Monday, April 10, 2017


Sabbath. Shabbat. Sabbatical.
All three words share a common root, which literally means “ceasing.” 
We recognize Sabbath as the time we set aside for rest, replenishment, and renewal. Ideally, keeping Sabbath means we step away from our work and the multitude of things that fill our schedules and occupy our time, energy, and devotion, and instead direct that time, energy, and devotion towards God. 

         A sabbatical is an extended time of Sabbath. For pastors, it’s a time devoted to prayer, study, and discernment, but it also involves an intentional stepping away from all the demands of pastoring a congregation. This stepping away, or disengagement, creates space not just for needed rest and renewal, but also cultivates the soil for new things to grow – new ideas for programs and ministries for the congregation, new ways to serve others in the community, and new understandings of how to be ‘church’ in our changing world. 

        I have had the honor and pleasure to serve this wonderful congregation for five years as your Associate Pastor. As part of my Call Agreement - or “covenant” - that I have with the congregation, after five years I am permitted and encouraged to take a 3-month sabbatical.  This sabbatical will begin the day after Easter, on April 17th, and run until the end of July.  I’ve filled that time with a mix of study tours, retreats, workshops, and travel with my wife, Stephanie, but I’m also allowing for a balance of unstructured time, that I plan to spend doing the things that I find best renew my spirit – reading, writing, biking, and hiking. 

         The day after Easter, I fly off to Spain to embark on a 10-day study tour that engages the life and work of Christian mystic, St. Teresa of Avilla. The tour is led by the Rev. Dr. Mary Luti, whom many of you met when she preached at my Installation Service in 2012.  Ten other clergy and lay women are joining us on the tour, including the Rev. Vicki Kemper, who along with Mary Luti is one of the writers of the UCC Daily Devotions that many of us receive in our email inboxes everyday. At the end of May, I’m headed up to Sullivan, Maine for a 10-day solo retreat at a vacation home on Long Cove. The secluded location of the home and the beauty of the Cove will hopefully inspire many hours of prayerful discernment, reading, and writing (all things my inner-introvert loves and craves!), while near-by Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park will allow me to stretch my legs with its breathtaking hiking and biking trails. 

        In June, I’ll spend three days up at Horton Center, run by our NH Conference Outdoor Ministries program, attending their “Clergy Sabbath Days.”  I’m looking forward to connecting with clergy colleagues for a time of shared worship, meals, workshops, hikes, and sitting out on the porch watching the sunset over Pine Mountain.  In late June and early July, my wife Stephanie and I will take a trip that we’ve been saving for and longing to take for the 17 years that we’ve been together – a two week journey to Scotland. Our plan is to rent a car and circumnavigate the country, staying in B&B’s and exploring the castles, lochs, and shear beauty of the Scottish highlands, islands, and countryside. Visiting the historic Abbey at Iona will be a highlight of the trip, and we'll end our journey with a two-day stay in Iceland. Finally, at the end of July, Stephanie and I will spend a week up at the Long Cove home in Sullivan, Maine, ending my sabbatical with a week of sightseeing, visiting lighthouses, and stopping for lobster rolls along the way.

       In between these excursions, I will be home enjoying some unstructured time at the parsonage. Herein lies the challenge of going on sabbatical when you live next door to the church you serve. It can be difficult to disengage when you’re close enough to see the comings and goings of parishioners, church events, and activities. Though it doesn’t happen often, I ask that parishioners not stop by the parsonage during this intentional time away. You may see me out and about in town at Moulton’s, at Shaw’s, or riding my bike, and it’s fine to say hello and ask how my sabbatical is going. What I do ask is that we resist the urge to ‘catch up’ on what’s going on at church, talk about pastoral concerns, or anything else that might bring my heart and mind out of my sabbatical and back into my work as your pastor. 

      Pastor Dick will be covering all the pastoral needs in my absence. I won’t be checking my church email during this time, and I will be limiting my Facebook activity as well. This is not to say that you all won’t be on my heart and mind, because you will. I love serving this church and I love all of you. Which is why this stepping away is necessary, as it is for every pastor. I carry so much of you all with me as we walk this path of ministry together, that at times it is necessary to set it all down and allow myself space to rest, replenish, and renew. And when I return, on August 1st, I will be refreshed and ready to walk with you once again and continue this wonderful mission and journey we’re on to serve God and others, together.

Peace and blessings,

Pastor Maureen

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Sermon: "Jesus Wept"

Intro to John 11:1-44

Our gospel reading this morning gives us a foreshadowing of Easter Sunday.
Easter is the day we celebrate the event that many Christians and non-Christians alike struggle to understand – the resurrection of Jesus.
Easter is when we’re asked to take a leap of faith and believe that a man who had been dead and buried for 3 days, suddenly sat upright in his tomb and walked out amongst the living.

