Sunday, December 28, 2014

Sermon: "Simeon and Anna"

The Rev. Maureen Frescott
The Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
December 28, 2014 – First Sunday After Christmas
Luke 2:22-40

“Simeon and Anna”

Simeon had seen a lot in his lifetime.
Any man of his advanced years would have.
He’d seen the city of Jerusalem change hands more times than he could count.  
Kings and Emperors came and went.
The Temple was looted and then reclaimed over and over again.
As a boy he heard stories from his grandfather who lived through the Maccabean revolt, and of course the stories of his people and their exile and exodus in and out of Egypt were permanently etched in his mind.  
When Simeon was a young man the Roman Republic took control of Jerusalem, the latest in a long line of oppressing empires and occupying armies to hold the Jewish people firmly under its thumb.
They called it the Pax Romana – the Peace of Rome – which simply meant they were not afraid to use force and violence to squash any movement or any person who threatened to upset the status quo or cause disorder in any way.

Simeon had little reason to believe that things would ever change for his people.
In his idealistic youth he had brazenly declared that liberation would come in his lifetime.
But he was now an old man.
And his aching back, his weakening eyesight, and his failing memory preoccupied his thoughts more than his people’s long-held belief that God would one day send a savior – a Messiah – to free them once and for all.

But that day in the Temple, as Simeon recited his prayers and chatted with his fellow elders about the weather and the rising costs of fruit in the market, he looked up to see a man and a young woman enter the Temple’s outer courtyard.  The young woman was carrying a baby.
And Simeon knew right there and then that this baby would change the world.

When we read Simeon’s story in the gospel of Luke we’re invited into that tender moment when this Temple elder took the infant Jesus into his arms. We can imagine this old man who was weak and fragile taking hold of this tiny infant who was also weak and fragile and cradling him in his arms…and in their shared fragility we’re introduced to the idea that God is acting in a new and unexpected way in the world.

Simeon looked into the infant’s eyes and said,
“Now I can die in peace, Jerusalem’s redeemer has come.”

But lest Luke’s readers think that the idealistic declaration of one old man is not enough to make this story noteworthy or believable, Luke then introduces us to Anna.

Anna, like Simeon, is advanced in her years.
Luke tells us that she’s 84-years-old, which was very old in a time when the life expectancy was only 40-50 years.
Anna is a prophet and she spends all of her waking hours in the Temple fasting and praying.
She too lays eyes on the infant Jesus and declares him to be the savior they have been waiting for.

Simeon and Anna are the pillars that hold up this story.
They represent humanity at its finest.
Male and female, devout and wise, righteous and prophetic. 
They are not afraid to see God acting in the world and stake their reputations and their lives on the declaration that the Messiah has come - not in the way the Temple leaders had expected him to – commanding an army or descending from the heavens – but rather he has come in the form of this tiny child that they now hold in their arms.

A declaration like this sounds irrational to many in our time, so you can imagine how it sounded in the context of first century Jewish Palestine.

No one expects a baby to be capable of doing much of anything, let alone change the world.
And for Simeon and Anna to take it even further and suggest that the power of God can be contained in such a small and vulnerable package, well you can see why people might shake their heads and scoff at such a ludicrous claim.

But who among us has held an infant and not thought the same thing?

Whether it’s our own child, a grandchild, a friend’s child, or a stranger’s child….
To look into those tiny trusting eyes, to feel five teeny fingers encircling one of our own, to feel both the weightlessness of this little being and the weightiness of our overwhelming need to protect and nurture this life that we literally hold in our hands.

How can we look at such pure love and pure trust embodied in one tiny package and not see God?

At the same time how can we not see the power and the potential that each tiny life holds?

What mother or father or grandparent has not held their offspring, or the offspring of their offspring, and thought,
“Who are you going to be?” 
“What wonderful things will you do with your life?”
“What amazing things will you see in your lifetime that I have never dreamed of seeing in mine?”

For grandparents in particular, these statements are tinged with both hope and sadness.     
As a grandparent, you imagine all the paths that your grandchild’s life will take knowing that you won’t be there to see it all.
You picture their high school graduation, their wedding day, the birth of their first child, and you hope they know that you will be there with them, in spirit, if not in body.

When Simeon held Jesus in his arms we can imagine that he thought something very similar.
He knew he would not live to see the change that this child would bring to the world.  Neither would Anna.
But still they rejoiced and told everyone within earshot that the one whom God had promised had finally come – the one who would set them free.  
They rejoiced as if they themselves been set free right there, and right then.

If we think about it, Simeon and Anna put a lot of trust in an outcome that they had no way of knowing would play out as they expected.
They put a lot of trust in Mary and Joseph to raise Jesus to be a caring and loving human being.
They put a lot of trust in the world to accept Jesus as the Messiah they believed him to be.
But ultimately, it was God who received all of their trust.
They trusted that God had played out all the potential scenarios and still took the risk to step into this world in human skin - to be closer to us, and to save us from ourselves.

