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.