The author of John’s gospel likely had an inkling that his readers, both current and future, might struggle with this event, so he included a story that introduces us to the idea that being raised from the dead is not only possible, but we don’t have to be divine like Jesus to experience it.

This is the story of Lazarus.  The brother of Mary and Martha, and a good friend of Jesus, who fell ill and died – and then was brought back to life for all to see.

This story is loaded with theological under and overtones.
The foreshadowing of Jesus’ own death and resurrection.
The belief that Jesus intentionally waited for his friend to die before visiting him, just so he could miraculously raise him from the dead and glorify God in the process.

The belief that it is this miracle that serves as a capstone to all the other miracles that Jesus performed in John’s gospel – turning water into wine, casting out demons, giving sight to the blind – because it is meant to prove once and for all that Jesus and God are one and the same, because only God has the power to give and restore life.

But lets set theology – and Jesus’ divinity - aside for a moment and listen to this story of Lazarus with an ear tuned to the way our humanity – and Jesus’ humanity – seeps out from between the lines.
The emotions in this story are palpable and run the gamut from anger to fear to grief to joy.     It is these emotions that both bind us and set us free, as we contemplate the many ways that we might experience a resurrection in our own life. 

The Rev. Maureen R. Frescott
The Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
April 2, 2017 – Fifth Sunday in Lent
John 11:1-44

“Jesus Wept”

When I was growing up in Long Island, NY, the first sign of spring typically came in early March, when the forsythia bushes would bloom.
In a matter of hours on the first warm spring day, the browns and grays that had dominated the winter landscape would suddenly be joined by bursts of yellow and green.
The tiny forsythia blossoms are shaped like upside down bells, and my siblings and I used to pull a few off the bushes and twirl them up in the air like helicopters, seeing who could make theirs stay airborne the longest.

When I moved 90 miles north to Western CT, I noted the first signs of spring came later on in March, when the marshlands next to our house would come alive with the sound of the spring peepers.
Peepers are tiny frogs that burrow their way under the marshy ground when fall turns into winter, and as the temperatures drop their bodies literally freeze to the point where their life signs barely register.
In the spring, as the ground and air begin to warm around them, the tiny frogs thaw out and experience a resurrection of their own as they emerge and begin singing their familiar mating call.

Five years ago, when we moved farther north to NH, I noticed that the forsythia and the peepers - these first signs of spring – typically don’t appear until mid or even late April.  
Which is why I’m still adjusting to looking out the window on April 2nd and seeing a foot of snow on the ground. 
Of course in NH, the first sign of spring could be the jogger I saw running down Boston Post Road the other day. She was wearing a wool hat, ski gloves and a tank top and shorts.  The ultimate NH spring ensemble.
A friend of mine posted a picture on Facebook yesterday that was captioned NH spring footwear – it was a picture of a pair of flip-flops with ice skate blades on the bottom.

Given the typically late arrival of spring here in New England, it’s right about now that many of us are longing for a resurrection.
We’re longing for the return of vibrant colors and signs of new life in our otherwise dreary world.

Because we’re in tune to the changes of the seasons, we understand the imagery that ties the Easter story of resurrection to the emergence of new life that we see during spring. 
We get that things die and come back to life in a new way all the time in the natural world we see around us. It’s called the cycle of life.
Where living things wither and die and return to the ground, to fertilize the soil so new life can grow.

But when we read stories like the raising of Lazarus, we often get caught up in the literal interpretation of the story – Lazarus’ literal emergence from the tomb and return from the dead – only to dismiss it as just another mythical miracle story told by an ancient people who didn’t understand that this is not the way the world works.

People don’t return from the dead.  Everyone knows that.

As much as we believe in a God who has the power to raise a mortal being up out of the grave, it’s more likely that this story was meant to be metaphorical – to demonstrate how new life could be found in the ways of Christ, and that each of us is called to leave our old ways – our old lives - behind, and experience a resurrection in spirit – where we begin to see the world with new eyes and live in the world in a new way.

But the problems is, when we reduce this story of the raising of Lazarus to its metaphorical meaning, it somehow loses its power.
We get lost in the vague and abstract thicket of what it actually means to have a resurrection experience and live our lives in a new way in Christ.  

Does it mean selling everything we own, leaving our home and family behind, and giving our lives completely over in service to God?

Does it mean just doing our best to be a kind and compassionate person,
but otherwise not concerning ourselves too much with the suffering of our neighbor or how we might be implicitly participating in systems that perpetuate injustice, poverty, and oppression?

Does it mean seeking a third way that falls somewhere in between these two extremes – whatever that may be?

It’s hard for us to understand how we might go about having a resurrection experience when we struggle with the specifics of what it means to be resurrected.

Perhaps this is because this resurrection experience doesn’t involve a checklist of spiritual practices and good deeds we need to do to achieve it.
And it doesn’t involve a systematic theology that we need to ascribe to or recite in a creed that affirms our belief in “Jesus Christ, born of the Virgin Mary, who was crucified, died, and was buried, and on the third day he rose again.”