In many ways, Anna and Simeon also placed their trust in us.
They trusted that we – the future generation of believers - would carry the light of their people forward.
If we can imagine them handing the infant Jesus to us and saying, “This is the light of the world, take good care of it, and carry it with you wherever you go.”

That’s a tremendous amount of responsibility.

I remember when my sister left her newborn in the care of my mother for the very first time. She and her husband were going out to dinner and this was the first time that they would entrust their child to the care of someone else.
It would only be for a few hours, but still, that first time is always the hardest.
When my sister arrived with the baby she handed my mother 3 pages of hand written instructions on how to care for the child with a suggested response to every possible scenario that might present itself.  
My mother had 10 children. She was way past the instructions phase.

But truthfully, no matter how many children or grandchildren we may have had a hand in raising, if someone handed us the light of God and told us to take good care of it, to nurture it, and help it to grow  – we might still need and want that instruction sheet.

Before Simeon handed Jesus back to Mary he gave her a bit of instruction of his own. He told her that her son would be responsible for the rise and the fall of many in their nation. He would be met with opposition.
And in the end a sword would pierce both their souls.

This is a warning that no parent wants to hear.
It’s one thing to hear that your child is destined to do great things;
it’s another to know what the cost will be ahead of time.

After hearing this dire prediction we might wonder if Mary felt the need to be more protective of her son - To discourage him from getting into discussions with the Temple elders and encourage him to spend more time doing carpentry with his father.

It would have been so understandable for her to take steps to keep her son safe – to keep him from moving out into the world and challenging people who could possibly do him a lot of harm.

But when Mary took Jesus into her arms, both as an infant and when he was taken down from the cross, she knew that he was not hers to hold onto.
He belonged to the world. Holding onto his light and keeping it for herself would have kept him from being who he was meant to be.

I like to think that every time Mary felt that conflicted tug that urged her to hold on to Jesus just a bit tighter, she heard the voices of Simeon and Anna in her head, blessing her, and reminding her of the great purpose that had been gifted to her and her son.

And as we in turn take the light of Christ into our own arms, nurturing it and sending it out into the world, so that it will be present now and for future generations, may we also hear the blessing and warning of Simeon and Anna in our heads.

Living out our faith as Jesus taught us to will bring us blessings in life but it also has the potential to pierce our souls.
Christianity – when lived out as it was intended to be – is challenging, discomforting, and dangerous at times. 
It compels us to re-examine and reconfigure systems of power, wealth, and control.
It compels to us re-examine and let go of our own personal prejudices, misconceptions, and fear.
It compels us to die to old ways of living, and to resurrect ourselves to a new way of being in the world.

When we take the light of Christ into our arms we are being entrusted with so much.
This tiny, fragile, and wriggling child, that looks so vulnerable and weak on its own, has the power to change the world when it’s taken in and nurtured in community.

Jesus is born on Christmas Day, not just on that first Christmas Day, but every Christmas Day since.
Every year we come upon that manger scene and every year we take this baby into our arms.
This baby who is filled with God’s love, compassion, and grace…
And like Simeon and Anna we look into his eyes and rejoice.
For God so loved the world…and trusted us to carry Christ into it.

Thanks be to God.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Sermon - "Putting Ourselves in the Story"

The Reverend Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
December 24, 2014
Christmas Eve

“Putting Ourselves in the Story”

Last Sunday our Church School children put on our annual Christmas pageant right here in the chancel.  The children dressed up as shepherds and sheep and Mary and Joseph, and a plastic doll played the role of Jesus. Some of the younger children looked a little bewildered as to why the adults were making them march up and down the aisle wearing hats with floppy ears, but for the most part our kids love putting on angel wings and magi crowns and acting out this timeless story every year.

Earlier today at our 5:00 service our 8th grade Confirmation class presented their own version of the Nativity story. 12 and 13-year-olds donned the same pageant costumes that many of us wore at one time in our lives, borrowing a parent’s bathrobe and tying a dishtowel around their head.  Traditionally, the confirmands start off standing out in the cold in front of the church – recreating the iconic stable scene in a live version of the Nativity – and hoping to God that none of their friends drives by and sees them.

Here at our 7:00 service, our Senior High youth dispense with the robes and angel wings and instead just tell the story – using a narrative that is pulled from scripture and embellished just enough to make the tale of Mary and Joseph and the baby they called Jesus come alive for us today.

Later on, at our 9:00 service, the story will be told yet again – this time in lessons and carols. Pastor Dick and I will read scripture, the choir will sing hymns, and the congregation will join in - singing the familiar verses with gusto and fumbling with the words on all the rest.

