Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Sermon: "Easter People"

1 Corinthians 15:1–11 - Intro

In Paul’s time, the city of Corinth was the largest and most influential city in southern Greece.
Its key geographical position on the east-west sea route between Italy and Asia Minor made it not just a thriving commercial center but also a hub of missionary activity.
While the church in Corinth struggled to contend with the influences of multiple religious and cultural traditions and beliefs,
it was also experiencing infighting amongst competing factions of Christians,
each of which promoted different beliefs and practices within the church.

The letters we have from Paul give us only one side of a conversation.
But given Paul’s words to the church in Corinth we can deduce that the people there were having a serious issue with competing beliefs about the resurrection.
In fact, Paul spends more time on this topic than any other topic in the letter.

The people in Corinth were wrestling with some of the same questions that we have.   
Is it possible for a human being to return from the dead?
Why would God choose to raise one person over all others?
Couldn’t we just follow Jesus’ teaching without talking about resurrection?

Belief in God’s ability to raise people from the dead was a core belief for some Jewish sects in Paul’s time, but they believed God would raise everyone, at the same time, on the Day of Judgment, at the coming of the Messiah.

Why raise just Jesus? 
And why at that time, when clearly the last days had not arrived?

For Paul, there is no Christian faith unless God has raised Jesus from the dead.
You can almost hear the pleading in his voice in this letter as he makes his case for belief.
We are a people of the resurrection. An Easter People.

If God has not raised Jesus, if God has not claimed victory over death,
writes Paul, then why believe in the gospel at all?
What is the Good News if Jesus does not live?

The Rev. Maureen R. Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
February 10, 2019 – Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
1 Corinthians 15:1-11

“Easter People”

What does it mean to be a people of the Resurrection?
What does it mean to believe in restoration and renewal?
What does it mean to believe in redemption – to have faith in second chances – or even third, fourth and fifth chances at new life?

Those of us who live in New England know a thing or two about restoration, renewal, and redemption.
We live in a climate where every year the trees and plants and flowers die off, shed their leaves, or go dormant, plunging us into a frozen and bleak landscape colored only in shades of white, black, grey, and brown for six months at a time.
Our Puritan and Pilgrim forbearers had no choice but to learn how to survive under these conditions – as they strived to make food, supplies, and resources stretch through the cold dark days of winter –
and waited for the world to restore itself with the coming of spring.

A few years back, the editors of Yankee Magazine devoted an entire issue to "Yankee frugality"- the strong cultural drive handed down by our forbearers that compels us to hold onto resources, recycling and repurposing them as needed, in an effort to eek out every last bit of usefulness.

The magazine asked its readers to send in tips, stories, and anecdotes about personal or family thriftiness or prudence and offered a free subscription to whoever had the best tale to tell.
The editors received hundreds of responses – many of which were written on the back of envelopes, on brown paper bags, or on recycled computer paper.
People sent in tips on what to do with worn-out socks and panty hose,
how to continuously reuse tea bags,
and creative ways to repurpose dryer lint and the little balls of cotton that come in pill bottles.
We New Englanders are experts in making things last.
One woman wrote, “I’m so frugal I’ve even kept the same husband for 48 years!”

One reader said before going to bed each night he stopped every clock in his house and then restarted them in the morning, to make the internal workings last longer.

Another wrote about the shoeshine rag he bought for 15¢ the day he joined the army — October 12, 1948.
He used the rag every morning for 15,638 consecutive days.
He wrote: “According to my calculations, my cost is approximately $.0000095 cents per day — a fair return on my investment.”

But the winner of the Yankee Magazine frugality contest was a man who shared a story told by his wife’s grandmother.
While attending a church supper near her home in Massachusetts, she saw an older woman seated near her slap her knee with both hands, and then firmly squeeze her hands together.
After a few moments the woman reached discreetly under her dress and pulled out a dead mouse.
She looked at it thoughtfully for a moment,
then retrieved a used napkin and wrapped the mouse in it saying,
“I’ll take that home for my cat.”

It may be a sign of Yankee frugality to show a reluctance to throw away or let go of something that we feel still has value, purpose, or life left in it.

Might we then say it’s a sign of spiritual frugality to be reluctant to throw away or let go of a belief, a dream, a relationship, or a human life that still has value, purpose, and vitality left in it?

