Sunday, April 8, 2018

Sermon: "True or False?"

The Rev. Maureen R. Frescott
The Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
April 8, 2018 – First Sunday of Easter
John 20:19-31

“True or False?”

In 1849, an Englishman named Samuel Rowbotham published a 16-page pamphlet titled: “Earth: Not a Globe.” 
In it Rowbotham proposed that the Earth is not a round sphere, but rather a flat disc, with the North Pole at the center, and encircled at its outer edge by a wall of ice, otherwise known as Antarctica.

Rowbotham was not a scientist, he was a writer and an inventor.
He based his proposal on a series of observations he recorded while attempting to measure the curvature of the earth along the Old Bedford River in Cambridgeshire, England.
The river is actually a canal that runs for six miles in a near straight line on relatively flat terrain, making it an ideal place to observe how an object moving downstream disappears over the horizon the further it moves away.
The problem was, Rowbotham did not observe this to be true.

He waded into the canal, leveled a telescope about 8 inches above the surface of the water, and sent a small boat with a flag on its mast downstream.
He expected that it would reach a point where it would descend out of sight as the earth curved away from him. But it did not.
The boat remained at the same measurable height the entire length of its journey and was still fully visible through the telescope at 6 miles away.

Rowbotham repeated his experiment multiple times over the course of a decade, and in 1865, fully convinced that he had proved that the earth was in fact flat, he published his findings in a 430-page book that bore the same name as his earlier pamphlet, “Earth: Not a Globe.”

Others in the general public were intrigued by his book, and devised their own experiments that repeated Rowbotham’s findings, and they too became true believers in the flat-earth movement.  

It didn’t take long for those with more than a basic understanding of physics to point out that Rowbotham’s observations did not take into account atmospheric refraction.
In non-scientific terms, this simply means that light bends when it moves through the earth’s atmosphere, and depending on the air temperature and how close you are to the ground when you’re observing an object at a distance, the object may appear to be level with you or even raised up, even when it is in fact lower than you are.
It’s an optical illusion.
It’s the same effect that makes the pavement appear to shimmer when we look down the road on a hot day.

Rowbatham and most of his followers were not convinced by the scientific explanation offered to them, choosing to trust their own eyes over the so- called facts presented by those who claimed to hold the truth.

Rowbotham responded to his detractors with another pamphlet titled,
The inconsistency of Modern Astronomy and its Opposition to the Scriptures, in which he wrote, "The Bible, alongside our senses, supports the idea that the earth is flat and immovable and this essential truth should not be set aside for a system based solely on human conjecture."

We may laugh at these antiquated beliefs and dismiss them as the product of an age where scientific knowledge and access to information was not as vast as it is now.
But that doesn’t explain why an organization known as the “Flat Earth Society” still exists today.
And its membership is currently growing, thanks to the internet, and the ability it gives us to access and embrace alternative truths –
or alternative realities as some would call it. 

According to a recent poll, only 66% of millenials believe that the earth is a sphere. The remaining 34% are skeptical about whether this is true, are uncertain about what they believe, or fully believe that the earth is in fact flat. 

Then we have Mike Hughes, a 61-year-old daredevil from California who just two weeks ago launched himself 1800 feet into the air in a home-made rocket.
Hughes’ goal is to eventually soar 52 miles above the earth’s surface to prove that the earth is flat, and in doing so also prove that NASA astronauts, like Neil Armstrong and John Glenn, were paid actors, and the moon landing was actually staged as part of an elaborate plot to deceive the world. 


Given all of this questioning of a truth that most would say is undeniable and irrefutable, perhaps we should give poor old Doubting Thomas a break,
and not wag our finger at him because he was a little skeptical when he was told that a man he knew and loved, and whom he had seen die right before his eyes, had in fact been raised from the dead.

The reality is that none of the disciples came to believe on faith alone.
All of them questioned and doubted.
They sat huddled in a locked room, convinced that Jesus was dead and buried, despite having been told by Mary Magdalene just that morning that she had seen the risen Christ outside the tomb…
and despite having looked into the empty tomb themselves.
If they had truly believed that Jesus had risen, they would have been out shouting it in the streets rather than hiding behind a locked door in fear for their lives.

As we mentioned in the intro to this morning’s scripture reading, the risen Christ appeared four times in the Gospel of John.
When we read chapter 20 of John’s gospel in its entirety we may notice that John is weaving a thread through Jesus’ resurrection story.
A thread that connects each appearance to the others with a string of human beings questioning and misunderstanding and not seeing what is right before them. 

Peter and another disciple look into the empty tomb and then go home,
because they don’t understand what they have seen.
Mary looks right at Jesus as says, “Where have you taken my master, my friend?” because she thinks she is talking to the gardener.
A week after Jesus appears to the disciples in the locked room, we find them still in that room, with the door shut – because they still can’t comprehend what they have seen – and it’s not compelling enough to force them into the streets.
And later still, after Thomas has touched Jesus’ wounds and the other ten have even further proof that Jesus is alive –
He appears to them once again, on the beach while they’re out casting their nets, and we’re told they looked at him standing on the shore and even carried on a conversation with him, and still did not know who he was.

