Monday, December 31, 2018

Sermon: "Belonging to Truth"

Scripture Intro - John 18:33-38a

33 Our gospel reading for Christ the King Sunday is one that we’re accustomed to hearing during Holy Week rather than the week before Advent begins.
This text from the gospel of John recounts the conversation that Pontius Pilate had with Jesus just after Jesus was arrested and brought before Pilate to receive sentencing for his alleged crimes.
If this were an episode of Law and Order we might picture Jesus standing in a court room with the judge standing over him asking him how he pleads – guilty or not guilty.

One caveat we need to mention whenever we read from John’s gospel, is that we should hear this gospel in its context.
John was writing in the late 1st century some 70 to 80 years after Jesus died.
This is a time when the Christian community was experiencing infighting between those who wished to stay connected to the faith’s Jewish roots and those who wished to distance themselves from the synagogue and create a distinct Christian identity.
The community also contained a mix of Gentile and Jewish Christians who for various reasons wanted to distance themselves from the religious leaders who played a part in the death of Jesus.

In John’s gospel, which was written for those who wanted to break away from the synagogue, we find the entire Jewish tradition lumped into one monolithic group and labeled as “the Jews” –
We’re told the disciples hid out of fear of “the Jews”, and it was “the Jews” who called for Jesus’ execution. 
Taken out of context, these texts have fueled anti-Semitic beliefs and acts of discrimination and violence for thousands of years.
Even if we don’t hold such beliefs ourselves, whenever these texts are read aloud in our worship spaces we should acknowledge how they have been heard and how they are still heard – both by those sitting in our pews, and by our Jewish brothers and sisters.
Context matters. As always.

Liturgically, we hear this text today because as we come to the end of our Christian calendar year, before beginning anew with Advent, we reach the culmination of Jesus’ ministry. That pivotal point where we, like Pilate, contemplate whether this man who stands before us is truly the revolutionary leader the world has been waiting for.
And ultimately, we consider, in what way do we allow Christ to rule in our lives?

Beyond asking ourselves on occasion – What Would Jesus Do? – how do the words and actions of Jesus influence our own words and actions – in a real and life changing way?
To whom do we belong? And whose truth do we own?


The Rev. Maureen R. Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
November 25, 2018 – Christ the King Sunday
John 18:33-38a

“Belonging to Truth”

What does it mean to belong?
What does it mean to belong to Christ?
What does it mean to belong to a Community of Christ, like this one?

As some of you may know, our congregation is participating in a series of workshops called “Creating and Leading the 21st Century Church” offered by the NH Conference of the United Church of Christ.
Every other month, myself, Kate, and members of our church council, gather with the pastors and lay leaders of 9 other churches in NH and MA to talk about what it means to be church in this ever-changing world.
We share our success stories, explore our common challenges and struggles, and learn about the underlying historical, relational, and cultural forces that shape each of our congregations, as well as our individual understandings of what it means to belong to a community of Christ.

The workshop we attended this month focused on the way we approach and implement change in our congregations.
Specifically, we talked about the differences between technical change and adaptive change.

As the world changes around us, we often talk about how we as a church must change  - to meet and serve people where they are in today’s world,
to come up with new ways to show others that being a part of a faith community adds value, meaning, and purpose to one’s life,
and more practically, to ensure that our congregation continues to be a presence in this community for many years to come.
But while we may recognize the need to enact change in our congregations, and show a willingness to adopt change, too often the change we apply involves a technical fix, when what is needed is an adaptive shift.

For example, how would you respond if someone came up to you after worship and said,
“I don’t know why I keep coming to church, I can’t hear what’s being said during the service, most of the time I have no idea what’s going on.”

A technical approach would be to assess the problem –
perhaps the person has a hearing impairment, or the people speaking are not projecting as they should, or there’s an issue with the acoustics in the sanctuary or the sound system – or all of the above.
The next step would be to explore possible solutions with someone with expertise in this area – in this case, we’d bring in our resident and gifted sound technician, Herb Archer.
The last step would be to make the necessary changes to address the problem – have the participants speak louder and clearer, adjust the levels of the microphones or speakers, provide personal amplification devices for those with hearing impairments, or if needed, install a whole new sound system.

A technical approach typically has an identifiable problem and solution,
and often one person, or a small group of people, can enact the change with clear results.
An adaptive approach is much more complicated.

What if we make the needed technical changes and the person who shared the initial feedback about not knowing what’s going on in worship continues to feel like they’re missing information or being left out of the loop with what’s happening in the congregation?
Perhaps their concern goes deeper than hearing what is being said in worship?
Perhaps what they’re expressing is a wider sense of not feeling connected – not feeling included – not feeling as if they belong?

In this case, it may be tempting to identify a technical problem that can be solved with a technical change, when the real issue may require an adaptive change – a change that is not as easy to identify,
a change that may involve multiple issues and solutions -  none of which is guaranteed to provide a lasting fix.
And most importantly, an adaptive change involves not just one person or a small group enacting the change, it involves the congregation as a whole.
It involves changing expectations, changing attitudes, changing behaviors, and in this case, changing the congregational culture to one where every effort is made to include, involve,  and communicate – so all members of the community experience a sense of belonging.

But as we know, feeling like we’re connected and included is only one side of belonging to a community of Christ.
The other side of belonging involves the commitment and covenant we make to be an active follower of Jesus, within this community and in the wider world.
It’s the commitment we make to serve others,
to grow in our relationship with God,
and to grow in our relationship with others –
which is the part of the commitment to Christ that we often struggle with the most.

