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.