Sermon: Tensions in the Wilderness

Matthew 20:1-16

This morning we come upon another of the Parables of Jesus; this one is called the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard and comes to us from the Gospel of Matthew that we just heard. Like all the parables of Jesus, this is an analogy and not about any real events or even real people.  Jesus used parables to tell a story in a way that those listening would understand. Jesus often used imagery from their day to day life that maybe we don’t understand because, well, we are not first-century people. So, we must drill down deeper than what is on the surface of this passage to understand the meaning.

This story is linked to that of the Prodigal Son; you know the story. Two brothers are working with their dad. One brother asks for his inheritance; his father gives it to him, he goes off and squanders it, ends up eating and sleeping with the pigs, comes home much to the father’s delight and the consternation of the other brother. The other brother tells his father that he should not welcome his brother because he threw it all away. The father tells him that he is happy that his son has returned and is also delighted that he has had him.  The story of the Prodigal Son is about redemption and the love of God, which we may not see on the surface.

In today’s story, we have a group of laborers grumbling about how others are treated and how unjust it is for the landowner to pay others the same wages for less work. After all, these workers have been out in the field all day in the hot sun doing jobs that the “regular” people would not want to do, and along comes these “Johnny Come Lately” folks at the last minute, and they get paid the same wages for less work. Some of you may be able to put yourself into the story on both sides, or rather on all three sides, the landowner, the early laborers, and those who come later.

In my first church, there was a gentleman that was notoriously late for church. When I say notoriously, it would sometimes be 20 minutes into the service before he arrived.

Don’t get me wrong, I was happy he made it at all, but I used to speak with him about his tardiness and how he would not dream of doing that in his job.  One day he came to me with his bible in his hand, and he opened it to this story. “See,” he said, “it does not matter what time I come; I will get the same blessing as those you came on time.” He did have a point, of course, and that sort of is the story’s point.

What we learn from the story is that the landowner begins by giving everyone a job. Each person in the story is unemployed, and along comes the landowner and gives them all work and a promised wage at the end of the day. They all begin in the same situation, unemployed, but quickly forget about their situation as others arrive. They shift their energy away from being happy that they have found work and a wage for the day towards complaining about the situation’s inequity. Envy becomes more important then what they received. “Are you envious of my generosity?” The landowner asks those he gave work too.

A few months ago, we discussed race and race relations here in the United States. I mentioned that I come from a relatively privileged position and that I defined privilege, not as someone how had been given anything but that I had never been denied anything based on my gender, race, or sexual orientation. Friday night, we lost a giant in the fight for equality. Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Justice Ginsburg, from her earliest days, fought for equality in the law and made it possible for many of the things we take for granted today.

Do we find ourselves envious of what others have? Am I envious of other’s good fortune? Envy can cause us to diminish our gifts and talents and secretly rob others of theirs. God is the giver of every good gift, whether it is ours or someone else’s. Giving equal rights to all does not diminish any of your rights. Granting equal rights to women, black people, gay people, etc. does not change any of your rights one bit. But the denial of those rights, in a way, diminishes all those rights granted to all.

This story is essentially about the generosity of God. It is not about equity or the proper distribution of wages to workers but a gracious and undeserved gift. It is not about an economic exchange but about bestowing grace and mercy to all, no matter what time they have put in or how deserving or undeserving we might think they are. God’s generosity often violates our sense of right and wrong and our sense of how we think things should be.

Jesus leaves us with one question this morning, can we learn to see through God’s eyes? Our ideas of what is right and wrong, what is just and unjust, and not necessarily God’s ideas. We are reminded in this story that the tables are often turned. When we look for equity, we are surprised to find generosity.

We are invited to look to see where we find ourselves in this story. We are reminded that God is a lousy bookkeeper and invites us to transform our pride, envy, and hardness into joy by admiring and celebrating God’s abundant generosity. We are called to take a closer look at ourselves, and we are invited to turn away from holding grudges because things may not have gone our way. We are asked to let go of stuff that keeps us from being filled with joy and grateful people.

There is some wisdom in the saying, “get over it.” We are called to work through things, and then let them go. If we hold on to stuff, we continue to hurt ourselves and others. God forgives us and loves us, and so we must forgive and love ourselves and others. And remember this, gratefulness is at the very heart of our Christian faith.


Sermon: Road to Freedom

Matthew 18:21-35

It was a beautiful fall day, not unlike today. It was my first year of seminary, and I was sitting in class trying to stay awake as the professor droned on about something. My mind was wandering to so many things, this being my first year of seminary and all. Class ended, and we were dismissed. I recall walking out of the building, the warm sun hitting my face, and noticed that the campus was still, not many students around. Usually, the place was a buzz of activity at this time of the morning but not this morning.

I walked to the parking lot and got in my car. I turned on the radio expecting to hear the usual laughter and banter that was morning radio but instead, I heard what sounded like War of the Worlds. It was September 11, 2001. I drove back to the seminary campus and ran across the parking lot and into the building where I was living and up three flights of stairs. My fellow seminarians had all gathered on the common room, and the television was on. As I sat down, in utter disbelief, the first of the towers came down. Our lives as ministers and our lives as Americans would never be the same again.

I am sure we all have stories like that, stories of remembrance of where we were when we first heard our country is under attack. As we sit here this morning, perhaps, we remember what we felt on that morning 19 years ago. What emotions did we feel? What did we do? Did we stand as if frozen in time? Did we call loved ones? Did we cry? Did we pray? Did we get angry?

This morning we heard the story of the Unmerciful Servant from the Gospel of Matthew. This story begins with Peter’s question about forgiveness and how many times we are to forgive someone who sins against us. Peter says to Jesus, “Should we forgive up to seven times?” Peter thought he was super spiritual by using the number seven, but Jesus replied, “Not seven but seventy-seven times.” Seventy times seven is 490, and this must have come as a shock to Peter. Jesus never wasted a word, so there must be a meaning to what he is saying here.