Tales of spiritual frugality are all around us.
Take Jermaine Wilson, the Mayor of Leavenworth, Kansas.
Before he became Mayor, Wilson started a free legal program for those who’ve served time in prison for petty crimes and drug offenses,
to help them have their records expunged,
to make it easier for them to get jobs, rent apartments, and get a fresh start in life.
Jermaine Wilson knows what it means to be given a new life.
As a young man, he had spent 3 years in prison himself for a drug conviction.
After turning his life around he found there weren’t many doors open for young black men who have criminal records.
While it is possible to have minor offenses expunged it can cost thousands of dollars in legal fees to do so,
which means once again, those who have the least amongst us are denied the opportunities that those with money and means are given –
even when what is being offered is restoration and redemption.

I suspect that the reason why Paul was so insistent that his fellow Christians believe in the possibility of resurrection was because he had experienced it himself.
Not only because he claimed to have witnessed it,
in the vision he had of the risen Christ on the road to Damascus,
but also because Paul himself was living proof that restoration and NEW LIFE in Christ was possible, for those who believed it to be true.

When we read these ancient letters that were sent to the early churches it helps to know something about the community Paul was writing to,
but it also helps to know something about Paul.

Paul was not one of the early adopters of the Christian message.
He was not there at the beginning walking side-by-side with Jesus’ disciples putting in the sweat equity to get the fledgling faith off the ground by recruiting followers and building churches.
For the first few years after Jesus’ death he did the exact opposite.
Paul was a Pharisee, and he loathed the followers of Jesus and everything they stood for.
He thought they were unnecessarily dividing the Jewish community by promoting a false messiah.
And he went out of his way to spread misinformation and propaganda,
painting this new sect of fellow Jews as backwards and barbaric.

We might imagine him whispering in the ears of those he knew could be counted upon to spread doubt and fear:

Did you hear that the followers of Jesus believe they are EATING the body of their messiah, and DRINKING his blood? 
Do you see the way they gather in insular communities, pooling their resources, and ignoring the social and religious customs and structures that we all hold dear?
Do you hear how they talk about their messiah being raised from the dead,
as if that were actually possible and as if they expect educated and devout people of the true faith to actually believe it?

But Paul went beyond spreading distrust and misinformation about the Christian communities forming in his midst.
He openly persecuted them.
He sent spies into the catacombs and backroom gatherings of those who claimed to be following The Way of Jesus. 
He intercepted personal letters and gathered names, making lists of those who belonged to this cultish community or professed its beliefs.
He had them dragged out of their homes, beaten, and thrown in jail.

The Book of Acts tells us that Paul was not only present at the stoning of Stephen, the first follower of Jesus to be killed for his beliefs,
but Paul was the one who ordered it.
To go from stoning Jesus’ followers to building churches in Jesus’ name was a huge shift in Paul’s life trajectory.
To go from devoting one’s life to perpetuating fear and discord to devoting one’s life to spreading a message of love and peace is a true example of restoration and redemption.
One might even say it’s a true example of resurrection.

Paul DID believe that Jesus rose from the dead and he based his entire system of faith upon it.  How could he not?
Given what he had seen, and what he had experienced with his own change of heart.
Nothing short of a miraculous resurrection could have done that.

Paul counters the disbelief of the people of Corinth by reciting a lengthy list of witnesses, including the disciples themselves and 500 additional people 
(many of whom were still alive by the way if anyone wanted to go ask them themselves) – but Paul recites this list with a sense of frustration in his voice.
As if he’d grown tired of having to do it,
as he’d likely done many times before.

If the people of Corinth, and the other early Christian communities,
had trouble accepting the resurrection as truth, when they lived amongst those who claimed to have seen it with their own eyes,
what hope do we have?

We have no choice but to take it on faith – that 2000+ years ago, a man named Jesus walked the earth, took a lot of risks in the name of love,
ended up being killed for his efforts, and then rose from the dead –
as living proof that love cannot be conquered by fear –
that life is stronger than death…

And that every life – no matter how broken, misused, or abused –
brings with it the possibility of renewal, restoration, and redemption.

Presbyterian minister, the Rev. Lewis Galloway writes:
Whenever Christ turns a life around, heals a relationship,
transforms a bitter heart, forgives a wrongdoing, teaches a fearful person to love, or shows a self-centered person how to give, there is a witness ready to take the stand to tell the good news of God’s grace.

Paul was just such a witness, as are we.

