Monday, March 28, 2016

Easter Sunrise Sermon: "Why Are You Weeping?"

The Rev. Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
Easter Sunrise Service – 3-27-16
John 20:1-18

“Why Are You Weeping?”

We don’t expect to find life in a graveyard.

If you wander through the Old Burying Ground behind the town hall,
or through Meadow View Cemetery just up the road on Foundry St,
you’ll find gravestones dating back to the 1700’s.

You’ll see names like Davis, Brown, Gordon, and Atherton.
Names that were once prominent here in Amherst back in the days when people rode horses and buggies to church, and stealing a neighbor’s chicken would get you tied to the whipping post here on the village green.

In these now silent graveyards you’ll find names of local war heroes –
like Lt. Archelaus Batchelder – 1st Lt. in the 27th Continental infantry,
who was born in 1744 and lived to the ripe old age of 80,
but who would always be known as a soldier of the revolution.

And you’ll find names of those who never had a chance to make their mark on the world – like little Sally Bradley, born in 1792 and buried in October 1793; aged 15 months & 4 days.

You’ll also find colorful characters like Col. Nahum Baldwin, buried in 1788. 
He was a church deacon and town selectman who was rumored to have escaped from the grasp of a hatchet wielding Indian by shimmying out of his long underwear and running naked for 12 miles across the countryside.
The epitaph on Baldwin’s gravestone reads:
Blessed is the memory of the just,
Though they be sleeping in the dust.

We don’t expect to find life in a graveyard,
but the names etched on those aging gravestones each carry a story of a life –
a life given, a life lived, and a life taken away.

Today these centuries old graves are still tended and cared for,
and marked on occasion with flowers or American flags,
even though the weeping mourners who once stood around them have long been dead themselves.

It used to be that we buried our dead right in the center of town.
Where life continued on around them. 
Where families would spread picnic lunches across their loved one’s grave and include them in the festivities.

Here in Amherst our dearly departed are given a front row seat to 4th of July parades, summer concerts, Easter Egg hunts, wedding processions, and town business meetings.
(because even when you’re dead, there’s no escape from the mundane.)

But still - we don’t expect to find life in a graveyard.

Especially in the early days of our grief, when the pain is still fresh.
When the line between life and death is still a blur.
When the person we’ve lost is still very much alive in our mind and we can’t fathom how and why it is that we can no longer reach out and touch them – or hear the sound of their voice –
or see them coming through the door at the end of the day.

The Easter story is about the blurring of that line –
the line between life and death.
The point where, what once was here - and then was not here,
emerges in front of us yet again.

When Mary Magdalene came into the garden where Jesus had been laid to rest she didn’t expect to find life.
The previous 48-hours had been filled with the overwhelming heaviness of death and grief.
Which may be why she came into the garden under the cover of darkness, before the sun had risen.
Her grief wasn’t ready to be exposed to the harshness of the light of day just yet.

I imagine she felt her way along the darkened path, possibly by memory,
or by sheer will, feeling the pull of the one she loved,
whose lifeless body now rested behind a burial stone…
sealed in an earthen tomb, out of her sight, and out of her reach.

Mary was prepared to find death.
She was not prepared for what she found in its place.

We can only imagine how we might react if we came to visit our loved one’s grave only to discover that the dirt has been removed and the coffin has been opened, revealing it to be empty inside.

Our first reaction might be the same as Mary’s.
“Where have they taken our beloved, and why?”

And our second reaction might mirror Mary’s as well.
Mary wept.
She stood outside the tomb and she wept for her loss.  
All over again.

But the Easter story does not end with Mary weeping,
and our stories don’t end there either.
The sunrise reveals the empty tomb.
Standing there as a beacon of hope.

For Mary, hope came in the form of an angel, and a gardener.
Both of whom said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?”

The gardener of course turned out to be Jesus.
Standing upright and alive right in front of her.
Showing her that death was not the ending she thought it to be.
That death did not have the final word.

The hope that Mary found on that day is there for us as well.
The hope built on the belief – the knowing - that in God’s world every death leads to a resurrection.

Now....if the idea of a literal bodily resurrection in some heavenly realm or on some far off Day of Reckoning is too far-fetched, or too ethereal for you to conceive of, then lets bring the story back down here to earth.

Think about all the little and not so little deaths and resurrections we experience every day.
When we lose something that we’ve built our life around.
Our job, our home, our sense of security, our dream for something better.

When we have to let go of something that is slowly killing us.
Our anger, our addiction, our obsession with having and doing more,
our attachment to whatever or whoever makes us feel hollow and wounded inside.

Whether something is taken from us,
or we courageously let it go –
the loss - the death - we feel in its wake is never final.
Something always grows in its place.

This is where the Easter Story resonates with us.
The Easter story is about the grief of letting go
and the joy of discovering something new.
It is in our grief – in the midst of our loss –
that God leads us into the garden – into the graveyard –
and shows us that life can indeed be found there.

Jesus is the embodiment of God’s love, compassion, mercy, and grace.
The life he lived on this earth was meant to show us that we human beings are capable of being so much better than we are.

