2018 0114 Sermon

The Second Sunday after Epiphany

 

Thank you for being here this morning and all the mornings you have been here. I hope that you all realize that you are a constant gift to me and to one another, just byshowing up.


Thanks also to all of you who come to Bible Study, where we have been looking into the three kings or wise men, who they were, where they came from and what they mean for us today. We’ll be thinking about them today and for the next couple of Sundays, for Epiphany is their season,.


The three kings, wise men, whatever they were, however many of them there were, are rather minor charactersin the history of salvation. They bear witness with their presence and their gifts to the main character, namely God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit, who in some mysterious fashion, all three in one person are the main characters in the history of salvation.


In our Bible lessons for today we hear God speak through the prophet Jeremiah:


“ . . . this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”


Isn’t this our hope – that somehow God has put his law within us, written it upon our hearts, so that we know how to act, how to behave? This is indeed our hope, that the new covenant makes us God’s people and Godly people.


Jeremiah spoke the promise of salvation, long, long ago and somehow the wise men, however many there were, got the message and showed up at the beginning of the main event, the appearance, the epiphany, of Jesus as an infant.Once they bear witness, they are warned in a dream not to report back to Herod as ordered, but to return directly to their own country, which they are never heard form again.


It would not be Christmas without them.


Just as it would not be a good life if we did not have periodic visitors bearing gifts and good news.Sometimes visitors can show us something that we do not see ourselves. All the world’s cultures have admonitions tohonor the visitors, the strangers in our midst and the Bible is full of such admonitions, to welcome the stranger, to protect the defenseless, to care for the injured by the roadside.


Today we also hear another Biblical theme, that salvation takes place despite all the detours along the way. Today we hear about one of the cruelest detours taken  

 

by history. The slaughter of children is ordered by King Herod in an effort to protect his throne from a potential usurper;He attempts to thwart the action of God in history. Of course, he fails, but not without doing a lot of damage, not without murdering the innocent, as mad kings have done since the beginning.


Dreams also play a role in this story. The wise men in a dream are warned not to return to King Herod and an angel appears to Joseph in a dream to tell him to take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt.


Long before modern psychologists started interpreting dreams, people all over the world assumed that their dreams told them something wonderful and portentous.


To put everything that I have been talking about together, let us say that the theme of the story of the three kings might be the sky above and the earth below; or

The heavens above and the world within. There is something wonderful above us and within us.

As above, so below.


In today’s story we have strangers come from afar to find a hidden treasure to show the people of Bethlehem something they had not noticed. Sometimes it works that way. Sometimes it works the other way.


I have a story to add, one that I have been meaning to tell for a while. I have been waiting for the right readings and the right Sunday. We have had a lot of busy Sundays recently so the opportunity has not come up. Sermons have been necessarily brief.Don’t worry, this sermon will not be unnecessarily long.


Here’s the story. It’s a story of visitors from afar and people near at hand and how they somehow worked together for mutual benefit.


One day along the Atlantic coast somewhere south of here, in North Carolina, to be precise, there was a town that had fallen on hard times. Unemployment was high, upwards of 25%. There hadn’t been a new building put up in years. The place looked awful and people in general felt pretty awful about their town, even though most people who lived there had grown upthere and they loved the town and loved the region.


So the town council hired a development firm to come in, look around and make some recommendations. I think the state of North Carolina might have even pitched in some money to make it all possible. The firm included an economist, a town planner, an architect, perhaps a few others. You might say: the usual suspects.


Now this is a true story. It was told to me and written up by one of the people involved, a landscape architect with whom I studied at Berkeley.His name is

 

Randy Hester and he taught a course on sacred spaces and the article he wrote about this town is called Landscapes of the Heart.


So the outside experts, we might call them the wise men, in this case from the west, walked around for a few days, looked around and made some recommendations. Now I should add that when a town is at 25% unemployment the town is usually willing to try anything, bring any kind of industry to town, a soot mill, a toxic waste dump, a nuclear weapons storage facility, whatever.


The wise men from the west thought their proposal was pretty good. It required tearing down some rather worthless-looking old buildings, filling up some old vacant lots with new buildings and so on.


But the voters had to approve the proposal and they turned it down by a substantial margin.


Now the wise men were puzzled and the townspeople were disappointed. At that point the outside experts could have said “Well, OK, let’s collect our fee and get out of here. We don’t care if these dumb yokels don’t like our plan. There are plenty of other towns – let’s shake the dust from out feet and go.


And the townspeople did not say: “All right, enough of these so-called experts. Give them their check and give them the boot. Whoever wanted to hire these bozos in the first place?


Instead they all agreed to move on to round two. They held a number of meetings, and the outside experts listened while the townsfolk’s showed them that some of the buildings slated in their plan for destruction were quite dear to people, some of the apparently vacant lots were, too; especially the ones on the waterfront and so they came up with a new plan that satisfied most people and the town is now thriving with just the right mix of new development and old preservation.


This is what happens when you have a meeting of the minds. You might say in the biblical story that Herod represents the old uncompromising way of doing things - my way or the highway. The visitors to his kingdom brought him important news about how his world was changing for the good and he chose to thwart this new development it. Wise people show up in our lives from time to time. We have a choice whether to heed their advice or ignore it. Of course accepting or rejecting advice requires discernment, because sometimes the experts are wrong.


All of our stories today bid us ask; how do we welcome the new while being faithful to the old? How do we discern what is right for us? There are no obvious or automatic answers, the but the answers in God’s time do indeed come. This

 

time of Epiphany with its angels and wise men does not offer us figures to admire so much as a journey to join. The Magi’s quest reveals the need for a guide and the discipline of discernment.


When we acquire that gift of discernment, we more readily do what the Magi did—we bow down and offer our gifts. In the flow of grace that comes from that encounter, we come to discern correctly the voice that guides us where we are meant to go.



The final paragraphs are gratefully borrowed from an article by

Father Joel Rippinger, OSB.


 

 

 

Sermon

Second Sunday after Christmas

January 7, 2017

 

 

Good morning and welcome to Flight #2018. We are prepared for takeoff into the New Year. Please make sure your Attitude and Blessings are secure and locked in an upright position. All self destructive devices should be turned off at this time. All negativity, hurt and discouragement should be put away. Should we lose altitude under pressure, during the flight, reach up and pull down a Prayer. Prayers will automatically be activated by Faith. Once your Faith is activated you may assist other passengers.

There will be NO BAGGAGE, allowed on this flight.

The Captain has cleared us for takeoff.

Destination: Faith, Hope and Charity.

 

I wish I had written this, but I did not.  A friend of a friend did and posted it on Facebook.  Now for today’s meditation on the scriptures:

 

“ . . . nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your rising.”

 

We heard these words today and we hear them every time we listen to Handel’s Messiah, these words of Isaiah that are at least 2500 years old.  These kings or wise men or magicians or whatever you call them then turned up some 500 years later, three or perhaps more of them, familiar with all these foretellings of a great king, a redeemer, a savior, a messiah . . .

 

Perhaps they and their teachers and ancestors had been scanning the skies all these centuries for signs of  . . .  something.  Then they saw what they had been looking for in the skies above and went looking for it on earth below, until, as the Bible says:

 

“lo, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the child was.”

 

Thus they found a newborn child in a house, or a stable some place, in Bethlehem, a small town whose name means “the house of bread.”  These magicians, kings, sorcerers found what they were looking for: what we call the bread of life, the savior, thus illustrating one of the most ancient principles of ancient wisdom called   “As above, so below.”

 

Our whole universe fits together, the parts all relate:

The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork.”  - Ps. 19:1

Earth below, heaven above and the amazing human being that is in between all fit together in most wondrous and miraculous ways.

Not only are we contained in the heavens and the earth, but they are contained in us.

 

The birth of the savior had to have been foretold and had to have been indicated in the stars above.  As above, so below.

 

“and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.”

The first gift mentioned is gold - fit for a king. 

 

Frankincense comes next, the basic ingredient of incense used in temples throughout the middle east and therefore a gift fit for a priest or a god.  It comes from a tree sap originally from the horn of Africa, one of many gifts brought to Solomon by the queen of Sheba way back when.

 

Lastly myrrh, also a tree sap, traditionally also used as incense, but more importantly used to prepare bodies for burial.

 

Thus the gifts represent Christ’s kingship,

Christ’s priesthood - he is an intermediary between God the father and us - and

Christ’s sacrifice.

 

They represent the Holy Trinity, Father, Holy Ghost and Son.  Sooner or later, if you’re a Christian, everything represents the Holy Trinity.  Every day we celebrate the glorious mystery of God.  We proclaim that God made it all and every day redeems it all. 

 

It is entirely appropriate that we celebrate the coming of the three kings at this time and celebrate it with a service of the Lord’s Supper, whereby we proclaim the mystery of our faith: We share in the life, death and glorious everlasting life of our Lord.

 

Two weeks after Christmas we come to the altar like the kings of yore, lay our sacrifice at the altar and share in God’s work, the amazing, miraculous and mysterious work of God.

 

Isaiah 60:1-3

 

Arise, shine; for your light has come,

and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.
For behold, darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the LORD will arise upon you,
and his glory will be seen upon you.
And nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your rising.

 

 

Matthew 2:7-11

          Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star appeared; and he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him bring me word, that I too may come and worship him." 
          When they had heard the king they went their way; and lo, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the child was.  When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy; and going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. 

 

 

 

 

Sermon

First Sunday after Christmas

December 31, 2017

 

 

First of all thank you for coming to church this morning; and thank you for your efforts throughout the year to maintain this church community so that we could provide a welcome for so many people on Christmas Eve.

 

Here we are in a bit of a cold spell, but at least the sun is shining and there is no blizzard in sight.  But this cold spell looks like it will continue until a week from Monday and we have not seen the worst yet.  The latest report calls for 18 below – or thereabouts - next Friday night.  So get ready for it.  Make sure your pipes are in good shape and be in touch with your neighbors.  Get plenty of sleep. 

 

Speaking of neighbors, I am grateful for my neighbors along the lake who pushed me out of the ditch after I slid off the road a few days ago during our snowstorm.  Not only did they push me out but they invited me to a New Year’s Eve Party tonight, so I am grateful for neighborliness.  And a big thank you to John West who came down the hill and inflated a flat tire for me just yesterday.  So these days are fraught with difficulty, but there are plenty of good people around; plenty of opportunity to help and to be helped and to be grateful in all circumstances.  

 

So remember:  between cold and could there is a u.  You. 

 

Also on the bright side, we are in the midst of the Christmas season, soon to be followed by Epiphany, so we have several weeks left to enjoy the story of the nativity, the coming of the shepherds and kings, the highborn and the low, the wise and well-educated from afar, and the just plain folks from the neighborhood.

 

As our psalm for this morning says:

 

Light dawns for the righteous,
and joy for the upright in heart.

As Jeremiah foretold many hundreds of years before that happy night 2,000 years ago:

 

"Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.

 

Those days finally came.  Those days have come, but not in the way anyone expected. 

 

Today’s lesson about the wise men, kings or whoever they were, occurs after a good month’s worth of readings about the messiah, the righteous ruler, the redeemer, the one who would execute justice, the one who would rule with righteousness.  If this person has come in the person of Jesus – as we believe - he turned out to be much, much less and much, much more than expected.  He never ruled in the sense that Caesar or Herod or even the weakest of American presidents ruled.   He issued no enforceable laws; he commanded no military unites to deploy; collected no monies; neither executed nor pardoned any criminals.

 

He did announce was or would be a kingdom where the least shall be heard

and considered side-by-side with the greatest.  And at the very beginning of his life, before he ever said or did anything, these kings or wise men came to pay homage to this person, his kingship, and his kingdom; and the rest is history.

 

My teacher Huston Smith said that of only two people in all of history did people ask not “Who Is this person?” but “What is this person?”

 

Those two persons were Siddhartha Gautama, commonly known as the Buddha – more on him some other time- and Jesus of Nazareth, commonly know as Jesus Christ; for us Christians, the Messiah, the Lord.

 

Not who are you? but what are you? is the question.  So people have been asking ever since his first appearance and so will still ask:  What was this person Jesus?  The answer comes better in the form of art and poetry than the language of philosophy.  Here is an answer by Isaac Watts, a great 18th Century hymn-writer and poet:

 

“Shepherds, rejoice, lift up your eyes,
And send your fears away;
News from the regions of the skies—
A Saviour's born today!
Jesus, the God whom angels fear,
Comes down to dwell with you!
Today he makes his entrance here,
But not as monarchs do.”

“No gold or purple swaddling bands,
Nor royal shining things;
A manger for his cradle stands,
And holds the King of Kings.
Go, shepherds, where the infant lies,
And see his humble throne;
With tears of joy in all your eyes,
Go, shepherds, kiss the Son.”

Thus Gabriel sang, and straight around
The heavenly armies throng;
They tune their harps to lofty sound,
And thus conclude the song;
“Glory to God that reigns above,
Let peace surround the earth;
Mortals shall know their maker's love
At their Redeemer's birth.”

Amen.

 

Jeremiah 23:1-5

 

          "Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!" says the LORD.  Therefore thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who care for my people:

          "You have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. Behold, I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the LORD.  Then I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will set shepherds over them who will care for them, and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall any be missing,” says the LORD. 

          "Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.

 

 

Matthew 2:1-6

 

          Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, "Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him." 
          When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.  They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it is written by the prophet: 


`And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who will govern my people Israel.'"



 

 

 

 

 

EVENING CANDLELIGHT CHRISTMAS EVE SERVCICE

 

Welcoming & Special welcome to children

This is a night that we celebrate the arrival of a very special child, the Christ child.  So let me give a special welcome to the children of our community.

 

We are so glad you’re here.  We hope you know how much your parents love you on this special night and every night of your lives.

 

If you ever wonder what God is like, we suggest that God is very much like the love you feel tonight.  May this love be with you and abide with you in all the days ahead.

 

Now everyone please say with me our opening prayer in the bulletin:

 

O God, you have caused this holy night to shine

with the brightness of the true Light:

Grant that we, who have known the mystery of that Light on earth,

may also enjoy him perfectly in heaven;

where with you and the Holy Spirit he lives and reigns,
one God, in glory everlasting. 

Amen.

 

 

Christmas Meditation

 

Again we thank you for joining us tonight in this holy place on this holy night.

 

This service of lessons and carols dates back to the aftermath of World War I when a couple of British Army chaplains decided that the Christian church, the British people and in fact all people of earth needed a spiritual lift and so they instituted a church service that reminded us of the story of salvation through the reading of the Bible and the singing of beloved Christmas songs.  And so this service in a variety of forms is used throughout the world on this holy night.

 

Please join me in prayer:

 

Almighty God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit

 

Give us hearts full of gratitude and rejoicing for

the gift of life

The gift of family and friends

The gift of blessings beyond number

The gift of living in a beautiful place

The gift of being able to gather and worship in a free country;

 

Give us gratitude for

love in the midst of hate

light in the midst of darkness

hope in the midst of despair . . .

 

And most importantly give us gratitude for you son our savior

And help us remember to give thanks for all those who rejoice with us,

but upon another shore and in a greater light,

that multitude which no one can number, whose hope was in the Word made flesh,

and with whom, in You O Lord, we for evermore are one.

 

 

 

Sermon

Fouth Sunday of Advent

December 24, 2017

Christmas Eve

 

 

 

Texts at bottom.

 

First of all the warmest of welcomes to church this morning.

And - congratulations, you’ve done it.

If you haven’t done it by now, whatever it is, it’s probably too late to do it, so offer it up, leave it undone, sit back, relax and enjoy the rest of our service to God this morning.

Take a nap this afternoon – you’ve earned it.

And come back for a service of lessons and carols this evening.

 

Especially if you do not hear your favorite carols this morning, please come back this evening.  We will sing seven of them, so there is a good chance you’ll hear your favorite.  And if not come back next week.

 

In today’s Bible lessons we hear from Isaiah, the most beloved prophet and we hear from St. Luke, the most poetic of the Gospel writers.  Together they tell us the Christmas story, in the language of Shakespeare’s time, language so familiar and so soothing it would not be Christmas without hearing it:

 

“And it came to pass in those days that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.”

 

Modern translations usually find another word indicating that it was a census or a counting that Luke was talking about, but Caesar did not count people just for the sake of counting, so taxing probably was what was going on that first Christmas Eve long, long ago.  In the midst of this taxing, there was no doubt also spending, traveling, preparing, cooking, eating, drinking, muttering, bickering, quarelling, feuding, plotting, mending, laughing, forgiving, rejoicing, conversing, singing, dancing and so on. 

 

In the midst of all this, at someone’s home or back yard or in a stable, there was also a birth, a birth foretold by psalmists and prophets, the birth of Isaiah’s righteous judge, the one who would judge between nations, who would decide for many peoples, a true leader, a maker and preserver of peace, a teacher, a savior named Jesus, which means “God Saves.”

 

“ . . . so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.  And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.”

 

From such a humble beginning, from a carpenter’s wife, from an ordinary, average village, has come a church and mighty civilization, institutions that have been threatened from without and from within, but persist, endure; now many churches, a profusion of churches, many forms of government, composed of many peoples; a church and civilization dedicated to providing and preserving liberty and justice for all, at least the hope for the liberty and justice for all; that is the spirit of our church and our civilization.  I all started with a humble birth some 2,000 years ago, a birth long prophesied and awaited.  

 

In the words of the hymn:

 

O Little town of Bethlehem, the hopes and fears

of all the years are met in thee tonight

 

And in the words of Judge Learned Hand, which I have quoted before:

 

“The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right;

the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women;

the spirit of liberty is the spirit which weighs their interest alongside its own without bias;

the spirit of liberty remembers that not even a sparrow falls to earth unheeded; the spirit of liberty is the spirit of him who, near two thousand years ago,

taught mankind that lesson it has never learned, but has never quite forgotten - that there may be a kingdom where the least shall be heard

and considered side-by-side with the greatest.” 

 

Isaiah 2:2-4

 

It shall come to pass in the latter days
that the mountain of the house of the LORD
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
and all the nations shall flow to it,
and many peoples shall come, and say:
"Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths."
For out of Zion shall go forth the law,
and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall decide for many peoples;
and they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.

 

Luke 2:1-7

 

And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)

And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.

And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of DavidSmile

To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.

And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.

And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

 

 

Revised Standard Version

 

Painting of virgin and child (on the church facebook page) by Henryka Ternier.  For more on this remarkable contemporary work of art see:

https://magazine.nd.edu/news/a-sign-at-the-grotto/

 

 

 

 

 

2017 1217 Sermon

December 17, 2017

 

Today we celebrate our children.  The birth of a child is always and everywhere wonderful news.  We are so grateful for our children, our Sunday school and those who make the school possible.

 

The Bible has a lot to say about children, and kingship, order, justice and mercy, just for a short list.  Today’s lessons - Psalm, Old Testament and New Testament lessons – certainly do.

 

In ancient days the birth of a son to a king was wonderful news, if not the best possible news.  The best hope for a peaceful transfer of power upon the death of an aging king was a son old enough to have been instructed in the arts of government by his father and vigorous and trustworthy enough to elicit the allegiance of the powerful families of the land.  If there was no worthy heir apparent, then the land might have to endure years of civil war before one of the leading families would emerge powerful enough to rule the land with, if not justice, then at least some semblance of order.  Life was rough.  A king was needed to maintain any kind of order.

 

Hearing the words of today’s scriptures from a prophet of the stature of Isaiah must have set every heart in the land a-flutter.  People may not have known exactly what or whom Isaiah was talking about, but the language itself must have been thrilling, for so had the birth of a king’s son been foretold and broadcast for ages:

 

For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government will be upon his shoulder,
and his name will be called
"Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace."

For us, these verses, made famous by sermons throughout the ages and Handel’s Messiah, point to Jesus of Nazareth, the man who preached and told stories and healed; died a criminal’s death, yet rose from the dead and is alive for us still.  He is no earthly king, or president, but we live in his kingdom now and forever. 

 

Of the increase of his government and of peace
there will be no end,
upon the throne of David, and over his kingdom,
to establish it, and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time forth and for evermore.
The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.

 

We know that our redeemer liveth and that He shall stand at the latter day upon the earth.

 

This is the Gospel, the Good News.  It is Good News every day, now and forever.  Amen.

 

 

 

 

Sermon

December 10, 2017

 

 

We often begin our worship with a psalm.  We read it responsively.  Thus has Jewish and Christian worship begun for some three thousand years.  Psalms may be the oldest form of prayer we have, a form of prayer in which we call to God out of our depths, and remind God of what he has done and promised to do.  Psalms often start out in travail, end in triumph and traverse all the depths of human experience in between.

 

Today’s psalm, Psalm 85, ends on that note of hope, a note we need to hear everyday, perhaps in these days more than ever:

 

Yea, the LORD will give what is good,
and our land will yield its increase.
Righteousness will go before him,
and make his footsteps a way.

 

We need to be reminded that people have despaired before us, that people have suffered before us.  All along the way God has been with us, is with us now and will be with us to the end of days.

 

Today’s lesson from Isaiah has been made justly famous by Handel’s Messiah and is much beloved.  Isaiah’s prediction here is actually that things will get worse before they get better, for the child Immanuel is a sign that the Assyrians will invade and conquer, which they did. 

 

So Isaiah prophesied bad news?   Well, for a while, yes.  Bad news, yes; but temporarily.  For the Biblical perspective is always the long one.  The Bible always promises good news, eventually.  But sometimes it predicts a lot of bad news in between.  Anyway, the Assyrians came and they were bad news.  But the Assyrians came and the Assyrians went.  They conquered for a while and were conquered in turn.  The Assyrians as a people still survive.  They live mostly in Iraq and many if not most have become Christian.  A few have moved to the United States.

 

Then the Babylonians came . . . and went

Then the Persians came, and went

Then the Greeks . . .

Then the Romans . . .

 

We see this in our own time.   Countries come and countries go.  The Soviet Union is no more.  But Russia, Ukraine and other republics have appeared on the map.

 

Presidents come and presidents go.  So do governors and senators. 

 

When I was a kid, US Steel and General Motors bestrode the corporate world like colossuses.  Now both companies are just barely getting by.

 

Nothing lasts forever.

 

Yet meanwhile, far from Jerusalem and Rome and Washington and centers of power everywhere, life goes on,

 

W. H. Auden wrote a poem when William Butler Yeats died that eloquently portrays life going on amidst the passing of the great:

 

Far from his illness, the wolves ran on through evergreen forests

. . . in the importance and noise of to-morrow
When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the
     Bourse, - The Paris stock exchange -
And the poor have the sufferings to which they are fairly
     accustomed,
And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his
     freedom,
A few thousand will think of this day
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.

 

The wolves are still running,

The bankers are still roaring,

Ducks are still swimming in the lakes of Maine,

Some people are poor and some rich.

 

On this day here we are doing something slightly unusual, something we do not do every day: we find ourselves in church to ponder the words of Isaiah and Saint Matthew.

 

We are here because, As Isaiah said elsewhere, “Grass withers, flowers fade but the word of God abides forever.”  And somehow, the Word of God became flesh and dwelt among us. 

 

Hundreds of years after this prophecy by Isaiah, Saint Matthew, fully aware that many conquerors of the lands of the Bible had come and gone, chose not to mention them, but simply noted that two people were about to fulfill this prophecy in a way that no one previously had imagined:

 

Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit; and her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.  But as he considered this,”

 

- And that was a lot to consider  and he probably did not at first consider that the Holy Spirit had anything to do with this situation -

 

“behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife,

that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; 

she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus,

he will save his people from their sins.’  All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: 

 

‘Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and his name shall be called Emmanuel’

which means, God with us.

 

When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took his wife, but knew her not until she had borne a son; and he called his name Jesus.”

 

Which means: God saves

 

In the midst of all this, God saves.  That’s why we are here.

 

 

 

 

Sermon  First Sunday of Advent                 December 3, 2017

 

Thank you for being here, and a special thanks to all who decorated the sanctuary.

 

Last week was the last Sunday of Pentecost, often celebrated as the Feast of Christ the King.  Both our psalm and our first reading for today, the First Sunday of Advent, show the roots of this idea, of a Messiah, a savior, a judge of infinite wisdom, a king.  Paul in the first lines of his letter to the Corinthians builds on this idea by referring repeatedly to Jesus as our Lord.

 

I am going to talk about out first reading, a prophecy by Isaiah, then tell a story, a story fitting for this season of Advent as we prepare for the feast of Christmas, the feast that calls forth an outpouring of generosity, a feast that calls for us to be generous as our Father in heaven has been generous to us.

 

Prophecy may be the strangest human activity, for can foretell the future?

 

Today we hear one of the greatest prophecies of all.  Most scholars believe that Isaiah lived in the latter half of the 8th Century before Christ, was from a noble family and uttered a number of his prophecies in the presence of the King himself.  Whoever he was, he was a visionary and a poet – his prophecies make great reading in the Hebrew; the words are rhythmical and easy to chant or sing. 

