Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Sermon: "They Grow So Fast"

Scripture Intro - Luke 2:41-52

A few days ago, on Christmas Eve, we heard stories about Jesus’ birth.
Next Sunday we will celebrate the Epiphany and the arrival of the Wise Men from the east. Yet on this first Sunday after Christmas, the lectionary gives us a story about Jesus as a twelve-year-old adolescent.
Boy, are those wise men in for a surprise.

Luke is the only gospel writer to include a story about Jesus’ childhood.
He uses it as way of transitioning between his long narrative about Jesus’ birth and the story which marks the beginning of Jesus’ ministry as an adult – Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist. Luke included this story of Jesus at the age of 12 possibly because he knew his readers would be curious to know what happened in Jesus life in between these two monumental events. Perhaps Luke wished to show us that Jesus, like all of us, experienced a transitional stage in his life; that he didn’t just wake up one day as a fully formed agent of God.  That he too, needed time to grow into the person that God had called him to be.

Here is the story from the Gospel of Luke. Listen now for the Word of God:

Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover.
And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival.
When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him.
After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.
When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.”
He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he said to them.
Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor. 

Rev. Maureen R. Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
December 27, 2015 – First Sunday of Christmas
Luke 2:41-52

“They Grow So Fast”

In many Christian traditions, including the Catholic tradition in which I was raised, the first Sunday after Christmas is known as the Feast of the Holy Family. 
This is the day where Mary, Joseph, and their brand new baby, Jesus, are lifted up and celebrated as the model human family – coming together to live a loving and faithful life before God.

We have Mary, who despite being young and poor and unmarried showed incredible courage and said “Yes” to giving birth to the son of God.
We have Joseph, who did the righteous and honorable thing by marrying Mary instead of shunning her, and protecting and caring for her all the way to Bethlehem.
And we have Jesus, the Holy Child, the son of God, who was born perfect and sinless and destined to save the world.

That’s a model family that we all can aspire to emulate, isn’t it?
Easy peasy.

The reality is, despite our best efforts and our desire to have the perfect family, we all can’t help but fall way short of the mark.
And the one time of year that those shortcomings can become most evident is when families come together to celebrate Christmas.

On Christmas Eve we may put on our Sunday best and head off to church with visions of our family gathering around the Christmas ham the next day, opening presents and sharing laughter and joy.
But outside of Hallmark cards and holiday movies, there aren’t many family Christmases that end up that way.
Inevitably, something or someone fails to live up to the ideal that we carry in our heads.
A gift fails to arrive in time, the Christmas ham comes out too salty or too dry, and the kids (and adults) are over tired, over excited, over fed, and prone to meltdowns.

I remember my own mother trying so hard to make Christmas live up to everyone's expectations.
This is even more difficult to do when you have ten children.
But every year, she’d cart us all off to midnight Mass, and listen to us gripe about itchy dresses and choking neck ties.
She put up with 4-year-olds who got up way too early on Christmas morning, and 14-year-olds who refused to get up before noon.
She endured the inevitable fights over who got bigger or better presents and the tears that flowed when the one thing someone had asked for or HAD to have was not under the tree. 
And every year, we’d sit down at the table to a Christmas dinner that my mom had spent days planning for and preparing…..and half way through the meal she’d scream, jump up, run to the kitchen and return with a plate of smoking dinner rolls that had been burned as black as hockey pucks.
Every year.  

The Holy Family is held up as the ideal family – for good reason.
Not for their holiness, but for their humanness.
Because despite our tendency to depict Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus wearing halos above their heads – in icons, stained glass windows, and in the image we have of them in our minds – in many ways they were human just like us.

The gospel reading we heard today is evidence of that. 

According to Luke’s gospel, Mary and Joseph were on their way home after the Passover celebration and they had traveled a full day away from Jerusalem before they realized 12-year-old Jesus was no longer with them.

For a Passover pilgrimage, this was not unusual.
They were likely traveling in a large group of family and friends, with the woman walking separately from the men.
Mary probably assumed that Joseph had Jesus, and Joseph probably assumed that he was with Mary.
It was only when they came together at some point - perhaps at a town along the way - that they realized that no one had seen Jesus since they left Jerusalem.

