Sunday, May 24, 2015

Sermon: "Speaking in Tongues"

Rev. Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
May 24, 2015 – Day of Pentecost
Romans 8:22-27; Acts 2:1-21

“Speaking in Tongues”

Many years ago, in a far away country, a group of men sat huddled together in a darkened space. 
They were hiding from an enemy who wished to do them harm.
Suddenly fire rained down from the sky and the sound of people shouting in many languages filled the air.
And then there was silence.
And in the silence something wonderful happened.
One by one, the men emerged from their hiding spaces and stood face to face with the people they most feared. 
Language was suddenly no longer a barrier…
…and they began to talk, and laugh, and sing.
They looked into each other’s eyes, and said, “Peace be with you….”
And peace was with them on that day.

This day that I just described was not the Day of Pentecost.
This was Christmas Day in the year 1914 on the western front of WWI.

Many of us have heard this story known as the Christmas Truce,
when British and German troops laid down their arms and agreed to a ceasefire for just one day. 
The soldiers met half way between their trenches and exchanged Christmas greetings and sang Christmas carols in English and German.
They even exchanged small gifts of food, tobacco, and wine.

One soldier described a scene in which officers snipped buttons off each others uniforms as souvenirs, and a British machine gunner, who fancied himself as an amateur hairdresser, gave haircuts to enemy troops as they kneeled at his feet.

This impromptu truce repeated itself a year later, on Christmas Day 1915, this time on the French side of the front.
A German soldier who took part in that ceasefire shared this account:
When the Christmas bells sounded in the villages behind the lines ..... something fantastically unmilitary occurred. German and French troops spontaneously made peace and ceased hostilities; they visited each other through disused trench tunnels, and exchanged wine, cognac and cigarettes for bread, biscuits and ham. This suited them so well that they remained good friends even after Christmas was over.

Another soldier wrote of the Christmas truces:
“It was absolutely astounding, and if I had seen it on a cinema film I should have sworn that it was faked!"

Truthfully, truces such as this were not all that uncommon during the early years of WWI, when entire battalions were deadlocked and hunkered down in adjacent trenches for months at a time.
British, German, and French troops would at times arrange a half hour truce every evening, to allow for the retrieval and burial of the dead, and the delivery of food rations to the front lines for both sides. 
During these truces men would climb out of their trenches and converse with the enemy openly. The men would exchange newspapers and ask how the local football clubs were fairing. And in the evenings, when they were safely back in their own trenches the men would often sing together, in English, German, and French.

As the war dragged on, these peaceful truces happened less and less often.
Commanding officers issued stern warnings against fraternizing with the enemy and eventually orders from above ended the practice all together.
It was becoming evident that men who became familiar with one another were less likely to kill one another.

17 million people died in WWI.
7 million civilians and 10 million soldiers.
German, French, British, American, Italian, Russian, Polish, Austrian.
In all 32 nations sent men into battle who never came home.
Among the dead were many of the participants in those impromptu truces. 
Men who once greeted one another and sang Christmas carols together eventually died at each other’s hands.

We might ask,  “Where was God?” when the sons of our nations were killing each other on the battlefield.
But we don’t doubt that God was present when their guns fell silent.
How else can we explain soldiers laying down their arms to sing songs about the Prince of Peace coming into the world?

The Holy Spirit moves in mysterious ways, we often say.

It was the Spirit that sent the disciples careening into the streets on the Day of Pentecost.
It was the Spirit that broke down the barriers of language and culture and belief that separated one from the other.
It was the Spirit that lifted them up out of their fear and set them down in front of each other so they could better greet one another in peace.

We call the Day of Pentecost the “birth” day of the church.
Because this is the day that God called us to step outside of ourselves and acknowledge that we share a connection with every human being in creation.

Not that the disciples weren’t already aware of this.
Most of them were raised in the Jewish faith. They were well versed in the law of Moses that commanded them to cause no harm to one another,
and they knew well the words of the Prophets Isaiah and Micah, who urged them to love kindness, to act justly, and to walk humbly with their God.
But when Jesus imparted his teachings to his disciples they seemed to misunderstand his words a good portion of the time.   We do the same.

Jesus said, “Love all” and we hear “love some.”
He said, “Welcome all” and we hear “welcome some.”
He said, “Forgive all” and we hear “forgive some.”

