Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Sermon: "Go Fish"

Scripture Intro - Mark 1:14-20

Our reading this morning is from chapter one of Mark’s Gospel - verse 14.
This is essentially page one of Mark’s Jesus story.
Mark doesn’t bother with a Nativity story,
or stories of 2-year old Jesus fleeing to Egypt,
or Jesus getting lost in Jerusalem as a 12 year old.
Mark’s gospel has an urgency to it.
He’s anxious to get to the point.

Mark begins his gospel with Jesus’ baptism as an adult,
he mentions briefly that Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness,
and by verse 14 he’s already calling his disciples.

Is the urgent message Mark has for his readers.
Repent is one of those religious words that makes many of us twitch.
Because its often thrown at us in a very judgmental way - 
and with not so subtle undertones of fiery consequences.
But repent was at one time a common middle English word 
that has since taken on a distinct theological meaning.
The word Mark uses in his gospel that we translate as 'repent' 
was a common word in his native language – the word “metanoia.”

In Greek it means 
“change your way of thinking.”
In Hebrew it means
“turn around, change direction.” 

Mark recognizes the arrival of Jesus in the world as the signal 
that the time of sitting idly by in the midst of pain and suffering  
and waiting for God to do something has passed.

In Mark's gospel, Jesus says, "Time's up!
Change your ways, now! For now is the time for change."
God is on the move in the world.
And God is calling us to move as well.

The Rev. Maureen R. Frescott
The Congregational Church of Amherst
January 21, 2018 – Third Sunday after Epiphany
Mark 1:14-20

“Go Fish”

Here’s a fish story for you.
In July 2008, a man named Bob Greene was sitting on the shoreline of the Kennebec River in Hallowell, Maine.
It was just before 4:30 a.m. and he was drinking a cup of coffee and waiting for the sun to rise over the river, when he heard what he thought was a bird calling in the distance.
His first thought was that it was a cormorant, and he was going to have to battle the large birds out looking for their morning meal as he fished along the shore.
He ignored it, but after about 20 minutes went by, and he was readying his fishing gear and preparing to cast off, he looked out in the river and saw what he thought was a log bobbing up and down.
Then he heard a faint cry for help and realized it was a man.

The current at the shore was too strong to wade in, so he fumbled for his cell phone and called 911.
The dispatcher asked him if he had anything he could throw to the man to hold him in place until help arrived.
So Bob Greene picked up his fishing rod, cast the line in the man’s direction and managed to hook the man’s shirt right on the shoulder.

Green was an experienced fisherman who made custom fishing rods for a living, and using his skill and being careful not to pull to hard and break the line, he gradually reeled the man in and pulled him to safety just as the EMT’s arrived.

The man in the water was 25-year-old Michael Gibbs, who had jumped into the river from the Cushnoc Crossing bridge in Augusta -- a 114-foot high span – in an attempt to take his own life.

In one of those moments that make the skin prickle on your arms, Greene told the EMT’s he had planned on fishing some 10 miles further down stream that morning but something drew him to the shoreline in Hallowell instead.
"For some reason, I was meant to be here," he said.

“Cast down your nets, and become fishers of people,” Jesus said to his first disciples.

Have you ever wondered how you would respond if Jesus showed up at your workplace – or in your kitchen as you were washing dishes or in your driveway while you were out shoveling snow, and said, “Hey (your name here), drop what you’re doing, and follow me!”

We might think that the chances of this happening are very slim.
If Jesus did return to pick a modern day troupe of disciples we might think that the chances of him choosing us to be one of the twelve are about the same as being struck by lightning, or winning the power ball lottery.
We might think that we don’t have what it takes to live a life of such devotion to one cause, and that Jesus certainly wouldn’t choose us to be an example for countless others to follow.

We are flawed after all.
We fail on a daily basis.
We yell at our kids,
Or lose patience with our spouse or our aging parents.
We have trouble managing our finances,
or we think we’re not very good at our jobs,
or we’re too old or ill and have trouble even getting out of bed in the morning.
And we struggle with loving others, and forgiving others, and offering mercy to others, like good Christians are supposed to do.
And there was that thing we did a long time ago – or are in the midst of doing right now – that God would certainly not approve of. 

So, Jesus would certainly walk right past us and choose the next person casting their net along the shore.
We’re damaged goods, and Jesus surely would not want us by his side.

Well, here’s breaking news - good news - for us all.
We’ve already been chosen.

That was the purpose of the activity we did this morning.
Before you even had a chance to think about it or know why you were doing it, you were asked to write your name on a paper fish and were invited to hang it on the fishing net here in the front of the sanctuary.