As we compare these multiple ways we have of telling this old familiar story across the generations, we might notice that as we get older we gradually remove ourselves from the story.

We go from arguing over who gets to be an angel and who gets to be Mary, to rolling our eyes and feeling awkward in our costumes,
to ditching the costumes and reading the story aloud off a printed script,
to sitting in a pew and listening to someone else read the ancient tale from scripture, while our minds wander off to the guests we’re expecting at home and the gifts we still have to wrap.

As children, we rehearse for weeks in anticipation of the Christmas pageant, learning where we’re supposed to stand and what special role we have to play.   But as we get older, the rehearsals become less and less frequent, because we’ve heard the story so many times before and we already know what everyone is supposed to do.

When we become adults there is no rehearsal. All we have to do is show up and listen.   Yet even that can be a challenge when everything else that frames this familiar story – everything else that we DO to celebrate Christmas – is swirling around us, preoccupying us, and pulling us away.

I wonder why this happens.
At what point does the story become so familiar, and dare I say, TOO familiar, that we no longer get excited when we hear it and no longer feel the need to tell it ourselves?

Christmas does excite us.
We look forward to spending time with family and friends.
We look forward to the food and the festivities.
We look forward to this entire season - when everyone seems just a little more patient and a little more forgiving,
when strangers wish us Merry Christmas and Happy New Year,  
and we can’t wait to see the look on our loved one’s faces when we give them the gifts we know they’re going to love.

We may even look forward to coming here.
To sing familiar carols.
To see the church decorated with greens and sparking in the glow of warm candlelight.
To lose ourselves in memories of Christmas’ past and to experience once again that magic moment when the lights go down and we all hold our candles aloft and sing “Silent Night”.

Afterward, we walk out into the cold night air, dispensing hugs and handshakes, and wishing everyone good health and happiness before hurrying off to wherever it is we can’t wait to be - Dinner out with the family. A gathering of friends. A quiet night at home.    To warmth and peace and anticipation of tomorrow.

But somewhere in all of this we’ve put distance between ourselves and the story that started it all.   
The simple story of a young woman giving birth in a stable.   
The miraculous story of a baby who came to save the world.

We forget that this baby came into the world in the same way that we do.
Screaming and wriggling against the sudden influx of cold and light and touch.   
With no inkling of the impact he was going to have on the world -
yet still containing in his tiny body the immense power and love of God.

Maybe it’s because the story is so ordinary - with its shepherds and sheep and fields where they lay – that it causes us to tune it out over time.
Or maybe it’s because the story is so extraordinary – with its angels and guiding star and God coming down to be one of us  – that it causes us to dismiss it as a fairy tale... entertaining to children but not one that moves us as adults to tears, to joy, to action.

But if you can….imagine the bleakest scenario that your mind can conjure up.
One that is steeped in all the deepest sorrows and pain of being human -  poverty, violence, oppression, anger, fear, grief – your own or the world’s.
And then imagine a warm healing light flooding into this scene –
lifting up the lowly and the broken, feeding the hungry in body and in soul, bringing hope to the hopeless, and pulling back the veil of darkness exposing it for what it is - something that WE construct out of our own fear and our resistance to accepting that we are ALL created in the image of God.
That we are all worthy of love, compassion, and grace.
Every single one of us.

If we can recall a moment in our life when we felt completely and truly loved – valued – worthy.
Or a time when we felt so much joy we thought we’d burst from trying to contain it.
And if we’ve never experienced a moment like this in our life can we at least imagine it. Can we imagine what it would feel like to experience that much love, that much joy…and then times it by a 1000….

Then maybe, maybe we could imagine what it felt like to be kneeling outside that stable on that first Christmas day.

Christmas IS about family and friends, and giving and receiving, and being made aware of our need to be kinder and more compassionate to one another.

But it’s also about the radical entrance of God into our world.
The point where God said to us:
You need to know who I am.
You need to see me, hear me, touch me.
You need to learn from me, to do as I do.
And you need to hurt me…
to know that I feel your pain,
to know that I would do anything, anything,
even die for you, and be resurrected from the grave –
to show you that fear and violence is never the answer.
To help you understand that causing pain for others is never, never going to alleviate your own pain.
Only love and mercy can do that.

This is what God did for us through Jesus.

This is why the shepherds fell to their knees.
This is why the star moved in the sky.
This is why once a year our whole world stops to honor and remember that moment.    
That moment when Christ was born.
And light flooded into the world.

We dress our children up as shepherds and angels and put them in Christmas pageants because we love this story, and we want them to love this story.

But we should never forget - no matter how many years we have behind us, or how many times we’ve heard it - WE are a part of the story.  
We are the reason why God has come.

