Saturday, December 30, 2017

Sermon: "The Force is Strong with This One"

The Rev. Maureen R. Frescott
The Congregational Church of Amherst
December 24, 2017 - Christmas Eve
Luke 2:1-20

“The Force is Strong with This One”

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…
A baby was born.
A baby who would one day become a people’s only hope for liberation.
The one destined to carry the light that would overcome the presence of darkness in the world.
The one who would embark on a mission to teach others to carry the light and to use the forces of good – love, compassion, and grace – to overcome the forces of evil.

This Christmas, millions of people all over the world will flock to theaters to see this story come alive through the character of Luke Skywalker in the latest movie in the Star Wars franchise - George Lucas’ classic tale of good vs. evil.
But on this day, millions more will flock to churches like this one to hear a similar story written by another famous Luke, an ancient tale of light overcoming the darkness that has been told and retold for thousands of years.
The story of the Nativity.

It’s a story of hope, and peace, and love, and joy.
A story of a baby born in a stable to parents with no money and no power.
A baby who would grow up to save the world.

And as we stand among the witnesses to this ancient and familiar story –
among the shepherds, the angels, the wise men, and Mary and Joseph themselves – we might imagine peering into the manger at this tiny baby who radiates light, and saying those iconic words, 
“The Force is strong with this one.”

As I listen to our teens retell the story of Jesus’ birth – as they do every year at our 7 pm Christmas Eve service –  I wonder, as I do every year, how much of this story resonates with them, and how much of this story do they actually believe to be true?
How much of this story do any of us believe to be true?

I wonder – do we really believe that Mary gave birth to this baby two thousand years ago?
Do we really believe that this baby was God in human form?
Do we really believe that this baby had the power to save the world?

Do we really believe that we too are a part of the story – that the light and the love that flowed through Jesus also flows through us?

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine tagged me in a post on Facebook.
It was a link to an article that claimed that at least one aspect of the Nativity Story could be proven to be true.
The article was titled,
“Biological Evidence that Jesus Actually Was Born in December.”

As a pastor, I often have people sending me links to articles containing newly unearthed proof that something that occurred in the Bible actually happened just as the Bible said it did.
Articles with headlines like:
“Could This Mountain be the Final Resting Place of Noah’s Ark?”
or “Archeologists Discover the Location of the Garden of Eden”
or “Chariot Wheels and Human Bones Found at the Bottom of the Red Sea – Proof that Moses Destroyed the Egyptian Army.”
With God’s help, of course.

While these articles often draw us in with the promise of offering empirical evidence that something we’ve always taken on faith actually happened,
it often takes only a quick search on Google or to discover that the “evidence” cited is based on pure speculation, or inaccurate information, or was entirely made up and circulated as satire or fake news, which was then shared hundreds of thousands of times by those who believed it be true.

So it was with a keen sense of skepticism that I clicked on the link to the article that promised biological evidence regarding Jesus’ date of birth.

You may have heard it said that Jesus was NOT in fact born on December 25th – that this date was chosen by the Christian church in the 4th century, and adopted over time because it coincided with existing Pagan festivals that celebrated the Winter Solstice and the ancient Sun God.
During these celebrations, people burned Yule logs, dragged evergreens indoors, drank heartily, and welcomed the light returning to the world on the shortest day of the year.

The church – it has been said - was determined to co-opt this existing winter holiday and overwrite it with the celebration of the birth of Christ – the true light of God coming into the world.
The modern theory is that Jesus was actually born in the springtime.
This is based somewhat on the timing of the birth of John the Baptist,
but it’s also driven by the presence of the shepherds and the sheep in the Nativity Story we have in the Gospel of Luke.
Shepherds, we’re told, would not have been awake in the fields at night watching their flocks unless the sheep were about to give birth,
and, as every shepherd knows, sheep drop their lambs in the springtime,
not on a cold winter’s night in December.

But hold on – says the article promising proof of Jesus’ December birth - there is a certain breed of dessert dwelling sheep that does in fact give birth in the winter.
In fact, it is the only breed of sheep that is indigenous to the area of the Middle East where Jesus was born.   
So there’s the proof.

The author of the article celebrates this bit of biological evidence, saying it satisfies her desire for something concrete to hold onto in the Nativity Story.
She writes: “Long ago, I accepted the idea that December 25 was probably not the actual date of Christ’s birth. It was just one more sad thing about being an adult, one more little bit of wonder gone from life.”

It is sad when we lose that sense of wonder that we have in childhood.
When we stop believing in fairy tales and discover a growing desire for concrete evidence on which to base our beliefs. 

While that desire is well placed when it comes to ideological, political, historical, and scientific beliefs – it can be misplaced when applied to religious beliefs – because religious beliefs are often rooted in story.
Stories that are a woven tapestry of myth, meaning making, and metaphor, with an underlying message containing the truth that we seek.