So I suggest we ease up on poor Thomas.
He wasn’t the only one to question what was true and what was false.

The Resurrection is not something we’re meant to easily comprehend.  
It doesn’t make sense to us…
That someone who is dead can suddenly come back to life.
And all the comparisons to spring flowers, and butterflies, and death providing nourishment for new life to grow – these analogies only go so far before they begin to break down.
We know Jesus is not a flower, or a butterfly, or an autumn leaf returning to the earth.

And while many of us believe in our heart of hearts that "with God all things are possible" – even raising someone up from the dead,
there aren’t too many of us who live our lives believing this 100% of the time.

Which is why we hedge our bets.
While we may believe God is ultimately in control –
and that God will provide – and with God all things are possible…
We still know and accept our limitations as human beings.
We put on seatbelts to protect us from harm, 
and take medications to ease our pain and cure our ills, 
and stash money away for a rain day.

Because we can’t know the future.
Because we know what it means to suffer – due to hunger, sickness, poverty, or injustice.
Because we know that when our loved ones die they’re not coming back to us, at least not in this life, in this form.  

So when we speak about the resurrection – What is it that we’re hoping for?

What changes for us when we believe that God really did raise Jesus from the dead?
Perhaps the more relevant question for some of us is:
What changes for us when we realize that the disciples who were there, who witnessed the risen Christ multiple times, also struggled to believe?

If I had a dollar for every time someone came to me as a pastor – or to Pastor Dick, or to all the other pastors who’ve served this church over its many years and said,
“I don’t know if I belong in church because I have doubts…”

If I had a dollar for every time this has been said, well, suffice it to say, we’d have enough money to fix our sprinkler system and fund our ministries for years to come.

From little children who make us laugh when they hear the resurrection story and ask, “How’d he do that?”
To 8th graders who question whether they should be confirmed because they still don’t understand the Trinity… (spoiler alert: nobody does),
To teens who ask me if they can participate in youth group even if they’re not sure if they believe in God,
To full-grown adults who’ve rejected the faith they were brought up in and aren’t quite sure whether they’re still a Christian but know that they’re something to this way of Jesus that resonates with them…
because it’s the religion OF Jesus that moves them,
and not necessarily the religion ABOUT Jesus.

Unlike some pastors, I love the Sunday after Easter.
I love the story of Doubting Thomas.
Because this is the Sunday that we get to tell everyone that it’s okay to doubt.
It’s okay to ask questions.
It’s okay to read the Bible and say, “This part inspires me, this part comforts me, but this part over here, I don’t even know why that’s even in there.”
It’s okay to wonder about the things we’re asked to believe about Jesus – like the virgin birth, or walking on water, or even being raised from the dead.

It’s okay to wonder where God is when we’re feeling like the universe is conspiring to pull the rug out from underneath us,
and we’re struggling to see the good in others or find hope in the world.

God can handle our doubt.                         
God is so much bigger and more giving and forgiving than we often imagine.

Four times, in the Gospel of John, the risen Christ appears before those who knew and loved him.
And each time, before he was recognized,
his appearance caused doubt and confusion.
But still, he kept coming back.
He came back, even after the horrendous events of Good Friday,
when his friends betrayed him, denied him, and deserted him.
He came back to them - not with anger or judgment - and said,
“Peace be with you. As God has sent me, so I send you.”

So tell me again, why we think God expects any more from us?
Why we expect to believe without seeing, and have faith without doubt?

Jesus returns to us again and again.
To remind us that we’re not walking in this world alone.

And ultimately, whether we believe the earth we walk upon is spherical or flat, this is the one truth we can count on.

Christ is alive and moving in our world.
Christ has risen, indeed,
Hallelujah and Amen!

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Sermon: "A Stone's Throw"

The Rev. Maureen R. Frescott
The Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
Easter Sunrise Service – April 1, 2018
Mark 16:1-8

“A Stone’s Throw”

As each of you arrived here this morning, you were given a stone with a single word written upon it – HOPE.

It’s not a large stone, but as you hold it, I invite you to feel the weight of it in your hand.
Now flip it over in your palm or between your fingers so the blank side is visible - and imagine that it’s just an ordinary unmarked stone.

Now imagine carrying this stone with you – in your hand – wherever you go.

You might imagine that even though it feels light in your hand right now, if you never put it down and had to carry it everywhere, it’s heaviness would surely increase over time.

