Scripture: Matthew 14:13-21
A woman gives of herself – her time and talent – to her church in a suburb south of Boston. There she volunteers as a youth group leader. This year she’s leading a Bible Study for teens. They met several Sundays ago in the church library, a room that happens to be adjacent to the high school. She read from the gospel of Matthew the story of Jesus’ transfiguration – how he went up to the mountain with Peter, James and John and, she read, “He was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.” She continued reading and when she was finished a young woman in the group said to her: “Ok. But get me from here to there,” and she pointed toward the window in the direction of the high school.
Get me from here to there.
That is my call, from week to week – to get you – us - from here to there. To move us from the Word of God to the work of God in the world.
That is our call, the Church’s call, day by day, to get from in here to out there.
To move us from church to wider community. To move us from church to school, from church to the grocery store, from church to your desk at work, from church to the dinner table, from church to the real-life worries that keep us up at night. To move us from faith to awareness, from awareness to concern, from concern to action.
If we cannot make this move, then our worship is in vain; then our faith is in vain.
This Lent we’ve undertaken such a journey to translate the Word of God into the work of God in the world. A pilgrimage guided by miracle and informed by loaves and fish. This morning we put one foot in front of the other and continue our uphill climb in the hills of Galilee.
We move from gathering to worshiping,
From worshipping to reflection,
From reflection to awareness,
From awareness to action.
From the transformation of the self for the transformation of the world.
Three weeks in, are you familiar with story of the feeding of the 5,000? Has the scripture yet escaped from the page and found its way into your heart – from here (mind) to there (heart)? Do you know it well? Well enough to bring it to God in prayer? Well enough to bring it out there? Well enough to share it with a friend? Well enough to see the miraculous love and abundance of God at work in the world?
There are many entry points into this story. There are many paths that will take you from here to there by way of this miracle. And, we have entered this story from several different angles already.
On the first Sunday of Lent – as the Sunday storm swirled outside, faithful and few we gathered across snow-covered streets – to introduce our Loaves and Fishes mission. We placed our first set of fish in our felt sea – 20 to be exact, representing the first $125 that the Canton Rotary Club donated to further our mission to feed our sisters and brothers in need.
We entered the story, that morning, by way of Jesus’ commandment to the disciples: “You give them something to eat.” Jesus does not feed the 5,000. The disciples do. The grace of God working through the people of God.
God has entrusted us to be the body of Christ - the hands and feet through which God’s work is done in the world. God does the feeding, but the resources are human.
There, in that entry point we were reminded of the power that we possess to transform the world – that our gifts, our donations, our assistance, however small, have power that we can never fully see; that we can feed the multitudes, that we can satisfy hunger. When Jesus tells the disciples to feed the 5,000 they thought it was impossible. The needs were so great, the resources so few.
Have we not felt the same? Have we not doubted? We, of little faith. Have we not focused on what we lack rather than all that we have? Have we not seen the obstacles rather than the possibilities? Have we not seen the glass have empty rather than awoken to its fullness?
Last week we released 82 new fish into the wild of our felt sea, these representing the $516 and 2,050 meals that we purchased to packaged and boxed and brought and stocked on the shelves of local food pantries. In so doing, we offered those fish from the week prior companionship and communion – after all, the sanctuary turns into a vast and cavernous abyss when we empty out of here and night comes. Surely the fish get lonely.
Last week we delved deeper into this scripture, chapter and verse and we entered by way of love.
We entered in the hour of Jesus’ grief, just after he receives word that his dear friend and cousin John the Baptist had been killed, he looks upon the crowds that had gathered in the place where he went to be all alone – he sees the people and he has compassion for them. In the midst of his own grief he is deeply concerned for the people. They are hungry. He is concerned. Out of his concern compassion is born. Are you deeply concerned?
Are you deeply concerned for the 18,000 children in Norfolk county who are food insecure, which means they lack access to enough food to meet their basic needs, which means they go to bed hungry, which means they often don’t know where their next meal will come from. Are you concerned enough to exercise compassion? Are you concerned enough to give of your time and resources to ease their suffering?
From this angle it may be that this great miracle story of Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000 is not so much about loaves and fish as it is about love, multiplied and shared. It may be that the great miracle story of First Congregational Church’s feeding of the 5,000 is not so much about meals of macaroni and cheese or rice and beans as it is about love, multiplied and shared. Love. Endless and abundant. Moving us from here to there.
Week three of our pilgrimage, we continue the uphill climb in the hills of Galilee to get from here to there:
From the Word of God to the work of God in the world.
Moving from reflection to awareness,
From awareness to action,
From the transformation of the self to the transformation of the world.
On this communion Sunday, we enter by way of the bread - blessed, broken, given and received. How does bread get us from here to there? From the Word of God to the work of God in the world?
Bread/food is our most basic human need. Far out in this deserted and isolated place near Galilee, in this wilderness place where the people are tired and hungry Jesus calls them to sit in the grass and he sets a table before them, and there among them he takes bread, blesses and breaks it (remind you of something…?). Flour/sugar/salt/water – kneaded and scored by the work of human hands. By way of the disciples, Jesus offers this meal to the hungry people and by way of that simple loaf of bread, when broken open, flow Jesus’ compassion and God’s abundance. By way of that simple loaf of bread the people are fed.
Jesus calls us to gather in the wilderness of our lives and here in this place, this morning, he has set a table before us – rooting us in our common humanity, grounding us in our most basic human need – eating and drinking – needs so frequently and easily fulfilled that we so often take their fulfillment for granted.
Here we are, bound together in our hunger, in our vulnerability, in our dependency upon God and one another in order to survive in the most basic sense of the word – for without bread we cannot live.
And yet, we cannot live by bread alone.
We cannot live by money alone. We cannot live by power alone. We cannot live by fame or recognition alone. We cannot live alone.
From this awareness we move to the table – from here to there - where we find the comfort of community and communion – with God and one another. Where we bless, break, give and receive.
There is a shared fellowship, an intimacy – a communion – happening in our midst this Lent as we focusing on giving and sharing our resources with those in need, just as there was for Jesus and the disciples on the hillside of Galilee when they shared a meal of bread and fish and in the Upper Room that Thursday night when they shared a meal of bread and wine.
So we do this in memory of Him – we worship, we commune, we pray, we bless, break, and give all that we are and all that we have in service to the world in memory of Him. In memory of his miracle, in memory of his gentleness, in memory of his deep concern and compassion for the world. In memory of his cross.
And we move
From Word to table,
From table to memory,
From memory to bread,
From receiving to giving it away.
We move from the Word of God to the work of God in the world.
~Rev. Leanne S. Walt preaching
Scripture: Matthew 14:13-21
Loaves and Fishes
Rev. Leanne Walt
We are going to start out the sermon this morning with a little visualization exercise. We use this often in sports. At the end of our Friday practices, on the night before a match, my rugby coach in college would gather the team in the center of the pitch and we would lie down on the grass and she would tell us to close our eyes and she would lead us through a visualization exercise. Picture walking onto the pitch tomorrow, picturing taking the field. What’s the temperature like? Who’s beside you? The ref blows the whistle, we kick off, the game begins. Your legs are strong and fast, the toes of your cleats digging into the soft grass, you’re running/running/running, sprinting toward the player with the ball. You approach her, bend at the waist wrap your arms around her legs and snap them down to the ground. You made the first tackle. You are strong, unstoppable, unbeatable.
Believing is seeing.