The Nativity Story in particular is one that is multi-layered and pregnant with meaning and metaphor. Pun intended.
I would argue that trying to pinpoint a birth date for Jesus based on the mating habits of the sheep mentioned in the Gospel of Luke is like trying to pinpoint the birth date of Luke Skywalker based on the appearance of "womp rats" in George Lucas’ original screenplay of Star Wars.  
Sometimes the sheep – or the womp rats - are there because they’re meant to point us towards something else.  
A later plot point, a deeper meaning, a metaphorical marker that gives us insight into who the main character is.

While Jesus is not a fictional character, like Luke Skywalker, the Gospels we have that contain the stories of his birth, cannot be categorized as non-fiction.
They were never intended to be historically accurate accounts of his life.  
And they’re not biographies in the same way we write biographies today.

The Gospels were written as proclamations of Good News – the Good News contained in the message and teachings of Jesus and the saving action of his life, death, and resurrection.

For our ancestors – who lived in a largely myth-based and oral-storytelling culture, it was the message behind the story, not the details of the story, that contained the truth.
The details could change based on who was telling the story and who was listening to the story. Because the details were just a vehicle to help the listener grasp and understand the underlying truth.

It’s hard for us to wrap our minds around this - given our modern desire for accuracy in the printed word and the level of importance we place on factual details.
Especially in this age we live in where alternative facts and alternative truths confuse us and set us against one another.
As we search for something concrete on which to hang our beliefs it’s tempting to want there to be real sheep in a real field tended by real shepherds on a cold winter’s night.

Because then we can say – without doubt – that God really was born into this world - and through Jesus - has gifted us with the power to change it.

Luke believed this to be true. 
(the Gospel writer, Luke, not Skywalker Luke).
Luke so believed it to be true he crafted an amazing story that transported his readers back in time to the moment it happened.
To the point where they could almost smell the animals, and feel the cold, and see the shepherds breath hanging in the air.

Those shepherds were there for a reason.
In Luke’s time, being a shepherd was thought to be the most menial, demeaning, and filthy job that anyone could take.
It involved living out in a field day and night for years on end, without shelter in all kinds of weather. 
It was a life of stepping in sheep dung, sleeping in mud (and worse), birthing lamb after lamb and hoping to find a source of water to clean up the mess afterwards.
It required being away from family and friends and sometimes not seeing or speaking to another human being for long stretches of time.

Those who took the job of shepherd were truly desperate – for the money to send home, for the food they foraged in the field, for the solitude, for the time and space away from whatever it was they were fleeing. 

Perhaps Luke had shepherds present at the birth of Christ because they were the least likely to be welcomed at the birth of a King.
At the moment God was born into the world, the first to gaze upon him, and bless him, were the ones with the least value, the lowest status, the ones with absolutely no power.
The ones whom Jesus had come to liberate, and lift up, and save.

The story of Jesus coming into our world in the form of light and hope and love should be told and celebrated every year just as we do.

Personally, it doesn’t matter to me if he was born in December or April,
and being able to say with certainty that any of the details of the Nativity Story are true in a concrete way, adds nothing to my faith,
just as NOT having certainty about the details takes nothing away.

The Star Wars movies have a powerful message behind the overarching story they have to tell even though we know the details of the story are largely the product of George Lucas’ imagination.
The story has meaning and incites wonder and awe for the millions who allow themselves a few hours to step into it and be carried away by it.

I approach the Nativity Story in the same way.
God is in the feeling we get when we hear the story, year after year.
God is in the wonder and awe – and in the joy and relief that the shepherds feel – and that we feel - when we realize the wheels of change have been set in motion by the legacy Jesus left in place for us.

Every year, on Christmas Eve, Jesus is born again in our imaginations and in our hearts.
And we in turn carry his light and love and grace out into the world with us.

And no political posturing,
or power grabs,
or acts of injustice,
or expression of greed, 
or hostility, 
or bigotry, 
or fear of any kind,
can overcome this light that shines within us, and through us.

May the force of Christ be with you all.

Thanks be to God, and Amen. 

Monday, November 27, 2017

Sermon: "Saving the Sheeple"

Scripture Intro - Matthew 25:31-46

In this last week of the lectionary cycle, as we lead up to season of Advent – we encounter Jesus here in the gospel of Matthew speaking just before his death, giving his disciples some farewell instructions and some advice on what to do as they await his return.
Whether we’re awaiting the first coming of Christ – as we do in Advent –
or the second coming, as many do in the church in our own time - the advice that Jesus has to offer applies to us all: Be wise, be watchful, be ready.
And while you’re waiting don't just sit around imagining how great the world will be with Christ in it: use the gifts God has given you to bring about a bit of the Kingdom of God here and now.   Give yourself away. Abundantly. 
Give yourself away as if you were giving to Jesus himself.  

But fair warning, the text from Matthew’s gospel we’re about to hear is not just a gentle reminder to do unto others as we would have done to ourselves.
There’s some “stuff” in here that is difficult for many of us to hear – especially when it’s presented as coming out the mouth of Jesus.
It’s here that Jesus talks about the day when he will return as the divine shepherd and judge - to separate the sheep from the goats.
And if we’re judged to be one of the goats, we have eternal fire and punishment to look forward to.