We can imagine what that walk back to Jerusalem must have been like for these frantic parents.
It was a full day’s journey, and as much as we like to revere the holy family as being saint like and beyond reproach, there was undoubtedly some anger and blame being tossed around on that walk,
as each passing hour mother and father alike grew even more worried and fearful of what could happen to a 12-year-old boy left to fend for himself in a big city like Jerusalem.

Luke tells us that Mary and Joseph searched for Jesus with “great anxiety,” for three days, before they finally found him.
And they found him in the safest place that he could be.
Sitting in the Temple amongst the rabbis and teachers, listening to them speak and asking them questions, as any 12-year-old boy preparing for his Bar Mitzvah might do. 

When Mary caught sight of her son she didn’t glide up to him with her halo aglow and bless him for taking his first steps towards fulfilling his destiny as the Messiah.
Instead she did what any mother would do after searching for her lost son for three days.
She yelled at him.
Especially after she found him safe and sound and seemingly oblivious to all the trouble and worry that he had caused.

“How could you worry us like this?” she said.
“Your father and I have been searching for you with great anxiety…how could you treat us with such disrespect?”

Jesus responded with wisdom beyond his years….or with sarcasm, depending on how you read it.
He said, “Why were you searching for me?
Did you not know that I would be in my father’s house?”
In other words, why didn’t his parents just assume that he would be in the Temple – in God’s house?
Had they forgotten who their son was?
Had they forgotten about the angels who announced his birth singing Glory to God in the Highest?

Well, apparently they had.

Here Mary and Joseph behave not like the parents of God incarnate, but instead like any parent with a lost child might behave.
They fear for his safety, they have no idea where he could have gone, and they don’t trust that he has the power or the ability to look after himself.

But even if Mary and Joseph did remember the fanfare that surrounded their son’s birth, perhaps to them he was all too human in every other way.

Maybe Jesus grew up as any child did, with skinned knees and a fear of monsters under the bed.
Maybe he slammed doors and threw temper tantrums over meaningless things as children are prone to do.

My sister-in-law has seven children under the age of 12.
Earlier this week she wrote on Facebook: "Child number 5 is throwing a tantrum this morning. Because it’s Tuesday and she doesn’t like Tuesdays."

Another friend posted a picture of her toddler crying and lying spread eagle on the floor. She commented, “He ate an entire package of mini muffins and then got upset because someone had eaten all the mini muffins.”

The truth is we don’t know what Jesus was like as a child.
And we don’t know what Mary and Joseph were like as parents apart from this one story when Jesus was 12 and a few others that took place just after he was born.

But it’s likely that this Holy Family – this human family - was far from perfect.
Especially when placed in the context of their larger family.  
Like many of us Jesus had uncles and aunts, and cousins and siblings.
I’m sure none of them was perfect either…especially when they gathered together at the holidays.

Likely some had a tendency to drink too much or complain too much.
Some were too judgmental or held others to unreasonably high expectations.
Some were always poking their nose where it didn’t belong or creating drama out of thin air.
Some likely hadn’t spoken to each other in years because of some past argument, insult, or slight.

Sound like any family you might know?

Forget the “Hallmark Card” scene that others strive to recreate,
for some, the Christmas season is approached with feelings of dread,
because of all the emotions that get stirred up when families come together.

And for those who are estranged from their family, or never knew their family, or have outlived their family, celebrating a holiday that is culturally awash in images of family – right down to the Holy Family at the manger – is difficult indeed.

But maybe that’s the point.
Mary and Joseph were far from home – and far from their family - on that cold winter’s night in Bethlehem.
All they had was each other….and God.

And on that long journey back to Jerusalem, as they argued and fretted over the safety of their missing son, again, all they had was each other….and God.
But in both instances they had much more than that.

In Bethlehem they had shepherds and wise men and a generous stable owner.
And in Jerusalem they had rabbis and teachers and Temple members who kept their son safe and engaged until they arrived.

