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.
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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: John 21:15-25
Rev. Leanne Walt
7th in our series on Naked Spirituality: a life with God in 12 Simple Words
We venture on this morning, we venture onto the final leg of our summer sermon series and journey through Brian McLaren’s book, Naked Spirituality: a life with God in 12 simple words, but the end is just the beginning. We especially affirm this today as we take up the last movement of his book with a consideration of the word “yes.” Months ago we gathered under the large oak tree on the side lawn to begin with the word “here,” that was our starting point: “Here. Now? Who? You. We.” “Here I am” was the call to communion with one another and with God, but now we have the call to commission, we say “Yes”: “Yes! we’ll go. Yes! We’ll prune. Yes, We’ll pluck. Yes! we’ll follow.” So that the end is just the beginning. As the passing of some months and days has brought us to Labor Day weekend that threshold, that relic of mainline New England Protestantism, that summons us into the new year, we duly sense that the end is just the beginning ~ that this exploration and consideration of the spiritual life is but a prelude to the coming year for our congregation.
We begin at the end this morning, the end of the Gospel of John, that is. Beside the Sea of Galilee, here we meet with Jesus’ questioning and commissioning/inquiry and invitation. A scene featuring beloved Peter – precious Peter - denier and disciple, rebuked and regretful, fisher of fish and men. In the last notes of John’s Gospel, in the final act of Jesus’ ministry, from the tomb to the beach, he has breakfast with the disciples around a bonfire just after dawn and he invites Peter to walk with him. Just some steps away from the fire, Jesus asks this man who denied and betrayed him: “Peter, do you love me?”
Peter responds, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.”
Jesus says, “Feed my lambs.”
A second time he asks him, “Peter, do you love me?
Peter responds, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.”
Jesus says to him, “Tend my sheep.”
A third time he asks him, “Do you love me?”
Hurt now that Jesus has asked him three times,
Peter responds, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.”
Jesus says to him, “Follow me.”
The other gospels, the brotherly synoptics, Matthew, Mark and Luke, begin with Jesus saying, “Follow me,” but John’s gospel ends with this invitation. The end is just the beginning.
We discover in this scriptural moment, in this divine proposal that love precedes call. Love precedes commission. Love precedes vocation. Theologian Frederick Buechner has written that, “Vocation is where our greatest passion meets the world’s greatest need.” Where is your greatest passion? Have you married that with vocation?
As a minister, I receive all kinds of email forwards, as you can imagine. They really run the gamut – some quite serious, tear-jerking stories, usually involving a terminal illness and miraculous healing or a child and a dead pet frog. Others are funny, tongue and cheek Bible jokes, like “What do they call pastors in Germany? German Shepherds.” Or, “Who was the greatest financer in the Bible? Noah. He was floating his stock while everyone else was in liquidation.” And, I do enjoy these so please keep them coming.
Someone recently forwarded me an article from the Boston Globe entitled, “The Latest Trend in Dying.” Now, I didn’t realize there were trends in dying. I wondered what this trend might be. Hand painted caskets? Eulogies given by way of interpretive dance? Or, in anticipation of the open casket, are people starting to request nose jobs or hair transplants upon death in addition to the standard embalming service? But no, as it turns out, the latest, hottest trend in dying is the self-written obituary. Have you heard this? There are, in case you are interested, workshops on how to write your own obituary available both online and in your area. Many book clubs and other groups are hosting informal obituary-writing sessions. You can even purchase your very own “obit-kit” online.
Although I wanted to, I resisted purchasing an obit-kit and convincing Bill to join me in writing our obituaries now that we have a child, given that just before James was born he was a little taken aback when I told him that I’d planned my own funeral service and would have that available for him. Should the day or time come sooner than expected, I want to be sure that he knows the hymns I want and in what order. The scripture I would like read, and of course where the service would be and who would preside. Plus, with James now in the world, we’re in the midst of preparing our wills. So, I thought it may not be the right time to bring an obit-kit into the equation.
But you know; there is something about encountering to new life that orients us toward our death – not in a morbid or depressing way - but in a wholly hope-filled way, thankful for the reminder that the end is just the beginning. In bringing about or bearing witness to new life, we become grounded in our humanity unlike ever before. We begin to consider our legacy – financial and professional; our legacy of story and memory, character and disposition, faith and community, vocation and call – and if not on paper, perhaps in our hearts we begin writing those words that will remain in this world after we no longer do.
In the process, we discover that our lives hinge on those moments of questioning and commissioning/inquiry and invitation/call and response. Will you go? Will you feed? Will you tend? Will you plant? Will you pluck? Will you prune? Will you stand? Will you speak? Will you stay? Will you lead? Will you follow?
