Sunday, December 6, 2009

Sermon: "People Get Ready"

West Newton, Massachusetts
November 29, 2009

“The house lights go off and the footlights come on. In the orchestra pit, the violin bows are poised. The conductor has raised his baton. In the silence of a midwinter dusk, you hold your breath to listen. You are aware of the beating of your heart…The extraordinary thing that is about to happen is matched only by the extraordinary moment just before it happens.
Advent is the name of that moment.”
— Frederick Buechner, Whistling in the Dark

Scripture Lessons:
Jeremiah 33:14-16
Luke 21:25-36

“People Get Ready”

When I was six years old, it was during Advent that I became well acquainted with the word anticipation.

In church every Sunday we’d watch the lighting of the Advent wreath, eagerly counting how many candles were left to burn.
A few weeks before Christmas, my father would bring home the tree and lean it against the back of the garage, and we'd wait for the day when we would haul it into the living room, cover it with lights and tinsel, and pull out the tattered box containing my mother's fragile glass ornaments from the 1950's, marveling at how much prettier they were then all the others.
And like many children of the 1970’s, during Advent I spent an inordinate amount of time pouring over the pages of the Sears and Roebuck Christmas catalog. Imagining how complete my life would be if I found a Barbie Dream House AND a GI Joe Headquarters under the tree.

Yes, when I was six years old it was during Advent that I became well acquainted with the word anticipation.

I have a vivid memory of lying awake on Christmas Eve night. The cold wind rattling against the windowpane, while the old radiator in the corner of my bedroom clanked and clanged filling the room with a dry hissing heat.
I lay perfectly still under the covers. Not daring to move.
My eyes clenched shut but my ears wide open.
Straining to hear beyond the rattling and the clanking, to every sound that did not belong. Every creak, every knock, every thump on the ceiling above had me convinced that St. Nicholas and his reindeer had arrived, and Christmas had finally come.

Oh, if only we as adults could await the arrival of Christ with the same anticipation and excitement of a six-year-old waiting for Santa Claus.

Advent for many of us is unfortunately a time of hurried business, as we prepare for Christmas day with shopping, cooking, decorating and traveling. We pack our schedules with visitations, parties and pageants, and while we enjoy the ride we can’t wait for December 26th to arrive, when we can stop, put our feet up and exhale for the first time since Thanksgiving Day.
The anticipation associated with Advent is there humming in the background as we make our holiday preparations, but we have to ask ourselves, what is it that we’re preparing for?

Now, lest you think this is going to be yet another Advent sermon bemoaning the fact that we’ve lost the true meaning of Christmas to the evils of consumerism, think again –

That’s a road that’s been trod down too many times before,
and in the enduring words of Robert Frost:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I
I took the one less traveled by…

Advent is when we typically talk about anticipation and hope as we await the birth of the Christ Child, but this week’s scripture readings have something ELSE in store for us.
Before we head off running down Main Street toward yet another Christmas, decking the halls and singing songs of joy as we go, we’re going to take a little detour down the road less traveled by - as we talk not about the first advent, but the second advent.

The word Advent means “arrival” or “coming.”
Every year on the first Sunday of Advent the lectionary gives us a text that deals not with the first coming of Jesus, but the second coming. Right off the bat we’re reminded that the anticipation we feel as we prepare for the arrival of the newborn babe in the manger is only part of the story.
Before we get to the beginning, we have to look at the ending - and as modern day Christians, particularly here in the United Church of Christ, we tend not to dwell too long on the ending

We love the story – During Advent we spend a whole month preparing for Jesus’ birth, and in the spring, during Lent, we spend another month preparing for his death, but there’s a whole other part of the story that we would prefer to just skim over, if we give any attention to it all.
But in reality this is the part of the story that we’re preparing for, this is the Advent - the coming - that we’re anticipating.

The first Advent, the birth of Christ, has already happened. It’s a past event for us.

It’s the Second Advent, the return of Christ to this world - this is the event that lies in our future.

Yet we can’t bring ourselves to talk about it.
Because it involves a cataclysmic change that we just can’t wrap our minds around.
It involves terminology and theology that for many of us is not part of our every day vocabulary or our confessed beliefs. It’s where we encounter words like Eschatology - Armageddon – Apocalypse – and Parousia (which is just a fancy word for ‘second-coming’).
Words like these often catch in our throats as we say them, or need to be proceeded by qualifiers like “some people believe” or “the tradition has it.” But no matter what words we use to describe this future event, the result of the cataclysmic change that both Jesus and Jeremiah predict in our scripture readings today involves the end of the world as we have come to know it.

Perhaps the reason why we’re reluctant to talk about it is because we don’t quite understand what “the end” means. But as any good storyteller knows, endings often lay the groundwork for extraordinary new beginnings.

The prophet Jeremiah tells us:
“The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.”

And in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus says:
“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”

This is apocalyptic language.
Apocalypse is another word for “unveiling” or “revealing.”
Apocalyptic writings revealed the things to come.
Viewed in its historical context, this is the language of a people who are experiencing a cataclysmic event or pain that they have no other means to comprehend. It is the language of a people who feel persecuted and small, to the point where they express their hope for deliverance, and their trust in the God who is really in charge of everything, by speaking in large, dramatic terms. How else would God upend the power of something as mighty as the empires of Babylon and Rome than by doing big things in big ways, even bringing down the heavenly bodies from their orbits?
For people in need of a dramatic reshuffling of the cosmic deck, metaphorical images like the moon and stars falling out of the sky signify the end of one age and the birth of another.