Because a resurrection experience is just that – it’s an experience.
And when you have it, you’ll know it.
Because when you experience resurrection, you FEEL resurrected.
You feel changed and rejuvenated to the point where the world looks very different then it did before.

Because resurrection is a feeling - and not a belief – it involves those very human emotions that we see all throughout John’s story of the raising of Lazarus.

It’s rooted in the sadness that Mary and Martha felt when Lazarus fell ill.
In the fear the disciples felt when they realized they would need to risk their own lives and their master’s life to tend to their sick friend.
We see it emerging in the deep anger Jesus felt when he saw Mary and Martha sobbing over Lazarus’ death - 
not because he was angry at them for their lack of faith, but because he was angry at death itself and the pain it inflicts.
It grows within the heartbreaking grief that they all felt as they stood outside Lazarus’ tomb, where Jesus wept over the loss of his friend.
And we see it in the unbridled joy that likely came upon them when Lazarus walked out of the tomb, and Jesus said, “Unbind him and let him go” – because death no longer held him in its embrace.

It’s this unbinding – this release from whatever it is that holds us in place and keeps us from emerging from the tomb that we find ourselves in –
this is what leads to the resurrection experience.

Just talk to anyone who has overcome an addiction.
Or left an abusive relationship.
Or emerged from a deep depression.
Or felt joy again after a long period of grief.

It can feel like walking out of a dark and oppressive tomb that seemingly could not be escaped - and feeling the warmth of the sun on your face once again.

Even if we’ve never had to overcome an addiction or depression or debilitating grief, and even if we currently live a relatively content life –
God is still calling us towards a resurrection experience.
Because we are human.
And there are many ways that we can be bound by our humanity.

Our emotions can hold us in place – our anger, our fear, our pain– and keep us from responding to the needs of others with compassion, mercy, and love.

But our emotions can also release us – and unbind us – when we allow them to flow out of us constructively and we learn to work our way through them – rather than repress them or ignore them.

So how might our resurrection experience – or our desire to have a resurrection experience - change our life and the way we live in the world?

We can find an answer to this question back in our story of Lazarus being raised from the dead.

We find it in Lazarus’ sister, Martha, who told Jesus that she believed him when he said he was the source of resurrection and new life, but then went on to question him when he said, “Take the stone away from the tomb.”
She was worried about the stench.
Because she didn’t fully trust that Jesus could take something that was dead and decaying and make it come to life again.

How often do we profess a belief in the gospel – a trust in the good news that God loves each and everyone of us regardless of who we are or what we’ve done -  and then we go out into the world and act as if this weren’t true?

How often do we revere Jesus as a wise teacher and great prophet and then turn around and dismiss him as someone who lived in another time and in another place, and who preached a gospel that clearly was meant to be practiced by monks who lived in monasteries, and not by real people living in the real world?

Because in this REAL world where REAL people blow up buildings and spray bullets into crowds and commit acts of genocide driven by their hate – how is it even possible to turn the other cheek or pray for those who persecute us or love our enemies?

In this REAL world where REAL people are living on the street, and teetering on the brink of starvation, and dying of curable diseases because they can’t afford medical care – how is it even possible for us to feed, and heal, and house all those who hungry, or sick, or homeless?

And in this REAL world where REAL people like us are flawed and broken and fail to live up to God’s standard over and over again, how could God possibly love us – and how can we possibly love ourselves – just as we are?

But God made this REAL world, and God made us….just as we are.

So what would happen if we began to trust that Jesus actually knew what he was talking about when he said that through him – through following his teachings and his example – we would find resurrection and life - and change the world?

That we too could walk out of the tomb that this REAL world has us bound up in – and open our eyes and see the world as God intended it to be?

That regardless of how long we’ve all been in this tomb – and how great the stench is – God has the power to peel away the burial cloth and make us new again.

We are an Easter people.
Culled down to three simple words it means this: We have hope. 
We believe in resurrection.
We believe that suffering and death do not have the last word.
No matter how bleak or barren a situation appears, life has a habit of rising from the ashes and beginning anew.

We wouldn’t live in New England if we didn’t believe this.
We wouldn’t put up with the long hard winters if we didn’t delight so much in the promise of spring.
The moment the first green shoots push through the thawing ground and we all breathe a collective sigh of relief, and joy.
When every marsh and pond comes alive with the high-pitched chirp of awakening peepers, and the forsythia and cherry blossoms burst forth, bringing color back into our black and white world.

We live believing and knowing that spring will come again.
That new life always follows death.

May we live believing and knowing that God has the power to do the same within our beautiful yet hurting world,
and within us.

Thanks be to God, and Amen.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Sermon: "Live Long and Prosper"

The Rev. Maureen Frescott
The Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
March 19, 2017 – Faith Promise Sunday
Luke 12:22-34

“Live Long and Prosper”

Live Long and Prosper...
Many of you may recognize this greeting and the accompanying hand gesture as being from the iconic science fiction series, Star Trek.
What you may not know is that this is actually a Jewish blessing.