Hebrew is alphanumeric, which means that every word has a numerical value. Words that share the same numeric value are often connected somehow, and these connections frequently communicate deeper spiritual insights. And is this indeed the case here.

490 is the numerical value of the biblical Hebrew word “Tamim,” which means to “complete,” “perfect,” or “finished.” A person who can’t forgive will always live an imperfect and incomplete life that lacks a real understanding of the “finished” gracious work of the cross. 490 is also the value of the Hebrew phrase, “Let your heart be perfect” (1 Kings 8:61). Forgiving helps to make us complete and is key to perfecting our hearts.

Forgiveness is essential to the life as a Christian.

As you know, we are called to “love our neighbor,” and we are also called to “love our enemies.” Jesus tells us in the Gospel that “loving those who love us back is easy,” and this is very true it is easy to love those who love us back, but how about those who do not love us back? How about those who we do not like? How about those that perpetrate heinous acts of terrorism against our neighbors and us? It’s not easy, but for us, its where the rubber meets the road.

I think there is a lot of confusion about the nature of forgiveness, just like there is confusion about the idea of love. Before, I have told you that we have to love everyone, but we do not have to like them. Jesus calls us to love because we are loved, loved by God. We are called to love because each of us is created in God’s image and likeness, but Jesus is silent on liking people. Love and like and two vastly different emotions. We are required; actually, we are commanded to love just as we are commanded to forgive.

As I just said, there is confusion about this concept of forgiveness; Jesus is telling us that we have to forgive someone 490 times if they sin against us. It sounds as if Jesus is telling us that we have roll over and take whatever someone wants to doll out against us. Well, that is not truly the case. Just like there is a difference between like and love, there is a difference between forgiveness and forgetting.

It is true that Jesus commands that we forgive, but Jesus does not say we have to forget. Jesus commands that we forgive, but Jesus does not say that we cannot seek justice for what has been done against us. Last week Jesus told us that if someone sins against us, we are to seek reconciliation with them, and if that is impossible, we are to treat them as a pagan or a tax collector. We are to seek justice, but justice begins with forgiveness.

Forgiveness is not for the person that has sinned against us; forgiveness is for us. When we withhold forgiveness, we are giving over a portion of ourselves to the person that has harmed us. When we withhold forgiveness, we give those who have injured us the power of a part of our lives. When we offer forgiveness, we regain control, and we take back the power that the other person has over us, and we begin the healing process.

But remember, forgives does not mean we forget. We do not forget what the person has done. We do not forget the pain they have caused. We do not give up the right to seek justice for what has been done. Forgiveness does not mean we have to ever have anything to do with them again. Forgiveness means we take back the power, and we begin to heal.

Another negative result of withholding forgiveness is that the anger we feel from being hurt and fester and turn from righteous anger. This anger wants to see justice done, to destructive anger that wants vengeance for what has been done against us. Justice is healthy, but vengeance is not.

But the goal of forgiveness is to restore us to love. Sure, we can choose to be angry and withhold forgives, and there are somethings that we may never be able to forgive others for, but what we do with that anger is the difference between love and hate.

I did not know anyone that was killed on that horrific day in September of 2001. I do know people who died as a result of that day. Several people I served with in Army have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan due to the events of that day. I can choose, as so many have to turn my feelings of anger toward everyone who is Muslim or everyone who looks different than I do. Or, I can choose to turn that anger into justice and understanding, which places me on the road to love.

I was honored to participate in the 9/11 service of remembrance organized by the Quincy Fire Department. This is an annual gathering designed to remind us of what we lost on that day, friends, neighbors, and loved ones. We remember not to rekindle those feelings of anger from those days. We remember the lives that were lost, and we promise to be better people.

It was not religion that flew those planes into the towers in New York. It was not religion that flew that plane into the Pentagon in Washington, DC. It was not religion that drove those on that plane that crashed in that field in Pennsylvania. Hatred is what did that. Hatred against people they did not even know.

But we saw something else on that day; we saw love. Love was the reason those firefighters ran into those buildings when everyone else was running out. Love was why the police and EMT’s ran into those buildings when everyone else was running out. Love was why the people on Flight 93 stormed the cockpit and forced that plane to crash into the field in Pennsylvania rather than it’s intended target. It may not have seemed like it at the time, but it was love that did all of that, and love won the day because love always wins!

I want to end with a quote from an article written on September 15, 2001, by the novelist Ian Mcewan that appeared in the Guardian Newspaper called “Only love and then oblivion. Love was all they had to set against their murderers”.

“A San Francisco husband slept through his wife’s call from the World Trade Centre. The tower was burning around her, and she was speaking on her mobile phone. She left her last message to him on the answering machine. A TV station played it to us, while it showed the husband standing there listening. Somehow, he was able to bear hearing it again. We heard her tell him through her sobbing that there was no escape for her. The building was on fire, and there was no way down the stairs. She was calling to say goodbye. There was really only one thing for her to say, those three words that all the terrible art, the worst pop songs, and movies, the most seductive lies, can somehow never cheapen. I love you.

She said it over and again before the line went dead. And that is what they were all saying down their phones, from the hijacked planes and the burning towers. There is only love, and then oblivion. Love was all they had to set against the hatred of their murderers.”

Forgiveness is not easy. Love is not easy, but it is all we have.


Sermon: Remember, Restore, Renew

Matthew 18:15-20

No one likes conflict. Well, I should say no one in their right mind likes conflict. And because no one likes conflict, we have done a horrible job preparing people to deal with conflict. We live in the age of everyone gets a trophy, so people do not feel bad. Teaching someone that you will not succeed at everything you do has left us with a world that really cannot deal with disappointment.

