey Mo!” (which is what most people in the shop called me) and she ran into the back room where I was busy writing up purchase orders. She relayed the customers’ request and I knew right away that the part was no longer available.

Katie returned to the counter and told the customer, “I’m sorry, but Mo says we can’t get the part.”  This answer was not acceptable to him.
Again, the man launched into a detailed description of the part he wanted, convinced that this young girl had misunderstood him.

Katie came back to me, this time rolling her eyes, and I told her again that, no, we don’t have what he’s looking for.
She went out and told the customer a second time, “Mo says we can’t get the part.”
With his anger rising the man sent poor Katie back to me two more times asking for the same part, until he finally said to her what he wanted to say all along, “Why am I talking to you? No offense, but girls don’t know anything about bicycles! I want to speak to the guy who runs this department. I want to speak to Mo. He’ll know what I’m talking about.”

When I emerged from the back room the man was quite surprised.

This man had dismissed Katie as not being worthy of his time, patience, or respect, because she was young and female.

This came as no surprise to me, because in the years that I spent working the counter I too had many customers tell me right to my face that I couldn’t possibly know what I was talking about because I was just a girl.

Anyone who works in a field where one is atypical of the norm knows what it’s like to have one’s knowledge, competency, and authority questioned - whether you’re a female in a male dominated profession, or you have black or brown skin in world where those with white skin hold most of the power, or you’re a person with a disability trying to function and flourish in an environment that was designed by and for someone other than you.

Regardless of who we are or where we sit in the pecking order of society, many of us carry a painful memory of a time when we felt dismissed, belittled, or pushed aside because we were deemed unworthy of the respect or recognition of others - because we were too young, came from the wrong side of town, went to the wrong school, or were too inexperienced to gain a seat at the table.
As we’ve heard, Jesus had a lot to say about seating arrangements at the table.

Our gospel story finds him attending a Sabbath meal at the home of one the Pharisees leaders when he takes notice of how the guests are choosing their seats.

Some come in hesitantly and choose seats on the far ends, knowing that those who are more important will expect to have the seats closest to the host.
Others come in confidently and take seats right next to the host, believing that no one else in attendance will outrank them in importance, and even if someone does, this is a way to usurp that power by claiming it as their own.

I imagine that others still were reluctant to choose any seat until all the guests had arrived. Choosing instead to mill about with their drinks in hand waiting to see how everyone else sorted themselves out.

As evolved as we’ve become as a species, we’re not very far from our primate predecessors who arranged their social structure according to body size, power, and ability to intimidate. 
In a world where resources are limited and controlled by a very few, it’s natural that there is a constant jockeying for position amongst those who want access to those resources.
The table has always been a scene of contention.

I can imagine Jesus making the same observations in our time, at wedding receptions, political fundraisers, and even in our school cafeterias, where it doesn’t take much of an observing eye to sort out who has the seats of honor, and who does not. When it comes to power struggles, a Pharisee banquet has nothing on a middle school lunch period.

What we learn from this gospel passage is that God expects more from us.
God expects us to put our egos and our own desires for recognition and power aside, and to humble ourselves in each other’s presence.
We are to choose the lowest positions at the table, and leave it up to our host to decide whether we should be honored with a higher placing.

Notice that in the telling of this parable Jesus doesn’t end it by saying the guests all joined hands around the table as equals and sang “Kumbaya.”
That is the ideal - the utopia that we’ll experience in the coming Kingdom of God.
But we’re not there yet.

In this world Jesus acknowledges that there are hosts and honored guests. There are wedding banquets where the rich and the powerful are invited for the simple reason that the one doing the inviting hopes that their guests will reciprocate….and then there are the poor, the blind and the lame – the powerless – who need to know that they too are welcome and expected at God’s table, even if calls for us to sacrifice our own standing to ensure that they are included.

Jesus calls us to keep our pride and our egos in check – to love kindness, to act justly, and to walk humbly with our God.
But as with many things that Jesus asks of us, this is very hard to do.

