The Harvest is Great
In the midst of the disease and sickness and overwhelming needs of the crowds, Jesus brings good news to the people, to us: “The harvest is great.” The laborers, they are few he says (therein lies the gospel challenge…there is always a gospel challenge)…but the harvest, it is great, but by the grace of God. The harvest is plentiful and great…the good news.
We, like Jesus and the disciples, live amidst a world crowded with struggle and need, a world confused by a less than ideal political reality, wrought with social divisions and ills. We, like Jesus and the disciples, live amidst people who are sick.
Several years ago, when our dog was our only dependent, Bill and I found ourselves taking in a game at Fenway Park on a beautiful Sunday afternoon in May – it was, of course, our annual Yankees/Red Sox outing. Bill respectfully declining to wear his Jeter shirt and me in my Red Sox hat. The park was full that day and we just two small souls amidst a sea of 37,000 to life put into humble perspective.
During the seventh inning stretch, after the crowd’s famous rendition of Sweet Caroline had been sung (or screamed) the Jimmy Fund campaign asked anyone in the stands who themselves had been affected by cancer, or who had ever known someone affected by cancer to stand. And do you know, nearly every single person in that stadium rose to their feet. The seasoned man behind us, with an old-time navy Red Sox jacket who diligently penciled in each catch, each run, each out on his score sheet while tuned into WEEI on his transistor radio – he set down his pencil and stood. The group of rowdy thirty-something year old guys enjoying some beers at the park set them down in their holders and stood. The young couple who looked to be making their way through one among their first of dates ceased their conversation and stood. The business associates in box seats, the eager children with cap on and glove-in-hand, the college students in the bleachers, the well-dressed elderly couple sitting along the third-base line, the kid selling Fenway Franks and the other selling Budwiser – they, too, paused their sales deals and looked toward home plate.
For those moments, that great stadium stood as living testament to our common human experience, each one of us living susceptible to the failings of the body, to the pain of heartache and the hope of a new tomorrow, each one of us burning with the fire of compassion and the spirit of concern. United across age and race, gender, creed and political persuasion and even, at that point, across arguably the greatest sports team rivalry of all time – we stood together, living, breathing as one crowd of need and hopefulness.
Jesus, too, in his life and ministry found himself amidst a sea of human need and suffering. He sees the crowds that are everywhere; helpless, harassed, like sheep without a shepherd. He sees that they are tired, walking wounded. They are lost, with no one to show them the way.
And yet, moving through the cities and villages of his day and time, situated in that place of overwhelming need, Jesus turns to the disciples and declares the harvest to be great and plentiful.
The harvest is great that we can spend a Sunday afternoon taking in a baseball game with those we love free of fear or violence, to embrace the joy of the old pastime in the midst of a world crowded with sickness and struggle and need.
The harvest is great today, for we have risen! The sun has risen and is shining; the congregation is growing and gathering today in the wake of last week’s ice cream social – joy and plenty. The harvest is great, that we can come together at an interfaith prayer service this past Thursday evening, freely and peacefully gathered in a secular setting to celebrate and lift up the importance of faith in our community, soaking in a neighbor’s rendition of Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World.
The bright blessed day,
And the dark sacred night;
Friends shaking hands,
Babies crying, growing, learning…
What a wonderful world in which we live; the harvest is indeed great.
The good in this world too much for our hearts to contain; the presence of God too vast and wonderful for us to fully know, spoken in the cadence of the psalmist.
In light of the goodness and the love that over and around us lies and of the hope that abounds, Jesus commissions the disciples to go out into their communities, among the crowds and to address need: he gives them authority to labor in the harvest of their communities…to cast out demons, to cure disease, and to ease sickness. He sends them out among the crowds to see need and to respond, to open their hearts to the struggle of another, to hear the often muted cries of the distressed; that is the call to discipleship for the imperfect disciples that they and we are. Call and response/joy and plenty in the midst of an otherwise depressed and scarce world.
This morning stands as a reminder of struggle and need in our community, as we open our ears and hearts and minds to learning about the mission of the DeVanna Center. There is power in truly seeing and honestly acknowledging struggle and need because truth and honesty urge us toward compassionate action – “the truth will set us free ” (John 8:32). Free to enact the gospel, to do God’s work in the world. The truth that we see is that domestic violence is real and severe and prevalent. The struggle that we acknowledge is that the poor economy, the limited job market, political stalemate and weakened family structures most affect the most vulnerable among us: children.
The harvest is plenty – the world good and wonderful – but the laborers – of compassion, of justice, of healing - they are few, Jesus declares. “Go, and be among them,” Jesus commands. Julie and the others at the DeVanna Center are surely among them, revealing that seemingly impossible things are done through imperfect, flawed, and limited human hands, the ordinary laborers of the harvest. What began as a small gesture of compassion, to purchase a headstone in order to rightly honor the life of a child who was not shown the peace or goodness or wonder of this world has grown into a harvest of service, love and healing.