When I was young, I wanted to be a doctor or a plumber. I thought it was sort of the same thing. My father was a plumber, and I saw what he did, but doctors got to wear white coats. As a child, we change our minds about what we want to be when we grow up; I am still trying to figure that out by the way. But I wanted to be a doctor; the problem was I am not very good at science, and it appears that science is crucial if you are going to be a doctor, well it used to be anyway. I was disappointed that I could not be a doctor, a medical doctor anyway I did become a doctor.

This seems to be an exceedingly tricky passage for us in the western Church to hear. We have been influenced by the Enlightenment Philosophy of John Locke in the primary understanding of the local Church is a voluntary association of autonomous individuals. This is even more emphasized in America with our rugged individualism without a sense of independence, self-reliance, and individual authority. We have seen this play out in these past months with people refusing to wear masks in stores so much that fights have broken out over it. People belittle others for wearing masks, and some are told that they need to rely on God more to take care of them.

But today, we come face to face with a passage about church discipline, not something that we like to talk about in our modern, 21st-century Church. Now I will make one correction to the passage read this morning from the New International Version of Scripture and add the words “against you.” The passage reads, “if a brother or sister sins.” But I like the version, “if a brother or sister sins against you.” The trigger here is against you.  We do not need “sin vigilantes” going around calling people out for their sins, but if someone sins against you, that is a different story.

But to fully understand this passage, we need to look back at the passage from last week when Paul addressed the Church in Rome. Paul speaks of the Church as a place of mutual interconnectedness, where we are incomplete without the other, where the suffering of one is the suffering of all, and where the honor of one leads to the rejoicing of all. But it also means that conflict not only affects those involved but the entire church community. Where members are bound together as part of the body of Christ, the disunion between a few is the disunity of all.

Now, I am sure that this congregation has never had any conflict, right? Of course, there has been conflict; no community is immune from conflict. Conflict in Church can be painful and can cause people to leave the community. Sometimes there is an unrealistic view of what a church community is; after all, it is made up of humans, and conflict is very human. But somehow the Church is supposed to be above that, we are Christians after all, and Christians are supposed to love one another. What makes us Christians is not whether or not we fight, disagree, or wound one another, but how we address and resolve these issues.

As Church we are not supposed to have conflict as the world has conflict with yelling, slandering, gossiping, Tweeting, humiliating, or even, and scripture speaks about this, taking each other to court. But we are also not supposed to sweep everything under the rug as if conflict does not exist and put on the happy, smiling face as if to say all is well while hating each other on the inside. Jesus calls us to a higher task of reconciliation and provides a way to carry it out when divisions inevitably arise.

Jesus begins with dealing with the issue one on one, face to face. We honor each other by speaking the truth in love, and sometimes that truth and that love can be harsh, but the truth is the truth. We put our of whole selves into the process of reconciliation for our own sake and the sake of the community. I call this dealing with the situation at the lowest level. It has been my experience that most conflict can be avoided if we deal with things head-on and not let them fester.

However, there are times that this approach does not work, and we need to involve others in the Church, which should be available as s resource of discernment and guidance.

Now there is a danger here that this passage can, as it has in the past, be interpreted in either an individualist or legalistic way. When reconciliation is pursued in a community that places value on the interconnectedness of the body of Christ, then conflict can be brought to people in the Church. If there is no repentance and the conflict is starting to harm the whole body, then, as a last resort, it must be brought before the entire Church.

The final step will sound harsh, but the last step is to loosen someone from membership in the Church. This should not be done casually but only after much prayer and discernment. Some people will make conflict for communities, and the community needs to be watchful that one person does not disrupt the community. This is the speaking truth in love, and it is not easy. In one congregation I was in, two families had caused problems for years and ran the Church. When something would come to a congregational vote, all eyes would turn to one of these two families for approval or disapproval. They would hold “parking lot” meetings before and after the “official Meeting” to decide things. It finally came to a head, and they were told that they were welcome to stay in the community but that they no longer ran the Church. One remained, and the other left. It hurt the community for a while, but we were better off without them in the end. The point is if we handle these things as they arise, it usually turns out much better.

When we enter into membership in the Christian Community, we bind ourselves in covenant to one another with Christ as the head of the Church. We do not own the Church, nor is anyone head of the Church save Jesus Christ, and sometimes we forget that. We make decisions based on what God wants, not on what we want. We seek guidance from God through the Holy Spirit’s power when we gather as Church to make decisions even on such things as the budget and the other more temporal issues of church governance. A general meeting of the Church is no less of a worship service then what we are doing right now; it is an extension of worship.

The ministry of reconciliation must be at the heart of any Christian community. The Church has not been given the power to “bind” and to “loose” because the Church is always right, but because the primary language of the Church is one of confession, restoration, and reconciliation when offenses and divisions occur. This requires love above all else as we seek to call people to reconciliation with each other.

As we have learned during this time of the pandemic, the Church is not an institution or a denomination but anytime two or three gather together in the name of Jesus and live together in mutual interdependentness under the headship of Jesus Christ. This requires us to throw off our individualism, and we enter into a covenant relationship with each other as the body of Christ. It is not what is best for me, but what is best for us. As that great philosopher, Mr. Spock said, “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” Each person in the community has value just as each part of the body has value.

Yes, there will be conflict, it is inevitable, but it is how we deal with that conflict that makes us not only a Christian community but a healthy Christian community. Amen

We the people are dividing America not the Liberals or Conservatives

I am going to state this as plain as I can: hatred divides America, not Democrats, not Republicans, not the media, not President Trump, not Vice President Biden, not even Hillary Clinton. Hatred is dividing us. In other words, we, the people, are causing the division.

I am tired. I am tired for many reasons. I am tired of the blame game, and I am tired of no one taking responsibility for what they say or what they do. I am also angry. I am angry about what is going on in our country. I am angry that people cannot come together and talk about their differences. But what I am most angry about is how I am letting all of this make me feel.