 

We heard it read in Eugene Peterson’s unique and contemporary translation.  Listen to it again in the language of the King James translation brought just slightly up to date:

 

Isa.11:1-5, 10:

There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,

and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.
And his delight shall be in the fear of the LORD.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
and he shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the girdle of his waist,
and faithfulness the girdle of his loins.
. . . . .

This shoot from the stump of Jesse shall stand as an ensign to the peoples; him shall the nations seek, and his dwellings shall be glorious. 

 

St. Paul and the church from the beginning have understood this prophecy to refer to Jesus of Nazareth, who lived and taught and healed and died and rose again.  His coming we celebrate all year and especially during this season of Advent.

 

Isaiah certainly was talking about someone whose judgment was sound, true, unbiased, the perfect judge, the perfect knower of human hearts, the sort of judge before whom we would like to appear at the end of our days.  The sort of judge who certainly deserves all glory, laud and honor.  This prophecy is the beginning of Christian theology whereby we understand the king of kings to be not just a big and powerful ruler, but also a just and compassionate, a merciful and generous judge.  People have not always ascribed those qualities to God.

 

Now I promised a story, a true story, in this season of giving and generosity, a story.  about a friend of mine who in short order had to appear before two judges within a brief period of time.

 

He spent some time one evening in a well-known watering hole in a distant county.  Let us say that he spent too much time in that well-known watering hole because he had a little too much to drink.  He got into his car and headed for home.  Unfortunately, he was pulled over before he got there.  The police watch that watering hole rather carefully.  An officer tailed him all the way home and pulled him over when he made a minor traffic violation, probably crossing the yellow line in the middle of the street.  Since he had violated the law, the police could require him to take the breathalyzer test, which he flunked.  Or passed, depending on how you conceptualize it. 

 

So judge number one, the police officer, dealt with according to the rule of law.  He was not mean, but the incident cost my friend his driver’s license and, eventually, some thousands of dollars in fines, fees and damages to his car insurance payments.  But that is not the worst of it.  Then he had to get to work somehow and face judge number two, namely his boss, one of the most famous, respected, formidable and feared chefs in that part of the country, if not the world. 

 

So he goes into the office, gives the boss the news  . .  .

 

The boss stands up and says “Come with me.”

 

They walk out onto the floor of the restaurant, where people are setting up, putting on fresh linen, arranging the flowers just so, polishing glasses and so on.  The boss says:  “Look around.  We have all had a DUI.  It hurt, but it did not destroy our lives.  You will get over it.  I have several properties in town.  There’s an extra room in one of them.  Until you get your license back, you are living there and walking to work.  Don’t let it happen again.”

 

This Christmas season, while our nation is broken and bleeding, practice senseless acts of kindness and generosity.  Forgive one another.  Take extra steps to understand people who look at things differently.

 

For Christ the King breaks through the cacophony of our self-righteousness, our anger, our fear; beckons  us to turn to the Cross, where he reigns over the entire universe, extending the love and the mercy of God by pouring himself out unto the end.

 

As Walt Saint Paul Whitman said:

 

The largeness of nature or the nation were monstrous without a corresponding largeness and generosity of the spirit of the citizen.

 

 

 

For the last paragraph about Christ the King, I am indebted to a fine article by Carolyn Pirtle: 

http://churchlife.nd.edu/2016/11/16/christ-the-king-of-mercy/

 

 

Psalm 24

 

The earth is the LORD's and the fulness thereof,
the world and those who dwell therein;
for he has founded it upon the seas,
and established it upon the rivers.


Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD?
And who shall stand in his holy place?
He who has clean hands and a pure heart,
who does not lift up his soul to what is false,
and does not swear deceitfully.


He will receive blessing from the LORD,
and vindication from the God of his salvation.

Such is the generation of those who seek him,
who seek the face of the God of Jacob.


Lift up your heads, O gates!
and be lifted up, O ancient doors!
that the King of glory may come in.
Who is the King of glory?


The LORD, strong and mighty,
the LORD, mighty in battle!
Lift up your heads, O gates!
and be lifted up, O ancient doors!
that the King of glory may come in.


Who is this King of glory?
The LORD of hosts,
he is the King of glory! 

 

RSV

 

Isaiah 11:1-10

          A green Shoot will sprout from Jesse's stump, from his roots a budding Branch. The life-giving Spirit of God will hover over him, the Spirit that brings wisdom and understanding, The Spirit that gives direction and builds strength, the Spirit that instills knowledge and Fear-of-God. Fear-of-God will be all his joy and delight. He won't judge by appearances, won't decide on the basis of hearsay. He'll judge the needy by what is right, render decisions on earth's poor with justice. His words will bring everyone to awed attention. A mere breath from his lips will topple the wicked.

          Each morning he'll pull on sturdy work clothes and boots, and build righteousness and faithfulness in the land. The wolf will romp with the lamb, the leopard sleep with the kid. Calf and lion will eat from the same trough, and a little child will tend them. Cow and bear will graze the same pasture, their calves and cubs grow up together, and the lion eat straw like the ox. The nursing child will crawl over rattlesnake dens, the toddler stick his hand down the hole of a serpent. 

          Neither animal nor human will hurt or kill on my holy mountain. The whole earth will be brimming with knowing God-Alive, a living knowledge of God ocean-deep, ocean-wide. On that day, Jesse's Root will be raised high, posted as a rallying banner for the peoples. The nations will all come to him. His headquarters will be glorious.

- The Message

 

Isa.11:1-10

 [1] There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,

and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
[2] And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.
[3] And his delight shall be in the fear of the LORD.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
[4] but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
and he shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked.
[5] Righteousness shall be the girdle of his waist,
and faithfulness the girdle of his loins.
[6] The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
and the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
[7] The cow and the bear shall feed;
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
[8] The sucking child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder's den.
[9] They shall not hurt or destroy
in all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD
as the waters cover the sea.

[10] In that day the root of Jesse shall stand as an ensign to the peoples; him shall the nations seek, and his dwellings shall be glorious.  - RSV

 

 

I Corinthians 1:1-9

 

          I, Paul, have been called and sent by Jesus, the Messiah, according to God's plan, along with my friend Sosthenes. I send this letter to you in God's church at Corinth, Christians cleaned up by Jesus and set apart for a God-filled life. I include in my greeting all who call out to Jesus, wherever they live. He's their Master as well as ours! May all the gifts and benefits that come from God our Father, and the Master, Jesus Christ, be yours. 

          Every time I think of you - and I think of you often! - I thank God for your lives of free and open access to God, given by Jesus. There's no end to what has happened in you - it's beyond speech, beyond knowledge. The evidence of Christ has been clearly verified in your lives. Just think - you don't need a thing, you've got it all! All God's gifts are right in front of you as you wait expectantly for our Master Jesus to arrive on the scene for the Finale. 

          And not only that, but God himself is right alongside to keep you steady and on track until things are all wrapped up by Jesus.  God, who got you started in this spiritual adventure, shares with us the life of his Son and our Master Jesus. He will never give up on you. Never forget that.

 

The Message

 

 

I Corinthians 1:1-9

 

[1] Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus, and our brother Sos'thenes, 
[2] To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours:

[3] Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

[4] I give thanks to God always for you because of the grace of God which was given you in Christ Jesus,

[5] that in every way you were enriched in him with all speech and all knowledge -- 
[6] even as the testimony to Christ was confirmed among you -- 
[7] so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ; 
[8] who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 
[9] God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. 

 

RSV

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2017 1126 Sermon

 

Sermon

 

Autumn is traditionally the season of Michaelmas, named for Saint Michael the Archangel, slayer of dragons and protector against the dark of night.  If you need a little extra oomph in your prayers this season, by all means pray to Blessed Michael the Archangel. 

 

Today we bid a fond farewell to the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, composed by Saint Luke along with his Gospel sometime in the second half of the First Century.  At the same time we bid farewell to Pentecost.  The book and the season have been our companions for about half of a year now.  I hope you have enjoyed my sermons on the travels of Saint Paul as much as I have enjoyed preparing and delivering them.

 

In today’s lesson we hear the last reliable word about Saint Paul.  We do not know exactly how or when he died.  There are no Roman records of such a person.  The only documents we have about Paul other than what Saint Luke wrote are from a good 100 years later and simply report oral traditions or legends that Paul was swept up in the Neronian persecutions and beheaded.  Very little new evidence has surfaced since and most scholars see no reason to suppose that it’s inaccurate.

 

The last we hear from him and about him him in our scriptures for today is remarkably like what we first heard.  Luke tells us that he spent his last two years on earth in Rome under house arrest

 

“explaining everything involved in the kingdom of God, and trying to persuade them all about Jesus by pointing out what Moses and the prophets had written about him.”

 

That is what Luke has been telling us all summer.  Jesus is risen, as has been foretold in the Hebrew scriptures.  He is the one we have been hoping for, the Messiah, the Christ.  It’s all there in Hebrew letters, here, see?  Or listen as he recited from memory.

 

One day in Rome his hearers began to argue with him and Paul was so irritated that he hurled a prophetic denunciation at them.  As St. Luke tells us:

 

“When the unbelievers got cantankerous and started bickering with each other, Paul interrupted: ‘I have just one more thing to say to you. The Holy Spirit sure knew what he was talking about when he addressed our ancestors through Isaiah the prophet: Go to this people and tell them this: You're going to listen with your ears, but you won't hear a word; You're going to stare with your eyes, but you won't see a thing. These people are blockheads!’”

 

It is one of the better descriptions of incomprehension in the literature.  We have all probably been on both sides of this fence.  We have thought of something that made sense to us, attempted to communicate it to others, and encountered blank stares.  This is not fun.

 

Likewise we have beheld a friend, even a family member, perhaps a teacher saying something to us and we . . . don’t get it.  We cannot understand.  We stare.   We struggle to maintain our composure.

 

For many of us, the blank stare was in math class.  We looked at symbols on a page, and the teacher moved her mouth and sounds came out, but none of it made any sense.

 

As the inimitable Curly Joe of the Three Stooges used to say:

 

“I try to think but nothing happens.”

 

Communication is wonderful and miscommunication is awful and they are both common.

 

In this case, we have to sympathize with the Jews and Romans of this time who could not understand Saint Paul.  A lot of people still don’t. 

 

He was trying to persuade them all about Jesus by pointing out what Moses and the prophets had written about him, namely that this Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah, the one prophesied by Moses and Isaiah and many others, that he lived and taught and healed and was killed and rose again from the dead and is still somehow alive.  We have to admit that this is a bit difficult to believe.

 

The greatest argument for the validity of our belief, our belief in God, in Jesus the Christ, the Messiah, the Holy Spirit, is Christian witnesses like Paul whose life was transformed by their expereince of this divine reality.

 

And the greatest argument against the truth of the Gospel is the failure of Christian witnesses.  It would be nice to say that the church has never argued about the meaning of Jesus, about the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but we Christians have often argued about the divine reality and much else besides; often in violent fashion.

 

Our faith was born in the midst of a people in conflict with one another, born in a region in conflict and our faith has been in the midst of conflict ever since. 

 

We Christians can claim that our faith has changed the human condition some, improved it some, but must confess that our faith has certainly not cured the human condition.  Yet while we confess our sins, we do not concede that humankind would be better off without the Christian faith and the other faiths on the planet.

 

People have indeed fought in the name of God, yes; in the name of religion, yes; and also in the name of economic doctrines, in the name of nationalism, in the name of racialism, in the name of any number of doctrines and ideas that bind people together and enable them to blame others for their problems.  People have been fighting over and about everything there is to fight about as long as people have been around. 

 

If we get rid of religion or God or both don’t get your hopes up for ending conflict.  Jesus, the Prince of Peace, a title we take from Isiaah, has often become a bone of contention, as we hear about in todays’s scripture.  Paul tried to explain Jesus, his mission, his life, his presence and found himself in the middle of an argument instead and shortly was executed, accused of having had a part in the burning of Rome. 

 

Is this not the human condition?  We go on about our business and sooner or later we are in the middle of a fight, often unwittingly caused by us.  Sooner or later we find ourselves, if not in a fight, in the midst of tragedy. 

 

How come?  Why?

 

How come the coming of Jesus has not made life easier?

 

No one can claim that the Christian community is perfect.  No worthwhile Christian claims that it is.  But a Christian community like this one does good work just by persisting, by passing on the wisdom of the ages through whatever eathern vessels come through the door and stick around a while, namely us.

 

We are the saints in Gray. We may not look like saints or feel like saints but we’re the best that God has and God has a way of making good out of all sorts of material. 

 

You may remember last year about this time we wanted to host a day care center and could not because we could not get the parish hall up to fire code in time.  And you may remember that I told the story of a fire in a Chicago Catholic school, a fire that took place about the same my family moved to Chicago from Minneapolis, a fire that took the lives of almost 100 children and several adults.  This fire led to nationwide reforms in fire codes for all uildings, so something good came out of this tragedy. 

 

Since then, the national tragedies continue, fortunately few fires in schools, but plenty of mass killings, of adults, and of children, by disturbed people using automatic weapons; the terrorist attacks in 2001; thousands of people die every year in automobile accidents; more thousands in fires, flods, earthquakes and violent acts of nature. 

 

Is there any word from the Lord?

 

I may have quoted from an article written much later by a gentleman who had attended that school before the fire.

 

He mulled over the fact that at the Lady of the Angels School in Chicago “hundreds of us from the bleak streets of Chicago were first introduced to the glory and beauty of Christianity: here we were incorporated into the great Western tradition that stretches back, back, back to the saints and prophets of old, so that in later years when I was fortunate enough to visit Rome, Paris, Istanbul and Jerusalem, it was not wholly as a stranger but as one coming home that I knelt before their altars.”

 

That is our purpose here in this church and every church in Christendom.  We are here to welcome people every day into the great communion of saints stretching back in time, upwards into heaven and forward into the future.  This community is our comfort in the midst of life’s tragedies.

 

Saint Luke concludes the Acts of the Apostles with five brief, simple sentences:

 

Paul lived for two years in his rented house. He welcomed everyone who came to visit.  He urgently presented all matters of the kingdom of God. He explained everything about Jesus Christ.  His door was always open. 

 

Our door is open.

 

 

 

Isaiah 6:1-10

1 In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Master sitting on a throne - high, exalted! - and the train of his robes filled the Temple. 

2 Angel-seraphs hovered above him, each with six wings. With two wings they covered their faces, with two their feet, and with two they flew." 

3 And they called back and forth one to the other, Holy, Holy, Holy is God-of-the-Angel-Armies. His bright glory fills the whole earth.

4 The foundations trembled at the sound of the angel voices, and then the whole house filled with smoke. 

5 I said, "Doom! It's Doomsday! I'm as good as dead! Every word I've ever spoken is tainted - blasphemous even! And the people I live with talk the same way, using words that corrupt and desecrate. And here I've looked God in the face! The King! God-of-the-Angel-Armies!" 

6 Then one of the angel-seraphs flew to me. He held a live coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. 

7 He touched my mouth with the coal and said, "Look. This coal has touched your lips. Gone your guilt, your sins wiped out." 

8 And then I heard the voice of the Master: "Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?" I spoke up, "I'll go. Send me!" 

9 He said, "Go and tell this people: "'Listen hard, but you aren't going to get it; look hard, but you won't catch on.' 

10 Make these people blockheads, with fingers in their ears and blindfolds on their eyes, So they won't see a thing, won't hear a word, So they won't have a clue about what's going on and, yes, so they won't turn around and be made whole." 

 

 

Acts 28:23-31

          When the day arrived, they came back to his home with a number of their friends. Paul talked to them all day, from morning to evening, explaining everything involved in the kingdom of God, and trying to persuade them all about Jesus by pointing out what Moses and the prophets had written about him. Some of them were persuaded by what he said, but others refused to believe a word of it. 

          When the unbelievers got cantankerous and started bickering with each other, Paul interrupted: "I have just one more thing to say to you. The Holy Spirit sure knew what he was talking about when he addressed our ancestors through Isaiah the prophet: Go to this people and tell them this: "You're going to listen with your ears, but you won't hear a word; You're going to stare with your eyes, but you won't see a thing. These people are blockheads! They stick their fingers in their ears so they won't have to listen; They screw their eyes shut so they won't have to look, so they won't have to deal with me face-to-face and let me heal them." 

          "You've had your chance. The non-Jewish outsiders are next on the list. And believe me, they're going to receive it with open arms!" Paul lived for two years in his rented house. He welcomed everyone who came to visit. He urgently presented all matters of the kingdom of God. He explained everything about Jesus Christ. His door was always open. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2017 1119  Sermon on the Shipwreck of Paul, Jonah in the Whale and Moby Dick

 

First of all thank you for coming to church, thank you for helping out with the Holly Fair or for just showing up, thank you.  Thank you especially for your pledges and support throughout the year. 

 

We will not meet for Bible Study this week, but will meet the following week on Thursday Nov. 30th  and the following week on December 7th at Gene Humphrey’s house.  Likewise we will not meet next Friday for Christian yoga, but will meet at 5:30 pm in the vestry, back there, as usual on Friday, December 1 and for the Fridays in Lent thereafter.

 

And just to help your holiday planning, remember that Christmas Eve will be on Sunday this year, so we will have two services that day, at 10 AM and 7 PM, and no service on Christmas Day.

 

Let me say a few words about communications.  We are about to run some ads in print media during Advent.  We continue to post sermons and make announcements of church activities on Facebook and other electronic media.  Our posting brought our friend Peter Sawyer back to us for a few months, which was certainly good for all concerned.

 

It is a difficult age for communications.  I’m not convinced that the multiplication of means of communication is really making communicating any easier.  I confess to being rather clumsy at picking up messages on this thing (holding a cell phone.)  I’m just as clumsy at retrieving messages on the church telephone; just plain clumsy with regards electronics in general.

Thus these new media of communication provide us with ample opportunity to practice loving kindness and forgiveness, for none of us are very good at it. 

 

Final note on communications is that the best communication is in present time without any devices other than eyes ears and mouth.  There is no substitute for just being present with one another.  Best way to get more people in church is to invite your friends.  Tell them that we have some wonderful people in this congregation ( and a couple of bad apples) and a fairly average decent preacher, who gives decent sermons (and a couple of bad apples), so come on by of a Sunday morning.

 

Now for our lessons (printed at bottom in Eugene Peterson’s inimitable prose).  I did indeed plan on the coincidence of our two Bible readings this morning.  We have been focusing on the travels of St. Paul all summer and this week we hear about how he survived a shipwreck in the Mediterranean; not only survived it himself, but acted in such manner as to save the lives of others.

 

Then I found the perfect Old Testament story to accompany this one, namely the story of Jonah, who survived, indeed actually averted a shipwreck, by confessing his sin to the sailors, being thrown into the ocean to appease the angry God of Israel, getting swallowed by a whale, disgorged onto shore and thereby finally followed God’s orders for him to prophesy to the people of Nineveh.  It is one of the most popular and beloved stories in the Bible.  It easily lends itself to being acted out in Sunday School and by high school youth groups.

 

Thus we hear about two water-born prophets, Jonah and Paul, both of whom were unwilling at first but finally fulfilled their duty.  It is ever thus.

 

It just so happens that Herman Melville published Moby Dick this time of year in 1851.  It was little noted at the time, selling about 3,000 copies in the author’s lifetime, but it was rediscovered by literary critics in the early 20th Century.  Now reading it is a rite of passage for all college English majors.  If any book is the Bible of American Studies departments, it is Moby Dick. 

 

In keeping with today’s theme of sea voyages and shipwrecks I can’t resist reading to you the justly famous first paragraph of the 635-page whopper of a book:

 

“Call me Ishmael.  Some years ago — never mind how long precisely — having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship.”

 

Of course we know how the story ends, this ultimate fish story:  the ship goes down with all hands, except for Ishmael, who must survive to tell the tale.  It is unclear what happens to the whale.  Moby Dick is a very important example of a type of fiction in which the reader is put on alert from the beginning that the narrator is not a trustworthy person.  This is a disturbing development, especially for Biblically literate people, because we believe the people who wrote the Bible.  We believe that they were inspired by the Holy Spirit.  We trust St. Luke who wrote about Paul.  We trust St Paul himself and we trust the writers of the Gospels. 

 

We trust these books as being historically and literally true, that the authors meant what they said and that what they said really happened.  In the case of Jesus, he wandered about, told stories, healed the sick, was executed, lay in the grave for at least a while and rose again from the dead.  His eternal spirit inspired his disciples some forty days later, inspired St. Paul a few years alter, and many others, and inspires us today.  This we believe. 

 

The story of Jonah is something else.  It is one of the books of the Bible that almost no on earth thinks is literally true.  It’s just a story, a charming, delightful story that gives us some insight into our human condition.  It is no less meaningful for never having happened.  That is the delight of fiction.  There is a bit of a Jonah in each of us.  We all have had those days when God was calling us to do something, or we just felt called to do something and we didn’t do it, because we were afraid, or because the message wasn’t really clear, or we couldn’t make up our minds, or whatever.

 

Negative consequences followed to the Jonah of the story and to us in our own lives  Being human is seldom easy.  Finding our way in the world, making adult decisions is not easy.  It just isn’t. 

 

According to the story Jonah spent three days in the belly of a whale.  Most of us have spent much longer than that experiencing the consequences of a bad decision before we emerged from the darkness and into the light.  Thankfully the God whom we fled, the destiny we dread, has a way of working us out of the darkness and into the light.  God’s grace has a way of finding us and setting us right.

 

So these two stories of shipwreck are both good stories for his time of year.  We are always getting shipwrecked and God is always tossing us planks and helping us get to shore.  We are not in the belly of a whale, but we are in the dark time of year, a time to be inside and look inside and await the return of the light, which we will celebrate at Christmas.

 

 

Jonah 1:1-11

          One day long ago, God's Word came to Jonah, Amittai's son: "Up on your feet and on your way to the big city of Nineveh! Preach to them. They're in a bad way and I can't ignore it any longer." 

          But Jonah got up and went the other direction to Tarshish, running away from God. He went down to the port of Joppa and found a ship headed for Tarshish. He paid the fare and went on board, joining those going to Tarshish - as far away from God as he could get. 

          But God sent a huge storm at sea, the waves towering. The sailors were terrified. They called out in desperation to their gods. They threw everything they were carrying overboard to lighten the ship. Meanwhile, Jonah had gone down into the hold of the ship to take a nap. He was sound asleep.

          The captain came to him and said, "What's this? Sleeping! Get up! Pray to your god! Maybe your god will see we're in trouble and rescue us."  Then the sailors said to one another, "Let's get to the bottom of this. Let's draw straws to identify the culprit on this ship who's responsible for this disaster." So they drew straws. Jonah got the short straw. 

          Then they grilled him: "Confess. Why this disaster? What is your work? Where do you come from? What country? What family?" 

          He told them, "I'm a Hebrew. I worship God, the God of heaven who made sea and land." 

          At that, the men were frightened, really frightened, and said, "What on earth have you done!" As Jonah talked, the sailors realized that he was running away from God.  They said to him, "What are we going to do with you - to get rid of this storm?" By this time the sea was wild, totally out of control.

 

Acts 27:33-44

          With dawn about to break, Paul called everyone together and proposed breakfast: "This is the fourteenth day we've gone without food. None of us has felt like eating!  But I urge you to eat something now. You'll need strength for the rescue ahead. You're going to come out of this without even a scratch!" He broke the bread, gave thanks to God, passed it around, and they all ate heartily -two hundred seventy-six of us, all told! With the meal finished and everyone full, the ship was further lightened by dumping the grain overboard. 

          At daybreak, no one recognized the land - but then they did notice a bay with a nice beach. They decided to try to run the ship up on the beach. They cut the anchors, loosed the tiller, raised the sail, and ran before the wind toward the beach. But we didn't make it. Still far from shore, we hit a reef and the ship began to break up.  The soldiers decided to kill the prisoners so none could escape by swimming, but the centurion, determined to save Paul, stopped them. He gave orders for anyone who could swim to dive in and go for it, and for the rest to grab a plank. Everyone made it to shore safely.

 

2017 1112  Sermon

 

Sunday, November 12, 2017, the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost.  Pentecost was June 4th, the beginning of summer, which seems like a long time ago, and it was.  I think we can safely say that while it is not yet the beginning of winter, it cannot be far off.  Summer and the wonderfully warm autumn we had are certainly behind us at this point.  We now look forward to the holidays, the feasts, the celebrations that get us through the winter darkness.

 

Summer and Pentecost began with a blaze of light, a rushing of wind and the Holy Spirit illuminating that upper room in Jerusalem, giving the crestfallen disciples the courage to speak with the tongues of angels and to preach with the hearts of lions.

 

Now the sun’s light is fading and we know that the deep transformation of winter is on its way. On a summer’s day one can just sit outside and be happy.  In the winter we need to work at it.  In this season we have to turn towards our own inner light.  Human relationships become all the more important and our faith must be an even greater comfort.