* * * *
Now, I’m not going to ask you to lie down, but I ask you now to close your eyes, as you are comfortable doing so. It takes a lot of trust to close your eyes. Picture a Sunday morning, approaching the church – here at 12 Elm Street - by car or foot. As you drive into the parking lot, ugh – all the spaces are filled, there’s no place to park. You circle around again and find a spot on Stedman Ave. You walk around to the front door and you have to wait a minute to get into the building. The line for bulletins is too long. You walk into the sanctuary and it is just full of people. It’s standing-room-only full.
Now, some of you remember times when this didn’t have to be a visualization exercise. You remember years and years and years when this sanctuary was full. So full, in fact, that you had to use the chapel for overflow and put a television and audio feed in there.
But, in the 2 years that I have shared in ministry here at First Church, of the 100 plus services that I have led, I have seen this sanctuary full on only 5 occasions. One of those occasions was for my Installation as your pastor in April of 2011. One of them was for the wedding of Tiffany and Freddie Rodriguez.
The other three times were for funerals. The day we celebrated and honored the life of our sister Ethel Anastos this sanctuary was standing-room-only full, the day we celebrated and honored the life of our brother in faith Dick Hewson this sanctuary was standing-room-only full, and this past Thursday as we celebrated and honored the life of our sister Gail Jacobs this sanctuary was standing-room-only full.
And it caused me to wonder, not for the first time, why is it that we draw far more people in for weddings and funerals than we do on Sunday mornings?
Why is it that God’s house is standing-room-only full when we – the Church - are called upon to bless and consecrate a love before the cross and in the eyes of God? Why is it that God’s house is standing-room-only full when we – the Church – are called upon to offer a word of comfort, to serve as a haven for the grieving, to affirm eternal life and love?
Weddings and funerals, we know, share the common threads of relationship and love. Love: the most valuable commodity we posses in this life/our most basic human need. To love and be loved in return. Love discovered, cultivated, enjoyed, celebrated, and affirmed as true and authentic and eternal in the eyes of God.
This sanctuary was standing room-only full on Thursday. It was full of young children and teenagers and adults who had come to give thanks for the life of a young woman, just 49 years old, who, along with her 2 older sisters had made First Church her home as a child and teenager. Her mother, Ginny Oster, in fact, ran the Church Elm preschool, which was the school that was here at the church prior to Lollipop Tree. Though they had moved away from Braintree and dispersed throughout New England, the Oster family has deep roots here at First Church – in Sunday school, youth camp and dinners - and it was Gail’s wish for her memorial service to be held here – for this Church to offer her family, her husband and two young sons the promise of faith and the comfort of ritual as she passed on from this world to the next.
The crowd had gathered, from near and far, in this one place to honor the relationship and affirm the love that Gail shared with each of them, but especially the love that she shared with her two boys.
So the people came, by plane and car and foot to hear the resounding promise of God for this mother and her sons in the words of the Apostle Paul that, “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”
* * * *
It may be that this great miracle story of Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000 is not so much about loaves and fish as it is about love, multiplied and shared.
This great miracle of love actually comes out of grief. We remember that according to Matthew, two significant things have just happened to Jesus:
1. He was rejected in his hometown of Nazareth, and;
2. He just received word that his cousin, John the Baptist, his closest partner in ministry and who he had grown up with from birth, had been killed in prison.
So this story begins with Jesus rejected and grieving. He gets into his boat and sails away, looking for a quiet and deserted place where he could be all alone. Where he could cry and pray and grieve – a place away from the noise and constant needs of the crowds. But, still, the need follows him. He cannot escape it. From his boat, as he approaches what he had hoped would be a lonely place. Surely he saw the mass of thousands of people on shore awaiting his arrival. Surely he could have continued rowing to another location; surely he could have chosen to stay in the boat alone.
But, instead he rows to the shore and his heart is filled with compassion for all those who had followed him.
As it gets to be late in the day and the people are getting hungry, Jesus takes the five loaves of bread that the disciples had brought with them and he blesses them and he breaks them and he gives them to the disciples to distribute to the mob of people. He does this with faith enough that all would be fed. And they are. He does this believing that there would be enough to go around. And there is.
What if that bread that Jesus breaks and blesses and offers is love itself. A love without end. A love that, when broken open, is always enough to go around. A love that embraces us in our rejection. A love that meets us in our grief.
* * * *
When we consider the miracles that Jesus preformed in his life and ministry we are left to wonder if it they’re not so much about the actual miracles themselves – the restoration of sight to the blind, the turning of water into wine, the casting out of demons, the raising from the dead – so much as they are about the compassion and love that Jesus offers those who are hurting and broken. Love is the miracle. The love of God made manifest in Christ, and so in us. Love that can be multiplied and shared over and over again. Love that never ends.
Those who seek out a house of God at the time of marriage or death are seeking the love of Jesus, yearning for that perfect love that will carry them through the imperfect times of marriage and that eternal love that will carry them through the separation that accompanies death.
What would happen if we here at First Church, like the disciples, heeded Jesus’ call to distribute this kind of love to the crowds? If we were to distribute the kind of love that is so miraculous and abundant that there is always enough to go around?
Later this morning, as we gather for our annual financial meeting, we will consider the budget. We will consider what it has been in year’s past and what it is today. We will consider where we have been, but more importantly where we are going. The budget, line item by line item, figure over and against figure, is meaningless in and of itself. It’s given life – it’s given meaning - through each one of us. By way of our hands and our feet; our ministry and mission as a body of Christ in the world.
The budget is a vessel through which this congregation funnels the love of Christ out into the world. When we approach the budget with a loaves and fish kind of faith – a faith that sees the possibilities of God’s love rather than its limitations, a faith that knows and lives by the abundance of God’s love, a kind of faith that spreads and shares God’s love rather than keeping it for ourselves – then line item by line item, figure over and against figure, the budget holds miraculous God-given power to make the love of God manifest and authentic and true in this community of faith here at 12 Elm Street.
If we can believe in a love that will fill up a felt board with colorful fish, a love that has the power to break open our hearts and one that compels us to share our resources with our neighbors, then we can believe in a love that will fill our pews with our sisters and brothers who thirst for community and meaning and connection with a God who offers perfect and eternal love not only on occasions of marriage and death. Not only on Sundays, but a love that is woven into every fiber of our being, every movement, every breath, every word, every action, every relationship.
Scripture: Isaiah 55:1-8 and Mark 6:30-43
YOU Give Them Something to Eat
Rev. Leanne Walt
I remember the day I arrived at the orphanage. It was a typical Sri Lankan afternoon – upwards of 90 degrees and my trishaw, which are those funny-looking three-wheeled little vehicles that taxi people around in Asia, had dropped me at the foot of a hill in the very center of the city. The trishaw couldn’t have made it up the dirt path on the hill that led to the orphanage, so I walked up the hillside carrying most of my belongings on my back.
This was the day that I moved out of the house where I had been living for the past four months and into a Christian orphanage for girls. A place called Evelyn Nurseries, where I would stay for 6 weeks.
Barbara, the woman who ran the Nurseries, along with several other girls who lived there, greeted me as I came up the winding road leading to the house. “Akki! Akki!,” “Sister! Sister!” they shouted and waved.