Anger can be a force for good. Anger can move people to desire change in their lives and in the way things are. Anger can bring people out on the streets to protest a system that has oppressed them because of their skin color or the person they love. Anger can lead people to stand up and say enough is enough. Anger can lead people to vote a certain way. Anger can lead to people running for office to try and make changes from the inside. But when anger turns to rage, it turns from a force for good into a force of hate.

In his letter to the Church at Ephesus, St. Paul wrote, “In your anger do not sin.” Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the Devil a foothold.” (4:26-27) St. Paul is not saying do not get angry, St. Paul is warning not to let that anger turn to hatred. Because sin of hatred gives the Devil a foothold. We must learn to master our emotions, or our emotions will master us.

With that said, I am reminded of Jesus clearing the Temple in Jerusalem. Jesus saw what was happening, Jesus saw what the Temple had been turned into, and Jesus got angry. Jesus turned that anger into rage and flipped over the tables and drove the people out with a whip. Sometimes anger needs to turn to rage, and anger needs to turn to destruction, but as a last resort.

I cannot know for sure, but the anger and rage that Jesus felt while clearing the Temple was not focused on the people, but the people’s actions. This is an important distinction. I can hate what someone is doing, I can hate their policies, but I cannot hate the person. Jesus drove the people out of the Temple for what they were doing, not for who they were.

One day, a member of my congregation came to my study and asked to see me. He was angry with another person who he felt had done him wrong, but the other person refused to acknowledge that the harm had taken place. During the conversation, the person kept saying how mad the other person made them. Finally, I stopped him and said, “the other person cannot make you mad; you are letting yourself get mad.” We allow ourselves to get mad, and we allow ourselves to get angry.

There are not two sides to every argument. Not every position needs to or should be listened to. There are some issues that we cannot “agree to disagree.”

These days we want to blame someone or something for what is wrong. We blame the media, blame the Democrats, blame the Republicans. But the blame does not lie with them; the responsibility lies with us. Now, I am not saying that others cannot fan the flames of anger and division, but we are still in control or should be in control of how we react to the externals in our lives.

And listen, the excuse of “well, the other side is doing it too” is childish. It’s time for the adults to stand up and regain control.

I will return to an earlier statement I made, anger can be a force for good, but anger can also be a force for destruction. It is how we react to that anger that makes the difference. If our anger moves us in a desire for change that usually is a righteous thing. If the anger we feel drives us to hate another person or group, then, as St. Paul warned, we have given the Devil a foothold. There is a fine line between marching in the street singing hymns and marching in the street carrying a torch and screaming, “you will not replace us.”

Hate is what makes a person drive their car into a crowd of protesters. Hate is what makes a person walk into a church and shoot people. Hate is what makes a person look at another human being and because of the color of their skin, who they love, or where they come from and not see God’s image in them.

In the beginning, God said, let us create them in our image and let us create them in our likeness. God created humanity and God-breathed God’s breath into that humanity and gave life to humanity. God saw all that God had made, and it was good.

I am a Christian, and as a Christian, I am required to follow a particular way of life, the way of life that has been handed down by Jesus Christ and written in the Scriptures. At the center of that way and at the center of that teaching is love; love God, love neighbor, and love your enemies. I believe that this is the hardest part of being a Christian, and it is non-negotiable. Jesus was asked, what is the greatest commandment? Jesus replied, “love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. And the second, love your neighbor as yourself.” “On these two,” Jesus said, “hang all the law and the prophets.” (Mark 12:29-31) In other words, if we cannot love, nothing else matters.

Sermon: Bold Moves

Matthew 15:10-28

Up until about 100 years ago, fasting and abstinence were a part of the Christian Spiritual Tradition. At several points in the history of our country, the President has called for days of fasting and abstinence, usually during some time of calamity like President Lincoln’s proclamation of March 30, 1863. Fasting and abstinence are still a part of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christian traditions, although they are not as widely practiced as they used to be.

As many of you know, I was ordained in the Romanian Orthodox tradition. Part of that tradition was strict fast days on Wednesdays and Fridays through the year and the 40 days leading up to Christmas and Easter. No meat or dairy products were consumed during these days, which worked out to be more than half the year.

Fasting and abstinence are spiritual disciplines that come after years of practice and failing. I recall the usual speech I would give at the start of one of these significant fast periods. I would say to those in the congregation assembled before me, “if you emerge from the fast the same rotten person you were when you went in, it did not work.” Now part of this was tongue in cheek, but part of it was not.

The ancients believed if we could control what went into the body, we could control what came out. Oh, it is also a healthy lifestyle.

In today’s Gospel from Matthew, Jesus uses the Jewish dietary laws as a backdrop for much larger teaching. Jesus says in verse 11, “What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.”

It’s not what goes in, but what comes out.

In the last few years, it has become customary to say whatever we want, and then, when called on, it either says, “that’s not what I meant” or if it was really bad, “I’m sorry.” This has been exacerbated by those hiding behind their computers and post and making comments on the various social media platforms. These “cowards,” and I call them cowards because they would not dare say what they type in person, have only added to the break down in the social fabric of our day.

People have always been passionate about the causes they believe in. In 1856 Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts gave a fiery abolitionist speech in the United States Senate. This was during the time that slavery in the border states was being discussed. Sumner challenged some of his fellow Senators during his two-hour speech. Sumner ridiculed Senators Stephen Douglas and Andrew Butler during his speech much to the displeasure of Representative Preston Brooks, the first cousin of Butler. Two days after the address, Butler entered the Senate Chamber while Sumner was sitting at his desk and started to hit Sumner with his cane until he was unconscious. Sumner survived the attack, but it illustrates to what extent people will go when they are passionate about their cause. As an aside, Brooks waited until the Senate Gallery was empty, so there would be no ladies present to witness the attack.

Words can enrage, words can hurt, words can show love, and words can bring comfort. It is not what goes into someone’s mouth the defiles them, but what comes out of it.

