Monday, July 18, 2016

Sermon: "Embracing Our Inner Mary"

Scripture Intro - Luke 10:38-42

Last week’s gospel text focused on the story of the Good Samaritan and our call as Christians to offer kindness and hospitality to strangers, regardless of who they are, or where we encounter them out in the world. 
This week’s text from Luke also focuses on the call to offer kindness and hospitality to strangers, this time to those who enter our homes.  
This is the story of Mary and Martha and the two very different kinds of hospitality they offered when Jesus stopped by for dinner one night.

In the ancient world, hospitality was a highly valued and widely practiced custom among Jews, Christians, and Pagans alike. In a nomadic society, one’s survival often depended upon the kindness of strangers. Hosts were expected to provide food, shelter, amenities, and protection to traveling strangers, because you never knew if a stranger would turn out to be a dignitary, a god, or an angel in disguise.

There’s a reason why Luke tells us the story of the Good Samaritan and the story of Mary and Martha back to back -  not just because they’re both about offering hospitality, but because they present us with two sides of the same coin.
The story of the Good Samaritan is about putting our faith into action - to live out the gospel by physically reaching out and caring for others, even if it means putting ourselves in harms way.
“Go and DO likewise,” Jesus says at the story’s end. 

In contrast, the story of Mary and Martha is not about doing, it’s about being.
It’s about sitting still and quieting our hands and our minds.
And creating space for the stranger – and God – in our heart.

Here is the reading from the Gospel of Luke. Listen for the word of God.

"Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” 

The Rev. Maureen R. Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
July 17, 2016 – Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
Luke 10:38-42

“Embracing Our Inner Mary”

If you spent any time here in the village this past week you may have noticed some odd behavior.
Groups of teenagers and adults have been congregating in odd places at odd times of the day.
Around the war memorials, outside the library, on our own church steps.
They linger for a short while and then disperse.
You may have even seen people walking erratically around the town green,
or driving around the village very slowly before pulling over and getting out of their cars.
You may have also noticed that all of these people had a cell phone in their hands.

This past week, a new video game was unleashed on the world, called “Pokemon Go.”

Essentially it involves capturing and collecting animated creatures as they appear in the real world.
A notification tells you there’s a Pokemon in your area and if you follow your GPS to the identified spot and hold up your phone – through the magic of mapping technology and the phone’s camera - you’ll see the Pokemon flitting about in real time in the real world.
Players can capture and trade different types of Pokemon at designated "Pokemon Stops," and compete against other players at "Pokemon Gyms."
Here in town, the library and the war memorials are Pokemon Stops, and the Amherst Congregational Church is a Pokemon Gym.

Before we scoff at the fact that people already spend too much time looking at their cell phones, this game has actually gotten teens, and adults, off the couch and out exploring and meeting people in their neighborhoods.  
This is the rare video game that actually encourages exercise.
Certain Pokemon can only be captured when the player physically walks 2, 5, and 10 kilometers.
This past week I encountered teens riding their bikes the entire 12 miles of the Nashua Rail Trail looking for Pokemon along the way.
Also, the designated Pokemon Stops are intentionally located at museums, libraries, public art displays, and historical markers, to inspire cultural interest and awareness.

And because the game designers have designated all churches and other places of worship as Pokemon Stops or Gyms, congregations all over the country have already begun putting up Pokemon welcome signs, setting out water and snacks for the players, and strategizing about ways to evangelize and capitalize on the sudden influx of teens and young adults they find congregating on their steps.
One headline jokingly read,
       “Church Attendance Spikes Nationwide Due To Pokemon Go Craze.”

Now we may shake our heads at the frivolity of all of this, especially when so many other pressing and serious events are happening in the world.

Some may see this trend as yet another sign of our cultural decline,
that people are choosing to preoccupy themselves with a video game –
and stare vapidly at their cell phones – while the real world implodes and explodes around us.

Catholic theologian Henri Nouwen once wrote:

Our occupations and preoccupations fill our external and internal lives to the brim. They prevent the Spirit of God from breathing freely in us and thus renewing our lives.