This kind of apocalyptic imagery was a literary device that the writer of Matthew’s gospel in particular was very fond of using – but as Biblical scholars tell us, apocalyptic writing was a less a prediction of things to come and more of a statement about the times as they were.
In uncertain times, when the evil deeds of others seem to go unpunished, being certain about their destiny – and ones own destiny - before God, offers a sense of security that can be very comforting.  

As we listen to this passage, if this apocalyptic imagery fails to resonate with you, try to keep your focus on the good news that Jesus has for us here:
The revelation that God is creating a world where the hungry will be fed, the stranger will be welcomed, and the sick and imprisoned will be cared for.
And by seeing Christ in everyone we meet, we can help make this world a reality. 

The Rev. Maureen R. Frescott
The Congregational Church of Amherst, NH
November 26, 2017 – Christ the King Sunday
Ezekiel 34:11-24; Matthew 25:31-46

“Saving the Sheeple”

There are two kinds of Christians in the world.
There are those who read this text from Matthew and their attention is drawn to the verses about Jesus returning on Judgment Day to separate the sheep from the goats, sending the righteous into the Kingdom of Heaven and the accursed into the eternal fires of Hell.

And there are those who read this text from Matthew and their attention is drawn to the verses where the shepherd Jesus calls us, his disciple sheep, to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, and visit the sick and imprisoned, for in doing so it’s as if we’re caring for Jesus himself.

For the first group of Christians – this is a text about judgment,
and right behavior, and saving oneself from eternal damnation in hell.
For the second group of Christians – this is a text about compassion, and mercy, and saving others from a life of hell here on earth.

But before we pat ourselves on the back because we count ourselves among the latter group who hears a call for compassion in Jesus’ words rather than judgment, let’s consider the other message that Jesus has for us in this parable about sheep and goats -
 the message we hear behind the similar responses that the people have to Jesus’ words about serving others:

“Lord, when was it that we DID or DID NOT feed you, or clothe you, or welcome you, or visit you when you were sick or in prison?”

Neither the sheep nor the goats seem to know which group they belong to – because they don’t recognize what they have done or have not done to serve Jesus through service to others.

So, perhaps there’s only one kind of Christian in the world.
The kind who thinks he’s a sheep - or a goat – and is mistaken either way. 

Because we’re human – and we can’t help but see patterns everywhere -
we have this overwhelming urge to separate people into categories.
The good and the bad.
The deserving and the undeserving.
The innocent and the guilty.
The winners and the losers.

But even if we accept that no human being is perfect -
that we all are capable of being hurtful, and unmerciful, and selfish at times,
we still insist on having distinctive categories on this continuum - with the mostly good on one side and the mostly bad on the other side.

The problem is, when we try to place ourselves on this continuum of winners and losers, we may be way off the mark, as Jesus suggests.
Not necessarily because we’re deluded or think too highly of ourselves,
but because we often lack the perspective to see the whole picture.

Douglas Adams – the British novelist who wrote The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy - tells the story of something that happened to him when he went to catch a train to London many years ago.
He had some time to kill so he went to the station cafeteria and purchased a newspaper, a cup of coffee, and a package of biscuits - or cookies as we call them here in the states.
He sat down at a table that was already occupied by an average looking businessman, who gave Adams a friendly nod as strangers often do, and went back to reading his newspaper.
Then, as Adams sipped his coffee with the package of cookies in front of him, the man did something that shocked him. 
He reached across the table, picked up the package of cookies, tore it open, and ate one of the cookies.
Adams admitted that the unexpected social faux pas is one thing that the English don’t cope with easily.
What do you do when someone has obviously taken something of yours right in front of you?
Adams said he did what any proper Englishman would have done –
he pretended like it didn’t happen.

He waited a few minutes, sipped his coffee, and then reached over and pulled one of the cookies out of the package for himself and ate it.
The man, who also seemed to be following proper English etiquette by not making eye contact with Adams, responded by reaching into the package again, taking a second cookie and eating it.  

Adams said at this point, he felt even more awkward speaking up about this obvious theft, since he’d let it go the first time, so instead he casually took another cookie for himself and ate it, while inside he was seething at the obviously boorish and entitled behavior of the stranger seated across from him.

This alternating cookie consumption went on for several more painful minutes – with Adams getting more and more internally agitated - until there was only one cookie left in the package.
Then with the announcement of a departing train, the stranger got up, gathered up his things, and reached into the package and took the last cookie – and just as Adams was about to explode with righteous anger– the man handed the cookie to Adams and left. 

Adams said he just sat there, stewing over the fact that this stranger likely thought he was the generous one for offering Adams the last cookie.

Then the announcement came that the train to London had arrived at the platform.
Adams reached over and picked up his coffee and his newspaper –
and there underneath the paper was the unopened package of cookies that he had purchased.

