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.



Monday, November 23, 2015

Sermon: "Who Can Be Saved?"

The Rev. Maureen Frescott
The Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
October 11, 2015 – The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:23-31

“Who Can Be Saved?”

The disciples were greatly astounded, and said to one another,
“Then WHO can be saved?”

Peter and the others were right to ask this question.
Especially after Jesus had painted such a vivid picture of how it was easier to squeeze a camel through the eye of a needle then it is for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.

If the rich, who seemingly had all the blessings of God’s abundance heaped upon them, didn’t automatically earn passage into God’s Kingdom,
then WHO can be saved?

Christianity – in its many different forms - has been asking – and answering this question for thousands of years.

Who is saved and who is not?
Who is in and who is out?
Who are the sheep and who are the goats?

I remember asking this question myself when I was a child.
The answer, I was told, was found in the words that we recited from memory in parochial school and in the daily and weekly Masses my family attended at St Martin of Tours Catholic Church.
The answer was in the words of the Nicene Creed.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God…

This section of the creed winds its way through the events of Jesus’ birth, death, and resurrection, and ends by saying:
“…he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.”

As Catholics, that was our answer to the question of “who will be saved.”
In the end, Jesus himself will judge whether we are saved.
He will decide then whether we’re fit for entry into the Kingdom of God.

This of course meant that you always had to be on your toes in this life.
Keeping track of and quantifying your sins and seeking absolution from them in weekly confession, one on one with a priest.
This can be a daunting task when you’re 7-years-old, 14-years-old, or any years-old.

For those who’ve never experienced a Catholic confessional, imagine pushing a heavy curtain aside and stepping into a darkened wooden cabinet the size of a coat closet.
Once inside, you kneel down and face a small window crisscrossed by tiny wooden slats.
When the priest slides open his side of the window the slats let in just enough light for you to see his profile in silhouette. 
The sound of his voice or the smell of his aftershave might tell you which priest you’re confessing to that day but more often than not, his identity is concealed while you are convinced he can see every freckle or pimple on your face.

Admittedly, the sins we have to confess as children tend to be pretty tame.
They usually run along the lines of  “I teased my sister or hit my brother” or  “I didn’t clean my room when my mother asked me to”   or “I told my teacher I forgot to bring my homework when the truth is I never finished it"…or more likely, I didn’t think it was good enough to hand in.

Truth be told, as a relatively quiet and meek child it was hard for me to come up with sins that I thought would be worthy of confessing every week.
So I used to make them up.
I admitted to hitting my brother so often it’s a wonder the priests didn’t check him for black and blue marks.
I also confessed to lying much more than I actually did – which in itself was a lie, so in a way I managed to both confess and sin at the same time.

As a young Catholic, I knew that only mortal sins – the really serious transgressions - kept us out of heaven if they were left unconfessed, but as a child presented with this image of God through Jesus, as Judge and Punisher it was hard not to think that any misstep that I failed to reveal could land me outside the gates of the kingdom.

The disciples were greatly astounded, and said to one another,
“Then WHO can be saved?”

Having heard some of your personal stories, especially from those of you who grew up in more conservative Protestant churches, I know there are many of us who have struggled with this question of “Who can be saved.”

For our brothers and sisters in Christ in evangelical churches, the answer to this question can be summed up in two words, “Jesus Saves.” 

We see it on billboards and bumper stickers and T-shirts.
“Jesus Saves” is often shouted out by the faithful during worship services, usually right before the altar call, when people are invited to come forward and give their lives over to Christ. 
The belief being that it is in the act itself of inviting Jesus into our hearts that we confirm our entry into the Kingdom of God.

The flip side of this belief is that those who have not accepted Jesus as Lord and savior in their hearts - including non-Christians and any Christian who might interpret scripture in a less literal way – will be left out of the kingdom and left to stand outside the loving embrace of God for all eternity.

The disciples were greatly astounded, and said to one another,
“Then WHO can be saved?”

