Friday, December 23, 2016

Carrying Advent

Carrying Advent

Sunday morning sanctuary
People dotting the pews
Sitting back
Leaning forward
Pulled inward
Cautious and content
Saddened and shaken
Neutral and numbed
Voices raised
Candles ablaze
Prayers for peace, joy, love,
Swirling around us
Up and over our heads

Thursday morning sanctuary
Silent and cold
Empty pews stare up
At an empty cross
Wind howling outside
Blackened wicks inside
Stiffened wax
In purple and pink
Clinging to candleside
Waiting for the light to come
The light that will warm
And soften
What has grown hard

Everyday sanctuary
Carried in our hearts
Where the flame
Forever burns
Forever warms
Even when we can no longer
See it
Or feel it
Or imagine it
The light
of God
is always there

Carrying Advent
To us
And with us
Wherever we may be.

Photo by Adam Hawkes

Monday, December 12, 2016

Sermon: "Mary, Did You Know?"

The Rev. Maureen R. Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
December 11, 2016 – Third Sunday of Advent
Luke 1:46-55

“Mary, Did You Know?”

On Wednesday evening I was upstairs in the third floor youth room with members of our Christian Education team going through the costumes for next Sunday’s intergenerational Christmas Pageant.

We pulled out old boxes and clear plastic bins containing the remnants of Christmas pageants past.
We found the usual assortment of shepherd’s robes and head scarves,
many of which have been lovingly crafted from discarded tablecloths, curtains, and dishtowels.
We found angel halos made of silver and gold garland,
and angel wings made with real feathers that unfortunately have begun to molt, leaving a trail of white tufts across the carpet.
And we found an odd assortment of animal costumes –
fuzzy sheep hats, cow print robes, mouse ears, and cat tails.
Because no nativity scene is complete without a dairy cow, a herd of stray cats, and a smattering of field mice.

We set aside one of the nicer more brightly colored shepherds robes for Joseph, recognizing that he needs to stand out in the crowd of field hands.
But then we pondered what to do about Mary.
Our usual Mary costume consists of three plain pieces of fabric in varying shades of blue that get draped, tucked, and bobby pinned onto the girl chosen to be Mary in such a way that one would never know that the elaborate costume consisted of just 3 simple pieces of cloth.
Talk about an immaculate conception.

But to simplify things for this year’s impromptu pageant, we took a leap of faith and ordered a new Mary costume out of a Christian supply catalog.
Unfortunately what we received was a light blue satin dress with sparkly gold trim running up and down the front and around the sleeves.
It would have been perfect  - if Mary were a Disney Princess. 

But in the end we decided to stick with the simple blue swaths of cloth that are more befitting of a young peasant girl, even if she is the Mother of God.

Of course, it is the baby Jesus who is rightfully at the center of every Nativity scene and every Christmas pageant, but in many ways it is Mary who holds our attention until the final act.

She is the one we see approached with a proposition by the Angel Gabriel.
She is the one who goes into labor on a cold night far away from her home.
She is the one who gives birth to the savior of the world.

Mary plays a prime roll in the nativity story, but we catch only small glimpses of her in the rest of the Jesus story we have in our gospels. 

In Luke’s gospel, we see her anxiously fretting when 12-year-old Jesus goes missing on a journey home from Jerusalem, and we then witness her publically scolding him when he turns up in the Temple oblivious to the worry he has caused her.

In John’s gospel, it is Mary who prematurely prompts Jesus’ first miracle, when she complains to him that the wine they had on hand for their wedding guests was beginning to run low.  Jesus’ curt response to his mother before he turned the water into wine was, “Woman, it is not yet my time.”

In Matthew’s gospel, as Jesus is surrounded by an ever growing crowd of admirers, he is told, “Your mother and brothers are waiting outside and wish to see you.”
But Jesus waves them off by saying, “My family is right here before me, in all of you who follow God.”

The last image we have of Mary is of her kneeling in anguish at the foot of the cross. Jesus looked towards his young disciple, John, and said, “Woman this is now your son.” It was his dying attempt to reassure his mother that the young man would take her into his care, and she would not be alone.
As if this would mean anything to her in the rawness of her grief. 

We have to wonder if Mary knew that this is was the life she was signing up for, when the Angel Gabriel came to her when she was an unmarried teenager and told her she had been chosen to give birth to the Messiah.

Did she know it would be a life of worry, rejection, and pain?

Regardless of what we believe about angelic visitations or how Jesus came to be conceived, when Mary discovered that she was pregnant, and sang the Magnificat – a song of rejoicing – we have to wonder if she had any inkling of what the future held.