We are right there kneeling with the shepherds, and singing with the angels:
Joy to the world, the Lord has come,
Let earth receive her King,
Let every heart prepare Him room,
And may Heaven and nature sing…

For Christ is born today.

Thanks be to God!


Sunday, December 14, 2014

Sermon: "Who Are You?"

The Rev. Maureen Frescott
The Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
December 14, 1014  - The Third Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-9;  John 1:6-8, 19-28

“Who Are You?”

On March 15th in the year 270, a baby boy was born in the Greek city of Patara.
He was the only son of wealthy parents and they named him Nikolaos - which means “victor of the people.”
Tragically, Nikolaos’ parents died in an epidemic when he was still very young, so he went to live with his uncle, who just happened to be the Bishop of Patara.
Nikolaos fell in love with the Christian faith and as a young man he become a priest.   He was a very wealthy priest thanks to his parent’s estate – but one of his first acts of service to God was to give away his family inheritance. He gave to widows and the homeless, but he was especially generous with children.

Legend has it that one day Nikolaos – now a Bishop himself – met a man in his village who lived in a very simple home with his 3 young daughters.  The man told the Bishop that he was worried because he could not afford to pay the expected dowry to marry off even one of his daughters let alone all three. He feared that his girls would spend their lives alone or caring for him, rather than finding joy for themselves.

A few years later, when the man’s oldest daughter had reached the age of marriage, he awoke one morning and found a small satchel of gold laying on the floor below his open window.
It was as if someone had reached in and intentionally dropped it there….and it was just enough to pay for his oldest daughter’s dowry.
The man was overjoyed.

A year later, when the man’s second daughter had reached the age of marriage, the man awoke one morning to find yet another satchel of gold laying on the floor below the open window. Once again, the man was overjoyed. Now his second daughter would find happiness as well.
Another year went by, and the man’s third and final daughter had a suitor who wanted to take her as his wife. And sure enough, the man awoke one morning to find another satchel of gold had been tossed inside his window under the cover of night. This time the satchel was stuffed so full it spilled gold coins across the floor with some landing in his daughter’s shoes that had been set by the fire to warm overnight.

The man had long suspected that the generous Bishop named Nikolaos was behind these nighttime giving sprees and as the man shared his story with others the legend of Nikolaos began to grow.
Parents who heard the stories began to hide coins in their children’s shoes or stockings as a way of demonstrating God’s surprising generosity.
Soon this clandestine practice of gift giving became a Christmas tradition, and Nikolaos, now canonized by the Catholic Church, became known as Saint Nikolaos, or Santa Claus as we know him today.

I tell this story, because it’s quite likely that if any of us encountered the real St. Nicholas in his own time we’d be hard pressed to recognize him.
He was a generous man, but he also had a reputation for being difficult and combative at times.
In fact, at the council of Nicaea in 325 he became so frustrated with the heretical beliefs being expressed by the priest Arius he stood up and punched the man in the face. Nicholas was arrested and thrown into prison for that.

This Nicholas is a far cry from the round-bellied red-suited jolly old St. Nick that we know from the stories we tell our children. The real St. Nick had no reindeer or elves and he’d never been to the North Pole.

In fact, if the real Saint Nicholas ever came face to face with our Santa Claus, he would surely ask in amazement, “WHO are you?”

The man and the legend are very different indeed.

John the Baptist elicited a similar reaction from the people in his time.
He was a radical ascetic who willingly removed himself from society.
He threw off his finely woven clothes and put on rags made of camel hair.
He gave away everything he had and set up camp outside the city walls on the banks of the river Jordan…and he called for the people to join him.

Most people didn’t know what to make of him –
with his talk of God’s impending judgment and the need for all to repent and be made right with their creator.

Then he started baptizing people – he dunked them in the river and declared that they were now made clean before God.
And the people flocked to him.
Wild rumors began to spread. People said he was a great prophet in the same vein as Elijah; some said he was Elijah himself resurrected from the dead to pass judgment upon them. Some even were bold enough to say that he was the Messiah  – the anointed one sent by God to set them free from oppression, suffering, and pain – once and for all.

It’s a good bet that every person who lined up on the banks of the river Jordan to be baptized by John had their own understanding of who this man was.

It was inevitable that the rumor mill would spin out of control to the point where the religious authorities had no choice but to march their way out of the city to confront John… to have him respond to the charge that his mass baptizing was misguided at best, and heretical at worst.

When the keepers of the Temple law set their eyes on John, and saw this wild man pouring water over peoples heads and shouting about repentance, we might understand why they asked,
“Who are you?”

We can grasp from the gospel text that their question was not one of curiosity or amazement,
As in, “Who are you? Are you Elijah? Are you the messiah?”