In our time we may leave apocalyptic language such as this to the writers of the Left Behind series or to our Christian brothers and sisters on the opposite end of the theological spectrum, but seeing worldly events as having apocalyptic meaning was fairly common in first century Jerusalem, as it was in Jeremiah’s time some 600 years prior.

Jeremiah’s words sent a mixed message to the struggling nation of Judah. In the aftermath of the destruction of the first Temple, his words were both comforting and distressing.
The people liked the parts about Yahweh’s protection and coming reign. They did not like the part about exile and laying down their strategies of resistance against the power of Babylon. Jeremiah’s words offered hope, but not the kind of hope they were looking for.
They wanted to act, and he was telling them to wait.

Be patient for just a while longer – a Messiah will soon come to set us free.

600 years later, the author of the gospel of Luke offered his first-century readers a similar message. The apocalyptic passage that we heard today from Luke is also found in the gospel of Mark, but in Mark it carries a greater sense of urgency. In Mark’s gospel, the destruction of the second Temple in Jerusalem was to be a sure sign that the end times had begun. Yet, unlike Mark, who wrote his apocalyptic predictions soon after Jerusalem fell to Rome, the author of Luke wrote his gospel some 15-20 years later.
If the destruction of the Temple was to be THE sign that the end of the world was soon to follow, why had the end not yet come? Why were the people of God still suffering when Christ had supposedly set them free?

This is a question that has echoed down through the ages.
Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place.” Yet twenty years later, the generation who had heard Jesus’ claim with their own ears, began to die off, and the people began to ask, “Why has the end not yet come?”

Another twenty years went by, Jerusalem fell, and Mark said surely this is a sign that the apocalypse has begun!
But again the people were left to ask,
“Why has the end not yet come?”

Twenty years after that, the author of Luke said the fall of Jerusalem was NOT the beginning of the end, but the beginning of the time of the Gentiles, for the Gentiles were now invited into God’s covenant along with Israel, and both were called to hear the Good News that the Kingdom of God is near.
Fast forward through 2000 years, and a multitude of doomsday predictions that have yet to come true, and still the people ask: “Why has the end not yet come?”

Some would respond, when Jesus said “this generation” shall not pass, he was referring collectively to all the generations that will live between the first and second comings.
We are still in that time, the time in-between, the time of the Gentiles and the Church. The end will come when all have heard the Good News.

Others would say that it is not our place to even ask WHY the end has not yet come.
Jesus said that even he did not know when it would occur; only God was privy to that information. It is enough for us to know that we need to keep alert, to be on guard, for the Kingdom will come when we least expect it.

As writer and pastor Barbara Brown Taylor describes it:

Jesus will come like a thief in the night,
“with a wool cap pulled down low on his head and socks on his feet so that you do not even know he is there, until you wake up to the sound of someone breathing over you in your bed.
You can lock your windows and deadbolt your door, there is no way to keep him out. All he has to do is watch you, and you will show him the way in.”

But as Jesus tip toes in without a sound, the Kingdom of God will arrive with a mighty roar. As Luke tells us, just as the budding leaves on a fig tree announce the arrival of summer, the shaking of the heavens and the earth will announce the arrival of the Kingdom of God.
And there is no reason to fear when this happens, for it is Good News that this day will soon be here!

But for those of us sitting here comfortably or uncomfortably in the twenty-first century with our mortgaged homes, upwardly mobile careers, and 401K retirement plans, this is not good news; in fact it’s rather disturbing news. This is not the future that we are planning for.
Few of us have a ten-year plan that includes the Apocalypse.

But to the first century fishermen and artisans living under the oppression of Roman rule, to hear Jesus say that soon all of this will be gone - this was GOOD NEWS.
Soon, it would all be over, the persecution, the poverty, the pain. All of it will pass away and be replaced by a new heaven and a new earth. Where there will be no more gnashing of teeth, no more tears. Death itself, will be defeated, and humankind will be redeemed, restored to its original form as one who is made perfect in the image of God.

We don’t have to be a first century fisherman to welcome Jesus’ promise of the coming of the Kingdom of God. There’s plenty of poverty, persecution and pain in this century to understand why there is a need for an apocalypse – a revelation of things to come. There are plenty of us who are teetering close enough to the edge that we’d welcome the sight of Jesus descending from the clouds, as the world as we knew it crumbled beneath our feet.
Because we know the second part of the promise is that a new world will grow in its place.
A world free of war, poverty, and disease.
A world where greed, genocide, violence, oppression, and injustice in all its forms no longer exist. A world where love conquers fear, hope conquers despair, and light conquers darkness.

But isn’t this the world we’re already anticipating?
Isn’t this the world we’re working towards making a reality, right here, right now?
Isn’t this the world we see when we say our faith calls us to make the world a better place?

Isn’t this the world we help to bring into being every time we help our neighbor, love our enemy, give to the poor, spend time with the sick, visit the imprisoned, clothe the naked, and stand up for those who are oppressed, marginalized or suffering injustice?

As members of the United Church of Christ we may not spend much time thinking about the end times, or worrying about the impending signs of the apocalypse.
But we do know how to envision the Kingdom of God.

My suggestion during this Advent season is that we take the time to sit with our anticipation of the things to come.
To spend just as much time thinking about what the second coming might bring, as we do fussing over the details of what the first coming has already given us.

To step off the well-trodden path lined with Christmas lights and Nativity scenes, and take a stroll down the road less traveled by.
To wander down the darkened road of what will be.

