Sunday, June 15, 2014

Sermon: "One is the Loneliest Number"

Rev. Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
June 15, 2014 – Trinity Sunday
Genesis 1:1-2:4a

“One is the Loneliest Number”

If you were a child growing up in China, you would probably be familiar with the story of P'an Ku.  
P’an Ku is a fur wearing giant, and he’s the central character in an ancient Chinese creation story. 
P’an Ku is hatched from a giant cosmic egg.
Half the shell is above him as the sky, the other half below him as the earth. He grows taller each day for 18,000 years, gradually pushing the sky and the earth apart until they reach their appointed places.
After all this effort, P'an Ku crumbles into pieces. His limbs become the mountains, his blood the rivers, his breath the wind and his voice the thunder. His two eyes become the sun and the moon.  And fittingly, the fleas that crawl on his fur become humankind.

If you were a child of the Native American Cherokee tribe you would have heard the story of Dâyuni'sï.
Before the earth was formed, there was only sky and water, until Dâyuni'sï, a little water beetle, came from the sky realm to see what was below.
He scurried over the surface of the water, but found no solid place to rest, so he dove beneath the water and brought up some mud.
This mud expanded in every direction and became the earth.

The other animals in the sky realm were eager to come down to the new earth, so Buzzard was sent to see if the mud had dried.  When he flew down his wings brushed the earth, gouging mountains and valleys in the soft ground.
When the land was finally dry all of the animals came down.
But it was dark, so they took the sun and set it in the sky, at first setting it too low, scorching the shell of the crawfish and turning it red.
They elevated the sun seven times in order to reduce its heat.
As they did this, all of the plants and animals were told to stay awake for seven nights, but only the owl and panther succeeded and they were given the power to see and prey upon the others in the dark.  Only a few trees succeeded as well, cedar, pine, and spruce, so the rest were forced to shed their leaves in the winter.

The first humans who appeared on the earth were a brother and sister.
One day the brother hit his sister with a fish and told her to multiply.
She gave birth to a child every seven days and soon there were so many people on the earth, that all women were forced to have just one child every year.
(The message to woman here is beware of men throwing fish)

Nearly every human culture has a creation story of some kind -
a story that explains how our world, and how we, came to be.
Many of these mythological stories involve heavenly creatures, jealous Gods, or races of giants who battle to the death, and human beings are often the residual and flawed byproduct of their violent creative fits.

When the Hebrew decedents of Abraham spent 70 years in captivity in ancient Babylon they would have heard the creation story of Enuma Elish - a story that elevated the Mesopotamian God, Murduk, above all other Gods.
In this story, Murduk battles and defeats Tiamat, the chaos monster of the seas. Murduk becomes the supreme God over all, and humanity is created to serve him as slaves.
This story dates back to the 12th century B.C. and is believed to be 300 years older than the Hebrew creation story that we read here in worship this morning.

For the Hebrew people languishing in the despair and drudgery of captivity, there wasn’t much hope to be found in these stories of warring Gods who created a violent and evil world to serve their own needs.
So the Hebrew people began to tell their own story.

In their story there is only one God above all Gods, and this God created a world that is good.
This God created light and dark, the sun and the moon, the plants and the animals, and named it all as GOOD.
This God created humankind, male and female, in God’s own likeness, and named it as GOOD.
This God did not create a race of slaves, this God instead created a family of caretakers.
Beings formed from dust and given life through divine breath.
Beings whose purpose was to care for creation and celebrate the one true God who gave them life.

This is the story that the exiled Israelites told their children when they tucked them into bed at night - children who were facing a very hard and painful life, and had never seen the Temple that was built for the loving and powerful God that walked with them in their misery.

The Israelites told and retold this story in the hope that it would help them to tune out the prevailing story of the culture, which said they were destined for a life of sorrow in a chaotic world created by power hungry Gods. And it was hoped that they would instead embrace the story of the one, true God, who created a world of beauty and order, where life had meaning and purpose.