Instead we can feel the tension in their words and we can hear the mocking and dismissive tone in their voice, as they ask,
Who are YOU? Elijah? A prophet? The “messiah”?
Who are YOU to baptize people before God?
Who are YOU to declare them cleansed of sin?
Who are YOU to elevate yourself above US when you’re not even a priest?
Who are you – and what do YOU say about yourself?

And John answered, "I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness.
I am not the light. But I am here to tell you that the one who is the light has finally come…and I am not worthy to tie the shoes upon his feet.”

Asking the question, “Who are you?” is valid, when everything we know about a person comes from second hand information - where we rely on other people’s impressions and opinions, misguided as they can be.

Which is why as much as we may think we know what another person is thinking or feeling, or that we can explain why they act the way they do or why they believe what they believe – as much as we think we know who someone is, because we know what religion they practice, or what political party they belong to, or what city, neighborhood, or country they came from…we don’t know.

We don’t know until we dare to ask them, face to face, “Who are you?”
And then take the time to listen to what they tell us about themselves.

Can we imagine how our world might change if we took the time to listen – to really listen – to what people have to tell us about themselves?

Might we imagine how listening to each other as we tell our stories could lead to greater understanding, increased compassion, more prevalent mercy – and ultimately fewer confrontations, less suffering, and a reduction in the fear we carry in our hearts.

We might wonder how we would respond to the question, “Who are you?”

Are we defined by our heritage? Our economic standing? Our profession?
Would we talk about our children, our interests, our accomplishments?

If any of these qualifiers come to mind we might wonder who we are when we no longer can be defined by them.
Who are we if we’ve lost our job, our home, or our financial safety net?
Who are we if we’ve lost our spouse, our parents, or our child?
Who are we if we’ve lost our health, our independence, our memories?

When the Pharisees confronted John the Baptist and asked him, “Who are you?”  they expected him to respond by claiming an identity,
“I am a prophet, I am Elijah, I am the Messiah.”

But instead he responded by lifting up the one who is all of those things and more.
John said, “I’m not the one who has come to redeem the world. But I can point to the one who is.”

This is who we are as well.
We serve as pointers to the one who embodies everything that we aspire to be.
We are not defined by our money, our past, our loss.
What defines us is our compassion, our mercy, our love.

Whenever we reach out to someone in pain,
seek to understand someone who has been misunderstood,
or respond to fear - our own or another’s - with an open heart,
We are pointing to the one whom God anointed to bring good news to this world.

This is who we are.
Like John, we are not the light, but we reflect the light.
So that others may see that darkness does not rule the world.
So that we may see that darkness does not rule us.

When John the Baptist stood in the Jordan River and pointed to Jesus as the one to follow rather than himself, he likely did not know that his act of humility would be remembered for thousands of years to come, or that we would come to see him as an example to follow as well. 

Likewise, when the man known as Nikolaos dropped three bags of gold in an open window and brought joy to a family in need, it’s likely that he had no idea how his act of generosity and kindness would grow into the tradition that we still follow today.

This is the beauty of the light.
When one person points to it others begin to see it and point to it as well.
And what begins as one voice crying out in the wilderness turns into a chorus of people singing out with joy.

Who are you?
You are a beloved child of God.
You are a receiver of the light….a reflector of the light.
And God is calling you – God is calling us – to shine.

Thanks be to, God.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Sermon: "The Prosperity Gospel"

Artist's conception of the pre-1835 Amherst meetinghouse before 
it was moved off the village green and remodeled. Drawing by Philip S. Avery.

The Rev. Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost – Faith Promise Sunday
Matthew 22:15-22

“The Prosperity Gospel”

The year was 1739.
37 years before our nation was born.
In the wilds of the provincial New Hampshire territory, a group of men and women gathered at what is now the corner of Mack Hill and Jones Road and raised the first timbers of a new meetinghouse.
The idea to build a meeting space and church had been hatched four years earlier, but it took that long to get the forest cleared, the soil tilled, the crops raised, and the settlement semi-established, ensuring that men, women, and materials would be available for the build. 
The simple post and beam framing went up, and two years later, on September 22, 1741, what would become the Congregational Church of Amherst came into being.

With money and manpower scarce it would take 11 years for the meetinghouse to be completed. But long before the building had solid walls, a roof, or a pulpit, the church’s first minister was called.
Daniel Wilkins, a new arrival in the settlement, agreed to shepherd the new congregation.  A special committee was formed to plan the ordination and installation, and they were given the explicit instruction that the cost “should not exceed” 40 British pounds, or as much LESS as possible.[i]

Thus 273 years ago, in this very church, the phrase “Don’t dream bigger than your budget” was born.

In reality, most churches have their dreams limited by their budgets.
Especially churches with histories similar to ours.
Churches like ours were built on bare bones funding, by people who were accustomed to enduring the hardships of frontier living and long cold New England winters.
Those who spent wildly when the weather was warm and resources were abundant were doomed to starve when the wind grew cold and the fields were bare.