You have been chosen.
You didn’t have to submit a resume,
or get yourself out of the house to buy a lottery ticket.
And you certainly didn’t have to read through a lengthy contract containing religious doctrines and beliefs, and sign your name at the bottom as proof of your commitment.

If we think about it, that’s not what Simon and Andrew, and James and John did either.
Jesus showed up at their workplace and said, “Hey, time’s up! God needs you!” and they dropped their nets and followed.

There’s no indication that they even knew who Jesus was.
It’s not like they had just heard him preach, or were handed a pamphlet laying out his strategic plan to save the world.

There’s also no indication that Jesus knew who they were – that he chose them because they had somehow earned his attention – earned a place in the inner circle of the Messiah – because of their righteous acts or their pure hearts.

The Rev. Nadia Bolz Weber writes:
“Blessed are the ones for whom life is hard, for Jesus chose to surround himself with people like them.”

Jesus chooses us because we are flawed.
Because we are ordinary and we struggle with the consequences of being human.

If we think about it, the 12 men Jesus called were far from model disciples.
They were always questioning his teachings,
Squabbling amongst themselves over who was more important,
Doubting his prediction that he would suffer the consequences of trying to change the status quo,
And at the first sign of trouble, they all deserted or betrayed him.

Yet they too were included in Jesus’ final plea from the cross,
“Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

God calls us just as we are.
Just as we walked through the door here this morning.
Carrying whatever tangled mess we’ve been holding on to or had foist upon us.

The Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor describes our doubt over our state of chosen-ness in this way:
"What we may have lost along the way is a full sense of the power of God--to recruit people who have made terrible choices; to invade the most hapless lives and fill them with light; to sneak up on people who are thinking about lunch, not God, and smack them upside the head with glory." 

When we classify discipleship as a conscious choice,
or a divine gift we earn by merit or righteous behavior,
or something we sign off on by promising to be good Christians who accept Jesus as our Lord and personal Savior, then we’re missing the point.

We are called to be dispensers of the good news – by virtue of being human.
We’re called to care for one another – especially those who have the least among us.
We’re called to love one another – even when we do horrible things to each other.
And we’re called to live in community – to be mirrors for each other – to hold each other and ourselves accountable when we lean towards acting out of fear rather than being ministers of grace.

Being fishers of people is not about saving souls for Christ.
It’s about being the presence of God for each other when we need it most. 

It's been said that the most powerful sermon we have to offer one another are the words, "Me too." 
The greatest gift we have to give is the ability to say, 
"I see that you're hurting, I've been there too, let's find a way out together."

When we’re floating downstream struggling to keep ourselves from going under – we need someone to cast their line and reel us in.
Even if we jumped into the river ourselves.

We are all disciples in this way.
Sometimes we’re the one’s casting the line.
Sometimes we’re the one’s trying to keep our head above water.
Often we’re both at the same time.

The time is now, as Jesus said.
It’s time to stop waiting for God to step into our broken world and make it whole again.
God is already here.
Acting through us and in us.

It starts with our willingness to change.
It starts with a change in direction, a change in the way we think and act.

If we want to live in a kinder, more loving, more just world, we need to be kinder, more loving, more just people.
And not only with those whom we agree with, or think like us, or look like us, or who are deemed worthy of love, kindness, and mercy.

That’s the good news for all of us.
That we’re all worthy of being reeled in.

"Time’s up!  God needs you!" Jesus says.
Now “Go fish!”
You never know what or who you might catch.

Thanks be to God, and Amen. 

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Sermon: "Past, Present, and Future"

The Rev. Maureen R. Frescott
The Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
December 31, 2017 – First Sunday after Christmas
Luke 2:22-40

“Past, Present, and Future”

While preparing to preach on this passage from Luke’s gospel about Simeon and Anna, I came across an image that depicts the moment when these two devout elders met the infant Jesus in the Temple in Jerusalem.
It’s an oil painting done in 1988 by an artist named John Swanson.
(No, not our John Swanson...John is wonderful about fixing things around our church building but I've yet to run across a mural in the furnace room). 

I was drawn to this painting because it shows Simeon lifting Jesus up in the air with great joy, while Anna looks on with an equal expression of elation on her face.

Mary and Joseph, on the other hand, look a little apprehensive as Simeon holds Jesus high in the air, as if to say,
“Hey, be careful with our baby! He’s only a month old, you know.”