Perhaps the most amazing part of this story that that the children of Abraham told is that this God created a being that was meant to serve as the voice of creation itself.
A being that would not only care for creation but speak for it.
A being capable of communicating with and loving its Creator.
A being that was created to live in relationship.
With God, with the created world, and with other beings like itself.

As Christians this relational triangle – or trinity - is familiar to us.
We already think of God as having three parts –
God the Creator.
God the redeemer – through Christ.
And God the sustainer – through the Holy Spirit.
In human terms, this is a God who is our life-giving parent, our forgiving and loving brother, and our guiding and providing sister.

It’s natural that as a being created in God’s image that we too would long for this three-fold relationship – with God, with creation, and with each other.
Perhaps this is why we feel so alone or unsettled when any one of these relationships is missing, strained, or in need of healing in our lives.

If we think of God as having three aspects that live in relationship then it seems odd to suggest that perhaps God created us because God was lonely and was longing for someone to talk to.

But I believe there is some truth in that.

As much as God could sit back and enjoy the beauty of the created world – the wind in the trees, the roar of seas, the cycle of life as lived out through the birds of the air and everything that walks or crawls on the earth – there was something missing.

Perhaps God longed for a creature that would one day be aware of God’s existence – and reach out as a child reaches for a parent, as a friend reaches for a beloved companion.

If you think about it, the fact that we have such an awareness is quite extraordinary.
You don’t have to be a quantum physicist to marvel at the wonder of how particles smaller than the eye can see, come together to form creatures capable of doing all that we are capable of doing.
God’s creation is amazing indeed.

Here is a God who created the light sensitive cells that make up the eyes of most of the world’s creatures, and then creates a being who would one day use those cells to look through the lens of a microscope and contemplate the wonder of its own existence.

Here is a God who created a being out of dust - carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, sulfur – the same stuff that stars are made of, in the hope that one day this clump of stardust might compose a hymn of praise.

As the Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor so eloquently put it:
God may well love the sound of waves and spring peepers, but I have to believe there was joy in heaven when the first human being looked at the sky and said, “Thank you for this.”

Just as any parent delights in seeing their child explore, learn, and grow,
and is joyous when they receive expressions of their child’s gratitude for all they have been given, I believe God longs for the same with us.

In the same way, God longs for us to turn to our Creator, our redeemer, our sustainer, when the world is not as ordered as we expect it to be, when in our sorrow and in our suffering we are in need of comfort, courage, and strength.

God created our world and declared it to be good.
The ancient Israelites told this story of a loving God and the gift of creation to counteract the prevailing story of the Babylonians who held them captive.

When we tell the Hebrew creation story to our children, we’re hoping to counteract the prevailing stories of our culture that hold us captive as well.

The stories that tell our children, and us, that we were created not to live in relation with on another but in competition.
The stories that tell us that we were created not to care for our world, but to consume it.
The stories that tell us that God is not a loving, relational redeemer, but is instead an angry, distant punisher.

The stories we tell about ourselves say a lot about how we view the world and how we understand the purpose of our existence.

The fact that in 21st century New England we’re still telling the stories carried by an ancient desert people who longed to escape captivity, says a lot about the power of these stories to transcend time and space and culture.

Regardless of how technologically advanced we are, how affluent we are, or how privileged we are, we can’t escape the nature of our creation.
We are relational beings.
We long for, and thrive, when we live in relationship -
with God, with the created world, and with each other.

And as long as we continue to share our creation stories,
we will continue to see the value in nourishing and healing those relationships.

Because in God’s image we are created.
And in that image, we can create a whole lot of GOOD in this world.

Thanks be to God.

* Quote from Barbara Brown Taylor, The Luminous Web, Cowley Publications, pg. 31-32

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Sermon: "Confirm or Conform"

Rev. Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
June 8, 2014 – Pentecost Sunday – Confirmation Sunday
Genesis 11:1-9; Acts 2:1-21

“Confirm or Conform”

I am what you might call a “word geek”.
I am fascinated by words, their origins and the many different meanings they come to have as they wind their way through time and culture.