It was better to be frugal and survive, then extravagant and facing certain death.

In December, 1818, some 44 years after our forbearers scrimped and saved to build this new second meeting house, and set it on the village green, a town meeting was called to discuss possible building improvements.
A small group of church members proposed that warming stoves be purchased to heat the meetinghouse during Sunday services in the winter. Because, as cold as we think it gets in here now during the winter months, this building at that time was completely unheated.
But to the dismay of the vocal minority, a majority of the members voted the proposal down. It would cost too much.

That same month, this editorial appeared in the local newspaper:
It will be seen by the article on our first page that even the Indians have stoves in their meetinghouses, and is it not astonishing then, that civilized and enlightened people have none, but that they nearly freeze themselves and their children every Sabbath in the winter, when the trifling expense of ONE DOLLAR EACH would make them comfortable? [ii]

The letter ended with these words of wisdom:
“A word to the frozen, we hope will be sufficient, to make them weather-wise.”

It wasn’t until 1823 – five years later - that the people finally voted to install warming stoves in the meetinghouse, and then only by individual subscriptions. People would pay for the stoves in the same way they paid for their pews.
If you wanted a good seat, and you wanted to be warm, it was going to cost you.  

Jesus didn’t have much to say about what it might cost to build and maintain the Body of Christ.
When he sent his disciples out to spread the good news of the gospel he instructed them to travel light and to count on the hospitality of strangers.
He didn’t talk about the stresses of balancing a church budget, the cost of pastors and programs, or the depressing futility of heating a 240-year-old building during a long New England winter.

Jesus looked at the coin that his challengers produced and said,
“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

Jesus knew full well, that all that we have belongs to God.

But we’re always looking for ways to make that not be true.
We’re like the little boy who was given two quarters -- one for the Sunday School offering plate and one for an ice cream cone.
While he was walking to church. one of the coins slipped out of his hand, landed in the street, rolled towards a sewer grating, and plopped down into the water below.
The little boy raised his face toward heaven and said with genuine sorrow, "Well, God, there goes your quarter."

Perhaps there is a reason why Jesus seems to give what some would say is an unclear response to the challenge of who is the rightful owner of the Roman coin - God or the Emperor.
There are some unavoidable costs to being a citizen in this world – taxes, housing, food, education, health care, security – all of these things cost money, and a good portion of the money we earn goes to support them.
What’s left over goes towards the things that make life enjoyable when we’re not working to earn money to pay for the necessities – entertainment, sports, recreation, the creative arts, travel, gifts for family and friends.
And then there are the ways we give directly back to God – charitable giving, volunteering, and being an active and supportive member of a religious community.

How we choose to slice up that pie says a lot about our values, our fears, and the individual challenges that we face.
Depending on our socio-economic bracket the first two slices of the pie get the bulk of our attention - with the poor leaning heavily towards the necessities slice, the rich having more to devote to the enjoyment slice, and the middle class falling somewhere in between.
The sad truth is, few of us are devoting more than a token amount to the God slice.

In 2012, the latest year for which the numbers are available, church giving across all denominations dropped to less than 2.2 percent of member’s incomes, the lowest percentage in almost 50 years.
Church attendance and participation is also down across the board, which means our time and talent is being spent elsewhere as well.

Perhaps it’s because we no longer find much in the church experience that is valuable to us.
Maybe we’re bored with the same old worship, not excited by the programs that are offered, or have no time to get more involved even if we want to.
Maybe we think the church is too liberal, or too conservative, too judgmental, or too lenient, too traditional, or too watered down to be meaningful. 
Maybe we’ve been hurt by an insensitive comment, an overlooked contribution, or the fact that no one seemed to notice when we drifted away.

Maybe we’re so focused on what the church is giving to us, that we have a hard time seeing it as a vehicle for us to give to others, and to God.

In the Protestant tradition, the church is not an entity unto itself - an amorphous force that exists to serve or deny us.    The church is us.
Each of us is called by God to make the church what it is.
We are creating it and recreating it as we go along.
We are the body of Christ in the world.

And because we’re human, the church is human.
With all it’s brokenness, all its hypocrisies, and all it’s blunders.
The truth is that we’re going to let each other down on occasion, and we’re going to fail to live up everyone’s expectations all of the time, 100% of the time. That is guaranteed.

What we often lose sight of is the many ways that the church does live up to God’s call.
We – the church – provide a sanctuary for the weary, the wounded, and the overwhelmed.
We – the church – create music that inspires, liturgy that comforts, and words that challenge.
We – the church – feed the hungry, teach children about God’s unconditional love, and raise our voices in the name of justice, peace, and forgiveness – because who else will, if not us?

