Scripture: Psalm 23
The Great Pursuit
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
You make me lie down in green pastures,
You lead me beside still waters,
You restore my soul….
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
All the days of my life,
And I shall swell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.
There are passages of scripture that follow us all the days of our lives.  Psalm 23 is one of them. We don’t follow this Psalm, it follows us, we don’t turn to this Psalm, it turns to us, we don’t seek out this Psalm, it seeks us out. It pursues us with guidance, protection, presence, comfort.
This Psalm finds all people in all places at all times….
This Psalm finds us in life’s beginning, as children sitting in our Sunday school chairs memorizing verse after verse, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”
It finds us in adolescence, struggling with life’s great existential questions, “He restores my soul.”
If finds us as parents, walking that fine line between tough love and love that’s not tough enough… “He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.”
It finds us at the side of a hospital bed of a loved one before surgery, together recalling our childhood memorization of it, “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil, for you are with me.”
It finds us in the ritual service to mark the passing of a loved one,
“And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.”
Psalm 23 finds all people in all places at all times.
It found Jesus while walking in the temple. It inspired him to proclaim to those challenging him: “You do not believe because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me” (John 10:27).
It found the Puritans on the surface of the Atlantic sailing into an unknown future, toward whatever they would find on the other side.
It found slaves picking cotton in between rounds of “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.”
It found Jews on concentration camps and worshippers in African American churches throughout the country during the civil rights movement in between verses of “We Shall Overcome.”
The profound simplicity of this Psalm finds all people in all places at all times.
It finds us, here, today, picking up the pieces after explosions on the streets of our city and on the bodies of our neighbors.
How many, we wonder, did this Psalm seek out this past Monday, at ten to three in the afternoon in the midst of the chaos and the shock and the trauma and the terror?
How many marked and maimed, discovered these words naturally rise from within? Familiar and cathartic.
How many, after realizing what had happened, dropped to their knees, lost then found by these words:
“The Lord is my shepherd
I shall not want
he makes me to lie down in green
pastures, he leads me beside still waters…”
Because those are the words that found them in their moment of greatest need – those are the words that sought them out in the deepest recesses of their heart, in a place where human eyes cannot see
nor human ear hear
nor human mind comprehend.
How many of the good, brave, precious helpers/shepherds: the EMTs, the fireman, police officers, nurses and doctors were asked to recall and pray these words while holding the hand of a stranger or pushing a wheelchair or rolling a stretcher down Boylston Street?
Over the past six days, how many chaplains at MGH, Brigham, Beth Israel, Boston Medical Center, Mt. Auburn, were asked to open their travel bible and turn to the 23rd Psalm and begin to read?
Even those who are spiritual but not religious, even those, it finds them too.
It finds us here this morning. It brings us to a comfortable, familiar place. Psalm 23, you might say, is like coming home. Safely and securely. Coming home.
Safe and secure.
As the marathon bombing is one of many in a long line of random, violent acts over the past decade, our sense of safety and security is perhaps not what it once was. It can happen here. It has happened here, it has happened to our children and to our brothers and sisters and to our parents. To our neighbors and friends. It has happened here. Here where we are peaceful and free. As our Conference President heartbreakingly noted this past week, "Now we stand in solidarity with the people of New York City, Syria, Israel/Palestine, Oklahoma City, and tragically, so many other places."
Perhaps what is most unsettling is that we are being pursued by an eerily illusive enemy found among those with whom we learn and work and socialize. Evil lurks, freely and uncontained. We fear. Even after the death of Bin Laden and Tamerlan and Adam Lanza and Dzhokhar’s capture, we don’t know when or where or who is pursuing us...We fear.
But Psalm 23 reminds us of a different pursuit, of the True and Great Pursuit from which we can never escape. In a moment of scripture so well known, it is easy to gloss over the familiar words and images, but in that place where David writes, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,” – "follow" is not the Hebrew, the verb that David chooses to use actually means to pursue: “Surely goodness and mercy shall pursue me all the days of my life.” God is active. God is with us. God is good.
Every other place in the Psalms where David uses this verb, pursue, he uses it in the context of the enemy pursuing and killing him. But here, David reverses this pursuit. It’s not the pursuit of the enemy’s evil; it’s the pursuit of God’s goodness and mercy.
When we get lost in another’s hate and are in danger of becoming haters,
when we are lost in fear and are in danger of becoming fearful,
God’s quality of goodness will pursue us, it will chase us;
God’s mercy will hunt us down.
The enemy’s pursuit of evil and violence that struck the finish line on Monday has launched God’s pursuit of goodness and mercy within the Boston community more fiercely than ever. We see it every where we look, we experience it everywhere we go this past week ~ in a culture of independence, in a society that is increasingly falling away from each other, when the importance of civic life is waning ~ God is bringing us together, God is bringing us home to one another. One Boston. Boston Strong.
I felt and knew this to be true as the news reported hundreds already in line at 6 a.m. on Thursday morning outside of the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in South Boston for the interfaith service. Thousands and thousands of people waiting to enter a church!
God is bringing us together, God is bringing us home to one another.
I felt and I knew this to be true yesterday when my voice was one among the thousands in the Fleet Center singing the Star Spangled Banner – the many voices that melted together to become one.
God is bringing us together, God is bringing us home to one another.
I felt and knew this to be true yesterday as pedestrians stopped to thank law enforcement officials on street corners for their service, as flags were carried into and proudly waved within the grand sports arena - flags: American and the City of Watertown - and as MIT banners were in full force.
It is in our darkest moments, in our greatest hour of need when we come home to one another and to God. God’s goodness and mercy pursue us when we stand with one another despite our differences of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, politics.
God’s goodness and mercy pursue us when we stand with one another in our common humanity to celebrate the just laws of democracy and freedom.
God’s goodness and mercy pursue us when we tear down fences in order to run toward one another in a moment of crisis and chaos and trauma and terror.
God’s goodness and mercy pursue us when we welcome terrified strangers seeking shelter into the privacy of our home.
God's goodness and mercy pursue us all the days of our life so that when evil sneaks in, we are reminded of the seed of innate goodness that God planted in each one of us upon our coming into the world. We are reminded that the darkness never overcomes the light. We are reminded that we are - each and all - children of the good and loving and living God. Many, yet one.
Amen. ~Rev. Leanne Walt Thank you to Dr. Michael Milton’s blog for inspiring my reflections on Psalm 23:
 “Providing Light for this journey through darkness is what churches do”, Rev. Dr. Jim Antal, April 18, 2013
Scripture: John 20:19-31
Believing is Seeing
This past Thursday evening a dozen of us gathered in the center of Braintree, on the top floor of the Thayer Public Library to hear from the Director of the Center for Global Judaism at Hebrew College in Newton, MA, Rabbi Or Rose. The mix of us was Jewish, Christian, and Unitarian. Professor Rose is also the co-Director of CIRCLE: the Center for Inter-Religious & Community Leadership Education, a joint venture of Hebrew College and Andover Newton Theological School. So, he was speaking to us while wearing both hats – a person of the Jewish faith and culture and a professor invested in promoting interfaith discourse and dialogue.
Rabbi Rose opened his lecture with the statement that America is, at the same time, the most religiously diverse and the most religious country in the world. That we live in peace – for the most part – and do not experience religious violence and hate on a daily basis and on widespread level is not to be taken for granted, the Rabbi reminded.
And, he distinguished between diversity and pluralism, urging us not only to accept or tolerate the diversity of our neighbors, but through dialogue and education, to engage with diversity, to actively seek understanding across lines of difference. That is, in the Christian context to live out the new commandment made manifest in Jesus, where in John’s Gospel he said: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another…By this, everyone will know that you are my disciples” (John 13:34).
We talked about the implications of loving one another, of pluralistic engagement between and among individuals and communities who hold competing commitments and beliefs. We talked about the threat of difference and the nature of truth, difference as threatening to the integrity of our own belief systems, difference as threatening to the identity of our own communities, and difference as threatening to the preservation of our own traditions and rituals and truths, which we hold to be unassailable and incontrovertible.
It was the scientist, the pragmatist, the psychologist William James who proposed that: “The greatest enemy of any one of our truths may be the rest of our truths.” Competing commitments, conflicting beliefs. He maintained that the truth of an idea or belief can never be proven…so, our doubting, dear Thomas in the shadow and glow of the empty tomb doubted – waiting and wanting for Jesus to prove the truth he needed to see in order to believe.