There are many reasons to say “no” given the state of our nation and realities of our world. 12 million Americans out of work, the dramatic decline of communities of faith, underachieving public school systems and insurmountable costs of higher education, engagement in wars abroad with vague purpose, shrinking coastlines. There are many reasons to say “no.” No, I will not go, I will not feed, I will not tend, I will not follow.
Yet, the invitation remains. A precious offering, a sacred window into the Way, the Truth, and the Life – into the love that fearfully and wonderfully formed and fashioned each one of us, our partners, parents, grandparents, children, and great grandchildren, generations of old and those to yet to come. We are asked to say yes to the love that invites us into the composition of life, the love that calls us into the cadence of our faith, to the rhythms of friendship, to the dance of partnership, to the note of vocation.
Love precedes call. Love precedes commission. Love precedes vocation.
In our tradition, nowhere is this reality more pronounced than in the sacrament – the sacred moment - of baptism, where we are visibly marked by the love that calls us into being. And that love, should we choose to accept it, overrides all worldly reasons to say “no.”
For the Christian life is a yes life - it whispers yes to what has been, to what is, and to what is to come ~ as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end ~ in our living and our dying, from the waters of our baptism to the ashes of our departing, we affirm that, “Yes, the end is just the beginning.”
Yet we know that this morning James isn’t the only one saying yes – in fact, he can’t say yes. He has yet to make that determination of faith. But we say, “Yes.” We say yes to God’s invitation into this life, this world, this communion, this community, this day, this hour, this minute – into the common hope that there is an achievable common good and that we can leave this world a better place than when we came into it.
And we say “Yes!” Yes, we will offer James this same invitation into the Christian life. And by accepting, we pray that he will lead a life worthy of the calling to which he has been called.
One in which he allows love to precede call. Love to precede commission. Love to precede vocation.
And if we listen closely in this old, holy place, we hear the faint echoes of Jesus in our hearts calling out to us on this sacred occasion. We sense the whisper of his questioning and commissioning/inquiry and invitation: “Do you love me?”
“Then, tend my sheep.” He calls out, take this one, this beloved, precious child of God, into the fold.
“Tend my sheep.”
May it be so.
Scripture: Ezekiel 17:22-24 and Mark 4:26-34
A Single, Simple, Small Seed
Rev. Leanne Walt
“You Are Not Special.” Did you hear of this local graduation speech that made national headlines this week? David McCullough, Jr., son of historian and author David McCullough who this church hosted back in 2007 at our 300th anniversary, was the keynote speaker at Wellesley High School’s commencement this year where he told the graduating class in one of the wealthiest, most privileged communities in the world, “You are not special. You are not exceptional. Contrary to what your U9 soccer trophy suggests, your glowing seventh grade report card, despite every assurance of a certain corpulent purple dinosaur, that nice Mister Rogers and your batty Aunt Sylvia, no matter how often your maternal caped crusader has swooped into save you…you are not special.”
When taken out of context, parts of McCullough’s speech could be interpreted as callous, insensitive, and less than motivating. However, when considered in its entirety, McCullough’s words serve as his caring way of telling an entitled generation to pursue work that they love for the sake of the common good rather than work that will yield measurable success and personal gain. It was his way of illustrating that if everyone is special, then no one is.
Like many new mothers, during my maternity leave I fell subject to bad TV during late night and early morning feedings. I learned of the dark infomercial underbelly of television that dances in the mid of the night while I used to enjoy 8 hours of sleep and I was sucked into morning news shows that don’t report the news, as far as I can tell, but instead tout sensationalist headlines like Matt Lauer’s exclusive interview with John Edward’s mistress Rielle Hunter or the now famous “Octomom,” Nadya Suleman, mother of octuplets – not that I don’t enjoy this escape from reports of the dire state of the economy or lives lost in Afghanistan.
Well, now that I’m watching, each morning on the Today show they have a panel of three “professionals,” who discuss that day’s headlines. This week one of the topics they tackled was McCullough’s “You Are Not Special” speech. While two of the panelists applauded McCullough for his candor and insight, the other felt that it was self-indulgent and that he would never stand before 1,000 of his employees and tell them, “None of you are special. You’re not special until…” (dot, dot, dot).
Yet, I tend to agree with the former two panelists. Had I heard this speech before leaving the sheltered nest of my suburban upper middle class town for college, I wouldn’t have been so shocked to receive a “COME SEE ME” in big red marker on my first college essay only to be told by the professor that he did not appreciate my flowery language and personalized commentary in an academic term paper about the plight of refugees in the Korean War.
Our gospel lesson from Mark suggests that Jesus would agree with Mr. McCullough that no achievement of ours, or measure of neither wealth nor power dictates our exceptionality.
For, when Jesus asks, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God?” His answer is, “It is like a mustard seed.”