It seems these days we can say or “tweet” whatever we want, factual or not, and when called on it, we just say, “oh, I’m sorry” and just walk away. But what harm has those words we spoke, or typed, tweeted done? What do these words say about us as Christians, or those professing to be Christians? Words have power, a lot of power if they didn’t words like “Black lives matter” would not stir people, and many of them Christian to rage.

There was a time in my memory when issues could be debated on the issues without bringing the character of the person discussing into the debate. There have been some great debates over profoundly serious issues without calling people names, bringing up their past, and all the rest. Calling someone “crooked” or “sleepy” just because you disagree with them does not raise the level of debate it lowers it, and you.

IN one of the churches I led, there were serious questions about the future of that congregation and whether they should sell the property and merge with another church. The debate got heated and downright nasty. Yes, personalities became involved, and insults were thrown back and forth. But at the end of the day, when the debate was concluded, everyone shook hands, apologized, really apologized, not some halfhearted apology because they were called out on their behavior, and everyone departed as friends. This is the way it’s supposed to happen.

But what is really going on in this scripture passage is Jesus taking another swipe at the religious leaders of his day. In some churches, even today, people are more hung up on the rules, then they are on the people that these rules affect. In my example of the fasting regulations, people were more concerned about what they ate and when they ate it, and what someone else ate and when they ate it then they were about working on their spirituality through the process of fasting. They missed the entire point of fasting.

In far too man churches today we have way too many rules about who is and who is not a Christian. Churches have rules to exclude people because they are divorced, remarried, married to a person of the same gender, are the wrong color, do not have enough money, have too much money (that one I don’t understand especially since we are talking about starting a stewardship campaign soon) and all the rest. I know of churches that look down on people who do not dress right, come from the wrong part of town; somehow, humans have got it into their heads that we are the ones who decide who God loves and who God does not love.

Several years ago, a poll was conducted by a church group. A series of questions was asked to try to determine why so few people attend church these days. The survey uncovered that by and large more people knew what the church was against and not what the church stood for, and unfortunately, all churches get painted with the same brush. Churches are not empty because of secular reasons like sports on Sunday; churches are empty because churches have forgotten how to love and care for people.

The second part of this Scripture illustrates this point to some degree. A Canaanite woman comes to Jesus and asks Jesus to heal her daughter. Jesus basically tells her to go away because she is not Jewish. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel,” Jesus responds. He tells her he cannot help her because she is from the wrong side of the tracks. He calls her a dog and says that his work is only for those who look and act a certain way.

Then the woman makes a bold move and calls Jesus out on his behavior and uses his own words, “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Keep in mind the two cultural things going on here, she is a woman, and she is from the wrong side of town. She has asked something of Jesus, and she is calling him on his behavior.

Jesus is putting tradition and the rules before people, Jesus is hiding behind the rules rather than granting this woman’s request. Now, Jesus is doing this to illustrate a point, and I firmly believe that he intended to heal the woman’s daughter all along, but he is showing that we cannot put the rules, no matter how important before helping people.

I am often asked what brought me to the United Church of Christ? There are many reasons, but one of the chief reasons was communion, not the theology per se but the fact that in the United Church of Christ, everyone is welcome to the Table of the Lord’s Supper, and no one is excluded. We say, “no matter who you are, no matter where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” Come all you who labor and find rest.

God sent his only son not to create an institution of rules, regulations, and traditions. God sent Jesus to show us the way to love everyone, including our enemies, and to care for one another. At the center of the Gospel is love, everything Jesus said and did was out of love, we should follow that example as the church and as people who say we follow him.

Sermon: When All Seems Lost

Matthew 14:22-33

This past week Nicky, Oonagh, and I took a few days and snuck away to New Hampshire for a little Rest and Rehabilitation. It was great to be away and near the water. I grew up near the water, and I genuinely miss it. I miss the smell of the ocean air and walk one block over and see the waves crash on the shore during a storm.

I woke early in the morning, made coffee, and went outside the room and just sat and watched the lake. Nothing unusual was happening, and I missed the sunrise, but the water was so calm and peaceful as compared to the world whirling behind me.

Let’s face it the last few months have been crazy, and they do not seem to be getting any better. Recently someone said that things were getting better, but I think we are just getting used to this new reality. I refuse to call it the “new normal” because there is nothing normal about what is going on in the world. I needed to sit for an hour or so and watch the water.

Water plays a central role in Scripture. In the beginning, the earth was covered with it; God sent rain to rid the world of humanity, except for Noah and his family. The first miracle of Jesus was to turn water into wine at a wedding feast and, Jesus was baptized by John in Jordan to begin his earthly ministry. Most of the Apostles were fishermen, and the Gospel stories took place around water.

In this Gospel passage from Matthew that we just heard, Jesus uses water as a central figure in the story. This, by the way, is one of my favorite passages, but I am taking a different look at it this time around. I usually talk about Peter and the faith and strength he had to step out of that boat. It must have taken all he had to lift his legs over the side and stand up and walk.

As interesting as that part of the story is, there is another perspective that often gets overlooked, and that is what Jesus does for Peter. So, lets back up a little……

Jesus had just finished a church service; coffee hour was over, and he was ready to go home and put his feet up. He sent the Apostles on ahead of him in a boat “to the other side,” and he went up the mountain to pray. Jesus, like most ministers, needs a little time alone after a church service to pray and recharge our batteries. Back in the pre-COVID days, I used to call this the PLN, Post Liturgical Nap. But I digress.

Scripture tells us that the boat was a considerable distance away and being buffeted by the waves. The sun had set, and the Apostles were sleeping as the boat made its way across. As the sun was rising, the Apostles, still asleep and just waking, looked out and saw Jesus coming to them walking on water. Now I can only imagine what they were thinking, just coming too from sleep and maybe they were seeing things, but no, it was Jesus.