I believe she did.
Mary sang of a future world where God’s love would reign.
She sang of a world where the powerful would be brought down from their thrones and the lowly would be lifted up beside them.
Where the hungry would be filled and the rich would be sent away empty.
Where the proud would be scattered – and the meek – including young women like Mary – would be called blessed, for generations to come.

It’s no mystery where Jesus got his strong convictions and his passion for justice, given the song his mother sang when he was still growing in her womb.

Even as a teenager, Mary was a prophet in her own right, speaking about issues of inequality, tyranny, and oppression.

When we hear the Magnificat, we might rightfully assume that Mary was not a simple young girl who concerned herself only with young girlish things – working by her mother’s side – baking bread, weaving baskets, washing clothes, sweeping out the living areas of their home.

While the boys her age sat at their rabbis feet learning how to recite the Torah and engage in theological discussions, Mary must have been leaning in to listen – to the words of Isaiah – the teachings of the wisdom writers – the songs of David – the call of the prophet Micah, who asked, “What does the Lord require of you? To act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.”

I believe that Mary did know what she was getting herself into when she said “Yes” to being the mother of Jesus. 

She already knew a life of hardship and pain.
She had to know that anyone who came to challenge a system that benefited the rich and the powerful would not be greeted with open arms.
Mary was young, but she was not naïve, the Magnificat tells us that.

Mary sings in the face of suffering.
She finds joy in a world that has not yet been redeemed.
She finds hope in a future that she may not live to see.
Because she knows that the baby that is growing inside of her will plant the seeds that will change the hearts of men and women for generations to come.

But there are some things about the future that I suspect Mary would not know if we had the chance to ask her.

Mary, did you know that one day your Magnifcat, your song of joy and justice – would come to be banned in some countries because it was considered to be “subversive, politically dangerous" and "might incite oppressed people to riot"?

Mary, did you know that your iconic image would come to be emblazoned upon and worshiped in stained glass windows, in stone garden statues, in plastic dashboard decorations, and in grilled cheese sandwiches?

Mary, did you know that religious tradition filtered through a patriarchal lens would come to hold you up as an example of the perfect woman?
Perfectly obedient.
Perfectly pure and untainted.
Perfectly preserved and revered for your Sainthood, not for your humanness?

Mary, did you know that one day little girls all over the world would drape blue cloth over their heads and kneel at a manger, and imagine what it’s like to be you?

What it’s like to be strong while still being able to admit that they are fearful.
What it’s like to sing out with joy when the world is telling you there is no reason to be hopeful.
What it’s like to raise up your voice when everything about you says you should remain silent – because you are poor, female, Jewish, young, uneducated, unmarried, expendable.
What it’s like to take a tremendous leap of faith and say “Yes” to birthing God into our world.

Mary did you know that your words of joy and praise would still be recited and sung in churches like ours 2000 years after you breathed them into being – because we too feel your passion for justice, for joy, for peace, for God’s love come to life?

Next Sunday, during our intergenerational Christmas pageant, some lucky little girl is going to have the opportunity to be draped in those simple blue swaths of fabric and kneel before us all as Mary.
But we’ll have extra pieces of fabric on hand for any of you who would like join in and play Mary as well.

In the face of sorrow, grief, injustice, injury, illness, and all the other joy-sapping things that befall us as human beings may we embrace our inner Mary.

May we all know what it’s like to have her strength.
Her resilience.
Her faith. 
Her vision.
Her hopefulness.
Her joy.

May we all sing the Magnificat.
And rejoice
Because we have been chosen to give birth to God in the world.


Here is one of my favorite songs about Mary, by Patty Griffin... 
"While the angels are singin' his praises in a blaze of glory, Mary stays behind and starts cleaning up the place." 

Monday, November 7, 2016

Sermon: "It Gets Better"

Intro to Luke 6:20-31

Today’s reading from Luke gives us the familiar words of the Beatitudes.
“Blessed are you who are poor, Blessed are you who hunger, Blessed are you who weep.”

We may be more accustomed to hearing Matthew’s version of these Beatitudes –
also known as the Sermon on the Mount - where Jesus leaves behind the crowd that has been following him and ascends up a mountain to proclaim these blessings from God, just as the great prophet Moses once did.
It’s from this lofty perch that Jesus makes equally lofty pronouncements like,
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,” and “Blessed are those who hunger for righteousness.”