At times Jesus directly addressed this tendency we have to hear one thing when God intends for us to hear something radically different.
Jesus said, “You have heard it said, “An eye for an eye” but I say to you if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also. You have heard it said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
This message is contradictory to the one we hear in the wider culture.
In the disciples’ time - and in our time.

We may wonder what it will take for these words to truly take root in us.
As we saw with the truces of WWI, once the peace and oneness of the Day of Pentecost died down it didn’t take long for people to return to their trenches and resume distrusting and fearing one another yet again.

In fact, only a few decades after Jesus’ death, the Jesus movement broke into two factions – One that believed all followers must observe the Jewish law in addition to committing to Christ, and one that believed it was not necessary for non-Jews to follow the law, because Jesus had instructed them to open the faith to all nations in fulfillment of the law.

If we know anything about Christian history, we’re aware that the divisions only continued from there.

On the Day of Pentecost it all seemed so clear.
The people who were there that day were literally engulfed in the Spirit in the form of wind and fire and voices all around them –
They were engulfed in the Spirit of peace, forgiveness, love and understanding – moving in them and through them.
This wasn’t just an intellectual “aha!” moment - 
It was a physical and emotional realization that this intangible force of God that we call the Holy Spirit is real and it connects us all to one another.

Paul attempts to describe this connection in his letter to the Romans:  
“The whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now”
“In our weakness…the Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”

Creation is groaning, the Spirit is sighing…as it molds and changes us.

Words escape us as we try to explain this presence of God in our midst.
Too often the words do escape us.
We often struggle to describe or explain how and when we’ve felt the Spirit of God move through our lives…
...and lacking the appropriate words to talk about it we may file the experiences away and assume they have no relevance to our daily lives.

We’re not unique in doing this.
It was not long after that Day of Pentecost that a kind of spiritual forgetfulness set in.
The peace and harmony the first believers experienced in each other’s company faded from memory.
The ability to understand and speak one another’s language was lost.
Old divisions and slights were easier to hold onto then the wistful desire to live as one.

Once a year, on the Day of Pentecost we Christians remind ourselves of the powerful presence and mysterious movement of the Spirit that connects us to God and to one another.
But perhaps we’re not reminding ourselves often enough.
Perhaps we’re not allowing ourselves to experience and express the emotions the help us to remember.

Earlier this week, I attended the final project presentations of some of our high school seniors.  One of our teens, Hannah, did her project on the effects of music therapy on people experiencing dementia.

One of the key symptoms of dementia is aphasia – the loss of the ability to recall names of objects and commonly used words.
This loss of ability to express oneself is frustrating to say the least.
As one of our seniors in our Woman’s Association recently said to me,
“Why is it that I can think of 18 words to describe the word I’m looking for but I can’t think of the word itself?”

 It’s been found that people with advanced dementia, who have all but lost the ability to communicate and have retreated within themselves - suddenly come alive when exposed to music.

Hannah experienced this firsthand when she took her guitar to a local nursing home and sang for the residents.
She noticed one particular gentleman who was slouched over in his wheelchair and essentially non responsive to any effort to engage him.
Then Hannah began to play Can’t Help Falling in Love by Elvis Presley and the man immediately began to sing without missing a word.

Neuroscientists say it is the predictable structure and rhythm of music – verse followed by chorus followed by verse - that is soothing to people with dementia.
But it is the emotional memories that we attach to music that help us to recall and sing entire stanzas to a song even if we no longer have the ability to speak the words on their own.
It is our emotions coupled with our physical experiences – sound, sight, taste, touch, and smell – that leave the most lasting impressions on our memories.

These deep rooted memories are akin to the memories we carry of the Spirit.
The memories of the times in our lives when we’ve felt God’s presence in a very real and visceral way. 
The times when we’ve felt overwhelming joy.
The time we’ve felt calmness in the face of fear.
The times we’ve felt a soothing sense of hope in the midst of heart wrenching grief.

It is these Spirit filled memories that keep us coming back to God.
Despite our tendency to forget the words we might hear here in church,
or our struggle to interpret the words we read in scripture.
Regardless of how often we disregard Jesus’ teachings or bend them to better fit the world around us.
It’s our experience of God that makes all of this real and meaningful for us.

The Spirit moves in mysterious ways.
It helps us to do things we never thought we were capable of doing,
and it inspires us to do things that strengthen our connections with one another.
The Spirit coaxes us out of the trenches we’ve dug and breaks down the barriers that keep us from communicating.

It doesn’t always take a rush of wind or a rain of fire to get us moving.
Sometimes all it takes is a song…and two who are willing to sing it together.