Someone screamed out, “it’s a ghost,” but Jesus told them to take courage; it was really him, and all would be well. This would not be the last time Jesus tells his Apostles to relax. Now Peter being Peter stands up and says, “Lord, if it is, you tell me to come to you on the water.” Jesus was like, alright, come on.

So, Peter does his thing, starts walking, starts sinking. Now, this is where the camera angle changes, and the movie is now being shot over the shoulder of Jesus. Jesus reaches out his hand and lifts Peter out of the water and back to safety. Standing there, Jesus asks Peter why he had such little faith, and why did he doubt that he could walk on water. Jesus takes Peter back to the boat, they both climb in, the wind stops, and they have a worship service.

Now, notice a few things here. Jesus grants Peter’s request. Peter asked to come to Jesus, and the water and Jesus says okay. Peter starts to walk; his faith is strong, then he notices the world around him, and he begins to sink. He cries out for Jesus to save him, and Jesus once again grants his request. Jesus asks Peter about his lack of faith and his doubts, but he does it privately and not in front of the others. Jesus, standing there, holding Peter comforts him, he does not make fun of his or deride him; he has a private conversation with him.

When they get back in the boat, no one mentions what happened, including Jesus and Peter, and we never hear of this story again. Scripture says the wind was calm, and they had a worship service.

So, what is the point of the story?

Jesus comes to us in good times and bad; in fact, he never leaves us. Peter had the boldness of faith and took on a mission but then noticed the world around him, and he started to falter. Peter asked Jesus for help, and Jesus took him by the hand and led him back to safety. Jesus did not make fun of Peter or use his lack of faith as a moment to teach the others. He had a quiet word with Peter, and then they worshipped together and never spoke of it again.

When we are amid the wind and the rain when life is crashing over the sides of our boat or mission is starting to falter, ask Jesus for help and he will come and help you. Maybe, like Peter, he will lift you out of the water and bring you back to safety. Perhaps he will give you the strength to go on another day.

It is easy to lose faith these days. It is easy to see the waves crashing and start to sink into the sea of despair. The message of today’s Gospel is that it’s okay because Jesus is there to lift us up and bring us back to safety. Amen.

Sitting by the Lake

There is something restorative about the water. My soul feels most at ease when I am around water. I grew up on the water, so being around water reminds me of my childhood. I like to look at the water, crashing on the shore, or just sitting still; however, I am not a big fan of being in the water. It sounds strange, but I would rather sit and watch then be part of it.

My wife, daughter, and I took a couple of days off and drove to the Lakes Region of New Hampshire for a little rest and restoration. I usually say rest and relaxation, but people need time to restore their souls and their minds under “normal” circumstances even more so under the stress we have all been living under these last few months. There is a little stress here due to COVID, but for the most part, there is rest and restoration.

Very often, Jesus would sneak away for some quiet prayer time and, I would imagine, a little restoration for his soul. These times usually came after a rather exasperating day with his Apostles, but the point is, he got away even for a few moments.

Water plays a role in Scripture, as well. “In the Beginning,” the earth was covered with water until God created the land. The Psalms talk about water as the place where Leviathan dwells. God sent the rain to cover the earth and wipe out people who had gone off the rails, except for Noah and his family. But after the destruction of the waters, God entered a covenant with humanity and said he would never again destroy humanity. The rainbow is a constant reminder of that promise of God.

Jesus was no stranger to water. Most of his Apostles made their living on the water as fishermen. His first miracle was to turn water into wine at a wedding feast. He calmed the seas during a storm and, John baptized him in Jordan at the start of his public ministry.

The Gospel reading for the 10th Sunday after Pentecost is taken from Matthew chapter 14, and it is the story of Jesus walking on water. When I have preached using this passage in the past, my focus had always been on Peter. I would speak of the courage of Peter or the “hold my beer and watch this” of Peter or Peter’s lack of faith, and mine.

In my reading this week, I came upon another way of looking at this story, and t comes from the perspective of Jesus. Sure, it took a lot of faith for Peter to step over the side of that boat and put his feet in that water, but that is not the main point of the story, the main point of the story is what Jesus does for Peter when he begins to sink. Jesus very calmly takes Peter’s hand and brings him back to the safety of the boat. Jesus does not deride Peter for his lack of faith. Jesus does not make Peter get on his knees and recite the “sinners’ prayer” no, Jesus calmly takes Peter by the hand, lifts his out of his despair, and restores his soul.

We all need a rest, and we all need restoration. I find peace along the water. It does not matter where we find peace as long as we can find it.

Friends, the storm is all around us. Maybe the waves are crashing over the side of your boat, and you have had enough, I get it, and so does Jesus. Peter needed a little help, and he reached out his hands, and Jesus lifted him and gave him rest, and Jesus can and will do the same for you.

Massachusetts Does Not Need a New Seal or Flag It Needs Better Education

Symbols are important. Symbols tell a story of people, places, and things. When one looks up, at the stars and stripes hanging from the pole or fluttering in the wind, the history of the United States come to mind and all that she has endured. Monuments on battlefields or in the public square tell a story or should tell a story of the history of the people living in that community, honestly and without hiding any of that history. Symbols matter but, symbols can also be misinterpreted if only looked at on the surface.

I am not surprised that the Great Seal of Commonwealth has come under intense scrutiny in these turbulent times in which we live. As depicted, the Seal has as its centerpiece an American Indian* holding a bow in one hand and an arrow in the other. The Indian has been central to the Great Seal off and on since the inception of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1629.

What is surprising is in every legislative session since 1984, bills have been introduced in the Great and General Court of the Commonwealth to redesign the Great Seal and the Flag of the Commonwealth. The latest attempt came on July 29th when the Massachusetts State Senate unanimously approved a bill to create a commission to study a redesign of the historic Seal. The bill still needs the approval of the House of Representatives before the commission would be created.