Regardless of connection by blood or by name, family can be whoever stands by us, comforts us, or comes to our aid when we’re in need.
Our work family, our church family, the friends we’ve had since school, and the people in the community we live in – can sometimes be nearer and dearer to us than our own flesh and blood.

The Holy Family is a model for the human family.
Not the perfect family, but the real family – with all its flaws, scars, and tribulations.

The Holy Family is also something to be revered in its uniqueness, and held up as something we were never meant to be.
There is only one Mary and one Joseph – one mother and father who nurtured and cared for the incarnate God.

And there is only one Jesus – one prophet, teacher, messiah, who dedicated his life, and gave his life, to the belief that this world is God’s world, and that God’s love, flowing through us, is the solution to every affliction we face.

The Holy Family is a human family,
and in many ways their story is our story,
but their story is also worthy of setting up on a pedestal on this First Sunday after Christmas.

After all, it’s not every day that God is born into the world as one of us.

And just knowing that God knows what it’s like to enjoy and endure being a part of a family, should ease our concern that our family is not the perfect family.

Even Jesus got annoyed with his parents, and they got annoyed with him.
But the love they felt for one another was steadfast and unconditional.

As is God’s love for us.

Thanks be to God.


Friday, December 25, 2015

Christmas Eve Sermon: "Lights, Please"

Reverend Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
December 24, 2015 – Christmas Eve

“Lights Please”

“Fear not. I bring tidings of great joy, for unto you is born this day in the city of David a savior, who is Christ the Lord,
 and this shall be a sign unto you.”

For many of us of a certain generation, when we hear these words from the Gospel of Luke we can’t help but hear them spoken in a familiar voice,
one we’ve heard deliver these prophetic words year after year  -
the voice of Linus from the Charlie Brown Christmas Special.

For many of us, Linus and the Christmas story are forever entwined in our minds and in our hearts.  
Because Linus is the one who told the story.

While Snoopy is caught up in getting the light display on his doghouse just right, and Lucy is trying to convince Schroder to play Jingle Bells on his piano,
and Charlie Brown is stressing out over the fact that no one seems to know what Christmas is really all about,
it’s Linus who calls for the spotlight and tells the simple story of the Good News from the Gospel of Luke.

“Fear not. I bring you tidings of great joy, for unto you is born a savior.”

This is the story we strain to hear in the world outside the walls of our faith communities.
In our wider culture, the Christmas story we encounter is about red nosed reindeer, magical snowmen, and TV commercials that try to convince us that Santa wants us all to wake up on Christmas morning and find a brand new car in our driveway with a giant red bow on it.

I think we all know THAT is not the real Christmas.
It may be the Christmas we remember from our childhood – when we’d lie awake at night anticipating Santa’s arrival while visions of candy canes, tinsel, and toys danced in our heads.

And it may be the reality of the Christmas we celebrate as adults – where we run ourselves ragged trying to find gifts for everyone on our list, and eat too much, drink too much, and spend too much, all in our search for holiday cheer.

That’s the Christmas we celebrate out there.
But it’s not the Christmas we celebrate in here.

Which is why many of us come here on Christmas Eve.
What draws us here  – beyond the music – and the candle light – and the tradition –  what draws us here is the story.

This story of a baby being born on a cold winter’s night.
A baby who was destined to save the world.

Not in the sense that we picture superman or the X-Men saving the world.
Jesus did not have the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound or send bad guys careening across the room with a wave of his hand.

Jesus came to save the world with a much greater power…
The power of compassion, and grace, and love.

These are powers that we tend to undervalue in our world….and in ourselves.

When we become enmeshed in the events of our world that invoke fear and distrust and hate in our hearts, our instinct is to respond with even more fear, distrust, and hate.
We’re not conditioned to respond to fear with compassion,
to respond to distrust with grace, to respond to hate with love.

Yet we’ve all witnessed how acts of compassion, grace, and love have the power to change hearts, change minds, and change the outcome of events that could have gone so differently.

Just in the past week, we’ve seen three examples of this extraordinary power.