That night after evening worship, Barbara explained to me that she would wake me up at 4:00 to help with the morning chores. “Great!” I responded in my enthusiasm. I’d help with morning chores – super! Well, 4:00 in the morning came quickly, as it tends to do, and sure enough there was a knock on my door. I gathered my tired, foggy head enough to get out of bed, threw on the nearest items of clothes I could find, and headed out my door to be met with what reminded me of the Oompa-Loompas working in Charlie’s Chocolate Factory, there were girls and young women everywhere buzzing around the hallways and the yard and the kitchen. Though they were working away, they were not making fudge or gum balls; they were sweeping, dusting, making beds, washing and drying clothes, cleaning potatoes, cooking rice. As I struggled to keep my eyes open, I saw these little creatures singing, dancing, and laughing as they worked. Well, those early mornings came one after the other until the very last day I spent at the Nurseries and I’ sure they have continued every day in the years since I left.
In the afternoons, during my stay at the Nurseries, I would sit with Barbara and have tea overlooking Kandy Lake in the middle of the city. Barbara had been married to a wealthy businessman who passed away about 20 years ago. After his death she became very involved in her church and then through certain people who came into her life, she was led to the Nurseries.
She shared with me how from month to month; it was a struggle to provide for the seventy-five girls and young women under her care at the Nurseries. But she said that no matter how bleak it seemed, God always provided. It was in the worst months, when it was simply impossible to buy enough rice to feed everyone at the orphanage with the money that they did have, when she would receive an anonymous donation that would get them through several months to come. When she was telling me about these uncertain times, she would always say something like: “And then, God just goes right ahead again and makes something out of what I thought was nothing.”
* * * *
There’s this great cartoon about Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000 that a member of a church I served several years ago gave to me after we had talked about this miracle story in Bible Study. The cartoon depicts two winged, haloed angels wearing chefs’ hats, surrounded by clouds. The one baker-angel exclaims to the other baker-angel, “He needs 5,000 loaves of bread and he needs them now!”
The reason why this cartoon works is the same reason why I love the story of Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000: because of the story’s ambiguity. We know that there are five loaves of bread and two fish involved. We know that there are the twelve disciples and a crowd of 5,000 people involved. We know that Jesus is involved. And we know that all who were present ate and that all who were present were satisfied. And we know that there were even some leftovers.
But we don’t know if it is the five loaves of bread that Jesus miraculously multiplies into enough loaves to feed more than 5,000 people; if he calls on jolly Oompa-Loompa-like angels up in heaven to busily bake enough bread for the multitudes. Or,if it is the selfish hearts of the people in the crowd that Jesus transforms so that they are compelled to share the little that they do have with one another. The story simply does not tell us which it is. We are left to reach our own conclusions about what exactly Jesus is transforming – the loaves of bread or the hearts of each person in the crowd. We are left to reach our own conclusions about which would be the greater miracle.
* * * *
It had been a long day of healing and so as it was nearing dusk, the disciples agreed that it was time for Jesus to bid farewell to the thousands of people who had come to bear witness to his miracles. After all, they did not have anything other than five loaves of bread and two measly fish to offer this great mass of people. They simply did not have the necessary resources to adequately feed so many.
So the disciples say to Jesus, “Jesus, it’s getting late, let’s wrap it up for the day. Send these people into the surrounding villages so that they can buy themselves something to eat.”
And who can blame the disciples for, quite reasonably, thinking that the people who had gathered to see Jesus could go home for dinner. Why should it be their responsibility to feed these people? They hardly had enough food to feed themselves. Besides, hadn’t these people thought ahead enough to pack a lunch, to bring food along to eat while they were in this deserted area?
Jesus listens to and hears the reasonable sentiments of the disciples. But he does not do as they ask. He does not send the people away.
“You give them something to eat,” he answers the disciples. When all they see are limitations, Jesus urges them toward possibility. When all they see is scarcity, Jesus moves them toward abundance. When all they see is what they do not have, Jesus reminds them of what they do have.
They have a God who just so happens to specialize in making something out of nothing. We have a God who created out of nothing: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep” (Gen. 1:1-2). We have a God who breathes life into the nothingness of dry bones (Ez. 37). We have a God who put life into the nothingness of Sarah’s womb (Gen 18). We have a God who, in this morning’s lesson from Isaiah, instructs those who “have no money,” to “come, and eat!” God does not say, “You who have enough money, come and eat” No, God invites those who have nothing, to come and be fed.
God does the feeding, but the resources are human.
In those times when the Nurseries have nothing more than five loaves and two fish to last the whole month through, God has continued to feed the Nurseries through human resources. The donations that the people offer to the women at the Nurseries, just like the bread that the disciples offer, are used and magnified by God. More than that, when the girls and women at the Nurseries give of themselves out of nothing, when they come together during those oh so early morning chores in song and laughter, then the work of God is revealed. They know what kind of God they have. A God of abundance and possibility. A God who revels in making great things out of what we would consider to be nothing at all.
This Lent God has given us, First Congregational Church, a remarkable opportunity to serve as instruments for and living witnesses to the miraculous work of Jesus Christ right here in our community through working with Outreach New England. Because the same need for food assistance exists right here in our community as it does across the globe in Sri Lanka or India or Mozambique or Nigeria or Nicaragua. It exists in cities and towns, urban and suburban neighborhoods throughout Massachusetts and New England. It exists not only among the homeless but in many households as well. In our own Norfolk County alone 18,000 children are food insecure (that’s 12% of all children in Norfolk County), which means they lack access to enough food to meet their basic needs. Which means they go to bed hungry, they worry they will run out of food, and they often don’t know where their next meal will come from.
The crowds have gathered and they are waiting for the miracle of Jesus to work through us – right here, right now. We can ask Jesus to send them away or we can answer Jesus’ call: “You give them something to eat.”
If everyone in New England who has enough food gave $13.75 to Outreach Kid’s Care and packaged meals for 22 minutes every year, all those in New England who don’t have enough could eat. Per person per day, that’s 4 cents and 4 seconds of effort.
Our challenge over these six weeks of lent is to raise enough money to purchase and then package 5,000 meals that will be distributed at Interfaith Social Services in Quincy and the Community Food Pantry here in Braintree. The total we need to raise is $1,250. Is this a lot of money? Yes. But, we can do this.
Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000 is told so many times and in so many places throughout the gospels because all too often we forget the abundance and generosity of our God. We too often forget that our gifts, our donations, our assistance – however small – have power that we can never fully see; that we can achieve the impossible; that we can feed the multitudes; that we can satisfy hunger.
Opting Out of 'the System'
Rev. Estelle Margarones
Jer 31:31-34 John 12:20-33
Easter is just two weeks away and the story of Jesus' earthly life is nearing completion. The Scripture passage we heard this morning indicates that Jesus knew his time has come. His earthly life was drawing to a close. We learn that 'his soul is troubled'.
He knows that he will be crucified and it may not necessarily, what he wants, but he knows it is his destiny. It is why he came here. He was troubled, but he knew what had to be done. He did what he had to do for the greater good.
When Jesus talked about the judgment of the world, he was not talking about God's creation, but rather, that judgment of that which was separate from God.
Biblical scholar, professor, and author Walter Wink describes a new use of the word 'kosmos' in the gospel of John. He says that this kosmos is a world apart from God(1). Author Charles Campbell elaborates on this idea and calls this kosmos, or world, 'the system'. (2)
This secular world—or 'the system' has a different ruler. Jesus tells the crowds that the system will change...the ruler of this world will be driven out and that Jesus would draw all people to himself. Jesus would be a ruler...in a different system.
Today, 'the system' may be as obvious as government, or organized crime, or any establishment that keeps 'isms' such as racism, or sexism in place.
Much of 'the system' appears innocuous. It has been deemed a benefit to have our health care tied to our employment. Credit cards lure consumer with introductory short term low rates. Websites allow you to publish personal information and photos—of yourself, or your friends (without their consent or even knowledge).