But from Luke’s vantage point, Jesus delivers a slightly different sermon.
In Luke’s gospel, the Sermon on the Mount is known as the “Sermon on the Plain.”
Here Jesus comes down off the mountain and stands among the people on level ground, where he can look them in the eye and engage them face to face.

Here Jesus doesn’t say, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,”
instead he says, “Blessed are you who are poor now.”

Instead of “Blessed are those who hunger for righteousness,”
he says “Blessed are you who are hungry now

The spiritual hunger becomes a physical hunger.
For Luke, Jesus words are more personal, more immediate, more concrete.

While Matthew and Luke give us slightly different versions of the Beatitudes,
where they converge is in the hope that Jesus has to offer to those experiencing suffering – be it spiritual or physical.

Those who hunger will be filled.
Those who are poor will experience the riches of God’s bounty.
Such suffering is only temporary, says Jesus.
And justice will be realized in the end.

The Rev. Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst
November 6, 2016 – Youth Sunday – All Saints Sunday
Luke 6:20-31

“It Gets Better”

In 1981, when I was 15 years old, I saw the movie Breaking Away and fell in love with the sport of cycling.
I was drawn to the speed and freedom of movement,
the exotic sounding French and Italian names on the bikes,
the sleek looking clothing and shoes – it all appealed to me.
Seeing the movie inspired me to register for a 50-mile charity bike ride that involved riding 50 laps around a local park.
The farthest I had ridden at that point, was the 2 mile round trip to school.

I decided I needed some “serious” cycling gear for my 50-mile ride, so my mother took me to the sporting goods section of the local TSS department store.
They didn’t carry “serious” cycling gear, so I came home with a hockey helmet and a pair of leather golf gloves.

On the day of the ride I showed up with my new bike gear and my 1976 Columbia 10-speed, with it’s bicentennial red, white, and blue decals.
At the start of the ride, I found myself briefly keeping pace with a “real” cyclist, who had a real bike helmet and real bike gloves.
He said he did 50-mile rides all the time. 
I was in awe.

Of course he was much faster than I was.
He offered a word of encouragement as he left me behind, but every lap, as he came around and passed me again and again, he yelled out,
“Hang in there! Keep going! It gets easier the longer you keep at it!”
As the miles ticked by, I don’t remember the rising ache in my legs or my lungs.
I don’t even remember how long it took me to finish the ride.
What I do remember is telling myself on every single lap not to quit.
Because every time the “real” cyclist rode past me and shouted, “Hang in there! Keep going! It gets easier the longer you keep at it,” I knew I had to be there the next time he came around,  just so I could hear him say it again. 

In September 2010, author and journalist Dan Savage organized an online campaign called, “It Gets Better.”
The campaign was directed at teenagers – specifically teenagers who were being bullied by their peers and rejected by their families for being gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender.
These were teens who were choosing suicide at alarmingly high rates,
rather than endure a pain that they felt they could not escape.

Savage started the campaign after a 15-year-old Indiana boy named Billy Lucas, hung himself in his family’s barn, after being relentlessly bullied at school.    Savage said,
"I wish I could have talked to this kid for five minutes. I wish I could have told Billy that it gets better. I wish I could have told him that, however bad things were, however isolated and alone he was, it does get better.”

The It Gets Better campaign started with a few heartfelt videos uploaded to You Tube, recorded by celebrities and ordinary people, who shared their own stories of the pain they endured as teens and young adults,
with the hopeful encouragement that finding love, acceptance, and even happiness in life is not as elusive as it appears.
With the support of family, friends, mentors, and counselors who reached out to them in their despair, these formally suicidal teens found comfort, peace, and healing as adults.
They came to love themselves, just as they are.

Today the It Gets Better project website contains over 50,000 testimonial videos that collectively have over 50 million views.
It’s primary purpose is help at risk teens realize that they’re not alone.
GLBTQ teens are 3 times more likely to commit suicide,
and nearly 40% of gay youth attempt suicide near the age of 15.

On this Youth Sunday, it’s important to note that all teens are at risk.
Suicide rates among youths aged 15-24 have tripled in the last half century,
even as rates for adults and the elderly have declined.

Anybody who has contact with teens on a regular basis, or who is a teen, can testify to the rising rates of anxiety, depression, and stress that our youth are experiencing today.

We might blame it on the increasing pressures that teens feel to fill their schedules with academic and extracurricular activities to ensure they get into the college of their choice while earning enough money to pay for it.

We might blame it on the increasing use of technology, and the prevalence of social media that puts teens lives in particular under a microscope and allows bullying to reach outside the classroom and the schoolyard and into the home.