 

In terms of Sunday morning worship, have only two Sundays left in the season of Pentecost, two Sundays to conclude our journey through the Book of the Acts of the Apostles.  Beginning on the First Sunday of Advent, which will be December 3rd, we draw our readings from the common lectionary, which many churches do and which will give us some familiar and beloved verses from Isaiah, along with verses from the New Testament that will help prepare for the celebration of the birth of the Messiah.  Winter may be a difficult season, but in terms of the church year, it is a wonderful season.  I look forward to sharing it with you for the second time this year.  It is a wonderful journey on which we are embarked. 

 

We will also follow the lectionary in our Thursday morning Bible Study.  We really are having a lot of fun on Thursday mornings, so if you are able to join us, please do.

 

Our Old Testament lesson today gives us a foretaste of the scriptures we usually have in Advent, particularly that familiar verse from Isaiah, made famous in Handel’s Messiah:

 

The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light:

they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death,

upon them hath the light shined.  RSV

 

In our New Testament lesson from Acts 26 Paul quite self-consciously echoes this verse in his condensed version of the Gospel, when he tells us

 

I stand here testifying both to small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would come to pass: that the Christ must suffer, and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to the people and to the Gentiles.  RSV

 

The scriptures always comfort us.  Particularly at this time of year the scriptures promise us light.  They assure us that the light of Christ has come and no matter what kind of winter day it is, the perpetual light of God shines upon us.

 

Even so, perhaps like children in need of comfort, we may ask:  but why?  Why does it get dark and cold?  As children we often asked unanswerable questions, like why is the sky blue?  Why did a certain pet or family member have to die?  We never really stop being children and we never stop asking questions in the face of life’s mystery, in the face of life’s disappointments and tragedies.  Perhaps ‘Why” is the most important question we ever ask, the question that makes us most human. 

 

We look to the Bible, to our tradition for answers.  And the scriptures answer them in any number of ways.  There are answers that we heard this morning in Isaiah and in the Book of Acts and perhaps the best answer of all is in Ecclesiastes, when the preacher says in lines now made famous in a song:

 

To every thing there is a season,

and a time to every purpose under the heaven.

 

This is a wonderful Gospel in miniature, the refined wisdom of the Old Testament and the New. 

 

We know how come it gets dark and cold this time of year.  The answer is fairly simple science at this point.   It involves an earth that tilts and spins and revolves and so we have day and night and seasons that give us more or less sunlight as we revolve around the sun.

 

But why does it get dark and cold this time of year?  That is a different question.  It asks, in the words of Ecclesiastes, what the purpose of this season is.  Why did God create us and the whole solar system and universe the way he did?  There is no scientific answer for this question, but the whole Christian tradition provides a wide variety of answers.

 

The basic answer is that divine love created us and divine love gives us our purpose.  An ancient hymns speaks of our Lord and Savior thus:

 

Of the Father’s love begotten,
Ere the worlds began to be,
He is Alpha and Omega,
He the source, the ending He,

Our purpose in life is to love God and to enjoy Him forever.  And to love our neighbors as ourselves.  These are the two commandments that matter more than all the others.  Fulfill these commandments and you’re got it.  Fulfilling these commandments does not just lead you to the Kingdom of God, but places you right in the middle of the Kingdom of God, right now.  Fulfilling the two commandments sounds simple and in a way it is  you can state it so easily and quickly.

 

But it is not easy.  Aye there’s the rub.

 

Loving God, loving neighbors - no it is not easy. 

 

But having the love of God and neighbor your purpose does make life a little easier, much easier than if you had no sense of purpose at all. 

 

To take just two examples, both Jesus and Paul suffered greatly in their lives.  How could they bear it?  How could they be so loving in the face of death?  Why did they suffer and die?

 

We know or can guess at how come they suffered and died.

 

There were human and like all humans suffered pain.  There is apparently no way to have mortal life without pain.. Just knowing that we live and will some day die is suffering enough.  This knowledge, say some psychologist, enables us to feel; enables us to love.

 

So Paul and Jesus, and, of course everyone else since, suffered and died because they were human and had human nervous systems that enabled them to feel pleasure and pain.  And Paul and Jesus died because they really irritated some powerful people, who would say in their defense if they were hear that these two characters broke the law, repeatedly and therefore had to die

 

That’s how come.

 

But why?

 

The answer to a why question is “in order that . . . “

 

Why did Jesus die?

 

One of the answers given by tradition is that Jesus died in order to atone for our sins.  A lot of people don’t like this answer any more, but it is part of our tradition and a profound mystery, which I will talk about some other time.

 

A more modern answer is something like:  Jesus died in order that we may see the light of God shining in the darkness.  Jesus suffered and died in order to show that the power of God transcends or overcomes even death.  Jesus suffered and died so that we here, we, the living, today, may live our lives with greater love and courage; so that we may have hope for the future, for Christ and Christianity have triumphed over every difficulty in the past and will continue to do so in the future. 

This local, congregational, community church is an heir to that tradition and an upholder of that hope.

 

On this stewardship Sunday I am proud to be here with you, as we take stock of ourselves, articulate our purpose and stride confidently into the future.  

 

 

 

Isaiah 9:1-4

1 But there'll be no darkness for those who were in trouble. Earlier he did bring the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali into disrepute, but the time is coming when he'll make that whole area glorious - the road along the Sea, the country past the Jordan, international Galilee. 2 The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. For those who lived in a land of deep shadows - light! sunbursts of light! 3 You repopulated the nation, you expanded its joy. Oh, they're so glad in your presence! Festival joy! The joy of a great celebration, sharing rich gifts and warm greetings. 4 The abuse of oppressors and cruelty of tyrants - all their whips and cudgels and curses - Is gone, done away with, a deliverance as surprising and sudden as Gideon's old victory over Midian. 

Acts 26:20-23

20 I started preaching this life-change - this radical turn to God and everything it meant in everyday life - right there in Damascus, went on to Jerusalem and the surrounding countryside, and from there to the whole world.21 "It's because of this 'whole world' dimension that the Jews grabbed me in the Temple that day and tried to kill me. They want to keep God for themselves. 22 But God has stood by me, just as he promised, and I'm standing here saying what I've been saying to anyone, whether king or child, who will listen. And everything I'm saying is completely in line with what the prophets and Moses said would happen: 23 One, the Messiah must die; two, raised from the dead, he would be the first rays of God's daylight shining on people far and near, people both godless and God-fearing." 

 

The Message translation by Eugene Peterson

 

 

 

 

 

2017 1105  Sermon

 

Today we celebrate all the saints who come before us, and we mean that in the broad sense of the term, meaning almost everyone who came before us who did their best, who lived, loved, laughed, committed their fair share of sins to be sure, atoned for them, to the extent possible, lived their lives, ran the race, passed on some lessons to those who come after.  It is a holiday celebrated throughout Christendom and celebrated also in some fashion by people of other faiths. 

 

Our readings for today tell us of God’s call to St. Paul and, even though we do not usually call him that, St. Jeremiah.  It is because of them and many others that we are here. 

 

God said to Jeremiah

"Look! I've just put my words in your mouth.  I've given you a job to do among nations and governments..  Your job is to pull up and tear down, take apart and demolish, And then start over, building and planting."

 

And God said to St. Paul:

I'm sending you off to open the eyes of the outsiders so they can see the difference between dark and light . . . to present my offer of sins forgiven, and a place in the family, inviting them into the company of those who begin real living by believing in me.”

 

It is through these commands, and many others, and many deeds that we here and now have started over and have new life in the risen Lord, new life in the communion of saints.

 

It is from these scriptures that the early church derived its creeds.  We are not a creedal church, but these ancient creeds are worth listening to every now and then.

 

Here is how the Apostles Creed concludes:

 

I believe in the Holy Spirit,

the holy catholic church, 

the communion of saints,

the forgiveness of sins,

the resurrection of the body,

and the life everlasting.

 

‘Holy catholic church’ in this sense means the universal church, not a particular denomination or church building.  It really means the whole communion of saints from millennia ago until today.  All Christians are members of the holy universal church, members of the communion of saints. In today’s translation, we all have “a place in the family.”

 

My favorite invocation of the communion of saints comes from New England’s own Ralph Waldo Emerson.  What he wrote is engraved on one of the gates at Harvard.  I read it every time I’m there:

I went to the College Jubilee on the 8th instant. A noble & well thought of anniversary. The pathos of the occasion was extreme & not much noted by the speakers. Cambridge at any time is full of ghosts; but on that day the anointed eye saw the crowd of spirits that mingled with the procession in the vacant spaces, year by year, as the classes proceeded; and then the far longer train of ghosts that followed the company, of the men that wore before us the college honors & the laurels of the state--the long winding train reach back into eternity.

Every place on earth is full of ghosts.  We are all walking at the head of that long winding train reaching back into eternity.  Today we especially honor those who came before us and give them thanks, give them thanks for their part in the great movement of the spirit that brought the Gospel out of the land of its birth and spread the Good News all over the world.

 

So here we are. Gray, Maine, November 5th, 2017, grateful that we are who we are and where we are and how we are;  grateful for those who have come before us and those who will come after.  May we honor the courage of those who have come before us, have the courage to change what we need to change in our lives, the serenity to accept what we cannot change and the wisdom to know the difference.  

 

Jeremiah 1:4-10

4 This is what God said: 

5 "Before I shaped you in the womb, I knew all about you. Before you saw the light of day, I had holy plans for you: A prophet to the nations - that's what I had in mind for you." 

6 But I said, "Hold it, Master God! Look at me. I don't know anything. I'm only a boy!" 

7 God told me, "Don't say, 'I'm only a boy.' I'll tell you where to go and you'll go there. I'll tell you what to say and you'll say it. 

8Don't be afraid of a soul. I'll be right there, looking after you." God's Decree. 

9 God reached out, touched my mouth, and said, "Look! I've just put my words in your mouth - hand-delivered! 

10 See what I've done? I've given you a job to do among nations and governments - a red-letter day! Your job is to pull up and tear down, take apart and demolish, And then start over, building and planting."

 

Acts 26:9-18

For a time I thought it was my duty to oppose this Jesus of Nazareth with all my might.  Backed with the full authority of the high priests, I threw these believers - I had no idea they were God's people! - into the Jerusalem jail right and left, and whenever it came to a vote, I voted for their execution.  I stormed through their meeting places, bullying them into cursing Jesus, a one-man terror obsessed with obliterating these people. And then I started on the towns outside Jerusalem. 

12 "One day on my way to Damascus, armed as always with papers from the high priests authorizing my action, 

13 right in the middle of the day a blaze of light, light outshining the sun, poured out of the sky on me and my companions. Oh, King, it was so bright! 

14 We fell flat on our faces. Then I heard a voice in Hebrew: 'Saul, Saul, why are you out to get me? Why do you insist on going against the grain?' 

15 "I said, 'Who are you, Master?' 

16 But now, up on your feet - I have a job for you. I've handpicked you to be a servant and witness to what's happened today, and to what I am going to show you. 

17 "'I'm sending you off 

18 to open the eyes of the outsiders so they can see the difference between dark and light, and choose light, see the difference between Satan and God, and choose God. I'm sending you off to present my offer of sins forgiven, and a place in the family, inviting them into the company of those who begin real living by believing in me.'

 

 




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Sermon for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost - Oct. 29, 2017
Reformation Sunday.
By Richard Hyde
Pastor at First Congregational Church-UCC

This week we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation; next week we celebrate the feast of all the saints and all the souls who have come before us. Two related events, actually three.

We are heirs of 2,000 years of Christianity and before that 1,000 years or so of Judaism. It is quite a tradition. We celebrate everyone in it, from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; Sarah, Rebecca, and Rachel; Jeremiah, Isaiah, Deborah, Judith, and countless others from the Old Testament alone, which of course is a very long book, full of heroes and rogues, and heroes who were also rogues. We celebrate them all, warts and all.

In the Christian tradition we have many heroes, many saints, likewise a number of rogues, starting with the disciples, who were not made of very good material to start with, but nonetheless spread the Gospel. Then there was Paul, who began as a persecutor of the church and became its most eloquent early voice; followed by Augustine, Jerome, Aquinas, Hildegard and others who fused the stories and doctrines of the Old Testament and New into a mighty body of philosophy which is still important to us today. Then came the Reformers, Luther, Calvin, the English reformers, the New Englanders, who are our direct ancestors in this great tradition, not to mention many others on this new continent and new nation and now in a new century.

500 years ago the young Martin Luther sent a letter to the local archbishop and pounded the text of his 95 theses for debate onto the door of the Cathedral in Wittenberg.

These acts led to a trial, not unlike the trial of Paul fifteen centuries earlier, which we heard about in the readings for today. Paul defended himself before a Roman governor; Luther before the Holy Roman Emperor himself. Luther was fortunate to depart from his trial a free man, thanks to a promise of safe passage; Paul remained in chains until his death. More on Paul’s travails in the weeks ahead. Today belongs to Luther, who, very self-consciously followed in the steps of Paul and of course Jesus.

Luther did not intend to start a revolution, but he did. He intended to make a few changes in church practice that would make the peace of Christ more available to all. He was a great writer, preacher, composer – he wrote dozens of hymns – and a great controversialist. You might remember that last week I said he was a bit of a stinker. He was indeed a stirrer up of strife, however peaceful his intentions. Now, 500 years after we look back at the strife and most historians and theologians say that it all somehow had to happen – how else do you make sense of the wars and suffering that followed? The wars of religion in central Europe and the British Isles raged for almost two centuries during and after Luther before the concept of religious tolerance became widely accepted.

We today have learned – most of us - the lesson of tolerance, if not affirmation, of different points of view. For example, this past week I attended a lecture and discussion of Luther at St. Joseph’s College. The main lecture was by a Roman Catholic priest and the responses were given by a professor who grew up Roman Catholic, was then ordained as a Lutheran minister, converted back to Catholicism, and she now serves as dean of faculty at St Joseph’s. Another respondent was the Roman Catholic Bishop of Portland and a retired UCC pastor – yes, one of ours, from Bangor. The whole affair was good-natured, respectful, cordial and an example of the benefits of living in a free society in which there is no compulsion in religion.

There remain, of course, a few Catholics who denounce Luther and have nothing good to say about him or about Protestantism; and some Protestants who love Luther, of course, but denounce Catholicism in no uncertain and occasionally vitriolic fashion. Since I, for some reason, delight in a diversity of opinion, all of these points of view, including the vitriolic, have popped up on my fb page in these weeks leading up to Reformation Sunday; I did not have to go looking for them.

But these are exceptions. The spirit of ecumenism and tolerance 500 years after Luther is quite strong. Our friend Peter Sawyer was laid to rest yesterday morning at Gray cemetery. By decision of Peter’s three daughters, the primary celebrant was Pastor Jason of the New Gloucester Bible Church. I was asked to make some brief remarks at the beginning, which I did, and Jason did the rest of the service, which concluded with an army color guard who performed this ritual with the American flag that brought tears to my eyes.

That is the way things should be.

Luther unwittingly began the move towards tolerance. It took a while and it is not something he foresaw. His was not a tolerant age. He wanted all of Christianity to be reformed. His opponents wanted to burn him at the stake. People played for keeps in those days.

Nonetheless, religious tolerance eventually emerged from the Reformation along with religious freedom and democracy. It all comes from Luther defending the freedom of the individual Christian conscience.

In addition to tolerating strange people we have learned something even more important: that somehow the Holy Spirit is capable of working through democracy with all of its messiness, all of its complexity, and all of its slowness. It takes time to make decisions. It takes time to implement them. For centuries many great philosophers were not interested in democracy and recommended an oligarchy or dictatorship by an enlightened handful of people or one very smart person, for that would be more efficient.

When the United States became self-governing in the late 18th Century many were the people who thought it would never last. But it has and it has lasted not just because the legislative, judicial and executive branches of the federal government somehow manage to check and balance each other, but because thousands of small local institutions like the First Congregational Church of Gray and the town of Gray manage to run themselves and run themselves pretty well. Eventually.

Yes, the Holy Spirit can and does work through independent self-governing churches such as this one. This is the most important part of Luther’s legacy to us today.

In this church we have just surveyed the membership, asked some questions and gotten some answers. What we should do about it we don’t know yet, but we do know that in congregational style it will take a while. And it will take many persons, not just one person to do the work. And that is OK. That is how democracy works. That is how the Holy Spirit works.

So please come to our brainstorming session after church. You get a free lunch for your efforts and we will make every effort to get you headed home, after lunch, after about an hour. No votes will be taken. We are just collecting ideas and proposals in response to the survey results. No proposal will be too outlandish to be considered or at least put up on the newsprint with the others and no proposal will be considered so good that it will be voted on.

Bring your appetite, and your love for your neighbors, your good spirits, your patience, your sense of humor.

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2017 1022 Sermon By Rev. Dr. Richard Allen Hyde
1 Kings 19:3-8; Acts 23:6-11

Thank you for coming to church this morning, for coming here to be with your neighbors, to share your joys and concerns, to sit, to pray in this sacred place, to sing, to hear some readings from scripture and a brief meditation thereon, to talk to your friends afterward.

A local church is a remarkable institution. This church and many like it have been badly stressed by any number of changes and developments in society, yet churches survive, old-fashioned institutions featuring live music, prayer, a talk, called a sermon, none of which are nearly as perfect as what you can find on television, or a mega church. Yet here we are, where our ancestors have come for millennia, making a joyful noise unto the Lord.

In today’s Old Testament lesson we hear about Elijah. The story of Elijah is wonderful, full of fascinating details. Elijah lived in a time of cultural conflict and ferment. He and his enemies strove with each other about what was sacred, what was God’s will for God’s people, as did Jesus, as did Paul, as did Luther, as did the Reformers, as people do today.

God must love trouble-makers, for there sure are a lot of them in the Bible. Perhaps that is not the way to put it. Were all these people – Jacob, Jeremiah, Elijah - trouble-makers, or did trouble just come their way? We in the Christian tradition would say the latter. These people stood up for the truth, they did what God told them to do. This action sent shock waves through society, with results which are now familiar.

Today’s Old Testament lesson leaves us with Elijah alone on Mt. Horeb, another name for Mt. Sinai, the original sacred place, the mountain where Moses received the commandments and the history of the Israelites as a people of the law began. Further adventures follow, involving the primal elements of wind, earthquake and fire. More on that another time.

In our New Testament lesson, Paul the Apostle is in the midst of similar adventures, having followed his divine call and having stirred up a great deal of strife. Only Paul is now not alone, but on trial, in Jerusalem, for violation of the temple grounds, inciting to riot, blasphemy, disorderly conduct, unlawful assembly & much else. Seeing little chance for acquittal under the circumstances, he decides to divide his enemies on the council. He proclaims himself a Pharisee from birth, thus enlisting the sympathy and support of half the council who were also Pharisees and the enmity of the other half who were Sadducees. This does not sound very good, but having only half the council against you is better than all of it. Then his strategy succeeds so well – the argument between the two parties the Pharisees and Sadducees, Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, progressives and traditionalists, gets so heated - that the Roman officer just pulls him out of there and places him in protective custody.

That night, the Bible tells us, the Master appeared to Paul: "It's going to be all right. Everything is going to turn out for the best. You've been a good witness for me here in Jerusalem. Now you're going to be my witness in Rome!"

So all this ruckus, this brouhaha, turmoil, strife is being used by God to spread the Gospel from one sacred center to another, from a city sacred to the Jews to a city sacred to the Romans, namely Rome itself. Perhaps the most fundamental lesson of the Bible is that there is no misfortune so bad that god cannot work something good out of it. God is sending Paul right into the heart of the empire; and of course we know how the story ends, Christianity transforms the empire, transforms the Mediterranean world, transforms Europe, and eventually the New World as well. It’s quite a story. So here we are.

Truth-telling, preaching the Gospel is not for the faint of heart. And it is not for the angry, the prideful, the cruel. Did Jesus come to bring peace or the sword? Arguments could be made for both but the historical record is pretty clear that Jesus and the early church practiced non-violence. There were many martyrdoms in the early church, but the church emphatically ruled that martyrdom could not be sought. You had to tell the truth and preach the Gospel, but you could not deliberately provoke the authorities or your enemies. Christians were urged to avoid conflict, not seek it.

Nonetheless, try as we might, a peaceful society or even a peaceful path through society is not easy to find. Whatever it was that divided Elijah, or Paul, or Luther from his enemies continues to divide us. Because it will be Reformation Sunday, I will say a bit more about Luther next week, but he was a provocateur; you might even him call him a stinker. He seemed to enjoy conflict and deliberately stirred it up.

Perhaps Jesus did too, but that is not why we revere him and worship him. We revere and worship him because he offered himself as the ultimate solution to conflict.

So, as we sit here, aware, as we must be, of how much conflict there is in our world and how much each of us has suffered, for any number of reasons, I invite you to come along with me and imagine something, something impossible or improbable, but maybe, just maybe worth imagining . . .

Imagine tomorrow morning you are sitting at home, minding your own business, and you hear the doorbell ring. Ding-Dong. Or your hear a knock; and you decide to answer it, even though you’re not expecting anybody.

You open the door. And there He is. That’s right. Him. Jesus.

How would you know it’s Jesus? Well, let’s just say it would be obvious. You’d know.

So you say “. . . uh . . . uh . . . “

And Jesus says: “Hi. Yeah, it’s really me. May I come in?”

And you recover and say something clever, like “I couldn’t stop you, could I?”

So Jesus says, “No, but my mother taught me always to be polite.”

You let that sink in and he says:

“Um, may I?”

“Uh . . . sure.”

You both go in and sit down. Jesus says,

“I’m here to give you an hour of my time. I’ve been listening to your prayers lately and I‘d like to give you the opportunity to really get all this stuff off your chest. So go ahead and tell me what’s troubling your heart and let’s see if we can get to the bottom of it.”

So you look at those eyes and listen to that voice and decide to go ahead; you take a deep breath and away you go. This is bothering you and that is bothering you and oh, yes, that old festering, nagging emotional wound, that old disappointment, and then there’s these politicians, the government, these awful people who hurt your feelings every time they open their mouths and one thing leads to another and Jesus is there with you, understanding, sympathizing . . .

Until, after a few minutes, how many minutes, who knows, and he says,

“Yes, my child, my wonderful child, I have known all along about all these griefs and disappointments. I am honored that you have shared your experience with me. We can go on like this until the hour is up, but, um, is there anything else you would like to do during our time together?”

So you pause and you look and there he is: the Lord of the Universe, the hopes and fears of all the years, the force that through the green fuse drives the flower, the wonderful counselor, the prince of peace, the love that moves the sun and all the stars . . .

Right in front of you.

Now what do you want to do?

I hope and I suspect that this will be the case: you will burst into tears and pay rapt attention as all this love floods into your heart.

You will forget all about your broken ankle, your broken heart, your enemies . . .

Your heart will be filled to overflowing

And at the end of those 45 or 5o or 55 minutes, Jesus will just look at you and say:

“Thank you.

Thank you.

Thank you.”

1 Kings 19:3-8
3 When Elijah saw how things were, he ran for dear life to Beersheba, far in the south of Judah. He left his young servant there
4 and then went on into the desert another day's journey. He came to a lone broom bush and collapsed in its shade, wanting in the worst way to be done with it all - to just die: "Enough of this, God! Take my life - I'm ready to join my ancestors in the grave!"
5 Exhausted, he fell asleep under the lone broom bush. Suddenly an angel shook him awake and said, "Get up and eat!"
6 He looked around and, to his surprise, right by his head were a loaf of bread baked on some coals and a jug of water. He ate the meal and went back to sleep.
7 The angel of God came back, shook him awake again, and said, "Get up and eat some more - you've got a long journey ahead of you."
8 He got up, ate and drank his fill, and set out. Nourished by that meal, he walked forty days and nights, all the way to the mountain of God, to Horeb.