In the original Star Trek series, this gesture and greeting was associated with the character known as Mr. Spock.
Spock was a Vulcan, an alien race that revered logic and shunned emotional displays.
In an early episode of Star Trek, the writers had Spock visiting his home planet where the audience would see him interacting with other Vulcans for the first time.
The character of Spock was played by actor, Leonard Nimoy, and when Nimoy saw that the script called for his fellow Vulcans to greet him by putting their hands on his shoulders, that didn’t seem quite right to him….Vulcans were not touchy-feely.  
So he suggested they do something different.
He said to the producers, “What if we use a hand gesture – like this….” 

They loved the idea, and it quickly caught on with the fans as well. 
Within days of the episode airing, Nimoy said people were waving to him on the street using the hand gesture and saying, "Live long and prosper!"
And 50 years later, we're still doing it. 

Two years before he died, Nimoy was interviewed for a documentary where he talked about the first time he saw this hand gesture.
As a boy, he attended a synagogue service with his father and his Orthodox Jewish grandfather.
At the end of the service, the rabbi and the other male leaders stood up in front of the congregation and put their prayer shawls over their heads.
Nimoy said his father told him, “Don’t look.” 
Nimoy noticed that everyone present was either putting their hands over their eyes, turning their backs, or putting their prayer shawls on their heads to block their view.

As he held his hands tightly over his eyes, Nimoy said he heard the leaders and everyone in the congregation chanting and shouting.
It was chilling, Nimoy said. He knew something eventful was happening and he didn’t want to miss it.
So he peaked.

And when he did, he saw the leaders up front with their heads covered and with both hands extended out like this….. towards the congregation.

Nimoy said he had no idea what it was,
but the sound of it and the look of it was magical.

This is the shape of the Hebrew letter shin. It’s a 3-pointed letter, and it’s the first letter in several Hebrew words, including:
Shaddai (one of the names for God),
Shalom (the word for hello, goodbye and peace),
and Shekhinah, which Jews define as the feminine aspect of God that was created to live among humans.  (In Christianity, we call it the Holy Spirit)

The Shekhinah is also the name of the ritual that Nimoy witnessed as a boy that inspired the Vulcan salute.
It’s a benediction, or closing prayer, that calls on the feminine aspect of God to enter the sanctuary and bless the congregation.  The congregation is told to not look because the light and power of this presence is said to be too much for our human eyes to handle.

The Shekhinah hand gesture wasn’t the only thing that Nimoy borrowed from his Jewish heritage. 
The phrase “Live Long and Prosper” and the traditional Vulcan response of “Peace and Long Life” was based on the Jewish blessing “Shalom Aleichem” (peace be upon you) and the traditional reply of “Aleichem Shalom” (upon you be peace).

This gesture has now made its way into our popular culture, as a kind of an insider symbol or way of acknowledging, “Hey, I’ve seen Star Trek, I know what that is!”
Leonard Nimoy admitted that this made him laugh and brought him great joy, because as he said,
“People don’t realize they’re blessing each other every time they do this!”

Leonard Nimoy’s faith inspired his creativity.
The experiences he had growing up in an Orthodox Jewish community was something he valued and carried with him, to the point where it inspired his work as an actor – even if the role he was playing was that of a pointy eared space alien living and working on a 22nd century starship.

As part of our Faith Promise service today, we’re asking you to think about what it is you value about your faith and how that faith comes to inspire you and be expressed through you - and within this community.

What is it that brings you here on a Sunday morning when there are so many other things that you could be doing with your time?
What is it that brings you out on a Tuesday night to attend a Committee meeting –
or on a Wednesday morning to engage in an Adult Ed discussion – 
or on a Thursday evening to sing in the choir or to serve at a Community Supper? 

What is it that motivates you to participate in this community of faith?

Is it an underlying sense of obligation?
A belief that you SHOULD go to church because it’s good for you?
Because it’s good for your children?
Is it because on some level you believe God is watching and keeping track of your church attendance and all of your good deeds like some divine Santa Claus – rewarding and punishing as needed?

Do you come here because you love the message, or the music, or the mission, or the people – or all of the above - because each in its own way inspires you and lifts you up, and holds you up, as needed?

Or do you come because you recognize that having your own needs met is only part of the equation – because our greatest reward is found in our ability to be there for others.

As Jesus told his disciples, if we stop preoccupying ourselves with what it is we’re getting and instead concentrate on what it is we’re giving, we’ll find that all of our needs will be met, and then some.

How often have we heard people say this in our church, especially during the Stewardship Moments we’ve heard shared during worship?
We’ve heard it from Sunday school teachers who claim they learn as much from the kids as the kids have learned from them.
We’ve heard it from mission trip participants and Community Supper volunteers who express gratitude for the trust and hospitality they’ve received from the people they were sent to serve.
We’ve heard it from Congregational Care members who talk about what an honor it is to be present for those who are sick or grieving or dying – because of the deep connections we share with one another in the most vulnerable times of our life.