After nearly two hours of lecture and discussion, inquiry and assertion perhaps the only truth to come out of Thursday’s interfaith dialogue was one that the Rabbi offered, that, the only thing universal about humankind is our particularity.
Indeed, we are different. Indeed, we are diverse.
In appearance, in experience, in mind, and in heart. Created, each, every and all, in the image of God.
Not only between religions, but among communities of faith, there is difference. There is diversity. In appearance, in experience, in mind, and in heart.
Here, among us, at First Congregational Church there is difference. Look around. Is there any one among you who is of exactly like-mind or appearance or experience or even belief? Together we are the body that Jesus calls us to be – hand to serve, foot to lead, eye to cast vision, mind to question, ear to listen, heart to understand, calloused heel to remind us where we have been, intestine to process and digest – to do the dirty work. We are one though many.
Following worship this morning, we will gather in the lower parish hall to discuss potential changes to the chapel space in the church. Space that has been set aside and apart by our First Church forbearers as specifically holy, sacred, and worshipful. Space that is full of memory and meaning for so many here in this place. The chapel, with its pews, their remaining or being removed, and their potential replacement with chairs – is an issue where our differences have been brought to bare, where they have been pronounced and exposed over the past year.
Over and over again, I’ve thanked God for this – for the ways that the chapel has served as an avenue for us as a congregation to discuss change in the church in a real and tangible way. I thank God for, through the chapel pews, challenging us to love one another across difference and through utter frustration and even annoyance, at times. For the ways that we are able to disagree and, yet still obey God’s new commandment to love one another as Jesus loves us.
There is no winning side to any vote taken in this church – whether it pertains to removing pews or transferring funds or terminating a long-time pastor or calling a new pastor. There is no losing side to any vote taken in this church. Each vote, each decision if our hearts are pure and true, as God intends, will not be political but faithful, not in the best interest of the self, but of the whole. If we are truly seeking to serve God and make the gospel of Jesus Christ manifest in this community and world, then no issue will ever be a tug-of-war, exhausting us and distracting us from doing the real ministry of the church. But the question of the chapel and others like it will be an exercise in conversation, in diversity, in difference, in love and understanding.
Many summers ago now, when I had a job at a golf course that allowed me to spend much of my time outside, sitting in a golf cart waiting to sell adult beverages, peanut butter crackers, and sandwiches to the thirsty and hungry players as they passed through. Many hours that summer I found myself under a large weeping willow tree between the front and back nine, so much so that I decided to read the classics. Some I trudged through with a prideful commitment to reach the final page, so that I could then wear the book like an internal badge of honor: Moby Dick and George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss I must admit, were a commitment that I couldn’t but wished I could quit. But, others I adored: Jane Ayre, The Sun Also Rises, and Anna Karenina, page earmarked and underlined where Anna reflects:
“If it is true that there are as many minds as there are heads, then there are as many kinds of love as there are hearts.” There are many kinds of love when it comes to the sacred and holy space of the chapel in this church, they are deep and diverse.
My love for the chapel isn’t for what it was, or even is, but for what it could be. When I look in the chapel – I don’t see what it once was - the family baptisms or weddings or youth fellowship gatherings or Vacation Bible School because, quite simply, I don’t carry those memories in my heart. When I look at the chapel, when I stand in that holy and sacred space, I see potential and hope for meaningful, productive, faithful ways to learn about and serve God through the vessel of that room.
But the truth is, it is difficult to trust what we can’t yet see, what we cannot yet experience. Ever the more difficult when it feels as though our truth and our tradition is threatened and in danger. So, enter Thomas: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” Everyone wants their own experience of the truth.
“But,” Jesus says, “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (John 20:29).
Resurrection is more than about how much God loves us, or the power of God, but it’s a about creating new realities. Realities of trust, love, and forgiveness. Realities liberation from oppression an discrimination – equality (but not sameness) amidst difference.
When I look upon us, when I imagine our community, I see a beautiful garden variety – and what a Sunday to play with this image – in the presence of such exquisite bouquets offered in the memory and memorial of two of our unique and irreplaceable members – Bob Fink and Nancy Capron. We are, each, our own flower, carefully crafted and formed and fashioned by God. Some lilies – strong, with a lasting fragrance, some roses – maintaining the beauty of tradition, some butterfly trees – attracting friends and offering sweet prayers and comfort, some hostas to mark needed boundaries; others wildflowers, reminding us of a beauty that surprises, that pops up in new and unexpected places.
Indeed, we are different. Indeed, we are diverse.
In appearance, in experience, in mind, and in heart. There in our difference we find the vastness and beauty of God reflected into the world.
Isn’t this what we teach our children? Boy or Girl, black or white, smarter or slower, scientist or artist, athlete or actor… Isn’t this what Paul was getting at: “We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us” (Romans 12:6).
Our differences make us special. Our differences make us stronger.
Perhaps the highest stake of bridging difference is sameness, of losing that which makes us wonderfully unique and particular – our traditions, history, and experience – change is hard and the risks are real.
In the process, may we not learn to always agree, may we not seek to become the same – of like mind and fixed belief - but to cultivate understanding across lines of difference. To love one another as Christ loves us.
~Rev. Leanne S. Walt
Scripture: Matthew 14:13-21
A woman gives of herself – her time and talent – to her church in a suburb south of Boston. There she volunteers as a youth group leader. This year she’s leading a Bible Study for teens. They met several Sundays ago in the church library, a room that happens to be adjacent to the high school. She read from the gospel of Matthew the story of Jesus’ transfiguration – how he went up to the mountain with Peter, James and John and, she read, “He was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.” She continued reading and when she was finished a young woman in the group said to her: “Ok. But get me from here to there,” and she pointed toward the window in the direction of the high school.
Get me from here to there.
That is my call, from week to week – to get you – us - from here to there. To move us from the Word of God to the work of God in the world.
That is our call, the Church’s call, day by day, to get from in here to out there.
To move us from church to wider community. To move us from church to school, from church to the grocery store, from church to your desk at work, from church to the dinner table, from church to the real-life worries that keep us up at night. To move us from faith to awareness, from awareness to concern, from concern to action.
If we cannot make this move, then our worship is in vain; then our faith is in vain.
This Lent we’ve undertaken such a journey to translate the Word of God into the work of God in the world. A pilgrimage guided by miracle and informed by loaves and fish. This morning we put one foot in front of the other and continue our uphill climb in the hills of Galilee.
We move from gathering to worshiping,
From worshipping to reflection,
From reflection to awareness,
From awareness to action.
From the transformation of the self for the transformation of the world.
Three weeks in, are you familiar with story of the feeding of the 5,000? Has the scripture yet escaped from the page and found its way into your heart – from here (mind) to there (heart)? Do you know it well? Well enough to bring it to God in prayer? Well enough to bring it out there? Well enough to share it with a friend? Well enough to see the miraculous love and abundance of God at work in the world?
There are many entry points into this story. There are many paths that will take you from here to there by way of this miracle. And, we have entered this story from several different angles already.
On the first Sunday of Lent – as the Sunday storm swirled outside, faithful and few we gathered across snow-covered streets – to introduce our Loaves and Fishes mission. We placed our first set of fish in our felt sea – 20 to be exact, representing the first $125 that the Canton Rotary Club donated to further our mission to feed our sisters and brothers in need.
We entered the story, that morning, by way of Jesus’ commandment to the disciples: “You give them something to eat.” Jesus does not feed the 5,000. The disciples do. The grace of God working through the people of God.
God has entrusted us to be the body of Christ - the hands and feet through which God’s work is done in the world. God does the feeding, but the resources are human.
There, in that entry point we were reminded of the power that we possess to transform the world – that our gifts, our donations, our assistance, however small, have power that we can never fully see; that we can feed the multitudes, that we can satisfy hunger. When Jesus tells the disciples to feed the 5,000 they thought it was impossible. The needs were so great, the resources so few.
Have we not felt the same? Have we not doubted? We, of little faith. Have we not focused on what we lack rather than all that we have? Have we not seen the obstacles rather than the possibilities? Have we not seen the glass have empty rather than awoken to its fullness?
Last week we released 82 new fish into the wild of our felt sea, these representing the $516 and 2,050 meals that we purchased to packaged and boxed and brought and stocked on the shelves of local food pantries. In so doing, we offered those fish from the week prior companionship and communion – after all, the sanctuary turns into a vast and cavernous abyss when we empty out of here and night comes. Surely the fish get lonely.
Last week we delved deeper into this scripture, chapter and verse and we entered by way of love.