We often don’t recognize when we are the sheep or when we’re the goat.
There are times when we feel like we’ve been wronged and we carry anger towards someone in our hearts, that’s based on an assumption,
a misperception, or erroneous information.
There are times when we think we’re doing something good for someone that in the long run turns out to be hurtful.
There are times when the needs of others go unmet because we’re simply not aware of them. 

There are also times when we could be accused of being a goat –
of not seeing Jesus in the eyes of others - but we feel the need to lift up a well reasoned argument in our defense.  

When we consciously walk past someone asking for money on the street because we don’t know if they’re trying to scam us.

When we make time to visit the sick but we’ve never visited anyone in prison, because someone with a criminal record is way down on our list of those deserving of our time and compassion.

When we resist welcoming the stranger because their religious beliefs, or political views, or immigration status makes them unwelcome in our eyes.

When we don’t think twice about adding another stylish coat to our wardrobe while someone with no coat is shivering outside in the cold not far from where we live.

Even when we do our best to be good and faithful sheep – and see the face of Jesus all around us - it’s impossible for us to care for every person in need.
We only have so many coins to put into outstretched hands,
so many hours in a day to devote to work and family and community needs, and so many coats to give to charity when we’re already giving in so many other ways.

How much is enough?
How much is too little?
At what point do we move from being a goat to being a sheep?

And in today’s world, where so many are led astray by con artists, fake news, and false shepherds, why would we even want to be a sheep?

While we may grasp the meaning and imagery of this ancient metaphor about Jesus being our shepherd who guides us and cares for us -
the metaphor often breaks down when we consider the disparaging image of sheep that many of us have today.

Sheep are thought to be stupid, and easily led down the wrong path, as they fall in line behind a leader without questioning where they are going.

Many people have left organized religion behind because they equate it with sheep mindlessly following outdated traditions and harmful beliefs while ignoring empirical facts and modern understandings of the world.

And people on both sides of the political aisle have taken to calling those on the other side “sheeple” instead of people – as in “the sheeple will believe anything their leaders say because they’re gullible, and easily deceived, and aren’t smart enough to think for themselves.”

Sadly, the poor sheep get a bad rap in this regard.
Sheep are not that dumb.
Studies have shown that sheep have an IQ level just below pigs, which are often thought to be intelligent animals.
There was a flock of sheep in Yorkshire, England that figured out a way to get over the cattle grids in the road by lying down and rolling over them on their backs.  That’s pretty smart if you ask me.

Sheep also have the ability to recognize the faces of up to 50 individuals - sheep and humans – and they remember those faces for up to two years after having last seen them.
Sheep build strong relationships with one another – and have demonstrated the ability to find their way out of a maze much faster when they’re shown pictures of their sheep friends waiting at the exit.
Sheep will often be wary and hesitant to approach a new sheep added to the flock that they don’t recognize, but will gather around and welcome a sheep that has been missing from the flock for quite some time.

Perhaps we have more in common with sheep than we care to admit.

So why do we have this need to place ourselves in one box or the other –
as a sheep or as a goat – rather than recognize that we have the capacity to be both – at different times in our lives and even from one moment to the next?

As noted in our introduction to the gospel reading, we can blame Matthew for this image of the sheep and goats being separated on judgment day.

We struggle with these apocalyptic texts because we don’t understand that they were often used as a subversive code for speaking about the present day world the people lived in - socially and politically.
Whether we’re talking about the second coming of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew or the strange symbolic visions of the Book of Revelation – Apocalyptic writing is an ancient literary genre that baffles us because it fell out of use over time.
Imagine 2000 years from now, if Science Fiction no longer exists as a genre, and people unearth a copy of the screen play for Star Wars - and than read it as if it were an accurate prediction of the future.
While they immerse themselves in Jedi training and wait for Darth Vader to attack, they might miss the message that George Lucas embedded in his story – the message that people led by the forces of good have the power to overcome the forces of evil.
Because light always reveals the truth that the darkness hides. 

When we look beyond the framework that Matthew gives us in his story,
we find a God who longs to know us and be known by us.
A God who desires to be seen in the eyes of the hungry, and the naked, and the stranger, and the sick and imprisoned.
A God who on the so-called Judgment Day is seemingly uninterested in how many commandments we’ve broken or what we believe about the nature of Christ himself.
And instead separates us into those who did something in the face of need, and those who did nothing.
Perhaps not to punish us, but to ask us,
“Where were you when I needed you?”

The belief that we belong to either one group or the other – the saved or the damned – is deeply entrenched in our Christian DNA. 

But as sheep called to follow where our shepherd leads, perhaps it’s time to pick up our heads and take note of the path that Jesus laid out before us.

The one lined with opportunities to practice compassion, mercy, and grace.
The one lined with our fellow travelers on this journey,
who look into our eyes expecting to see the face of Christ,
just as we expect to see Christ in them.   