There is much in the world to preoccupy us right now.
And many of us are longing to breathe freely and find renewal in our lives.

Every time we turn on the news or log on to the internet, it seems like there’s yet another horrific tragedy unfolding – around the world, across the country, in our own back yard – a mass shooting, a terrorist bombing, a police killing, a protest that turns violent, a government coup, refugees fleeing for their lives, entire villages wiped out by machete wielding madmen.

There is so much heaviness in our world – so much pain and unrest –
so much anger and sorrow,
that many of us can’t help but oscillate between trying to tune it all out,
by immersing ourselves in our own every day lives and busyness….
and trying to take it all in, by keeping the 24 hour news channels on in the background, reading endless op-ed pieces to keep abreast of the facts,
and listening to TV and radio pundits attempting to explain the how’s and why’s as these tragedies unfold, while telling us who or what we should be pointing our fingers at in blame.  

Choose your villain - terrorists, immigrants, cops, thugs, Muslims, Christians, racists, rapists, radicalized religious fanatics.
Choose your weapon – guns, bombs, planes, trucks… the Bible, the Quran…the failures of our mental health system, the ineffectiveness of our laws and our government, the breakdown of religious and civil society as a whole.

Every day it’s a different tragedy.
Every day there’s a new victim, a new perpetrator, a new angle on the same old story.

And we wonder why some people choose to preoccupy themselves with video games, social media, and celebrity gossip,
while still others choose to turn everything off and devote their energy to exercising, gardening, or curling up with a good book…because the world out there is just too much to handle right now.

I imagine Mary and Martha each had their own way of dealing with the unrest in THEIR world.
The world that Jesus walked in was not much different than our own –
it too was filled with violence and instability, racial tension, economic disparities, religious fanaticism, and political corruption.

When Mary and Martha did their shopping in the local market, they likely kept their eyes and ears open for possible trouble... 
Roman soldiers harassing members of the Jewish minority;
religious and political Zealots speaking out against government oppression and trying to stir up support for their violent plots;
petty criminals looking to steal unattended bags and pick the pockets of the distracted;
the blind, the lame, and the orphaned set up in every open spot on the street begging for coins and bread and causing even the pious to feel guilty for not doing more to help.

The gossip that passed amongst the women in the market likely centered on the goings on in the nearby city of Jerusalem –
whose son had been beaten in the street for talking back to an Imperial guard,
whose husband had not returned after journeying to the city looking for work,
the latest string of public crucifixions and which enemies of the state had been made an example of for all to see.

When we picture the first century world that Jesus lived in we may think of kind hearted shepherds and carpenters and fisherman and Jesus surrounded by smiling and laughing children….and all those things were there, but all the things that make our world seem so bleak were there as well.

Which is why we may not blame Martha for hurrying home and busying herself in the kitchen.     The world outside stays outside when she’s preoccupied with chopping vegetables, kneading bread, baking pies, and making sure the table is set just right.

More importantly, if she tends to all the details and keeps her mind whirring with what needs to be done next, even after the guest of honor has arrived, she never has to sit across from him, and listen to him speak out about all the terrible things going on in their world.
She never has to look into his eyes and confess the guilt she feels for not doing enough to help alleviate the suffering of others. 
She never has to open her mouth and ask him why his God - their God - isn’t doing something – anything - to lessen the grieving and the pain.

So Martha stays in the kitchen, with her hands and her mind occupied,
doing the work that needs to be done.
The work of hospitality that is so central to her faith, and that certainly would not get done otherwise.

And through it all, Mary sits.
Mary sits at the feet of Jesus, and listens.
Putting aside her fear and weariness of the issues of the world.
Putting aside her drive to keep busy and help her sister as she was expected to do.
Allowing herself to feel her guilt and her anger and her urge to question this man who claims to speak for God.
Mary sits while Martha stews.
And Jesus says Mary is the one who has chosen better.