We entered in the hour of Jesus’ grief, just after he receives word that his dear friend and cousin John the Baptist had been killed, he looks upon the crowds that had gathered in the place where he went to be all alone – he sees the people and he has compassion for them. In the midst of his own grief he is deeply concerned for the people. They are hungry. He is concerned. Out of his concern compassion is born. Are you deeply concerned?
Are you deeply concerned for the 18,000 children in Norfolk county who are food insecure, which means they lack access to enough food to meet their basic needs, which means they go to bed hungry, which means they often don’t know where their next meal will come from. Are you concerned enough to exercise compassion? Are you concerned enough to give of your time and resources to ease their suffering?
From this angle it may be that this great miracle story of Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000 is not so much about loaves and fish as it is about love, multiplied and shared. It may be that the great miracle story of First Congregational Church’s feeding of the 5,000 is not so much about meals of macaroni and cheese or rice and beans as it is about love, multiplied and shared. Love. Endless and abundant. Moving us from here to there.
Week three of our pilgrimage, we continue the uphill climb in the hills of Galilee to get from here to there:
From the Word of God to the work of God in the world.
Moving from reflection to awareness,
From awareness to action,
From the transformation of the self to the transformation of the world.
On this communion Sunday, we enter by way of the bread - blessed, broken, given and received. How does bread get us from here to there? From the Word of God to the work of God in the world?
Bread/food is our most basic human need. Far out in this deserted and isolated place near Galilee, in this wilderness place where the people are tired and hungry Jesus calls them to sit in the grass and he sets a table before them, and there among them he takes bread, blesses and breaks it (remind you of something…?). Flour/sugar/salt/water – kneaded and scored by the work of human hands. By way of the disciples, Jesus offers this meal to the hungry people and by way of that simple loaf of bread, when broken open, flow Jesus’ compassion and God’s abundance. By way of that simple loaf of bread the people are fed.
Jesus calls us to gather in the wilderness of our lives and here in this place, this morning, he has set a table before us – rooting us in our common humanity, grounding us in our most basic human need – eating and drinking – needs so frequently and easily fulfilled that we so often take their fulfillment for granted.
Here we are, bound together in our hunger, in our vulnerability, in our dependency upon God and one another in order to survive in the most basic sense of the word – for without bread we cannot live.
And yet, we cannot live by bread alone.
We cannot live by money alone. We cannot live by power alone. We cannot live by fame or recognition alone. We cannot live alone.
From this awareness we move to the table – from here to there - where we find the comfort of community and communion – with God and one another. Where we bless, break, give and receive.
There is a shared fellowship, an intimacy – a communion – happening in our midst this Lent as we focusing on giving and sharing our resources with those in need, just as there was for Jesus and the disciples on the hillside of Galilee when they shared a meal of bread and fish and in the Upper Room that Thursday night when they shared a meal of bread and wine.
So we do this in memory of Him – we worship, we commune, we pray, we bless, break, and give all that we are and all that we have in service to the world in memory of Him. In memory of his miracle, in memory of his gentleness, in memory of his deep concern and compassion for the world. In memory of his cross.
And we move
From Word to table,
From table to memory,
From memory to bread,
From receiving to giving it away.
We move from the Word of God to the work of God in the world.
~Rev. Leanne S. Walt preaching
Scripture: Matthew 14:13-21
Loaves and Fishes
Rev. Leanne Walt
We are going to start out the sermon this morning with a little visualization exercise. We use this often in sports. At the end of our Friday practices, on the night before a match, my rugby coach in college would gather the team in the center of the pitch and we would lie down on the grass and she would tell us to close our eyes and she would lead us through a visualization exercise. Picture walking onto the pitch tomorrow, picturing taking the field. What’s the temperature like? Who’s beside you? The ref blows the whistle, we kick off, the game begins. Your legs are strong and fast, the toes of your cleats digging into the soft grass, you’re running/running/running, sprinting toward the player with the ball. You approach her, bend at the waist wrap your arms around her legs and snap them down to the ground. You made the first tackle. You are strong, unstoppable, unbeatable.
Believing is seeing.
* * * *
Now, I’m not going to ask you to lie down, but I ask you now to close your eyes, as you are comfortable doing so. It takes a lot of trust to close your eyes. Picture a Sunday morning, approaching the church – here at 12 Elm Street - by car or foot. As you drive into the parking lot, ugh – all the spaces are filled, there’s no place to park. You circle around again and find a spot on Stedman Ave. You walk around to the front door and you have to wait a minute to get into the building. The line for bulletins is too long. You walk into the sanctuary and it is just full of people. It’s standing-room-only full.
Now, some of you remember times when this didn’t have to be a visualization exercise. You remember years and years and years when this sanctuary was full. So full, in fact, that you had to use the chapel for overflow and put a television and audio feed in there.
But, in the 2 years that I have shared in ministry here at First Church, of the 100 plus services that I have led, I have seen this sanctuary full on only 5 occasions. One of those occasions was for my Installation as your pastor in April of 2011. One of them was for the wedding of Tiffany and Freddie Rodriguez.
The other three times were for funerals. The day we celebrated and honored the life of our sister Ethel Anastos this sanctuary was standing-room-only full, the day we celebrated and honored the life of our brother in faith Dick Hewson this sanctuary was standing-room-only full, and this past Thursday as we celebrated and honored the life of our sister Gail Jacobs this sanctuary was standing-room-only full.
And it caused me to wonder, not for the first time, why is it that we draw far more people in for weddings and funerals than we do on Sunday mornings?
Why is it that God’s house is standing-room-only full when we – the Church - are called upon to bless and consecrate a love before the cross and in the eyes of God? Why is it that God’s house is standing-room-only full when we – the Church – are called upon to offer a word of comfort, to serve as a haven for the grieving, to affirm eternal life and love?
Weddings and funerals, we know, share the common threads of relationship and love. Love: the most valuable commodity we posses in this life/our most basic human need. To love and be loved in return. Love discovered, cultivated, enjoyed, celebrated, and affirmed as true and authentic and eternal in the eyes of God.
This sanctuary was standing room-only full on Thursday. It was full of young children and teenagers and adults who had come to give thanks for the life of a young woman, just 49 years old, who, along with her 2 older sisters had made First Church her home as a child and teenager. Her mother, Ginny Oster, in fact, ran the Church Elm preschool, which was the school that was here at the church prior to Lollipop Tree. Though they had moved away from Braintree and dispersed throughout New England, the Oster family has deep roots here at First Church – in Sunday school, youth camp and dinners - and it was Gail’s wish for her memorial service to be held here – for this Church to offer her family, her husband and two young sons the promise of faith and the comfort of ritual as she passed on from this world to the next.
The crowd had gathered, from near and far, in this one place to honor the relationship and affirm the love that Gail shared with each of them, but especially the love that she shared with her two boys.
So the people came, by plane and car and foot to hear the resounding promise of God for this mother and her sons in the words of the Apostle Paul that, “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”
* * * *
It may be that this great miracle story of Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000 is not so much about loaves and fish as it is about love, multiplied and shared.
This great miracle of love actually comes out of grief. We remember that according to Matthew, two significant things have just happened to Jesus:
1. He was rejected in his hometown of Nazareth, and;
2. He just received word that his cousin, John the Baptist, his closest partner in ministry and who he had grown up with from birth, had been killed in prison.
So this story begins with Jesus rejected and grieving. He gets into his boat and sails away, looking for a quiet and deserted place where he could be all alone. Where he could cry and pray and grieve – a place away from the noise and constant needs of the crowds. But, still, the need follows him. He cannot escape it. From his boat, as he approaches what he had hoped would be a lonely place. Surely he saw the mass of thousands of people on shore awaiting his arrival. Surely he could have continued rowing to another location; surely he could have chosen to stay in the boat alone.
But, instead he rows to the shore and his heart is filled with compassion for all those who had followed him.
As it gets to be late in the day and the people are getting hungry, Jesus takes the five loaves of bread that the disciples had brought with them and he blesses them and he breaks them and he gives them to the disciples to distribute to the mob of people. He does this with faith enough that all would be fed. And they are. He does this believing that there would be enough to go around. And there is.
What if that bread that Jesus breaks and blesses and offers is love itself. A love without end. A love that, when broken open, is always enough to go around. A love that embraces us in our rejection. A love that meets us in our grief.
* * * *
When we consider the miracles that Jesus preformed in his life and ministry we are left to wonder if it they’re not so much about the actual miracles themselves – the restoration of sight to the blind, the turning of water into wine, the casting out of demons, the raising from the dead – so much as they are about the compassion and love that Jesus offers those who are hurting and broken. Love is the miracle. The love of God made manifest in Christ, and so in us. Love that can be multiplied and shared over and over again. Love that never ends.