But Mary and Joseph’s parental apprehension is more likely showing because of what Simeon and Anna have just told them –
that their child is destined for greatness –
that he would be responsible for the rising and the falling of many –
that many more would oppose him - and while this would likely lead to personal heartache for his parents, ultimately, it was their child who would set the wheels of change and redemption in motion.
This was a joyful revelation, worthy of celebrating.
Thus, despite Mary and Joseph’s hint of apprehension, every face in the painting holds an expression of delight.

But what I love most about this painting are the colors the artist chose to use.
Unlike the muted colors and understated earth tones we often see in religious images, this one has bright reds, vivid purples, fiery splashes of orange, and almost florescent greens.
No drab brown robes for Joseph here, instead he seems to have borrowed the Technicolor Dreamcoat from another famous Joseph for this Temple visit.
Even Mary has flung off her virgin blue headscarf and replaced it with one striped with red, yellow, and purple.
Simeon and Anna wear robes that mirror the vivid colors of Mary and Joseph’s ensembles.
Even the Temple floor they’re standing on is a multi-colored mosaic befitting of a space set aside for the worship of their Creator God.

This image is just one panel in the center of a larger painting.
The entire painting includes a scene below with other colorfully attired worshipers looking on in the Temple hall,
and a scene above with golden angels in the rafters and a deep blue star-filled sky hovering over them all. 


When you look at this painting your eye can’t help but be drawn to the splashes of color everywhere, while at the same time continually shifting its focus back to the tiny figure of the baby Jesus at the center,
as he’s held aloft against the warm orange glow of the Temple walls.

The use of color in this depiction of Simeon and Anna in the Temple is striking.
But not everyone who looks at this painting sees what the artist intended us to see.

Approximately 8% of the world’s population is colorblind.
For most this involves an inability to distinguish between colors in the red-green spectrum.
A bright red barn may appear to be muddy brown, or pale green, or beige.
An orange and green Christmas decoration may appear to be two different shades of yellow.
A favorite blue shirt may actually be purple.
For others still, the entire color spectrum is reduced to muted shades of blacks, and browns, and olive greys.

You might imagine for a minute what it would be like to go through life never seeing the colors of the world as God created them.
Some of you here may not have to imagine it.
Colorblindness affects 1 out of every 200 women, and 1 out of every 12 men.
It’s much more common in men because the affected gene is carried on the X-chromosome.
(women are born with a back up X-chromosome in the event one happens to be faulty).

There is no cure for colorblindness, but in 2010, a company called Enchroma developed a special pair of sunglasses that compensate for the eye’s inability to see certain wavelengths of light.
When someone who is colorblind puts on the glasses the effect is truly miraculous.

You may have seen one of the many videos that people have made to capture the moment when a loved one is given a pair of these special glasses and sees true color for the first time.
There’s one featuring a 66-year-old grandfather  - a big brawny guy with a bushy mustache, who at first glance seems like the type who is not easily impressed and prefers to hold his emotions in check.
As he stood outside at what appeared to be a back yard birthday party, he seemed perplexed when he was handed the wrapped package containing the glasses, and a little annoyed that his family insisted on filming him as he opened it, especially as his large fingers fumbled with the small box and the multiple layers of packaging.
(You can tell he’s been married many years, when he stopped himself and asked his wife, “Are we saving the wrapping paper?” before he tore into it.)

When he finally got the box open, he seemed pleased to receive a gift of sunglasses, yet he was still unsure as to what the fuss was all about.
Than at his family’s urging, he put the sunglasses on.
Immediately he began to pound his fists against his legs and then rubbed his hands together in an effort to contain his joy.
But he could not contain it.
He began to shake and tried in vain to hold back his tears as he swiveled his head left and right, and then slid the glasses up and down his nose, checking the view with and without, as if he could not believe what he was seeing.

Off camera, we hear his granddaughter say: – “Can you see with our eyes now, Poppy? What colors do you see?”

But her grandfather was rendered speechless as the tears began to flow – from him and his family.
When his wife urged him to look at the flowers behind him and the grass in front of him and describe what he saw, with a catch in his voice he finally he said,  “It doesn’t look like mud. It’s amazing.”

The video ends with this big brawny grandfather giddily and joyously clapping his hands together over and over again –
like a child who had opened a gift he had longed for but had never expected to receive.

I imagine Simeon reacting in much the same way when he was handed the child named Jesus.
He just may have lifted the tiny baby in the air as he did in Swanson’s painting.
Here was a man – a respected elder in the community - who had lived most of his life in a world of muted colors – a world full of oppression, and poverty, and hopelessness – and suddenly as he was handed the light of Christ I imagine the world around him burst into bright and bold hues and shades he had never seen before.
Here was the gift they had long been promised.
The one the prophet Isaiah had said a thousand years before, would come to change the world.