The grocery store near my mother's house recently changed ownership. Systematically, they have been replacing the longer-term employees with younger, less experienced help. Steve was 'let go' recently. His wife thinks it is because Steve is 65. They told him it was because he made too much money...at $8.50 an hour. My mother is not happy with the way the new owner is running the business. I suggested that she shop elsewhere.
We can choose not to participate. We have the ability and the right to 'opt out' of things. We can 'opt-out' of receiving mailings or emails or calls from the bank, or cable company, or insurance agent.
Whenever we choose not to participate in 'the system' today, we may call it 'opting out'. When we choose to live in a way that supports what we believe instead of what the rest of the system believes or expects, we may be regarded as different...or difficult.
Some people opt-out of eating genetically modified foods and choose an organic or macrobiotic diet instead. Some opt-out of sending their kids to public schools and home school instead. Some do not vaccinate their children and instead treat their illnesses with homeopathic remedies.
Jesus saw 'the (oppressive) system' clearly...and he opted-out.
Throughout his ministry, and even in experiences with soldiers, Jesus was peaceful. Through his non-violent actions, He exposed the system for what it was.
Today, in exposing 'the system' there may be some personal risk, such as losing one's friends, or losing one's job....or losing one's life.
Today, as in the time of Christ, opting out of 'the system' often necessitates that we also opt out of the fear of doing so. This does not mean that fear is not present, but it does mean that we do not let it stop us from doing the right thing.
Jesus said his soul was troubled, but he did not call upon God to save him from what he had to do. In fact, he said it was for this very reason that he came. Martin Luther King did not let fear stop him. King and his marchers had dogs set on them and they had hoses turned on them. Television cameras picked it up and showed the rest of the country what was happening. King went to Memphis and endured many threats.
In a speech, King said, “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. However, I am not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land! And so I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!”
The Mountaintop speech was delivered on April 3, 1968. Just before the sun set the following day, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King stepped out onto the balcony of his hotel room...and was shot dead.
Forty years later, on November 4th, 2008, Barack Obama became the first Black United States President. He said, “It’s been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America.” That change may not have come without the efforts of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. On November 5th, 2008, the headlines read, “A Nation Changed”, “Historic Change”, “Change Of Course”, and our own Boston Globe said, “Historic Victory”.
There have been other historic victories, too. For example, the case of tobacco companies paying out a three hundred sixty eight billion dollar settlement in 1998. That case was tried, in part, because of the bravery of a former tobacco company executive who effectively 'blew the whistle' on the industry and exposed their dangerous and deceptive practices.
Dr. Jeffrey Wigand was a very highly compensated Research Director for Brown and Williamson, the parent company to 16 cigarette brands. He became aware that the cigarette industry knew that nicotine was addictive, that they were putting known carcinogens into cigarettes, and that they were targeting children. He opted-out and exposed 'the system'.
In a “60 Minutes” interview that aired on February 4th, 1996, Dr. Wigand said, “I felt an obligation to tell the truth. There were things I observed that I felt needed to be told.”
In response to his actions, Dr. Wigand had threats against his life and the lives of his children. Subsequently, he and his wife divorced. He did the right thing for the greater good, and, in the process lost his status, his paycheck, and his family. In speaking of the troubled times following his actions, he said, “Do I think it's worth it. Yeah, I think it's worth it.”
The movie inspired by his life story is called “The Whistleblower,” but Dr. Wigand does not like that term. In an article by Chuck Salter, published in 2007, Wigand says that the term implies disloyalty. He said, “...I wasn't disloyal in the least bit. People were dying. I was loyal to a higher order of ethical responsibility."
Do you think that Jeffrey Wigand wasn't bothered by what he calls “systematic” and “aggressive” attempts to discredit him? Do you think that the threats didn't bother Martin Luther King? Do you think that Jesus was happy about the prospect of being crucified?
There have been many who were all troubled by what they saw in the system and they worked to change it, despite the personal risk and ultimately, loss.
About two thousand years ago, change came to those who consciously chose to follow Jesus, despite the risks, despite the persecution. The Roman rulers didn't count on this. They thought that by getting rid of Jesus, they were getting rid of the 'problem'. They thought that they could scare people into submission and into silence.
At the time of the crucifixion there were small sects of followers in Jerusalem and Galilee. Today, it's estimated that there are 2.1 billion Christians adherents worldwide; including those countries such as North Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan where Christians are still persecuted(4).
Yet, change has come. We, who put our trust in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, know change has come. The Kingdom of Heaven is a place without hatred, fear, or oppression. The Kingdom of Heaven is a place where peace, kindness, and helpfulness abound. Love reigns.
You have 'opted-in' to Christianity. You recognize Christ as the Supreme Leader. Is there an opportunity for you to opt-out of an earthly 'system'? Could it be speaking up when you witness injustice? Could it be bringing your own utensils to cookouts this summer in order to cut back on the plastic that will inevitably end up in a landfill? Could it be refraining from purchases at very inexpensive stores because you know that child labor was involved in manufacturing of the products? Might you do this despite the financial risk, despite the risk of ostricization, and despite the emotional or physical risk?
Those who love their life will lose it. Those who want to keep what they have, be it standing or power or possessions, will, in the end, lose. Yet, those who hate their life in 'the system' and, because of that work for change, will have eternal life with Jesus.
Like the grain that falls to the earth and dies, one person may also lose something. But like the grain which dies and bears much fruit, it could be that one person's loss may yield a large gain.
May the promise of Easter, which brings hope and new life give you the patience, peace, and power opt-out of any oppressive system and choose instead to allow yourself to be part of the process of change...all to the glory of God. Amen.
Back to Basics: Living Our Faith
Rev. Estelle Margarones
Exodus 20:1-17 John 2:13-22
The calendar tells us that it is still winter, but just a few days ago it was 63 degrees and we felt the promise of spring. Our liturgical calendar tells us we are only a few weeks into Lent, yet with every day that passes, we feel the promise of Easter. In the scripture this morning, we heard foreshadowing of the Resurrection. Jesus said that the Temple could be destroyed and He would raise it up in three days. We know the Easter story and we know He rose on the third day.
If you take just two things away today, I hope they are these: an appreciation for the Ten Commandments (in their time and in our time) and an awareness of how you can live in such a way as to be a temple to God.
So let us get back to basics and talk about how to live our faith. Commandment number one is “You shall have no other Gods before Me.” Exodus was written in a time of traveling tribes and people of different backgrounds were being assimilated into the culture. In addition to leaving behind any other gods (small 'g') they may have had, the first commandment essentially says 'no kings shall come before me and no emperors shall come before me'. Today, this means, nothing comes before God. Not money. Not cars. Not jobs. Not status. God comes first, period.
The Second Commandment is “You shall not make for yourself an idol.” This notion of worshipping God without some sort of clay or stone or wooden figure of a person or an animal set Israel apart from other neighboring religions. In fact, while Moses was up on the mountain getting the Ten Commandments, didn't Aaron make a golden calf for the people to worship? God was not happy about that! We are to worship God, not a statue. Pay attention to what you can tend to idolize....a job...hobby...celebrity...then remember the commandment not to idolize things.
Commandment Number 3 is “You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God”. In Biblical times, people believed that using God's name actually invoked God's presence and caused something to happen. This commandment reminds us to keep God's name pure and holy and to use it only with intentions that are pure of heart, otherwise we are taking the Lord's name in vain.