Acts 23:6-11
6 Paul, knowing some of the council was made up of Sadducees and others of Pharisees and how they hated each other, decided to exploit their antagonism: "Friends, I am a stalwart Pharisee from a long line of Pharisees. It's because of my Pharisee convictions - the hope and resurrection of the dead - that I've been hauled into this court."
7 The moment he said this, the council split right down the middle, Pharisees and Sadducees going at each other in heated argument.
8 Sadducees have nothing to do with a resurrection or angels or even a spirit. If they can't see it, they don't believe it. Pharisees believe it all.
9 And so a huge and noisy quarrel broke out. Then some of the religion scholars on the Pharisee side shouted down the others: "We don't find anything wrong with this man! And what if a spirit has spoken to him? Or maybe an angel? What if it turns out we're fighting against God?"
10 That was fuel on the fire. The quarrel flamed up and became so violent the captain was afraid they would tear Paul apart, limb from limb. He ordered the soldiers to get him out of there and escort him back to the safety of the barracks.
11 That night the Master appeared to Paul: "It's going to be all right. Everything is going to turn out for the best. You've been a good witness for me here in Jerusalem. Now you're going to be my witness in Rome!"
======================================================================================
Sermon. October 15, 2017.
Exodus 29:42-46. Acts 21:17-33. Full texts at bottom.
Everything begins with movement. In fact everything is in motion; nothing in the entire universe is stationary.
There are four primal elements – earth, air, fire and water and they all move. Even the earth moves: there are earthquakes.
Did you know that if the earth did not move - this movement s called plate tectonics – there would be no life on this planet? I can’t explain exactly why but I think it has something to do with forming folds in the earth to collect water.
On top of that, the whole earth is spinning and hurtling through space.
The Bible beings with movement - wind upon water in, Genesis I, verse 2, the spirit of God moved upon the water, or the face of the deep. It continues with human movement – Abraham gets up and goes. And continues again with fire, which is in constant movement - a burning bush, a bush that burns but is not consumed.
In the New Testament the Bible renews itself with more movement, with the descent of the spirit upon Jesus, and upon the disciples in the form of tongues of fire.
At the molecular and atomic level everything is moving. Protons, neutrons electrons are all moving. Everything is moving; nothing stands still.
The human body completely replaces itself every seven years. Every single cell comes into being lives for a while dies or is dismantled and replaced.
That’s the larger context in which I’ll be talking today: Movement
I believe that I have said before that I am a movement educator and a minister of the Gospel and I believe the two vocations are actually the same. We are here today because we are part of the Jesus movement, which began two thousand years ago. It’s still going strong.
Today we begin with the Book of Exodus.
God tells the Israelites where to worship him and why to worship him. This is part of some extensive material in the Old Testament about the Ark of the Covenant, which was essentially a moveable altar to God, and the new altar to God, the temple, and the proper means to maintain that temple, what to offer in it and how to offer it, who should offer it, what they should say, what they should wear, how they should comport themselves and so on and so on – all the business of running an altar.
God says: “That's where I'll meet you; that's where I'll speak with you.”
And God says “the purpose of this altar is to help you realize that I am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt so that I could dwell with you. I am God, your God.”
Then God adds this phrase, which is most important:
“I am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” This phrase occurs dozens of times in the Old Testament, almost every time after God gives a command.
“I am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.”
That is why you should do what I tell you. I have done you a big favor. I created you and I saved you. That is what God said to the ancient Hebrews: hold me and this holy place, my altar, and my commandments sacred, respect the sacred, respect the maker of life, maintain a holy place to remind you of the maker of life, maintain a lifestyle that reminds you every day of the maker of life; that’s what God said to the ancient Hebrews and that’s what God says to us.
So we come to church, we keep the commandments, for us the ten commandments, but not all the dietary laws – we do not think that is essential. We try to fulfill the ten commandments, especially the two really big commandments – to love God and to love our neighbors - and we hope that God will look with favor upon us for considering God and neighbor sacred.
Next in the bible today we hear the further adventures of Paul and discover that his countrymen accused him of violating their sacred place, the temple precinct, which God had instructed them to build. And he had violated other sacred doctrines and practices. They assumed that he had brought some gentiles into the sacred precincts of the temple, something quite forbidden. The Bible tells us that this was not in fact the case, but his countrymen were already mad at him for preaching to the gentiles in the first place, so he was on a short leash, under great suspicion, having something bad, of sooner or later doing something worse.
At any rate, Saint Luke the author of the Book of Acts, tells us:
"When the seven days of their purification were nearly up, some Jews from around Ephesus spotted him in the Temple. At once they turned the place upside-down. They grabbed Paul and started yelling at the top of their lungs, 'Help! You Israelites, help! This is the man who is going all over the world telling lies against us and our religion and this place. He's even brought Greeks in here and defiled this holy place.'
Soon the whole city was in an uproar, people running from everywhere to the Temple to get in on the action. word came to the captain of the guard, 'A riot! The whole city's boiling over!'"
The Bible often sounds uncannily contemporary. This account of a riot sounds like it could have happened yesterday, even in the language of the older translations, but especially in this newer one, the work of the redoubtable Eugene Peterson, now a retired Presbyterian minister.
We have read this story a thousand times by now. Somebody does something. It is misunderstood or perhaps deliberately misinterpreted. Or perhaps the person did something deliberately provocative.
Some group parades through town. Counter demonstrators appear. Somebody says something or does something, - they did this, they did that, they can’t do that - we must stop them – we can’t let them get away with that - and so on. People get upset and now the fight starts and everyone is joining the fight, the riot, melee, the brannigan, the brawl, the fuss, the demo, the fracas - notice the wealth of terminology for disorder. People have gone mad, lost their minds, taken leave of their senses, run amok.
So the police, the cops, the gendarmes, les fliques, the authorities, in this case, Roman soldiers, arrive and somehow they’re supposed to figure out what’s going on, who started this and how to finish it.
In this case the Bible tells us that the Roman soldiers arrived and they grabbed Paul, pulled him away from the crowd and their captain asked who he was and what he had done. All he got from the crowd were shouts as the Bible tells us, “one yelling this, another that.”
This is our world. The 24-hour news cycle is a 24 hour a day riot, dozens of sources yelling this; dozens more yelling that.
It being impossible to tell one word from another in the hysteria, the captain of the guard, Officer Romano, let’s call him, ordered Paul taken to the military barracks.
So ends today’s reading. There is more to come. We’ll hear more next week about the aftermath of this riot, this fracas, the sort of disturbance that seemed to follow Paul wherever he went and followed Jesus too.
Remember we have been hearing for weeks that Paul wanted to come to Jerusalem, like Jesus; and like Jesus had been warned or had premonitions that it might be better to stay away. Looking back it appears clear that they both were drawn by the hand of God, moved by the Holy Spirit, to the sacred, to the center to the most important city in the world for them, to the temple, to the presence of God as God had been understood by them and their ancestors for ages.
What had Paul and Jesus done to provoke this sort of reaction? Well, the short answer is that they violated some people’s sense of the sacred. Now before you get too self-righteously angry at these people long ago for getting angry at the founders of our religion, just think for a minute about how angry you get when someone violates your notion of what is sacred.
What is sacred to you? If you can’t answer that question immediately, if someone came along and tried to take it away from you, you would know immediately. If someone threatens what is really, really important to you - and that is a good simple, working definition of the sacred – whether your children, your home, your friends, a special object, a special place or an important belief, if someone threatens it, you will know. You will be furious.
Now I promised to get practical. Biblical readings are often uncannily contemporary. I picked these readings a few months ago when the riot in Charlottesville was still on our minds, when hurricanes and floods were in the news. Now it’s not flood, it’s not water and wind, it’s fire, in a place where I have lived and worked and served a congregation that is now mostly evacuated and the church itself is in a little peninsula of safety amidst fire. The four primal elements all around us have been running riot for the past several months.
It’s good idea, just practically speaking, to know what is important to you in your home in case you have to leave in a hurry.
Here is what a good friend and member of my congregation in Kenwood, California wrote on Monday afternoon:
"I'm safe and got out of the house at 1:30am (because a friend called him and woke him up.) I awoke to loud cracking noises, heavy smoke, howling winds and flying embers. The cracking was trees bursting into flame and falling. Anadel Park – a huge wooded expanse - was on fire at my property line. Grabbed cell phone, family jewelry, dogs, and jumped into the truck and got out through a fire storm within 2 minutes."
In this practical sense, know what is sacred to you every night. Know where these things are before you go to sleep: communication device, precious objects, people and pets, keys. Don’t forget keys. There is a story in the papers about a man who stayed behind looking for the keys to his new truck after his family left and he did not make it out.
Remember I mentioned the four primal elements at the beginning: earth, air, fire and water. Each of them is essential for life. Each is sacred and wonderful and also capable of going terribly awry. And when they do, we have to think of what in this temporary life of ours we wish to keep and grab them, and get out of their way.
In the face of our own fragility, what else can we do but rejoice in each other, rejoice in our history, rejoice in sharing the gift of life.
Let me close with a poem:
Dance when you're broken open.
Dance when you've torn the bandage off.
Dance in the middle of fighting.
Dance in your blood.
Dance when you're perfectly free. . . .

Maybe you don't hear the music,
or the tree leaves clapping time.
Close the ears on your head,
that listen mostly to lies and cynical jokes.
There are other things to see, and hear.
Music. Dance.
A brilliant city inside your soul!

--Rumi

Exodus 29:42-46
42 "This is to be your regular, daily Whole-Burnt-Offering before God, generation after generation, sacrificed at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. That's where I'll meet you; that's where I'll speak with you;
43 that's where I'll meet the Israelites, at the place made holy by my Glory.
44 I'll make the Tent of Meeting and the Altar holy. I'll make Aaron and his sons holy in order to serve me as priests.
45 I'll move in and live with the Israelites. I'll be their God.
46 They'll realize that I am their God who brought them out of the land of Egypt so that I could live with them. I am God, your God.


Acts 21:27-36
27 When the seven days of their purification were nearly up, some Jews from around Ephesus spotted him in the Temple. At once they turned the place upside-down. They grabbed Paul
28and started yelling at the top of their lungs, "Help! You Israelites, help! This is the man who is going all over the world telling lies against us and our religion and this place. He's even brought Greeks in here and defiled this holy place."
29 (What had happened was that they had seen Paul and Trophimus, the Ephesian Greek, walking together in the city and had just assumed that he had also taken him to the Temple and shown him around.)
30 Soon the whole city was in an uproar, people running from everywhere to the Temple to get in on the action. They grabbed Paul, dragged him outside, and locked the Temple gates so he couldn't get back in and gain sanctuary.
31 As they were trying to kill him, word came to the captain of the guard, "A riot! The whole city's boiling over!"
32 He acted swiftly. His soldiers and centurions ran to the scene at once. As soon as the mob saw the captain and his soldiers, they quit beating Paul.
33 The captain came up and put Paul under arrest. He first ordered him handcuffed, and then asked who he was and what he had done.
34 All he got from the crowd were shouts, one yelling this, another that. It was impossible to tell one word from another in the mob hysteria, so the captain ordered Paul taken to the military barracks.
35 But when they got to the Temple steps, the mob became so violent that the soldiers had to carry Paul.
36 As they carried him away, the crowd followed, shouting, "Kill him! Kill him!"

 

 

=================================

 

2017 1008 Sermon – Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost

By Rev. Dr. Richard Allen Hyde

 

In today’s readings we hear some good news and some not-so-good news; a good, new and wonderful prophecy from Jeremiah, who was not exactly known for being cheerful; and a dire and foreboding prophecy from a man named Agabus, who delivers his bad news and then disappears from Biblical history.  We do not hear another word about him.

 

Firstly, Jeremiah (Chapter 31): 

“The time is coming when I will make a brand-new covenant with Israel and Judah. This is the brand-new covenant that I will make with Israel when the time comes. I will put my law within them - write it on their hearts! - and be their God. And they will be my people.”

 

Secondly, in the Book of Acts (Chapter 21), almost immediately upon the arrival of Paul, a man named “Agabus went right up to Paul, took Paul's belt, and, in a dramatic gesture, tied himself up, hands and feet. He said, "This is what the Holy Spirit says: The Jews in Jerusalem are going to tie up the man who owns this belt just like this and hand him over to godless unbelievers."

 

Well, that’s pretty dramatic and his prediction turned out to be pretty accurate, for Paul was indeed delivered into the hands of the Romans, who, eventually, for reasons not entirely clear, executed him.

 

Whatever the case, Paul ran afoul of various powerful people in Jerusalem and that is what led to his execution.  The message of the Book of Acts and of Paul’s own writings, building upon Jeremiah and Isaiah and the other prophets, was that God had made a new initiative through the life and death of Jesus; this decisive intervention into world history made relationship with the living God possible for all people, Jew or Gentile, rich or poor, male or female.  This was good news to some; bad news to others.  Bad news because some wanted their old religion to remain essentially a tribal religion- in order to join you had to follow all the dietary rules and so on.  Paul and the early church wanted to open up the religion of the Old Testament to all.  And they did. 

 

There was a lot of bad feeling between Christians and Jews in this era, this era when the church arose and spread and there have been periods of bad feeling over since.  We are lucky in these United States that Jews and Christians get along pretty well and that Christian and Jewish clergy often work together and form deep and lasting friendships.  We do our best to put previous conflict to rest and affirm that God in his wisdom has found fit to love and show mercy to all people.  We worship and serve God as best we can and leave decisions as to our eternal reward to a wiser judge than ourselves.

 

Now getting back to Jeremiah:  What is the law that is written in our hearts?  How do we find out what is written in out hearts?  As a Christian retreat leader once asked me:

 

“What is the deepest desire of your heart?”

 

How would I know?  How would I find out if I did not know?

 

Having faith is a matter of one’s whole mind, body and heart as I enunciate almost every Sunday with my benediction, which comes from the words of Jesus himself:

 

Love God with all of your hearts, all of your minds and all of your strength.

 

Of these three aspects of human being, the heart is usually the most difficult to cultivate.  Our educational systems do a pretty good job of educating the mind - academics - and the body – sports - and if not, it is not that difficult to keep the mind active and take a healthful stroll every day.  Most people manage to do this.

 

But the lynchpin of the human personality is the heart and we all know how to keep your heart  in this sense healthy:   have warm, deep, enduring, happy, and healthful relationships.  Have a strong sense of purpose that you share with other like-minded people.  Have just enough activities.  Get plenty of rest.  Find that perfect balance between activity and relaxation.

 

If only it were so easy.  Other human beings can be so good to us and so awful.  Our hobbies and pastimes can easily become obsessions.  Every good can become a bad.  Why is this?  Well, we don’t know. 

 

Nonetheless the Good News embodied by Jesus and preached by Paul and by the church is that God has decisively intervened in history, an intervention that opens our hearts, renews our hearts – and minds - and makes the fullness of live available, in this world and the world to come.  Quite a promise. 

 

As we consider the year ahead, what are the deepest desires of your hearts?  What would put a big, fat smile on your face?  What would your best wish, your goals for this church community be?

 

We will all consider these questions in the months ahead.

 

Upon arrival here, I found a document entitled:

 

2016 Goals for Congregation and Minister

  1. 1.To foster an environment where parishioners feel safe, respected and comfortable expressing their thoughts and feelings.
  2. 2.To rebuild a sense of community/family with other local churches.
  3. 3.To learn how to manage conflict in healthy ways.

I printed these goals and posted them on the bookcase in the office where I can see them, and ponder them from time to time.  I hope that I have accomplished something in regards to all of them, but I eventually condensed them and refined them into one major goal, which is simply to help us enjoy our sense of community and time together on Sunday morning.  That has been my overriding goal:  to help us appreciate our history as a congregation and as Americans, to savor the amazing events that have brought us here and to enjoy our time together as this amazing living group of people in this amazing time.

 

In order to achieve any of your goals, the first thing you must do is enjoy life as you are.  The key to change, perhaps paradoxically, is self-acceptance.  In my movement classes I emphasize taking a breath, making a motion, then accepting that you can’t move any further; take another breath and - lo and behold - you can move further.

 

Well, here we are.  Take a deep breath.  Look around this room at these people who are so familiar by now you may thing they will never surprise you.  But I’ll be the year ahead holds any number of surprises at what we can accomplish together.

 

Let me close with a quotation from the philosopher Lewis Mumford.  It’s a quotation about the house that he and his wife bought when they were young.  It was not much of a house.  In fact it was a bit of a wreck.  “But,” he wrote, “we gradually fell in love with our shabby house. No rise in our income has ever tempted us to look elsewhere for another house, still less to build a more commodious or fashionable one. In no sense was this the house of our dreams. But over our lifetime it has slowly turned into something better, the house of our realities. In all its year-by-year changes, under the batterings of age and the bludgeonings of chance, this dear house has enfolded and remodeled our family character—exposing our limitations as well as our virtues.”

 

If we do our work here of listening and speaking, and just being present, the terrors of modern life will fade into the background and the joys of life in community, despite all the batterings of age & bludgeonings of chance, will come foreground.  This will be the church of our realities.

 

Jeremiah 31:31-33

 

31 "That's right. The time is coming when I will make a brand-new covenant with Israel and Judah. 

 

32 It won't be a repeat of the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took their hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt. They broke that covenant even though I did my part as their Master." God's Decree. 

 

33"This is the brand-new covenant that I will make with Israel when the time comes. I will put my law within them - write it on their hearts! - and be their God. And they will be my people. 

 

Acts 21:1-7; 10-11

 

1 And so, with the tearful good-byes behind us, we were on our way. We made a straight run to Cos, the next day reached Rhodes, and then Patara. 

 

2 There we found a ship going direct to Phoenicia, got on board, and set sail. 

 

3Cyprus came into view on our left, but was soon out of sight as we kept on course for Syria, and eventually docked in the port of Tyre. While the cargo was being unloaded, 

 

4 we looked up the local disciples and stayed with them seven days. Their message to Paul, from insight given by the Spirit, was "Don't go to Jerusalem." 

 

5 When our time was up, they escorted us out of the city to the docks. Everyone came along - men, women, children. They made a farewell party of the occasion! We all kneeled together on the beach and prayed.

 

6 Then, after another round of saying good-bye, we climbed on board the ship while they drifted back to their homes. 

 

7A short run from Tyre to Ptolemais completed the voyage. We greeted our Christian friends there and stayed with them a day. 

 

10 After several days of visiting, a prophet from Judea by the name of Agabus came down to see us. 

 

11 He went right up to Paul, took Paul's belt, and, in a dramatic gesture, tied himself up, hands and feet. He said, "This is what the Holy Spirit says: The Jews in Jerusalem are going to tie up the man who owns this belt just like this and hand him over to godless unbelievers."

 

===============================================

2017 Oct 1   ---   Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost  

Sermon on Paul’s Farewell to the Ephesians

Pastor Richard Hyde

 

Our theme for the summer and now the fall is that great movement of the spirit from the eastern fringe of the Mediterranean to the entire Roman world, to all of Europe, across the vast hitherto unknown ocean to this coast right here and across this great American continent and now around the globe.

 

Our Jewish and Christian spiritual ancestors have been on the move ever since God took Abraham outside of a summer evening to gaze at the desert sky

and told him to go, get moving, leave the valley of the Tigris and Euphrates

the land between the rivers and go to a new land

where he would have ancestors as numberless as the stars of the sky.

 

Well, here we are.

 

In our scriptures today, we hear from Isaiah and St. Paul.

 

Isaiah reminds us of how old in our tradition is the announcement of good news for all.  This announcement, delivered some 600 years before the birth of Christ, was repeated by Christ himself at the beginning of his ministry.  It was his first public utterance. 

 

The Spirit of God, the Master, is on me
    because God anointed me.
He sent me to preach good news to the poor,
    heal the heartbroken . . .

 

Just a few years later Paul tells members of the church in Ephesus

that this same Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit,

is guiding him to depart from his ministry in Greece and Asia Minor

and go to Jerusalem. 

Just as the Gospel tells us that Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem,

Paul tells his friends that he has set his face to go there as well.

 

If this were a movie, somber and foreboding music would be welling up from under our seats.

 

So the ministry of Paul, like that of Jesus involved delivering good news,

yet also taking risks and ultimately making a sacrifice. 

 

Saint Paul had lived happily in Ephesus for several years. 

He departed with a sense of foreboding,

a clear sense that he was taking a risk in going to Jerusalem,

yet also a clear sense of going where he had to go

and doing what he had to do,

as directed by this same spirit who had proclaimed Good News

through Isaiah and through Jesus;

and started this whole movement off by setting Father Abraham in motion

oh so many years before.

 

Here again is what Paul said:

 

“I feel compelled to go to Jerusalem.  I'm completely in the dark about what will happen when I get there.  I do know that it won't be any picnic, for the Holy Spirit has let me know repeatedly and clearly that there are hard times and imprisonment ahead.  But that matters little. What matters most to me is to finish what God started: the job the Master Jesus gave me of letting everyone I meet know all about this incredibly extravagant generosity of God.”

 

As Americans, when we read these words of Paul upon departure,

we have to remember a similar saying of farewell, some 156 years ago,

when Abraham Lincoln said goodbye to his neighbors in Springfield, Illinois

and left by train for the nation’s capital. 

 

Here is what President-Elect Lincoln said:

 

My friends, no one, not in my situation, can appreciate my feeling of sadness at this parting. To this place, and the kindness of these people, I owe everything. Here I have lived a quarter of a century, and have passed from a young to an old man. Here my children have been born, and one is buried.  I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever,

I may return, with a task before me greater than

that which rested upon Washington. 

Without the assistance of the Divine Being who ever attended him,

I cannot succeed. With that assistance I cannot fail.

Trusting in Him who can go with me, and remain with you,

and be everywhere for good,

let us confidently hope that all will yet be well.

To His care commending you,

as I hope in your prayers you will commend me,

I bid you an affectionate farewell.

 

Whether Lincoln had St. Paul in mind we do not know.  It is nonetheless uncanny how history and language, if they do not repeat themselves, at least they rhyme.

Paul the Apostle departed for Jerusalem to finish what God had started,

Abraham Lincoln departed for Washington to enable the American Union,

graced by God, to continue.

 

On communion Sunday this morning, we are moved to remember the sacrifice

of Paul and the many saints of the church; the sacrifice of people like Lincoln,

not quite saints of the church but saints nonetheless, and those even more numberless saints whose lives of dedication have made our lives possible.

 

Life inevitably involves sacrifice.  Every day we sacrifice what we could do in order to do what we can do.  Those of us living today are here because our parents sacrificed all the other things they could have done and gave life and love to us.

 

Thank you for sacrificing whatever else you might have done this morning and so many mornings and coming here to be with us instead.

 

Let us give thanks that God chose to prosper the Christian church even though Paul and many others were executed; that God has chosen to prosper our nation despite many setbacks and misfortunes.

 

For the sacrifices of the past and those to come, for the life we have had and the life that stretches ever before us, let us always give thanks.

 

 

Isaiah 61:1-3a

The Spirit of God, the Master, is on me
    because God anointed me.
He sent me to preach good news to the poor,
    heal the heartbroken,
Announce freedom to all captives,
    pardon all prisoners.
God sent me to announce the year of his grace—
    a celebration of God’s destruction of our enemies—
    and to comfort all who mourn,
To care for the needs of all who mourn in Zion,
    give them bouquets of roses instead of ashes,
Messages of joy instead of news of doom,
    a praising heart instead of a languid spirit.

 

Acts 20:17, 20-24

 

From Miletus he sent to Ephesus for the leaders of the congregation.  When they arrived, he said, "Every truth and encouragement that could have made a difference to you, you got. I taught you out in public and I taught you in your homes, urging Jews and Greeks alike to a radical life-change before God and an equally radical trust in our Master Jesus.  But there is another urgency before me now. I feel compelled to go to Jerusalem.  

 

I'm completely in the dark about what will happen when I get there.  I do know that it won't be any picnic, for the Holy Spirit has let me know repeatedly and clearly that there are hard times and imprisonment ahead. 

But that matters little. What matters most to me is to finish what God started: the job the Master Jesus gave me of letting everyone I meet know all about this incredibly extravagant generosity of God.”

 

The Message, translation by Eugene Peterson

====================================================================


Sermon, the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost. August 27, 2017

Richard Hyde

This morning I will talk a little about what happened in history; a little about the American Civil War and the aftereffects of the Civil War that still effect us, namely the controversy over Civil War memorials, and finally I will talk about Paul’s message for us today.

By the way, if you are interested in what I have to say at greater length about war memorials and such, you can plan ahead to hear me give an illustrated lecture at St. Joseph’s College on October 4 at 3 o’clock. I’ll have more details as that date approaches.

Wednesday the 23rd of this week in 1869 was the birthday of poet and novelist Edgar Lee Masters.  He was a lawyer who also wrote poems and novels. His famous book of poems, Spoon River Anthology is composed of 245 epitaphs for the dead citizens buried in cemetery of a mythical town near Springfield, Illinois, where Masters grew up. He moved to Chicago as a young man to work as a newspaperman, where his mother visited him for a long weekend and caught him up on all the gossip and he had his Idea. The anthology of frank and revealing poems became the sex-shocker of its day and, consequently, a best-seller. This was in 1915. His mother must have had some pretty good information. People from his hometown never forgave him even though all the names had been changed to protect the innocent, and the guilty. The public library of his hometown did not purchase a copy of Spoon River Anthology until almost 50 years later.

The lead poem is called “Sleeping on the Hill”

WHERE are Elmer, Herman, Bert, Tom and Charley,

The weak of will, the strong of arm, the clown, the boozer, the fighter?

All, all, are sleeping on the hill.

Where are Ella, Kate, Mag, Lizzie and Edith,

The tender heart, the simple soul, the loud, the proud, the happy one?—

All, all, are sleeping on the hill.

Also in Illinois, the state where I grew up, the first Lincoln-Douglas Debate took place on August 21, 1858. These famous debates generally lasted three hours before crowds in the thousands gathered in the late summer heat in small towns throughout Illinois to hear the incumbent Senator debate his tall and relatively unknown opponent.

It was on August 26th in 1920 that Bainbridge Colby, the Secretary of State, acting for the incapacitated President Wilson, issued a proclamation announcing the incorporation of the 19th Amendment into the U.S. Constitution.  The certified record of the final vote was sent by train to Washington, D.C., and arrived early on August 26th.  Colby signed the proclamation that morning at 8:00 at his residence, with no ceremony of any kind, no dignitaries, no photographers, just a handful of reporters. Colby had one and a half cups of coffee with the few reporters and signed the document with a regular steel pen. Then he said "I turn to the women of America and say: 'You have been enfranchised. You may now fire when you are ready.'"