Anna shared Simeon’s assertion that this was the light they had been waiting for.
In her 84 years she had likely seen many a Messiah come and go.
Those who promised to shake things up and change things for the better and clear out the corruption in the system once and for all.
Every generation birthed a new ideal, a new way of seeing the world, a new savior, or saviors, who pledged to take on the establishment and supplant it with something that benefited the many rather than just the few.

There was a time when Anna and Simeon were members of that generation.
The young and idealistic - who shook their heads at those who lived in the past while they instead lived in the moment with an eye towards building a better future.

But as Simeon and Anna aged they changed.
Just as all of us do.
Gradually, their present became their past.
Friends moved on and married, priorities shifted, and they began to see that the system they longed to change was not so changeable after all.
Perhaps they learned it was better - for them – in the long run -  to follow the rules and resist rocking the boat.
To hold on to what they had and to not take any unnecessary risks that would only bring more discomfort to their already difficult lives.
To ensure they had enough to take care of their immediate and future needs, and the needs of their family, and to not concern themselves too much with the needs of their neighbor, or the stranger – which were impossible to meet.

Perhaps this is how it was for Simeon and Anna.
Or perhaps they still held onto a spark of their youthful idealism.
But lacked the energy and the stamina to do anything more than pledge their support to the next generation who seemed eager to carry the torch they’d left behind.

We don’t have to be above a certain age or be born colorblind for the world around us to lose or lack brightness and boldness.
Between eyes that need glasses to see distances or read labels,
eyes that cloud and dim over time, eyes that strain to see through cataracts and degenerative diseases, there aren’t many of us who see the world in true 20/20 living color as God created it.

This is why, in the absence of special glasses or corrective surgery, we rely on those who CAN see the variety of shades and hues to help us to see the beauty, and the radiance, and the fullness of life and the world that we may be missing. 

This is the beauty of the story of Simeon and Anna that Luke gives us in his gospel.
Here we have Israel’s past – represented in the wisdom of the religious elders and in the history seeping through the Temple walls – coming face to face with the youthful enthusiasm of Israel’s present – in the form of Mary and Joseph and the tiny gift they’ve birthed into the world.
And together they’ll lay the groundwork for Israel’s future –
where God will one day step in and redeem the world, when enough of the people call for it and truly want it and live it in their hearts.

This is our past, present, and future as well.
A convergence of generations and ideals and longings and leanings.

The community that we’re building today in Jesus’ name is part of the future that Simeon and Anna envisioned when they laid eyes on the Christ Child.
It’s part of the future that Luke and Paul and the other New Testament writers envisioned when they laid the groundwork of the early church.

In the present, we carry the torch of those who came before us,
Hopefully, learning from their mistakes and building on their successes.
And knowing that someday our present will be the past that some future generation will look back on and say, “These are the things worth keeping and these are the things that need to change.”

On a personal scale, we’re conditioned to do this stock taking on an annual basis.
As we look back on the past year - and look in the mirror - and tally up our successes and failures.
The relationship we began or ended, the job we lost or found, the exercise routine we followed religiously or never got around to starting.

As a church – as followers of Christ - it benefits us to do a similar stock taking of our past, and our present, to give us a clearer vision of our future.
So we can let go of what is holding us back and lean into what God is calling us to be.

It’s been said if we’ve ever wondered how we would have responded if we were present during pivotal moments of the past –
When Jesus called his disciples to leave everything behind and follow him,
When St. Francis demonstrated what it means to devote one’s life to the care of the poor,
When Jewish families knocked on the doors of their German neighbors and asked to be taken in,
When angry mobs of white citizens surrounded a black child, preventing her from going to school with their children…
If we’ve ever wondered how we would have responded when confronted with poverty, prejudice, or injustice – when asked to live into to our Christian calling - we need only look at how we’re responding now.

I do wish that we could put on a pair of special glasses and see the world as God created it to be.
To see every color vividly and fully.
To see the beauty and potential of this world, fully realized.

The light of Christ helps us to see that.
It fills in the gaps where our vision falls short.
And shows us what we could be – if we truly want it in our heart.

So on this New Year’s Eve,
as we ponder where we’ve been,
where we are,  
and where we’re going…as people of God,

May we follow in the footsteps of Simeon and Anna,
And rejoice at the arrival of the Christ Child,

And lift him up high so that he might illuminate the path before us.
Just as he did for our ancestors,
And will continue to do for generations to come.

Thanks be to God, and Amen.