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.