Those who seek out a house of God at the time of marriage or death are seeking the love of Jesus, yearning for that perfect love that will carry them through the imperfect times of marriage and that eternal love that will carry them through the separation that accompanies death.
What would happen if we here at First Church, like the disciples, heeded Jesus’ call to distribute this kind of love to the crowds? If we were to distribute the kind of love that is so miraculous and abundant that there is always enough to go around?
Later this morning, as we gather for our annual financial meeting, we will consider the budget. We will consider what it has been in year’s past and what it is today. We will consider where we have been, but more importantly where we are going. The budget, line item by line item, figure over and against figure, is meaningless in and of itself. It’s given life – it’s given meaning - through each one of us. By way of our hands and our feet; our ministry and mission as a body of Christ in the world.
The budget is a vessel through which this congregation funnels the love of Christ out into the world. When we approach the budget with a loaves and fish kind of faith – a faith that sees the possibilities of God’s love rather than its limitations, a faith that knows and lives by the abundance of God’s love, a kind of faith that spreads and shares God’s love rather than keeping it for ourselves – then line item by line item, figure over and against figure, the budget holds miraculous God-given power to make the love of God manifest and authentic and true in this community of faith here at 12 Elm Street.
If we can believe in a love that will fill up a felt board with colorful fish, a love that has the power to break open our hearts and one that compels us to share our resources with our neighbors, then we can believe in a love that will fill our pews with our sisters and brothers who thirst for community and meaning and connection with a God who offers perfect and eternal love not only on occasions of marriage and death. Not only on Sundays, but a love that is woven into every fiber of our being, every movement, every breath, every word, every action, every relationship.
Scripture: Isaiah 55:1-8 and Mark 6:30-43
YOU Give Them Something to Eat
Rev. Leanne Walt
I remember the day I arrived at the orphanage. It was a typical Sri Lankan afternoon – upwards of 90 degrees and my trishaw, which are those funny-looking three-wheeled little vehicles that taxi people around in Asia, had dropped me at the foot of a hill in the very center of the city. The trishaw couldn’t have made it up the dirt path on the hill that led to the orphanage, so I walked up the hillside carrying most of my belongings on my back.
This was the day that I moved out of the house where I had been living for the past four months and into a Christian orphanage for girls. A place called Evelyn Nurseries, where I would stay for 6 weeks.
Barbara, the woman who ran the Nurseries, along with several other girls who lived there, greeted me as I came up the winding road leading to the house. “Akki! Akki!,” “Sister! Sister!” they shouted and waved.
That night after evening worship, Barbara explained to me that she would wake me up at 4:00 to help with the morning chores. “Great!” I responded in my enthusiasm. I’d help with morning chores – super! Well, 4:00 in the morning came quickly, as it tends to do, and sure enough there was a knock on my door. I gathered my tired, foggy head enough to get out of bed, threw on the nearest items of clothes I could find, and headed out my door to be met with what reminded me of the Oompa-Loompas working in Charlie’s Chocolate Factory, there were girls and young women everywhere buzzing around the hallways and the yard and the kitchen. Though they were working away, they were not making fudge or gum balls; they were sweeping, dusting, making beds, washing and drying clothes, cleaning potatoes, cooking rice. As I struggled to keep my eyes open, I saw these little creatures singing, dancing, and laughing as they worked. Well, those early mornings came one after the other until the very last day I spent at the Nurseries and I’ sure they have continued every day in the years since I left.
In the afternoons, during my stay at the Nurseries, I would sit with Barbara and have tea overlooking Kandy Lake in the middle of the city. Barbara had been married to a wealthy businessman who passed away about 20 years ago. After his death she became very involved in her church and then through certain people who came into her life, she was led to the Nurseries.
She shared with me how from month to month; it was a struggle to provide for the seventy-five girls and young women under her care at the Nurseries. But she said that no matter how bleak it seemed, God always provided. It was in the worst months, when it was simply impossible to buy enough rice to feed everyone at the orphanage with the money that they did have, when she would receive an anonymous donation that would get them through several months to come. When she was telling me about these uncertain times, she would always say something like: “And then, God just goes right ahead again and makes something out of what I thought was nothing.”
* * * *
There’s this great cartoon about Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000 that a member of a church I served several years ago gave to me after we had talked about this miracle story in Bible Study. The cartoon depicts two winged, haloed angels wearing chefs’ hats, surrounded by clouds. The one baker-angel exclaims to the other baker-angel, “He needs 5,000 loaves of bread and he needs them now!”
The reason why this cartoon works is the same reason why I love the story of Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000: because of the story’s ambiguity. We know that there are five loaves of bread and two fish involved. We know that there are the twelve disciples and a crowd of 5,000 people involved. We know that Jesus is involved. And we know that all who were present ate and that all who were present were satisfied. And we know that there were even some leftovers.
But we don’t know if it is the five loaves of bread that Jesus miraculously multiplies into enough loaves to feed more than 5,000 people; if he calls on jolly Oompa-Loompa-like angels up in heaven to busily bake enough bread for the multitudes. Or,if it is the selfish hearts of the people in the crowd that Jesus transforms so that they are compelled to share the little that they do have with one another. The story simply does not tell us which it is. We are left to reach our own conclusions about what exactly Jesus is transforming – the loaves of bread or the hearts of each person in the crowd. We are left to reach our own conclusions about which would be the greater miracle.
* * * *
It had been a long day of healing and so as it was nearing dusk, the disciples agreed that it was time for Jesus to bid farewell to the thousands of people who had come to bear witness to his miracles. After all, they did not have anything other than five loaves of bread and two measly fish to offer this great mass of people. They simply did not have the necessary resources to adequately feed so many.
So the disciples say to Jesus, “Jesus, it’s getting late, let’s wrap it up for the day. Send these people into the surrounding villages so that they can buy themselves something to eat.”
And who can blame the disciples for, quite reasonably, thinking that the people who had gathered to see Jesus could go home for dinner. Why should it be their responsibility to feed these people? They hardly had enough food to feed themselves. Besides, hadn’t these people thought ahead enough to pack a lunch, to bring food along to eat while they were in this deserted area?
Jesus listens to and hears the reasonable sentiments of the disciples. But he does not do as they ask. He does not send the people away.
“You give them something to eat,” he answers the disciples. When all they see are limitations, Jesus urges them toward possibility. When all they see is scarcity, Jesus moves them toward abundance. When all they see is what they do not have, Jesus reminds them of what they do have.
They have a God who just so happens to specialize in making something out of nothing. We have a God who created out of nothing: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep” (Gen. 1:1-2). We have a God who breathes life into the nothingness of dry bones (Ez. 37). We have a God who put life into the nothingness of Sarah’s womb (Gen 18). We have a God who, in this morning’s lesson from Isaiah, instructs those who “have no money,” to “come, and eat!” God does not say, “You who have enough money, come and eat” No, God invites those who have nothing, to come and be fed.
God does the feeding, but the resources are human.
In those times when the Nurseries have nothing more than five loaves and two fish to last the whole month through, God has continued to feed the Nurseries through human resources. The donations that the people offer to the women at the Nurseries, just like the bread that the disciples offer, are used and magnified by God. More than that, when the girls and women at the Nurseries give of themselves out of nothing, when they come together during those oh so early morning chores in song and laughter, then the work of God is revealed. They know what kind of God they have. A God of abundance and possibility. A God who revels in making great things out of what we would consider to be nothing at all.
This Lent God has given us, First Congregational Church, a remarkable opportunity to serve as instruments for and living witnesses to the miraculous work of Jesus Christ right here in our community through working with Outreach New England. Because the same need for food assistance exists right here in our community as it does across the globe in Sri Lanka or India or Mozambique or Nigeria or Nicaragua. It exists in cities and towns, urban and suburban neighborhoods throughout Massachusetts and New England. It exists not only among the homeless but in many households as well. In our own Norfolk County alone 18,000 children are food insecure (that’s 12% of all children in Norfolk County), which means they lack access to enough food to meet their basic needs. Which means they go to bed hungry, they worry they will run out of food, and they often don’t know where their next meal will come from.
The crowds have gathered and they are waiting for the miracle of Jesus to work through us – right here, right now. We can ask Jesus to send them away or we can answer Jesus’ call: “You give them something to eat.”