And we – the church - are here for people during all the pivotal moments of life – birth, marriage, loss, sickness, and death – all the moments that have us craving ritual and connection and community.

The reality is that looking over a church budget that is heavily skewed towards maintenance costs, staff salaries, and just keeping our head above water does not often inspire us to delve into our pockets and give to God out of our generosity and gratitude.
But all those the things that I just mentioned – we – the church - would not be able to do any of them without this sanctuary, these meeting spaces, the furnace that keeps us warm in the winter, these pastors and gifted musicians, these dedicated members and volunteers who support and sustain our programs and our community outreach.

And we’re doing all of this on less than 2.2% of our collective incomes.
Think of what we could do if each of us gave just 1% more...or 2%...or 5%?
Think of what we could do if we gave more of ourselves to God?

In the past this congregation has dared to dream bigger than its budget.
It hired its first pastor when there was no roof to keep the congregation dry.
It built a brand new meetinghouse when the old one no longer met its needs. 
And when conflicts tore the congregation two, it sustained itself, survived, and prospered, again, and again.

In 1874, on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the dedication of this meetinghouse, the Rev. Josiah Gardner Davis spoke about the group of men and woman who gathered at the corner of Mack Hill and Jones Rd in 1739 and planted the seeds of this church. He said:

We have no question of the genuineness of their faith and the sincerity of their love. A people moving in the forests, to clear for themselves homesteads in the solitudes of the wilderness, do not take on themselves the burden of building meetinghouses and sustaining ministers without deep convictions of the value of the gospel.[iii]

275 years later, the gospel is still our motivating force.
The gospel is what sustains us in times of abundance and prosperity, and in times of scarcity and loss.
The gospel is why so many everyday sinners and saints have chosen to sit in these pews and then go out into the world in service.
The gospel is why Jesus had no issue flipping over the coin of his challengers and challenging them to give back to God what God has given them.

For some, the challenge is greater than others.
There’s the story of the very wealthy man who stood up in the middle of the Sunday service in a tiny rural church to talk about his Christian faith.
“I'm a multimillionaire,” he said, “and I attribute it all to the blessings of God.”
He continued,  “I remember the day my life changed. I had just earned my first dollar and I stopped into this very church to offer my gratitude to God. The preacher challenged us to give back to God what God has given to us. I only had a dollar but I knew I had to either give it all to God’s work or nothing at all. So at that moment I decided to put all the money I had to my name in the collection plate. I believe that God blessed that decision, and that is why I am a rich man today.” 

The man finished his testimony and there was an awed silence as he sat down.
Then a little old lady sitting in the pew behind him leaned over and said:
“I dare you to do it again.”

Perhaps we should dare each other to believe in the gospel of prosperity.
To believe that giving leads to receiving, even if we’re not always the one directly on the receiving end. Because more often than not, we are.

God has given us life and unconditional love and grace. 

What might WE give to God in return?


The Congregational Church of Amherst, NH, circa 1870.


[i] Historical discourse delivered at Amherst, N.H., on the hundredth anniversary of the dedication of the Congregational meeting-house, 1874, pg. 9.
[ii] Walking Tours of Amherst Village, Historical Society of Amherst, New Hampshire, pg. 9.
[iii] Historical discourse delivered at Amherst, N.H., on the hundredth anniversary of the dedication of the Congregational meeting-house, 1874, pg. 21.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Sermon: "Jesus Wept"

Rev. Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
September 28, 2014
Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16;  John 11:32-44

“Jesus Wept”

Jesus wept.
This line from John’s gospel is famously known as the shortest verse in the bible.  
(For centuries, when told to pick one verse from the Bible to memorize and recite in front of the congregation, savvy Sunday School children have chosen this verse…for obvious reasons).  

Jesus wept.
Two simple words that say so much - about grief, about anger and frustration, about the experience of being human, about the nature of this man whom we call Jesus - Lord – Savior - God.

When he lost his beloved friend Lazarus, Jesus wept.
When he felt the brunt of Mary and Martha’s anger because he had allowed their brother to die, Jesus wept.
When he saw the pain etched in the faces of the mourners surrounding Lazarus’ tomb, Jesus wept.

Grief. Anger. Empathy.
We’ve all wept in their presence.

And while the culmination of this story involves a divine intervention – with Lazarus resurrected and retuned to the living – the fact that it takes awhile to get there is where many of us find meaning in this gospel story.
What happens before the miracle – before Jesus calls Lazarus out of the tomb - is where we find God intervening in our world in a very real and visible way.

This morning we heard the last 12 verses of the story of Lazarus, but the writer of John’s gospel takes 45 verses to tell the whole story.

In verse one, we’re told that Lazarus is sick.
In verse three, Mary and Martha send a messenger to inform Jesus.
In verse four, Jesus hears the news.
Yet it isn’t until verse thirty-eight that Jesus finally arrives at the tomb.