Think about a transformation you’ve experienced
or witnessed in your own life.
How has the GOOD NEWS of the possibility of such a resurrection changed you? 
And how does it continue to change you?

We are witnesses of the power of restoration, renewal, and redemption.

We are an Easter People.

Thanks be to God, and Amen.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Sermon: "Jesus Justice"

The Rev. Maureen R. Frescott
The Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
January 27, 2019 – Third Sunday after Epiphany
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-9;  Luke 4:14-21

“Jesus Justice”

What does the Lord require of us?
According to the prophet Micah, we are to love kindness, do justice,
and walk humbly with our God.
Micah echoes the words of Isaiah.
Isaiah speaks of a God who LOVES justice, and compels us to love it as well.
But what does it mean to love justice?
What does it mean to do justice?
What is it that comes to your mind when you hear the word justice?

Language can be a tricky thing.
The same word can have several different meanings depending on the context.
The context in which it is used, the context in which it is heard,
and the context that we all bring with us given our varied backgrounds and biases, experiences and expectations.

There are numerous words in our English language that mean different things depending on the context.
The word “present” is just one example. 
As in: “There is no time like the present to present a friend with a present.”

Words can also shift in meaning over time.
The word “awful” used to mean worthy of awe.
The word “silly” used to mean lucky or blessed.
And the word “nice” used to mean foolish or simple minded. 
Which gives a whole new meaning to the phrase, "Have a nice day!"

Culture and location also play a role.
If you walked into a super market in England looking for chips, biscuits, and crackers, your shopping cart would look very different than if you took the same list into a market here in America.
In the UK, chips are fries, a biscuit is a cookie, and a cracker is something you pull apart at Christmas dinner, and find a paper hat and a joke inside.

This same word, different meaning trickiness applies to adjectives as well.
One of my favorite British TV shows is “Escape to the Country.”
It’s like a British version of House Hunters, where people looking to move to the country tour several homes and share what they like and dislike about each one.
During the first few episodes I watched, it took me by surprise whenever someone walked into a room and exclaimed,
“Oh I love this  – it’s so homely.”

Apparently in the UK, “homely” is a good thing. 
It means cozy or comfortable – or “homey” as we might say.
So the next time someone calls your decorating style homely – you can say, “Why, thank you!”

Justice is one of those words that can shift in meaning depending on the context.
It can refer to retribution, restitution, or restoration.
Its motivating impulse could be a desire to enact judgment and punishment for a crime.
Or it can come from a desire to right a wrong, through reciprocal offerings of remorse and forgiveness.
Or it may be rooted in a desire to create balance where there is imbalance, equity where there is inequity.

When we link the name of God with the word justice,
with all the varied understandings of each that we bring to the mix,
we muddy the waters of meaning even further still.

Ask any Christian what they think of when they hear the phrase “God loves justice” and you may get very different answers.

Is the God who loves justice one who wishes to punish sinners for their transgressions by enacting eternal judgment,
while also rewarding those who’ve demonstrated righteousness and repentance? 

Is the God who loves justice one who commands us to seek harmony and fairness in our relationships, to treat others as we wish to be treated, and offer one another mercy, grace, and forgiveness when we are wronged?

Is the God who loves justice one who weeps over the injustice in our world – economic injustice, racial injustice, social injustice – any imbalance or inequity created and perpetuated by systems that favor the rich over the poor, the privileged over the oppressed, the powerful over the powerless?

What comes to mind for you when you hear Isaiah speak about our God who loves justice?

Isaiah speaks of a God who brings a message of hope to those who lacked hope – to the poor, the oppressed, the imprisoned, and the brokenhearted.
And Jesus uses those same words to describe his mission in this world:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.”

This is the heart of the gospel.

Of all the texts that Jesus could have read from the Hebrew scriptures to launch his ministry, he chose the one centered on liberation, healing, and justice.
He chose the one that inspired his mother Mary to sing about their God who would bring down the powerful and the proud and lift up the lowly and the meek.

In the first few centuries of the church formed in Jesus’ name this was the mission Christians followed, this was the gospel they preached.
As Christian historian Diane Butler Bass writes:

“Throughout the first five centuries people understood Christianity primarily as a way of life in the present, not as a doctrinal system, esoteric belief, or promise of eternal salvation. By followers enacting Jesus’ teachings, Christianity changed and improved the lives of its adherents.”