If everyone in New England who has enough food gave $13.75 to Outreach Kid’s Care and packaged meals for 22 minutes every year, all those in New England who don’t have enough could eat. Per person per day, that’s 4 cents and 4 seconds of effort.
Our challenge over these six weeks of lent is to raise enough money to purchase and then package 5,000 meals that will be distributed at Interfaith Social Services in Quincy and the Community Food Pantry here in Braintree. The total we need to raise is $1,250. Is this a lot of money? Yes. But, we can do this.
Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000 is told so many times and in so many places throughout the gospels because all too often we forget the abundance and generosity of our God. We too often forget that our gifts, our donations, our assistance – however small – have power that we can never fully see; that we can achieve the impossible; that we can feed the multitudes; that we can satisfy hunger.
Scripture: Jeremiah 1:4-10
But I’m Only…
Rev. Leanne Walt
Your reputation precedes you, Troop 22. Your history leads you. Your reputation precedes you here in this congregation and here in this town. The oldest active Boy Scout troop in Braintree, joining only a few others in the area. You are part of something larger than this one day or this one morning, a part of something larger than your years and experience in scouting. So we stand in reverence to a great God who has woven us all together through a legacy and ancestry of faith and scouting that preceded each and every one of us - one that established and built what you now build upon, a legacy that this congregation continues to celebrate and support.
Like all organizations that withstand the passage of time and generations, the scouts and the church have been faced with the changing tides of time, with having to shift and adapt and transform in order to maintain our relevance and integrity in a culture that is socially progressing, and one that has become increasingly individualistic and decreasingly invested in civic life.
There was a time, and in fact, not so long ago when there was regular, free and fluid movement between the church and Troop 22, when we had direct and immediate connection with the troop through many, many adult members of the church as well as youth who actively participated in both the troop and this community of faith. Part of our shared history and legacy is here, in these common strands.
And, when I say this, I trust that for most who have been around this church and town some time, the image of Bob and Marge Downey cannot help but naturally come to mind or perhaps surface in your heart - a couple whose reputation in the troop and church surely precedes them. In fact, just a few weeks ago I had lunch with a new acquaintance here in town and about halfway through our meal and conversation, we made, what I have come to term as, “the Downey Connection” – a phenomenon that has happened frequently and often over my 2-years pastoring this church. Turns out, she was a good friend of Bob and Marge – she quickly lit up at the mention of their names and began telling me story after story about Bob and Marge. She first met Marge while camping with Troop 22 when her two boys were in the troop where they discovered they were the only women on the trip. She told me about the time she was sitting next to Bob one evening at an Old Colony Council meeting and only after the meeting did she find out that he had driven directly from Boston where he was receiving his chemo treatments to attend the meeting. That’s how great and deep his dedication to this program cut.
The troop’s commemorative 90th anniversary patch on the pocket of your uniforms has an image of the church silhouetted between the years 1921 and 2011. A visible, evident and tangible reminder that the church and the troop are not so far apart in character or in spirit. Sharing a belief in community and working toward the common good. Celebrating the adventure and continuing the journey – of life and service and faith.
Our mission here at this church, our very purpose for gathering and for worshiping by song and prayer and offering and Word is – by the grace of God - the transformation of the self for the transformation of the world. Troop 22, your mission, your purpose for gathering and for meeting, for camping and serving and merit badge earning is the transformation of the self for the transformation of the world.
The Boy Scout Law is not so far off from our law of faith – the Boy Scout Law begins with the transformation of the self:
to be trustworthy,
The law of the Christian faith begins with the transformation of the self. As the Apostle Paul proclaims in his letter to the Ephesians, “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”
Not so far off, are they – are we. The transformation of the self for the transformation of the world.
You are part of a culture much larger than Troop or Pack 22, a culture of being prepared, so says the new logo revealed in 2011 upon the 100th anniversary of the scouts:
Boy Scouts. Prepared. For life.
Prepared in mind and body to do your duty, whatever that may be – wow! well, that’s serious stuff – that goes beyond having a book of matches on you when someone needs a light, or a pocket knife when someone needs to open a package, or to start a fire or pitch a tent when darkness enfolds the forest.
Boy Scouts. Prepared. For life.
Prepared in mind by having disciplined yourself to be obedient to every order, and also by having thought out beforehand any accident or situation that might occur, so that you know the right thing to do at the right moment, and are willing to do it.
Prepared in body, also, by making yourself strong and active and able to do the right thing at the right moment, and do it. The transformation of the self, for the transformation of the world.
Be Prepared. For life.
Again, not so far off are we – troop and church. We, too, are concerned with being prepared. Be Prepared. For life. Be prepared in spirit for God to call and use us as instruments of peace and justice, forgiveness and salvation in this world. Be prepared, in mind, body and spirit, for you don’t know when or how or where the call will come – but it will come – and when it does we are to be strong and active and able to do the right thing at the right moment, and we are to do it.
Because the question is not who is called, but who will respond – who – by the grace of God – will be willing to do the right thing at the right moment.
For our brother Jeremiah, that moment came at one of the most troublesome periods in Israel’s history, in the decades leading up to the fall of Jerusalem in 587 BC and followed by the Babylonian exile. These were bad times – these were changing times – politically and socially and even geographically for the Hebrew people. They were in between domination by the Assyrian and Babylonian Empires. Their religion and culture, nation and peoplehood were at stake. Yet, also at this time the people of Judah had a much loved king – King Josiah - the people just adored him – he had launched religious reform that reaffirmed the covenant of Moses and he had centralized the worship of God in Jerusalem. These were good and positive movements, it seemed, for the Hebrew peopled.
In the midst of all of this a young man, Jeremiah, hears, or perhaps perceives in his heart the voice of God – the nudge, the pull of the one speaking from the place of higher purpose and wisdom and power.
“Jeremiah, my beloved: before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”
And, so, Jeremiah, hearing this, says to God – or perhaps he speaks it deep in his heart: “But I’m only a boy.” But I’m only. But I’m only….
God nudges him, he nudges and nudges him and urges Jeremiah to speak out against the popular and much loved king of his people, King Josiah - to preach an unpopular message at a difficult time – a message that promotes submission to the Babylonians – the foreign rulers of Judah. Submission for the salvation of his people.
* * *
“But I’m only…” transformation of the self – by the grace of God - for the transformation of the world.
Be prepared. For life. For the Call.
Surely there were others who stood along side Jeremiah at that same moment in history who sensed a call on their hearts to submit to foreign rule in order to preserve the longevity and future of their people – but it was Jeremiah who acted, who gave God’s call voice and expression and presence – it was Jeremiah who was not only strong and active and able to do the right thing at the right moment, but it was Jeremiah who did it.
* * *
How will you know it’s the call of God? Because it will be hard. Because you will resist it. Because it will come at an inopportune time and in an unexpected way calling you to speak an unpopular truth at a difficult moment.
It will mean speaking out and up when you see a kid at school repeatedly bullied and put down. It will mean extending a hand to those who are excluded and marginalized in society and culture. It will mean standing with and walking alongside the oppressed. It will mean being a voice of hope and optimism in a world that speaks the language of cynicism and suspicion.
We find resolve this morning in the words of Dr. Howard Thurman: “There is something in every one of you that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself. It is the only true guide you will ever have.”
Wait. And listen for the sound of the genuine inside yourself. You will know, you will sense – the time and the moment and the truth you are called to speak.
The call is difficult yes, but here again troop and church emerge and merge. Scouts and Christians – People of God - You are prepared. For life. To act. With integrity of person and fruits of the spirit. With confidence and conviction and courage.
Scouts and Christians, may we trust so deeply that God knew each and every one of us before the womb, before birth – that we have been divinely and fantastically and wonderfully and specifically appointed for the good news difficult and dirty work in this world – that when our call comes, and we know it will, we will respond not, “But I’m only. But I’m only.”
Scouts and Christians, we will instead respond, “Here I am. Here I am.”
Scripture: 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
Rev. Leanne Walt preaching
In just one morning, perhaps even this one morning, the diversity of creation serves us well. We awake to the sounds of an obnoxiously, but necessarily loud, beeping alarm clock in our carefully crafted bed in between cotton fiber – harvested, spun, and woven - into sheets. We turn on the bathroom light with the confident flick of a switch and activate the faucet with ease, allowing the water to run over our hands. It’s a little too cold, so we adjust the temperature. Perfect.
We make a pot of coffee and read through the Sunday paper – online or in hardcopy black and white print. All under a well-built roof, each shingle carefully laid and set in place to protect us from the wind, rain, and snow.