Although I understand the feeling behind the desire to redesign the Seal and flag, I do not feel a redesign is warranted. I think that more and better education behind the history and symbolism of these symbols is needed. Some symbols do need to be changed, like the use of Confederate symbols in state flags as no amount of education can explain away the hatred behind such symbols. But a better understanding of the symbols can help.

First Seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony Granted by King Charles I in 1629.

As previously mentioned, the first Seal was approved by the Charter, establishing the Massachusetts Bay Colony issued by King Charles I in 1629. The original Seal had at its center and American Indian, holding a bow and arrow with the motto, “Come over and help us.” This motto signified the missionary and commercial intentions of the original colonists.  The arrow the Indian is holding is pointing down, not as a sign of subjugation but an indication of peace. This Seal was in use until the Charter was annulled in 1689 and then again from 1689-1692.

Massachusetts Seal of 1775 with the motto of Algernon Sidney

It is important to note that on July 28, 1775, the Seal was revised, and the American Indian was replaced with an English-American man holding a copy of the Magna Carta. The Seal was again changed in 1780 when the American Indian was returned to the center of the Seal.

According to records held by the Secretary of the Commonwealth, The American Indian was chosen to be the central figure for no other reason than he is symbolic of America. The “English-American man” was considered “too English,” and the State Legislature wanted something that was more American as part of the new Seal.

“Karen Kurczynski, a professor of art history and architecture at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said the seal was originally meant to suggest peace with the colonial-era symbol of a Native American whose arrow is pointing down.”

Current Massachusetts Coat of Arms

“Seen from today’s point of view, the arrow pointing down could suggest submission and subjection to colonial domination as much as peace, given a clearer look at what happened in American history,” Kurczynski said. (Merzback 2019)

But the depiction of the American Indian on the Seal is not the only point that has drawn criticism. The motto of the Commonwealth and the bent arm holding the broadsword has come into the crosshairs of critics.

Surrounding the shield depicting the American Indian is a blue ribbon. This ribbon signifies the Blue Hills of Quincy, Canton, and Milton with the motto in Latin “Ense petit placidam sub libertate quietem.” This motto was written about 1659 by the English Patriot Algernon Sydney. The literal translation of the Latin is: “With a sword, she seeks quiet peace under liberty.” The more commonly used text is the looser translation of “By the sword we seek peace, but peace only under liberty.” The motto was adopted by the Congress of the Province in 1775 and is still in use today.

Critics point to the warlike theme of “with a sword” but again totally overlook the “quiet peace under liberty” of the second part of the motto. The United States came as the result of a bloody revolution that took place only after negotiations failed. The Continental Congress chose war as a last resort, but now, with Independence in their sight, only desired peace but peace secured through the liberty of all.

Perhaps the Seal’s most controversial element is the military symbol of the bent right arm holding the sword at the top. I always thought this looked the Cape Cod, but it goes deeper than that. The Arms of the Commonwealth, which make up a significant part of the Seal has as part of its heraldic description this text, “The crest shall be a wreath of blue and gold, whereon is a right arm, bent at the elbow, and clothed and ruffled, the hand grasping a broadsword, all of gold.”

The arm and sword are the “Military Symbol” and makes up the device used by the Join Forces Headquarters of the Massachusetts National Guard. The device is used on flags and the shoulder patch used by Soldiers and Airman assigned to duty with headquarters.

In a letter from the United States Army Institute of Heraldry dated 19 June 2015 the symbolism of the “arm, bent at the elbow” is an “ancient European heraldic symbol which is thought to represent the Arm of God” and was used to show the protection of God for those who used the symbol.  According to the “History of the Arms,” the dress of the sleeve and the broad sword is a reminder that the freedom of the Commonwealth and the United States came about through Revolution.

“The bent arm with the sword, for example, was not intended to be threatening to Native Americans, or threatening to anyone, for that matter. It’s just a typical heraldic representation found on many coats of arms.” Jim Wald, a history professor at Hampshire College.  (Merzback 2019)

As with anything in history, it is essential to understand the meaning behind the symbols used at the time of creation and how they will be interpreted in future generations. Any discussion of change should begin with a full understanding of the original intent behind the nature of the symbol, and then a study can be had about that change.

As I stated at the outset that my objection was not necessarily to the change but rather to the lack of education concerning the original intent of what the symbols implied; peace, justice, America, and all the rest. Although we cannot know for sure what was in the mind of every individual associated with the creation of the Great Seal of the Commonwealth, it would appear, at least historically, that the intent was to bring honor and not subjugation. Not everything needs to change.

*I am using the term “American Indian” in reference to “Indigenous People” as that is the term used in the historical documents cited.

Works Cited

Merzback, Scott (2019) Sign of the times: Rethinking the Massachusetts state seal in 2019. Retrieved 3 August 2020

The History of the Arms and Great Seal of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Retrieved 3 August 2020

Department of the Army, Institute of Heraldry: MEMORANDUM FOR The Adjutant General’s Office, ATTN: Mr. Len Kondratiuk. June 19 2015.

What we Believe: Holy Communion

I am finishing up the “What we believe” series with a talk about one of the most sacred times in the life of a Congregation. That time when we gather around the table for the Supper of the Lord. I want to say right the outset that I do not hold the traditional view of the Reformers concerning the Lord’s Supper. In fact, I lean very Anglo/Catholic in my belief, but let us save that until later.

Communion, Eucharist, or the Lord’s Supper as it is commonly called traces its origin to the Last Supper in the Upper Room with Jesus and his Disciples. After the meal, as they were sitting around the table, Jesus blessed bread and wine and passed it around to those with him. It is at this point there is divergence among Christians.

Some, like many reformers, believe that what happens is a reenactment of sorts. We gather around the table and reenact the event that took place on that night in the Upper Room. What we do is merely symbolic in nature and has no spiritual component to it at all. Others believe that a transformation of the elements of bread and wine takes place, they become holy, they become sanctified, they become, through the power of the Holy Spirit, joined with Christ himself and become his body and blood. The elements do not change; they become sanctified; they become holy.