On Monday, when Islamic militants ambushed a bus in Kenya with the intent of singling out the Christian passengers and killing them, a group of Muslims shielded the Christians and told the attackers they were prepared to die together.
The Muslim passengers, who were mostly women, told the militants to kill them all or leave them alone.  The attackers left them alone.
Love was more powerful than hate.  

On Tuesday, a local TV news program in Chicago aired a story about the city’s homeless population and the public’s assumption that most were violent or mentally ill.
The segment featured a brief interview with Latoya Ellis, a single mother with three children who was laid off from her job and then evicted from her apartment. 
The family of four was living in a shelter.
After the segment aired an anonymous donor stepped forward, helped the family find an apartment and prepaid their rent for an entire year.
Compassion was more powerful than fear.

A few weeks ago, police in Orem, Utah showed up at the home of Rebecca Freemont to arrest her for shoplifting.  
Expecting to find a stash of stolen goods, officer Jared Goulding was taken aback when he instead found a single mother with two children living in a nearly empty apartment.
With no furniture, no TV, no books or toys, and nothing on the walls, except for a picture of a Christmas tree on which the kids had hand colored ornaments and decorations.
Officer Goulding then learned that what Rebecca Freemont had stolen was a few cans of food for her children. She had taken nothing for herself.

In response, the Orem Police collected money and furniture donations amongst themselves in order to help the struggling mother.
When word of their charitable act got out, the police started receiving cards and money from strangers who also wanted to help.
And as of yesterday, the Orem police received enough money to buy the Freemont family a real Christmas tree, presents for the kids, and -- most importantly – bags and bags of groceries.     
Grace and mercy was more powerful than distrust and judgment.

These stories of random acts of kindness and extreme acts of courageous compassion can’t help but warm our hearts, at any time of the year.
But what we often fail to realize is that acts like these are much more common and much more powerful than we think.

While our attention and our news media tends to gravitate towards the acts that feed our fear, our distrust, and our hate, there is a quiet revolution happening all around us – one that is born out of our God given drive to embody love, to feel compassion, to exhibit grace.

When Mary looked down at the wriggling infant that she gave birth to on that cold winter’s night she may have known that he was destined to change the world, like the gospel writers claim…
or she may not have had any idea who he would turn out to be,
or the legacy he would leave behind.

An entire faith – now 2,000 years old – is built on the belief that this baby had and has the power to save us from ourselves.

He brought with him the radical message – firmly rooted in his Jewish faith - that it is in our best interest to love our neighbor, to show hospitality to the stranger, to help the weak and the suffering, and to liberate those held captive by tyranny, oppression, and fear.
Because we are all connected – one to the other.

Jesus lived a life born out of the belief that we are created by a loving and forgiving God who offers unconditional grace not to just a few, but to all.

A God who empowers each and every one of us to partake of the bounty and beauty of this created world.

A God who welcomes us all at the table –
regardless of our gender, our race, our abilities, our ideology…
...regardless of who we love, who we are, or who we’ve been.

If we’re all equally precious in the eyes of God then it stands to reason that we should treat each other – and ourselves - as if we too recognize how precious we are.

The Christmas story is our annual reminder that we have it in our nature to come together and celebrate all that is good in us and the world.  

Because despite our inclination to one up each other,
to look down upon those below us,
to wrap our arms around what we own and what we love and live in fear that someone will try to take it from us,
….we were created to be much more than this.

The Christmas story reminds us that each one of us has within us a power that is greater than all our fears put together.
The power of compassion, love, and grace.

Every year at Christmas time, when Linus steps out on that stage
and recites the Christmas story from the gospel of Luke,
we can’t help but lean in and listen –
and feel drawn to the hope and promise that this simple story of a baby born in a manger brings into our lives.

For a brief moment all the other things clamoring for our attention fall away.
For a brief moment we get a glimpse of who we are and who we were created to be.

“Fear not. For unto you this day is born a savior.
Who is Christ the Lord.”