For a brief historical reflection America, on the American Civil War, and on World War II, I begin with Winston Churchill, whose mother was an American and who studied the Civil War and wrote a book about it. He also wrote about World War II, six massive volumes. That war started for us, of course, on December 7, 1941 with the attack on Pearl Harbor. Churchill received word of the attack over the radio and spoke promptly with President Roosevelt. He wrote later in his history:

"No American will think it wrong of me if I proclaim that to have the United States at our side was to me the greatest joy. I could not foretell the course of events. I do not pretend to have measured accurately the martial might of Japan, but now at this very moment I knew the United States was in the war, up to the neck and in to the death. So we had won after all!  . . . . Many disasters, immeasurable cost and tribulation lay ahead, but there was no more doubt about the end. . . . Silly people — and there were many, not only in enemy countries — might discount the force of the United States.  Some said the Americans were soft, others that they would never be united. . . . They would never stand blood-letting. Their democracy and system of recurrent elections would paralyze their war effort. They would be just a vague blur on the horizon to friend or foe. – so they said –But I had studied the American Civil War, fought out to the last desperate inch. I knew that the Americans would not flinch after this dastardly attack, that they would fight until the end and they would win. Being saturated and satiated with emotion and sensation – from this portentous news from Pearl Harbor -- I went to bed and slept the sleep of the saved and thankful."

We Americans are ferociously competitive. There is an up side and a down side to this. When united in war we are unbeatable; when divided by war, we do lasting damage to ourselves.

I have not spoken before of how World War II ended, but it ended with great magnanimity as befits such a powerful country. I have spoken before about how our Civil War ended, likewise with magnanimity.

The great Civil War historian Bruce Catton wrote about a conversation that took place between General Robert E. Lee and one of his officers before the meeting with General Ulysses S. Grant that effectively ended the war in April of 1865. It is well worth quoting again, in full:

Before he went to this meeting Lee quietly spoke a few words that were both a judgment on the past and an omen for the future. To him, as he prepared to meet Grant, came a trusted lieutenant who urged him not to surrender but simply to tell his army to disperse, each man taking to the hills with his rifle in his hand: let the Yankees handle guerilla warfare for a while and see what they could make of that. Lee replied that he would have none of it. It would create a state of things in the South from which it would take years to recover, Federal cavalry would harry the length and breadth of the land for no one knew how long, and he himself was “too old to go bushwhacking;” (and) even if the army did break up into die-hard bands of irreconcilables, “the only course for me to pursue,” said Lee, “would be to surrender myself to General Grant.” This was the last anybody heard about taking to the hills. The officer who suggested this course wrote afterward that Lee “showed me the situation from a plane to which I had not risen, and when he finished speaking I had not a word to say."

- Bruce Catton, Never Call Retreat, p 431

This indeed is a lesson for today, an act of servant leadership.  General Lee showed one of his officers their situation from a plane to which he had not risen, and when Lee finished speaking that young officer had not a word to say."

So the meeting between Grant and Lee took place, with generous terms of surrender, with the result that we remain one nation 152 years later.

Lee’s final orders to his soldiers were; “Go home, plant a crop and obey the law.”

Other meetings between Union and Confederate generals took place for several months thereafter, with all of the Confederate generals following Lee’s lead. Here’s another: “You have been good soldiers, you can be good citizens. Obey the laws, preserve your honor, and the Government to which you have surrendered can afford to be and will be magnanimous.”

 - N. B. FORREST, Lieutenant-General.

We honor General Robert E. Lee because he surrendered. We honor Nathan Bedford Forrest because he surrendered. In the words of General and President Grant, “they fought nobly in one of the most ignoble causes ever fought.”

The tragedy of American history after the Civil War was that the irreconcilables took over in the south in the 1870s and 1880s and used every legal and often illegal and violent means to disenfranchise and terrorize former slaves and anyone who sympathized with them and consequently realized the horrible situation that General Lee and other Confederate generals wished to avoid.

I do not know what to do at this point about the hundreds of statues and memorials to Confederate leaders, generals and soldiers in the south. I must say that the thought of taking down memorials to soldiers deeply disturbs me. If they are in or near battlefields or cemeteries, I say let them be.  In city parks and traffic circles, by all means let there be new memorials to the victims of violence in the aftermath to the Civil war, to the heroes of the civil rights movement, and to new American heroes, for, as Whitman writes,

"Here, in America, is the hospitality which forever indicates heroes."

Now – is there any word from the Lord? Can someone show us our situation from a plane to which we have not yet risen?

This morning we hear Paul speaking, grounding his preaching, as was his wont, in the holy writings of his day. We hear his closing remarks from an address he gave to a Jewish congregation in a synagogue in one of many cities named Antioch, this one in west central Asia Minor, now called Turkey. He has already gone through the history of salvation of Israel, beginning with the Exodus, continuing through the prophets and judges and the institution of kingship, beginning with Saul and coming to a climax with King David. Paul quotes God as saying `I have found in David the son of Jesse a man after my heart, who will do all my will.'

Then Paul continues: “Of this man's posterity God has brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus, as he promised.” Then Paul tells the story of Jesus, the Christ, in brief and quotes again from the scriptures, God’s own prophesy of the coming of Jesus: `I will give you the holy and sure blessings of David.' Paul notes that while the noble King David eventually died and rotted away, his descendent Jesus rose from the dead and concludes by saying “that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him every one that believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses.”

In conclusion Paul tells us that we are now free from the burden of our sins and free from the fear of death. That means that we are free to behave generously. We can act with largeness and generosity.  Not perfectly – only God is perfect – but largely, generously.

The Roman Empire of Paul’s day was beginning its long decline. To make a long story short, it was drowning in selfishness. Only in the Christian community was to be found the confidence and generosity of spirit that had made the empire great. The question for today is:

How can we as Americans in our current situation act with largeness and generosity, with true greatness of spirit?  That is our question for today.

How can we as Americans in our current situation act with largeness and generosity, with true greatness of spirit?

I have filled out some of what Churchill wrote in his history of World War II to make it sound better in this sermon. The quotation remains true to the spirit of the original. Much of my historical material comes from Garrison Keillor’s Writers Almanac.

 

August 20, 2017

Richard Hyde

Pastor at First Congregational Church-UCC

Scriptures: Psalm 2:7-9; Acts 13:26-33 (at end of sermon)

A lot happened this week in history. World War I really got going this time of year in 1914. The German Army was sweeping across Belgium. Three years later, the last German offensive sputtered out in July and August, the counterattack began and the war ended in November.

The summer and fall of 1942, 75 years ago, was a turning point in World War II. The US Marines landed at the island of Guadalcanal, beginning the gradual rolling up of the Japanese advances. The battle for Stalingrad in southern Russia began, which would end in massive defeat for the German Army the following winter. In North Africa, the German Army’s advance had was stalled at the border of Egypt. Churchill later called this period the hinge of fate the time when the momentum of the war shifted and shifted decisively. Until this period the Axis Powers won every battle. Afterward, they never won another one.

During this week of 1961, construction began on the Berlin Wall on this date. Remember that? It was a wonderful summer. Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle both threatened to break Babe Ruth’s home run record and Maris finally did it. It was the first year of the Kennedy Administration, a wonderful time to be young and American.

It was the birthday this past week of the explorer Meriwether Lewis, born just outside of Charlottesville, Virginia in 1774. Thomas Jefferson chose him to explore the new Louisiana Territory in 1804, and he in turn asked William Clark to be his partner on the journey.  The expedition, as we know, was a resounding success, but Lewis was prone to depression and alcoholism, and he died just a few years later, in 1809, probably by his own hand.

It was the birthday of American soldier, politician, and folk hero Davy Crockett, born in Greene County, Tennessee – no not on a mountain top - in 1786.  He really did serve in Congress, really did tell remarkable funny stories about himself and really did die at the Alamo in Texas in 1836.

It was the birthday of John Henry "Doc" Holliday, born in Griffin, Georgia in 1851. Yes, there really was a Doc Holliday. He was a dentist, not an MD, and he decided he could make more money gambling and so he did. Yes, he really did take part in the shootout at the OK Coral.

Finally, speaking of American heroes, it was the birthday of Annie Oakley, born in Darke County, Ohio in 1860. Her career began on Thanksgiving Day of 1875, the Baughman & Butler shooting act came to Cincinnati.  Frank Butler bet $100 that no one could best him in a shooting match.  Up stepped Annie Oakley.  Frank Butler said: "I almost dropped dead when a slim girl in a short dress stepped out to the mark with me.  I was a beaten man the moment she appeared."  Oakley won and Butler married her a year later. She really could shoot. Butler became her manager and they made a lot of money.

In addition, of course, this morning we are in the week after the events that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia. It is one of the most beautiful university towns in America. I’ve been there a number of times. The campus designed by Thomas Jefferson is quite beautiful and the city itself is full of good restaurants, coffee shops, fern bars, the sort of stuff you can get in Portland. Then there was a far worse event in distant Barcelona, Spain.

Just in terms of our own country, some obvious questions leap out at us. Is this incident, or incidents, rather, the sign of worse to come? Will they be repeated elsewhere in the US or even around the world? Are we seeing the signs of a gathering conspiracy?

Just to answer my own questions: will there be random acts of violence? Yes. Will there be another big clash between protestors and counter-demonstrators? I think:  No. The police will be ready next time and in fact they were ready yesterday on the Boston Common. Are there conspiracies gathering at this moment?  Certainly yes. Will they amount to anything? Probably no. Will various terrorists continue to annoy us and occasionally kill people  Well, probably yes. 

The more important question for Sunday morning as every Sunday morning: Is there any word from the Lord?

Today we hear from Saint Paul as we have all summer and will continue into the fall until Advent. We hear today most of the rest of the speech or sermon he gave in the important city of Antioch in west central Turkey, a region called Galatia. We heard the first part last week.

After this address, or sermon, Paul is invited back the following week and a huge crowd shows up. Some Jews object to what Paul says. Exactly what they say and exactly who said it is unclear. Luke’s account is rather sketchy, as usual, devoid of details we would love to read. They, some people, some Jews, tell him to get out of town, or something. He refuses to be silenced, perhaps says something not very nice in return and he is driven out of the city by a conspiracy of angry Jews working through the leading citizens, or so Luke the writer of Acts says.  Relations between Christians and Jews in those days were not good. They are better now – thank God.

It all sounds eerily familiar. In a few more chapters we will hear of a much more contentious situation that breaks out after Paul speaks on the temple mount in Jerusalem, which turns into something that we might call a riot. The police, in this case the Roman garrison, come, arrest Paul and before long he is one his way to Rome for trial.  One might fairly say that Christianity was born on the streets and in the market squares and gathering places of the eastern Mediterranean.

In all situations like this, whenever a fight breaks out, a fair characterization of what happened is very difficult, if not impossible. Who started it? Is Saint Paul a saint – as we think – or a dangerous blasphemer and inciter of violence as his opponents thought? Who uttered fighting words first? Who started it?

We’ll never know. Paul started it by speaking, back when speaking in public was not a right. Fights broke out afterward, Paul went to Rome for trial and here we are: worshipping in a church founded by people accused and convicted of the First Century equivalent of hate speech.

In Charlottesville we know that the young man who drove his car into a crowd is no saint; he is a very disturbed young man. What his defense attorney will say in his defense we do not know and probably do not want to. We also know that a number of angry young men came to Charlottesville looking for trouble and found it, or created it, however you want to put it.

Before it was even over, the fight over the fight began; the fight over the car crash and the clash of marchers and counter-marchers in print and on the air and on-line began. Then the President said a few words that satisfied few and annoyed or outraged many and the fight reached an even more feverous pitch. If you simply stopped watching and listening and reading, I certainly don’t blame you because that’s what I did.

Is there any word from the Lord?

It’s pretty simple, really:

In our lessons for today, Paul tells the crowd of his day and us, today, that some bad people had a good person killed, as predicted by the holy writings; yet he did not stay killed. He rose from the dead. This is the good news, the good news that God promised to the fathers. In a few more lines, Paul adds even better news:

“Let it be known to you therefore, brethren, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him every one that believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses.”

This was Paul’s good news then and it is our good news now. We can have fellowship with this risen one, we can be freed from sin and even more freed from . . . Everything.

It should not escape our attention that Paul says that the essence of the Gospel is freedom, freedom from sin, freedom from fear.  Later on he makes clear that we, having been set free, have a responsibility to serve. As Luther put it:

“A Christian is an utterly free person, lord of all, subject to none.

A Christian is an utterly dutiful person, servant of all, subject to all.”

And as Walt Saint Paul Whitman says:

“The largeness of nature or the nation were monstrous without a corresponding largeness and generosity of the spirit of the citizen.”

The solution to our current situation will begin with individual acts of largeness and generosity at a time. It will be the product what many saints have called the spiritual discipline against resentment. Recently Gandhi and King well understood this concept and of course it’s in the Sermon on the Mount. The task is to learn how to avoid reacting and start responding. Conscious of being loved ever so much and being forgiven ever so much by a power far greater than us, we learn to love those who annoy us and instead of reacting, we respond from some deeper place.

That is our quest: to put an end to the endless cycle of violence. Instead of creating a counter-reaction, we reach deep inside and send out some freedom to love and to serve.

Scriptures:

Psalm 2:7-9

[7] I will tell of the decree of the LORD:

He said to me, "You are my son,

today I have begotten you.

[8] Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,

and the ends of the earth your possession.

[9] You shall break them with a rod of iron,

and dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel."

Acts 13:26-33

"Brethren, sons of the family of Abraham, and those among you that fear God, to us has been sent the message of this salvation. For those who live in Jerusalem and their rulers, because they did not recognize him nor understand the utterances of the prophets which are read every Sabbath, fulfilled these by condemning him. Though they could charge him with nothing deserving death, yet they asked Pilate to have him killed.

And when they had fulfilled all that was written of him, they took him down from the tree, and laid him in a tomb. But God raised him from the dead; and for many days he appeared to those who came up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, who are now his witnesses to the people. And we bring you the good news that what God promised to the fathers, this he has fulfilled to us their children by raising Jesus; as also it is written in the second psalm, `Thou art my Son, today I have begotten thee.'

Sermon. August 13, 2017

Richard Hyde

Pastor at First Congregational Church-UCC

Today we hear part of a typical speech or sermon by Paul the Apostle. (Texts at bottom.) The words and deeds and travels of Paul are our focus this summer, and all of the prophecies of the Old Testament that Paul used to certify that his message had long been foretold, that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus was the way God had chosen to redeem the world; and chosen long time since, since the beginning of time. As his colleague John wrote:

the word, the command, the incarnation, the redemption of God, the Christ, was there in the beginning with God; all things bear the mark of their creator and their redeemer. This must have been a speech that Paul had well in mind. He probably had practiced and delivered it a number of times. This speech in its entirety – we’ll hear the rest next week – could easily be recited verbatim as a creed of the church; indeed it is easy to see that the historic creeds of the church are very much based on it.

So our faith, the faith that we put into practice every day, the faith that we proclaim on Sunday morning, is very old, but of course, every day made new. Every day something new breaks forth out of God’s holy word, something new breaks out of the sacred heart of Jesus; something new unfolds on this continent, in this nation, because, as Walt Whitman says, the American people are the world’s greatest poem.  God’s activity is poetic, creative, bringing together disparate elements for a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

What a miracle.

In history this time of year, Katharine Lee Bates was born in 1859 in Falmouth, Massachusetts. She authored the poem America the Beautiful when she lived in Colorado and took a trip to the top of Pike’s Peak. It’s a beautiful poem and song; not quite the national anthem, but it is the song that members of Congress broke into spontaneously on the evening of September 11, 2001 on the steps of Congress as sun set.

"O beautiful for spacious skies, / For amber waves of grain,

/ For purple mountain majesties / Above the fruited plain!"

This time of year in 1945, atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki put an end to World War II in the Pacific. President Truman announced the event on the radio:

“Sixteen hours ago an American airplane dropped one bomb on Hiroshima and destroyed its usefulness to the enemy. . . . . It is an atomic bomb. It is a harnessing of the basic power of the universe. The force from which the sun draws its power has been loosed against those who brought war to the Far East.”

The language used by Dante at the end of Paradiso to evoke the power of God comes to mind: "l'amor che muove il sole e l'altre stelle,” "the love that moves the sun and the other stars.”

Well, what better way to say that somehow we had stolen the power of God, with vast repercussions that shake our world to this day? We can take the love the moves the sun and stars and make a bomb with it; we can make peace with it. It’s up to us.

Louis Leakey, the great anthropologist, born this time of year in Kenya in 1903. His parents were Anglican missionaries to Africa. So his familiarity with and love for Africa was from the beginning. Having read some speculation from Charles Darwin that the origin of the human species may have been in Africa, Leakey set out to prove him right. Most people think he did, that the first humans came along an impossibly long time ago, one million and a half years ago. It’s hard to imagine.

I never met Leakey, but my teacher Huston Smith did, in Kenya sometime in the 1960s. It a great story. He set out to visit the great man in the field somewhere. He must have corresponded with him and gotten directions. He rented a car, a Volkswagen Rabbit and set off through the countryside, off the roads, eventually, over hill and dale, until . . . he ran out of gas. So he sat there for a while not knowing what do, whereupon six Masai warriors came bounding along, running, as I recall, and asked via sign language and perhaps some English “What’s up?” Providentially they had heard of Leakey, knew where his camp was and told him they would take him there, car and all. Soon Professor Smith was being pushed over the grasslands by six Masai warriors, singing as they went. Soon he was in Leakey’s camp, in Leakey’s tent no less, sitting on his bunk and drinking his Scotch.

Thank you for letting me share this story with you this morning. Back now to our human story. We started out in Africa an impossibly long time ago, a million and a half years ago or so. Somewhere along the line, our ancestors left Africa, relatively recently, like 100,000 years ago and one branch headed north and west into Europe and the other east into Asia.

So when the Vikings came ashore up north of here a thousand years ago and the Pilgrims came ashore south of here a few hundred years ago and met the Native Americans these two branches of the human family finally met again; a family reunion of sorts, although they did not know it a the time.

Human beings are a very adaptive species. We can live in any climate, practice an enormous variety of social customs and live under an enormous variety of political regimes.

We are biological ancestors of apparently a rather small band of people from Africa and spiritual ancestors of a man named Abraham, who lived in northern Iraq some 3500 years ago, and of King David who lived about 3000 years ago, and, of course, of Jesus and Paul who lived 2000 years ago and untold numbers of Christian saints between then and now; and also, untold numbers of Christian sinners and people who were a bit of both.

You might say that the whole human race now is experiencing a constant family reunion every day. Every day we can and often do rub elbows with people who live on different continents and come from different continents. We meet on television, on the internet, in the newspaper, over the telephone, in person.

You may recall that I quoted a convocation address by Dartmouth President John Sloan Dickey on one of my first Sunday mornings with you a year ago. He made these remarks in 1950, 67 years ago now. They are no less relevant today.

 “What of this world?’ he asked rhetorically. “Its errors and evils are not new. A student of history finds their counterpart in every recorded society. What is new is not the evil in man, but the range of its opportunity and the immensity of its consequences. Within the last 50 years alone the destructive potentialities of human error and evil have been increased beyond calculation. I shall cite here only three of the principal factors in that development:

 First, the opening of the widest chasm of ideological conflict the world has ever known.

Second, the fantastic increase in the destructive power possessed by men as contrasted with the relatively static state of the moral and political controls governing such power.

Thirdly, the rise of the mass media of communication, making the emotions and minds of millions the constant prey of the few.”

None of these factors has improved any; indeed they are all worse. At no time in history have we more needed to hear some good news, the Good News, the message of salvation that we are not stuck in an endless chain of cause and effect, of sin and retribution, of rage and counter-rage, but are free of the sins we have committed and free of the sins committed against us; we are free to live by the word of God, we are free to surf the waves of forgiveness, we are free to walk in the paths of righteousness. Christ has opened the gates of heaven. They are open right now. We are free to walk through and keep going.

As Paul said way back when, on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean: “Members of the family of Abraham, and those among you that fear God, to us has been sent the message of this salvation.” Let us go forth and spread the Good News.

1 Samuel 8:4-10

        Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, "Behold, you are old and your sons do not walk in your ways; now appoint for us a king to govern us like all the nations." But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, "Give us a king to govern us." And Samuel prayed to the LORD. 

        And the LORD said to Samuel, "Hearken to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. According to all the deeds which they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt even to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are also doing to you. Now then, hearken to their voice; only, you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them." 

So Samuel told all the words of the LORD to the people who were asking a king from him.

Acts 13:15-23

        After the reading of the law and the prophets, the rulers of the synagogue sent to them, saying, "Brethren, if you have any word of exhortation for the people, say it."  So Paul stood up, and motioning with his hand said:

        "Men of Israel, and you that fear God, listen. The God of this people Israel chose our fathers and made the people great during their stay in the land of Egypt, and with uplifted arm he led them out of it. And for about forty years he bore with them in the wilderness.  And when he had destroyed seven nations in the land of Canaan, he gave them their land as an inheritance, for about four hundred and fifty years. And after that he gave them judges until Samuel the prophet.

        Then they asked for a king; and God gave them Saul the son of Kish, a man of the tribe of Benjamin, for forty years. And when he had removed him, he raised up David to be their king; of whom he testified and said,

`I have found in David the son of Jesse a man after my heart, who will do all my will.' Of this man's posterity God has brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus, as he promised.”

August 06, 2017

Sermon

Richard Hyde

Pastor at First Congregational Church-UCC

It is impossible to preach the entirety of the Gospel on Sunday morning. There is 2,000 years – at least – of history, a rather lengthy holy book, doctrines, teachings, quotations, a numberless multitude.

In a worship service we therefore employ some mini-gospels, brief statements of what we believe just in case the preacher that morning leaves something out. Such a mini-Gospel was today’s - and every day’s - Call to Worship, which is more customary on Easter or shortly after Easter, but every Sunday is Easter; we celebrate the resurrection every Sunday. Every Sunday we declare

Christ has been raised from the dead,

    the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.

For as in Adam all die,

    so in Christ shall all be made alive. Alleluia.

Most Sundays I like to take note of what has happened in history this time of year. This week it’s all birthdays:

Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick. He lived much of his life in New England, in the Berkshires, where he lived near Nathaniel Hawthorne; They had a great creative collaboration.

Wendell Berry a great southern writer, poet and essayist, still alive and still farming in Kentucky.

Much longer ago, in the early 19th Century, Percy Bysshe Shelly, the great romantic poet, was born, wrote some spectacularly good poetry, lived a rather riotous life abroad and died at age 30.

James Baldwin, born in Harlem, one of many great writers in a movement called the Harlem Renaissance. 

Louis Armstrong, born in New Orleans in 1901, perhaps the most well-known jazz musician of his time and that time included a great many greats. He was very quotable. My favorite quotation of his, in response to someone who did not understand jazz and asked what his music was about. Louis Armstrong answered:

“Baby, if you have to ask you ain’t never going to know.”

As we begin to consider our Biblical lessons for today, let me pose a riddle or a question:

What do the first weeks of August have in common with the first weeks of February? Both in terms of the calendar year and the church year?

It terms of the seasonal calendar, they are both times when a season is at its fullest, yet just starting to wane. In February we have winter carnivals, the Olympics, various outdoor festivals and celebrations. It is the height of winter; yet the days are getting noticeably longer and the nights shorter and so we know that winter is beginning to turn into spring.

Likewise in August, we have our warmest days; the lake or the ocean where we go to swim is at its warmest; yet the first hints of fall are barely noticeable as the days grow shorter and the harvest rolls in. Right now baseball is at its peak; the long hot summer is at its hottest; yet football is on its way. The Patriots are in their training camp as are all the other professional, college and I would guess also  high school teams. It is exactly 26 days, 5 hours and 2 minutes until kickoff at Notre Dame Stadium and many other fine stadia around the country.

In terms of the church year, the answer to my question “What does this time of year have in common with early February?”  is that whereas we celebrate the feast of Candlemas in early February, a celebration of the complete, total end of the Christmas Season; now we celebrate the feast of the Transfiguration, a celebration of the day some of the disciples fully realized and understood the nature this teacher they have been following. So this time of year, at the fullness of summer, we celebrate the fullness of the ministry of Jesus.

Appropriately then we read in Isaiah the beautiful poetic prophecy, made familiar by Handel in the Messiah:

How beautiful upon the mountains

are the feet of him who brings good tidings,

The LORD has bared his holy arm

before the eyes of all the nations;

and all the ends of the earth shall see

the salvation of our God.

And we continue our study of the ministry of Paul, who brought the good news of Jesus, the fullness of his life and resurrection, to all the world. We read how his denunciation and blinding of a false prophet led to the conversion of a Roman consul also named Paul.

As we read the book of Acts, a lot of events take place that are hard to believe: jail doors swing open, this odd healer or prophet is struck blind, Paul cures people and even brings one back from the dead.