The 4th commandment is “Remember your Sabbath day and keep it holy”. We’re supposed to devote a day to God. Not a hour on a Sunday morning, but a day. How do you keep the Sabbath holy? Do you find time in the day for meditation or prayer or reading scripture? Do you devote time to family and friends, rather than television or the Internet?
This commandment also reminds us that we need to rest. God made the world in 6 days and then He rested on the 7th. Whether we’re working at a professional occupation, or donating our time in public service, or cooking meals every day; we need time to rest and regroup.
God gave us these commandments out of love. These are for our best interests. When we keep a hectic pace, we’re not doing ourselves a service—we’re worn out, worried, always trying to get somewhere else, and trying to do 5 things at once.
In the New Testament reading this morning Jesus referred to his body as a Temple. No doubt His was! And as disciples, we can attempt to make ours Temples, too, reflective of doing God's holy work here on earth. So honor yourself enough to give yourself a rest every now and then.
Commandment number five is to “honor your father and your mother”. The message is to respect those who brought you into this world; those who nourished you; those who took care of you, and those who have taught you. Certainly this includes our physical parents…and may include family members…and school teachers…and friends…and even our ‘mistakes’. Honor that from which you’ve learned. Honor those things that have shaped you into the person you are.
The Sixth Commandment is “You shall not murder”. In the literal sense, this meant don’t purposefully take another’s life. I would suggest that this commandment also has other implications. Unless there is real danger involved, don’t tell someone that what they’re doing is wrong, just because you don't believe in it. When I lived in California, I had an assistant at work. She spent $300 to buy a ‘starter kit’ for some vitamin supplement that she was trying to sell. She was very enthusiastic about the potential sales of this product.
Others in the office put down her efforts because they did not believe in the product. In doing so, they were also putting her down. Do not kill their hopes and dreams. Tell people things that will make them feel positive. Do what you can to keep people’s vitality up.
The seventh commandment is “You shall not commit adultery.” Its literal meaning is that you should be faithful to your spouse and honor your covenantal relationship. I think it can also mean more than what meets the eye. An adulterous relationship implies broken covenant, deception, and disrespect. In a marriage today, both partners start out as equals. When another party is brought in, it becomes two against one. In addition to the literal meaning of this commandment, I believe it also suggests ‘balanced relationships’. Anytime something becomes more important that the spouse, the relationship is out of whack.
Commandment number eight is “You shall not steal.” In Biblical times, this meant everything from stealing property to stealing people. Today, stealing is taking anything that does not belong to us. It is wrong. I think that this commandment also has other meaning. It is about more than just taking a physical object that does not belong.
The commandment about stealing applies to everything: things, time, and credit. If you and a partner work on a project together, but your partner is not there when it has recognized, don’t forget to give credit where credit’s due. Don’t steal another’s time—if your daughter is home from college and you know that your daughter wants to visit her friends in town, don’t ‘guilt’ her into spending all of her time with you. (Not that anyone here would do that…but I know someone who has been known to!)
The Ninth Commandment is “You shall not bear false witness against a neighbor.” It literally meant that, if questioned, you were supposed to tell the truth about people’s character. If you said something that was not true, you bore ‘false’ witness. Today, we say do not lie.
If you are tempted to tell a lie, perhaps you should examine the motivation for why you want to say something that is not true. Did you tell the phone company that ‘the check is in the mail’ when, in reality, it wasn't even written? Why? Is the issue behind the lie that you did not have the money? Is the issue that you weren’t a good steward of your time and just didn’t get to it?
Often, when we are tempted to lie, it is because there is something that we did not do. I would say to look at the possible lie and examine the circumstances that made you want to tell that tall tale. Then make a correction in the circumstances.
We have arrived at the last of the Ten Commandments: “You shall not covet...anything that belongs to your neighbor.” You are not supposed to want something that’s not yours. Why is this so important?
From the literal perspective, envying something that belongs to another could lead to bearing false witness, stealing, killing, the breakdown of relationships, disrespect, and not having priorities in order, just to name a few of the possible negative impacts.
In addition, our thoughts lead us to action so if we’re obsessing about wanting something that doesn’t belong to us we’re setting ourselves up for failure. Coveting puts the focus on what you don't have and points to specific lack, whereas considering what you want puts energy behind creativity.
We just explored the Ten Commandments. Those commandments were given to the children of Israel while they were making their way to the Promised Land. No doubt the faithful knew of these commandments. On that fateful day when Jesus went and overturned the tables in the Temple courtyard, perhaps the faithful were inside the Temple, much like we're in church today, considering the Ten Commandments.
In the New Testament passage, the faithful have come from all over to the Temple. Because many traveled from far away, it would have been difficult to bring their sacrificial animals along. Because many came from distant places, they had currencies from other lands. For these reasons, there were booths selling sacrificial animals and there were tables where currency was exchanged.
I expect that thousands of sermons have been preached about greed, but I want to focus on something else in the passage; something quite profound as we approach Easter.
Jesus said, “destroy this temple and I will raise it up in three days”. He knew the Temple took almost fifty years to build. The temple of which he spoke was his own body. Everything Jesus said and did—all of his teachings and all of his actions were to the glory of God. He didn't say, “destroy me and I will overcome death.” No, the focus was on his father: our God.
Jesus rightly saw the Temple as God's house. He then spoke of his body as a Temple. In this season of Lent, we contemplate our lives and our relationship with our triune God.
How we think, what we say and how we act are important. Are we living in accordance with the Ten Commandments? Things like our speech, the direction in which we walk, and whether we're extending our hands in helpfulness all matter. Each of us can be a living temple to God.
This morning, I have illustrated several examples of living our faith as God commanded us to do. In the days and weeks ahead, as we journey through Lent, how might you follow Christ's example of doing everything for the glory of God?
How might you live your faith? How might you, through thought and speech and action be a Temple to God? Blessed be and Amen.
New & Improved, According to the Label
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16 Mark 8:31-38
Rev. Estelle Margarones
While walking through Shaw's at the Pearl Plaza the other day, several labels caught my eye. “New and improved” seemed to jump off of boxes and jars and bottles. Many of the labels had bold typeface, often punctuated by exclamation points. These little words were enclosed a circle with jagged edges. So many things were “new and improved”, according to the labels!
What I find interesting about this is that if it's new, how can it be improved? Doesn't the fact that it's “improved” lead you to believe the product has had a previous incarnation?
What's new? Is it the product? The package? The placement? Is it a different size or shape? Does it have a different color, texture, or taste?
Ove the years, I bet we've all tried our share of “new and improved” things.
If you liked the BBQ sauce before, you'll love it now with it's 'richer, bolder taste'. And those paper towels in your kitchen are now 'even stronger'. The tissues are 'softer' so you won't get a red nose to go along with the cold. Your kids will love that there is 'more fruit flavor' in the juice drink you serve.
When it's “new and improved”, something is different about the product. It may be that it's more visually appealing. Perhaps it's tastier. Maybe it's more eco-friendly. It could be a better value. It could simply more useful.
In general, when you read a label for an “improved” product, the manufacturer assumes that you are familiar with the product.
The company assumes that they have a relationship with you, upon which they are making improvement. They believe that by branding their product in such a manner, that you will purchase it and become a repeat consumer. Thus, the assumed ongoing relationship is exponentially expanded.
I want to talk about labels for a minute. Labels differentiate one product from another. They entice you with pictures of the contents as in these 'serving suggestions'. They make you feel like a kid with the characters they use as you see on this this box of M&Ms. Labels give you slogans like “the number one choice of choosy moms”. They may tout the benefits of the product. Who knew that you could get as much calcium as an 8 oz glass of milk in one packet of cocoa mix! Labels may describe the product. This product isn't hand soap. It's actually a “silkening beauty bar”.