Thanks be to God and Amen

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Sermon: "Out of this World"

Rev. Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
May 17, 2015 – Seventh Sunday of Easter
Acts 1:15-17, 21-26;  John 17:6-19

“Out of this World”

On August 12, 1962, four young musicians gathered in a recording studio in the west end of London, England.
They had just finished their first official recording session as a band when their manager pulled one of them aside. 
The 21-year-old drummer had been with the band for two years but on that day he was told that his skills as a musician were not up to par and did not translate well in the studio atmosphere.
He was also told that his conservative way of dressing and his neatly trimmed hair did not fit the bands image, and his quiet, moody demeanor, stood in stark contrast to the chatty and jovial nature of his band mates. 
The young man was told that his services would no longer be needed, and a replacement drummer had already been found.

The young man’s name was Pete Best, and he will be forever be known as the original drummer for the Beatles – the one who missed out on all the fame and the accolades because he didn’t fit the image that the band and the record company wished to present to the world.

Pete Best went on to live a quiet yet fulfilling life as a civil servant, but he will forever have an asterisk next to his name as the member of the Beatles that most people have never heard of.

We might say the same about the disciple named Matthias.

Peter and John, Simon and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, Thaddeus and James, and James son of Alphaeus.    
These are the names that are familiar to most.
These eleven men were Jesus’ remaining disciples after Judas Iscariot, the one who had betrayed them all, reportedly took his own life out of guilt and shame.

But these 11 men were not the sole keepers of the faith after Jesus’ death.
The book of Acts tells us they were joined by certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers, and 120 additional believers.
Matthias was one of those believers.
Together they gathered as a community in Jerusalem after spending a whirlwind 50 days in what must have seemed like a waking dream.

On Easter morning, they were lifted up out of a pit of despair by the news that Jesus, their beloved friend, teacher, brother, and son, was alive.
One by one and in gathered groups, they all witnessed this miraculous thing called the “resurrection” as Jesus himself appeared before them – in a locked room, on the shores of the sea of Galilee, on the road to Emmaus.

In the 7 weeks following Easter Sunday their heads were surely spinning.
The experience of Jesus’ gruesome death was still fresh in their minds, and they feared that they would suffer the same fate, but Jesus appeared before them repeatedly and told them to not be afraid, to not give up, to continue the mission he had set before them.

Yet just as they began to feel rejuvenated and reenergized as a community and truly believe that their beloved leader had returned … an instant he was gone yet again.
Jesus ascended to heaven….and they were on their own once more.

When we think of the accession we might imagine the scene from classic works of art that depict a glowing Jesus with his hands outstretched rising slowly into the air while a chorus of angels surrounds him and a beam of light shoots down from above.

Or we might imagine him disappearing in a flash…flickering out of existence…with the witnesses swearing up and down that he really did just disappear, and he didn’t just slip out the back while they weren’t looking.

Then again, we might not imagine the ascension at all. 
We might wonder if the frenzied smattering of Jesus sightings in the 50 days after his death were brought on by the intense grief of his followers, and as they began to heal and accept his death, the sightings lessened and then stopped all together.

Regardless of what we believe about the resurrection or the ascension,
many of us can imagine what it must have been like for those left behind.
We’ve all felt punched in the stomach by grief at some point in our lives.
Then gradually our energy returns and we get on with the business of living our lives, and living into the life that our loved one would want us to live.

Once Jesus stopped appearing to his followers and it became apparent that the only way for the movement to survive was for the remaining believers to reorganize and reenergize themselves, they set about doing just that.

The first thing the disciples did was bring their number back up to twelve.
Twelve is a sacred number in the Jewish faith.
Jacob had twelve sons who went on to form the twelve tribes of Israel.
Jesus named twelve disciples to symbolically continue the lineage of his people and to honor the divinely ordained charge to spread the message of God’s love in the world.

For posterity, the Book of Acts dutifully records the name of the new disciple and how he came to be chosen.
The gathered believers named two men among them who had been with them since Jesus’ baptism, and then they essentially flipped a coin.
Wishing to eliminate any personal favoritism, politics, or biases, they placed two stones in a satchel, one for each man, and drew out one, believing that God would ultimately determine which stone was chosen.
Matthias was the lucky winner.
And other than this brief passage in the book of Acts, his name is never mentioned again in the entire New Testament.