Sunday, November 29, 2015

Sermon: "People Get Ready"

Rev. Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
November 29, 2015 – First Sunday of Advent
Jeremiah 33:14-16; Luke 21:25-36

“People Get Ready”

When I was a child it was during Advent that I first became acquainted with the word ‘anticipation.’
Every morning, my siblings and I would run to the kitchen where my mother had hung the Advent calendar, and we’d pull open the tiny paper doors, eager to see the next picture from the nativity story hidden underneath.
In church every Sunday, we’d watch the lighting of the Advent wreath, excitedly counting how many candles were left and how many days remained until the center Christ candle would be lit.

And like most children of the 1970’s, it was during Advent that I spent an inordinate amount of time pouring over the pages of the Sears and Roebuck Christmas catalog.
Imagining how complete my life would be if I found a Barbie Dream House or a GI Joe Headquarters under the tree.

Yes, when I was child it was during Advent that I became well acquainted with the word ‘anticipation.’

I have a vivid memory of lying awake one Christmas Eve night.
Listening to the cold wind rattling the windowpanes while the old radiator in the corner of my bedroom clanked and clanged filling the room with a dry hissing heat.
I kept perfectly still under the covers.
Not daring to move.
With my eyes clenched shut and my ears wide open.
Straining to hear beyond the rattling and the clanking,
listening for every sound that did not belong.
Every creak, every knock, every thump on the roof above had me convinced that Santa and his reindeer had arrived, and Christmas had finally come.

(And then I broke out in an anxious sweat when I realized that we didn’t have a fireplace. Our chimney went straight into the furnace.  I spent hours lying awake trying to figure out how Santa would get around that one.)

If only we as adults could await the arrival of Christ in our world with the same anticipation and excitement of a child waiting for Christmas morning.

Advent for many of us is a time of preparation but unfortunately it is also a time of hurried busy-ness as we fill the days leading up to Dec. 25th  with shopping, and decorating, and cooking, and traveling.
We pack our schedules with Christmas fairs and concerts, parties and pageants, and while we enjoy the ride we often can’t wait for December 26th to arrive, when we can finally stop, put our feet up,
and exhale for the first time since Thanksgiving Day.

For many of us, the anticipation associated with Advent is there humming in the background as we run to and fro making our holiday preparations,
but perhaps we should ask ourselves, “What is it that we’re preparing for?”

Time spent with family?
The joy of giving and receiving?
The food, the fun, the lift in our mood that makes us more likely to hold doors open for strangers and less likely to grow impatient with our fellow travelers in this world?

How many of us have said that we wish we could capture the feelings of hope, peace, love, and joy that seemingly ooze out of the pores of this season and spread it out over the rest of the year?
How many of us wish the Christmas spirit could be felt just as much in April as it is in December?

And yet how many of us struggle to feel it even in now?
Because we can’t see past the pain, the grief, the hope-lessness that fills our view.
Because we look out at a world that is decidedly lacking in love,
bereft of joy, and incapable of peace.

One day, when Jesus was walking with his disciples through the great Temple of Jerusalem, one of his followers pointed at the magnificent polished stones that had been stacked one upon the other creating the grand Temple walls, and the man said,
“Look at this great gift that we have dedicated to God.”
And Jesus responded by saying,
“The day will come when this great gift will lie in ruins.”

The disciples were both dumfounded and understandably skeptical.
They said to Jesus, “When? When will this happen? What sign should we look for that will warn us that this will soon come to be?”

And Jesus replied, “You will know the sign when you see it.”
“Just as you know summer is coming when the leaves sprout from the trees, you will know when God’s world – God’s Kingdom – will burst forth into this world and obliterate all that you see.”

This is a lovely story for the first Sunday in Advent, don’t you think?
While we’re decking the halls and singing “Jingle Bells” who doesn’t think of the Apocalypse and the destruction of the world as we know it?”

Yet every year, on the first Sunday of Advent, we read this story about falling Temple walls, the sun and moon shaking in the sky, and people fainting from fear and foreboding.

“Prepare yourself,” Jesus said,
“Your world is about to be turned upside down.”

We may wonder if the disciples understood Jesus to be speaking both figuratively and literally here.
Yes, he was describing the time when God’s will would supersede our human will – and re-create our world as we know it.
But he was also talking about the literal destruction of the center of his people’s world. He was talking about that hot August night 40 years in the future during the siege of Jerusalem - when the Roman Army would unleash a surprise attack on the remaining rebellious Jews holed up inside the Temple courtyard.