We might even be tempted to blame it on a lack of resiliency –
the perception that today’s youth are somehow sheltered by parents who come to their rescue too often and never give them the space to learn how to pick themselves up when they fall or to take responsibility when they fail.

But as much as we’d like to blame Helicopter Parents for the rising rates of seemingly vulnerable teens, those of us who have teens, work with teens – and who are teens – know that even the most resilient of our youth are feeling stressed out and overwhelmed by the growing complexities of their lives and the world around them.

We may envy Jesus’ followers, living in first century Palestine, who came of age in a much simpler time with simpler expectations.
But when we factor in things like poverty, disease, tyranny, and oppression, we realize that every age has its challenges to endure.

The reality is, Jesus’ message of hope contained in the Beatitudes is one that applies and appeals to human beings of all ages in all times.

“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.”
“Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.”
“Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and revile you, for you have a place in the Kingdom of God.”

The Beatitudes are Jesus’ way of saying,
“Things may seem bad now, but just wait….it will get better.”

In many ways this is the human condition -
these ups and downs that we experience in life.

The Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor likens it to riding a Ferris wheel.
At times we’re arching over the top marveling at the view with our hands in the air, and other times we’re swooping back towards the ground,
and end up with our feet dragging through the dirt.

Like any good preacher, Jesus made sure his Sermon on the Plain included a much needed dose of hope while also acknowledging the painful realities of his listeners lives.

Too much hope and they may have tuned him out for being out of touch with reality.
Too much reality and they may have walked away in despair, and never opened their hearts to the healing that God longed for them to have.
The Beatitudes in Luke’s Gospel, with its blessings balanced by woes, are in many ways an ode to human resiliency.

We struggle with that at any age, don’t we?

Resiliency is even harder to master as a teen.
When we’re young, we don’t yet have the life experience to understand that situations which seem completely hopeless or permanent are actually not.

When I was 15, I was one of those statistics that I mentioned at the beginning of this sermon.  
I was wrestling with social anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem.
(I’ve shared this some of the teens and parents in our youth group who are dealing with similar challenges.)

Several of the girls at my high school took note of my vulnerability and fear - and took to taunting me about my overall oddness.
My unstylish clothes, my mass of frizzy hair, my social ineptness….all the things that make a teenager feel unworthy of inclusion, and compassion.

The taunting I experienced was not new.
I was born with a cleft palate that had me navigating the world with a speech impediment from the time I learned how to talk until the age of 16 when it was finally repaired.
Sadly, kids can be relentless when they encounter a difference that makes another child stand out in such a way.
But that level of scrutiny, which sends you home in tears at age 7,
can become unbearable when you’re 15.

Like many teens who experience depression, anxiety, and fear, at one point I refused to return to school.

My parents brought me to a counselor, who prescribed medication to help with my anxiety.
Which I secretly stowed away in my dresser drawer,
keeping them for the day when I would take all the pills at once and finally end the pain I was in.

But thankfully, I never did.
I’m standing here today because someone once took the time to tell me repeatedly to hang in there, to keep going, that it gets easier the longer you keep at it.

It wasn’t just the guy who rode circles around me in the park one day while he shouted encouragement.

It was the friends I made who saw that I had value and worth years before I recognized it myself.

It was the boss who gave me my first job out of high school – a job at a bike shop that gave me so much joy that I ended up working there for 16 years.

It was my mother who took notice of the one thing that seemed to draw me out of the darkness that had descended upon me. She bought me my first real racing bike for my 16th birthday.

And it was our loving and awesome God, who works through each one of us so that we might serve as messengers and harbingers of love and compassion for those who desperately need to hear that are worthy of this wonderful gift of life.

If you are a young person – or a not-so-young person - who is struggling right now - with depression, with feelings of low self worth, with an addiction, with the breakup of a relationship, with the loss of your job, your independence, your identity –
If you’re struggling with anything that is causing you to feel like the walls are closing in around you.
Please believe me when I tell you, “It gets better.”
However isolated and alone you feel right now, it will get better.

Because one day you will realize that this great Communion of Saints -
all of us who make up this crazy broken and beloved thing we call the church, has been with you all along.
In Senior High Youth Group, in Woman’s Association gatherings, in small group meetings, in Sunday Morning worship, in the million different ways that we reach out to one another, listen to one another, and care for one another.

You are not alone.
You are never alone.
You may not see it now.
But someday you will.

Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
Blessed are all of us who are poor – in spirit or otherwise –
for the Kingdom of God is ours.