Throughout the history of human experience, throughout the history of the church, we see that despite the challenges, despite the questionable likelihood of success, despite our inevitable difficulty in accomplishing what he could do far more easily than we, Jesus confidently sends us out. And diseases have been cured, unjust laws have been overturned, the hungry have been fed, oppression lifted, all through human labors, but by the grace of God.
You know, here in Matthew Jesus doesn’t simply instruct the disciples to labor in the harvest but he instructs them to ask God to send out laborers into the harvest. Perhaps then and there and here and now, we are the answers to our own prayers. What if we are the laborers of compassion and healing. The laborers may be few, but we are they. Harvest hands. Hands of Christ. The are ours. Here we are so that our opening prayer would be our closing now:
Spirit of the living God,
Fall afresh on us,
Spirit of the living God,
Fall afresh on us.
~Rev. Leanne Walt
From the Palms to the Passion
Scripture: Matthew 21:1-11 and Matthew 26:47-66
Today we move from royal palms, cloaks, and joyful cries filling the city streets: “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” to the verdict spoken in Caiaphas’ house: “He deserves death.”
How quickly we move from here to there. How fickle are we. We love him we betray him we crucify him.
As Joni Mitchell has sung to so many through heartbreak and loss and transition: “I have looked at love from both sides now.”
I’ve looked at the clouds from both sides now – “from ice cream castles in the air and feather canyons everywhere; to how they rain and snow on everyone. I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now.”
How quickly the clouds shift and change, how quickly they roll in on Gethsemene and Golgotha from the clear Jerusalem air proclaiming the arrival of the long-awaited messiah. This day of the processional and the palms is a reflection of ourselves – a paradox of triumph and rejection, love and betrayal, resolve and uncertainty, birth and death. As we stood outside the closed sanctuary doors this morning, pregnant with the anticipation of entering, we paused to prepare ourselves to enter into the holiest week of the year when all the most profound truths of human life are exposed. What is holier than the Truth, naked, exposed, raw and hung on a cross for all the world to see?
On Palm Sunday, more than any other day of the year, we are reminded that the essential Christian narrative, the oldest, the first, the central story by which we are formed is not Advent with Isaiah and visions of the lion laying with the lambs, it’s not Christmas with the shepherds keeping watch over their flock by night, it’s not Epiphany with the magi following the star, it’s not Pentecost with the flaming tongues of fire birthing the church, it’s not the miracles or the healings or the parables or even the Sermon on the Mount. But the story held in between the palms and the passion, it is the truth by which we are formed.
We live betwixt and between the reality of our world and the truth of the gospel. We live somewhere in between the palms and the passion. We live on both sides of love.
The movement from the palms to the passion is complex, but so is life. We welcome and worship the one who will save us from ourselves and from false idols, gods and kings…until… word is spoken against him. We loose our courage, question his motives, and side with the strong behind his back. The movement from the palms to the passion is complex, but so is life and here we are.
While creed, doctrine, and institution have the luxury of operating in the black and white, the world operates in the gray. We live on both sides of love and the truth is, like Peter and Judas, we don’t know how far we’re willing to go for Jesus. We don’t.
We are willing to give, but not sacrificially. Ok, we’ll give 10% of our income to the church and charitable causes…but is that before or after taxes? Here we do our most careful math…we could give more but what about our morning coffee or lunch out at our favorite restaurant or what I struggle with, what about that pedicure I so need every 4-6 weeks?
We are willing to forgive, but only to a point…Bernie Madoff, rapists, the Tsarnaev brothers, the young man who massacred the children in Newtown…is that depth of forgiveness beyond our grasp?
We are willing to help and serve, but only from a comfortable distance…I was brought smack into the middle of the gray when I heard about the arrival of the CleanSlate Addiction Treatment Center on Washington Street here in Braintree, located across from the Highlands neighborhood where we live in the parsonage. I was forwarded and read email after email after email full of angry complaints to Mayor Sullivan that had been voiced by our neighbors; fathers, mothers, grandparents who argued that the edge of the Highlands neighborhood was no place for a treatment center for addicts. But even as a mother and Highlands resident, living less than a ½ mile from the treatment center, I wondered what message this sends to our children. As a pastor, I wondered what message this sends to you all, my congregation. That we want the heroine and opiate epidemic in our communities to go away, but aren’t willing to help our very own youth and neighbors who struggle with it. If not here, then where? We’ll send the over 400 Braintree residents who are actively seek sobriety to Brockton or New Bedford or to the poorest neighborhoods of Boston to get their meds and help they need to reclaim their life? We are willing to serve, but only from a comfortable distance.
We say we don’t judge but find ourselves judging others, if not out loud then within the silence of our hearts. I had the chance to speak with Rick Doane this week, the Director of Interfaith Social Services in Quincy. He praised the volunteers who generously give of their time to work the thrift shop and food pantry and counseling center there. They could not exist without their volunteers. But he told also of occasions when volunteers at ISS have help clients carry their food pantry bags to their car and return commenting on the nice make and model that they drove away in…but reaching into that reserve of faith that Rick so clearly has, that place of discipleship that he so clearly seeks, he asked, “Is it their car? Are they borrowing it? Are they living out of it? Is it about to be repossessed tomorrow?” How we pretend to know another’s journey…until we walk a mile. How we pretend to know another’s struggle until it knocks on our own door.