And in a world that seems bent on spinning off in the other direction –
prodding us to give in to the lure of fear, ignorance, hatred, and prejudice,
we could do with a resurrection right about now. 
Some hope born anew right before our eyes.

The Resurrection is what drove Mary to risk her reputation and her pride and run and tell the disciples that Jesus still lived.
The Resurrection is what drove the disciples to risk their livelihood and their lives to spread the Good News of God’s unconditional love in the world.

The Resurrection is what has inspired people of faith throughout the centuries to do the same.

It inspired our Congregationalist forbearers – many of whom are buried in these graveyards - to fight against tyranny, oppression, and injustice in all forms, 
to work for the abolition of slavery and to march for civil rights for all,
to speak out about the hypocrisy of a faith that preaches ‘love thy neighbor’ while denying equal access to all at God’s table.

We don’t expect to find life in a graveyard.
But every year the Easter Story reminds us just how possible it is.

Thanks be to God and Amen.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Sermon: "It's Not Fair!"

Rev. Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
March 6, 2016 – Fourth Sunday in Lent
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

“It’s Not Fair!”

Cain and Abel. Jacob and Esau.
Isaac and Ishmael. Moses and Aaron.
The Hebrew Bible is full of stories of sibling rivalry – brothers who fought over birthright, inheritance, and who was truly the favored one.

Joseph’s brothers threw him in a ditch and sold him into slavery.
And when the prophet Samuel lined up the son’s of Jesse to choose Israel’s next King, he went down the line and rejected every single one of them except for the youngest, a small boy named David who was barely old enough to tend the sheep…leaving David’s brothers incensed because an inexperienced child had been chosen over them.

Often when we read the ancient stories in our Old and New Testaments – with their emphasis on shepherds and Pharisees and obscure religious laws - we have to perform some mental gymnastics to tease out a meaning that we can relate to our own lives, here in our modern world.

But the story of the Prodigal Son is one we can relate to in any time.
It’s a story of rejection, and resentment, and reconciliation.
In this story of a father and his two sons we have the story of our human condition. 
Our desire to love, our desire to be loved,
and our fear that there isn’t enough love to go around.

Those of us who have siblings know first hand what it’s like to compete for love, attention, and favor.
Regardless of where we fall in the birth order, most of us have at one time or another felt like we were not getting our fair share, or that someone else was getting more than they deserved – whether we’re talking about the size of a piece of birthday cake, financial support in times of need, or the praise or approval of our mother or father that we so long to have.

As many of you know, I have nine siblings.
In a family with ten children, it’s almost a given that someone is going to feel slighted in some way or another at any given time.

My younger brother Larry and I just missed out on being “Irish Twins”  - we were born just over a year apart. I was number nine and he was number ten. Which means he had quickly and permanently stolen my thunder as the baby in the family.
We were rivals from the beginning.
When Larry was 2 and I was 3, my mother plopped him down on the living room floor in front of the TV to keep him quiet for 5 minutes while she went to fold the laundry.
And I seized upon the opportunity to grab a large can of cookies off the kitchen table…and sneak up behind Larry and drop it on his head.

In the ensuing years, my poor mother heard a chorus of “It’s not fair!” coming from one or both of us, nearly every waking hour.
We’d scrutinize everything from how much cereal we each had poured in our bowls, to who got control of the TV after school, to who got more of my mother’s very limited attention. 
And like any competitive sibling, I would delight whenever Larry got into trouble. The sight of him running down the driveway with my mother quick on his heels swatting at him with the back of her giant hairbrush brought tears of joy to my eyes.

Of course I rarely took into account that in addition to me, poor Larry had our three older brothers to contend with. Unlike my sisters, my brothers were masters of torment. There was the time they woke Larry up really early on a Sunday morning and convinced him that he was late for school. He had his school uniform on and was half way out the door before he caught on.

When we have siblings we learn at an early age that we are not the center of the universe.
But as children with or without siblings, we’re all taught that it’s in our best interest to share with others, despite the resentment we may feel when someone takes or receives what we think rightfully belongs to us.
Still, it may surprise us to hear that studies of young children have shown that human beings are more naturally inclined to be altruistic than selfish.

Studies of 18-month-old toddlers show that they will almost always try to help someone who is visibly struggling with a task, without being asked to do so: if someone is reaching for something, the toddler will try to hand it to them, or if they see someone drop something accidentally, they will pick it up and hand it back.
Another study found that 3- to 5-year-olds who are rewarded with stickers or candy for performing a task with a partner, tend to give a greater share of the reward to their partner if the partner has done more work — again, without being asked — and even if it means they get to keep less for themselves.

So perhaps our inborn inclination to cry, “It’s not fair!” has less to do with our selfishness, and more to do with our sense of equity.
We don’t want more than our fair share, we just want each of us to be given what we feel is deserved.         Unfortunately, our perception of what is deserved and what is not deserved is not always accurate.

The fear that the resources and rewards of life are out of balance or unfairly distributed is what lies behind most of our human conflicts – both on a personal and communal scale.
And it’s this fear of imbalance that weaves its way through Jesus’ story of the Prodigal Son.