We get into our car – metal on wheels - and drive through town and see the array of opportunity and commerce at our fingertips - flower shops, restaurants, hardware stores, auto repair shops, lumber yards, barber shops, optical stores, banks, gift shops, food pantries, hair and nail salons, hospitals, schools, libraries and houses of worship.
The diverse gifts of our neighbors, of our brothers and sisters serve us so well. The gift of design to warm a home or to arrange the flowers we send upon the birth of a child or an important anniversary. The mechanic who replaces our car battery so we can get on our way to wherever it is we so desperately need to get on our way to, the teacher that motivates and encourages our children to pursue their own gifts, the salons that beautify, the public libraries that promote learning and growth among all ages and people, the restaurants that feed us with good food and socialization.
Our daily lifestyle is the product of divine anatomy – of the diversity that God has bestowed upon humankind. Ordaining us to be different, to be particularly gifted, to be utterly unique. Together, we are a living, breathing organism – a body, whole and complete – hundreds of different parts all working together so that what we experience is a single movement – a single body breathing in and out/in and out – children born and growing, teachers taught then teaching by way of streets plowed free of snow, trash emptied so that it doesn’t overflow, rot and fester, news written and printed, mail delivered and sent, people driving to and from their places of work to feed and fuel the economy. Combined, and building upon those of generations past, our gifts have allowed society to progress and evolve.
* * * *
In perhaps one of the most illustrative and powerful metaphors in all of Scripture, Paul compares the human community to the physical body here in his first letter to the Corinth church – eyes and ears, hands and feet.
We imagine that Paul uses this image of the body in order to respond to a particular situation that was going on in this small church in the city of Corinth. Most likely they were arguing about gifts, arguing that some gifts were better, higher and more lofty than others – for some in Corinth it was the gift of prophecy that was the most vital to the community, but others were saying no, no the only gift that matters to the church is the gift of speaking in tongues, but still others thought, no, those who were able to interpret others who were speaking in tongues –they possess the greatest gift. But Paul writes to them and interjects this analogy of the body and community into their conversation.
This metaphor, however, is not original with Paul but is one that was already prevalent in classical literature. But, what Paul does is give it a radical and revolutionary and powerful twist. Previously, the comparison had reinforced hierarchy, suggesting that menial workers should obey and support their military, business, and political leaders. Those at the bottom of the social ladder should stay put and be grateful for the guidance and protection of their natural superiors – sort of like a brand of Social Darwinism. The thought being that the brain makes the more critical and crucial decisions than do the lowly organs that sustain routine daily functioning.
What Paul does, though, is invert the metaphor. Rather than arguing for hierarchy and subordination, Paul uses the image of the body to illustrate diversity and interdependence – saying that the eye is in need of the hand just as the head is in need of the foot. All gifts – those of wisdom, of teaching, of prophecy are all part of the natural diversity of God’s creation and are all equally vital to the community’s ability to function so that when one is suppressed, the whole body suffers. If there is no ear, the body cannot hear. If there is no eye, it cannot see. If there is no foot, it cannot walk. No arm, it cannot reach out beyond itself.
Suppressing gifts, suppresses progress, suppresses God’s will and desire for us.
Yesterday afternoon, just across town I sat in a chapel full of young adults listening to personal testimonies from a group of men, some as young as 17 and others as “old” as 35, who had struggled with addiction – some to drugs, others to alcohol - early in their life. They were from an organization called Teen Challenge Boston, a Christian residential drug recovery program. The program is heavy on faith and leans on scripture and prayer and developing a personal relationship with Christ as the sole source of recovery. As part of their recovery, these men put feet to the gospel that they now know in their heart – they speak to teens about their experience, they share where they have been with the hope and prayer that other young people will not have to walk through the valleys and the depth of where they have been.
The testimonies that they shared with us were so honest and powerful. Growing up in a house where the only thing to eat was a raw onion. Another gentleman, Kevin talked about how his alcoholic father had told him, “I’m leaving and I’m going to take you with me,” and the very next day he was gone, but had left Kevin behind with his mother and autistic brother.
A young man named Cleveland painted a picture of how the drugs and the guns and the gangs played like a movie outside the window of his grandmother’s apartment where he grew up in Camden, New Jersey. This was life. He didn’t know any other way or truth or life.
Suppressing gifts, suppresses progress, suppresses God’s will and desire for us.
We know this to be true in the home and in society. Most of these kids grew up in families and communities that told them in word and deed or lack thereof, that they weren’t good enough, that they didn’t have any gifts. That they weren’t worth sobriety or education or food or love.
Now, in the midst of his testimony, one young man said, “All it would have taken is one person to change everything - to tell me that I was good enough.”
All it would have taken, Paul would affirm, is one person to move from stumbling around in this boundless world to an awareness of this truth – that we have been divinely ordained with gifts, many and varied, that we are all connected and vital and valuable to the whole. That we are each and all made in and by the image of God and transformed by the love of Christ. And that God has a purpose for each beloved life.
Embracing giftedness isn’t just important because it’s morally the right thing to do – but because it allows us to truly be free – to live the calling to which we have been called. Our gifts make us equal; our gifts make us free. And, all gifts in God’s divine anatomy are necessary for the common good. The writing that provokes thought, the painting that evokes beauty, the music that emotes, the house that shelters, the hands that mend and heal the human body, the care that comforts the human heart, the mouth that is able to speak a word of love to those who have never heard it before.
And here, in the church, in particular, we are called to live as divine anatomy. Here we are called to offer our truest and purest gifts to one another. The gifts that allow us to express our very humanity: friendship, kindness, patience, joy, peace, forgiveness, gentleness, love, hope and trust. Here in this place, in this beloved community, full of people from various and diverse backgrounds and experiences, we are called to seek our own gifts, to exercise and practice our gifts for the betterment of the whole, and to encourage and affirm the gifts of others.
Here we are called to be the very body of Christ in this world - to sew, to paint and to knit - liturgical clothes and prayer shawls - to teach children of the love of God, to sing of the love of God, to bake, to fix – broken sinks and refrigerators, to be the beating heart of mission in the world – here our gifts come together in a beautiful concert, in a divine symphony.
Here we are called to celebrate the diversity that God has bestowed upon humankind. Ordaining us to be different, to be particularly gifted, to be utterly unique. Together, we are a living, breathing organism – a body, whole and complete – hundreds of different parts all working together so that what we experience is a single movement – a single body breathing in and out/in and out/in and out – giving true life to the world.
Scripture: John 18:33-37
Who (or what) is King?
Time is king.
Time is money.
Money is king.
Julio Diaz has a daily routine. Every night, the 31 year-old social worker ends his hour-long subway commute to the Bronx one stop early, just so he can eat at his favorite diner.
One night he stepped off the No. 6 train and onto a nearly empty platform, and his evening took an unexpected turn.
He was walking toward the stairs when a teenage boy approached him and pulled out a knife.
“Give me all your money!” The kid screamed at him. Diaz pulled out his wallet and handed it to the boy and said, “Here you go.”
As the teen began to walk away, Diaz yelled after him, “Hey, wait a minute. You forgot something. If you’re going to be robbing people for the rest of the night, you might as well take my coat to keep you warm.”
The would-be robber looked at his would-be victim, “Why are you doing this?” the kid asked.
Diaz replied, “If you’re willing to risk your freedom for a few dollars, then I guess you must really need the money. I mean, all I wanted to do was get dinner and if you want to join me, hey, you’re more than welcome.”
So Diaz and the boy went to the diner and sat in a booth.
The manager and the dishwashers and the waiters came by the table to say “hi” to Diaz.
“You know everybody here. Do you own this place?” The boy asked.
“No, I just eat here a lot,” Diaz told him.
“But you’re even nice to the dishwasher,” the boy pointed out.
Diaz replied, “Well, haven’t you been taught you should be nice to everybody?”
“Yea, but I didn’t think people actually behaved that way,” the teen said.
“What do you want out of your life?” Diaz asked him. He noticed the boy had a sad face. He didn’t answer.
When the bill came, Diaz told the teen, “Look, I guess you’re going to have to pay for this bill ‘cause you have my money and I can’t pay for this. So if you give me my wallet back, I’ll gladly treat you.”
The boy reached into his pocket and set the wallet on the table. Diaz pulled out enough cash to cover the cost of the meal and then placed a $20 bill on the table. You can have this $20 if you give me your knife. The boy reached inside his other pocket, pulled out the knife and set it on the table.
From there, the two parted ways.
Christ is King.