Now lets stop right here and lift up the fact that this text from Luke’s gospel is not pro-Mary and anti-Martha.
It’s not about shaming the Martha’s of our world who do so much of the behind the scenes grunt work to keep things running.
It’s not about praising those who choose a life of contemplation and prayer, while admonishing those who by nature are "doers" – those who prefer to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty in service to God rather than sit around and talk about the nuances of God.

Rather, this story of Mary and Martha is meant to make us aware that our attempts to shut the world out can also serve to shut God out as well.

As Henri Nouwen so eloquently said,
“Our occupations and preoccupations fill our lives to the brim…and prevent the Spirit of God from breathing freely in us...”

God is found in the space we create for others – through our compassion, our empathy, our sorrow, and our joy.
God is found in our caring presence, in our listening ear, in our ability to put ourselves in another’s shoes and look out through their eyes,
even if we can’t ever fully comprehend the world that they see.

God is found in the space we make for prayer, and reflection, and conversation with our Creator, even when all we feel moved to do is question God’s motives - and rage, rage against the dying of the light.

God is found in the space we make for ourselves.
As we give ourselves room to breathe; permission to feel joy; and increase our capacity to see the good in our world that so greatly outweighs the bad.

It is tempting to tune out the tragedies in our world, especially when the sheer volume of these events has us feeling overwhelmed.

It may help to know that there is such a thing as compassion fatigue.

We’re not built to absorb the pain and suffering of a global community.
Often we’re barely able to comprehend the pain and suffering in our own community, let alone take on the worries of the world.

We may or may not find solace in the fact that our world is not any more or less inclined towards violence, destruction, and mayhem then it once was or ever has been.
Our global community, 24 hour news channels, and ability to record and communicate tragic events instantaneously through cell phones and social media has us tuned in to the troubles of our world in a way that is unprecedented in human history.

The same technology that allows us to chase Pokemon around our neighborhood, allows us to see and experience the pain of others across the globe with increasing frequency and intimacy.

The solution to this information overload is not to tune out the world,
but rather to tune in to God. 

Now is as good a time as ever to dial back our tendency to busy ourselves like Martha, and to instead give ourselves the breathing space of Mary.

Giving the Spirit of God room to move and grow within us is the greatest gift we can give to ourselves.

It’s the greatest gift we can give to one another.

And it’s the greatest gift we can give to a world that is in reality overflowing with God’s love, compassion, and grace.  

We just need to give ourselves the breathing space to see it.



Monday, July 11, 2016

Sermon: "Neighbors and Fences"

Intro to Luke 10:25-37

In the paragraph just previous to Jesus’ telling of the Good Samaritan parable, we hear of the disciples’ travels to the land of Samaria.
We’re told that the Samaritans rejected Jesus, and the disciples immediate reaction was to want to rain fire down upon them and destroy them.
Quite a strong reaction we might think, until we consider the history that existed between the Samaritans and the Jews.
Historically, Samaritans were the remnants of Israel's northern tribes that remained after Israel fell to Assyria.
These remaining Israelites eventually intermarried with the Assyrians, "diluting" their Jewishness.  Samaritans hence- forth were viewed as a "mixed race," impure in blood and soul. When the Jews returned from exile and rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem, the Samaritans objected, because they believed God now resided in their territory on the top of Mount Gerizim.
Because there could be only one true place to worship God, and the Jews and the Samaritans disagreed on where that was, the two groups reviled each other and built up numerous cultural walls to keep from interacting with one another.
Hostility between the two groups came to a violent climax in 109 B.C. when the Judean king destroyed the Samaritans' temple.
There’s little wonder that Jesus' messengers were faced with stony rejection at the Samaritan village.
And little wonder that the tale of the Good Samaritan that appears in Luke’s gospel was considered one of the most radical stories of it’s time.
Who is our neighbor?
Our neighbor is the one whom we fear and distrust the most,
and the one we are commanded to love as much as we love ourselves. 