Matthias is the disciple that few have ever heard of, perhaps because unlike the others he didn’t stand apart from the world around him.
Peter and James became leaders in the early church.
Bartholomew, Philip, and Thomas traveled extensively and established Christian communities of their own. 
Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John had their own followers as well, and out of their communities came the gospels that we still read today.

Historians note that there was a gospel attributed to Matthias, but unlike the other gospels it was not widely read or shared and it has since been lost to time.

The most telling comparison of all is that while most of the original twelve disciples were martyred – meaning they were either crucified or stoned for publically expressing their Christian beliefs – one ancient historian noted that Matthias died in Jerusalem of old age.

It’s safe to say that Mathias did not leave his mark on the world as the twelfth disciple of Jesus, either as a gospel writer, a community founder, or a martyr…. but perhaps his lack of notoriety offers us an example of what Jesus was talking about when he said we as his followers must live in this world but we should not live as if we are of this world.

It’s easy for us to lose ourselves in this world –
to get caught up in the struggles of daily living –
to blend in rather than stand out –
to not concern ourselves with how we might change things for the better for others because we’re too busy trying to keep our own heads above water – or we’re afraid we might lose what we have.

But Jesus calls us to live differently.
We are to imagine the world that we wish to live in –
and then live as if we are already in it.

Matthew, Mark, Luke and John understood this.
Each of the four gospel writers centered their Jesus stories firmly within a distinct community – and then dared those communities to imagine what it would be like to live differently.

Mark’s gospel was written for the first generation of believers.
Those trying to make sense of this story of a Messiah who told his followers that he must die so that they might live.

Matthew wrote for the next generation of Jewish believers; those who watched the Romans destroy their Temple and who longed for a new Moses to set them free.

Luke wrote for Gentiles and Jews, who longed to hear stories of Good Samaritans and a compassionate teacher who urged them to help the poor, feed the hungry, and turn the other cheek.

John wrote for the Greeks – a people enamored with philosophy and thought, who had no interest in parables and narratives and instead encountered Jesus as the light, the logos – the Word – who in the beginning was with God, and was God.

Each of these Gospel writers centered Jesus within the world they knew – but they also took their readers out of this world – describing an existence – a Kingdom or Reign of God – in which they all longed to live.
A world where fear, scarcity, and struggles over power and resources no longer exist.
A world where violence is eradicated and the pain of death is no more.
A world where all are served from the abundance of God’s table and no one is turned away or denied the gift of God’s love, mercy, and forgiveness.

When Jesus prayed to God on behalf of his disciples he did so knowing that they longed to see and live in this utopian world of God’s making… but until it came to be they must continue to live in this world – this world of our making – with all its faults and brokenness and heart wrenching occurrences of destruction and evil that cause some of us to question whether there is a God out there after all.

When we switch on the news and see bodies being pulled out of the rubble in Nepal…
When we see children dying of starvation in Syria and Sudan…
When we see terrorists choosing to kill in the name of God,
and juries choosing to kill in the name of justice…
we may wonder if this utopian reign of God that we Christians keep talking about is just some pie in the sky pipe dream that will never be a reality.

This where we need to be reminded that we live in this world but we are not of this world.
We were created to be so much more than we are.

This is also where we need to reminded why we need the church.  
The church is where we practice making the pipe dream a reality.
The church is where we practice living in community.
Where we learn what it means to share, and serve, and forgive.
Where the values of the world we live in are turned upside down,
and greed, and distrust, and fear no longer are our guiding forces,
and instead we seek to be guided by compassion, empathy, and love.

The church is where we practice what it will be like to live in the Kingdom of God – and the key word here is practice.
Because more often than not we’re not even close to getting it right.
But that shouldn’t keep us from trying. 

We may not have the courage and the fortitude of the first disciples.
But that doesn’t mean we’re destined to end up like Matthias,
with an asterisk next our name that tells others we didn’t do much to make ourselves stand apart from the world.

We need only make it our goal to do one thing every day to stand apart from this world.
Knowing that very act of compassion, forgiveness, generosity, and love we release into this world moves us closer to the world we dream of living in.

We are disciples of Christ.
We’re here because God chose us, and because we chose God.
May we live into this honor, as often and as fully as we are able.