I realize that not everyone shares this fascination.
I can tell this, because people often roll their eyes when I share some tidbit about a word’s origin or etymology.     For example:
Did you know the word “loophole” comes from the small openings in medieval castle walls that archers used to shoot their arrows through, the only vulnerability in an otherwise impenetrable fortress?
Or, did you know that the words umpire and apron used to begin with the letter “n” but when people said “a napron” or “a numpire” it sounded like the “n” was part of the previous word so over time the ‘n’ was dropped?

I can see some of you rolling your eyes.
Even if etymology is not your thing, you have to admit that the nuances of language can make for some interesting misinterpretations.

I came across the story of a Girl Scout troop leader who gave her girls a list of first aid supplies to buy for an upcoming camping trip.
She photocopied the list directly from the Red Cross First Aid Manual.
She was surprised when the girls showed up for the trip lugging heavy backpacks that contained huge bags of dry plaster mix.
It turns out the Red Cross Manual she used was printed in Great Britain, where the word used for Band-Aid is plaster. 

The differences between American English and British English account for numerous opportunities for misinterpretation.
In Britain, a boot goes on your car, not on your foot.
Braces hold up your trousers, not your teeth.
You’ll find a trolley in the supermarket, not on the street.
What we call jelly they call jam, and what they call jelly we call gelatin  - or Jello.    
I found this out when I went into a bakery in London and asked for a jelly donut, and received only a confused stare.

Language, and the confusion thereof, plays an integral part in both of our scripture readings for today.

In the Tower of Babel story we find a wonderfully creative explanation of how we came to have so many diverse languages in our world.
In this story, all the people of the world live in one place and share one language.  Yet they fear being scattered from this place so they decide to build a city to anchor them there.
They make bricks of clay and build a tower that will reach to the heavens.

This passage is often interpreted as being about pride.
It is said that the people built a tower to make a name for themselves, to show that they had the power to create great things just as God did.
But in Hebrew scripture, the phrase “making a name for oneself” is rarely used to denote arrogance or pride.
Rather, it implies an act of establishing an identity that is meant to endure.
In this case, the act of building a city to establish a common culture and a common language that will keep the people bound together.

The goal of the building project was to keep the people from scattering.
We know from anthropology that once people are scattered by distance they begin to develop their own ideas, their own culture, their own language, which over time can become vastly different from that of the originating group.    
There is strength in sameness.
As human beings, we have a primitive need to know who we can trust, which is why we often feel threatened by those who are easily identifiable as being outsiders.

But, according to Hebrew scripture, the conviction that humanity was to remain in one place with one single language was not part of God’s plan.
God had commanded humanity to multiply, to fill all the earth, and to care for God’s creation.
By attempting to stay in one place rather then moving out into the world as God intended, humanity was honoring its own will rather than God’s will.

So according to the biblical storytellers, God put a stop to it.
God confused the language of the people.
They could no longer communicate with one another.
They no longer shared a common goal.
The stopped building the city, and they scattered all over the earth.
According to Jewish interpretations, this scattering was not a punishment, but a giant push out of the nest so to speak.

What if we began to see our diversity as God’s design for the world? 

We do have biblical passages that compel us to act as ONE body in Christ and to be UNITED in our faith in the service of God.

But could it be that God desires a world full of faithful people who express that faith and live out the gospel through the lens of different cultures, different languages, and different understandings of how God’s divine presence expresses itself in our world?

I believe the story of Pentecost gives us a resounding YES to this question.

In the Tower of Babel story we hear that all the people of the world are gathered in one place.
The story of the Day of Pentecost begins in much the same way.
On that day the disciples are all together in one place, gathered inside the walls of a house in Jerusalem, feeling isolated and lost….
And then in a rush of wind and fire - God draws them outside.

Instantly, they are filled with the Holy Spirit and begin to speak in other languages.   The story tells us that faithful Jews from every nation were present and each heard the disciples speaking of God’s love and grace in their own native language. 

This was the unique charge of the newly emerging Christian faith.
Jesus himself called on his disciples to carry the message of the gospel to all the nations of the world.
As Jews, they were traditionally a people of one land, one book, and one sacred language, yet God called the followers of Jesus to diversify and scatter yet again.  To spread the message of God’s inclusive love to a world that was anxious to hear it.