What is not subject to doubt are the words of Paul the Apostle. His basic preaching in the Book of Acts is remarkably consistent with his letters. It is quite clear what Paul had to say.  Paul believed that Jesus was the Messiah spoken of in the scriptures, by Isaiah and many others; that this Messiah had risen from the dead and thereby opened the gates of heaven to all. He preached the Good News in a great curve of land from Jerusalem to Damascus, to Greece, to Rome. He hoped to continue on to Spain, but was executed before he got there.

Despite his martyrdom and that of many others, the Good New spread throughout the ancient world and into Europe. Christianity remains a growing religion in many parts of the world, although we certainly have to say that Christianity in much of Europe and the Americas is sorely challenged. Nonetheless the Holy Spirit has been active here in our country for hundreds of years now and I believe that our faith is constantly renewing itself; the Holy Spirit is still active wherever the Good News is preached and received with joy.

Our Puritan ancestors often get a bad rap for being nature-hating killjoys, but that is not at all fair. It indeed took a while for our Puritan ancestors to warm to their environment, for they did not come here to be inspired by nature, but to institute a godly government. Eventually, however, a sense of wonder came upon them. Our ancestors came to view the natural world as a symbol of the Kingdom of Heaven and as an expression of divine love. How could they not, with this great continent all around them?

As F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote at the end of The Great Gatsby:

“For a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.”

That’s not just poetic license at the end of the Great Gatsby. Listen to a Puritan in his own words, at the end of the 17th Century, a man name Samuel Sewall, who lived in Massachusetts:

"As long as Plum Island shall faithfully keep the commanded Post, Notwithstanding the hectoring words and hard blows of the proud and boisterous ocean; As long as any Salmon or Sturgeon shall swim in the streams of Merrimack, or any Perch or Pickeril in Crane Pond; As long as the Sea Fowl shall know the time of their coming, and not neglect seasonably to visit the places of their acquaintance; As long as any Cattel shall be fed with Grass growing in the meadows which doe humbly bow themselves before Turkie Hill; As long as any Sheep shall walk upon Old town Hills, and shall from thence look pleasantly down upon the River Parker and the fruitful Marishes lying beneath; As long as any free and harmless Doves shall find a White Oak or other Tree within the township to perch or feed, or build a careless Nest upon, and shall voluntarily present themselves to perform the office of Gleaners after Barley Harvest; As long as Nature shall not grow old and dote, but shall constantly remember to give the rows of Indian Corn their education by Pairs; So long shall Christians be born there and being first made meet, shall from thence be translated to be made partakers of the Saints of Light."

I have said many times that Walt Whitman thought himself a new Saint Paul preaching a new Christ experience in a new world. Listen to Saint Walt in the context of what I just read from Puritan Samuel Sewall:

Here is action untied from strings necessarily blind to particulars and details magnificently moving in vast masses. Here is the hospitality which forever indicates heroes . . . . Here are the roughs and beards and space and ruggedness and nonchalance that the soul loves. Here the performance disdaining the trivial unapproached in the tremendous audacity of its crowds and groupings and the push of its perspective spreads with crampless and flowing breadth and showers its prolific and splendid extravagance. One sees it must indeed own the riches of the summer and winter, and need never be bankrupt while corn grows from the ground or the orchards drop apples or the bays contain fish or men beget children upon women.

Finally, in the same spirit, listen to Garrison Keillor:

What matters are tomatoes. There is an excellent crop this year, like the tomatoes of our youth that we ate right off the vine, juice running down our chins. There is nothing like this.  . . .  now I go to a farmers' market and I'm astonished all over again. A spiritual experience. The spontaneity of the tomato . . .  An awakening takes place, light shines in your soul.

That’s the word for today folks. Tomatoes.


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First Congregational Church of Gray

July 30, 2017 

Sermon by:  Rev. Dr. Richard A. Hyde

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We are glad you have come here this morning, for whatever reason, to respond to some calling to commune with the sacred, to be with your friends and neighbors, to take part in something – a worship service – that connects you to something deeper than you normally experience or hear about, to connect with some force, some higher power, however you define or visualize it, to connect with the whatever that is beyond life itself. 

We are going to begin with a line in the Bible that states the Gospel in miniature.  There are plenty of lines in the Bible that state the Gospel in miniature and there are no single  lines that state the fullness of the Gospel for there is no way to state the fullness of the Gospel in a line or two or even a day or two.  There is John 3:16  - God so loved the world that He gave his only son.  There is John Chapter 1:  In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God. 

Let me start with another one, a bit older, from the Old Testament.  Then I will note what happened in history this time of year, what is happening now and see if there is any word from Lord in our scriptures for the day.

Deuteronomy Chapter 6, verse 5.  It is called the Shema because that is the first word of the line and that word means, hear, pay attention, listen.   Listen:

Shema Israel:  Adonai alahaynu; Adonai echod.

Hear, O Israel.  Our Lord is God, our Lord is One.

On the one hand the meaning of this line seems fairly obvious to us because we are monotheists and have been taught that God is one from the beginning.  The implication is a little harder to grasp, namely that if there is one God who created us, then we are one as well.  We are all in this together.  If God is one then so are we.  We are all one vast connected organism; we are not alone as individuals, as families, as communities.

So far so good.  And what else?  How shall we then live with the knowledge that God is one and we are also?  WE are one people, that is, WE are not God.  How do we act, how do we live with this knowledge that God created and loves each of us, even the people who annoy us and bother us?  It’s a difficult question and there are plenty of answers, none of them entirely adequate.

So is there any further word from the Lord?  What has happened in history and what is going on now and what do Jeremiah and St. Paul have to say?

In history the great pilot Amelia Earhart was born in Atchison, Kansas in 1897.  Someone in our congregation today had her as a teacher in Medford, Massachusetts. 

It was the birthday of writer Alexis de Tocqueville, born in Paris in 1805.  He was 25 years old when the French government sent him to America to study the prison system. He spent nine months touring towns and cities and taking notes. A few years later, he published his famous book, Democracy in America, which remains one of the best books every written about America. 

During his tour, the aristocratic Tocqueville was impressed by the fact that American Democracy actually worked.  He wrote: "There is one thing which America demonstrates invincibly, and of which I had been in doubt up till now: it is that the middle classes can govern a state . . .   they are adequate for the ordinary run of society. In spite of their petty passions, their incomplete education and their vulgar manners, they clearly can provide practical intelligence, and that is found to be enough."  May it be ever so. 

Most importantly, for we are still feeling the aftershocks, on June 28, 1914, a young terrorist from Serbia killed the heir to the throne of Austria and his wife.  Austria demanded an apology and then some, which Serbia ultimately refused to give.  All through July diplomats exchanged notes at times angry and conciliatory.  Both countries appealed to their allies to back them, which their allies promised to do.  The major players in the negotiations never met, which they could easily have done.  They all knew each other and had met many times before because they were cousins.  King George of the United Kingdom, Czar Nicholas of Russia and Kaiser William of Germany were all cousins, related through Queen Victoria.

Negotiations finally broke down and ended and war began in early  August.   The great book by Barbara Tuchman, called The Guns of August, published almost 60 years ago, tells the whole story.  The war then dragged on for four long years, a war caused by national pride, ambition, fear, resentment -  you might say “the usual” – a war that took the lives of millions all over the world, even far from the battlefields.  We are still living in the aftershocks.

For example, I never knew my mother’s parents because they died as a result of this war, died right afterward because of the world-wide flu epidemic that soldiers brought home from the trenches.  More people died of flu after the war than solders died during the war and that was a lot of soldiers. 

In contemporary life many of us could not help but pay attention to the debate over the repeal of the Affordable Care Act and the surprising final result.  Whatever you think about the final result and role our Senators from Maine played in it, we will continue to pray for them; the Affordable Care act will survive for at least while longer; it may be amended, hopefully for the better; the debate will continue, elections will take place about a year from now; America will survive.

And last but not least, it is only 34 days, 4 hours and 56 minutes until kickoff at Notre Dame Stadium;  and other fine college football stadia around the country.  This ritualized form of warfare has often been called the moral equivalent of war and I think it probably is a good way to teach people the virtues of competition and cooperation under the rule of law, during which few people are seriously hurt and afterward the competitors shake hands and return to civilian life.  We Americans are fierce competitors.  Let the wild rumpus on the gridiron, and in Washington, continue.

For a our Bible readings today, we hear a prophecy of Jeremiah concerning the city of Damascus, the great city of Damascus where Paul was going to round up some Christians and try them for heresy or blasphemy or something and hopefully silence them and nip this new movement – this apostasy -  in the bud.  As we know, reality intervened and Paul became the greatest evangelist the world has ever known, until our own Billy Graham, maybe even greater.  Smile. 

Last week we heard about how Paul lost his sight; today we hear that he regained his sight because someone, the brave Ananias, obeyed God’s instructions and went to a man who, a few days earlier,  would have gladly  thrown him into jail, or worse.  The Bible tells us:

So Anani'as departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said,

"Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came, has sent me that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit." 

And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized, and took food and was strengthened.

This is a wonderful story about about human transformation, about the  reconciliation of enemies, of how the Lord can change hearts and minds, how the Lord can enable the blind to see, both literally and figuratively.  Indeed God thru the Gospel helps us to see, to see one another as we truly are, namely sons and daughters of the same God and helps us to reconcile ourselves with those we fear and hate.

It is not always so easy.  God does not always work so dramatically and quickly, but this is God’s will:  for our hearts and minds to be transformed and to share the good news with the whole world.  All of us are called in one way or another to receive the good news and to share it.

OK.  Now it’s time for a story, of a contemporary American, whom I met back in the late 80s in Berkeley, a writer, teacher and Presbyterian minister named Fred Buechner.  He wrote a number of spiritual autbiographies in all of which he noted how God could work in surprising ways, giving examples from his own life.  One of my favorite stories of his comes from his time in the US Army during World War II.  He never got very far in the army for reasons I may relate some other time.  For our purpose today all we need to know is that never did like the army very much; lots of people didn’t and that did not prevent them from serving and in some cases with disticntion.  Anyway, he did not like the army and yet found something good in it.   He was sent for basic training to Alabama.  One day, in January, outdoors, 1940-something, it was raining and it was muddy and he was miserable.  Everyone was miserable.  They stopped for lunch, which was not very tasty.  It consisted in part of raw turnips.  For some reason he was hungry and finished everything.  Noticing a lone uneaten turnip in another man’s mess tin, he asked if he could have it.  The man tossed it over to him, but Buechner didn’t catch it; it fell in the mud.  He picked it up and ate it anyway, mud and all.  Later he wrote: 

“With a lurch of the heart that is tangible to me still, I saw that this muddy turnip was good, that the rain coming down was good; even the army that I hated was good.”

All of his writing about the spiritual life began with this experience.  God did not knock him off a horse, God did not temporarily blind him or speak to him in plain Greek or English, but something happened.  I would call it an experience of saving grace.  God accepted him not because he was virtuous, but in spite of his sinfulness.  God can reach out to us, call to us comfort us, in good times and in bad, even when lunch consists of mud and turnips. 

On many Sundays this summer, while working through the conversation between the Old Testament and the New, between Biblical times and our own, I have added to the conversation some great American men and women of letters, giants of our heritage, great dreamers, great lovers of the land and lovers of the American people.  Rarely in the history of the world has there been such a renewal of the mind as has taken place on this continent in the past two hundred years.

These great men and women of letters have articulated a great faith in the American people, faith in the interaction of a new people faced with the staggering breadth and inspiring beauty of the North American continent.  And if you listen carefully, you can hear the language and sensibility of the Bible in this poetry.  There is something of the psalmist in their enumerations of the physical wonders of the continent and the wonders of human being. 

When Whitman declares:

I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journeywork of the stars, 

And the pismire is equally perfect, and a grain of sand, and the egg of the wren, 

And the tree-toad is a chef-d'ouvre for the highest, 

And the running blackberry would adorn the parlors of heaven, 

And the narrowest hinge in my hand puts to scorn all machinery, 

He is not far from the Psalmist who declared

When I look at thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars which thou hast established;

what is man that thou art mindful of him, and the son of man that thou dost care for him?

Yet thou hast made him little less than God, and dost crown him with glory and honor.

Thou hast given him dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet,

all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field,

the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the sea.  (Psalm 8)

Whitman and those of us he follow him, are never far from the Psalms, from Saint Paul, who declared in the Letter to the Hebrews:

The word of God in the silence is more piercing than a double-edged sword, and reaches down even to the division of the soul from the spirit, down to the joints and the marrow.

The narrowest hinge in my hand puts to scorn all machinery. 

Amen.

First Congregational Church of Gray

July 23, 2017 ~ Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

Sermon by:  Dr. Reverend Richard A. Hyde

We are glad you have come here this morning, to draw near to God, to respond to some inner calling to commune with the sacred, to be with your friends and neighbors, to receive comfort or inspiration; maybe you just came for the coffee; whysoever you are here; however you got here, we are glad you’re here and if you are new to us please stick around for at least a few minutes afterward so we can greet you personally. 

It’s summer.  Something about summer makes great things happen.  In history this time of year so much happened that the list would go on and on.

During this week of 1799 Napoleon’s soldiers in Egypt discovered the Rosetta Stone.  It was put in place originally about the time of Christ and is inscribed with three different scripts: Hieroglyphics, the Egyptian language of the time and Greek.  Scholars could recognize only a few words of the Egyptian and had been wondering about the old pictographs they had seen in Egyptian tombs for decades.  But they could easily read the Greek and proceeded on the assumption that they were reading the same words in three different languages.  Thus the secrets of the ancient Egyptian language were unlocked. 

A great writer was born this time of year in 1899 Oak Park, Illinois – that would be Ernest Hemingway, one of my favorite authors.

It was about this time of year in 1954 that the first part of the Lord of the Rings trilogy came out, The Fellowship of the Ring.  Tolkien began work on the book in the 1930s but during WWII he really hit his stride and one can easily see the effects of WWII in the book.

Great fire of Rome took place this time of year in 64 AD.  The Emperor Nero blamed the fire on the Christians and may well have been responsible for the death of the Apostles Peter and Paul, who were executed along with many other Christians at that time.  We do not think about this fire very much, but it was one of the most consequential fires in history.  What if Peter and Paul had lived another ten years or so, visited more places, founded more churches, written more letters?  We’ll never know.  What we do know is that the persecution could have put an end to Christianity, but it did not.  Any number of unexpected events did not halt the spread and indeed helped to spread Christianity to the ends of the earth, not the least of which was the conversion of St. Paul himself, on the road to Damascus, and that will be our focus today

But let us first of all take a look at the Old Testament lesson, which tells us about another traveler to Damascus, namely King David.  “And when the Syrians of Damascus came to help Hadade'zer king of Zobah, David slew twenty-two thousand men of the Syrians.”   The Bible begins with movement, as I have said many times, and King David was a mover and a shaker.  I put this passage here today just to help us wonder at how ancient the stories of the bible are, how ancient the lands of the Bible, how long there has been a place called Syria and a city called Damascus, which was already ancient in the day of King David, somewhere around 3,000 years ago. 

Some one thousand years after the events of this lesson, a man named Saul attempted to follow in David’s footsteps and smite some enemies of his people in Damascus.  What happened instead we all know.  He heard a voice; he saw a vision; he fell from his horse and so he went from being a persecutor of Christians to being the greatest spokesman of Christianity ever.

When something like this happens, we don’t know what to say.  We call it uncanny or providential or inexplicable.  Finally, we just throw up our hands and say it’s the work of the Holy Spirit:  It was the Holy Spirit who guided Samuel to anoint David the youngest and most unlikely of the sons, it was the Holy Spirit who guided King David, it was the Holy Spirit, the spirit of the living God who fell upon Saul, turned his life around and renamed him Paul. 

Does this sort of thing, this sort of conversion, still happen?  Some people say no, others say yes.  I belong to the latter school; I think this sort of thing still happens, but it is still quite rare and no one knows quite how it happens.  No one has ever been able to explain the creative process and creative geniuses themselves are no better at explaining it themselves.  Often their answers are just infuriatingly cheeky.  Johann Sebastian Bach was asked how he could play the organ so well and he responded:  “One simply touches the right keys in the right order at the right time and the instrument plays itself.”

Thank you, Mr. Bach.  That’s very helpful.

So how did the Apostle Paul become such a great evangelist?  Well, “The Holy Spirit knocked him off his horse” is as good an answer as any. 

Thereafter Paul was utterly convinced of the resurrection of Christ, utterly fearless, utterly courageous.  He was imprisoned, beaten and kept on preaching and writing letters which plumb the depths of human experience and give hope and comfort some 2,000 years later. 

How did he do it?  “Well, the Holy Spirit . . .”

Moving up to present time, how do modern or contemporary geniuses do it?  Well, we don’t know much about them either.

As I have mentioned before, Exactly 162 years ago this summer, a small book arrived at Ralph Waldo Emerson’s house in Concord.  It was a self-published volume of 12 poems with an introductory essay.  The sage of Concord read it and pronounced it a work of extraordinary genius, the poetic genius America had been waiting for.  The volume was Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman.

In a recent review a contemporary poet called Walt Whitman's vision "mystical" and "too uncanny to have resulted from mere literary musings." He wrote, "No one has been able to adequately describe how Walter Whitman came to write his book. Certainly nothing in his past could have predicted it."

Yet by some fortunate conversion of mysticism, talent, and singular vision of humanity in 1855, Walt Whitman did it.  In the first edition, the poems have no titles; the verse just runs on and on, as does the preface.  It is all unrhymed poetry.  Somehow I find Whitman’s ruminations very Biblical, as if we were hearing the psalmist or St. Paul  speaking again, pacing back and forth, justifying the ways of God and people. 

For example:

 No array of terms can say how much I am at peace about God and about death.

I hear and behold God in every object, yet I understand God not in the least,

Nor do I understand who there can be more wonderful than myself.

Oooops.  Careful, Mr. Whitman.  You are not God.  Oh well - those who love much are forgiven much.

Why should I wish to see God better than this day?

I see something of God each hour of the twenty-four, and each moment then,

In the faces of men and women I see God, and in my own face in the glass;

I find letters from God dropped in the street, and every one is signed by

God's name,

And I leave them where they are, for I know that others will punctually come     forever and  ever.

I love that: “letters from God dropped in the street,” like apples falling from a tree or rain falling from the sky.  Some people get knocked off their feet; others find letters from God dropped in the street.  We can experience God through the study of the Bible, we can experience God through worship of a Sunday morning, we can experience God in a day at the lake; the ways are as many as there are people.  Some people experience God in an earthquake. 

Ralph Waldo Emerson knew Walt Whitman.  He also knew another force of nature named John Muir, who wrote wondrously well of Yosemite Valley and was so fond of the great works of nature that he would climb trees during wind storms in order to be tossed around.  Listen as he tells of the great earthquake of 1872 in Yosemite Valley:

“ . . . one morning about two o'clock, I was aroused by an earthquake; and although I had never before enjoyed a storm of this sort, the strange, wild thrilling motion and rumbling could not be mistaken, and I ran out of my cabin, near the Sentinel Rock, both glad and frightened, shouting 'A noble earthquake!'  It was a calm moonlight night, and no sound was heard for the first minute or two save a low muffled underground rumbling and a slight rustling of the agitated trees, as if, in wrestling with the mountains, Nature were holding her breath.  Then, suddenly, out of the strange silence and strange motion there came a tremendous roar.  The Eagle Rock, a short distance up the valley, had given way, and I saw it falling in thousands of great boulders, pouring to the valley floor in a free curve luminous from friction, making a terribly sublime and beautiful spectacle -- an arc of fire fifteen hundred feet span, as true in form and as steady as a rainbow.  The sound was inconceivably deep and broad and earnest, as if the whole earth, like a living creature, had at last found a voice and were calling to her sister planets. . . . . .

Eager to see the newborn rock-pile, I ran up the valley in the moonlight and climbed it before the huge blocks had come to complete rest.  They were slowly settling into their places, chafing, grating against one another, groaning and whispering; but no motion was visible except in a stream of small fragments pattering down the face of the cliff.  A cloud of dust particles, the smallest of the boulders, floated out across the whole breadth of the valley and formed a ceiling that lasted until after sunrise; and the air was loaded with the odor of Douglas Firs, from a grove that had been mowed down and mashed like weeds.  Thus rough places were made smooth, and smooth places rough.  I discovered that in this beautiful work, every boulder is prepared and measured and put in its place more thoughtfully than are the stones of temples.  If for a moment you are inclined to regard these rock-piles as mere draggled, chaotic dumps, climb to the top of one of them, tie your mountain shoes firmly over the instep, and with braced nerves run down without any haggling, puttering hesitation, boldly jumping from boulder to boulder with even speed.  You will then find your feet playing a tune, and quickly discover the music and poetry of rock-piles -- a fine lesson; and all Nature's wildness tells the same story.  Storms of every sort, torrents, earthquakes, cataclysms, 'convulsions of nature,' etc., however mysterious and lawless at first they seem, are only harmonious notes in the song of creation, varied expressions of God's love.”

Whether God speaks to you through the Bible, or hymns, or sermons, or earthquakes, or letters dropped in the street, may God be with you this summer, today and every day.

First Congregational Church of Gray

July 16, 2017 ~ Sixth Sunday After Pentecost

Sermon by: Dr. Reverend Richard A. Hyde

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I‘ll be talking about the human hand, how the hand enables us to think, how the structure of our body has evolved or been designed by God, or both, to enable us to think; and I will ground these meditations in our scriptures for today.

We are talking this summer about the spread of the Gospel from the land of its birth to Europe; and the spread of the Gospel from Europe, the Old World, across the Atlantic Ocean to the New World, to the United States of America, and across the United States to the Pacific Ocean. 

We Christian, American people are part of the body of Christ.  We are vehicles of the Holy Spirit.  What we do and experience is important.  I do not mean for us to become idolatrous in our self-assertion.   We are not gods and we are not fully Christ-like, but our experience here on this continent has been and continues to be the work of the Holy Spirit.  We do well to pay attention to this experience, to the way we think and move, and to celebrate it.

The scriptures today tell us of the very beginning of our story, the beginning of history itself as far as we are concerned.  Adam and Eve were probably not and never were intended to be historical personages.  But Abraham was.  Abraham probably was a living and breathing historical person who lived about 4,000 years ago, or so.   He was our spiritual and historical ancestor, a man who followed God’s command to go somewhere else; he left the land between the rivers now called Iraq and eventually arrived at the land we now call Holy.  He was a wanderer, one of many in history, as are we.  We and our immediate ancestors have wandered all across the American continent in the surprisingly short history of 400 years. 

Abraham did as God told him; he looked up at the stars of the skies, believed the promise of God, and set off.  Time passed, Jesus was born, walked, talked, told stories, healed, died, was buried and rose from the dead in this land called Holy.  His followers inexplicably became empowered to continue his work.

The scriptures today tell us that -“with great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles' feet; and distribution was made to each as any had need.”

Thus the Christian message from the beginning has been concerned with fairness and justice.  We preach  and practice in the spirit of Him who, near two thousand years ago, taught mankind that lesson it has never learned but never quite forgotten; that there may be a kingdom where the least shall be heard and considered side by side with the greatest.  We have been a people whose horizon has been opened to preach the good news to the end of the earth; yet is wide and far-reaching as our horizon may be, we remain focused upon the needs of our own communities.

Because Abraham could look up into the stars, and wonder, and wander, and believe this strange call or yearning, he had a future, descendants as numberless as the stars, descendants passionately committed to peace and justice on earth.   

Let me add some personal coincidences to our meditation this morning.

A few years ago I was sitting in a coffee shop in Oakland, California.  Minding my own business, you might say.  It was late morning.  After a while I could not help overhearing a most interesting conversation at a nearby table at the restaurant next door.  Two distinguished-looking gentlemen were talking animatedly and lucidly about the human mind and body, how it all fits together, all related to everything from the nervous system to quantum mechanics; everything.  I could not resist walking over to ask them who they were to have such an interesting conversation.  They motioned me to an empty chair and we had lunch.  Sometimes life is so wondrously serendipitous.

That is how I met Dr. Frank Wilson, a neurologist who works with artists & musicians with repetitive stress injuries and the author of a book about the hand, entitled “The Hand.”  He runs a clinic out of the University of California, San Francisco and I believe his email is something like frank@handdoc.com.

The full title of his book is: 

The Hand: How Its Use Shapes the Brain, Language, and Human Culture.

In this book, Dr. Wilson argues that the hand is key in the development of humans from apes.  Our hands, unlike those of apes, have opposable thumbs, which enable us to pick things up and ponder them, Hamlet-like; turn them around, upside down.  Our ability to do fine work with our hands apparently led to the development of music and language and all the things we do that make being human so much fun.