If we do this often enough, perhaps, just perhaps, we may find ourselves lying awake one Christmas Eve night, with our eyes clenched shut and our ears wide open, listening for the sounds that don’t belong.....the thump on the roof, the creak in the floorboard, the breath in our ear, the cries of joy rising up from the world outside, letting us know that the Kingdom of God has finally come.

*Barbara Brown Taylor quote from Home by Another Way, 1999

Monday, September 14, 2009

And they're off!

Today is the first day of classes of the new seminary year…and so far it’s been oddly peaceful. After being home for 4 months (living on a semi-busy road with airplanes zooming over our roof) I’d forgotten how quiet it can be up here on campus. My first class isn’t until 6 pm so I’ve eased into the day by sleeping late and going for a walk around the lake.

I had a busy weekend - driving back up to Boston on Thursday, participating in new student orientation events on Friday and Saturday, and attending Worship at my Field Ed church on Sunday. But so far this semester is shaping up to be a lot less hectic then my previous two, at least academically.

I’m taking 3 classes instead of 4 because of my 15-hour-a-week Field Ed obligation, and after looking at the syllabuses the workload is much lighter than most of my previous classes. My “History of American Religion” class doesn’t even have a reading assignment until the 3rd class, and each of my three classes has only 3 or 4 papers/projects which are well spaced out over the semester – As opposed to last semester when it seemed like I had a paper due every week in addition to writing sermons for preaching class and doing group projects for my Worship class. And thankfully, the main text for my New Testament class is the same one I used in my undergrad New Testament class so I’ve got my fingers crossed that we’ll be sailing into waters that I’ve already charted, thus easing the work-load/stress-factor even more. I do have an additional 1-½ hour Field Ed ‘small group’ class that meets every week in conjunction with my Educational Ministry class. It will require some writing but it will mainly be listening and discussion.

I expect things to get hectic soon enough once I get into the swing of Field Ed, but even my Field Ed church is taking its time getting up to speed.
I know quite a few students here on campus who’ve already started at their Field Ed sites, even participating in Worship this past Sunday, while mine is having difficulty getting their Teaching Parish Committee together to have our initial meeting. We’re tentatively scheduled to meet next Sunday, but the Field Ed Supervisor, who also happens to be the Pastor, still has a “new supervisor” education requirement to fulfill before he we can have our first one-on-one meeting. And until I meet with him and get an idea as to how open he is to my participating in some of the things that I’d like to participate in (pastoral care/counseling, weddings/baptisms/funerals) and get a feel for how often he’ll let me preach, I can’t really work on my “Learning Agreement” with the Teaching Parish Committee. The Learning Agreement is what spells out exactly what tasks I’ll be performing and how many hours a week I’ll be doing them.

He did tell me yesterday that he’s going on vacation in 2 weeks and he wants me to fill-in as liturgist (a member of the congregation is preaching). At this church the Pastor performs all the liturgical duties (Welcome, Call to Worship, Invocation, Confession, Offertory) in addition to the Pastoral Prayer, Lord’s Prayer and Benediction, and a lay reader does the scripture reading. So I suppose this will be my first official duty as a Field Ed student. Of course while he was telling me this what was running through my head was: “What pastor goes on vacation 2-weeks into the new church year? Isn’t that what summer is for?”

Oh well, I suppose I should be grateful that I have the opportunity to ease into this new school year, and not feel like I’m being pulled in six different directions right from the get go. Now, I’m going to enjoy the rest of this beautiful afternoon and plant myself in an Adirondack chair on the quad and read. Something deep and theological….like a Star Trek novel.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Sermon: "Messy Jesus"

King Street UCC, Danbury CT
August 23, 2009
“Messy Jesus”
John 6:56-69

When I was about 8-years-old, and my brother Larry was 7, we awoke one morning and much to our joy discovered that a new house was being built just up the street.
Larry and I stood on the sidewalk and watched in amazement as the workers dug a giant hole for the foundation.
They worked for hours piling the dirt sky high, until the end of the day when they packed up their equipment and left the lot unattended.

My mother, who must have seen the gleam in our eyes, told us that we were not to go anywhere near that construction site.
You know that wasn’t going to happen.
There was a huge pile of dirt, and a giant hole in the ground.
What kid could resist that?
Sure enough, only an hour later she caught us playing on the pile of dirt.
My mother dragged us home warning us that if she caught us out there again there would be hell to pay.
Well, my mother never actually used the word “hell,” but saying there would be heck to pay just doesn’t have the same effect.

The next day, the hole got even bigger, and we watched as the workers poured concrete around the sides.
And once the workers packed up and left for the day,
Larry and I were right back up on that pile of dirt.

We’d run to the top using our hands to claw our way up, and then we’d slide back down the other side. We played King of the Hill, Moses on the Mountain, and invented creative ways to propel ourselves from top to bottom – face first, feet first, sideways, upside down. We had dirt in our teeth, dirt in our ears, we even had dirt in our underwear, but we didn’t care.

After a day spent in the hot summer sun, the dirt was cool on our skin.
And joy was found in the moment we became airborne as we launched ourselves off the top of the pile.

Then Larry and I heard our mother calling us home for dinner.
We quickly ran off the lot so she wouldn’t catch us in the act and then we casually skipped on home as if we had spent the afternoon lying on our backs watching the clouds roll by.

But as we skipped up the front walk our mother flew out the screen door and held up her hand stopping us in our tracks.
We were a mess.
We were covered in dirt from head to toe. Our hair was plastered down with sweat, our faces were flushed and our knees and elbows were scraped and bloodied.
My mother looked at us with fury in her eyes and said,
“Have you been playing at that construction sight again?”
Larry and I looked at each other, then back up at our mother,
And in unison we said, “Noooooo, we weren’t anywhere near that pile of dirt, honest!”