We often hear those who give of themselves say that they receive so much more in return, because something inside of us craves that very human connection –
that sense that we have something of value to offer others - and we do so out of gratitude because we value what it is that others have to offer to us. 

“Where your treasure is, there your heart will also be.”
As Jesus told his disciples, what we value naturally becomes the recipient of our love and our devotion.
Conversely, if we look at the things we devote much of our time, energy, and money to, we should have a pretty good picture of what it is we value, what it is we love.

Our work, our family, our home, our recreational activities, our ability to travel and explore the world around us.
Even the taxes we often reluctantly pay provide us with services and protections that we value and benefit from individually and communally.

It some ways it’s easy for us to put a value on the things that are important to us because often there’s a dollar amount that comes along with it.
The cost of our Hampshire Hills membership or Netflix subscription.
The cost of our children’s education – from kindergarten through college.
The cost of medical care - when we need a new knee to walk pain free, when our mother or father moves into an assisted living facility, when we’re told enduring radiation and chemotherapy will possibly give us a few more years with the ones we love.

But it’s much harder for us to put a price tag on our faith.
Our faith communities are an oddity in that they offer things that are difficult to assign a monetary value to. 

Things like:
Worship that inspires us, comforts us, challenges us, and offers us a framework to better understand our world.
Spiritual enrichment and formation – for ourselves and our children.
A sense of belonging and community that we may struggle to find elsewhere.
Pastoral and communal support during the most difficult and joyous times of our lives.
The opportunity to grow in our relationship with God, by being with others who seek to do the same.

How do even begin to place a value on all of this?

Perhaps the greatest lesson that Jesus tried in vain to teach his disciples was that love is not a commodity that can be bought and sold.
It’s not a resource that can spoil or rust or run out because it has limited availability.
It’s not something that we can stash in a bank or store in a barn and save for a rainy day.

The love that God has for us, and the divine love that is expressed through us in acts of compassion, and justice, and service – is so expansive and all encompassing that all of our human understandings of scarcity and ownership and transactional value do not apply.
Yes, it costs money to run this church,
and fund our ministry programs,
and keep the lights and heat (and sprinkler system) on in this 243 year-old building.

But when you consider how much you can contribute to make all of this happen,
and how much of your time, talent, and treasure – how much of your heart –
you have to give to this faith community –
please do so knowing that regardless of what you give or how much you give, God’s love for you, our love for you,
will not change.

As Jesus said, do not preoccupy yourselves with what you receive because giving in itself is it’s own reward.

“Shalom Aleichem” - Peace be upon you.


Monday, March 6, 2017

Sermon: "Longing for Lent"

The Rev. Maureen R. Frescott
The Congregationsl Church Of Amherst, UCC
March 5, 2017 – First Sunday in Lent
Matthew 4:1-11

“Longing for Lent”

The 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness wrestling with the temptations that the devil set before him has become a model for the Christian life.
The idea that we are to be Christ-like at all times and resist our innate tendency to give in to temptation and sin has been a goal and a stumbling block for Christians across the ages.

The 4th century Bishop, Augustine of Hippo, is often called the Father of Western Christianity.
But before Augustine became St. Augustine, and before he entered the monastic order, he was known for his excessive dalliances with wine and women.
As a young man he ran with the wrong crowd, boasted of his sexual exploits, and fathered a child out of wedlock. 
Years later, in his seminal book titled, Confessions, Augustine admitted that as he contemplated entering the priesthood his most often said prayer was, “Lord, grant me chastity…but not yet.”

Then we have Martin Luther, the German monk who kick-started the Protestant Reformation 500 years ago when he nailed his 95 complaints against the Catholic Church on the doors of the cathedral in Wittenburg.
Luther was so obsessed with his own struggle to resist temptation he would often kneel for 6 hours or more confessing every sinful thought that ever popped into his head to his fellow priests, much to their annoyance.

On one occasion, Martin had just completed a marathon round of confessing when he came running back in because he had forgotten to mention some insignificant foible. To which the tired and exasperated priest famously replied, “Look here brother Martin, if you're going to confess so much, why don't you do something worth confessing? Kill someone! Commit adultery! Quit coming here with such flummery and fake sins.”

And then there’s Sophia.
Sophia is a 3 year-old girl from Cleveland, Ohio, who became an internet sensation last year when her father posted a video of her adamantly denying that she was responsible for the bright blue nail polish that had come to be smeared all over her fingers, all over her bedroom carpet, and all over her Barbie doll.

Through tear filled eyes Sophia insisted that she was not to blame,
because Barbie told her to do it.
In the video you can hear her father calmly saying to her, “Okay Sophia, you’re telling me that you were playing with Barbie and then out of the blue she said, “I want you to paint me with nail polish.”