The order of the service for communion is as ancient as the Church is and has been in the same form for millennia. There is a welcome of sorts and a thanksgiving; some traditions refer to this time as the Great Thanksgiving. This is when we call to mind the deeds God has performed the miracles if you will. We are reminded that God sent his son to show us the way, including what we are doing.

Next comes the words of institution adapted from the Gospel and from Paul’s Letter to the Church in Corinth. He took the bread, gave thanks, blessed it, broke it, and gave it. He does the same with the cup filled with wine, please know I am using wine, and I fully understand that we use grape juice in our modern practice. And he says this is my body and this is my blood, and we are to do this in remembrance of him.

After this comes the epiclesis or the calling down of the Holy Spirit. We ask God to send his Spirit upon us and upon the gifts set before us and make them holy. We are asking God, through the power of the Holy Spirit to change the simple bread and wine, and through them us, into something sanctified and holy. We then become spiritually joined with Jesus in his ministry to the world.

I believe, and I am not asking you to accept this, that what happens on that table is a mystery. A change takes place, and the presence of Jesus is real through the Holy Spirit’s power. That simple bread and wine, the fruit of the vine and work of human hands, becomes something other than itself, and it is given to all of us so that we might become holy and sanctified.

But I am less concerned with what happens to the bread and wine and what happens to us after receiving it.

When we gather as a community around the table, or in this crazy time we live in around our computer screens, it is a sacred and holy moment. I would go so far as to say this is an intimate moment that we are sharing. We are coming together to share in the miraculous work of Jesus in the world; we are sharing in the Union.

In ancient times, when a couple wanted to be joined together in marriage, they would come to the Church not to recite vows, they would come to the Church and receive communion together, which would seal their covenant in the eyes of the Church.

We come together and pray for each other. Hopefully, we are in communion with one another at that time, but regardless we are joined in prayer. The Holy Spirit comes and dwells with us as the Holy Spirit did in the Upper Room at Pentecost. Yes, it was the same Upper Room, by the way. We are invited to come to the table that us before us not out of privilege but out of a sense of longing and desire to be transformed.

Jesus says to do “this” in memory of me. What is the “this” he is referring too?  Communion, sure but I believe it goes further than that.  This is the last night that Jesus will have with those that have been with him from the start, including Judas. These men, and yes, I am sure there were women there as well had been with him for three years watching and listening as he taught them the way of love. This meal, this Last Supper, was his capstone project, his final exam his last lecture. We truly are to be in communion with each other but, if we are going to eat the bread and drink the cup, we have to do all of the other things he did to include feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, loving everyone, caring for those who are marginalized, have a preferential option for the poor, giving voice to the voiceless and sacrificing it all for someone else. The “this” that Jesus wants us to do is all of it, just as he taught us.

All of this is why I struggle with this idea of virtual communion, as we will celebrate today. We may be joined in spirit, but we are not joined. And what about those that watch at a different time? Sure, there may be more than one of you present right now and partake of communion together. Still, the very notion of communion is that it is communal, the entire community gathered together, praying together it is not merely the work of the minister that sanctifies and makes the bread and the wine holy it is the work of all of us, gathered together that does this.

I am sure the Holy Spirit can use whatever means she wants to make things holy, but that misses the point. Remember, so holy was this sacrament that the reformers thought receiving every week was a bad thing, that receiving communion that often watered it down so it would be meaningless. I am not saying I am going to stop; I am saying I struggle with it.

Shortly we will gather, virtually around the table. I will have before me bread and wine, well grape juice, and you will have similar elements in front of you. We will say the words together, and we will consume the elements together. I pray that you allow the transformation to take place in you. Let the Holy Spirit come upon you, fall afresh on you as the song says, and allow that spirit to begin making the necessary change.

That is my prayer, and that is my hope.


Wavering Faith

In these times we are living in it is easy to lose faith, but I want to challenge you not to!

We live in times of uncertainty, political uncertainty, economic uncertainty, and even religious uncertainty, so I understand that it is challenging to keep the faith. It is hard to know who to trust, do we trust the government or the media? There are deep divisions in our country and the Church, so it can be challenging to know who to trust.

Jesus used parables when he taught. Parables are stories using familiar images to reveal truths to those listening or reading can understand. Jesus painted a picture, using words to explain a spiritual reality. The Hebrew and Aramaic word for parable also means “allegory,” “riddle,” or “proverb.” The images used in the parables come from everyday life od those listening. Those of us reading the parables today may struggle a bit with images, but we are not first century people, so we need to dig a little to find the meaning.

The Parable of the Mustard Seed appears in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew and is a good illustration of why it is essential for us not to lose faith, even in these distressing times.

“Jesus said, ‘What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.'” (Mark 4:30-32)

Alongside my driveway, I have a small garden that has some large plants in it. I do not always see these flowering plants because they are behind the cars in the driveway, but I know they are there. Two of these plants grew taller than I am and came from a ridiculously small seed. I am always amazed at the size of this plant, and it’s coming from such a tiny seed.

I have never seen a mustard seed, so I will take the word of Jesus that it is the “smallest of all seeds on earth.” I get what Jesus is saying here, faith starts small and grows, some years are good, and some years not so good it all depends on the conditions around us and how well we tend to our faith.

Further, in the Gospel of Mark is a story of a man who brings his son to Jesus for healing. The boy has seizures, and no one can help him. Jesus says to the man, “if you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes.” The man looks at Jesus and says, “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.” Jesus healed the man’s son even though the man had trouble believing. You see, Jesus said, “If you CAN believe.” All Jesus asks of us is that we try.

We are not required to believe all the time; we can doubt, question, walk away, change, rethink, and all the rest Jesus makes allowance for that. The bottom line is, do we have the capacity to believe, do we have the ability to have faith? If we do, all things are possible.

Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.

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