My brother and I were covered in dirt from head to toe, yet we tried to deny it. Much the same as the disciples did in our scripture reading today.

The disciples had been with Jesus from the beginning, following him from town to town, watching him heal the sick, raise the dead, and mingle with the likes of prostitutes and tax collectors.
They stood off at a distance and watched as this crazy preacher man predicted the end of the world and the coming of the Kingdom of God.
And they got up close and personal as they watched him wipe sweaty brows, touch diseased skin, and rub spit and dirt into a man’s eyes to help him to see.

They watched Jesus put his hands in the muck of life and dig right in.

If you think about it, Jesus’ hands must have been quite a sight.
Rough and dry from a lifetime spent in the desert sun, his cuticles split and his palms scarred from years of working with wood, surely there was dirt under his fingernails and dirt ground into the swirls of his fingertips.
But it wasn’t so much the condition of Jesus’ hands, but rather what he did with them that irked his detractors. Jesus broke every purity law the Pharisees came up with, yet the people continued to follow him… because they sensed that there was something about him that would set them free.

By the middle of John’s gospel the crowd following Jesus has swelled to 5000 plus, as we heard in the lectionary a few weeks ago.
A moving mass of humanity, pushing against each other and reaching out to receive the bread and fish as it passed through Jesus’ calloused hands.

The masses continued to follow Jesus as long as he fed them and kept them entertained.
But when he turned to teach them, they began to drift away.
Jesus said to them,
'I am the Bread of Life . . . whoever eats this Bread will always live.'
And those who did not believe in resurrection or eternal life, slowly wandered away.
Then Jesus said,
“I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father."
And those who were turned off by his claim that he, a mere human being, was on the same level as God, also turned and walked away.
Then Jesus said,
“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”
And the crowd of 5000 dwindled back down to 12.

Jesus’ disciples pulled him aside and said,
Master, what are you doing?
We had a good thing going here, the people were hanging on your every word, watching your every move, then you have to go off and spout some nonsense about living forever and eating your flesh and drinking your blood?
Do you blame them for walking away?
This teaching is difficult, who can accept it?

And then Jesus responds with one of the most confrontational lines he’s ever spoken to the disciples,
Jesus said, “Does this offend you?”

Jesus went on to say:
If this bothers you, how are you going to react when it’s crunch time and you’re picking my broken body up off the ground?
How are you going to react when I’m nailed up on that cross begging God to end my pain?
How are you going to react when I return three days later proving that death no longer has a hold on you, that with God you will live forever?
Those who walked away in disgust have already proven that they cannot stomach what I have to say, or what is to come,”
and then Jesus looked the disciples straight in the eye and said,
“Do you wish to also go away?”

How would we respond to these questions?
Does this offend you?
Do you wish to also go away?

There was a time when my answer to these questions was, yes.
I am offended and I do wish to go away.
Like many young people I left the church behind only to come back to it years later.
But even now, when Jesus starts talking about eating his flesh and drinking his blood I get nervous.
As a former Catholic, today’s scripture reminds me too much of what I left behind.

In the Catholic tradition, the bread and wine is not just a symbol of Christ, it is believed that the elements transform into the actual body and blood of Christ.
This teaching is difficult, and I could not accept it.
I also couldn’t accept the image of Jesus I was shown in my youth.
In the church and school I attended we didn’t have a plain cross hanging above the altar, we had a crucifix.
A 7” tall wooden crucifix with the very real, and very dead body of Jesus hanging on it.
As a child, kneeling in the pew and looking up at the altar, that’s the image of Jesus that I knew.
I could see the sweat beading on his brow, and the blood dripping from the wound in his side, and from the thorns on his head.
I also recall seeing the image of a grief stricken Mary, sitting with the lifeless body of her son draped across her lap, her arms cradling him, just as she did when he was a child.

In the UCC we like to say that the message of Christianity is not about how Jesus died, but how he lived.
We focus on his teachings of hope, and love, and justice.
Not on his death.
A dead Jesus, a dying Jesus, a Jesus who talks about us eating his flesh and drinking his blood is a messy Jesus.
It’s too corporal, too visceral, it has too much of a ‘cringe’ factor to it.

Unfortunately, many of us in today’s world are too far removed from the corporal nature of life to understand what Jesus was on about when he was talking about eating his flesh and drinking his blood.
As a culture, we have become overly squeamish.

Our media is full of images of beauty and youth, we do all we can to hide the sick and the dying from our view, and only 2% of our population still lives on farms, where children learn at a young age that blood and flesh and death are a natural part of life.

I grew up on Long Island, where meat came shrink wrapped on Styrofoam trays and cost 59 cents a pound at the A&P.
We did have a local take-out restaurant that had a poultry farm in the rear, with chickens, turkeys, and even a peacock on display, but I made no connection between the entertainment that the farm supplied and the bucket of fried chicken that my mother was picking up for our dinner inside.

Which is why all this talk of flesh and blood makes me nervous.
When I read books like Fast Food nation, or the Omnivore’s Dilemma, which contain graphic accounts of slaughterhouse conditions and how the food we eat actually gets to our tables, I just want to stick my fingers in my ears and say “La La La La La, I can’t hear you!”

When Jesus talks about drinking his blood, and eating his flesh, I want to do the same.
And I suspect that I’m not alone.