In between we encounter erroneous assumptions, unmet expectations, unacknowledged pain, and misplaced blame.
In other words, a typical family gathering for many of us.

Jesus receives Mary and Martha’s message, and two days go by before he tells his disciples that Lazarus is ill.
At that time he very cryptically tells them,
      “Let’s go to Judea for Lazarus has fallen asleep.”
To which the disciples reply, “Have you forgotten that they tried to stone you in Judea? Why on earth would we go back? To rouse a sleeping man?”
Finally, Jesus reveals that Lazarus is not sleeping, he is in fact dead, and they must travel back to Judea to witness his miraculous resurrection all made possible by the glory of God.

But while Jesus and his disciples argue over travel plans and get bogged down in semantics, back in Bethany, Mary and Martha are burying their brother.

The miracle they had prayed for did not happen.
Jesus did not come.
So they wrap their brother’s body in clean white sheets and anoint him with oils as their tears rain down and their chests heave under the weight of their sobs.

Four days later, when they finally see Jesus coming up the road they are not happy to see him.
We might imagine them running headlong into him, their fists pounding on his chest as they scream,  “Why! Why did you not come when we called?   
              If you had been here, Lord, our brother would not have died.”

How many of us have said the same in the face of loss?
“Why God? Why did you let this happen?”

When something in our life has gone horribly wrong we want the God we read about in the Bible to intervene and make things right.
The God that parted the Red Sea and brought forth water from a rock.
The God that appears in burning bushes and pillars of dust.
The God that heals the sick and raises the dead.

That’s the God we want by our side.  The God of miracles.
Not the God of platitudes.
Not the God who “needed another angel in heaven.”
Not the God who “closes one door and opens another.”
Not the God who “never gives us more than we can handle.”

When Mary and Martha meet Jesus on the road and cover him with tears of sadness and frustration they’re no longer looking for a miracle.
It’s too late for that.
They’re angry that their guaranteed connection to God – this prophet called Jesus, their beloved teacher and friend - has failed to come through in their hour of need.
As they pound on Jesus’ chest and then fall to their knees, we might imagine him taking hold of their flailing arms and pulling them into his embrace… holding them tightly and calming them as he asks them where they have laid their brother to rest.

In this case Jesus knew God had a plan, and everything was playing out according to that plan.
But when he saw Mary and Martha – with their unrestrained rage and pain, and their lack of awareness that he had the ability to set things right –
Jesus began to weep.

The tears flowed out of him just as they flow out of us.
Tears of sadness, frustration, and empathy.

This is the ball of entangled emotions that rises up from within us when we grieve.   

Anger, denial, depression, bargaining, guilt, blame –
These emotions spill out of us and our loved ones as we come together in the wake of a loss, and as each of us comes to terms with the loss in our own way and in our own time.

There is no avoiding it.
If we choose to love in life, we will experience grief.
Even Jesus, who supposedly knew that Lazarus would soon walk out of the tomb fully alive, succumbed to the pull of his humanity… and he wept.

This is the Easter story – the Christian story - seen through a human lens.
We believe resurrection is coming, we believe new life awaits us all in the end, we believe death is not a period, but a comma, marking the transition between one life and the next…
   ...and yet we still grieve, we still mourn what we have lost.

The culmination of this outpouring of emotion and many hours, months, years of grief work, is acceptance – a personal resurrection of sorts – where we walk out of the tomb, shake off our shroud, and gradually open our eyes to the light of day.

When Lazarus emerged from the tomb, Jesus said,
        “Unbind him and let him go.” 
In much the same way, our grief eventually loosens its grip on us and we feel freer in our ability to function and move about in the world.

This kind of resurrection is not instantaneous, it’s not miraculous, and it doesn’t involve God swooping down to part the expansive sea before us or raise our loved ones from the dead.

But it does involve God’s unyielding and unwavering presence in our lives.

God is in the fiery cloud and the burning bush.
But God is also in the tears of those who grieve with us,
in the arms of friends who embrace us, and in the quiet presence of those who simply sit with us, knowing that there are no magic words or pithy platitudes that can take the pain away.

If Jesus is God’s presence here on earth, it is telling that BEFORE he raised his good friend Lazarus from the dead - before he did anything - Jesus wept.

The GOOD NEWS of the Gospel is that no one stays in the tomb forever.
The GOOD NEWS is that while we’re in there we’re not alone.

God weeps with us.

Take a look around, at the faces and arms and bodies of those sitting next to you.
God has brought us together – with all our gifts and all our flaws.
God moves and acts through us.

We are the burning bush.
We are the pillar of fire.
We are the rock that brings forth water for the thirsty.

We are the hope of the resurrection -
living, breathing proof that love brings new life where it once was lost.

Thanks be to God.