The Rev. Maureen R. Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
July 10, 2016 – Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
Luke 10:25-37

“Neighbors and Fences”

The house I grew up in on Long Island was a Levittown style cape, one of the many that sprung up in post-World II suburbia.
Each of the tiny box-like homes was identical and set on a postage stamp sized lot that measured 50 x 100 feet.
There was just enough room between each house for a narrow driveway and a strip of grass. 
For this reason, most of the homes in our neighborhood either had no fence or had only a short wooden fence that was more decorative than functional.
Except for our house.
We had a chain link fence that ran the length of one side of the house,
and a row of tall hedges that ran the length of the other side.

Growing up I assumed that this was my parent’s attempt to keep their ten children contained in one space, especially when we were young and prone to wandering.
It’s only when I was older that I learned that the chain link fence was owned and installed by our neighbor on the left, and the row of hedges was owned and installed by our neighbor on the right. 
Apparently our neighbors were more concerned about keeping us out of their yards then my parents were about keeping us in our own yard.

But I also learned that my father helped install the chain link fence put up by our neighbor on the left, and he dutifully trimmed the hedges put up by our neighbor on the right - never once complaining that the hedges were actually planted on our side of the property line.

Good fences make good neighbors.
So says the well-known proverb made famous by poet Robert Frost.

In Frost’s poem – Mending Wall - he and his neighbor walk the length of the stone fence set between their properties, repairing it as they did every spring. The two men worked together, picking up toppled stones and filling in the gaps caused by the frost heaves of winter and the wanton destruction of passing hunters.

But while Frost goes through the motions of mending the fence with his neighbor, year after year, he does so while shaking his head at the futility of their efforts.  Frost writes:

Here there are no cows.
We do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, 'Good fences make good neighbors'.

Frost’s neighbor repeats this mantra, and repairs the wall,
year after year, just as his father did before him.
While Frost laments the unnecessary division it places between them.

But even Frost admits that there are times when fences between neighbors make good sense.
When trying to contain livestock – or children – or mark the boundary between planting fields, so you know where your corn ends and your neighbor’s begins.

Truthfully, not all neighbors make it easy to be neighborly –
with or without a fence.
I’m sure many of us could share tales of nightmare neighbors who play their music too loud, let their animals run loose, use their property as a junkyard, or install an outdoor fire pit forcing their down-wind neighbors to stay inside with the windows closed, all spring, summer, and fall.  

When Jesus commanded us to love our neighbor as ourselves, surely he wasn’t talking about these neighbors. 

“Who is my neighbor?”
This question that the lawyer asks of Jesus is one that we human beings have been asking since we drew our first breath as a species in this world.

Whom should I trust? Whom should I fear?
Whom should I share resources with to survive?
Whom should I withhold resources from out of necessity?
Who is worthy of my love and compassion?
Who is deserving of my hatred and suspicion?

This is the question the lawyer asks of Jesus.
If we are to love our neighbor as ourselves, surely our neighbor doesn’t include everyone.

“Surely it does,” was Jesus’ response.

To emphasize his point Jesus told his followers a story that had one of their most hated enemies playing the role of the hero.
Nowadays we bestow the title of “Good Samaritan” upon hospitals and those who stop to help strangers in need.
But for Jesus’ Jewish followers the only “good” thing about a Samaritan was that they largely stayed in their own land and knew better than to wander where they did not belong.

Yet in Jesus’ story the Samaritan is the only one who behaves like a true neighbor – he is the only one who shows mercy - to someone who has been robbed and stripped of his clothing and is not easily identifiable as friend or foe.

Here Jesus throws in an added twist - the hated Samaritan is not the only one who qualifies as a neighbor in this story.
The hapless victim who was left to die in the ditch is a neighbor as well.

Now, we may look at this parable and say, “Of course the stranger in the ditch is worthy of our compassion” – but when we look at the story in its historical context our response may not be so black and white.
The road between Jerusalem and Jericho was not a safe place to be, at any time of day, but especially at dusk.  
It was known to harbor roving bands of robbers, rapists, and other questionable characters up to no good.

Knowing this, we may be more forgiving of the Priest and the Levite who crossed over to the other side and hurried on their way.  
Robbers were known to pose as decoys – pretending to be strangers in need - to lure unsuspecting travelers off the beaten path and into harms way.
Who could blame the two Holy Men for playing it safe in such a bad neighborhood?
How many of us would stop to help a stranded motorist after dark in the South Bronx, in South Chicago, or in even in South Boston?