You and I wear many lables. We are children, parents, grandparents, working professionals, retirees, volunteers, chief cook and bottlewashers. We are Christians. But, by far, the biggest label each of us wears on a daily basis is our name.
Our name is what differentiates us from others. It's how our mothers called us in for dinner. It's how our teachers called us for attendance. It's how we sign our legal documents.
Relationship is implicit when we consider names. We have no need to call ourselves by our own name. Names are used in relation to others. Even the fact that we have a birth name denotes relationship because as infants, we couldn't speak or choose our own name.
It's very significant that in Scripture we heard this morning, God chose to give Abram and Sarai (pronounced Suh-rye) new names.
In fact, God even has a new name in this passage. For the first time in the Bible, we are introduced to God Almighty (El Shaddai, God of the Mountains). Abram becomes Abraham which means “father of a multitude”. Formerly barren Sarai becomes “Sarah”, a woman who will give birth to nations.
The name change is part of the process in which God affirmed his relationship and established a covenant with Abraham and Sarah.
Today we still change our names when we have events of of ceremonial—and covenental—importance.
In the marriage ceremony, many couples publicly declare their covenental agreement to love, honor, and respect each other in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, in poverty and in plenty, for as long as they both shall live.
Many women take their husband's last name when they get married.
Some women, and some men, chose to hypenate both names. I know of one man whose new wife was the last person in her family. Had she changed her last name to that of her husband, her family name would have disappeared. In order to keep the family name alive, her husband changed his last name to hers.
Christian baptism is another event of ceremonial and covenental imporance. Oftentimes, a new name is given to the baptized. In this ritual, a person becomes part of the universal church. Baptism involves shared promises, including God’s faithfulness, and the promises of your parents, godparents, or even the church community.
Last week, we talked about following in Jesus footsteps during this Lenten season. Ours is a long walk. We don't go from Ash Wednesday to Easter overnight. Change comes over time. Perhaps that's one reason why Abraham and Sarah are ages 99 and 90, respectively, in the Scripture.
Maybe we catch up with Abraham and Sarah in a time when they're moving at a more leisurely pace. In this time in their lives, they're not running around trying to manage two jobs and little league, and the PTA, and the book club. They're at a reflective period in their lives.
Over the course of their lifetime, they've made mistakes along the way. Yet, still, God Almighty engages them in a covenant. Perhaps this is to show us that you don't have to be “Superman” or “Superwoman” to be showered with God's attention.
Perhaps this show us that change can happen anytime, it's never too late. For what does God Almighty say to them, but something to the effect of, 'I am establishing a covenent with you. You (formerly barren) Sarai are now Sarah, who will bring forth nations.' God may as well have said, your past is over. You have a new future with me. With me, you are 'new & improved!'
You see, new hope is born of this covenant. New hope comes from a relationship with the Divine. We can certainly do things with God that we cannot do alone.
We can be made new in God. We can be improved through our relationship with God. This will mean different things to different people.
For a homeless person, this might mean having a place to live.
For an addict, being made new may mean sobriety.
For the heartbroken, it could mean new love.
For the lonely, it can mean friendship.
For the grieving, it's possible that it means peace.
For the unemployed, it's likely that it means a new job, or new skills, or time to devote elsewhere.
For the hard-hearted skeptics, 'new and improved' might mean a willingness to be open and trusting.
We heard in the Scripture this morning that it's not about worldly things. It's about Godly things. When you see worldly things in the supermarket, may you remember that my words were about God and our relationship with God.
My friends, it's not only supermarket items that can have a “new and improved” label. God made a covenant with us. He will be our God IF we will be his people. Every time we remember and rededicate ourselves to our covenental relationship with God, we, too have the promise of becoming “new and improved”. Blessed be and Amen.
A Lenten Journey In His Steps
Genesis 9:8-17, 1 Peter 2:21-23
Rev. Estelle Margarones
Last week we talked about listening to God and intentionally making changes. The journey of the Exodus is one account of a person—Moses--listening to God and moving forward in faith. Another Biblical account of change is easily found in Genesis, in the story of Noah and the Ark. Noah had only a short time to prepare for the flood, but he trusted God and did what God asked. Today's Scripture tells us that now the flood has passed and God has made a covenant with Noah and all living things on the earth.
A covenant is a sacred bond, a pact, a deal, a holy agreement, signifying an ongoing relationship.
God made a perpetual covenant. That means that God bound Godself to all of humanity forever. The good news is that we're covered by this holy contract.
Are we, like Noah, keeping up our end of the bargain? Are we being good stewards of the earth? Taking care of the animals? Taking care of each other? Are we being grateful for what we have instead of griping about what's been taken away? Are we praising God for new beginnings instead of complaining about things being different than they once were?
The Lenten Journey is one of reflection, where we look at our relationship with God. Christ came here to walk among us to lead by example and show us how to live.
How do you walk in His steps?
Last year, I was visiting friends in Putnam Connecticut. We went to a little antique shop and I picked up a few items including this book. It has a picture of Jesus on the cover and it's called “In His Steps” by Henry Altemus. It was published in 1899 and I'd like to share a little bit of it now.
It was Friday morning and the Rev. Henry Maxwell was trying to finish his Sunday mornings sermon. He had been interrupted several times and was growing nervous as the morning wore away, and the sermon grew very slowly toward a satisfactory finish. “Mary”, he called to his wife, as he went upstairs after the last interruption, “if anyone comes after this I wish you would say I am very busy and cannot come down unless it is something very important. Yes, Henry. But I am going out and you will have the house all to yourself.”
The minister went up into his study and shut the door. In a few minutes he heard his wife go out and then everything was quiet. He settled himself at his desk...and began to write. His text was from First Peter, chapter two, verse 21, “For hereunto were you called; because Christ also suffered for you., leaving you an example that you should follow his steps”
Reverend Maxwell was interrupted by a knocking at the door. He tried to ignore it, but the person persisted. With some annoyance, he finally opened the door to see a scruffy stranger there. The man explained that he was out of work and asked the minister for help. The minister explained that he had no job and when the young man asked about a referral, he simply said that he couldn't help. (pp. 5-7)
On Sunday morning, people arrived for church in their Sunday best. They listened attentively and sang the hymns wholeheartedly. Reverend Maxwell preached his sermon and the people enjoyed what he had to say about Following Jesus. But suddenly, a man's voice came from the back of the church. He walked to the front to face the congregation.
It was the same man who had come to the minister's house. He told the people that he'd been out of work for ten months. His wife had died four months previously and his little girl was living with a former co-worker until this man was able to find a job.
He asked, “What do you Christians mean by following in the steps of Jesus? I tramped through this city for three days trying to find a job. I supposed it's because of the way I look that you've lost your interest. I'm not blaming anybody, just stating facts. ” (p. 14)
Now, I'm sure it hasn't escaped you that of particular interest, is that the minister in this story is happy to speak of religion, but not necessarily live it.
Now I want to share a story of a person living his religion. It is also reason #398 that I love my auto mechanic!
My mechanic is honest, trustworthy, fair, and he cares about his customers as much as he cares for their cars. He once gave me five dollars off an oil change because he had a coupon in a mailer that week. (I didn't have the coupon...and, in fact, I didn't even know about it, but still, he gave me that break.) This is the same man who left his garage at 7am to come to my house to put air in my completely flat tire so that I could drive it to his garage to have a new tire put on. The wind chill was below zero that day and he had no gloves. You see, he doesn't usually leave his heated garage. He could have waited until some of his crew came in and sent them down to help me, but he gave of his own time and talent. When he looked at the tire, he assured me that there was no need to buy one—he could repair it...and save me close to $100.