Jesus acknowledged this struggle in his conversation with Pontius Pilate on the night he was arrested.
He said, “My Kingdom is not of this world…and my followers know this.”

As followers of Christ we stand hesitantly in two very different worlds.
One world where we’re told to love our neighbor, forgive our enemy, and care for the least among us.
And one world where we’re told to mistrust our neighbor, fear our enemy, and to care for only for our country, our family, our own people, and leave everyone else to fend for themselves.

In one world we’re encouraged to live as a communal body, to reach consensus, and to ensure every voice is heard and every need is met.
And in the other world we’re encouraged to live as individuals, to seek out what is best for us, and to reprimand or silence those who point out inequalities in privilege, power, and partisanship.

In one world we’re told the last will be first, the meek will celebrated, and those who turn the other cheek will prevail.
And in the other world we’re told the last will lose out, the meek will be trampled, and those with the biggest weapons and the mightiest fists will prevail.

It’s no wonder why many of us stagger in here on Sunday mornings, seeking respite and peace.
We have these conflicting messages playing in our heads all week long and we come here hoping to make some sense of it all.

Yet here again we encounter Jesus talking about this utopian world –
this Kingdom of God that he talks about more than anything else and expects us to help usher in  
while at the same time we have no choice but to live and function in this less than utopian world - the one that consistently contradicts the teachings of the One whom we’ve committed ourselves to follow.

To say that we belong to Jesus and that his teachings rule our lives is to invite constant conflict as we navigate in this world….
because almost every word and action of consequence presents us with a point of decision, and conflicting choices.

Do we store up treasures on earth, by putting away money for retirement, or do we store up treasures in heaven by giving all that we have to the poor?
Do we welcome the stranger and the refugee, opening our homes and our hearts to those seeking sanctuary, or do we honor our laws and our borders and insist that it’s only fair that all follow the same rules and process?
Do we punish those who do wrong and seek retribution, or do we leave the judging to God and offer forgiveness to those who trespass against us?

These are not easy choices to make, and as members of the community of Christ, we don’t all agree on which are the correct choices.
Some would say that neither is correct – and that what God requires of us while we’re still in this complex and broken world is a nuanced response that lies somewhere in between.
But we can’t deny that the constant wrestling that takes place within us when we’re confronted with these choices can be downright tiring.

In our gospel reading, we can almost hear the weariness in Pilate’s voice as he struggles to keep a foothold in two different worlds. 
Pilate served and derived his power from the world of the Roman Empire, but as a ruler in the Roman province of Judea he also inhabited the world of the descendants of Abraham, who prayed to a God Pilot didn’t recognize and followed a law that he couldn’t comprehend. 
The province of Judea sat at the edge of the Roman Empire, where uprisings could quickly gain momentum and spiral out of control, and Pilate had orders to keep the peace at all costs. 
Which he did. Pilate had the blood of many on his hands,
but he also understood that playing the part of politician in two worlds sometimes required him to bend to the will of others.
Thus, with one foot in each world, it worked in Pilate’s favor to appease the Jewish leaders and keep uprisings from occurring.  

So we can imagine what Pilate must have felt when he encountered Jesus, who was dragged before him in the middle of the night and threatened to upset the balancing act that Pilate had taken such great care to achieve.

Jesus told Pilate, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

Not to the voice of powerful.
Not to the voice of politicians and kings and the ones who hold the purse strings.
But to the one who speaks for the marginalized, the meek, the ones who feel like they don’t belong.

There’s an invitation here.
An invitation to step from one world into another.
To stop trying to balance between the two and make a true attempt to shift our perspective, our allegiance, from the truth of this world, to the truth of God’s world.  

Of course, Pilate responded to Jesus’ invitation with the same question many of us ask ourselves, especially in today’s world:   “What is truth?”

Thankfully, God sent us Jesus to answer that question.
And we find the answer…
In the gospel, in the beatitudes, in Jesus’ teachings and parables,
in his life itself.
Which is why we seek to belong to a community of Christ,
So we can learn and practice that truth, together…and adopt it as our own.

If you’ve been in worship the last few weeks you know we’ve enacted a change here in the sanctuary – we’ve installed a new sound system.
The change was partly brought on by a technical issue.
The wireless frequency we use to operate our sound system has been reallocated by the FCC for use by broadband internet and cell services.
Which means if we didn’t make the change we’d soon be hearing cell phone conversations in the middle of worship.
Of course some may find those more interesting to listen to than the sermon.

But the change in our sound system was also part of our longer-term plan to adapt to our changing world and meet people where they are.
With the new system, we’ll now have the ability to digitally record the service and make it available on our website as a podcast,
so those who are unable to be here on Sunday morning can still hear the music and the message and the announcements, and feel connected to this community even when they can’t be with us physically –
because they’re working, or traveling, or have family obligations, or are homebound by illness, age, or other mobility challenges.

Making a change in our sound system is just one way we honor our mission to be welcoming to all.
To help those who wish to be a part of this community to feel like they’re included – like they belong.

Belonging to Christ is a daily challenge – as we seek to distinguish between the truth of this world and the Truth that Jesus offers us in God’s world. 

But I for one feel hope and joy and excitement – as we seek to find this truth and live it out, together, as this community of Christ. 

Thanks be to God, and Amen.

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