“If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.” (Matt 5:41-42)
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”
Ours is an already, not yet faith. Just as today we walk the line between Thanksgiving and Christmas, day by day, minute-by-minute we walk the line between heaven and earth, between our physical desires and our thirst for salvation, between freewill and God’s will, between the ills of this world and the righteousness of God’s kingdom.
In his very first sermon recorded in the Gospels and one that we will hear in the weeks of Advent as we prepare for his coming into this world, Jesus preached, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mark 4:17). The kingdom is so close, it is at hand. The kingdom is so close that we welcome Jesus in the form of body and soul, skin and bones, beating heart and pulsing veins. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” The kingdom is at hand.
After my sermon last week wherein I made mentioned of our common struggle with the classic backseat question, “Are we there yet?” Nancy Mills shared how her late husband fielded the question on those long car trips, “No, but we’re getting closer all the time.” Faithful and wise was he, the kingdom of heaven is at hand and we are getting closer all the time.
We live in a story that we believe has an ending; that Christ is coming in history, in mystery and in majesty, that “Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.”
And we believe that the final chapter of this story has already been written and we believe that evil will not have the last word.
Even so, we live in the middle of the story, when evil is still battling and worldly kings rule. We live in the wake a 6 billion dollar political campaign in which no mention was made on either side about the 2,573 babies born every day into poverty in this country, according to the Children’s Defense Fund. We live in a country in which money to feed poor children, hungry infants is unavailable but yet gifts ranging anywhere from $100,000 to $400,00 million dollars from Hollywood Moghuls and Boca Raton socialites are poured into a hopeful candidate who will steer legislation, protect tax policy and judicial selection, and dispatch foreign aid or military ordinances in a particular direction. Who, or what, is king?
We live in a story in which the moral integrity of our highest leaders is regularly shattered by extramarital affairs and extortion. Where the political virtues of compromise have been replaced by corrosive partisanship. Who, or what, is king?
Here, in the middle of this story, in this sacred, blessed, season of Christmas we are not reminded that we are saved and loved by the coming of Christ but in the four weeks to come we will be assaulted reminders that we are not enough, that we do not have enough. In school, in the mall, and watching TV, our children will not be reminded that they are saved and that they are loved by the coming of Christ but that they are not enough and that they do not have enough. Every December parents across the country dread the financial burdens of this season, pinching money together to buy gifts for their children, to keep up with appearances and to not disappoint. Who, or what, is king?
Here, in the middle of this story, people are daily held at knife and gunpoint on subway platforms, shot in movie theaters and schools. In a country where nearly 30,000 people each year die from gun violence who, or what, is king? Where do our allegiances lie?
Come, now, to the Word, this morning. Come, now to the Gospel and we discover that the good news on this Sunday on which we proclaim Christ is King comes to us in the passion narratives. The language of Jesus as king is more present in the passion narratives, more present in the valley of the shadow of death, than anywhere else in the gospels. After Jesus had carried his cross to Golgotha, after he had been crucified alongside two others, Pilate had an inscription written in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek and put on the cross reading, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.”
We Christians engaged in the constant negotiation between faith and culture, look up from the foot of the world’s crosses to see this caption, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” We look up from societal violence, political corrosion, and social corruption, from human weakness and vulnerability and we see the mercy and power and promise emanating from that inscription, “King of the Jews.”
Here in the church we seek to live and serve the kingdom in the middle of the story. We collect turkeys and food for those in need.
We pause for worship in a society that tells us that time is king and strictly meant for work or play.
We give to the church in a society that tells us money is king and that money is our own.
So that in the middle of the story, we detect hints of God’s nature. We see where God’s kingdom is present in this world even when it appears it is not. We discern where God is at work in the world to make and keep human life, and we remember to whom we belong. Not to money or politics, not to time or to fear, certainly not to death. We belong to God, to Christ our king.
What amazes me least about this story of Julio Diaz and his teenage mugger is that Diaz freely gave him his wallet. What amazes me more is that Julio Diaz gave him his coat. What amazes me most is that Diaz took the time to sit with this boy. To talk to this boy.
He gave him more than he demanded. He gave him what he needed.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”
 Story adapted from NPR’s Morning Addition, “A Victim Treats His Mugger Right,” March 28, 2008
 Forbes Magazine, “Gun Violence: The Public Health Issue Politicians want to Ignore,” by Rob Waters, 7/24/12
Scripture: Acts 3:1-10
The Risk of Investment
Rev. Leanne Walt
“Anything worth doing in life involves risk.” I’m sure my father was not the first nor the only one to impart this wisdom, though he often did so, I know it’s been said, “Every opportunity in life involves risk.” The opportunity to live and to love; to grow and to learn (so proves a thank you note that we received this week from our 7 year old nephew:
“Dear Uncle Bill and Aunt Leanne, Thank you for the money to spend in college. Sincerely, Liam. P.S. I didn’t ask anyone how to spell sincerely (e-l-y).”)
A risky investment, indeed, to offer handwritten thanks in paper and ink without spell-check technology, parent or computer.
Every opportunity in life involves risk – the opportunity to repair and to build; to show up (showing up is half the battle, right?) – the opportunity to plan and to execute – (church fairs and all).
Every opportunity in life involves risk. The opportunity for democracy - to run for election and to engage in speech freely and openly, giving voice to conviction and power to justice.
Every opportunity in life involves risk. The opportunity to invest in belief – by giving faith the currency of prayer and testimony (thank you, Marcia!)/time, talents, and mon-ey.
The risk of our most fundamental investments has been highlighted this past week, as hurricane Sandy passed over the eastern seaboard. Those who lost their investments of life and love, their homes and community can attest to the risk involved in our most basic human ventures.
And, even those who didn’t lose the most essential of investments, but did lose their electricity have sensed a new kind of vulnerability. My mother-in-law among them, living alone in southern Connecticut has been without power since last Monday. She’s found shelter at the local New York Sports Club gym where she works, going there to shower and to charge her cell phone. As she has macular degeneration and is unable to drive, her cab driver has driven her back and forth every day, not asking for any payment in return. She was working at the front desk this past Wednesday morning when her friend Dana called to check in. “Is there anything you need, Carole?”
In fact, there was. “I could use a bag of ice and just one more Duraflame log to get me through tomorrow night,” she said. She felt badly even asking for ice, knowing that it was scarce and would be just about impossible to find. But, hours later Dana came to the gym with 2 bags of ice, which they put in the freezer there and when her cab driver dropped her off at home that afternoon there was not one but a whole case of Duraflame logs on her doorstep.
For, it’s in times of need when we become aware of God’s great investment in us, strengthening us for the journey, having planted seeds of resilience and hope, unity and flexibility in our hearts. It’s in times of need when we become aware of the real, remarkable journey we travel, that day by day, minute by minute we walk a thin line between the fragility of human life and the power of nature, between compassion and indifference, between generosity and greed, between faith and doubt. It’s in times of need when we become aware of true abundance – when we recognize what’s really real and what’s of lasting value in our lives.
It must have been such a moment, I imagine, that Peter and John shared on the steps of the Temple. When, in the face of need, they recognize true abundance. While going up to the temple to pray, they see a man crippled from birth who everyday is carried up to the gate so that he can beg for money from those entering the temple – the depth of his need apparent to all – a man who was born without the use of his legs practicing the only trade he knows, appealing to the generosity of those passing by. He reaches out to Peter and John, asking them if they can spare some change. Having no money to give, Peter fixes his eyes on the man and asks for the same in return. Their eyes meet: “Is there anything you need?”…
Perhaps it was in this moment of connection, face-to-face, eye-to-eye, when Peter realizes all that he has to give.
Peter says to the man, “I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give to you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.” Peter reaches down to the man, takes him by the hand and raises him up. His feet and ankles made strong, the man begins to walk.
Invoking the authority of Jesus and the power of shared faith, Peter announces that if any healing, restoration, or blessings are to come, it will be in the name of Jesus Christ - not by way of human hands or powers or remedies, but by way of faith. True abundance.
These weeks here in worship, we’ve been working our way through select moments in the book of Acts, using the journey of the apostles as a model for how to act out our faith, considering the fundamental and basic investments that God requires of us in order to live a life of faith. And, we know that for these early Christians, the risk of their investment in the faith was great – they were tried, they were imprisoned, they were killed – and fortunately for us, we know no such risk today. Yet, for Peter and John the risk of giving voice to and sharing their faith in Jesus with this man on the Temple steps was far greater than handing him some coins.
But, this, Peter knows, is what God requires of him - to meet this man’s need with true abundance.