To which Sophia tearfully responded, “Uh huh, and she said it a hundred times – a hundred times! - and I kept saying, “Nooooo!”

Then her father said, “Okay Sophia, but does Barbie know that you’re not supposed to use your nail polish inside the house and that she could have ruined your carpet and your bed and all of your blankets?”

And little Sophia, with tears still streaming down her face, responded,
“I know! I told her it was a horrible idea but she wouldn’t listen to me!”

No matter how old we are, or how pious we are, we all seem to do this dance.
This dance between wanting to give in to our inner wants and desires, and our need to check ourselves and keep ourselves from doing something that causes more trouble and pain than any desire is worth.

What makes this dance so hard is that our desires are by design always weaving in and out of and conflicting with the desires of others - and the desires of God.

We desire love, acceptance, security, safety, connection, control –
but often in our quest to hold on to and satisfy those desires we end up hurting or taking from others.     And when we do that we cause injury to the relationships we have with others.

Not always intentionally.
But because we know God desires for us to live in right relationship with one another we’re called to take stock of the things we do that cause harm – both to others and ourselves - and do what we can to bring healing.

As Christians we’re called to do this at all times, but because we naturally struggle with this, the Christian calendar gives us a period of 40 days to devote our attention to this quest for healing.

Admittedly, the season of Lent is the one season on the Christian calendar that few people look forward to.
If we compiled a Christian Calendar Top Ten list and ranked the seasons by popularity, Christmas and Easter would be up there at the top,
with Advent and Epiphany coming in a close second, because most people think they’re just an extension of Christmas any way,
and somewhere in the middle would be the long season of Pentecost that stretches between Easter and Advent - the one we call “Ordinary Time” –
the season few people get excited about because, well, it’s just ordinary.

But way down at the bottom of the list we have Lent.
A period of 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday
that is traditionally marked by prayer, fasting, and penitence for sins.
Who doesn’t look forward to that?!

I had a clergy colleague of mine confess to me recently,
“You know, I really dislike the season of Lent….It’s just such a downer.”

And in many ways, she’s right.
Lent calls us to think about things that we’d rather not think about.
Our mortality - the fact that we are made from dust and to dust we shall return.
And our sin.
We may call it our brokenness, our shortcomings, our transgressions, but whatever name we have for it, it involves admitting that we’ve been less than our best selves.
And that’s not something many of us want to do for one day let alone forty.

Especially for those of us who already lie awake at night thinking about all the ways we’ve come up short – as we review the mistakes we’ve made over and over again in an endless loop in our head.

Lent has also traditionally been seen as a long arduous trudge through 40 days of denying ourselves something that gives us pleasure, like meat or sweets – or taking on something that we hope will make us a better person – like a new exercise routine, or reading the bible more, or a pledge to purge our lives of unnecessary clutter.

Either way it’s work.
Which is why people say they’re taking on a "Lenten Practice" or "Lenten Discipline.Nobody ever takes on a "Christmas Discipline," which is probably why it ranks so high on the Seasonal Top Ten List.

The idea that Lent should be a time of healing and a time of letting go
is really just a microcosm of what it means to be Christian.

To be Christian is to admit that God is calling us to a life of constant renewal. We are to continuously recreate ourselves anew by letting go of fear, and misperceptions, and the things that we hold onto because we think we need them - because they help us feel safe and secure – when what they really do is keep us from building relationships with others, and with God.

I get why some of us are not feeling in the mood for Lent this year.
With all the emotions and feelings of division that we’ve had swirling around us in recent months.
I know many of us are tired of feeling sad, and angry, and scared and bewildered.
And it would be nice to just let all of that go.

Lent is about letting go.

Lent is not about getting LOST in the wilderness,
it’s about finding our way OUT of the wilderness.
And to find your way out of the wilderness you have to first admit that you’re IN the wilderness.

You have to recognize that you’re stuck – that you’re spinning your wheels – that you’re lost in the thicket of despair or anger or just plain busyness.

To find healing – you first have to admit to yourself that you’re wounded.
To find wholeness – you first have to admit to yourself that you’re broken.

So even if on the outside we’re saying, “Oh I don’t do Lent, it’s such a downer and I don’t want to go there” – on the inside we’re longing for Lent.
We’re longing for healing – and wholeness – and relief.

When Jesus was in the wilderness, the devil tried to cajole him into giving in to his hunger, dared him to toss himself off a building as a test of faith, and offered him the chance to rule over all the kingdoms of the world.
Jesus was able to resist this temptation to give in to his human side and his desire for security, for power, for protection from harm.

But we are not Jesus.
We are going to give in to our desires.
And when we do, we will sometimes hurt ourselves and each other.
But God does not fault us for that.
God does not judge us or reject us or stop loving us because we’re human.
What God desires for us is healing.