I brought with me today a sermon prop: the mustard seed....
A mustard seed is the smallest seed on all the earth. It’s not one that requires much care or attention in order to grow. It doesn’t grow into a tall, noble tree, but rather into a large bush. In fact, in Jesus’ day the mustard bush wasn’t exactly a highly desirable piece of agriculture to have on your property – they were more like pesky, unruly weeds – and I’m sure he would be astounded that to know that two thousand years later they get away with charging $5.99 for a bottle of them in the spice section at your local Shaw’s supermarket.
In our reading of Ezekiel this morning, God is going to plant a noble cedar tree to signify God’s kingdom and yet, in the gospels, Jesus selects no such imposing, majestic image from nature. No, the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed.
“The kingdom of God,” Jesus also says, “is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, would go to sleep that night and rise in the morning and the seed would sprout and grow and he does not know how.”
The kingdom of God is like an inattentive, sleepy farmer.
I find this image of the kingdom as a mustard seed growing under the watch of an inattentive, sleepy farmer more than disconcerting. As someone who gets great satisfaction from making lists and checking things off and someone who has spent the greater part of my life in an academic world measured by percentages, letters, and GPAs, and as a Christian in the ministry and in the church I think of the coming of God’s kingdom requiring special and specific action on our part, rooted in our discipleship – in our service, in our love, in our generosity, in the depth of our faith - but this is a passive image that Jesus paints of the seed of God growing without our care or intention.
Even and especially in the church, we are constantly embroiled in decisions that lead (we pray) to action, each made (we pray) with the intention of furthering God’s kingdom on earth.
As individuals this is equally true, building our lives around productivity and increase – hoping to be a constructive contributor to society, to the world.
Is Jesus telling us that we as individuals play no special part in the building of the kingdom? That in between the planting and the harvest, we cannot further the cultivation of growth?
The parable of the mustard seed leaves us to wonder if there isn’t more evidence than we think to suggest that the evolution of the kingdom occurs naturally, without our contributions and glowing achievements. This week, our church received a rare gift to bear witness to the wondrous and inexplicable realities of the natural order of creation - to the birth, growth and death that calls each one of us into being.
On Friday afternoon we gathered here in this sanctuary to celebrate the life of one of our longtime and faithful members, Helen Marshman. After the service, I joined her 2 kids, 6 grandchildren, her niece, and other close friends at Blue Hill Cemetery. It was a beautiful afternoon to drive through the grounds there – the shadows and light created by the leaves on the ominous oak trees lining the driving path danced on the windshield of my car as the hearse led me to an area of the cemetery that was new to me. It was a piece of land toward the back of the cemetery that dipped down, almost as if it were tucked away in a small valley, sheltered and protected underneath the large oaks. There was a fountain there as well; the peaceful noise of running water joined the rustling leaves and singing birds. It was a lovely spot, where Helen was laid to rest. Quiet and private. A piece of the earth now marked with her special and unique life.
And this morning, we share in the joy of Teah’s baptism. Like a small seed, Teah is born into infinite possibilities and potential beyond all of our imagining. Her life holds such mystery and wonder.
Teah’s baptism signifies the work that God is already doing in the world – creating us, calling us, forgiving us, blessing us - and it reminds each one of us of our own baptism. Of that moment in our lives when we were marked as special, as beloved children of God, who did not have to achieve in order to earn God’s favor, but rather received God’s grace, unmerited and freely given.
Thank you, Teah, for this reminder. It is good to be reminded that God adores us – each and every one of us – and that God provides enough love to nurture every single seed into a special piece of the harvest.
And, we pray that as the days pass by and the years wear on that you, Tom and Sally, Michelle and Dave, will continue to remind Teah of the moment of her baptism, of God’s love that will nurture and support the healthy growth of her faith as her life unfolds in its own, unique, exceptional, and special way.
The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed.
This morning you will each be going home with your very own mustard seed. As this is our last Sunday together before many of you scatter for the summer, as you leave the sanctuary, I will be handing out mustard seeds for you to take home with you. Hold it close as a reminder of God’s power, of God’s love, of God’s grace. Hold it close and pray for the seeds in your life and the lives of your loved ones that have not yet begun to grow. Hold it close and as you take in the quiet moments of the summer, pray for our church – for the seeds that we are scattering and the harvest we await.
The wonder of life and death is contained in a single, simple, small seed. Seeds, often indistinguishable from one another and involved in a natural process of growth that fascinates us even today in spite of scientific knowledge and progress.
Jesus is asking us to have faith enough to trust that the harvest will come without us having to work for it. This is grace. Grace that transforms the tiniest and more impotent-looking seed into a unique shrub that gives rest and shade to the singing birds.