Now, our confirmands may be surprised to hear that our Christian faith encourages us to celebrate diversity rather than uniformity.

When I was growing up and first heard the word “Confirmation” I thought the adults were saying “Conformation” –  I thought that the purpose of the yearlong class was to ensure that we CONFORMED to Christian teachings and stopped thinking for ourselves.

Some of you may have thought this as well.
Some of us grew up in churches where we had to memorize the responses we were expected to give at the confirmation service, and at the end of the class we were not given the choice to say yes or no to being confirmed.
It was just assumed we would be confirmed, because without it, we would be denying the gift of God’s grace.

As if an all-mighty, all-knowing, and all loving God could be swayed to rescind the unconditional gift of grace because a 13-year-old girl or boy has doubts and questions.
The same doubts and questions that all of us have.

Many adults in the church lament that Confirmation is often seen as graduation.
At 13 or 14 you complete your Christian Education and you move on to bigger and better things.  To put it bluntly – we adults fear that we’re never going to see you again.

Some of you may participate in youth group and we may see some of you in church on Christmas and Easter, but for the most part, while you will be members of this church in name, you may never be active members in the same way as your parents, your mentors, or the people sitting in the pews behind you are.

So with all our cards on the table, I’m here now to make a plea to you as confirmands: 
We need you.

I don’t mean that this church needs you, although being an active member would be nice.
And I don’t mean that the Christian church as a whole needs you because the world needs Christians more than Hindus, Muslims, or Buddhists.

What the world needs is more followers of Jesus.

And when I say the world needs more followers of Jesus, I don’t mean the world needs more people handing out pamphlets urging sinners to accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior or face eternal damnation.
The world has enough of those people. 
What we need is more people who walk in the ways of Jesus.

The world has a multitude of lonely, hungry, anxious, and unloved people.
We need more compassionate, giving, and forgiving people to care for them, to feed them and love them.
The world also has a multitude of angry, selfish, spiteful, and greedy people.
The world needs you to love them too.
Because fear can be expressed in many different ways.
And love always conquer fear.

Now in no way am I saying that it’s going to be easy to live into your Baptismal and Confirmation vows as followers of Christ in the world.
Even at the age of 13 or 14, you have a lot of challenges and transitions ahead of you – entering high school, making new friends, discovering who you are as person, and figuring out where your happiness lies in life.  

My plea to you is to not conform when you feel pulled towards things that harm rather than heal.
Don’t do what everybody else does.
Don’t put other people in boxes or slap a label on them thinking you know everything about them as a person based on the way they dress, what kind of music they listen to, who they hang out with, and what their interests are.

In high school, and in life, you will encounter athletes and musicians, class clowns and cheerleaders, math and science kids, drama kids, quiet kids, popular kids, and the kids who prefer to float on the fringes.
God needs you to love and care for all of them
And treat them all with kindness, as you would want to be treated yourself.

And just so you know, we adults often fail miserably at this.
We also feel pulled to define a person based on their race, nationality, or religion or what they do for work, where they live, how they vote, and how well they, and their children, have managed the challenges of life.

But we’re not confirming our baptismal vows if we’re not doing the four things that you confirmands promised to do here this morning.
To follow Jesus.
To renounce evil and injustice.
To love our neighbor and help ease their suffering.
And do it all in a community that nurtures us and magnifies our love in the world.

Our instinct as human beings is to gather in one place, and hold onto our commonalities and our sameness, because this is where we find comfort.
But God is calling us to live differently.
Sometimes what is familiar and comfortable only serves to hold us back.
Sometimes we need to take a risk and allow ourselves to be drawn out and sent out where the Spirit leads us.

Sometimes we need to confirm our promise to God,
Rather than conform to the ways of the world.

Blessings to all of you on your journeys.
You are members of the body of Christ.
You are uniquely and wonderfully made,
and God’s love and grace has been offered freely to you.

The world needs you to go and do likewise.