So I would encourage us all to make it our Lenten practice to seek healing.
To spend some time taking stock of our own pain, and the pain we may have caused others, even if it was unintentional - and do what we can to make amends.

I would also encourage us all to spend these 40 days letting go of some of the things we carry that cause pain and hinder healing.
Our anger, our fear, our bitterness, our guilt, our desire for control, our reluctance to admit that we’ve fallen short, because we’re human.

When you think about it, 40 days is not a lot of time to spend on making ourselves whole again.

Blessings to you all on your Lenten journeys.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Sermon: "Rich Corinthian Leather"

Scripture Intro - 1 Corinthians 3:1-9

When Paul was establishing the first Christian churches in 50AD, Corinth was the largest and most influential city in southern Greece. 
Its key geographical position on the sea route between Italy and Asia Minor made it not just a thriving commercial center but also a perfect location as a center of missionary activity.
In a city of many different cultures, beliefs and social norms, maintaining and growing a Christian presence was challenging. The early church struggled to contend with the influences of a secular society, but it also had to contend with competing factions of Christians, each of which had aligned itself under a different teacher. 

In his letter to the church in Corinth, Paul tackled this problem of divisiveness.
Some in the church lifted up Paul as the true teacher and the one to follow. Others had chosen to follow another Christian teacher and church planter, named Apollos.
Paul makes it clear from the outset that the church in Corinth was allowing itself to be guided not by the word of God but by secular norms and thinking. By giving in to quarreling and jealousy the people have shown they are not ‘ready’ to be the church.  They are still clinging to worldly and not godly standards. Paul assigns the title ‘servant’ to both himself and Apollos, and reminds the people of Corinth that none of us can claim personal credit for our God-given work.

The Rev. Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
February 12, 2017 – Sixth Sunday of Epiphany
Deuteronomy 30:15-20; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9

“Rich Corinthian Leather”

We are a tribal people.
From the time humans first gathered in family groups and clans, we looked at each other and said, ‘These are our people’ - these are our stories, these are our rituals and customs and beliefs, this is who we are in the world.

And then we looked across at the people standing on the other side of the river, or the field, or the canyon, and said ‘they are NOT us.’
And we planted flags, and put war paint on our faces, and circled the wagons to keep our clan separate and safe and solitary.

Even as we pushed beyond our primitive instincts and learned to live together in communities, and cities, and cooperative endeavors where we all contribute to the greater good regardless of our differences,
we still have within us the need to identify with a particular tribe.

Most of our modern tribal affinities are directed towards our sports teams.
And most of it is in good fun, as we wear our team colors, celebrate the victories and commiserate over the defeats as if we were on the team ourselves, and hold a general feeling of disdain for certain fans of certain rival teams (*cough* Yankees).

And while we may hold no ill will towards the people of Atlanta, or Seattle, or Pittsburgh, you can bet there were a whole bunch of people in those cities who were praying those of us in New England would wake up unhappy this past Monday morning after watching our Patriots lose in the Superbowl.
Thankfully, that did not happen.

Beyond our sports affiliations there are a multitude of ways in which our tribal instinct rises to the surface. 
Ethnic and national pride is the obvious example, as is feeling an allegiance to the region of the country where we were born, the city and state we call home, the school we attended, even which side of town we live on.

Nowadays the tribal distinctions go as far to include our consumer preferences – we divide ourselves into groups and express a sense of superiority or contempt based on whether we prefer Mac or PC, Starbucks or Dunks, Ford or Chevy.

I think most of you are old enough to remember the 1970’s marketing campaign done by Chrysler Automobiles, where actor Ricardo Montalban told us that people who drove Chrysler luxury cars were much more savvy and sophisticated than people who drove other luxury cars, because the seats in Chrysler’s cars where upholstered with rich, Corinthian leather.

In an interview many years later, Montalban admitted that there was no such thing as Corinthian leather. The marketing people at Chrysler made up the name because they wanted something that sounded exotic and would roll off the tongue when Ricardo said it.   (Corrrrinthian!)

Corinthian leather was actually a mix of ordinary leather and vinyl.
And it came from a supplier located in Newark, NJ.

It’s hard to say how many people came to insist that they were superior to others because they owned a car that had Corinthian leather,
but you know there had to be some.

The Apostle Paul was running into this same tribal instinct in the church he established in Corinth.
The people had divided into factions – FOUR factions to be precise –
based on which teacher they revered as the one true leader of the church.

Some had lined up behind Paul – As the founder of the church in Corinth he naturally carried a lot of weight with those who were there from the beginning.  He had earned their allegiance.

But others were followers of Apollos – a teacher in the same vein as Paul who came later to water the seed that Paul had planted. 
He appealed to the newcomers and those who were excited by the work he was doing to grow the church while Paul just sent letters from afar.

Still others reserved their reverence for Peter– the apostle who actually knew Jesus, and of whom Jesus said, “Upon this rock I will build my church.”