“Are ye able,” said the Master “to be crucified with me?
Are ye able to remember when a thief lifts up his eyes,
that his pardoned soul is worthy of a place in paradise?”
Through Lent, through Church, through community, through faith we seek to experience a new and different life. And that transformation is possible in between the palms and the passion, where reflection and self-awareness are unavoidable, where Truth about ourselves and our God is at its finest, most accessible – raw, exposed, and hung on a cross for all the world to see.
Where we can – at once - see ourselves as the faithful carriers of the palms and the discrete deniers of our God. We are at once breaking bread with Jesus, watching him bend to one knee and wash our feet and then betraying him with a kiss for a few coins of silver.
And yet, and yet, Jesus returns to us anyway. We’ve spent the past five Lenten Sundays considering Jesus’ return to Peter after his death and resurrection – Peter, ah, precious Peter – denier and disciple, rebuked and regretful, fisher of fish and men. After the cross, Jesus returns to the Peter in us all, filling our empty nets with fish that we did not catch, feeding us with a meal that we did not prepare, offering us forgiveness that we did not earn or deserve.
Jesus returns and gives us life in those places where we are dead, hope in those places we are lost, love in those places where we are empty, offering compassion for our misplaced kiss. Good Friday is good, indeed, for what follows after.
As the Psalmist sings and prays, it follows that:
Love and faithfulness meet together,
Righteousness and peace kiss each other.
Faithfulness springs forth from the earth,
And righteousness looks down from heaven.
Because we have lingered in between the palms and the passion, because we have met the holiest of weeks with thought and reverence, come Easter morning we will see and know the meeting of love and faithfulness, righteousness and peace and we will be transformed. We will experience a new and different life.
We will lead not by power, but by service to others;
We will seek not to dominate, but to empower;
We will seek not to judge but to love;
Not to store up but to give;
And these virtues, they will be our palms,
Laying them down to prepare the world for Christ and the kingdom to come in His name.
“Are ye able,” said the Master, “To be crucified with me?”
Lord, we are able.
Our spirits are Thine.
Remold them, make us, like Thee, divine.
~Rev. Leanne Walt
Scripture: Luke 23:33-43
Already, but Not Yet
Reign of Christ
A dear friend’s impromptu wedding recently brought me back home, to the northern shore of Massachusetts. A small gathering by the ocean, just parents, sisters, and me – the friend – to witness, bless and preside. After the vows were exchanged, kiss shared, matrimony pronounced, first dance danced barefoot on a blanket in the sand, I had an extra hour or so to myself – somewhat of a rarity these days. I took a walk over to a still familiar spot, Cedar Pond, not far from the house where I grew up. Ducking in between the trees, I found the rock where I used to sit overlooking the water.
As I looked out, I was struck by a familiar sight: two Adirondack chairs on a dock across the pond. There they sat, as they had for so many years before, empty, yet appearing to be so full of life, of stories, of memories, I had always been certain. And still, they were there, the wood now slightly faded. There they were, surviving the years. Well-worn and loved.
I imagined, as I had so many times over the years that these two lone chairs are filled – at the end of the day – with a couple looking out over the calm and intimate waters of a small pond in their backyard. Pausing to reflect upon what the day has brought – the good and the bad, the blessings and the challenges.
There’s something about the sight and scene of these two empty chairs that slows down the pace of life; that brings us into the moment, into the here and now. The path of life is actually quite simple in light of a pond, a dock, and a few empty chairs –
Love shared: “Let’s just sit and be together,”
Thanksgiving practiced: “I am thankful for you. I am thankful for your life and that you are in mine.”
Faith exercised: “I don’t know what tomorrow will bring, but we are here. Now. Today – but by the grace of God. And so we trust that all will be well.”
* * * *
So much of our life is future-oriented and forward leaning. We spend a great deal of time wondering and worrying about what tomorrow will bring and how it will all turn out. Hoping for the best, preparing for the worst. From where we’ll spend Christmas to where we’ll spend retirement to where we’ll spend eternity.
Where will you spend eternity?
The question looms, yet, on this Reign of Christ Sunday, this Christ the King Sunday, we come to church and we are confronted with the crucifixion (it’s not even Good Friday – the church says, “We are not prepared!”). With the question of eternal consequence hanging in the balance, there is something about this scene (is there not?) in the place that is called “The Skull.” There is something about this scene of three crosses, Jesus, and the criminals that slows down the pace of life; that brings us into the moment, into the here and now. This scene of the King who did not save himself.
“Forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
“Forgive us, for we know not what we do.”
And we ask, we beg, we plead there with the criminal hanging on the cross: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
* * * *
Reign of Christ Sunday causes us pause, it causes us to reframe the question. Transformation/innovation/revelation often comes when we reframe the question – ask any teacher.
Not, “How will we get into the kingdom,” but “What is the kingdom?”