The Emperor wanted the grand Temple kept intact as a prize for the sacking of Jerusalem, but under the darkness of night a Roman soldier threw a burning stick into the Temple wall.
The fire spread much quicker than anyone anticipated… burning the whole structure to the ground.

“There will come a day when even these great stones will come tumbling down….and the heavens will shake, and people will faint from fear.”

Jesus’ apocalyptic predictions may be a part of the sacred scripture that we’d prefer to set aside, or leave for the “end of the world” doomsday folks to explore.

Or we may write these verses off as a latter day insertion by a gospel author who saw the Temple fall with his own eyes and he needed Jesus to know about it – to warn them about it –
to fit it into God’s Grand Plan and in the process make it less horrible and less devastating for those who lived to see it.

We may not know what to do with this story….
And we may not get how it fits in with Advent as we string lights in trees, set up nativity scenes, and light candles of hope.

But the Jesus story is a story that is all about hope, from one end to the other.

Even in his prediction about falling Temple walls Jesus weaves in the sturdy thread of hope.
He said to the disciples, “When you see these horrible things happening…hold your heads up high…for the time of liberation is near.”

Just as Jeremiah spoke to his people after the destruction of the first Temple and assured them that God was still with them,
Jesus speaks to his people about the destruction of the second Temple and assures them that God will still be with them.

We are a people who understand how a falling building can cause us to lean towards apocalyptic thinking – where we start to believe and act as if the world as we know it is crashing down around us.

Most if not all of us have those horrific last images of the World Trade Center towers seared into our memories….as they burned and collapsed into a twisted pile of dust and rubble and great human loss.

Those of you who have fought or lived in war zones - on foreign soil or in countries you once called home - have seen first hand the destruction that we human beings are capable of inflicting upon one another.

When you’re climbing over the rubble of what used to be a school, a church, your home, it’s hard not to think that the world is coming to an end.

But again and again, into this rubble steps Jesus.
Bringing with him love, and light, and hope.
Hope that the day will come when the fear will subside, and the wounds will heal, and the buildings will rise once again. 

In the aftermath of the Paris terrorist attacks, a Frenchman named Antoine Leiris - whose wife, Helene, was killed in the attack -  issued a public response to the terrorists who caused his world to come crashing down. 

 Leiris wrote:

On Friday you stole the love of my life, the mother of my (17 month old) son, but you won't have my hatred. I won’t give you that gift.
You are asking for it but responding to hatred with anger would be giving in to the same ignorance that made you what you are.
You want me to be afraid, to view my fellow countrymen with mistrust, to sacrifice my freedom for security.   You have lost.
We are two, my son and I, but we are stronger than all the armies of the world. For his whole life this little boy will threaten you by being happy and free. Because no, you will not have his hatred either.

Leiris’ response - to the people who destroyed his world - is one rooted in the promises of Advent.
In the face of anger and fear he chose to express love and hope.
In a world that calls out for revenge and equates justice with a reciprocal infliction of pain, he chose to embrace peace and joy.

We may marvel at such a response because most of us are not capable of doing the same.   
We’re too human.
We let our pain fuel our fear and our anger.
Or we hold fast to the worldview that only righteous violence can combat evil violence, because evil will only respond to what it knows.

Christ calls us to be better than that.
But we’re not there yet.
We haven’t yet evolved to the point where we understand that it is love that conquers fear, that it is joy that pushes away sadness,
and it is light that eradicates darkness.
We’re not there yet.
But we have hope that one day we will be, with God’s help.

The word Advent means “coming.”
We are coming into the season of peace, and love, and joy, and hope.
We are preparing ourselves to meet Christ where Christ calls us to be.

But like a child anticipating Christmas morning,
we have to live with the tension of not being there yet.
But one day we will be…
with God’s help.


Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Sermon: "Don't Worry, Be Happy"

Matthew 6:25-34  - Adapted from the Message and the NRSV

Jesus said to his disciples,
“You are children of God. Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or what clothing you will wear.
Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?
Look at the birds of the air; they don’t grow food, or harvest it, or gather it into barns, and yet God feeds them.
Are you not of more value than they are?
And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your life span?

And why do you worry about clothing?
Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they don’t work or spend money on the latest fashions, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not dressed like one of them.

If God gives such attention to the appearance of wildflowers—most of which are never even seen—don’t you think God will attend to you, take pride in you, do what is best for you?
Therefore do not worry, saying,
‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’
Try to not be so preoccupied with getting,
 so you can respond to God’s giving.

People who don’t know God and the way God works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how God works.
Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions.

Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow.
God will help you deal with whatever happens tomorrow.
You are meant to live for today.”

Rev. Maureen Frescott

Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC

November 22, 2015 – Thanksgiving Sunday

Matthew 6:25-34

“Don’t Worry, Be Happy”

“Consider the lilies…”

This is one of my favorite scripture passages, as I imagine this is Jesus’ loving response to the steady a stream of complaints and concerns voiced by his disciples.  

They always seemed to be worried about something.
About not having enough food to feed all of Jesus’ followers,
or not having a place to stay as they moved from town to town,
or not having a change of clothes – because Jesus told them to leave everything they had behind to follow him.

Who can blame them really?

How many of us would strike out on an indefinite road trip to follow a religious guru – especially after we’re told to bring only the clothes on our back and the shoes on our feet.
To bring no bag, no money,
to bring nothing but the trust that God will provide.

Can you imagine being cold, and tired, and hungry, and dirty, and emotionally exhausted from having to constantly defend why it is you’re following this prophet / messiah…..and then you go to him with your concerns and your heart felt worries…
And he responds by saying, “Consider the Lilies – they neither toil nor spin – and look how happy they are.”

Thanks, Jesus.
That’s a big help.

As helpful as the people we know who manage to put a positive spin on everything.
“Every dark cloud has a silver lining,” they say.
“When life hands you lemons make lemonade.”
“Don’t worry, be happy.”

Don’t you hate those people?

The truth is, it is HARD to be happy when life is handing you lemons.
And it’s hard NOT to worry, when you don’t know where your next meal is coming from or where you’re going to sleep that night.

And it’s hard not to worry when we do have food and shelter and security …because we're constantly being reminded that it could so easily be taken from us.
By misfortune, by natural disaster, by someone breaking into your home, by some nameless faceless enemy – real or imagined. 

The truth is, we have much to worry about in today’s world.
And our worries are now magnified exponentially by our access to 24/7 world news.
The worries Jesus’ disciples had were small in comparison.
They were lucky if they knew what was going on in the next town let alone on the other side of the world.

It’s the knowing that feeds our worries.

But not always.
In the US alone, 235,000 people are injured in bathroom accidents every year.
Worldwide, 1.3 million people are killed in car accidents every year, and 50 million are injured or disabled.

Yet few of us are paralyzed by fear or worry every time we step into the bathroom or get into a car.

(Well, maybe we will be now – sorry about that)

So why is it that some worries overwhelm us… and others seemingly never cross our mind?

And why is it that we have such difficulty heeding Jesus’ words about considering the lilies and not worrying about what tomorrow might bring?

It has to do with living in the moment…
And being grateful for what we have in that moment.

There’s a tribe that lives in the Amazon jungle that has no concept of time.
The Amondawa people of Brazil.

Anthropologists spent eight weeks with the tribe researching how their language conveys concepts like ‘next week’ or ‘last year’ or ‘this month.’
They discovered that the Amondawa people have no words for such concepts, only divisions of day and night and rainy and dry seasons.

They also found that no one in the community has an age.
Instead, they change their names to reflect their life stage and position within their tribe - for example an older child will give up their name to a newborn sibling, and then take on a new name.

It may be the combination of being isolated from the outside world and the lack of a concept of time – but the researchers also found that the Amondawa people expressed an overwhelming sense of happiness.

It’s hard to worry about tomorrow when your worldview is centered on living in the moment.