Thanks be to God, and Amen

 The sheep we encountered on our summer trip to Scotland.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Sermon: "Behind the Mask"

The Rev. Maureen R. Frescott
The Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
November 5, 2017 – Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost
Matthew 23:1-12

“Behind the Mask”

Last Tuesday, we celebrated Halloween, and if you’ve ever been here in the center of Amherst village on Halloween night, you know what a spectacle it can be.
Thousands of Trick-or-Treaters descend upon our town, and parade up and down the streets and the village green.
The residents and businesses in the village gladly accept donations of candy to meet the demand, but the candy is just a bit player in this extravaganza.
The real show – and the real fun – is found in the way people in the village decorate their homes, or their 'Door on the Green,' with themed displays, fog machines, and spooky lights, and everyone – adults included – wears a costume – to generate a laugh, or a scare, or a puzzled look that says, “What are you supposed to be?”

On Halloween night, as several of us gave out candy in front of the church, we saw pint sized and full sized vampires, superheroes, Disney characters, and dinosaurs.
We also saw plenty of astronauts, animals, and professional athletes –
I counted at least 15 Tom Bradys.
People dressed as characters from movies, TV shows, and books.    
Jesus Christ himself even stopped by for a visit.
(He was about 6’5”, so I doubt he was the real thing)

I was dressed as Harry Potter, complete with my magic wand, Gryffindor robe, and not-so-round glasses.
At one point I was approached by two small boys who were dressed as Dementors – the evil minions of the villain in the Harry Potter stories.
The boys wore black robes, black hoods, and black masks over their faces - and they just stood silently in front of me, not moving and not saying a word.

I tried to joke with them, but they remained silent.
If I tried to move, they’d step right in front of me.
They were small, but they were starting to creep me out.

Finally, their mother, who was standing off to the side watching this drama unfold, sighed and said, “You have to cast a spell on them to make them go away.”  
So I raised my wand and said, “Expecto Patronum!” – and off they ran – probably in search of another Harry Potter to torment.

That’s the fun of Halloween.
We have the opportunity to step into a role or a character and pretend – for just a short period of time – that we’re someone other than who we really are. 
We can imagine what it would it be like to have super powers, when we normally feel powerless,
What it’s like to be outgoing and adventurous, when we’re normally shy or cautious.
What it’s like to be a little scary or unpredictable, when we’re normally straight laced and well, predictable.

Putting on a mask can be fun, and eye-opening, and liberating.

Some of you may have seen the short video that was circulating on the internet in the weeks leading up to Halloween.
It shows a father with his son and daughter, who are about 8 and 9 years old, and the children are carving jack-o-lanterns, each with the image of their favorite super hero – Batman and Wonder Woman.
Then we see mom come home with costumes of these same superheroes and the boy and girl excitedly grab the outfits and run to put them on.
The father looks hesitant and we soon understand why. 

As we follow the family on Halloween night, we see the children running from house to house dressed as Batman and Wonder Women with their superhero masks covering their eyes, while the father cautiously waves to his neighbors with the same look of uncertainty on his face.
At the end of the long night of trick treating and candy sorting, we see mom and dad carrying their children to bed.
And then we see the girl is dressed as Batman, with padded muscles and a utility belt, and the boy is dressed as Wonder Woman, with a blue skirt, silver arm bracelets, and a wig of long brown hair.

We don’t know if the father’s earlier look of caution and discomfort was because he disapproved of his children’s choice of costumes, or because he was concerned that his neighbors might not approve, and he didn’t want his children – his son in particular - to be ridiculed or hurt.

But in the end, as dad tucked his son and daughter into bed, with both still wearing their costumes, you could see the recognition flash across his face that on that night his children experienced pure joy.
They had the chance to put on a mask and be someone they longed to be.
Someone they saw as a hero.
Someone they admired.
And for just one day of the year, they had permission to be someone they felt they couldn’t be, or weren’t allowed to be, on the other 364 days.

Jesus had something to say about wearing masks.
Not the costume masks that bring us joy or allow us to be someone we long to be.
But rather the masks we choose to wear – or feel forced to wear – to hide who we really are.

Jesus was concerned with those in his religious community who liked to dress up as pious people of God because of the benefits they imagined came with the role – status, reverence, front row seats to the show.
And he was frustrated because these particular people seemed to miss the point that stepping into the role of a person of God meant just the opposite.
It meant humbling one’s self.
Serving others.
Going to the back of the line -
so that others would be served first.

But what Jesus longed for these religious "hypocrites" to understand,
along with all of us who talk the talk but are reluctant to fully walk the walk, is that taking off this mask – the one we think makes us a righteous person worthy of respect and love – the one that hides who we really are –
the one that makes us a hypocrite – 
taking off this mask and being exposed as our true selves is not meant to be humiliating.  
It’s meant to be liberating.  

Scratch the surface of a hypocrite and you’ll find a vulnerable and frightened person underneath.

We wear masks because of our insatiable human need.
Our need for approval.
Our need for acceptance.
Our need to feel safe and secure.  