One of the prominent voices in the early church, Justin Martyr, argued that following the way of Christ “mended lives."
He wrote:

We who formerly . . . valued above all things the acquisition of wealth and possessions, now bring what we have into a common stock, and communicate to everyone in need; we who hated and destroyed one another, and on account of their different manners would not live with men of a different tribe, now, since the coming of Christ, live with them as if they were family, and we pray for our enemies.”

Sharing wealth, caring for everyone in need,
living as if tribal boundaries no longer existed,
praying for enemies rather than destroying them.

That’s a radical understanding of the gospel right there. 

And it may not quite sit right with our modern understanding of personal liberty, responsibility, and fairness.

It didn’t sit right with Justin Martyr’s second century contemporaries,
which is why he was killed for refusing to play by the rules of the empire.
It didn’t sit right with Jesus’ first century followers either.
Which is why so many walked away from him when he said the poor and the meek will be the first to enter God’s Kingdom, while the wealthy and mighty will be last.

What is it about this understanding of justice that makes us so uneasy?

For centuries, the Catholic Church has been one of the biggest proponents of justice for the poor, the oppressed, and the imprisoned –
from St. Francis of Assisi to the Jesuits and Franciscans to the modern day Nuns on the Bus who travel the country speaking out about social inequalities, to the official Catechism of the Catholic Church - which has an entire section labeled “Social Justice” which states:

“The equal dignity of human persons (as created by God) requires the effort to reduce excessive social and economic inequalities (and) gives urgency to the elimination of such sinful inequities.”

Now I just said something there that brings us back to the subject of language, and context, and changing meanings over time.

I used the phrase “social justice” – which has in recent years been politicized and been used to drive a wedge between opposing ideologies in the political arena and in the church.

In fact, one prominent political pundit warned his followers that if you find the term “social justice” or "economic justice" on your church website, run as fast as you can, because it’s a code word for socialism and Marxism.

That would include just about every Catholic parish, as the Church and numerous Popes have been using both terms for over a century.
Most of the mainline Christian churches would be found guilty as well, including Congregationalists, who have historically been on the forefront of justice movements such as the abolition of slavery, the plight of the poor, women’s suffrage, and the recognition of civil rights for all.

But mainline Christians and Catholics are not the only ones lamenting that issues relating to injustice in our social systems have become politicized and polarized.
Lamar Vest, a Pentecostal Pastor, noted Evangelical leader, and former President of the conservative leaning American Bible Society, recently appeared on The 700 Club to discuss the new Poverty and Justice Bible—a Bible that highlights more than 2000 verses that talk about poverty and justice.

Vest described a survey in which people were asked to identify the sources of several quotes that talked about the Christian responsibility to care for the poor and address issues of social injustice.
All of the quotes were from the Bible.
Several were from Jesus himself.
Yet 54 percent of the respondents attributed the quotes to Hollywood celebrities or liberal politicians.
Only 13 percent recognized them as being from the Bible.

This says as much about Biblical literacy as it does about our current political climate.

But given this shift in understanding of what it means to address issues of inequality and justice in our society from a position of faith,
perhaps we should stop calling it social justice
and start calling it Jesus Justice.

To make it clear who it is God anointed to bring good news to poor,
to proclaim release to the captives, to set the oppressed free.
And who it is that commissioned us to follow in his footsteps and do the same.

Which brings us back to our original question.
What does it mean to LOVE justice and DO justice?

We may disagree on how we DO justice.
We may believe charity begins at home, and it’s the responsibility of individuals or the church to care for the least among us.
Or we may believe it’s the responsibility of the people as a whole, and that we can’t truly address social injustice without reforming the systems that produce and perpetuate it.

The reality is, we may never agree on how to best DO justice.
But what we can do is DO JUSTICE in whatever way rings true for us. 

Whether it’s volunteering our time at a community supper,
supporting our church’s mission work through charitable giving,
or working within the system or pushing from outside the system to enact reform and change people’s lives for the better.

The important thing is that we LOVE justice, as God LOVES justice.

That we are not hesitant or ashamed to admit that the good news of Jesus Christ was meant to liberate us all –
because as long as some of us are held captive by poverty, oppression, and extreme imbalances of privilege and power,
none of us is truly free.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon us  – 
what Good News shall we bring to those who are joyously waiting to hear it?      

Thanks be to God, and Amen