Finally there was a small faction that looked beyond any of these second-hand disciples and pledged their allegiance to Jesus himself, as he alone was the one true teacher. No one else had any authority over them.

If Paul felt the need to write to the church in Corinth and address these growing divides then the situation had likely gotten pretty bad.
Perhaps to the point where people were hesitant to sit next to one another at worship and work together as a church.
Perhaps they had begun to distrust one another and actually fear one another.
Not just because they disagreed on who was their rightful leader.
But because they were so focused on the differences between them, they lost sight of the commonalities.

They looked out across the divide and said, “They are not us.”
Because they felt like their pain wasn’t being acknowledged by the other,
their fears were being dismissed or not heard,
their voice was being silenced.

Paul’s response to the church in Corinth may be surprising to some.
Especially to those of us who think Paul had much too high of an opinion of himself at times.
Paul doesn’t say to these warring factions, “You must reject the teachings of Apollos and adhere to only what I have taught you.”
He didn’t say, “It’s fine to revere Jesus, and Peter, as the rock upon which we build Christ’s church, but God has chosen me, Paul, to do the building, and therefore you must do as I say.” 

No. Paul didn’t use this as an opportunity to lift himself up.
Instead, he deflected the attention back towards God.
“God is the one we all serve,” Paul said to the people of Corinth.
“Apollos and I are just planters and waterers.
Think about how you can best serve God,
Not how you might serve the one who is merely pointing you towards God.”

Put the focus back on God.

That’s good advice for divided factions in our time as well.
We know all too well how divided we’ve become as a people in the wake of the the last Presidential election.
In our country, in our families, in our churches.
Some of us may be tired of hearing about it and wish it would just blow over and go away.
We can’t get away from it out there, and we may question why we keep hearing about in here as well.
Shouldn’t we check our political opinions at the door and get on with the business of serving God, just as Paul said?

But denying that there is division – denying that there is pain –
on both sides - is to deny that we are human.

We are people of the flesh.
We can’t get away from that, as much as Paul pokes and prods the brand new Christians around him to focus more on the longings of the spirit rather than the longings of the flesh.
As much as we look heavenward and immerse ourselves in all things spiritual – all things of God – we can’t escape our humanity –
our biological and emotional fleshiness.
We get hungry.
And cold.
And tired.
We get angry, and frustrated, and impatient.
We can be judgmental, spiteful, and just plain mean at times.

And sometimes we feel so much pain – so much sorrow and grief –
we feel like we’re going to crack open from the strain of enduring it.
We are flesh.
There’s no escaping that.

But when we come together as a community, God calls us to resist feeding energy to the aspects of our humanity that tear us down and drive us apart,
and to instead celebrate and cultivate the aspects of our humanity that bring us together and build us up.
Our love.
Our compassion.
Our empathy.
Our ability to offer mercy, grace, and forgiveness.
Even to those who cause us pain.
Our ability to laugh at ourselves and the absurdities of life.
And our ability to cry with and for one another,
And push ourselves beyond even our own capabilities, comfort zones, and resources,
to ensure that no one among us is left alone or left behind.

A week and a half ago, I was down in our church kitchen with a group from our congregation making meatballs for our monthly Community Supper.
As we did our best to roll the meatballs so they were all roughly the same size, and made sure they were all lined up in uniform rows on the giant baking sheets, I remember looking around the group and pondering how what we were doing would seem impossible to some.

Out of the 10 or 11 of us who were there, I can say with some certainty that we didn’t all vote the same in the last election.
We each would likely cite different issues that were important for us personally, and from our perspective, important for the future of our country.

We each were driven by different concerns – different passions – different fears, both prior to and since the election.
Yet there we were, rolling meatballs together on a Thursday afternoon,
with one common vision in mind – to be a source of hospitality and light for members of our community in need.  
Whether that need was for a free meal, friendly conversation, or a chance to connect with others and feel a little less lonely in the world.

In that moment, while rolling meatballs, while being church, together,
we were not Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives,
Trump supporters and Trump opposers.
As individuals we were all these things, and that’s okay, but as a community our common goal was be a welcoming presence to others.

Because we are all made of flesh.
And we all feel pain, we all are driven by our fears,
And we all strain against our urge to point to the people on the other side and say, “They are NOT us.”

Because we know in our core –
in the divine spark within us that originates with God –
that they ARE us.

I invite you to look around the sanctuary this morning.
Really look at the people sitting around you, at the person sitting next to you.

‘These are our people’ - these are our stories, these are our rituals and customs and beliefs, this is who we are in the world.
We are God’s people.
And we are bound together in love.

As Paul wrote to the Corinthians so long ago,

"Love is patient; love is kind; 
love is not envious or boastful
or arrogant or rude.
It does not insist on its own way; 
it is not irritable or resentful;
it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, 
but rejoices in the truth.”- (1 Cor 13:4-6)

Thanks be to God. Amen.