Think of all the masks that we wear in our everyday lives.
The mask that we put on to show the world that we’re something that we’re not.
The mask that tells everyone that we’re okay, that we’re happy, that we’ve got this life thing all figured out and we’re just as well adjusted and successful as our neighbor.
We wear these masks of status, happiness, and accomplishment -
to keep people from seeing who we really are or what our life is really like.

So no one will know we’re struggling financially or are in danger of losing our home or our business or our job.
So no one will know we’re a functioning addict who can’t leave the house without a drink, or a cigarette, or the pain pills that were prescribed for an injury that has long since healed.
So no one will know we’re carrying the scars of an abusive relationship or failed marriage – or that we’re living in the midst of one right now.
So no one will know that a child we raised is experiencing any one of these situations or all of the above, and we feel like a failure as a parent because of it.

We put on these masks so no one else can see that we’re broken, or weak, or vulnerable.
We put on these masks because we’re afraid - of being judged or rejected –
of losing face, respect, or status - of being the one at the back of the line waiting to be served, especially if we’re convinced that there’s not enough to go around.

It’s very easy for us to stand in judgment of hypocrites.
To read texts like these from our Gospels, and shake our finger at those who pretend to be something they’re not - 

At Christians who claim to welcome all at their table – and who then rattle off a long list of sinners who are not welcome at all.
At our leaders who claim to act with the best interests of the people at heart when it is their own personal interests that truly guide them.
At people on the OTHER side of the political fence – who claim WE are the ones who are deluded, and ignorant, and easily taken in by fake news – when clearly THEY are the ones who are delusional and uneducated and gullible.

When Jesus says, “Woe to you, Pharisees and scribes, you hypocrites,” perhaps we need to resist the urge to hold up this text as a mirror for those we think are being hypocritical, and instead turn the mirror towards ourselves.

The word gospel means “good news” –
And the Good News that Jesus has for us in this rebuttal of hypocrisy is that taking off the masks we wear to hide our true selves is the most liberating thing we can do. 

Think of all the energy we waste trying to hold up a fa├žade that keeps people from seeing our flaws and our fears and our pain.
What if we didn’t feel the need to do that any more?

What if put our mask down and looked around this sanctuary and saw that we’re in fact NOT in a room full of perfect people who expect us to be perfect in return. Instead we’re in a room full of imperfect people who’ve experienced life just as we have.

We’re in a room full of people who have lived through painful childhoods, bad marriages, abusive relationships, and debilitating addictions.
People who’ve been downsized or fired from jobs, or lost their homes or filed for bankruptcy.
People who are living with cancer, or Alzheimer’s, or watched loved ones die from one or both, and who know as we do, there’s no shame in giving up.
We’re in a room full of people who’ve questioned their faith and lost their faith; who’ve walked away from churches, and felt pushed out of churches, and who are not really sure why they’re here in this church – but know they long to feel connected to something greater than themselves.

The Good News of our gospel text today is that we are all hypocrites.
The Pharisees have not cornered the market on that designation.
But Jesus invites us to put down the mask that hides our true selves –
the one we hold onto out of fear, or desire, or habit, or all of the above.
And instead step into the role that God created us to play.
The one that brings us joy.
The one that allows us to be our authentic selves, as flawed as we may be.
The one that encourages us to look back at our lives and see the highs and the lows as opportunities to connect with others – to say, "I went through that, too, I can help" – or "I’m going through that right now and I need someone to help me."

Humbling ourselves is not about taking a step backward and accepting less, it’s about taking a step forward and accepting more. 

More love, more grace, more compassion, more connection, more of that-which is-greater-than-ourselves - more of God’s presence in our lives.

It shouldn’t be just one day a year, where we feel free enough to be the person we’ve longed to be.
We should feel that way every day.

But even when we don’t.
When we need to slip on that mask to protect our hurting soul.
God is still right there with us.

In our hypocrisy.
In our humility.
In our humanity.

Thanks be to God, and Amen.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Sermon: "Offensive Grace"

Intro to Jonah 3:10-4:11 and Matthew 20:1-16

The lectionary this week pairs together two texts from our Bible that many of us find troublesome and hard to understand.
One is from the Old Testament and the other is from the New Testament.

The first is the story of Jonah.
This is the proverbial “Big Fish Story” in which the prophet Jonah is commanded by God to go and warn the evil people of Nineveh that they are headed for certain destruction unless they repent from their violent ways -  and Jonah, who has a deep hatred for Nineveh and thinks its unfair of God to give them a chance to escape death, disobeys God and runs away and ends up being swallowed by a giant fish.

The second reading, from the Gospel of Matthew, is Jesus’ parable of the disgruntled laborers – who’ve worked a full day in a vineyard and end up receiving the same pay as those who’ve worked only a half a day, and those who’ve worked for only an hour.

Both of these texts challenge our understanding of the way our world works and don’t sit well with us because they violate our sense of fairness.   
Why should those who’ve committed obviously inhumane and evil acts be allowed to escape punishment? And why should those who’ve labored for only an hour be rewarded the same as those who’ve labored all day?