Not, “Will Jesus remember me at its gates,” but “What have I done today that’s worthy of Jesus’ memory?”
What is the kingdom? Fortunately, the kingdom rivals money for the topic that Jesus taught and talked most about. “The kingdom of God is like…” how many times does Jesus begin here, “The kingdom of God is like…” What is it like?
It’s like the love of a father for his son who returns home after he has taken the family inheritance and squandered away every last dime. But, alas he is safe. He is home. All is well.
The kingdom of God is like a shepherd who cares so deeply for all his sheep or a woman who values a small coin so greatly, that when one is lost, they go in search for it until it is found.
The kingdom of heaven is like the very smallest of all seeds – the mustard seed – that grows into a great tree and becomes a home for the birds.
The kingdom of God is like a rich man who throws a party, and when the rich people are too busy to come, he invites the poor, the blind, and the lame.
Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he told them that, “The kingdom of God is not coming in an apocalyptic flash of light. People won’t be waving and pointing, saying, “Look, here it is!” or “There it is!”, but Jesus said, “the kingdom of God is among you.” (Lk 17:24).
And as his cousin John shouted out from the wilderness, awaiting Jesus’ arrival: “The kingdom of God is at hand. It has come near.”
What is the kingdom? It is already but not yet here. The reign of Christ is already, but not yet now. It is within you and me. It means that we are at once lost and yet found, at once seeking yet being sought, at once sinners yet forgiven, at once fallen and yet saved.
“Forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
And so the question becomes not where we will spend eternity, but how we will spend today.
The question is not how long will the church stand but that the church is standing today – what do we do with it?
What we do in this life matters (“Faith without works is dead” (James 2:17).)
What we give today and how we live today matters.
The day is here.
The time is now.
Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.
Last Sunday I joined several others from this congregation at the Southeast Area’s Fall Meeting, where the featured program was “Perceptions of Youth about the Church.” A panelist of vibrant, excited, and exciting youth ministers answered the million dollar question, the question for the ages: How do you get young people into the church?
And one of the panelist, a young woman, lay leader – the greatest wisdom always comes from the laity – made a bold and poignant statement. She said, “I’m so sick of people in the church talking about how youth are our future. Youth are not our future. Youth are our now. They should be valued for who they are and the gifts and wisdom that they bring now.”
The kingdom of God belongs to such as these. How easily we forget.
We are so focused on the end game, the outcome, the destination, the decision that I do believe we subconsciously wish our youth into the future; we hope they’ll be great and positive contributors to society when they grow up, we hope they’ll be successful, we hope they’ll be faithful, we hope they’ll be generous, we hope they’ll be kind.
Another wise lay member (see, I wasn’t kidding) recently wrote me in reference to a philosopher’s quote that caused me pause, writing that, “The world needs less hope and more love.”
Maybe it’s love, after all, that brings us into the present. That catches us in the net of the moment. Maybe it’s love, after all, that brings us into the kingdom and heralds in the reign of Christ – from the father’s embrace of a troubled son to the searching shepherd, from a party for the outcasts to a home for the birds, from the first dance barefoot on a blanket in the sand to the well-worn wood of a set of chairs on the dock.
Maybe it’s the love that grounds us in the already, but not yet kingdom of God.
It’s the love of Jesus on the cross, awesome and utterly overwhelming, the king who chose not to save himself, but us instead. We, who know not what we do – sinners and fallen – stumbling and fumbling to grasp the love that is in front of us all the while.
We can only conclude that it’s right to give thanks. We do this day and this week. We
give and we give thanks.
~Rev. Leanne Walt
Scripture: Luke 16:1-13
God & Money
Above all, genuine faith requires the investment of our time, the engagement of our minds, and the openness of our hearts. This is the life to which we have been called. Through the Hebrew Scriptures, or the Old Testament, God demands that we take the time to cultivate an awareness of the human journey – from exile to restoration, from bondage to freedom, from oppression to justice, ignorance to understanding, judgment to love. This is the common journey set before us.
Through the gospels, particularly that of Luke, Jesus demands that we develop concern for our neighbors and for the world. And, that we act upon that concern (openness of our hearts).
By way of parable, Jesus demands our careful thought and reflection (engagement of the mind). This morning’s parable the utmost example of this, being the most baffling and complex of all of Jesus’ parables – as it is a story that has little to say about using our wealth to care for those in need (a consistent theme in scripture and particularly in Luke) and through it, Jesus praises a man for dishonest business dealings, for being deceitful for the sake of his own financial gain.
You’ve heard it described as the parable of the “dishonest manager,” or, perhaps with one of its more euphemistic titles: the parable of the “shrewd steward” or “prudent treasurer,” which makes the same story somehow easier to swallow.
In parable, a careful, allegorical narrative maneuver, Jesus leaves room for the mystery and for the mind, to interpret and to make sense, and to not fully but almost understand…I think I know what he means here, but yet what about that pesky commandment, the revelation on Sinai, “You shall not bear false witness” (Ex 20:16)?