We might say that having hands makes us human, makes us the tool-using animal.  But there is more to us than that and I believe Dr. Wilson would agree, for we have corresponded a bit over the years.  Not only can we pick things up and look at them, we can also look up, glimpse the distant horizon and see the stars of the sky.  This is because we do not walk on all fours like most animals, or walk close to the ground supported by our arms, like apes, but we walk fully upright.  Having hands and opposable thumbs gives us the ability to fashion and use tools; standing upright makes us theological animals, animals who can look into the distance and imagine a future, animals who can wonder and wander, as in the story of Abraham, under the stars of a desert night, responding to some yearning, some call from above or beyond and heading towards the horizon, to the land of promise. 

History begins with our father Abraham.  He was called out of the ancient and timeless cycle of life into history, into a life in which there is a past and a future, a before and an after, a beginning and an end, and an ever-opening horizon of hope.  Thus we, the church, stand on common ground this morning, and every morning, remembering our past and gazing at the future. 

First Congregational Church of Gray

July 9, 2017 ~ Fifth Sunday After Pentecost

Sermon by: Dr. Reverend Richard A. Hyde

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What a privilege it is to serve a church with the task of saying something based on the Bible, perhaps of historical value, bearing on current events, bearing upon events and people far away or close at hand, perhaps even interesting or edifying on Sunday morning.  I’m delighted to be here and particularly in the summer. All of the seasons of the year are wonderful; each has its virtues and vices. Worship of a Sunday morning in the winter is wonderful because of the community gathered in adversity.  We know in the winter just how important the human community is. Worship in the summer is a bit less solemn because summer is simply a time to celebrate.  We come to church in the summer not to huddle together around the hearth, but to continue the constant celebration or even wild party that is summer.

The United Church of Christ, the larger Christian body of churches of which we are a part, met for General Synod over the long 4th of July Weekend in Baltimore, Maryland. It takes place every other year. The next synod will therefore be in 2019 and I believe the same time of year in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I’m still reading the various accounts of what happened at this year’s Synod and may have more to say about it in the weeks ahead.

Our own Maine UCC meets in October for annual meeting, on the 20th and 21st. Although I missed general Synod – you may have noticed that I was here last Sunday and I am not capable of bi-location – I do plan to attend the Maine Annual Meeting, which will be in Bangor and I’d be delighted to attend with anyone else from this congregation who wants to go. Please let me know if you are interested. I believe we can send a number of delegates and I think any number of observers.

I have not said much about our denomination so far. There is always plenty to talk about on Sunday morning, but it is important at least occasionally to think and talk about our wider association and that is my topic this morning, the wider church of which we are a part.

I do promise to tak about St. Paul this summer. I believe I made a public promise to do so and at least one of you is expecting me to talk about St. Paul in some detail, which I will indeed do. The wider church of which we are a part is very much the creation of St. Paul. He spread the Gospel more than any other Apostle. We will come to that part of Acts that tells his story, well, eventually. We may find good reason to stay with the Book of the Acts of the Apostles through the summer, into the fall and until Advent.

Because of Paul, and many others, we are not alone here. We are blessed by the Christian witness of our sister churches in the UCC and other Christian denominations both in our immediate neighborhood here and around the world.

Our Bible reading today tells us of the early church at prayer, the early church when it was unified, the early church experiencing a second Pentecost, a second coming of the Holy Spirit that caused these ordinary people to preach the Good News:

And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness.  - Acts 4:31

This is what we attempt to do here: to worship and pray in such a way that the Holy Spirit fills us and we speak and live the Gospel with boldness. We worship together as a congregation, we are united in an association of churches and we are united as all the churches of Christendom. Every Sunday through worship we encounter the living Christ as well as we are able.

We Christian people are the body of Christ. What we do and experience is important. Our experience here on this continent has been and continues to be the work of the Holy Spirit. We do well to pay attention to this experience and to celebrate it.

You know that I spent some time at the University of Notre Dame a few weeks ago. To help us in our task today of understanding our lives as Christians on this continent let me share with you some remarks made by that university’s president a few years ago. You are all aware that it is not easy to be a university president these days. Most do not last in the job very long because it so difficult: there are too many disparate people to work with and placate; the job requires a lot of fund-raising, which involves a lot of travel and that gets very wearisome.

On top of that, you have to invite people to receive honorary degrees and sooner or later someone is not going to like the choice that you and the commencement committee made. You may be aware that Vice President Pence just a few months ago and President Obama eight years ago received honorary degrees from Notre Dame to the delight of some and the dismay of some, which led to the protests and walkouts to which all universities are now accustomed. Through it all Notre Dame President Father Jenkins had to introduce each person with appropriate praise and appreciation without further riling up the critics of the president in 2009 and vice president in 2017. What President Father Jenkins said about each person is worthy of note but let me focus instead on what he said about the purpose of a Christian university in the context of the overarching challenge that we all face:

"More than any problem in the arts or sciences - engineering or medicine – easing the hateful divisions between human beings is the supreme challenge of this age. If we can solve this problem, we have a chance to come together and solve all the others.

A Catholic University – and its graduates – are specially called, and I believe specially equipped, to help meet this challenge.

As a Catholic university, we are part of the Church – members of the 'mystical body of Christ' animated by our faith in the Gospel. Yet we are also – most of us – citizens of the United States – this extraordinary evolving expression of human freedom. We are called to serve each community of which we’re a part . . . "

I like the way he said, “we are part of the Church’ members of the “mystical body of Christ” animated by our faith in the Gospel.”

He meant I believe ‘the Church’ in the largest widest possible sense, meaning Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox. We are all members of the same body. He did not have to put it that way that morning, but he did.

Then he went on to say: “we are also – most of us – citizens of the United States – this extraordinary evolving expression of human freedom.”

With these words President Father Jenkins challenged members of the ND community, members of the Roman Catholic Church, members of The Church, citizens of the United States and, in effect, citizens of the world, to respect one another despite our differences and to celebrate how much we have in common.

I firmly belive that an individual Christian congregation, like this one, is specially called, and I believe specially equipped, to help meet this challenge.

Our ability to listen respectfully to one another as Christians, as citizens of the United States, as members of smaller communities, as members of small churches, as citizens of the world, to be free, yet responsible people – that is the issue. What I believe we Christian Americans offer the world most importantly is not our economy or our technology or our weaponry, though all of these are great and important, but our civility, our ability to govern ourselves as free people.

There was book written some fifty years ago that was required reading for many history and political science majors called "The First New Nation," meaning the United States of America, but the Christian Church was the first new nation, a new self-governing entity never before seen in history. The Church is likewise an extraordinary evolving expression of human freedom. What an honor, what a privilege, what a thrill it is to live out the Gospel today, on this continent, in the United States of America.

In order to conclude this sermon, let me call upon the greatest celebrator of America ever, namely Walt Saint Paul Whitman. Listen to Whitman’s foreword to Leaves of Grass, first published this time of year in 1855, 162 years ago.

The Americans of all nations at any time upon the earth have probably the fullest poetical nature. The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem. In the history of the earth hitherto the largest and most stirring appear tame and orderly to their ampler largeness and stir. Here at last is something in the doings of man that corresponds with the broadcast doings of the day and night. Here is not merely a nation but a teeming nation of nations. Here is action untied from strings necessarily blind to particulars and details magnificently moving in vast masses. Here is the hospitality which forever indicates heroes . . .

Other states indicate themselves in their deputies . . . . but the genius of the United States is not best or most in its executives or legislatures, nor in its ambassadors or authors or colleges or churches or parlors, nor even in its newspapers or inventors . . . but always most in the common people. Their manners speech dress friendships -- the freshness and candor of their physiognomy -- the picturesque looseness of their carriage . . . their deathless attachment to freedom –-- these too are unrhymed poetry. It awaits the gigantic and generous treatment worthy of it.

Brothers and sisters in Christ: A glorious summer day awaits. The whole summer stretches before us. Every day may we be shaken, filled with the Spirit and speak the unrhymed poetry of God with joy and boldness.

Acts 4:23-31

When they were released they went to their friends and reported what the chief priests and the elders had said to them. And when they heard it, they lifted their voices together to God and said,

"Sovereign Lord, who didst make the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them, who by the mouth of our father David, thy servant, didst say by the Holy Spirit, ‘Why did the Gentiles rage, and the peoples imagine vain things? The kings of the earth set themselves in array, and the rulers were gathered together, against the Lord and against his Anointed’ for truly in this city there were gathered together against thy holy servant Jesus, whom thou didst anoint, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever thy hand and thy plan had predestined to take place. And now, Lord, look upon their threats, and grant to thy servants to speak thy word with all boldness, while thou stretches out thy hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of thy holy servant Jesus."

And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness.

First Congregational Church of Gray

July 2, 2017 ~ Fourth Sunday After Pentecost

Sermon by: Dr. Reverend Richard A. Hyde

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First of all welcome to church on this beautiful summer day in the middle of a holiday weekend.  I am delighted to be back here with you after a couple of weeks away and I look forward to the rest of the summer and the rest of 2017 stretching out before us.

While away I took care of the absolute last of my remaining possessions in Washington and either sent them here, gave them away or disposed of them. 

Then I attended a wedding in Virginia.  It was lovely, as weddings always are and the next day I flew to the Midwest for a week-long conference at the University of Notre Dame entitled “Encountering Christ in the Liturgy.”  I had a great time there and I think I deepened my understanding of what we do in church of a Sunday morning, for Encountering Christ in the Liturgy is exactly what we are about here.  We do our best to encounter the living Christ through prayer, through music, through listening to the scriptures, through expounding and expanding upon what the scriptures mean today, through celebrating the Lord’s Supper as Jesus himself did some 2,000 years ago.

We do well always to remember that the source of our practice here is the Christ who lived then and the Christ who lives among us now.  The work of Christ did not stop when he died or when he arose from the dead, it continued through the work of the apostles, including Saint Peter who did not claim credit for healing a man in desperate need of it but gave credit to Jesus, saying, as we heard a few minutes ago:  by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead, by him this man is standing before you well. This is the stone which was rejected by you builders, but which has become the head of the corner.

This stone that was rejected by the builders is now the head of the cornerstone, is now and will be forever the head of the church.  It is He whom we worship and honor from age to age; and it is as Americans that we worship.  The Holy Spirit inspired the apostles then; the spirit inspires us now. 

In history today there are a couple of events that we must mention, as American Christian people, namely that a bunch of delegates in Philadelphia wearing powdered wigs and silk stockings signed the Declaration of Independence some 241 years ago; certainly a momentous occasion and cause for celebration at the beginning of July every year.  Equally momentous, especially in the state of Maine, the Battle of Gettysburg took place and a Maine regiment, namely the  20th Maine, played a decisive role in that battle on the second day of battle, on July 2, 1863 exactly 154 years ago today.  The 20th Maine held a key position at the left of the Union line.  They held this line all afternoon and when they ran out of bullets they counterattacked with bayonets.

It was one of the most extraordinary moments in all of the history of warfare.  We of this state have every reason to be proud of this regiment and its commander Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, who survived the war and went on to become President of Bowdoin College. 

Because of their heroism and that of many others, this experiment in democratic government and religious freedom continues.  It is nothing short of amazing that Christianity developed out of a minority religion and an unusual minority religion at that.  It is just as amazing that the American experiment continues.

I believe that this small church right here, and thousands like it, has an important role to play in the life of the larger church and in the life of the nation.  We are called to serve each of these larger communities of which we are a part, Church capital C and nation, Christian Church, American nation.

To serve in this place, through this institution, the local church, is a special privilege and challenge.  There is no more important institution than the local church. 

I believe I have announced that I will be using poetry this summer to sow how the Holy Spirit has moved across the ocean and across the great American continent.  Today’s poem is by e. e. cummings.  I read it here last fall.  4th of July weekend in the midst of a series of sermons on the beginnings of the church as told in the book of Acts is a good time to read it again:

i am a little church (no great cathedral)

far from the splendor and squalor of hurrying cities

-i do not worry if briefer days grow briefest,

i am not sorry when sun and rain make april

my life is the life of the reaper and the sower;

my prayers are prayers of earth's own clumsily striving

(finding and losing and laughing and crying) children

whose any sadness or joy is my grief or my gladness

around me surges a miracle of unceasing

birth and glory and death and resurrection:

over my sleeping self float flaming symbols

of hope,and i wake to a perfect patience of mountains

i am a little church (far from the frantic

world with its rapture and anguish) at peace with nature

-i do not worry if longer nights grow longest;

i am not sorry when silence becomes singing

winter by spring, i lift my diminutive spire to

merciful Him Whose only now is forever:

standing erect in the deathless truth of His presence

(welcoming humbly His light and proudly His darkness)

- e. e. cummings

  - Rev. Dr. Richard Allen Hyde

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First Congregational Church of Gray

June 11, 2017 ~ First Sunday after Pentecost            

Sermon by: Dr. Reverend Richard A. Hyde

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Thank you all for coming to church this Sunday and every Sunday since I arrived here about a year ago.  I look forward to a long and pleasurable summer and fall and yes, another winter, but today it’s summer.

Pentecost Sunday was two weeks ago.  Pentecost was the day that some ordinary followers of Jesus became leaders of the church.  Jesus promised them that the Holy Spirit would come and inspire them and lead them.  This certainly happened and continues to happen.  Today we lead the church as best we can, inspired by those who came before us, inspired, above all, by the holy spirit as the spirit has inspired preachers and theologians, and by musicians and composers, inspired by choirs and instrumentalists. 

Our Bible reading on Pentecost was from the book of the Acts of the Apostles, the part that described the Spirit appearing as tongues of flame above the heads of the followers of Jesus.  Last week we continued to read from the Book of Acts as we do this week and will continue to throughout the summer beginning on July 2.  Our focus will be the acts of the many apostles in the history of the church and especially those apostles who came to this continent several centuries ago and began to write a whole new chapter in the work of the Holy Spirit on this new continent.

Today’s reading is one of many in the Bible that contains the heart of the Gospel.  It is one of the earliest records we have of how the Gospel was preached by the first apostles.  Here it is: “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.  For the promise is to you and to your children and to all that are far off, every one whom the Lord our God calls to him."

For the promise is to you and to your children and to all that are far off,  that’s us.

I read on Pentecost Sunday and this past Sunday a justly famous poem by Robert Frost, The Gift Outright, a poem about love, devotion and surrender, a poem he described as a history of the United States in 16 verses.  It is also a history of the spirit, even the holy spirit in these United States.  Throughout the summer we will hear about the travels of St. Paul and many other amazing events in the Bible; and we will also hear about some amazing events in the history of America and some poetry related to those events.

Just for a brief foretaste, let us note that anniversary of the birth of Walt Whitman, the rhapsodizer of America, took place just about a week ago.  He was born on May 31, 1819 in the town of Huntington, on Long Island, New York.

In the preface to Leaves of Grass, first published in the summer of 1855, he proclaimed, he bellowed, he exaggerated, he hyperbolated:

“The Americans of all nations at any time upon the earth have probably the fullest poetical nature.  The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.  In the history of the earth hitherto the largest and most stirring appear tame and orderly to their ampler largeness and stir.  Here at last is something in the doings of man that corresponds with the broadcast doings of the day and night.  Here is not merely a nation but a teeming nation of nations.  Here is action untied from strings necessarily blind to particulars and details magnificently moving in vast masses.  Here is the hospitality which forever indicates heroes . . . .

these all are unrhymed poetry. It awaits the gigantic and generous treatment worthy of it.”

It’s going to be a great summer.

First Congregational Church of Gray

June 3, 2017 ~ Pentecost Sunday

Sermon by: Dr. Reverend Richard A. Hyde

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Good morning and welcome to church on Pentecost Sunday, the Sunday that marks the beginning of the Church, they day the apostles, disciples, followers of Jesus were overwhelmed by the Holy Spirit and began to preach.  Jesus promised them that the Holy Spirit would come upon them and so it happened.  The Holy Spirit has been active ever since all over the world, to the ends of the earth, even  unto the town of Gray, Maine, some 2,000 years later, a place unknown to the people of the Bible, where we speak a language that did not exist at the time.

The America we know today stems mostly from two movements of the Spirit, one in Virginia and one in Massachusetts, an Episcopal Spirit and a Congregational Spirit, that have since been joined by a multitude of others.  G. K. Chesterton called the United States of America “a nation with the soul of a church,” but it is really a nation with the soul of many churches.

We have certainly seen an outpouring of the Spirit on this continent and within this nation, a movement of the spirit, a movement of the soul.

In American history, this time of year has been extraordinarily important.  Tuesday, June 6, 2017 will mark the 73rd anniversary of the landings in Normandy that marked the beginning of the end of World War II.  Once the invasion force was in France and getting supplies, it was just a matter of time. We all know something about this, thanks to a great book and a great movie, The Longest Day, and remembrance ceremonies every five years since 1944 attended by presidents and prime ministers.

A battle took place exactly two years earlier that was just as important, if not even more important, which was the turning point of the war in the Pacific and the entire war namely the Battle of Midway which took place over several days from June 4 – 7, 1942.  Up until that point the Japanese and German Armies had won almost every battle and at worst had suffered only minor setbacks and minor losses in what looked like an ineluctable run to victory.  But after the battle of Midway, they never won another major battle.

The Battle of Midway was a close-run thing.  It could easily have gone the other way and perhaps changed the course of the entire war.  Had the Japanese won this battle between aircraft carriers 2,000 miles west of Hawaii, they could have proceeded to Pearl Harbor and we had nothing to oppose them.

Fortunately, American mathematicians had broken the Japanese Navy’s communication code and knew the objective and approximate location of the Japanese fleet.  That was huge help.

The Japanese fleet had four world-class aircraft carriers.  We were lucky to have three aircraft carriers.  We should have had two because one our aircraft carriers had been badly damaged.  Indeed the Japanese were sure it had been sunk, but the ship had limped into Pearly Harbor, repair crews had swarmed over her.  Every human being within driving distance of Pearl Harbor who could do something with a wrench or blowtorch got to work.  They sent it back out to sea in just a few days.  So we had three carriers and they had four, but we knew where they were and where they were going. 

And they were overconfident.  And we were lucky.

Otto von Bismarck famously remarked that God has a special place in his heart for fools, drunks and the United States of America.

That statement was never more true than at the Battle of Midway.

We sent out two waves of planes, torpedo planes and dive bombers.  The enemy easily shot down the torpedo planes, but just by sheer good luck the dive bombers arrived over the fleet as the Japanese planes were down low shooting down the torpedo planes.  So our dive bombers moved in unobserved and unopposed.  The history books all describe three silver arcs of airplanes descending upon the Japanese carriers, which just so happened to be littered with bombs and torpedoes because they were re-arming their airplanes.  Each American bomb set off a chain reaction of explosions that sent three aircraft carriers to the bottom of the ocean.  All it took was fifteen minutes and the whole course of the war changed.

It was a triumph of America’s fighting spirit at a dark hour of our history – only six months since Pearl Harbor.

I do not identify the US of A with the Kingdom of God.  The government of the United States is neutral with regards to religion, but the history of the American people from the beginning has had a lot to do with Christianity, with the Holy Spirit, however you want to put it.

I decided to tell this story of the Battle of Midway this morning just to remind us of the ability of Americans – Christian or not – to work together for a common cause during a crisis in our history, on this morning when we are in another crisis, a very different kind of crisis, for there is certainly a war going on over America’s spirit.  A story of people working together is also appropriate for communion Sunday.

Last week I read a poem that provides a history of the United States in sixteen lines, not explicitly a Christian history, but implicitly a very Christian history of the United States.

In light of Memorial Day – originally about the Civil war – in light of World War II, in light of everything going on in the world now, listen to this poem again:

The Gift Outright

BY ROBERT FROST

The land was ours before we were the land’s.

She was our land more than a hundred years

Before we were her people. She was ours

In Massachusetts, in Virginia,

But we were England’s, still colonials,

Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,

Possessed by what we now no more possessed.

Something we were withholding made us weak

Until we found out that it was ourselves

We were withholding from our land of living,

And forthwith found salvation in surrender.

Such as we were we gave ourselves outright

(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)

To the land vaguely realizing westward,

But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,

Such as she was, such as she would become.

On this Pentecost Sunday, in a time full of conflict, we remember many deeds of war, we remember those who worked together in war and in peace, we remember our Savior, and especially, today, his apostles who brought the message of salvation to the ends of the earth, even here, to the new world, where our story is still unfolding, where, every day, we Christian people find salvation in surrender.

May 28, 2017    Sermon by: Dr. Reverend Richard A. Hyde

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First of all thank you for coming to church this morning and thanks to many of you for also coming to church yesterday and cooking and baking and setting up and cleaning.; and thanks to many, if not most of you for doing all of the rest of the work every week that keeps this church going.  If you are just an occasional visitor or are visiting us for the first time this morning, let me extend a special welcome to become a member of this hard-working yet fun-loving and of course God- and community-loving congregation.

There are so many things we could talk about this Sunday morning of Memorial Day weekend, including of course Memorial Day.  Liturgically we celebrate the ascension of Jesus on this Sunday because the scriptures tell us that he ascended on the fortieth day of Easter, which was last Thursday.  Thus, in our lesson this morning from the book of the Acts of the Apostles, Jesus tells his disciples to await the coming of the Holy Spirit in Jerusalem; after receiving the Spirit they will be his witnesses to the end of the earth.  We today, even in a small town in a small state, are still members of that movement of the Spirit, a  movement of vast numbers of people, rich and poor, great and small.

Let us now take a look at what happened in history this time of year, especially in American history on this national holiday weekend. 

Rachel Carson was born on May 27, 1907.  Famous for writing a book called Silent Spring, which warned against the overuse of pesticides.  President Kennedy read the book when it came out in the summer of 1962 and convened a commission to study the use of pesticides.  Rachel Carson was already famous for a book called The Sea Around Us.  It’s a beautifully written book, for which she won the National Book Award in 1952. 

In her acceptance speech for the award, she said: “The aim of science is to discover and illuminate truth. And that, I take it, is the aim of literature, whether biography or history or fiction. It seems to me, then, that there can be no separate literature of science. [...] The winds, the sea, and the moving tides are what they are. If there is wonder and beauty and majesty in them, science will discover these qualities. If they are not there, science cannot create them. If there is poetry in my book about the sea, it is not because I deliberately put it there, but because no one could write truthfully about the sea and leave out the poetry.”

I love that.  You can’t write truthfully, certainly not truthfully and well, about anything important and leave out the poetry.  The work of the Holy Spirit likewise requires poetry and I am going to read some poetry for you in just a minute, poetry appropriate for Memorial Day, for its author himself described the poem I’m about to read as a history of the United States in sixteen lines of blank verse.  I would only add that the poem is also a history of the Spirit in America in sixteen lines of blank verse.

This poem was much noted when it was published back in the early 1940s and it became famous and truly a part of American history when the author recited it at the inauguration of President Kennedy on January 20, 1961.  It is appropriate to mention it now because tomorrow will be the 100th anniversary of the birth of John Fitzgerald Kennedy on May 29, 1917 in Brookline, Massachusetts, who became, appropriately for memorial day weekend, a war hero, member of Congress, President of the United States, an eloquent, inspiring leader with poetic gifts of his own and who was the first president to invite a poet to read at his inauguration. 

The poet he invited, of course, was New England’s own Robert Frost.  The invitation did not come out of the blue, for poet Frost and politician Kennedy had known of each other for quite a while and the famous poet had endorsed Senator Kennedy for president several months before he had even declared his candidacy.

On March 26, 1959, prior to a gala to celebrate his 85th birthday, Frost gave a press conference at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York City. Among the questions asked was one concerning the alleged decline of New England.  Did you know people were talking about the decline of New England back then? Frost responded: “The next President of the United States will be from Boston.  Does that sound as if New England is decaying?” Pressed to name who Frost meant, he replied: “He’s a Puritan named Kennedy.  The only Puritans left these days are the Roman Catholics.  There.  I’ve said it.  I guess I wear my politics on my sleeve.”

A year and a half later, in response to the news that Kennedy had won the election, Frost called the outcome “a triumph of Protestantism—over itself.”

What did the poet mean by all this?  Well, I don’t know, but I may hazard a guess in the months ahead. 

Today I want to focus on the poem that Frost recited on that cold, bright  inauguration day over 57 years ago.  He had composed a new poem for the occasion and typed it out, but he hadn’t memorized it, having just composed it, and in the glaring sunshine that day he couldn’t see it well enough to read it.  So he recited, from memory, certainly the greatest poem ever read at an inauguration, a history of the United States in sixteen lines, not explicitly a Christian history, but implicitly a very Christian history of the United States.

Listen to this poem in light of the Gospel, in light of 2,000 years of Christian history, in light of some 400 years of American history:

The Gift Outright

BY ROBERT FROST

The land was ours before we were the land’s.

She was our land more than a hundred years

Before we were her people. She was ours

In Massachusetts, in Virginia,

But we were England’s, still colonials,

Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,

Possessed by what we now no more possessed.

Something we were withholding made us weak

Until we found out that it was ourselves

We were withholding from our land of living,

And forthwith found salvation in surrender.

Such as we were we gave ourselves outright

(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)

To the land vaguely realizing westward,

But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,

Such as she was, such as she would become.