Saturday, October 22, 2016

Sermon: "Be the Change You Want to See"

Scripture Intro - Luke 18:1-8

Here Jesus tells his disciples a parable about a persistent widow and an unjust judge.

There’s a reason why Jesus, and Jeremiah, and Isaiah before him, had so much to say about widows. In the socioeconomic structure of the ancient world, widows were located very close to the bottom.

A woman who had no husband typically had no money, no property, and no power. 

And if she had no father or brother or other male relative to take her in, she likely lived on the street surviving on whatever scraps she could find there.

The word for 'widow' in Hebrew means 'silent one' or 'one unable to speak.'

But the widow in Jesus’ parable doesn’t accept her lot in life. She refuses to remain silent. She persists in seeking justice and in the end she receives it, even from an unjust judge.

With this parable, Jesus poses a question to his disciples: 

Would our loving and compassionate God be any less responsive to our persistent cries for help?  

The Rev. Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
October 16, 2016 – Family Worship – Mission Sunday
Luke 18:1-8

“Be the Change You Want to See”

One of the wonderful things I get to do as part of my ministry here in Amherst is go on our Senior High Youth Group mission trips.

If you’ve ever been a chaperone on a mission trip (or gone on any trip where it was your job to keep a large group of youth moving safely through an unpredictable environment) then you know that the greatest challenge on these trips is this:

To make sure you come home with the same number of kids you left with.

When navigating down busy city streets, the adult chaperones typically deploy themselves in and around the group.
One or two stay at the front to lead the way.
A few hover in the middle to make sure no one steps in front of a cab or gets caught crossing a street when a light is about to change.
And a few stay at the back acting as sweepers  – making sure no gets distracted by a store window, stops at a street vendor, or otherwise gets left behind.

The hardest part of urban navigation is getting that long train of teenagers to go in the direction you want them to go. 
Many times I’ve been at the back of the pack yelling, “Turn left!” as the entire group inevitably turns right. 
For weeks after we get home, every night I have ‘mission trip dreams’ where I lose the whole group in some unfamiliar city and we spend the entire trip trying to find each other.
I hate those dreams.

In 2013, we took our Senior High Youth down to New York City for a week to help serve individuals and families in need in soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and food pantries.

After our first long day at our worksites, we managed to get our group of 27 teens and 4 adults into the 42nd Street subway station.

Getting a group this size on and off a subway train is whole other challenge.

You have to teach the teens to wait for the people to get off the train first, and then have them move as fast as they can to get on the train before you hear the dreaded voice from above say,  “Stand clear of the closing doors."

On more than one occasion I found myself ushering the last teen onto the train while the doors began to close in front of me.
One time I had to pry the doors open with my bare hands.
When they say adrenaline can give you super human strength, they’re not kidding.

But on this particular day in NYC, the trains were running late.
As our group filled the subway platform we encountered a homeless man collecting spare change in a paper cup and quietly singing the classic soul song from the 70’s, Lean on Me.  

We watched as seasoned New Yorkers pushed past him and ignored him as you’re apt to do when you have someplace to get to and you’ve learned to tune out the multitude of people with cardboard signs begging for money wherever you turn.
You almost have to, or you’d never get where you were going.

The man singing in the subway that day had a wonderful voice, and as soon as our teens heard him singing several of them began to sing along with him.
Before we knew it we were all singing – all 31 of us - belting out the chorus of Lean on Me - as the New Yorkers and tourists alike did double takes and tried to figure out what was going on.

Then something amazing happened.
Other people standing on the platform began to sing with us - even the jaded New Yorkers. People began to record us with their cell phones.
Soon we were surrounded by a ring of strangers all singing,
“Lean on me,
when you’re not strong,
and I’ll be your friend,
 I’ll help you carry on.”

And the man’s empty paper cup began to fill and then overflow with change and folded bills.

Afterward the man thanked the teens profusely - saying over and over again, “God bless you all.”

One of our sophomores, who was all of 15 at the time, reflected on this experience afterward and said,
“We’re from Amherst, NH we didn’t know how to be New Yorkers.
We didn’t know we were NOT supposed to sing with a homeless guy in the subway or even acknowledge his presence as we walked by. 
We didn’t know we were supposed to ignore him.”

The widow in our Gospel reading this morning was used to being ignored.

As a woman who had no man attached to her she was used to being overlooked, dismissed, and treated as if she didn’t have a voice, as if she - and her pain - didn’t matter.
But she didn’t let the dismissive behavior of others deter her.
She never stopped acting as if she did matter.
She continued to put herself in front of that judge day after day,
until he finally relented and gave her what she was seeking – Justice.