I think I know what he means here, but yet, didn’t he tell us, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal”? (Mt 6:19)
I think I know what he means here, but yet, what about that sermon of his, you know, the one he preached not on the mount but on the vast and lowly plain…what did he there say to the people, according to this same gospel writer? Oh, right: “blessed are the poor” (Lk 6:20)?
I think I know what he means here, but yet, what about that whole, “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God” (Mark 10:25)?
I think I know what he means here, but yet…but yet…but yet… As a wise woman once wrote and sang, “The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind.” The answer, my friends, is hanging in the balance, is cradled within the mystery, is lurking in between lines on a written page, held within the depths of scripture, where the mind wonders and the Holy Spirit dwells.
Though its precise meaning continues to mystify theologians and pastors and Christians, one thing is for certain, here Jesus is talking about God and money – he’s talking about a rich man and his financial manager who is mismanaging his investments – embezzling his money (to put it into today’s terms), and he ends the complex allegorical tale with the simple statement: “You cannot serve God and wealth.” And once again, Jesus meets us at the intersection of faith and life. What human being, rich or poor, hasn’t contended with money? What human mind hasn’t worried or fraught over its amount or use or misuse? What human heart hasn’t felt temptation toward the material life, or wrestled with the questions of:
How much to spend? And what to spend it on?
How much to save? And where to save it?
How much to share? And whom to share it with?
How much is too little? How much is too much?
I venture to guess that on a daily basis, each one of us faces at least one of these questions and if not on a daily basis, nightly, they are among those inquiries of the heart that have the power to awaken us in the middle of the night when the world is dark and quiet.
If we are part of a marriage, or life partnership, we hopefully face these questions through conversation and open exchange with our partner:
What can we afford?
What are our needs today and what will our needs be in two, five, ten, twenty, thirty, forty years from now?
What and where are our values?
Where do our commitments lie?
We are called to ask these questions and we are called to think and talk faithfully about issues of money. Perhaps this is why Jesus tells such an obscure parable about money, to provoke us to consideration and discussion of matters of money and faith, to urge us to engage our minds and open our hearts through thoughtful conversation. Is the manager dishonest or prudent? Is Jesus praising his dishonesty or his savvy business expertise? Is he pointing out that money is fleeting – that the manager is at the top of his game and field one day, only to be cut down the next by his boss? Is the message that money doesn’t promise security?
Money is complex and there is no single biblical view on money, just as there is no single view on money in life, though we have been given many to ponder through the ages, first learned in our family of origin:
A penny saved is a penny earned;
Money doesn’t grow on trees;
Money is the root of all evil/the lack of money is the root of all evil;
Time is money/it takes money to make money;
The best things in life are free/nothing in life is free.
There are some things money can’t buy. And as a wise man once wrote and sang, "Money can’t buy me love."
“You cannot serve God and wealth.” Where was it that I heard that? Oh yeah, Luke 16. And who was it that said that? Oh yeah, Jesus said that. Jesus meets us at the intersection of faith and life.
Money has the power to rival God for our worship and devotion. This doesn’t make money evil, but it does require an engagement of our minds and an openness of our hearts to ensure that we use our resources faithfully and wisely.
Money has the power to rival God for our worship and devotion. We see this power at work on a small scale, in our every day lives as we wrestle with questions of how much to spend, how much to save, how much to share. When we struggle with questions of what do we really need? How much is too much? How much is too little? And we see money demand our devotion because at the most basic level, our very survival is dependent upon it.
We see the power of money at work in world on a larger, broader scale as well. At a time when the economy seems to be shrinking, at a time when income distribution resembles an hourglass shape; wide at the top and bottom and narrow in the middle, we saw how money dictated political endorsements in the last presidential campaign and how money raises certain individuals to power while causing the fall of others, even in a democratic system. Regularly, we see how politics can be driven by money rather than ethics, by wealth rather than justice.
This past Monday morning you awoke, like I did, to the news of yet anther random shooting spree, this time at the US Navy Yard in Washington, DC where 12 innocent people and the shooter, who reportedly suffered from mental illness, lost their lives. The Navy Yard now joins the ranks of Sandy Hook, Aurora, Tucson, and Columbine and too many others as communities in our country that have been directly affected by random gun violence. Do you know that following this horrific, unimaginable crime; sales of violent video games shattered a new record this past week? Grand Theft Auto V, a game released the day after the Navy Yard shooting made $800 million dollars in its first 24 hours on the market. Like other best-selling games today, this one brings its players into a virtual world where they can freely walk into public places and shoot innocent people.
We the people dictate supply and demand. We the people dictate what sells and what does not, what is profitable and what is not, we proclaim what is of value to us and what is not.
Oh right, because what was it that Jesus said, somewhere, “Where you treasure is, there your heart will be also.” When our society’s treasure is invested in virtual violence should we be surprised when it becomes a reality?
You cannot worship both God and wealth because one is lasting, the other fleeting, one is real the other illusory, one is constant, the other transient.
I often wonder what would happen if we, as a society, placed as much emphasis on our spiritual wealth as we do our physical? If we placed as much emphasis on our spiritual health as we do on our physical?