Thanks be to, God.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Sermon: "Fruit of the Vine"

Rev. Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
May 3, 2015 – Fifth Sunday of Easter
1 John 4:7-21; John 15:1-8

“Fruit of the Vine”

In the year 1219, in the midst of the Fifth Crusade, a lone figure crossed a war torn battlefield outside the city of Damietta in Egypt.  The man walked across enemy lines, and brazenly entered the camp of al-Kamil, the sultan of Egypt.
This interloper wore only a simple brown robe and a pair of sandals, in stark contrast to the heavily armored and heavily armed men that surrounded him. 
The interloper was St. Francis of Assisi.

Francis had up to that point been unsuccessful in his attempts to convince his own people to lay down their arms and seek a peaceful solution with the Muslim forces who had retaken the city of Jerusalem.
This church sanctioned war had raged for almost 200 years, with four preceding Crusades resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths and a back and forth exchange of the occupation of the Holy City.  
Finding no one who would listen to him on the Christian side, Francis defiantly crossed over to the Muslim camp on the banks of the Nile and he requested an audience with the sultan of Egypt.

In the Christian camp, al-Kamil had a reputation for being a ruthless tyrant who vowed to kill any Christian in his midst, but Francis ignored these second-hand tales and sought to reach out to the Muslim leader himself.
Al-Kamil was impressed with Francis's bravery and with his message of peace.
He took note of how Francis' Christian message was unlike the barbaric, warring image of Christianity that he held in his mind.
Francis was equally impressed with the civil and courteous reception he received from the Muslim leader and he too came away with a greater understanding of Islam and the commonalities that Muslims shared with Christians.

In the end, the historic meeting between Francis of Assisi and al-Kamil did not end the battle taking place in Egypt and it did not end the Crusades.
The Muslim army eventually defeated the Christian army in 1221 and took the city of Damietta, securing Egypt for Islam.
But Christian historians theorize that it may have been Sultun al-Kamil's encounter with Francis that kept him from ordering the deaths of the captured Christian crusaders. Instead he directed them to be driven out of the city and he allowed them to retreat with their lives.

Human history is full of these compelling and inspiring stories of individuals who showed extraordinary courage, conviction, and compassion, in their desire to understand and build bridges with those who were different from themselves.

We find these individuals in the stories of the hundreds of Germans, Poles, and French who hid Jews in their homes during World War II, or risked their jobs and their lives, helping them to escape to safer soil.

We find them in the stories of the many Americans who operated the underground railroad in the 1800’s, risking their lives to help over 100,000 enslaved African Americans make their way from the south to freedom in the north.

We find them today, in the stories of Christians and Muslims in war torn countries who link arms and surround each other’s houses of worship to protect them from destruction.

The image of human beings linking arms to protect other human beings is an appropriate one when we think about Jesus’ metaphor of the grapevine.
We are stronger when we’re intertwined – when we are connected to one another - and we thrive when we allow God to nurture those connections.

When Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches” his disciples may have been wondering how they would survive without him. 
You didn’t have to be a vineyard keeper to know that when a vine is ripped from the ground, it’s branches will whither and die.  
But Jesus was quick to remind his disciples that the vine will not die.
As long as they stayed true to him and lived out his teachings, his connection to them would remain unbroken.  But, he added, if the disciples wanted to thrive, and not just survive, they must acknowledge their need for the vineyard keeper as well.

As we said, a vine will grow without anyone to tend to it but it will not bear much usable fruit. The further the branches grow from the central vine the more feeble and less viable their fruit. The best grapes always grow closest to the vine, where the nutrients are the most concentrated. Which is why the keeper of the vineyard will prune the branches and prevent them from rambling.

This is a lovely metaphor but human beings are much more than branches.
Some of us may never bear viable fruit but that doesn’t make us any less valuable to God.
It makes sense that the closer we are to God the better the fruit we will bear – when we have God in our lives we feel compelled to be more caring, more compassionate, more loving people, and the fruits of our actions are much sweeter as a result. 
But when we carry the metaphor further and talk of God as the vineyard keeper not just pruning, but removing entire branches, allowing them to whither and be thrown away and burned…. 
This is where our humanness supersedes any likeness we share with grapevines.

Too often this text has been interpreted to mean that some people are expendable.
Those who are not making worthy contributions to society, those who are leaching nutrients from the vine but not producing viable fruit, those who are growing out of control and choking off the lifeline for others - these are the branches – the people - who deserve to be removed from the vine. 
They should be cast off, because in God’s eyes they are destined to whither and burn.