This story of Peter, John, and the crippled beggar immediately follows a passage that describes the first group of Christian converts in this way:
“All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” (Acts 2:44-45)
Peter understands that in the Christian life, the sharing of spiritual communion with others and the sharing of possessions are inseparable. Both are required of us so that we can’t talk about giving of money without giving of faith.
Each time I write a check from our family’s bank account to this church is a leap of faith. I know that our money will not be set aside and earmarked as such. When I give to the general fund, I will not be asked how I would like my donation spent – on the Sunday school curriculum or on the payroll or on the oil to heat the building or on the sheet music for the choir. No, once that check is deposited, it becomes part of the shared whole, given to meet whatever this whole body of Christ discerns to be the greatest need.
And, writing that check is a moment when I sense the profound connection between the money I possess and my relationship with God and others. It reminds me that all that I earn, have, and own is a gift from God and that the true abundance of life, love, and faith is far more valuable than any check I write.
Join me, if you will, in an exercise of the imagination. For those of you who either pledge to the church on a weekly, monthly, yearly, basis, or those of you who have made a donation to the church at one point in time – I want you to think of that moment when your hand is writing the check, the pen moving across paper, or when you are reaching into your pocket or wallet to pull out some cash and place it in the offering plate. What is the moment like? Is it awkward or uncomfortable? Is it full of indifference? Is it full of joy? Is it full of angst? Is it full of hope? Is it full of faith?
At it’s best, it’s a moment that invokes the authority of Jesus and the power of shared faith, announcing that if any healing, restoration, or blessings are to come, it will be in the name of Jesus Christ - not by way of our human hands or powers or remedies, but by way of faith. True abundance.
Scripture: Acts 17:16-28a
Acting Out: Living, Moving, BeingRev. Leanne Walt
An eclectic group sat around our table at Rotary Club this past Thursday - a mortgage salesman, a bank manager, a retired High School principal, a financial planner, an architect, and a minister. Sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, I know, but there we were, the bunch of us and before I could get the financial planner’s thoughts on my stock portfolio or on our recent establishment of a 529 Plan, he looked over from across the table and asked:
“So, are you, like, a priest?” which is a question, that as many times as I’m asked it never ceases to amaze me.
“No,” I smiled and shook my head, waiting to see if that answer would suffice.
In the short time that I’ve been attending Rotary, I’ve learned that this guy is the much loved, resident funny man, so I sensed this wasn’t the end of his line of questioning. And, because God makes for more interesting table conversation than do mortgage rates, the others didn’t seem to mind and, I certainly didn’t. You know, I’ve found that somehow when a minister, priest, or rabbi, enters the equation, suddenly that rule of etiquette, “don’t talk religion or politics at the dinner table” goes right out the window. In fact, I would imagine the same to be true for politics if we were to dine with Scott or Elizabeth, Mitt, or Barack, especially these days. No matter what our political views, we just couldn’t help ourselves.
He continued, “You know, when he was dying my grandfather suddenly became a Christian and I said, ‘Gramps, it doesn’t work that way. You can’t live your life one way and then when you’re time’s up decide that you need God.’ What do you think about that? Do you think God turned him away?” He looked up at me from across the table.
Using that old pastoral trick, I turned the question back to him, “Do you think God turned him away?’
“I would have,” he said.
“But would God have?” I asked.
“Ah, yeah, maybe not, but what about science?” He continued, “Does science make you doubt the existence of God?”
“Actually, science enhances my belief,” I said, “since as much as we know, there is still so much that we don’t,” which, as you can imagine, sparked a energetic exchange among the whole group - because whether mortgage salesman, architect, high school principal, bank manager, or minister, man or woman, young or old, Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, or Independent, Moderate or Conservative, all hues of skin and all styles of life, Christian, Muslim, Jew, Unitarian, Hindu, Quaker, Sikh, Baha’i, Buddhist, Atheist, or Agnostic, we are all guided by this common journey to test the spirit of truth ~ moving from the how to the why, from the origins of organisms to purpose and meaning, from the tangible to the transcendent, from the physical to the eternal, from the realities of science to the mysteries of faith.
The journey of testing, questioning, and challenging the spirit of truth long preceded this week’s meeting of the Braintree Rotary Club, it’s one that we’ve all undertaken by virtue of our coming into this world possessing a body and soul, reason and sensation and it was the prevailing journey in the ancient world, for those that followed Moses through the Red Sea with the hope of the Promised Land, for those three that followed the rising star with the hope of a Savior Child, and for those who followed Jesus long after he was gone from this world with the hope of making disciples. In fact, this journey for the spirit of truth we find aptly articulated by the early followers of Jesus. Paul, of course among them.
Where we pick up in Acts this morning we join him in Athens on his continuing mission testifying to the life, miracles, and ministry of Jesus. By the time Paul was there, Athens was no longer the most renowned city in the ancient world as it had been overwhelmed by forces of Roman occupation, yet in many ways it remained the cultural, historical, and philosophical center of the region. And here, in the 17th chapter, Paul challenges Greek philosophy with its emphasis on nature and their belief in many gods.
And he says to them that God intended this to be our journey - to test the spirit of truth – to bridge the divine and human, heaven and earth divide, to ignite within each one the urge to search for, grope for, hope for, and find God.
Not the unknown and manifold God that the pagans professed but the God whom Paul, borrowing from Greek poetry, identifies as, the God “in whom we live, and move, and have our being.” God that is known, not unknown; God that is near, not far; God within, not beyond.
There is a scene in the book, The Shack, where the main character Mack finds himself in a shack in the middle of the woods with God in form of a large African American woman named Papa, and Jesus, who, appropriately resembles a middle-eastern carpenter, and the Holy Spirit in the form of an Asian woman named Sarayu…have I intrigued you enough to read the book?
But there is a scene where Mack explains to Papa, Sarayu, and Jesus that he tries to prioritize God above all other things in his life, kind of like a pyramid, with God at the very top and all other relationships falling below.
And Jesus says to him, “Mack, I don’t want to be first among a list of values; I want to be at the center of everything. When I live in you, then together we can live through everything that happens to you. Rather than the top of a pyramid, I want to be the center of a mobile, where everything in your life, your friends, family, occupation, thoughts, activities – is connected to me but moves with the wind, in and out and back and forth, in an incredible dance of being.”
“For in him we live and move and have our being.”
God that is known, not unknown; God that is near, not far, God within, not beyond.
Some years before I began to walk this journey and dance of being with the fine people of First Church, our brother and friend, Dick Hewson, faithful servant of God through this body of Christ, was overcome by Alzheimer’s disease – you know, Rev. Bill Abernathy, a wonderful UCC minister here in Massachusetts who battled Parkinson’s for 27 years until he passed away in 2010 described Parkinson’s as a man with muddy shoes that knocks on your door one day and refuses to leave. The man with muddy shoes stays in your house, uninvited, puts his feet up on the coffee table, gets comfortable, and refuses to leave. Alzheimer’s is also surely muddy and most certainly uninvited, cutting in on the dance of being that God intends for us.
I was reminded, though, this week of a story from a time before Dick’s man with the muddy shoes came knocking – a story that I had heard right after we moved into the parsonage – a story about the infamous Hewson family who used to live just around the corner from where we are in the Highlands, the house on the bend, raised up on a hill and set back from the road. Apparently, the Hewson boys – the four of them and Dick – had built THE BEST tree house EVER – elaborately wired with electricity and always playing music that traveled all the way to the other side of the neighborhood. And, each night, when it was time for dinner Dick would stand at the back door and give off a whistle whose sound, from what I’ve been told, traveled further than the music from the tree house…gathering his beloved safely in for the night.
Suddenly a God that can seem so far is made near in a love that is visible and a God that can seem unknowable is made known in our hearts – through a life well lived, a song well sung, a dance well danced with God at its center.
It is a difficult maneuver, particularly when the man with the muddy shoes is involved, to move from the how to the why, from the tangible to the transcendent, from the physical to the eternal, from the realities of science to the mysteries of faith. It's a difficult maneuver. For as Paul elsewhere writes, “we know in part, and we prophesy in part…” (1 Cor 13).
But if we keep God at the center and not at the top, if we ground ourselves in rather than reach above for God, we find that even in the presence of the man with the muddy shoes and even in the heart of the grandfather who spent his life doubting only to believe in the end, God is there all the while - living, moving, being – calling, restoring, strengthening, and forgiving.
 Young, W.M. Paul, The Shack: where tragedy confronts eternity, p. 209