If we gave the same amount of daily attention and devotion to God as we do to our bank accounts, our homes, and our cars, our clothes, our electronics and toys for our children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews.
If we gave the same amount of attention and devotion to our real relationships – with God and with one another - as we do to the one we have with our Facebook or our checkbook.
What if we acted as though our very lives depended upon God, just as we act as though our very lives depend upon the money we have and comforts we keep?
We come here, to this sanctuary, a place that is in and yet not of, this world – for the purpose of worshipping what is lasting in life. Money goes – it’s earned/ acquired/ spent - then we go. God stays.
We come here, to this sanctuary, this morning to celebrate the wise, prudent and faithful use of resources by the Braintree Community Food Pantry, we commend Agnes, and all those who have supported this ministry by giving of their time and money in order to make an investment of the heart in what is lasting and true. This morning we lift up before God and one another the Food Pantry’s and First Baptist Church’s alignment of faith and resources, God and money in accordance with the gospel of Jesus Christ, to feed the hungry and clothe the poor. May we do our part, how, where, and when we are able.
 Dickerson, John S, “Grand Theft Auto V sales set record,” September 19, 2013, FoxNews.com
~Rev. Leanne Walt
Scripture: Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
One, though many, we gather today. One congregation, one community, one people under God. Brothers and sisters in Christ. One, though many. We gather with many different perspectives and experiences of the world, of politics, of religion, of the Church (both capital and lowercase “c”). But, we will, you will, this morning, receive a common message, a common Word, we pray a common faith and hope. Scripture and sermon, the bread of the service, the heart of the service, left to be received and dissected through the unique lens that each of you brings. And, we will receive a common grace, a sacramental grace, an elemental grace. We have at the font in the water, we will at the Table in the bread and in the cup. Water and grain and grape. We are united at the most elemental, fundamental, basic human level. Young or old, rich or poor, republican or democrat, pacifist or realist, we share the need for nourishment of the body and care for the soul. Here we discover the simplicity of our seemingly complex life in water, grain, and grape.
Our congregation belongs to a brand of Christian history, theology and practice that holds only these two events in the life of an individual and in the life of the church to be sacramental rituals representing an outward and visible sign of inward, spiritual, divine grace. In water, grain and grape we behold the mystery that is our most common denominator. Our basic need for water and bread, our basic need for grace to save and to provide and to give, and for a perfect love to form and inform and transform our hearts.
We gather, as one though many, to receive an elemental grace at the tail end of a week wrought with international strife, political friction and division. We come up for air this morning in the midst of a wilderness of political upheaval, torn between the ways of diplomacy and direct retaliation against the Syrian regime, but united in our defense of human life, united in our condemnation of weapons that vastly override regard for human life. Many, though one, we weep, along with Jesus for our Syrian sisters and brothers whose bodies and souls felt the doings of such evil. Many, though one, we weep, along with Jesus for yet another country at war with itself. As Christians, we are caught in between loving our enemies and demanding an eye for an eye.
* * * *
Much has changed, we know, since the days when Joseph followed the star, since the days when Jesus called to Simon and Peter from the lakeside, since the days when Mary sat at Jesus’ feet or since the days when Paul calmly penned notes from prison, as if he were vacationing on the coast and writing to those who were experiencing far colder weather back home. Language and dress and money and politics and culture distance us from those days and times. Even in our lifetime, such differences can create distance among us across generations – are we all on Facebook? Do we all text and Tweet and Twerk?
And yet, there are moments in our life and relationships, and in the history of time when we realize that at our core, we are guided by the same fundamental need to be loved with a love that will not let us go.
One of those notes that Paul wrote so long ago from prison was addressed to his dear friend Philemon, a wealthy man who is master of a house large enough to accommodate a church. In the briefest and most human of Paul’s letters, he takes up his pen, once again, to part a sea of troubles. He writes Philemon to inform him that his slave, Onesimus who had escaped from Philemon’s property and absconded with his money, had come to Paul in prison and asked to be forgiven for his mistakes and relieved of his debt. Now, in those days and times, Philemon would have had the legal right to punish Onesimus for running away and for stealing from him. He would have most likely ended up in prison. And yet, Paul asks Philemon not to punish him. He asks him not to fall back on the reigning patterns of domination, discrimination, and violence that prevailed in those days.
And Paul, given his status as the leader of the early Christian movement, would have had enough power to persuade Philemon by force or domination to do what he wanted him to do, to let Onesimus go unpunished. But he does not. He doesn’t threaten, intimidate, or bully to get what he wants and what he sees fit according to the gospel. Rather, Paul appeals to his friend, on the basis of love.
Writing, “Though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love” (Phil 8-9).
Not power or authority or coercion, but love, a teaching of Paul’s and Jesus that is so radical that the church and the world have yet to pay any attention. We routinely regard structures of power and domination as normal and we worry about matters of authority as though God does. But the gospel is rooted in a new way of relating to people, a way of openness, a way of love.