Back in the early 1980’s, I participated in a charity walk-a-thon with my younger brother, Larry.
We decided it would be cool to carry a portable radio so we could listen to music along the way (yes, I am dating myself here).
It was a small boombox and only weighed about 3 pounds, so we thought we could easily carry it the entire 15 miles of the walk.
At mile one we were happily bouncing along to REO Speedwagon and Supertramp.
By mile five our arms had gotten so tired we were trading the radio back and forth every few minutes, saying “You carry it” “No, You carry it.”
By mile eight we were on the phone to our mother begging her to pick us up because we were so exhausted from carrying that 3 lb radio. 
(and yes, we had to find a pay phone to make that call)

So you might imagine, how even this small stone would seem to grow heavy if you had to carry it wherever you went.

Not only that, its sheer presence in your hand would make it difficult to go about your daily routine.
If you think about all the things you do with your hands during the day – brushing your teeth, eating multiple meals, folding laundry, driving a car, working on your computer, washing your face – and then think about how you might accomplish all those tasks while trying to also hold onto this stone – you would soon see how even a small stone can become a burden if we’re forced to carry it with us – everywhere.

Now imagine this stone is an actual burden that you’re carrying.
A worry - or regret - or fear.
Perhaps an unhappiness or issue that you’re dealing with at work or school.
A decision that you’re reluctant to make.
A broken relationship that you don’t know how to fix.
Perhaps it’s a mistake you made years ago that follows you and keeps you anchored in the past.
Or a hopelessness about the current state of the world that has you immobilized in the present.
Or a deep concern about money or security that has you anxious as you look ahead to an uncertain future.

It may not require a huge leap of your imagination to see this physical stone that you hold in your hand as the manifestation of a very real burden that you’re carrying.

And while you may be tempted at this point to just throw the stone away,
as a symbolic ‘letting go’ of whatever it is that is weighing you down,  
I ask you to resist that urge.
(especially since you’re all facing me I don’t necessarily want to get hit by all those stones)

Instead, keep holding that stone, and step with me just for a moment into the story we just heard from Mark’s gospel…

Where Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and a woman named Salome – are walking into a graveyard at daybreak on a Sunday morning.
They’re headed towards the stone tomb that held the lifeless body of their teacher and friend, Jesus.
The body was put in the tomb after being removed from the cross late in the day on Friday – and a large stone would have been rolled across the entrance of the tomb to protect the body until it could be anointed with oils and properly prepared for burial.
There was no time to do this on Friday, before the Jewish observance of Sabbath began at sunset, so the women came on Sunday,
after the Sabbath was over, carrying their special oils and perfumes –
and as they walk towards the graveyard we hear them wonder aloud to one another –
“Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?”

The stone would have been much too large and heavy for the three women to move on their own, and they were likely hoping that some of Jesus’ other followers might be there to help.

So when they arrived at the tomb and saw that the stone had already been rolled away, their initial reaction was probably one of relief –
“Oh, thank God, someone knew we were coming and got here early to make sure the stone was moved for us.”

But this relief quickly changed to confusion, and uncertainty, and even fear – when they looked in the tomb and saw that Jesus’ body was not there.

Instead, they saw a mysterious young man, who told them,
“Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised up; he is not here….
Now go, tell the others that Jesus has gone ahead of you to Galilee;
there you will see him, just as he told you.”

Now, our other gospel writers – Matthew, Luke and John –
have their own versions of this resurrection story –
where Jesus physically appears to the women at the tomb.
But Mark chooses to end his gospel here,
with the women fleeing in amazement and fear,
carrying only the HOPE of seeing Jesus in Galilee –
letting the joyous mystery of the empty tomb speak for itself.

If you read the Gospel of Mark you will find additional verses that talk about sightings of the resurrected Jesus, but must biblical scholars agree these verses were added on many years later by some future editor,
Perhaps because the story seemed unfinished or unsatisfying with its original ending – as it left us staring into an empty tomb with only HOPE to hold onto.

But as I sat in our sanctuary on Palm Sunday and again on Maundy Thursday and listened to the story of Jesus’ last night with his disciples in the garden – where we’re told “he withdrew about a stone’s throw away” from them to pray, I was reminded of the hope that rested on that mysteriously moving stone in Mark’s gospel.
Whether Jesus is praying in the garden - while we, his disciples, struggle to stay awake - or arising from the tomb pushing aside the heavy stone that stands in his way, he is never far from us.

The invitation that Mark leaves us with still stands.
“Jesus has gone ahead of you, and is waiting for you to join him.”

Now I invite you to flip over that stone in your hand,
and run your finger along the engraving –
literally feel the hope that has been impressed into it.

I encourage you to take this stone with you -  
not as a reminder of the burden that you carry – whatever that may be,
but as a reminder of the hope that you have been given –
in the life and eternal presence of Jesus –
in the unconditional love and grace of God –
in the power that LOVE has to release all burdens, and conquer all fear.

Regardless of what you do or do not believe about how the tomb came to be empty, or how the stone was mysteriously rolled away, know this…

The GOOD NEWS is that Jesus is alive and moving in the world.
And he is beckoning for us to join him. 
Carrying HOPE wherever we go.

      Thanks be to God, and Amen