Now we know that Jesus lived in a different time, and he was speaking to a people who understood the world in a much different way then we do.
The ancient civilizations of our own sacred history conceal a fair amount of blood.
Human sacrifice, of children and virgins, was not uncommon in ancient Israel. Which is why Abraham tied Isaac to an altar at God’s command without batting an eye. It was part of the culture. That is until God told him that sacrifice of the innocents was no longer necessary.

With the rise of Judaism, animal sacrifice became the norm.
It is important to remember that the temple in which Jesus walked was soaked in blood. Daily sacrifices of goats, lambs and doves were part of the standard worship program.

The point is that Jesus was speaking to a first century audience.
Everyone in his time knew about animal sacrifice, whether it was in the temple at Jerusalem or in pagan temples in Corinth or Rome.

It was natural for Jesus to speak of his own impending death in those terms, and it made sense for the first Christians to memorialize his death in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, using language that identifies it with the sacrificial ritual they all knew.
Unlike those of us today who cringe when we hear the words “eat my flesh, and drink my blood” Christians in the first century understood that Jesus was speaking metaphorically.

Jesus wanted us to consume him. To take him into our bodies so he would become a part of every fiber of our being.
To internalize his Words, and his actions and most importantly, his love.
He wanted us to understand that as we are flesh, he is flesh.
He feels our pain, he knows our suffering, and by making his flesh and blood a part of own we will know his suffering as well.

Jesus wanted us to grasp this teaching fully, which is why he used language that was so bodily focused and why he used that same language while performing the ritual he asked us to do in his name.
Jesus said,
Do this in remembrance of me and become like me in the process.

The language Jesus uses in our scripture reading today made sense to the early Christians. But those who stood outside the early church were just as befuddled as we are.
In today’s reading from John we hear an echo of the beginning estrangement between Christians and Jews. John’s gospel proclaims that Jesus is the only sacrifice that God demands, the priests and the temple sacrifices are no longer needed.

It is interesting to note that Jews and pagans alike would come to distrust the Christians’ Eucharist.
Because it was done behind closed doors with only baptized Christians allowed to participate, rumors began to fly about secret rituals, human sacrifice and cannibalism. Outsiders had only the written word to go by – eat my flesh, drink my blood – with no first hand experience to reveal the true meaning of the text. Taken literally, this text was proof that Christians were cannibals.

For this reason, early Christians were mistrusted, shunned, persecuted, and killed.
Then as now, refusing to acknowledge metaphor can be deadly—literalism can literally kill you.

This is something we still fear today.
We fear that outsiders may take our words, our scriptures, literally.
Or we fear that we may be confused with Christians who do take them literally.
Or we ourselves may take them literally because we’ve never had anyone give us reason not to, and yet the literal meaning of the words just doesn’t fit with our understanding of what it means to be a Christian.
So we ignore them, skip over them, push them into the back of the closet.

And when we run across scripture like today’s lectionary reading, we want to stick our fingers in our ears and say “La La La La La, I can’t hear you!”

But lets face it, the Bible is a messy book, full a lot of not so nice things that we would rather not have in there - rapes, murders, baby killings - and we can’t blame it all on the Old Testament while we hold up our shiny, clean New Testament for all to see.
Jesus is messy too. He says things that we just cannot accept.
And we’d rather not be associated with that Jesus.

How many of you have seen the Capitol One credit card commercial where a mother and her son are trying to choose a picture of him to put on her credit card?
The boy, named Jimmy, is about 9-year-old, and he is determined to have his mother not choose a picture that could potentially embarrass him every time she hands her credit card to a sales clerk. He wants her to choose the picture of him in his karate uniform, where he’s looking tough and cool. She wants to use the picture of him taken when he was a 3-year-old sitting in a high chair with a bowl of spaghetti dumped over his head. In the commercial mother and son go back and forth shooting down each other’s alternative choices until much to his chagrin, Karate Jimmy loses and Spaghetti Jimmy wins!

We do the same with our Christian faith.
The Bible is a messy book.
There are a lot of images in there that we wouldn’t want displayed on our credit card as a representation of who we are, or what we believe.
So we do our best to ignore or eliminate those images that don’t fit in with our modern understanding of the world, or who we are.

We don’t want Spaghetti Jesus on our credit card.
Spaghetti Jesus, messy Jesus, tells us to eat his flesh and drink his blood. Messy Jesus talks about being raised from the dead, he casts out demons and walks on water, Messy Jesus parades around with a sign that reads Repent! The end is near! While we cross over to the other side of the street and pretend that we don’t know him.

At least that’s who messy Jesus is for those of us who call ourselves liberal Christians.
For other Christians, messy Jesus is the one who cavorts with sinners, treats women as equals, tells us to love our enemies, and forgives those who have wronged him.

Regardless of our theological leanings, there are some things that Jesus says or does that we just can’t wrap our heads around.
Like the disciples we say, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?"

And Jesus’ response to us is the same:
“Does this offend you? Do you also want to go away?”
Jesus never said that following him was going to be easy.
And he intentionally gave us challenging teachings to separate the faithful from the pretenders.

He knew that being intellectually committed to God was not enough, we also need to be emotionally, spiritually, and physically committed to God.
By invoking the image of blood and flesh, and creating a ritual that had us eating and drinking, Jesus had us to move out of our minds and into our mouths, our bodies,
To not just contemplate or think about our faith but to taste it, to smell it, to feel it.

But we can’t do that without showing a willingness to get messy.
A willingness to get our fingers sticky and our hands dirty.
To have crumbs on our chin and the smell of grapes on our breath.
A willingness to be like Simon Peter who when Jesus asked, “Do you also want to go away” he answered by saying, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God."