Here in the United Church of Christ, we don’t often talk about our need to be “saved” or concern ourselves too much with what it might take for us as individuals to gain entrance into a future Kingdom of God.

For many of us, the Kingdom, or Reign of God is something that we’re called to help create in bits and pieces in the here and now – for everyone – so that it might be fully realized when God determines we are ready.

Here in the UCC we tend to talk about “being saved” in terms of how to make ourselves right – or more whole – in the eyes of God – through acts of compassion, justice, and mercy.
We seek healing for ourselves and others because we believe that ultimately this is how we’ll heal our world – with God’s help.

Because we do NEED God’s help.
Which is the point that Jesus was trying to make with his story of camels and rich men, and leaving it all behind.

When the disciples were greatly astounded and said to one another,
“Then who can be saved?”

Jesus looked at them and said,
“For human beings it is impossible, but not for God;
for all things are possible with God.”

When we devalue our relationship with God – when we channel most of our time and energy and money into maintaining all of the things that Jesus ticked off on his list – home, land, work, wealth, and yes, even family – because more and more of us are admitting that our devotion to family schedules and packing too many events and commitments into our calendars has just gotten to be too, too much –

When we elevate all of these things above our commitment to building our relationship with God, we lose our center – our inspiring and guiding force –  the steadying foundation that holds us up when the ground shakes beneath our feet.

Making room for God invites the kind of change we want to see in our lives.

God pulls and pushes and pokes and cajoles us to be better people –
for our family, for our community, for our work, for our world.
And God is there to comfort us and pick us up and heal us when we fail to be that better person…..over and over again.

It’s in giving ourselves over to a full and rich relationship with God that we find healing… and wholeness… and happiness.

But it’s important to remember that when we give ourselves to God we give our WHOLE selves.
Not our perfect selves – our sinless selves – our saved selves,
But our messy, flawed, and fumbling selves.

Our selves that sometimes say and do the wrong thing and end up hurting the ones we love.
Our selves who drink too much, eat too much, and spend too much, even though we know we shouldn’t and we long to find a way to stop.
Our selves who sheepishly admit that we could be more patient with our spouse, our siblings, or our kids,
that we could be more generous with our time and money in giving back to our community,
that we could attend church more often or work on our relationship with God in a more intentional way.

Our selves who know that more often than not we will fall short of all of the above. And that’s okay.
Because God still loves us and offers us grace all the same.

When I look back to the days I spent kneeling in a confessional booth in fear of a judgmental and punishing God, I see a child, who had a child’s black and white understanding of God.
My journey took me away from the Catholic Church but I’ve realized that it’s our desire to grow in understanding and relationship with God that gets us there, and if we have that desire God will make it happen no matter where we are.
I have many Catholic friends and family members who were raised in the faith and who now have complex, adult understandings of the loving and merciful God who created us all.
And I have evangelical friends who continue to worship in their tradition but have also come to embrace a belief in a more inclusive and forgiving God.

In the coming weeks, during our "Trust the Promise" stewardship campaign we’re going to be asked to think about the many ways that we can give back to God.

In light of today’s gospel text, I would like to urge us all to trust the promises that were made on our behalf at our baptism.
The promises that many of us stood before God and made for ourselves as teenagers during our confirmation.
The promise that our relationship with God would continue to grow over the course of our lifetime.

That we’d seek to understand God and God’s presence in our life
by continuing to worship with others in community,
by listening and responding to the joys and sorrows of those we worship with and allowing others to do the same for us,
by continuing to answer the call to serve through outreach and mission,
by reading and wrestling with scripture to better hear the voice of our still speaking God come alive for us today,
by recognizing that Christian Education does not end with Confirmation, and that through Adult Ed, Small Groups, and other spiritual formation offerings we come to know ourselves better and our God better.

To trust the promise that God is creating us anew.
To trust that by giving our WHOLE selves to God we gain a hundredfold in return.

The disciples were greatly astounded and said to one another,
“Then who can be saved?”
Jesus looked at them and said,
“For human beings it is impossible, but not for God;
for all things are possible with God.”