This week, as the news continued to unfold about the Syrian crisis, I was brought back to a period of months, nearly a decade ago now, that I spent living in Sri Lanka, a country that has been embroiled in a civil war for now going on 30 years, a war over religion, language and political representation for the Hindu and Muslim minority in a predominately Buddhist country. As a student studying there at the University, our travel was restricted and so my ability to explore this small island, limited. No travel to Tamil Nadu, the northernmost point where the flat, barren desert, I’m told, fades into the most beautiful crystal clear blue-green ocean, and where the Tamil Tigers, guerilla fighters had planted UXBs, or buried bombs there on the beaches. Reminiscent of the West Bank, this is the area the Tamils would like to separate from the country of Sri Lanka and make their own. No travel to the southeast cost, where, I’m told the greenest, lushes rainforest suddenly stops and gives way to the openness of white sand leading into the Bay of Bengal. No travel to Columbo, the capital city, the most dangerous of all because of its political symbolism and proximity to Parliament.
The latter half of my stay I spent at an all girls Christian orphanage in the central highlands of the country, an area more remote and less vulnerable to UXBs and random car and suicide bombings. With civil war and frequent violence erupting just miles away, there was a haven there in the hills of the country. In a country where peace was volatile and hate seemingly louder than love, the girls and young women at the orphanage created a different lexicon for relating to one another. There were, among them, Singhalese and Tamils. One, though many. They lived at the most basic level of human need, having no parents or resources, they lived by water and bread (rice in their case) and they lived by love, appealing to one another with compassion and understanding, and in return, found their most basic needs met, to eat and to love and be loved by a love that will not let them go. Elemental grace.
Some things, we know, override the value of human life: religious extremism, tyranny, oppression and domination. Fatalism. Powers of evil can thwart our desire to do good, but they cannot shake God’s desire to do good for us. If we, on an individual, day to day level, are brave enough to appeal to one another in love and not domination, in our homes and places of work, in our friendships, and here in the church, the effects would have the power to transform our world with a sense of justice informed by love.
So, we look at the larger, macroscopic picture of human interaction and note the conflict and violence. We look at regimes and dictatorships and note the evil and violence, but this morning we look toward the font and table - water, grain and grape - and know that we’ve been witness to a light that outshines the darkness; that we’ve been touched by a love that will not let us go.
A light symbolized by the purity of water, anointed on the heads of the newly baptized, a blessing upon the young and hope-filled, sinless and pure among us.
A love that begets life and new life evident in Bart and Shelby this morning.
Brother and sister, we pray that you will walk together in the light of our faith, appealing to one another and all others in love. And that you may never forget that you are loved with a love that will not let you go. Hold to community, hold to prayer, hold to the cross, hold to the Word when challenges and uncertainties and fears arise. If you (or we) ever have question of where to begin in the many and overwhelming pages of Scripture, begin with the words of the 139th Psalm, read on the occasion of your baptism, a Word fit for all times and places, a word fit for each one of us this morning, all children of God, praying and singing of the love that will not let us go:
“For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
That I know very well.”
~ Rev. Leanne S. Walt
Scripture: 2 Corinthians 5:5-7
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
We Walk by Faith
If we ever question the relevancy or the accessibility or the resonance of scripture, we are confronted with the words of Paul, the Apostle: “We walk by faith, not by sight.”
Ancient words, ever true.
“We walk by faith, not by sight.” By faith, we awaken to face a new day, each day. By faith, we accept a new job, a new challenge; we follow our true vocation, our genuine calling. By faith, we invest our time and money and love in others – in our spouses, our children, our grandchildren. By faith we uproot ourselves and our family in order to move to a new city, a new state, a new country in order to start anew. By faith we walk away from a broken relationship. By faith, we live and speak our truth to an unwelcoming audience. By faith we endure surgeries, cancer treatments, treatment for addiction. By faith we send ourselves, our sons, daughters, fathers, uncles to war. We walk by faith, not sight. We don’t walk by the known vision captured with our eyes in the present moment but by the hope cast forth from our hearts into an unknown future.
If we ever question the relevancy or the accessibility or the resonance of the Biblical narrative, we are confronted with the story of Abraham, evoked in the letter to the Hebrew Christians: By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to an unfamiliar land/By faith Abraham stayed in a foreign land/by faith Abraham looked with hope upon his new home in a new land/By faith he received the blessing of children/By faith he lived, by faith he walked, by faith he died, by faith he saw and received the promises of God.
So, two thousand years later we humbly gather on a side lawn, against the choir of church bells ringing and birds chirping and by faith we worship, trusting that here we will find joy in belonging and meaning in relationship with God and with others.
Yet, as we gather (by faith) and worship (by faith), humbly on a side lawn as cars drive past, as runners run on, as walkers walk on we wonder, “Do we live in an age of faith?”
The endeavor of unpacking my office this past week and loading old books onto new shelves became an all-afternoon event as I took it as an opportunity to open those old books I had purchased years ago for a paper I had to write, or perhaps they were simply recommended or written by a favorite professor. Those that particularly caught my attention, both then and now, contain religious theory, books filled with attempts to explain, or explain away in some cases, the origins of religious belief.