And the man who was robbed and thrown into the ditch?
We may wonder if he is deserving of some blame for his predicament.
Just as we question the innocence of certain victims today.
What was he doing in that neighborhood at that time of day?
He was likely up to no good himself.
The attack could have been gang related, or drug related, and if we dig a little deeper we may find that the “victim” has a rapsheet of criminal offenses that makes him even less deserving of our sympathy, empathy, or compassion.

If our train of thought has ever gone in this direction we too may feel the sting of Jesus’ words.
When we ask, “Who is my neighbor?”
Jesus’ answer may not be one we want to hear.

Our neighbor is Alton Stirling and Philando Castile and the countless other men and women of color who have died in police shootings under questionable circumstances.
Our neighbor is Michael Smith, Lorne Aherns, Michael Krol, Patrick Zamarripa, Brent Thompson, and the countless other police officers killed in the line of duty while attempting to keep the peace amidst anger and distrust.
Our neighbors are the forty-nine gay, lesbian, and transgendered people murdered at a Hispanic dance club in Orlando by a gunman who claimed his religion made him do it.
Our neighbors are the two hundred and ninety two people, mostly Shiite Muslims, many of them children, who died when terrorists detonated a truck bomb at a market in Baghdad during the holiest week of the Islamic year.  

We may want to remove the labels, to say that these are stories of people killing people out of their own fear, and that we shouldn’t get caught up on the defining characteristics – black, white, gay, straight, Muslim, Christian, Police, civilian – because the reality is that all lives matter and all should be equally mourned.

This is true.
Yet there’s a reason why Jesus told his Jewish followers a story about a Good Samaritan.
Because he knew the label “Samaritan” would provoke them and challenge them to shift their perspective.
Because even though their religion taught them that all lives matter, the truth was that Samaritan lives mattered less to them.
Samaritan’s were just too different – in their culture, their dress, their language, their beliefs – for the average Judean to feel attune to their stories, their experiences, their pain, their capacity for love and mercy.  

We may wonder why God made us this way.
We may wonder why God gathered up the dust and breathed life into us, 
creating us as male and female, gay and straight, able bodied and challenged,
giving us dark skin, and pale skin, and every shade in between,
giving us the capacity to develop different ideologies and religious beliefs, along with the audacity to stubbornly insist that we alone hold the truth.
We may wonder why God created so many differences in us that we can’t help but look out at the world and build fences around us based on gender, race, nationality, religion, wealth, politics, and a hundred other qualifiers that we find to divide us.

But what if the fences are not meant to divide us?
What if the fences are there to help us to come together? 

As human beings we’re natural pattern seekers, and sorting the world into discernible boxes helps us to bring order to what would otherwise appear to be chaos.
It’s helpful for us to know where the boundaries are. 
To understand that our shared human experience doesn’t mean we all have the same experience.
To learn that to be male, black, Christian, or gay, means we experience the world differently than someone who is female, white, Muslim, or straight.
Because of how we were raised, how we’ve been treated by others - and how we perceive ourselves - as someone who has or lacks power, privilege, or opportunity.

The story of the Good Samaritan acknowledges the reality of this world -  that we’re not all the same.
We’re neighbors in the sense that we’re all human,
we’re all equal in the eyes of God,
and we’re all equally deserving of love, compassion, and mercy –
but we’re not all the same. 

And perhaps that’s the point of God’s wondrous creation.
God created us to tell the human story in a hundred million different ways.
And God gave us ears and hearts that are tuned to listen to those stories and learn from them, and to not dismiss or refute the stories of others because they are different from our own.

Robert Frost wrote:

Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.

A good fence allows us to lean over to our neighbor and listen.
It’s not so tall that we shield our neighbor from our view,
And not so impermeable that nothing ever grows between us.

Jesus asked, 
“Who do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?"  
The lawyer replied, "The one who showed him mercy." 

And Jesus said to him, "Go and do likewise."