Believe it or not sometimes I wish we in the UCC were more like the Catholics; that we didn’t feel the need to keep the messiness of Jesus’ death, hidden away. But unfortunately too often we’re more like the disciples, forever denying that Jesus is actually going to die, wanting to keep him alive forever, because we can’t conceive of how we would live without him.
But Jesus asks the disciples, and us, to not plug our ears when he talks about how he is destined to die, and to not walk away when he teaches us something that we may not yet comprehend.

Jesus asks the disciples, and us, to trust that he will live on within us through the sacrament of the Eucharist. It is through the eating of the bread and the drinking of the wine that Jesus enters into us, whether we believe it to be true figuratively or literally.

We can’t be true followers of Jesus unless we’re willing to get messy every once in awhile.
To be covered in dirt from head to toe, and to not deny it.
To climb to the top of the hill and slide down head first,
With grins on our faces, dirt in our ears, and scrapes on our knees.
And the joy of knowing that Jesus is leading the way.


Thursday, August 20, 2009


A long time member of our church passed away this week, at the age of 92.

I had never met Ruth, as she'd been homebound since before I joined the church four years ago.

Hers was just one of those names that floated in the periphery, her contributions and presence noted in passing and always in the past tense. She wasn’t a recently active member who had taken a spill and was temporarily out to pasture; she was officially off the radar screen. Her name was there every week in the church bulletin, in the “Please Keep In Your Prayers” section. But after seeing it week after week with no face to attach to its presence, no story to call up in its wake, the name became as ubiquitous as the note about the Pastor’s office hours and the plea for liturgists and ushers to sign up in the Martin Room.

I attended Ruth’s funeral yesterday; partly to find out more about a women who’d been a member of the church that I love for over 60 years, and partly to be there for those who knew her; to be that someone who hadn’t heard all the stories or been first hand witness to her ‘Christian presence,’ to be the newcomer who is willing to listen when those who were there need to share.

The church was only half full – on a hot Wednesday morning in August – and the elderly retired Pastor leading the service (the deceased’s brother) was a throwback to simpler times. He gestured wildly in the pulpit, made his voice carry into the balcony with little need for amplification, recited the scripture passage from memory, and spoke freely and frequently about the Grace of God and the need to claim Jesus as our own personal savior. He was an old-fashioned teacher-preacher, who punctuated his recitation of the scriptures with explanations of the text, and even stopped us mid-hymn – waving frantically to the organist – so he could explain the meaning of the verse we had just sung. The organist was his wife and he introduced each peace of music by saying “…and Mrs. Forbes will now play…” or “You may begin, Mrs. Forbes.”

In our tiny clapboard sided church with the windows wide open, the pastor’s elderly wife pumping the organ, and the black suited, small in stature Rev. Forbes holding court in the pulpit, it was if we had been transported to an early time.

As I had immersed myself earlier this past week in our church’s history in preparation for Anniversary Sunday, I left the church yesterday morning feeling as if I got a bit of a taste as to what it may have been like to sit in one of our pews in a much earlier time.

I love the way the church is now, and I have no desire to return to that earlier time when Rev. Forbes version of Christianity would have itched and restricted me like a hand-me-down Sunday dress – but it was nice to visit.

It was nice to step into Ruth’s world and get to know who she was, and to be with the people who loved and cared for her.

I learned that when conflicts arose at church meetings, Ruth was always the last to speak, and the congregation would inevitably choose to follow her wizened advice. I learned that Ruth was instrumental in getting our education wing built and she served on nearly every committee that we had. The Rev. Forbes also informed us that none of his sisters, Ruth included, was given a middle name. This was done in foresight that when they married they would carry on the family name as their middle name, keeping the ‘clan’ alive.

Family was what was most important to her.

After the service, I introduced myself to Rev. Forbes as a newer member and a current seminarian. He grasped my hand and pulled me in real close either to better hear me or because that’s just his style – up close and personal. He asked where I was attending school and when I told him he winked and said with a smile, “Nice school, but I didn’t go there, I’m a conservative you know.” Then he told me all about his radio program and his love of Jesus and wished me well in my studies, the whole time never letting go of my hand.

We were separated by 50 years, ideology, theology, and gender – and I’m pretty sure he had no idea that I was not heterosexual (I had left my “Future Gay Pastor” T-shirt at home) – but yesterday we were just two people, two Christians, who came together to celebrate the life of someone who loved our little church.

As we parted I made sure to mention to him that I HAD been given a middle name, to honor not my family but my mother, and that middle name is Ruth.

“Ahh, my favorite book in the Bible,” the Rev. Forbes said.


Sunday, August 16, 2009

Sermon: "This Old House"

King Street UCC, Danbury, CT

Anniversary Sunday

August 16, 2009

“This Old House”

1 Kings 8:(1,6,10-11), 22-30, 41-43

"But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built! (1 Kings 8:27)

Sometime in the early 1970s, the president of AT&T called all his company managers into a large conference room for an emergency meeting.

Attendance was mandatory.

Speculation ran high as to what announcement would be made.

Perhaps a breakthrough in technology. Perhaps a downsizing of the company. When all were seated, the president went to the podium and said, "The telephone as we know it no longer exists."

Muffled laughter rippled through the room. They all knew he was joking. They had used telephones that morning. The president then said: "Anyone who does not believe what I just said can leave this room right now and pick up your final paycheck on the way out."

The room quickly quieted down. No one left.

Then they noticed that all the phones that had been in the room that morning, were gone.

The President said once again, “The telephone as we know it no longer exists, your job today is to invent one."