These texts undermine not only our sense of human justice – but also our sense of divine justice – our belief that the evil will be punished, and the good will be rewarded -  on a scale that is proportionate to the level of their deeds – good or bad.

It’s worth noting that once a year, the Book of Jonah is read in Jewish worship services - on Yom Kippur, the day Jews set aside to atone for their sins - which happens to be this Saturday, Sept 29th. 
It isn’t often that Jews and Christians share worship readings and are literally on the same page during the same week, but this year it happened to work out that way.
The Book of Jonah is a reminder that no one is beyond God’s reach – that no matter how far we wander – or try to run – God’s grace enfolds us all equally. 
And Jesus’ parable of the laborers who are all paid the same wage by a generous landowner, reminds us of the same. 

The Rev. Maureen R. Frescott
The Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
September 24, 2017 – Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Jonah 3:10-4:11; Matthew 20:1-16

“Offensive Grace”

At one of the recent white supremacist rallies that have been held across our country, a man who identified himself as a Christian held up a professionally made sign that said “Attention!! Hell Fire Awaits!!” 
- and listed on the sign were all the groups that he believed should expect to feel the heat of God’s judgment and wrath. 

The list began with the usual roll call of sinners - atheists, adulterers, murderers, idolaters, liars, and thieves.
Also making the list were drunks, pot smokers, party animals, sissies, and rebellious women.
Then there were the heretical believers, like Catholics, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
And oddly, the list also included “Rock and Roll Freaks, Gangsta Rappers, Sports Nuts, and Country Music Lovers.”
Apparently the maker of this sign is not a fan of the country classic,
“Drop Kick Me Jesus through the Goalposts of Life.”

It's worth noting that this list of those doomed to roast in the fires of Hell also included “racists” and “fake Christians,” which shows that the man holding the sign either appreciates, or lacks, a sense of irony, depending on how you look at it.

We may laugh at the self-appointed prophets who stand on street corners or pound on pulpits calling out by name all those who have made God’s naughty list, but there are likely many of us here who have a naughty list of our own. Myself included.

We may not go as far as to wish hellfire and eternal torture upon those on our list, and some of us may not believe that a literal hell exists, but we still want there to be some divinely ordained system of separating the wheat from the chaff - the people who do good from the people who commit acts of evil–with the latter being those who willingly and intentionally harm others and fail to show any remorse afterward.

Our list may contain sex offenders, child abusers, terrorists, mass murderers, those who commit horrendous acts of genocide, torture, and extreme violence that cause us to shake our heads and wonder how we could be created by the same loving God.

The prophet Jonah likely carried a list like this in his pocket.
He wanted nothing to do with God’s plan to redeem the people of Nineveh.
Nineveh was the capitol of the Assyrian Empire - the people responsible for the annihilation of Israel’s northern kingdom.
A later prophet, Nahum, called Nineveh the “city of bloodshed, where horsemen charging, flashing swords and glittering spears,” left “piles of dead, heaps of corpses, dead bodies without end.” (Nah 3:1-3)
The last thing Jonah wanted was for these butchers of men, women, and children alike to seemingly “repent” for their sins under the threat of punishment and escape the promised destruction by God.

The Ninevites had murdered Jonah’s people, possibly laying swords to the throats of members of his own family.
Yet here was God asking him to play a part in their redemption.

The Bible gives us this fantastical story of Jonah, who runs from God, sails off to sea, only to be tossed overboard in a storm by sailors who’ve figured out that he is the cause of their calamity. He’s then swallowed whole by a big fish – that we interpret to be a whale, and spends three days in its stomach contemplating his disobedience.

Once Jonah is heaved out of the belly of the whale and is deposited safely on shore, he does what God told him to do. He goes to the city of Nineveh – and he warns them of their impending destruction.

But then, what Jonah feared all along would happen does happen.
Nineveh repents, God spares the city, and Jonah sits under a tree and pouts.

God asks Jonah, “Why are you so angry?”
And Jonah shouts at God, “Because you did exactly what I thought you would do. Because you are a merciful and loving God –
And you offered grace where I wanted you to offer justice.”

Grace is one of those religious words that we struggle to grasp the true meaning of.
We sing about Amazing Grace and are forever grateful that God offers it to us – even if we count ourselves among the wretches who have made mistakes in life and feel we are unworthy of receiving it.

But when it comes to imagining our enemies or those who’ve hurt us,
as ALSO being worthy recipients of God’s grace, we shut our hymnals –
and struggle to embrace this idea of a God who loves and forgives Jonah and the Ninevites, equally.
A God who loves and forgives US - and the terrorists who lay swords to people’s throats in our time, equally.

New Testament professor, Matthew Skinner, calls this kind of grace,
“offensive grace” because it offends our idea of justice and fairness.
It calls us to embrace a theology that is so wide open that we may wonder why we bother putting so much effort into being kind, compassionate, and forgiving people - when someone can spend their life committing acts of evil only to repent on their deathbed and become an equal recipient of God’s grace.