But we have to ask ourselves, does this interpretation make sense if we believe in a loving and merciful God?
Does it fit in with the rest of Jesus’ teachings? 
The teachings that tell us to love our neighbor and our enemies as ourselves,
to forgive those who persecute us - to forgive 70 times 70,
to turn the other cheek, walk the extra mile, and welcome the stranger,
to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, and visit the imprisoned,
to make our world a more loving and more just place to live for all.

Jesus is the vine, and we are the branches, but none of us is expendable.
If we move away from God our faith may whither and die, and as a result we may do hurtful things to others and to ourselves, but God does not stop loving us, or forgiving us when we seek it.

The author of 1 John reminds us that God has commanded us to love one another, for God is love, and if we manifest hate in our heart for our brother or sister, we cannot love God, because we cannot hate what God has created or hate what God loves, and truly love God ourselves.

We can’t deny we are stronger when we’re connected to each other, and the fruit we bear when we’re connected is so much sweeter and nourishing to all.

So why then do we devote so much time and expend so much energy seeking to disconnect ourselves from each other?

We disconnect ourselves whenever we seek to label, judge, or dismiss one another.    Conversely, we build connections – we build relationships - whenever we seek to understand, support, and empathize with one another.

Many of us have been feeling uneasy about the strained relationships and disconnections that were brought to light when racial tensions erupted in violence in Baltimore this week.
Just as we may have felt uneasy when tensions flared in Ferguson, MO, before that, and in Cincinnati, New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Birmingham, Selma, and countless other cities in the years before that.
Each situation in each of these cities is unique but each involves a complex convergence of poverty, crime, high unemployment, systemic racism, and a perceived overuse of police presence and force within a community.

The fact that Baltimore exploded is not a surprise to those who live there.
It may be a surprise to those of us who live here…
where most of us are not confronted on a daily basis with the soul crushing effects of abject poverty and violence,
where jobs can be found and where most people we know own their own homes and cars, and maybe even a vacation home on the side,
where a high percentage of our neighbors have college degrees,
where joining a gang or selling drugs is not seen as the only viable option to get ahead in the world and it’s not the first thing our kids are confronted with when they walk out of the house every day. 

And sadly, what happened in Baltimore may be surprising to us because the color of our skin allows us to move pretty freely in the world.
If we’re white, it’s likely that we’ve never been followed by a security guard in a store, or pulled over for being a suspicious person while driving in our own neighborhood, or assumed to be up to no good and told to move along when we we’re standing in a public place waiting to pick up our child.

The stories that many Americans share about the racism they face on a daily basis are heartbreaking, as are the stories about the economic disparities and systemic roadblocks that make it virtually impossible for someone born into poverty today to break free from it.

If we’re not listening to these stories,
if we dismiss these stories as somehow invalid or irrelevant or untrue because we find them hard to believe or because we think those telling the stories are being thin-skinned, reactionary, or are asking for special treatment,    
then we are not seeking to understand,
we’re not seeking to be empathetic,
we’re not seeking to respond with compassion,
we’re not seeking connection, but rather disconnection.
Because even the most compassionate among us have to admit it’s easier to judge and dismiss then to do the hard, hard work it often takes to understand and connect.

The people of Baltimore may not have been surprised by what happened in their city, but what may surprise us is that most of the images coming out of the city this week show a people who are deeply connected to one another.  
The images of entire families, including children, showing up with brooms and trash bags to clean up the streets after the riots.
The images of ten thousand peaceful protestors led by members of the clergy of all denominations.
The images of rival gang members preventing local businesses from being looted and linking arms as an expression of their common pain.
The image of one African American man standing between the protestors and the police begging them to back away from one another because more violence wasn’t going to solve anything.

When St. Francis of Assisi walked into the enemy camp of al-Kamil, he came as a Christian seeking peace, but he also admittedly came with preconceived ideas of what kind of people he was about to face and what kind of man the Sultan of Egypt was reputed to be. 
But Francis ignored the sense of uneasiness he felt and he went anyway.
This man wearing nothing but a robe and sandals walked into the middle of a battle during the Crusades, because building connections that are inspired by the love of God was so dear to him.

Can we do any less by seeking to understand those who tell a different story than we do?

The fruit we bear in our lives reveals our connection to God.
If we’re bearing fruit of distrust or judgment we should know that we’ve moved far from the vine.
Conversely, if we’re bearing fruit that is rooted in compassion and love, we should know that we’re following in the footsteps of Christ.

As one of Jesus’ followers said so long ago,
“If we love one another, God lives in us.”   

Thanks be to God and Amen.