Luke shared this parable from Jesus with his readers because they were beginning to think that they didn’t matter.

When Luke wrote his gospel, Jesus had been gone for almost 50 years.
Where was the triumphant return of Christ they had been told to expect at any time?
Where was the coming Kingdom of God they had been promised?

Instead of celebrating their liberation and victory over oppression, suffering, and death, they were still being pressed down under the weight of it –
all of it.
At the time, the followers of Jesus were still a tiny minority.
Many of their strong and vocal leaders had already been stoned to death, crucified or beheaded.
James, Steven, Paul.

Like the widow in Jesus’ parable, those who were left to carry on Christ’s message continued to pray to God to end their misery and grant them justice.
They prayed that God would turn the world upside so the last would be first and the first would be last, and poverty and hunger and oppression would be no more - just as Jesus had promised.

How long, O God?
How long must we wait?
How long must we endure?
This was their prayer.
This was their song.

Of course, as we know, God does things in God’s own time.
And while the early Christians kept looking over their shoulder and sleeping with one eye open, waiting for Jesus to return, eventually they came to understand that an immediate rescue wasn’t in the cards.
If they wanted to experience any lasting change in their world they’d have to go about building the Kingdom of God to the best of THEIR OWN abilities, bolstered by the belief that God was leading them, every step of the way.

There’s a quote that’s often attributed to Mahatma Gandhi that says,
“Be the change you want to see in the world.”

It’s a wonderful quote, but Gandhi didn’t actually say that.
What Gandhi actually said is printed on the cover of today’s bulletin:

We but mirror the world.
All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change.

Let’s all read it again, together:

We but mirror the world.
All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change.

In other words:
Change yourself and change the world.

Today is Mission Sunday.
And all the different ways we have to serve our community and serve each other that we’re going to hear about during and after today’s service would never happen if everyday ordinary people didn’t seek to change.
To change their behavior, change their priorities, change their hearts. 

Instead of going out on Saturday night a single woman chooses to spend the evening serving meals and folding sheets at Anne Marie House.

Instead of coming home after a long hard day and collapsing in front of the TV or shuttling the kids to 3 different practices, a family chooses to head over to End 68 hours of Hunger and pack bags of food for children.  
And instead of spending the day puttering around his garden or workshop, a retiree chooses to deliver Meals on Wheels, or volunteer at a community supper, even when the “tired” part of retirement becomes a daily struggle.

Our teens go on mission trips and choose to spend a full week serving others because they want to change the world for the better, but the biggest change happens within them when they sit down with the people they’re serving and listen to their stories.

They learn that people become homeless or go to food pantries or seek assistance for a myriad of reasons.

In Tennessee, we met a man who was suffering from chronic depression who masked his pain with alcohol and was unable to hold down a job.

In New York City, we met a woman who had two masters degrees and spoke 3 languages, but she and her children had to flee her abusive husband with just the clothes on their backs, and now she was working 3 jobs just to feed them.

In Washington DC, we met a man who lost everything when his wife died of cancer – his job, his home, his kids - when hundreds of thousand of dollars in medical bills mired him in debt and tore his family apart.

What surprises our teens and our adults the most when we listen to these stories – is that most of the people seeking help have jobs, or receive food stamps or some other form of assistance.
But it’s still not enough.

We have need for Anne Marie House, and End 68 Hours of Hunger, and Meals on Wheels - and all the other organizations that serve as partners in mission in our community and in our world - because of complex issues and deeply entrenched systems that we’re unlikely to dismantle or fix anytime soon.

Still, we come before God and cry out,
“How long must we wait, O Lord” 
knowing that God leans towards justice
and trusting that God is re-creating our world in God’s own time.

In the meantime, our teacher, Jesus, calls us to continue to be the change we want to see in the world.
To continue to make room in our lives and in our hearts for those who have no voice and no power.

To not mirror the actions of the unjust judge and turn a deaf ear to those in need.

On this mission Sunday, I leave you with this:

     Who is the better mirror of Christ?

Is it the cynical city dweller who walks past the homeless man and prides himself for not being taken in by a con artist or a sob story?

Or is the naïve 15-year-old who sees a man in need singing in the subway and stops to sing along with him,
and inspires others to do the same.

“We but mirror the world.
If would could change ourselves,
the tendencies in the world
would also change.”