A week ago Friday, my check engine light came on. I called the garage and asked their advice. Could I drive to Maine this weekend with the 'check engine' light on? One of the crew told me that I'd probably be fine, unless the light was blinking. Then he said he'd check with the boss.
A minute later, he was back on the line to say that they would make time for me. The shop owner would hook it up to the computer to see how serious an issue it was. He was able to determine that I could make the drive to and from Maine so, after church last Sunday, I went to visit my mom, my sister, brother in law, 2 nephews, several cousins, and my 89 and 93 and a half year old aunts.
I wasn't charged for the time, the diagnostic, or resetting my car's computer. The gift my mechanic gave me was much more than monetary. The peace of mind was priceless.
I asked my mechanic's permission to share this story and I invited him to church. That's when he said rather sheepishly, that his kids go to religious education classes, but he doesn't always go to church.
So I hold up two stories today, one fiction about the minister talking the talk. And one true story about the mechanic walking the walk.
I submit to you that my mechanic was keeping the covenantal relationship. A check engine light often points to emissions problems. By correcting the issue (as he did this past Thursday), he was being a good steward of the earth. By making sure that I didn't have a code that signaled imminent danger, John took care of me and those around me by making sure we were safe.
What does it mean to you to follow in Jesus steps? And how are you living it? How are you actively seeking God and reflecting God's light back into the world?
During this Lenten season, we're very aware that when we follow Jesus, the walk will lead us to the Cross. Ultimately, we will rejoice because we know that the Cross isn't the End, but in fact the Beginning!
But still, the walk isn't always easy. In fact, sometimes it's downright difficult.
Will you follow in His steps? It may mean giving of your time and talent without compensation (as in the case of the diagnostic I had done a week ago Friday). It might mean having a difficult conversation. Sometimes it means speaking the truth in love, knowing that what you say may not be what the other wants to hear (as in the case of the $254 repair I had done last week). And it may mean graciously putting up with the way things are, even as you seek to change things (as in the case of driving an older car that does occasionally need repairs until I can buy a new one).
First Peter says, “Jesus suffered for you, leaving you an example” and we're told that we should follow in His steps. Jesus led by example. Are you willing to push yourself past your comfort zone to follow?
During this Lenten Journey, we remember that Jesus walked to that Cross. We will share in the joy and promise of the Resurrection, when we follow in his steps! Blessed be and Amen.
*In His Steps, Charles Sheldon, published in 1899 by Henry Altemus (Philadelphia)
“Listen To Him and Move Forward In Faith”
Rev. Estelle Margarones
Exodus 13:17-18 and 13:20-22 and Mark 9:2-9
This Wednesday is Ash Wednseday, a day marking the beginning of Lent, the 40 days leading up to Easter. The question will likely be asked of you this week, “What are you giving up for Lent?” Will it be coffee, chocolate, or your credit card?
As Christians, we are given the opportunity this week to make changes in our lives. Change involves trust, faith, sacrifice and perserverence. The Bible is full of stories of change. One that comes quickly to mind is the story of Moses and the Exodus.
This is a story of listening to God and moving forward in faith. God spoke and Moses listened. The Israelites were living as slaves in Egypt. God instructed Moses to go to Pharoah to have them set free. Moses actually had a moment of doubt when said “Who am I that I should go to Pharoah?” He is then assured of God's presence in his life and God's role in this undertaking. At that time, Moses acted upon what he heard. Moses asked Pharoah to let the people, repeatedly. Pharoh refused repeatedly...until the plagues came and and Pharoah called Moses in the middle of the night and said, “Go!” Change can involve a lengthy process. Moses kept going back to Pharoah asking that the Israelites be set free. And when he finally got the go-ahead, it's not because he was asking Pharoah again, but because he'd already set the stage--more than once.
The Israelites left behind all they knew and moved forward in faith. The people started out excited and happy about their trip. Then they got to the Red Sea, didn't think they could cross it and said it would have been better to have stayed in Egypt. So they hit an obstacle and immediately they were sorry they started out. Change involves trust, faith, sacrifice and perserverence. Moses had faith. He perservered. He trusted God. Moses knew that even though he may encounter a troubled tribe and the loss of relationships with all that at one time was very familiar, he knew that they had to move forward and they did so, not alone, but with God.
On this Transfiguration Sunday, our Scripture tells us that Jesus revealed his true nature in front of three of his disciples. When he was up on the mountain, his clothes became a dazzling white and prophets from ancient times—including Moses--appeared with him and they engaged in dialogue. God's voice came from above, telling the disciples to listen to Jesus...and then, quick as a flash, everything is back to 'normal'. Or is it?
The disciples have been changed by this experience. You, too, can be 'changed' by experiencing a relationship with Jesus. God said, “Listen to Him”. What a gift we've been given in the collection of the life and times and lessons of Jesus in what we call the New Testament! In the Scripture, Peter offered to build Jesus a dwelling place fit for God, high on a mountain. But Jesus didn't stay up on the mountain, he came back down and walked with us. I believe that symbolic walk to go back to regular life teaches us that if we will listen to Jesus, we can change, we can continue Christ's work, thereby changing the world.
We have the Gospels as records of what Jesus said. Among many lessons he taught us, he encouraged us to feed the hungry, clothe the poor, visit the sick, and to invite the stranger in. We can act upon these and any number of instructions Jesus gave us. God said, "Listen to Him".
After seeing homeless women disguising themselves as men in order to get meals at a male-only shelter, on Easter Sunday, 1974, Kip Tiernan opened the first women's only-shelter in the nation, just twenty minutes away in Boston. Started primarily as a center to hand out coffee and used clothes and to give a few needy women a place to sleep; Rosie’s Place, a sanctuary for poor and homeless women, now offers emergency and long-term assistance to women who have nowhere else to turn.
Rosie’s Place has 20 beds and provides an array of services, including a food pantry, a literacy program, and drug and alcohol counseling. You may think that starting and growing a women's shelter is an amazing legacy (and it is), but Kip didn't stop there. In 1979, she began distributing food out of the back of a station wagon. In 1981, The Boston Food Bank was incorporated and in 1990, they distributed 5 million pounds of food. In 2009, the Greater Boston Food Bank distributed 31.5 million pounds of food and grocery products.
No doubt that starting a women's shelter and food bank involved a time of change; a time that involved trust, faith, sacrifice, and perserverence. Kip Tiernan passed away last summer at the age of 85. You can read all about her work on the Rosie's Place website at RosiesPlace.org. Please take note, in the photo on the “About our Founder” page, Kip is wearing a cross.
When Jesus went to the mountain, he showed his true nature. God said to humanity, represented by the disciples, “Listen to Him”. These 40 days leading to Lent are the time to do just that. During Lent, we are invited to draw closer, to listen for that Divine presence, and to walk with Jesus. This week, we are given the opportunity to embark on a journey of 40 days that will lead us to Easter and to the ressurected Christ. On Ash Wednesday, people will gather in churches around the country and around the world to show their faith in Jesus. Celebrating Ash Wednesday is a sign to ourselves that we take that commitment seriously.
For Christians, Lent is a time of trust, faith, sacrifice and perserverence. It's a time of personal reflection, confession, repentenance and hope. And when I say 'confession', I don't mean that you have to come see me to tell me the things you've done of which you're less than proud, I mean opening your heart to Jesus and being made new in him. If you've done some things you're not happy with, or you have some habits that aren't healthy for you or others, this is a perfect time to make changes. This week, Christians all over the world will be consciously making changes.