This morning, we wrestle with this call to peaceful humility in the shadow of God’s table in a week that has us on the brink of possible military action in Syria – where we as a country may choose to step into the midst of a civil war so complex and so dire that there is no moral or noble choice that leaps out above the other.  
Either way, people are going to die…
….and the world will weep and God will weep along with us.

This table is too messy and too contentious for those of us with peaceful and humble hearts to even consider approaching.      But what will become of those who stand to be trampled underfoot if we do not?

This morning, we wrestle with this call to peaceful humility in the shadow of God’s table in a week where one humble woman stared down the barrel of a gun and chose not to respond with fear.
Antoinette Tuff relied on the power of persuasion and love, when 20-year-old Michael Hill walked into her elementary school in Decatur, Georgia, with an assault rifle, 500 rounds of ammunition and "nothing to live for". 
Antoinette invited Michael to the table. 
She told him that he had value in God’s eyes and there was another way for him to find peace in his turbulent world. She looked into his eyes and didn’t see a crazed gunman or a soulless demon. She saw a young man aching for love and inclusion. She saw the sick, the lame, the marginalized and she invited him to God’s banquet, expecting nothing in return.  

When we think of the atrocities of Syria and the extreme bravery of Antoinette Tuff, it may seem silly and petty for us to devote time and energy worrying about the seating arrangements at our own meager banquet tables… we become anxious over who among us makes more money, who has a nicer house or car, and whose child has more AP classes or gets more playing time on the school team.

But all table squabbles are relative.
Big or small they have the power to consume our lives if we don’t heed Jesus’ advice and take a step back, take a deep breath, and humble ourselves by taking the lowest place at the table.

Translating this teaching into action in the real world is not easy by any means.
The world we live in is full of striations, delineations, and hierarchical organizations that force us to rank people according to an increasing and decreasing scale of importance. 
We all have somebody above us, and we all have somebody below us, and attempting to transpose our Christian values of equality on a system that is built on inequality is fraught with difficulties.

But it can be done.
The recently elected Pope Francis has made headlines by shunning the ornate thrones and deluxe accommodations enjoyed by previous Popes, but he is still the Pope.
He still sits above all others in the Catholic Church and is surrounded by the wealth and power that the office bestows upon him.
Yet he chooses not to partake in much of it. Instead he chooses to walk to work, to sit in the back row when he worships in the Vatican chapel, and to wash the feet of the poor and disenfranchised just as he did as a cardinal and as a priest.  

As he continues to speak out against the devaluation of women and for the inclusion of gays and lesbians in the Church, I expect that Pope Francis will find even more creative ways to use the power of his office to put himself in the lower seat so that others may find a more honored place at the table.

We are called to do the same with the power that we possess, however small it is.

The author of the epistle to the Hebrews writes:
 “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so some have entertained angels without knowing it.”  (13:2)

By taking that lower seat we lift someone else up.
By inviting the marginalized to the banquet, we show hospitality to strangers.
In both cases we invite the love of God into our relationships and our interactions in the world. We entertain angels without knowing it.

Which is why we’re called to relate to every person as if they were Christ in our midst.
We never know where or when we’re going to encounter Christ in our world.

We may encounter Christ in the 16-year-old store clerk who is not skilled or knowledgeable enough to serve us in the way that we’re accustomed to being served.
Or in the man that we choose not to befriend because he wears a blue collar to work, rather than a white collar.
Or in the woman we see shopping at Walmart who has too many kids, is committing too many fashion faux pas, and whose cart is too full of junk food for our liking.

We may strain to see Christ in someone who doesn’t fit our image of where God might choose to dwell. But God is there nonetheless.

Because God dwells in the hearts of each one of us.
Despite our faults and our foibles, despite the fact that we can be egotistical, judgmental, and downright nasty to each other at times.
God loves us and works through us even when we’re at our worst.
Because God knows what we’re capable of when we’re at our best.

In the coming week, in the face of our worldly concerns, big and small,
might we do our best to love kindness, act justly, and walk humbly with our God.

We just might be surprised at how much power we have when we do so.