Thanks be to God

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Sermon: "Unbound"

Intro to Paul’s letter to Philemon

I invite you to pick up one of the pew Bibles and try to find the letter to Philemon.
Even if you know to find it in the New Testament, after the Gospels, if you flip the pages too fast you might miss it – because it’s only a half a page long.
If you cheated and looked in the bulletin, then you know it’s on page 1043.

Unlike Paul’s other letters, this is the only letter addressed to an individual rather than a church.
Philemon was a wealthy man and a high-ranking leader in one of the house churches that Paul had likely founded. 
But the subject of the letter is a man named Onesimus. 

Onesimus was a slave who belonged to Philemon, and who had found his way to Paul while Paul was imprisoned in a distant city.
Scholars disagree over whether Onesimus had run away from his master, or whether he had been sent by Philemon to assist Paul.
Because the letter is so short and Paul makes no attempt to explain to Philemon how he came find Onesimus, many modern scholars suspect that Philemon had indeed sent Onesimus to Paul, perhaps because as the letter suggests, Onesimus had committed some transgression and Philemon wanted the trouble-making slave out of his hair.

However Onesimus came to be with Paul, the gist of Paul’s letter is this:
Paul wants Onesimus to be free – if not legally, than at least spiritually.
For in Christ there is no slave and no master.
All are brothers and sisters before God.
To accomplish his goal Paul uses all of his pastoral and diplomatic skills to appeal to Philemon on Onesimus’ behalf.
Essentially saying, “I, Paul, am but a lowly servant of Christ and you, Philemon, are an exalted leader, and I can’t command you to do the right thing –
but I remind you of all that I have done for YOU,
and that we are partners in Christ,
therefore I know that you will do what is right for Onesimus, out of love.”

The Rev. Maureen R. Frescott
The Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
September 4, 2016 – Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Philemon 1-21


An unnamed woman sits at a metal cafeteria table at the Federal Correctional Complex in Hazelton, West Virginia.
The bench she’s sitting on is bolted to the ground - as is most of the furniture in correctional facilities, to prevent the heavy metal objects from being thrown or used as weapons when an inmate explodes in anger or has a melt down when the walls seem to be closing in on them.
The woman appears to be in her early forties and she wears the khaki brown scrubs of a long-term inmate.  Her eyes are circled in heavy black eyeliner, perhaps to distract others from noticing the exhaustion underneath,
or because she knew she was being interviewed that day by a photojournalist doing a human-interest story on the life of prison inmates.

The woman looks at the camera and says:

“This is my fifth time in prison.
Every crime I’ve committed has come from my addiction.
Best case scenario is I get out of here, rebuild my life, and join the one percent of people who have beaten a meth addiction.
Worst case scenario is I become no more than what I am today.
And honestly, if I mess up again, I hope it kills me.
Because I don’t want to keep hurting people.
I’ve cheated my kids out of normal lives.
My seventeen-year-old daughter is in a home for teen moms.
My twenty-one-year-old son is in jail.
My eighteen-year-old daughter is doing OK. She’s got a job at FedEx and goes to college. She hates drugs and thinks the world is a good place and that nobody is out to hurt her. She wants to help me.
She wants me to come live with her when I get out.
I don’t think that’s a good idea.” 1

This woman’s story is just one among thousands – among millions.
Her story is one that resonates with anyone who has ever felt imprisoned –
or bound -  by the bars and cinder block walls of a correctional facility,
by the ever tightening grip of an addiction,
by the consequences of bad choices and past mistakes,
by the mounting bills and hunger pangs of poverty,
by anything that slams the door on freedom and entangles one in a restrictive web that is nearly impossible to break free of.

It’s important for us to hear this woman’s story because her story helps those who feel bound to know that they are not alone in the world.
Her story is relatable – because she describes a worst-case scenario of addiction where many have been before.
And her story offers hope – because she also describes a best-case scenario - where all is not lost, and the liberation that so many long for is realized in the end.

If we’re wondering how Paul’s personal letter to Philemon ended up being preserved for all time as sacred scripture we need only look at the story of liberation contained within.

The story of Onesimus is the story of a man who is bound –
by slavery, by a debt he could not repay, by past transgressions, and a current transgression against his master that landed him in the care of Paul.
The same Paul who famously wrote in his letter to the Galatians that in Christ there is no male nor female, no Greek nor Jew, no slave nor master.

Paul’s encounter with Onesimus is a story of liberation.
It’s the story of a man who is stuck – bound within the confines of the Greco-Roman socio-economic system where those who could not pay their debts became slaves to those whom they owed money to.