He then proceeded to break the managers up into small groups and they spent the rest of the afternoon designing a telephone from scratch. They asked themselves, what kind of features would we want in a new phone?

Some wanted one with no cord, one that could be carried in the car, or on the street.... and wouldn’t it be great to know when another call was coming in, or to be able to forward calls to another number, or to be able to transmit not just sound but documents, text and video!

About 60 new features distinguished the telephone invented by this impromptu gathering. Many of which we take for granted today, from call waiting to cell phones to text messaging, and the list has not yet been exhausted.

With this story in mind, imagine now as we enter the third millennium, that we come here to King Street church one Sunday morning and much to our shocked dismay, we find a vacant lot where our church once stood.

In the middle of the lot there is a little note tacked on a piece of tattered plaster. The note is written in Hebrew and the same note has been left on vacant lots all over the world where Christian churches once stood, from towering cathedrals to tiny one-room chapels. Translated, the note reads, "The church you have always known no longer exists; – the walls, the pews, the altar, the set in stone beliefs and assumptions. All of it is gone."

"How can this be?" We ask in abject puzzlement.

How can all that we have built be gone?

In the background, we hear God laughing and saying, "Given the world the way it is, with its devastating problems and amazing opportunities for joy, given what you know of how Jesus lived in the world, and how human beings are meant to honor the covenant made with God, the real question is, 'How can your churches NOT be gone?' "

Then God looks us straight in the eye and says, "The church you have always known no longer exists - Your job today is to build a new one.”

This scenario comes from the book “Dying Church, Living God” written by the late author and chaplain Chuck Meyer.

In his book Meyer addressed the problem of the continuing decline of our mainline Christian denominations. The term mainline refers to those Protestant denominations that were brought to or established in our country by our immigrant ancestors – the Episcopalians, the Lutherans, the Presbyterians, the Methodists, and the Congregationalists, who are the forbearers our own United Church of Christ.

Modern day prophets like Meyer paint a picture of the future that is not very pretty. The church as we know it is dying.

While evangelical and other non-denominational churches have grown over the past 20 years, mainline denominations like our own have shown a steady decline in membership. Although some mainline Christians have switched to non-denominational churches for theological reasons, an even greater number have chosen to leave the church all together.

According to a recent poll, 87% of Americans declare themselves to be religious, but less than 20% go to church on a weekly basis.

It has been said that in 50 to 100 years Christian churches in America will be like many of the churches in Europe today – kept open during the week as tourist attractions or museums, while they remain locked and empty on Sunday mornings.

There is no shortage of reasons given for the decline in church membership:

Some cite the tendency for mainline churches to cling to language, music, and traditions that are out of step with the times and which no longer speak to the people of today.

Others blame the current cultural preference for individualistic forms of religion that emphasize self-help and prosperity messages, while downplaying the social justice and politicized teachings of the Gospels.

One obvious factor contributing to the decline, is the steady loss of young adults, many of whom say they are disillusioned with the hypocrisy of Christians who profess to love thy neighbor on Sunday, while doing everything they can to exclude their neighbor on Monday.

Mainline churches have not been blind to the downward trend in attendance, and there have been attempts to adapt to the current culture and attract new members.

Yet despite efforts to modernize worship services with rock bands and power point presentations, and the push to emulate mega churches by offering one-stop conveniences like coffee shops, fitness centers, and movie theatres; mainline membership rolls continue to shrink.

For doomsayers like Chuck Meyer, changing the design of our church buildings or our style of worship is tantamount to arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

It doesn’t matter how we change the scenery - the ship is still going down.

And there is nothing we can do to prevent it.

And the prophetic voices tell us that we shouldn’t try to prevent it.

Like the AT&T executives in our opening story,

We shouldn’t be asking ourselves, how do we save our old church, but rather we should be asking: “What kind of church will we build in its place?”

We have to wonder, if in the summer of 18 hundred and 30, the eight people who came together to form the First Christian Church of Danbury and Patterson looked at the empty patch of land on the corner of South King Street and asked themselves “What kind of church will we build?”

The church as they knew it no longer existed, as the sons and daughters of new world settlers or as immigrants themselves, they had left behind the church of old, and were now staring at virgin land that was ripe for change. Everything around them was new.

While churches and homes in their family’s native countries had stood for hundreds and in some cases thousands of years, most of the houses that dotted the countryside of the small farming settlement known as Danbury had stood for less than 75 years.

The United States of America itself was barely 60 years old.

There were only 24 states in the union.

The entire population was reinventing itself as it went along.

200 years before our church’s founding, our congregational forbearers, the Puritans left their home country because the Christian church as they imagined it to be looked quite different from the church as it was.

Even in the early stages of the Protestant Reformation, when people’s understanding of what it meant to be a church was experiencing a radical shift, there was no one set way to be a Protestant Christian as opposed to being a Catholic Christian.

What there was was a sense that the churches we had built were too defined to house the indefinable nature of God. The box we had built around God was too elaborate, too restrictive and reflected our own image rather than the unknowable image of God.

The people who founded our church 179 years ago had something in common with the Puritans, and the Protestant Reformers, and the first ragtag band of disciples who called themselves followers of Jesus Christ.

They looked at the house we had erected in God name, declared it to be inadequate, and asked “What will we build in its place?”

In our scripture reading today, Solomon looked out at the Temple that he had built to act as God’s dwelling place, and he said:

"But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!” (1 Kings 8:27)

The Temple that Solomon constructed in Jerusalem was not just a house of God, it was THE house of God. It took seven years to build. He used the finest of building materials: the cedars of Lebanon, cypress wood, gold, silver, bronze, and huge blocks of cut and dressed stone. He had master craftsmen carve into the walls of the Temple elaborate decorations of cherubim, palm trees, and flowers. He overlaid everything with gold – even the floor. It was a magnificent building, inside and out.