We’re so driven by this idea that we will reap what we sow and we will get what we deserve when we stand before God that the idea that God’s grace will somehow balance the scales in the end seems inherently unfair.

It’s this struggle to understand God’s grace that colors our interpretation of Jesus’ parable of the hired laborers who receive equal pay for less than equal work.
I think if we took a poll, this may be one of the least favorite and most difficult to understand of Jesus’ parables.
(How many of you would say this is true for you?)

On the surface, this story that Jesus tells his disciples seems exceedingly unfair.
Why should those who do only an hour’s worth of work be paid the same amount as those who have done a full day’s worth of work?

It’s likely many of us can recall someone we’ve encountered in our working lives who made a career out of doing as little as possible to get by.
I worked retail for many years before I went to seminary, and I once had a manager who always managed to disappear whenever we needed him to solve a problem or speak to an unhappy customer. 
He walked around all day with a coffee cup and a clipboard and if we did manage to find him – usually hiding in a backroom somewhere – he’d look at the clipboard and mutter something about being too busy to deal with the situation - then he’d tell us to solve the problem or handle the customer ourselves.

It’s that internal ‘fairness meter’ within us that causes us to cringe whenever someone who does less work than we do receives equal or greater compensation than we do.

Which is why this parable of the hired laborers bugs us so much.

There are ways of seeing this as a parable about justice in a world where worth is based on economic status – where those who don’t have the opportunity to work a full day for a full day’s pay – due to high levels of unemployment, discrimination, or downsizing  - or are unable to work because of disability, illness, or age - should still be valued as equal members of our society and not seen as less than deserving because they haven’t worked or don’t have the opportunity to work as hard as others have.

But when we overlay our real world expectations of fairness and economic justice on this parable it can trip us up – we get lost in how the parable might translate to our human systems of work and reward, and we miss the very first thing that Jesus says when he tells his disciples this parable.
He begins by saying, “The Kingdom of God is like…”

Meaning the world that God created - and is creating around us – looks very different from the world we live in now.
In the Kingdom of God we all have equal value and are equally deserving of the true rewards of life - God’s love and grace.
It doesn’t matter how much work we do – or how long we labor in the field – we all receive an equal amount of love and grace from the owner of the field.
Not because we’ve earned it, but because the owner is extravagantly generous.

This is what makes God’s grace so amazing.
Not that it’s offered to people like us who screw up on occasion – or who screw up on many occasions - but still try our best to orient ourselves towards love and light.

What makes God’s grace so amazing is that it’s offered equally to those who spend their lives in a very dark place, living and acting out of pain and fear, and hurting so many in the process – often in horrific ways.

This grace may seem offensive to us, because we question why it does not have to be earned by these people in particular, even when we understand that God’s grace can never be earned because is always given freely. 

Let’s be clear here, we’re not talking about “cheap grace" - a theological designation that some of you may be familiar with.
German Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer defined cheap grace as grace that is expected to be given freely without the need for remorse or repentance.
Cheap Grace is the kind of grace we seek when we ask for forgiveness not because our heart has changed, but because we’re trying to manipulate others into thinking we’ve changed so we can avoid consequences in this world and keep on living as we always have.

But God, of course, knows what is in our hearts.
And given the smallest spark of a desire to change – the tiniest awareness that we’ve caused pain to others and we need to seek healing – that’s the moment that the light seeps in through the cracks and we become aware that God’s grace is all around us, and always has been.

It’s important to note that the act of showing remorse or changing our ways does not EARN us God’s grace. It’s not a work for payment transaction.
Grace is always there for the taking, flowing around us and through us like water flowing around the fish in the ocean – like the air moving in and out of our lungs.
That’s why we say God’s grace is given freely to all.
We’re all swimming in it.
Regardless of how long it takes us to realize it.  

But it takes a spark of love – a lessening of the fear that grips our hearts – to open our eyes to the grace that flows all around us…and through us.

We mustn’t neglect the role we play in offering this grace to each other.

As Lutheran pastor, Nadia Bolz-Weber, writes:

It is next to impossible in isolation to manufacture the beautiful, radical grace that flows from the heart of  God to God’s broken and blessed humanity.
As human beings, there are many things we can create for ourselves: entertainment, stories, pain, toothpaste, maybe even positive self-talk. But it is difficult to create this thing that frees us from the bondage of self. We cannot create for ourselves God’s word of grace.
We must tell it to each other.    (Accidental Saints. The Crown Publishing Group.)

We must tell it to each other - because we need each other.
We need each other to offer grace when it takes little effort to do so.
When it means not jumping to a conclusion about someone’s intention,
or assuming a slight or disrespect has taken place when it has not,
or reading our own fears into someone else’s words or actions.

We need to offer each other grace even when it takes great effort to do so.
When we feel as if we’ve been wronged.
When we feel offended or hurt.
When we feel as if the other has done little to deserve it.

God’s grace is truly amazing.
Because even when we try and fail to offer grace to each other.
God’s grace still finds its way to us. 
Even when we haven’t earned it.

Thanks be to God, and Amen.