This system, where the haves benefited from the misery of the have nots,
is one that Jesus adamantly opposed and longed to over turn –
with all his talk of the last being first, the least inheriting the most,
and the coming Kingdom, where the world would be turned upside down, and all would eat as equals at God’s table.
Of course turning the world upside in this manner will not only liberate those on the bottom – it’s meant to liberate those on the top as well.

Philemon – despite the advantages he enjoyed because of his money and power – was also bound by the same system that bound Onesimus.
If he freed every slave he had, or suddenly began treating them as equals,
he would likely lose face and status in the eyes of his peers.
There would be little incentive for his clients to repay their debts and
he would lose his source of cheap labor, causing him to suffer financially.
And how long would he be seen as a leader in the local community,
if he elevated his obscure Christian values above his allegiance to the more socially acceptable Roman cultural values?

Paul’s personal letter to Philemon – which he very shrewdly also addressed to the church that gathered in Philemon’s home – was intended to unbind Philemon as much as it unbound Onesimus.

The letter would be read in the gathered assembly – and all eyes would be upon Philemon to see if he would honor Paul’s request and “do what is right” - by looking upon Onesimus as if he were looking at Paul himself.
Here Paul was essentially giving Philemon an opening to do something radical and just – and not have it questioned by the gathered congregation.
Because to do otherwise would be to publically defy Paul – the man who exemplified the teachings of Christ to many.

This is the magic that is contained within this short letter from Paul.
At the very least it reveals the tension that occurs when we shine the light of the gospel on our culture and expose the injustices within.2

This internal and external tension arises when we look at the letter to Philemon and use it to justify slavery or any other human system of imbalance that we’ve grown too comfortable with to discard.
Historically, some have read this letter and claimed that Paul is not freeing Onesimus, but rather returning him to Philemon as a slave – with the request that Onesimus be treated fairly with love, or returned to Paul’s service, still as a slave
The moral gleaned here is that Paul has his eye on the bigger picture, and is not interested in messing with the status quo or involving himself in dismantling human cultural systems that work for many....and we as Christians shouldn’t waste our time doing so either.

If that argument doesn’t sit well with you then you’re feeling that tension that the gospel creates within us.

The same tension that arises when Jesus says, “Sell all that you have and give all that you earn to the poor.”
When he says, “Leave all your possession behind and follow me.”
When he says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

Taken literally, these gospel teachings leave us with a daily difficult struggle.
As we try to navigate a world where money is a necessity,
where our enemies threaten our sense of security,
where the haves will always have more power and prestige than the have nots.

But what the gospel does is shine a light on the world as it could be.
And it shines a light on us – showing us that we do have the capacity and the ability to do better – to nudge the world away from fear, injustice, and systems that create imbalances, and push ourselves and our world further along towards love, compassion, and grace.

Which is why Paul’s letter to Philemon – a letter that fills barely a half a page – made it into our Christian Bible and continues to resonate with us – and challenge us - 2,000 years on.
Because it ratchets up the tension that pushes and pulls us between who we are, and who we were created to be.

And what about the woman sitting in prison in West Virginia?
The one hoping that she can turn her life around and no longer cause her family pain
- hoping that she might be released from the chains that bind her and be among the 1% of meth addicts who survive their addiction?
When the woman’s story was posted online by the photojournalist who interviewed her, her hope was rewarded by the thousands of comments and letters of support written by former convicts and former addicts.3

One woman wrote:
“I'm the one percent! I've been clean from meth for a year and ten months! One day at a time. We do recover!”

Another wrote:
“I'm the 1% too!! One year 8 months... wouldn't it be great if everyone who is in the '1%' came out and proved to this woman that the recovery percentage is actually higher than she thinks??”

And another wrote:
“I myself am a 2x convicted felon and ex meth addict. I decided the day I went away that I would never not be in control of my life once I went home. Things are not always easy but… this year I will be 9 years clean. It can be done!!!!”

And finally, one man wrote:
“One percent still means someone did it before.”

Someone did it before.
This is why we tell our stories…
and why we still hold dear these stories of our Judeo-Christian tradition.
Because they tell us that we’re not alone in the world.
Because they give us a glimpse of freedom when we feel bound on all sides.
Because they give us hope when we feel hopeless.

And the meth addiction recovery rate?
It’s not 1% as the woman believed. It’s closer to 20-30%.
It’s not an easy road, and the average addict relapses 7-13 times.
But there is hope.
There is always hope.

There is always an opportunity to be set free.
When the light of Christ leads the way. 


1 Humans of New York: Inmate Stories
2 The Rev. Kate Matthews – UCC Sermon Seeds