Religious historians maintain that patterns of religion are often cyclical. If we were to test this theory, bear with me here, and if we were to begin roughly 500 years ago with the Middle Ages, we would begin in a hundred-year period of history known as an Age of Faith, where intense belief reigned and religion permeated every aspect of society and culture – where the architecture of Gothic cathedrals blossomed through the building of Chartres and Reims and Westminster Abby.
Then, if we fast-forward 100 years we find ourselves in the midst of the Reformation, an Age of Revelation, when Christians broke open the boundaries placed upon scriptural interpretation and questioned the authority of the Church. The following century brought with it the Age of Enlightenment, with John Locke, Thomas Jefferson and others arguing for the power of the mind in critiquing religion and for the place of science and reason alongside religious experience. All notions that gave way to the principles set forth in the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights.
This past Thursday, as I sat in my office and sifted through my long lost volumes on religious history and theory, the phone rang. I answered. An unfamiliar voice greeted me on the other end. A man. A pastor, he said of a United Church of Christ congregation in Lisbon, New York, a small town in northern New York, on the Canadian border. “Is this the church John Adams would have attended?” he asked, “I’m reading David McCullough’s book and it mentions First Parish Braintree, but I know his home is in Quincy. Is Braintree Quincy? Is Quincy Braintree?” He asked, a bit confused then I explained, “Yes, you have the right church. No Braintree is not Quincy. Yes, Quincy is Braintree…or was Braintree.”
Across cities, and states, rivers and lakes, mountains and farms, and as it turns out, across generations, we connected, the two of us, through the ministry and congregationalism; through our common walk by faith not by sight. He’s working on a dissertation wherein he maintains that the signers of the Declaration of Independence, John Adams among them, were heavily influenced by congregational polity and ideals…our congregational tradition a product of the Age of Enlightenment. Our democracy the product, at least, in part of congregational ideals.
Journeying forward we come to the twentieth century, to what has been called the Age of Experience, as the prosperity gospel flourished mid-century, and then toward the end charismatic faiths and the mega church phenomenon exploded and modern Americans looked to experience religion through reaping its immediate benefits of wealth and security, answered prayers and healing.
When we arrive at the present moment, in the first stages of the 21st century, religious historians anticipate that we are rounding the bend on the cycle that would propel us back to an Age of Faith where intense belief reigns. Sociologist Peter Berger, whose books sit among those on my shelf, who studies and teaches at our very own Boston University is one who has challenged the “secularization theory” that religion will wane as modernity advances. Instead, he actually puts forth today the world is “as furiously religious as it ever was, and in some places more so than ever.” There is much talk in popular religious circles about how America is approaching a new awakening in religious commitment.
Faith – Revelation – Reason – Experience - Faith
What if we are, now at this moment, as a people, as a society on the cusp of reclaiming a great faith, what if we are on the verge of clinging to a vigorous hope and trust in the good promises of God once again? Do we have faith enough to believe this? Intensely? Do we have faith enough to let go of what has been and allow a new age of religion to take shape for us? And truly allow it to heal the divisions among us, as a church, as a society, as a people of the human race?
I believe that in this historical moment that champions freedom and independence and self-fulfillment, our brothers and sisters/neighbors, our society as a whole here in New England are beginning to wonder: “Is this all there is to life? What’s missing? Why do I feel so empty when I have all of this stuff that’s supposed to fill me up?”
When we have nothing left to cling to, we come to faith. When we are down and out, we come to faith. When all else fails, we come to faith. In our lowest, weakest, most desperate moment, we come to faith. It’s the human way. Is it so hard to believe that we, as a society, have arrived at such a moment?
When the hemorrhaging woman pressed through the crowds to touch the hem of Jesus’ cloak, he turns to her and promises, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace” (Lk 8:48, Mt 9:22).
When Jesus healed ten lepers but only one praised God in thanksgiving, Jesus says to the one man out of ten, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well” (Lk 17:19).
When Barimaeus, poor and blind, sitting along the Jericho road would not cease calling out and praising Jesus as he walked by, Jesus says to him, “Go; your faith has made you well” (Mk 10: 52)
We walk by faith. And sometimes life works out as we feel it should. The hemorrhaging stops. Sight is restored. Children are born. The treatment works, the job is a success, the move brings unexpected joy. At other times, the outcome is not as we feel it should be. But, for Jesus, the healing does not come by way of things working out “right,” but by way of the faith we cultivate and exhibit through our trials.
If we, as a community of faith committed to Christ, remain so – faithful and committed - through this moment of transition in the life of our congregation and in the history of our society, God’s promise will not fail. We will be healed, touched by the grace and compassion of Jesus. We will be made whole by faith, by our assurance of things hoped for and our conviction of things unseen.
We don’t walk by the known vision captured with our eyes in the present moment but by the hope cast forth from our hearts into an unknown future.
~Rev. Leanne Walt
 Smith, Michael W. “Ancient Words”
 Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume III (328).
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.
~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.