When all was ready, Solomon brought up the Ark of the Covenant, which had been residing in the Tabernacle, and installed it in the newly finished Temple, in the innermost sanctuary, the Holy of Holies, under the wings of the cherubim, carved of olivewood and covered with gold. As soon as the priests put the Ark in its place, a cloud filled the Temple and the glory of the LORD inhabited it.

This cloud that descended on the Temple is a sign of the presence of God. It is the same cloud that led the Israelites out of Egypt and protected them from the Egyptian army. It is the same cloud that descended on the top of Mount Sinai when God made a covenant with the Israelites and gave them the Law as a gift. This same cloud settled on the Tabernacle, that movable sanctuary, by which God was present with the Israelites throughout their wanderings in the wilderness.

In Solomon's prayer, Jerusalem is "the city that God has chosen.”

The Temple is the place of which God says, "My name shall be there.” Where passing foreigners will hear God’s name and be welcomed in. It is the place where heaven meets earth and where God's glory appears for all to see.

But it is important to note that Solomon's prayer does not confine God to the Temple. Solomon acknowledges that this "house" cannot contain God. Although the Temple was central to Israel's worship for many centuries, at the same time it was not essential. When the Temple of Jerusalem is destroyed, not once but twice, God is still present with God's people.*

The belief that God cannot be contained in a building still holds today.

How many times have we heard of churches destroyed by natural disasters or fire, yet the people still come together on Sunday mornings to worship – sitting on wooden planks under tarps, in rented trailers, or in space provided by other churches or the community.

Because most Christians know that the church is not found in the plaster or the cinder blocks, the church is found in the people.

Jesus said, “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I will be.”

This is why we date our church’s founding back to 1830, when eight people came together and said “we are a church," while this actual building didn’t come to be until 16 years later.

So, we’re left with the realization, if WE are the church, then to stem the tide of those choosing to leave the church, it is not our buildings that must change, its not the language, or the music, or the sound system that must change.

WE must change. We as Christians must change.

We must change the way we act and move in our churches and in the world.

We must embrace the Good News of the gospel – that God’s radically inclusive love and saving Grace is given freely to all – and not just speak these words on Sunday but live them on Monday.

We need to throw open the windows, and prop open our doors, so that all will hear that God’s name is spoken in this place, and that everyone, everyone, is welcome in God’s house.

Now, despite the dire picture I painted earlier about the decline of mainline Christian denominations in this country, there is hope to be found.

I’ve spent the last year living in Boston, attending my first year of seminary. During my first year, I had to choose a local church and interview for the ministerial internship that I’ll be starting this fall. To research my options, I made it a point to attend a different UCC church in the Boston area every Sunday - to get a feel for how they worship, how they serve, how they see themselves as “church” in the world.

While I came across a few churches that were stagnant – in their preaching, in their outreach efforts, and in their growth – and a few that were obviously dying – due to an aging membership or changing demographics in their community, the majority of the churches I attended were alive and growing.

These are churches that have held onto many of their traditions and the language of old, but they were not afraid to try something new.

There was a new emphasis on inclusivity and a new interest in social justice issues that came not just from a handful of members on a committee but from the congregation as a whole.

There was a new emphasis on living the message of Jesus, seeing it not just as a guide to make us better people, but as an imperative to make a better world.

There was a new enthusiasm, a new excitement, about changing what it means to be a Christian in the world today.

And I saw this excitement, this enthusiasm, not just in the UCC churches I attended, but also in the faces and the words and actions of my fellow seminarians – who are Baptists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Methodists, Lutherans – both young and old.

These are the people who will be pastoring the churches of tomorrow.

These are the people who are members of the churches of today.

The churches that must no longer shut their doors to the world and spend all their time and money on themselves - building elaborate sanctuaries, preaching sermons that focus more on the prosperity or damnation of the individual then the teachings of the gospel, sitting in judgment of the world and its evils but doing nothing to lessen the effects of those evils.

For prophetic voices like Chuck Meyer, this is the church of old,

the church that must die, to allow a new church to grow in its place.

A church that feeds the hungry, helps the suffering, clothes the naked, strengthens the fainthearted.

A church that hears the gospel as a call to go out into the world and serve others, while at the same time maintaining a space to serve the needs of its members and the immediate community.

A church that builds a house to Worship God, but knows that God cannot be contained in four walls of plaster and stone.

The hopeful news is that King Street UCC is one of these churches.

We are a church that is proud of it’s history, and we know that the way to keep our church alive is not to let go of our past, but to continue to ask ourselves, “What does God want us to do in the here and now - to ensure a better future for all?”

If we were to show up here next Sunday and find nothing but an empty lot, we would be overwhelmingly sad for our loss,

especially those of you who have spent a lifetime in these pews.

Those of you who remember what our church looked like before the sanctuary was expanded in 1980, or before the education wing was added in 1967.

There are even some of you who were here to see the Martin Room built in 1955, and who remember a time when the little church on the corner of South King Street looked the same as it had a hundred years before.

If we were to come here one Sunday and find all of this gone, we would be sad beyond all words.

But with God’s hopeful note clutched in our fingers, and with what we know of how Jesus acted in the world fresh in our minds,

Like our forbearers who built this church we would gather up plaster and cinder block and wood and ask ourselves,

“What kind of church will we build in its place?”


*Temple description adapted from - Kathyrn Schifferdecker