Some people will be giving things up and others will be taking new things on, all in an effort to become closer to Jesus. But what on earth does giving up chewing gum, chocolate, or coffee have to do with Jesus anyway? It could be that the change you make, your personal sacrifice is a reminder of sacrifice that Jesus made for us. It could be reminiscent of the old tradition of fasting which could have been a method of purifying oneself in honor of Jesus or as a way of getting closer to God. It could simply be that when we don't do something like eating meat or going to the movies, we think of why we're not doing it and thus bring God to mind.
I encourage you to look beyond yourself and see how your sacrifice can have an impact on the greater good. Might you give up taking paper or plastic at the supermarket and instead bring your own re-usable bag? You'd be saving trees and cutting down on the pollution that is a side effect of the production of grocery bags. Might you even give up driving to the grocery store and instead take on walking, which could be healthier for you, could help you save money, and could cut down our dependence on foreign oil? Maybe this Lenten season, your sacrifice is of your time and talent. What can you share with others? Can you donate time at a shelter or food pantry or offer a ride to someone in need?
As followers, we're called to follow the examples Jesus set. Maybe this Lenten season, the change you make is in your attitude or mind-set. Could you give up road rage, annoyance with customer service reps, aggrevation with your boss? Maybe this year, you give up judgement. Change involves trust, faith, sacrifice and perserverence. Sometimes, like Moses, we wonder if we can do it. Sometimes we doubt our own ability. When you're doing something for God, you're doing something with God. Be assured of God's presence in your life! Do you listen for God's voice in your life? Do you follow even when you can't imagine how you'll be able to achieve the goal? Will you move forward in faith? Do you have the courage to start anew? Do you trust that God has it all under control and that all is in Divine Right Order even when you're far from where you want to be? When you walk with Jesus, you are not alone. You can draw on his strength, power, and love to sustain you.
This Wednesday is Ash Wednseday, a day marking the beginning of Lent, the 40 days leading up to Easter. What are you giving up for Lent? Blessed Be and Amen.
April 10, 2011
Scripture: Ezekiel 37:1-14 and Romans 8:6-11
Setting Our Minds on the Spirit
Rev. Leanne Walt preaching
16 year old Gabby François – wrapped her hair in a silk scarf that morning because she didn’t want to wake her parents by the noise of the shower, she quietly grabbed the set of keys on the kitchen counter, she gently opened the front door of her parents’ apartment and slipped out unnoticed, she walked down the narrow hallway of the apartment building and out into the street in the middle of the Bronx. She got on the subway and rode it into Harlem.
That same morning, in the neighboring borough of Brooklyn, Rhonda Rodriguez ate cereal with her great grandmother, the woman who raises her and she set out alone, with her book bag on her back, from the apartment building where she lives, a building that is set aside for kids being raised by grandparents. She made her way to the subway, got on and rode it into Harlem.
They had come, along with hundreds of other New York City teenagers, to sing gospel. They hoped to be selected to participate in the free, semester long program, Gospel for Teens.
At the beginning of each Gospel for Teens class, Vy Higgensen, the founder and director of the program, has them shake every part of their body and she does this so that they will let it all go – all of the baggage they carry around with them, problems with their mom and their dad, peer pressure, violence, loss – they physically shake their bodies until they have left everything outside of this space where they will come to learn the history of gospel music and to sing the songs that their ancestors sang while they were bound together by chains picking cotton until their hands bled:
When Israel was in Egypt's land
Let my people go
Oppressed so hard they could not stand
Let my people go
Go down Moses
Way down in Egypt's land
Tell old, Pharoh
Let my people go!
Gabby and Rhonda shook all they could, they shook their whole bodies, their hands and their heads, their legs and their feet. And, when they were done, they were asked to stand up and to say their names and where they come from loudly and with confidence. When it was her turn, Gabby stood and, disinterested, with her eyes cast on the floor, she muttered her name, “Gabby François, Bronx, New York.”
When it was her turn, Rhonda stood and softly spoke, with tears in her eyes, “Rhonda Rodriguez, Brooklyn, New York.” They were ashamed.
But they sang. They had come to sing gospel, the good and promising news in prose and verse, in rhyme and rhythm. For weeks and months they joined their voices together and they sang gospel.
At the end of the final performance of the semester, Vy asks all of the teens to scream their name, loudly so that everyone can hear, in succession, one after the other, on the stage. She waits, in anticipation for Gabby’s turn, “Gabby François, Bronx, New York,” then down the line, “Rhonda Rodriguez, Brooklyn, New York.”
Perhaps in the most captivating image in all Scripture, God’s hand comes upon Ezekiel, scooping him up and setting him in the middle of a valley of lifeless, hopeless, disconnected, dry human bones. In this vision that Ezekiel has, God leads him all around the valley of darkness and shadows and death. And in the midst of the valley, as Ezekiel was walking along, God asks the prophet, “Mortal, can these bones live?”
Ezekiel responds, “O Lord God, You know.”
Then God says to Ezekiel, prophesy to these bones. Tell them that God will cause breath to enter them and they will live.
Breath, Ruach, the Hebrew word for breath, wind, spirit, ruach. If you’re able, raise your voices and say it with me, ruach. It rolls off your tongue, doesn’t it. Ruach. A rich, beautiful word, a word of transformation, a word of transcendence. A word that embodies its meaning. Ruach.
So Ezekiel speaks to the dead bones as God has commanded him and the bones begin to bind together, with sinew and flesh, but they’re not yet living, so God tells Ezekiel to do it again, speak to the bones and command the breath, the ruach, to enter these vessels. Ezekiel does as God has commanded him and the bodies suddenly what was lifeless becomes life-giving. What was hope-less becomes hope-ful in the joining of the Spirit with the body.
The Apostle Paul sums up the happenings in the valley of dry bones when he writes, “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on ruach, the Spirit, is life and peace.”
Paul is often misinterpreted as preaching the Spirit in opposition to the flesh, or the spiritual versus the material, or our need to put aside our bodies and concentrate solely on our inner life of faith. Yet, Paul knows that the Christian life is an embodied, material life and he does not say that the material is bad, for as the story goes, “God saw everything that he had made and, indeed, it was very good” (Gen 1:31).
Paul shares Ezekiel’s vision of the symbiotic relationship between our flesh and ruach, the Spirit. Setting our mind on the spirit is a way of conducting bodily life, it is manifested in how we use our physical energies and our material resources, how we care for our neighbors. Setting our mind on the spirit happens when we allow God’s spirit to dwell with us, inhabit us, animate us. Setting our mind on the Spirit is the only way to discipleship.
I imagine that as God asks Ezekiel of the bones that represented the whole house of Israel, “Mortal, can these bones live?” God is asking our church community on this holy day when we – and me I – enter into covenanted ministry together with one another and we God, God is asking us, “Mortals, can these bones live?”
God is asking us, if we, First Congregational Church of Braintree, will allow God’s spirit to dwell with us, to inhabit us, to animate us. God is asking us how will we transform our community? What will our vision be?
When the Spirit of God dwells in us, our corporeal lives, in all their concreteness and messiness, become expressions and instruments of life and peace. So it is when Gabby sings gospel and Rhonda screams her name.
After the semester was over for Gabby, she wrote Vy an email explaining why she had been so quiet and disconnected during class. She wrote that she was storing up all of her pain so that she could sing it out. And, she thanked her.
How will we transform our community?