One son – the younger son - demands his inheritance be given to him while his father is still alive.           
Jesus doesn’t tell us why.
We might assume that the younger son is just itching to get away, and he needs money to do it.
Perhaps he’s bored with life on the farm, or he has no desire to be a part of the family business, or he’s tired of being compared to his hard-working older brother and being made to feel like a disappointment in life.

Whatever the reason, the younger son takes his inheritance, runs off to a faraway land and squanders it all on dissolute living – which is meant to suggest he spent it all on partying, prostitutes, and other primal pleasures. 
When his money is gone and a famine spreads over the land, the younger son takes a job feeding pigs, and winds up envying not just the pigs for their slop, but the slaves back on his father’s farm.
So he concocts a plan – He will return to his father with his head hung low and spouting a well-rehearsed plea for forgiveness.

What happens next may surprise some -
when the father runs out to meet his Prodigal Son and wraps his arms around him in welcome.

It may not be surprising it you’re a parent of a child who has messed up on occasion – either in small ways or big ways.
We don’t stop loving our children – or stop welcoming them home with open arms– just because they’ve made bad choices in life.

But the father’s exuberant welcome may be surprising if we’ve ever had someone in our life who habitually makes bad choices, and never seems to learn from the consequences.
A child, a sibling, a parent, a spouse, a friend – Someone who always seems to need help out of a jam, mostly of their own making.
Someone who hangs out with the wrong crowd, or runs from responsibility, or who doesn’t have enough self control to stop spending all their money on frivolous things or taking unnecessary risks in life.
Someone who habitually lies, cheats, or never seems to get the message that if they keep putting harmful substances in their body they’re going to destroy their lives, and the lives of those around them.
Even if we understand the trappings of behavior disorders, mental illness, and addiction, when it latches onto someone we love we can’t avoid getting caught up in trail of sorrow and pain that it leaves behind.

We all have our breaking points.
The point where the Prodigal Son returns home pleading for forgiveness, for the umpteenth time, and we’re fresh out of compassion and sympathy.

Those of us who have experienced that breaking point, may identify more with the older brother in the story than the father.
Especially when it’s obvious that the younger brother is not sincere in his show of remorse.
He’s only come home because he’s run out of money and he’s hungry.
Yet the father still insists on greeting him with robes and rings and throwing a party in his honor.

Even as toddlers we seem to innately know, this is not fair.

So what point is Jesus trying to make with this parable?

Traditionally, we’re apt to see the father in this story as representing God, and we are the Prodigal Son.
God loves us and welcomes us home, no matter what we’ve done.
And no matter how many times we come seeking forgiveness, it’s always ours for the taking.

In this interpretation, we are the older brother as well.
When we hold on to judgment and spite.
When we’re overly concerned with getting rewarded for our right behavior, and seeing others punished for wrong behavior.

When we believe that our father’s love – God’s love – is limited and there’s only so much to go around, and we become resentful when that love is given to those we believe are unworthy, because it means there’s less for those of us who have rightfully earned it.

But perhaps this story that Jesus tells us about fathers and sons in not just an allegory about our relationship with God and how we encounter God’s love….perhaps it was also meant to be about the relationships we build with each other – and the love that we feel or withhold from one another - as well.

One might say all three characters in the story have lost something.
The father has lost both his sons – one to rejection, and one to resentment.
The son who walked away has lost his home and sense of belonging.
The son who stayed has lost his trust in the fairness of life and the breadth of his father’s love.

Many of us have been on all sides of this relationship at some point in our lives.
We’ve been the one to turn our back in anger on someone who has hurt us.
We’ve been the one who has done the hurting, and at some point we’ve had to reconcile our wrongdoing and ask for forgiveness.
We’ve been the one who continues to offer forgiveness to those we love, regardless of how many times it has been asked for and offered, and how many times our trust has been betrayed.

We do this because God created us as relational beings.
We long to live in relation to one another – to be connected to one another, but we struggle with those relationships because human love, unlike divine love, is not limitless and it is not unconditional.

We mess up. We reject love and we withhold love in response to pain.
We resent those whom we judge to have not earned the rewards they’ve been given.
We feel compelled to take and hold onto more than our fair share, out of fear that there won’t be enough to go around.
Thus we live in a constant state of reconciliation.
We hurt one another, we seek forgiveness and grace, we offer forgiveness and grace.
We turn away, and we turn back.  We turn away, and we turn back.
This is the dance we do with one another.
As siblings, as parents and children, as spouses, as friends, as members of a community, as citizens of this world.

But reconciliation can’t happen unless both parties participate.  
With each taking a step towards the other.
It involves a willingness to swallow our pride and return home, and a willingness to leave the door open for the one who seeks to return.

This is the challenge that Christ has given us in the story of the Prodigal Son.
The challenge to be as generous with our love and our grace towards one another, as God is with us.

We won’t always get it right – and we’re not expected to.
But amazing Grace, how sweet it sounds, when we do.

Thanks be to God.