When you have such a broad concept of time, you don’t spend a lot of time thinking about tomorrow – or thinking about what it would feel like to lose what you have now.

You also don’t spend much time thinking about that thing that you DON’T have that you’re convinced will make you happy when you DO have it.

Instead all you know is what you have.
Family. Friends.
Rain. Sun. Wind.
Food that grows in the wild, and water that flows from the ground.
Love. Life. Joy.

I imagine Jesus among the Amondawa people saying,
“Consider the lilies…”
and then seeing heads nodding in agreement all the way around.
He’d meet no resistance with that crowd.

We on the other hand, are skeptical.
It’s hard not to be.
When we have ticking clocks all around us.
Telling us we’re late for whatever comes next.
And 24 hour news cycles that tell us all that we should be worrying about...
Today, tomorrow and 15 years from now.

Cancer and Ebola, climate change and pipelines, racism and gun control, liberals and conservatives, welfare cheats and Muslim refugees.

How do we consider the lilies and let go of worry….when worry is seemingly all around us?

We do it by being grateful for ALL that we have.

Jesus came out of a tradition where being grateful was ingrained in daily life.
Even today, Orthodox Jews say a prayer of gratitude for nearly every event and task of the day.
Getting out of bed, turning on the faucet, getting dressed for work, flipping on a wall switch….
all in gratitude for shelter, clothing, water, light.

What may seem tedious to us is actually a wonderful way of reminding ourselves – daily – of all that we have to be thankful for.

If you need a more concrete way of reminding yourself of what you have to be grateful for – you can try something like this:

This a jar of “gratitude” that my wife, Stephanie, and I keep in our living room.

Whenever something good happens or when we’re feeling grateful we write it down on a piece of paper and put it in the jar.

From the small things….having a good day a work, seeing a spectacular sunset.
To the bigger things…the birth of a new family member, a promotion at work, getting good news at the doctor.
Then on December 31st we empty the jar and read all the slips of paper together.
To remind ourselves of all the things that we’ve had to be grateful for during the year.

You can also try what a man named John Kralik did.
Kralik is a lawyer who struggled with being thankful, so he made a New Year’s resolution to write a thank you note to one person in his life every day for one year.
He wrote to 365 different people –
from his son to the woman who took his coffee order at Starbucks.

When Kralik decided to write a thank you note to his son, he realized that he didn’t have his current address, so he called him. 
And his son said, “I’ve been meaning to call you, dad, let’s have lunch.” 
Over lunch his son repaid a loan of several thousand dollars that Kralik had never expected to see again.
Kralik was so grateful he sent his son two more thank you notes.
One for repaying the loan, and one for taking him out to lunch.

I’m not saying that by participating in a gratitude exercise you too will have relatives taking you out to lunch and giving you thousands of dollars – this is not the ‘prosperity gospel’ we’re preaching here….but what you will discover is that an act of gratitude often leads us to an awareness of even more things to be grateful for.

And gratitude leads to happiness.

While we may think that happy people are naturally more grateful,
studies overwhelmingly show that it’s the other way around.
Grateful people are happier people.
It’s the act of showing gratitude that lifts our mood and takes our mind off of our worries.

If you want the antidote to Fox News and CNN – it’s found right here in this jar....
or on this "Gratitude Tree" that we all helped create here in worship this morning:

 Noticing the little things that cause us to say “Thank you God, for this wonderful thing in my life” turns down the volume on the fear machine.

Making an effort to be grateful doesn’t make the worries of the world go away.
And it doesn’t mean we’re supposed to bury our head in the sand and ignore the very real problems and issues of our broken world.

What gratitude does is give us is perspective.
It increases our ability to distinguish a real concern from an exaggerated worry.

It turns our anxiety dial from the fear and suspicion end of the spectrum to the love and compassion end.

And if you’re confused about which end of the spectrum we as Christians should strive to be on…
Just look at where Jesus is standing.
And walk towards him.

Consider the Lilies…
they neither toil nor spin….
and look what God has done for them.

Are you not so much more valued and precious?

Don’t worry about what tomorrow might bring.

Be grateful for what God has given you…today and every day.