On this Memorial Day weekend we remember many deeds of war, we remember those who served in war and in peace, we remember our Savior Jesus Christ and his apostles who brought the message of salvation to the ends of the earth, even here, to the new world, where our story is still unfolding, where, every day, we Christian people, we find salvation in surrender.

May 21, 2017    Sermon by: Dr. Reverand Richard A. Hyde

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For this children’s Sunday sermon, I have chosen two beloved and easy-to-understand scriptures, the heart of which is the famous theological statement “God so loved the world that he gave his only son” and a commandment to love God and love your neighbors.  That’s about all there is to it.

Love God and love your neighbors - simple to understand but not easy to do.  Lots of things are like that: simple to understand but not easy to do.

Having attempted to do something on a computer and failed numerous times, in utter frustration we call someone who knows something about computers.  We explain what we are trying to do and the expert responds “Oh, that should be easy.”  Then we have an almost  irresistible urge to violate any number of God’s commandments. 

Mostly on Sunday morning we need, adults as well as children, to hear and share the good news.  We need to hear from each other, bear one another’s burdens and hear that God somehow is with us, hears us, and cares about us.  That’s the Good News. 

Thank you, children, for being here with us on Sundays, either here or across the street, to share with us the Good News.  You are good news for us.  You are precious in our eyes.  Have a wonderful summer and we’ll see you in the fall.

Readings:

John 3: 16-17

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.

Matt. 22:35-40

And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question, to test him.

"Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?"

And he said to him,

"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.  This is the great and first commandment.

And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets."

May 14, 2017    Sermon by:  Rev. Dr. Richard A. Hyde

The scriptural focus for this Fourth Sunday after Easter and Mother’s Day is what Jesus said to his disciples when he appeared to them alive and in person some days after the crucifixion.  Saint Luke tells us that they were startled and frightened, and supposed that they saw a spirit.

 “Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem . . . .  ‘”

How come we sin, or make mistakes or hurt people and get hurt in turn?

Why is the universe such that so much seems wrong or out of balance or just plain hurts so much?  Why do we need to repent and be forgiven and forgive in turn?  How do we recover from the trauma we have inflicted on others or the trauma others have inflicted on us?   You may remember that the first sermon I preached here was about trauma, how to deal with trauma, how to recover from it, how to learn the lessons of trauma without being stuck to your trauma, and so on. 

The Christian tradition has an answers to these questions.  In brief, the answer is Jesus, the Christ.  The Christ was needed and is still needed to restore the moral order of the universe.  The Christ event allows us forgiveness, absolution, restoration.  The sacrifice of Christ puts our lives back into balance.  Thinking about this sacrifice, God’s sacrifice is supposed to help us make the sacrifices we need to make, to forgive others their trespasses, ask for their forgiveness in turn and get on with our lives. 

The methods of doing this are many. 

Let me read you a story, written by one of my favorite writers, an account of an old church ritual he witnessed in Russia, in Siberia,  about 20 years ago.  He was traveling, alone, as great travel writers do and he decided to climb on a bus full of people, mostly women, mothers, grandmothers, old babushkas they are often called, on their way out to a new monastery near Omsk in southwestern Siberia.

I will explain a bit as we go along and your mind may wonder off in the details of the story, but remember that the subject of this story is the forgiveness of sins, the granting of absolution for sins – forgiveness, absolution, the two words mean the same.  One is Anglo-Saxon, one is Latin.

Excerpt from: Siberia

 By: Colini Thubron

“Outside the big, unlovely cathedral, which in Stalin’s day had been a cinema, I found a coach-load of pilgrims setting off for a rural monastery.  They welcomed me on board.  The monastic foundations were only just being laid, they said, and they were going to attend the blessing of its waters.  In 1987 an excavator at the site near the state farm of Rechnoi – had unearthed a mass grave, and the place was revealed as a complex of labour camps, abandoned at Stalin’s death.  The inmates, mostly intelligentsia, had died of pneumonia and dysentery from working in the fields, and their graves still scattered its earth.

As our bus bowled through ramshackle villages, the pilgrims relayed the story with murmurs of motherly pity.  They were elderly women, for the most part, indestructible babushkas in flower-printed dresses and canvas shoes, whose gnarled hands were closed over prayer-books and bead-strings, and whose headscarves enshrined faces of genial toughness.  When a fresh-faced cantor began chanting a hymn in the front of the bus, their voices rose in answer one after another, like old memories, reedy and melodious from their heavy bodies, until the whole bus was filled with their singing.

After several hours, we reached a birch grove on the Rechnoi farm.  It was one of those ordinary rural spots whose particular darkness you would never guess.  As the women disembarked, still singing, the strains of other chanting echoed from a chapel beyond the trees.  It was the first of four shrines which would one day stake out the corners of an immense compound.  Inside, a white-veiled choir was lilting the sad divisions of the Liturgy.  As the pilgrims visited their favorite icons, a forest-fire of votive  candle-flames sprang up beneath the iconostasis, and two or three babushkas shuddered to their knees

From outside came the squeal of bulldozers in a distant field.  They were smoothing the earth of the labour camps into monastery foundations.  I strained to catch the sounds, but our singing drowned them in the mournful decrescendos of the Russian rite.  And out of the mouths of these ancient women – whose sins, I imagined, could barely exceed a little malicious gossip – rose the endless primal guilt ‘O Lord forgive us!’ over and over, as if from some dee3p recess in the national psyche.

Towards noon a procession unwound from the church and started across the pasturelands towards the unblessed waters.  It moved with a shuffling, dislocated pomp.  Behind its uplifted cross, whose gilded plaques wobbled unhinged, the Archbishop advanced in a blaze of turquoise and crimson, his globular crown webbed in jewels.  He marked off each stride with the stab of a dragon-headed stave, and his chest glinted with purple- and gold-embossed frontlets, and a clash of enameled crosses.  He looked huge.  Beside him went the quaint, disheveled celebrant, and behind tripped a huddle of young priests in mauve, and the trio of raspberry-silk deacons.

I fell in line with the pilgrims following.  It was oddly comforting.  An agnostic among believers, I felt close to them,.  I too wanted their waters blessed.  I wanted that tormented earth quietened, the past acknowledged and shriven.  I helped the old woman beside me carry her bottles.  My feeling of hypocrisy, of masquerading in others’ faith, evaporated.  As I took her arm over the puddles and our procession stretched across the wet grass, Russia’s atheist past seemed no more than an overcast day in the long Orthodox summer, and the whole country appeared to be reverting instinctively, painlessly, to its old nature.  This wandering ceremonial, I felt, spring not from an evangelical revolution but from a simple cultural relapse into the timeless personality of the motherland – the hierarchical, half-magic trust of its forefathers, the natural way to be.

We reached a place where a silver pipe, propped on an old lorry tyre, was spilling warm water into a pool.  A blond deacon like a Nordic Christ planted the processional cross on the far side, and the archbishop, the priests, acolytes and pilgrims, the babushkas with their bags and bottles, a few war veterans and one mesmerized foreigner formed a wavering crescent around the water’s rim.

The unkempt celebrant, clutching a jeweled cross, was ordered to wade in.  From time to time he glanced up pathetically at Feodosy, who gave no signal for him to stop.  Deeper and deeper he went, while his vestments fanned out over the surface, their mauve silk waterlogged to indigo, until he was spread below us like an outlandish bird over the pool.  At last Feodosy lifted his finger. The priest floundered, gaped up at us – or at the sky – in momentary despair, recovered his balance and went motionless.  Then, with a ghostly frown, he traced a trembling cross beneath the water.

A deep, collective sigh seemed to escape the pilgrims.  Again the cavalcade unfurled around the pool. While the archbishop, grasping a silver chalice, sprinkled the surface with its own water, and the wobbly cross led the way back towards the noise of the bulldozers.

But the babushkas stayed put.  As the procession glimmered and died through the darkness of the trees, and the archbishop went safely out of sight, a new excitement brewed up.  They began to peel off their thick stockings and fling away their shoes,  They were all ready.  They tugged empty bottles labelled Fanta or Coca-Cola from their bags.  Then they clambered and slid down the muddy banks and waded into the newly blessed wager.  At first they only scooped it from the shallows.  It was mineral water, muddied and warm.  They drank in deep gulps from their cupped hands, and winched themselves back to stow the bottles on shore.

Then it all went to their heads.  Six or seven old women flung off first their cardigans, then their kerchiefs and skirts, until at last, stripped down to flowery underpants and bras, they made headlong for the waters.  All inhibition was lost.  Their massive legs, welted in varicose veins, carried them juddering down the banks.  Their thighs tapered to small, rather delicate feet.  Little God crosses were lost between their breasts.  They plunged mountainously in.  I stood above them in astonishment, wondering if I was meant to be here.  But they were shouting and jubilant.  They cradled the water in their hands and dashed it over their faces.  Holiness had turned liquid, palpable.  You could drink it, drown in it, bring it home like flowers for the sick.

Two of the boldest women – cheery,  barrel-chested ancients – made for the gushing silver pipe and thrust their heads under it.  They sloshed its torrent exultantly over one another, then submerged in it and drank it wholesale.  They shouted at their friends still on land, until one or two even of the young girls lifted their skirts and edged in.  Bottle after bottle was filled and lugged to shore.  But it was the young, not the old, who hesitate.  The old were in high spirits.  One of them shouted at me to join them, but I was caught between laughter and tears.  These were women who had survived all the Stalin years, the deprivation, the institutional suffering, into a life of widowhood and breadline pensions, and their exuberance struck me dumb.  Perhaps in this sacred and chaotic water-hole the world seemed finally to make sense to them, and all this aching, weary flesh at last found absolution.”

Whatever we all do this summer, whatever we all do for the rest of our lives, may we continue our search for the sacred, for that in life which is greater than life, and thereby find absolution. 

May 7, 2017  Sermon by:  Rev. Richard Hyde

It was the birthday recently of Alice Waters, who was born in Chatham, NJ in 1944 but is known throughout the culinary world now for opening a restaurant called Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California in 1971.  If you want to point to one person who began the current fashion for locally-sourced food, farmer’s markets and the like, you should probably point to Alice Waters.  Her restaurant is still very popular.  President Clinton dined there back in the mid-90s when his friends and family were trying to wean him away from hamburgers.

Alice Waters has written several books and is also quite quotable and was concerned not just with what we eat, but how we eat.  She really believes that good table fellowship is something very, very important.  Here’s what she says:

"Our full humanity is contingent on our hospitality; we can be complete only when we are giving something away; when we sit at the table and pass the peas to the person next to us we see that person in a whole new way."

Now isn’t that a good lesson for a church that loves potlucks and coffee hours?  And a good lesson for Communion Sunday.

As for today’s Biblical lesson, I also chose something appropriate for communion Sunday.  We continue the story we began last week of the disciples walking along the road, two of them.  They are joined by Jesus and they do not recognize him, even when he interprets for them the recent events, namely the trial and death of Jesus, a great prophet they say, the one they hoped would redeem Israel.  Jesus in the flesh tells them how the scriptures had foretold these events, even foretold the resurrection.  One would think they would get it but they do not.

Finally they invite him to join them for dinner; he takes bread, blesses it and breaks and the recognize him the breaking of the bread.

I’ve always loved this story but came to love it especially in seminary in New York City because the refectory – aka dining hall – had the Latin phrase inscribed in stone above the door:

Cognoverunt eum in Fractione Panis

They recognized him in the breaking of the bread.

We can recognize Jesus in any number of ways.  Jesus may come to us, as Anne Lamott reminded us a few weeks ago, as a persistent kitten that comes to you door and just keep nuzzling you until you give in.  You can recognize him in a great Cathedral, in some other great work art, in a piece of music when the trumpets and trombones announce a divine entrance; possibly you can become convinced by the study of the Bible of a Thursday morning here in Gray; perhaps convinced by preaching, when Pastor Nancy, or Pastor Annette or Pastor Linda, or Pastor Doug, Pastor Richard opens the scriptures, perhaps like Jesus once did on the road to Emmaus.

These are all good way to recognize Jesus and this is not the end of the list.  But the way we recommend this morning is to recognize Jesus in the breaking of the bread, in the service of Holy Communion.  When we come to this table, we recognize one another in a whole new way; we recognize Jesus in a whole new way.  We enter into a new relationship with God and one another.

April 9, 2017

Exactly 152 years ago today, on April 9, 1865 the American Civil War effectively came to end when General Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to General Ulysses S. Grant.  The meeting of these two men in the parlor of a home in the village of Appomattox Court House, Virginia took about an hour and a half, because it took a long time to write out the terms in longhand, sign and make copies.  Those ninety minutes are now the stuff of legend and deservedly so.

The great Civil War historian Bruce Catton has written about a conversation that took place between General Lee and one of his officers before the meeting with General Grant.  It is well worth quoting in full:

•        before he went to this meeting Lee quietly spoke a few words that were both a judgment on the past and an omen for the future.  To him, as he prepared to meet Grant, came a trusted lieutenant who urged him not to surrender but simply to tell his army to disperse, each man taking to the hills with his rifle in his hand: let the Yankees handle guerilla warfare for a while and see what they could make of that.  Lee replied that he would have none of it.  It would create a state of things in the South from which it would take years to recover, Federal cavalry would harry the length and breadth of the land for no one knew how long, and he himself was “too old to go bushwhacking;” (and) even if the army did break up into die-hard bands of irreconcilables, “the only course for me to pursue,” said Lee, “would be to surrender myself to General Grant.”  This was the last anybody heard about taking to the hills.  The officer who suggested this course wrote afterward that Lee “showed me the situation from a plane to which I had not risen, and when he finished speaking I had not a word to say." 

•        - from Bruce Catton, Never Call Retreat, p 431

This indeed is a lesson for today, an act of servant leadership.  General Lee showed one of his officers their mutual situation from a plane to which he had not risen, and when Lee finished speaking that young officer had not a word to say." 

This indeed is the wisdom that we crave

And so the meeting took place, with generous terms of surrender, with the result that we remain one nation 152 years later.

Give me another minute or two and I will tie this lesson to our readings for today.  First I want to note the obvious fact that we are in the midst of a transformation that occurs every year, a transformation which does not depend upon anything that any human being does; it occurs whether any human being takes note or not: namely the wondrous transformation from winter to spring.

Spring is a wondrous time, perhaps even a bit more wondrous the further north one goes.  People write poetry and music about spring, but my favorite work that deals with spring is a short book by a man who worked at the State Department in Washington in the spring of 1945.  Somehow he managed to get out on his bicycle every morning, pedal along the Potomac and record his observations, mostly of birds, and made no mention whatsoever of the world-transforming events that were taking place as World War II came to a close.  Just witnessing the passage from winter to spring was transformation enough and he wrote about it in a little volume called, simply, “Spring in Washington,” wherein he wrote:

"For a few ticks of the clock I am here, uncomprehending, attempting to make some record or memorial of this eternal passage, like a traveler in a strange country through which he is being hurried on a schedule not of his making and for a purpose he does not understand."

Every page of the book, every observation is alive with a sense of wonder.

So with a sense of wonder at the transformation of spring that is about to burst upon us and from whatever plane to which you have today arisen in your life, consider what Isaiah wrote some 2,600 years ago:

"It is too light a thing that you should be my servant

to raise up the tribes of Jacob

and to restore the preserved of Israel;

I will give you as a light to the nations,

that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth."

We believe that these words directly prophesy the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, who lived 2,000 years ago and who rode into Jerusalem on a donkey on the Sunday before Passover, who was witnessed by crowds who honored him with shouts of joy and strewed palm fronds in his path. 

How exactly this event led to his death by execution just a few days later we do not really know.  The Gospels tell of conspiracy by the old enemies of Jesus we hear about in the Gospels, the Pharisees, perhaps the Sadducees  – and Roman indifference.   Yet it remains quite puzzling how a crowd of people could have acclaimed Jesus as Messiah at the beginning of the week and another crowd of people - from the same rather small city - cry for his execution just a few days later. 

However it happened, by viewing the death and resurrection of Jesus in the light of many prophecies, we get an understanding of Jesus as the savior of all people, all nations.  The servant leadership of Jesus saves all of us, as the Gospel of John makes clear, and challenges us to view our lives and all history from the plane to which Jesus ascended, to understand our lives sub specie aeternitatis, from the perspective of eternity.  From that perspective  - the perspective of eternity (- we live and move and have our being.  From that perspective,) from that plane, we know that

though Jesus was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,

but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in our likeness.

And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.

Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name,

that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.  - Philippians 2

During this Holy Week, let us humble ourselves as Jesus did and celebrate his rising.

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Lent

Communion Sunday

April 2, 2017

Isaiah 42:1-4

[1]Behold my servant, whom I uphold,

my chosen, in whom my soul delights;

I have put my Spirit upon him,

he will bring forth justice to the nations.

[2] He will not cry or lift up his voice,

or make it heard in the street;

[3] a bruised reed he will not break,

and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;

he will faithfully bring forth justice.

[4] He will not fail or be discouraged

till he has established justice in the earth;

and the coastlands wait for his law.

John 2:13-22

[13]The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.

[14] In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers at their business.

[15] And making a whip of cords, he drove them all, with the sheep and oxen, out of the temple; and he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables.

[16] And he told those who sold the pigeons, "Take these things away; you shall not make my Father's house a house of trade."

[17] His disciples remembered that it was written, "Zeal for thy house will consume me."

[18] The Jews then said to him, "What sign have you to show us for doing this?"

[19] Jesus answered them, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up."

[20] The Jews then said, "It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?"

[21] But he spoke of the temple of his body.

[22] When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word which Jesus had spoken.

topic is servant leadership, covering the scriptures, a little history, and Walt Whitman

Thank you all for showing up, this Sunday for worship when the weather has been, shall we say, less than what we were hoping for; and for showing up last Sunday for worship and for a service of installation, which certainly constitutes double-duty in any endeavor. 

My brother called a few days ago to congratulate me on my investiture.  He is as fond of long archaic words as I am.  I told him that we don’t call it that because I didn’t get a vest, but since I did get a stole we can call it my instoleation.

And thank you for taking a chance on someone from far away to come and be your pastor.  Let’s say that it has been an adventure and a good one and I look forward to our next steps together.

My topic this Sunday is servant leadership; a topic suggested by the obvious great contrast here between the prophet Isaiah who speaks of a servant “who will not will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street;”

and the Gospel writer John who tells us of  the enraged Jesus who chases the money changers from the temple with a whip. 

Almost all Christian scholars agree that this section of Isaiah and several others, called the Servant Songs, foretell the life and death of Jesus, the servant of God who is obedient unto death. 

On the other hand, John here tells us that Jesus, certainly early in his ministry, had a wider range of leadership styles.  I’ll talk more about this in a few minutes.

First I want to talk about two events in history, American history, that pertain to the subject of servant leadership and that took place about this time of year:

In American history, late winter and early spring has often been bittersweet.  Two great wars, the greatest wars in terms of cost and casualties, came to an end about this time of year; our own Civil War and World War II.  On the one hand it was a very happy spring.  Yet two great national leaders, two presidents, died in that spring, suddenly and unexpectedly, President Roosevelt of a heart attack or stroke, Abraham Lincoln of an assassin’s bullet. 

Lincoln was shot in Ford’s Theater in Washington on Good Friday, April 15, 1865 and died the following morning.  FDR died in Warms Springs, Georgia on April 12, 1945.  Easter had already occurred that year, on April 1, 1945.  So two great funeral processions took place amid flower blossoms, leafing trees and the beauty of spring in Washington, when Washington is one of the most lovely cities on earth.  Neither president was buried at Arlington – that great cemetery was in its early years then and was just a temporary resting place for thousands of common soldiers who had died in the battles near the nation’s capital. including Confederates.  When their generals started dying off in the 1880s, many wished to be buried there with their soldiers and that is how it became the great and prestigious place it is now. 

Something everyone should do is be in Washington for one of these occasions, for the funeral of a president; or just visit Arlington when the weather is nice to see the soldiers in dress blues and white gloves, hear the clip clop, clip clop of the hooves of finely caparisoned white horses and feel the 21gun salute resound over the hills of the National Cemetery.

All this all happened in 1865 and 1945 in the spring, the great procession in Washington, the laying in state in the Rotunda, followed by a train ride back to Springfield, Illinois for Lincoln and up to Hyde Park, New York for Roosevelt.  And there their national leadership came to an end.

Many people at the time remarked on how serving as president had aged Abraham Lincoln.  Anyone can look at his photographs now and unmistakably see it.  That he died on Good Friday elicited thousands of articles, poems and sermons comparing him to Jesus.  Roosevelt likewise dramatically aged in office.  Of both presidents, it can certainly be said that they died in their nation’s service.

Today we like to call our elected leaders public servants.  Even the few kings and queens left on earth speak of themselves as serving their people, by  carrying out their royal duties .

We gather here every Sunday to honor and worship a different kind of leader.  Jesus refused political leadership and thus remains a religious leader who inspires people of all nations.  Precisely because he was not a national leader, precisely because he was not a king, he could exhibit and exercise a multiplicity of abilities, to heal infirmities, to forgive sins, to feed multitudes and even to chase people out of the temple precincts with a whip.  Thus Jesus remains available to all, to all races, all nationalities, young and old, men and women.

And the US of A, a nation that did not exist just a few centuries ago has become a nation much inspired by the Gospel message.  We have indeed institutionalized the separation of church and state, so the government of the US is neutral regarding religion, but the American people have become a most rumbustious nation of nations and still much inspired by Christian ideas. 

After my installation last week that included a long passage by Walt Whitman, a few people asked why.

I forget what I said but let me say this today.  The Christianity of Walt Whitman is not explicit but much implied.  He certainly understood himself as standing in the prophetic tradition and like St. Paul, he had some good news to share with the world.  He understood himself as chanting a new Gospel on a new continent to a new and democratic people. 

We all know that John the evangelist wrote:  “God so loved the world He sent His only son.”

Well, Walt Whitman decided to love the world, starting with the US of A.  See if you can hear the prophets, hear St. Paul, hear Jesus of Nazareth in these lines:

This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body. . . . . . . .

This is the formula on this continent, in this new nation, for a democratic people to become the body of Christ.


December 16, 2016

 

Bend, Stretch and Breathe, the church’s conscious movement ministry has moved into the church vestry and will be there through the winter and into the spring.  It is a beautiful space in which to practice and we like having lights on at this dark time of year to symbolize that the Spirit is alive and active in the church. 

 

Join us every Friday evening at 5:30.  Yes, we will be there through the Christmas holidays.

 

On Sunday mornings throughout the fall we focused on the Letter of Paul to the Romans and on Martin Luther for whom that book was of utmost importance.  We celebrated the 499th anniversary of Luther’s posting of Ninety-Five Theses on the Wittenberg Door, All Saints’ Day and Election Day.

 

Now we are well into Advent, reading the prophesies of the Christ in the Isaiah and getting ready to celebrate the birth of the Christ child.  It is a wonderful time of year, a great time to ponder what the Spirit is working within us, a great time to read the ancient prophecies.  Perhaps my favorite is from Isaiah Chapter 9.  Handel set it to music, making it even more memorable.  I look forward to the first time in late November that I listen to one of the many great recordings of the Messiah. 

 

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;

those who lived in a land of deep darkness--
on them light has shined.

. . .

For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;

authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named

Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace

for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it

with justice and with righteousness
from this time onward and forevermore.

The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

 

May the celebration of the Christ child’s birth this Christmas fill us with joy and the peace that passes understanding.

 

 

October 15, 2016

The ministry of Bend, Stretch and Breathe continues every Friday afternoon at 5:30 in the Parish Hall, which is a white building across Yarmouth Street from the church and next to McDonalds.  Whatever your ability, please join us.  Bending, stretching and breathing is essential to life.  A weekly conscious practice of integrating all three makes for a better life.  

 

Pastor Richard has practiced yoga for over 35 years and teaches a mix of postures and styles informed by various schools of flow yoga.  He first learned yoga out of a book, Yoga and Common Sense, by Ina Marx.  He has studied at the Kripalu Institute in western Massachusetts and with Mark Whitwell and Thomas Fortel at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California. Like all yoga teachers, he stresses the importance of paying attention to the breath, but the most important aspect of yoga is just doing it.

 

Especially at the beginning, do not worry about doing the poses perfectly.  Just doing something is better than doing nothing.  Get into the habit of doing something and you will soon be doing them well enough. 

Some yoga instructors focus on learning the individual poses, getting the pose exactly right and holding it.  Some focus more on the flow from one pose to the next.

 

Both of these emphases are valuable.  If you get into the flow, you’ll eventually get skilled at all the poses.  If you get really good at the poses, you will naturally be able to flow from one to the next. 

Breath, flow, mechanics, awareness, relaxation, stretching, endurance, strength - all are important.  Each supports the others. 

 

There is no perfect way to do any of the poses, although striving for perfection may be worthwhile for some people.  The most important thing to do in a yoga or movement practice is start.  You can start with a focus on breath.  You can start with a focus on structure.  You can start with a focus on flowing movement. 

Just start.  And continue.  Repeat.

 

Practicing with others – community – is also important.  Please join us every Friday afternoon at 5:30.

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