Seventh Sunday After Epiphany
“May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” (Ps 19:14)
Last year was the 150th anniversary of publication of the book Little Women. I had never read the book, but sometimes I feel obligated to read a classic. So I’m now in the process of reading Little Women.
It's my nighttime read. Usually Sharon will go to bed before me. I'll get into bed quietly, ready to read my book quietly, but for an unknown reason I'll start singing "Little women walking down the street." Guess that ruins all the quiet for Sharon who is trying to sleep.
I remember on the television show Friends that Joey almost cried when he heard about the death of one of the daughters. Last weekend I heard an interview on the radio and the woman was comparing herself to the high-spirited, independent daughter. Sharon and I were sitting in the tavern of the Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge and the bartender’s favourite book is Little Women.
Plus, as a pastor I appreciate that Little Women intentionally tries to teach important moral lessons. And one of the most difficult lessons is the same one we’re talking about today: “Love your enemies.”
In Little Women, one of Mrs. March’s daughters had gotten into a jealous argument with one of her friends, but rather than return unkindness for unkindness, the daughter turns the other cheek. The mother praises her because of this, but the all-knowing narrator lets the reader know that even this most gentle of women offered her praise “with the air of one who had learned the difference between preaching and practicing.” (chap. 30) It’s fairly easy to say “love your enemies,” but it’s extremely hard to do so. It’s like we heard yesterday from Rev. Sanderson about church growth: it’s 20% idea and 80% work.
In this morning’s Gospel, we go to the source of this most difficult lesson that is easier to preach than to practice, but Jesus did practice what He preached. I mentioned this at the beginning of this past week’s Bible Study. We’re beginning to read the chapters in Mark’s Gospel that tell us about Jesus’ final days. Jesus goes to the cross because He will not return hatred for hatred.
This adds credibility to Jesus’ words when He shares with us what I think is the most counter-intuitive, most radical, most difficult teaching in all our faith. He says, “‘But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies …’” “But I say to you that listen …” Jesus knows that hearing this bizarre commandment is not the same as listening, as taking it in and giving it a chance to take hold.
There are a lot of other world religions that would call love your enemies excessive. There are a lot of nations that would call this suicidal. There are a lot of Christians who would call this impossible. And there were a lot of people who heard Jesus who thought the exact same thing. That’s why I have the cartoon on the front of today’s bulletin.
Crowds are politely hearing what Jesus has to say, but they’re not really willing to listen. The ones in the crowd are a defeated people. Their conquerors are the Romans.
You know how upset we get over the thought of Russian interference in our elections? Imagine instead that the Russians not only interfered, but that they defeated us and were in control of our lives. That’s just like the feelings the ones in the crowds would have had toward the Romans.
When Jesus preaches “Love your enemies,” they hear His words, but they can’t process them. They immediately start saying among themselves, “Certainly he doesn’t mean the Romans." "I would hope not,” says another in reply. But Jesus does mean even the Romans when He teaches: Love your enemies.
But before we settle for only hearing today’s Gospel rather than really listening to it, let’s put it in perspective. Somewhere at home I have an old editorial cartoon that shows one last Arab ready to throw a bomb at one last Israeli who is ready to shoot him with his Uzi. Everything around them has been destroyed and they’re the last two standing, and now they’re ready to kill each other. Does the Middle East feel like a safe corner of the world with this sort of generational revenge mentality?
I’ve heard also that we’re selling Saudi Arabia nuclear technology because Iran already has it. This means in the tinder box that is the Middle East Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia are going to try and protect themselves by all building their own nuclear weapons. Does that sound safer?
Last week in Kashmir a group from the Pakistani side killed about 40 soldiers on the Indian side. India has vowed to retaliate with a "jaw breaking response." And both of these countries are trying to feel safer by both building nuclear weapons. Does that sound safer?
Or how about the fact that the United States and Russia are pulling out of nuclear control treaties that limit closer range weapons. This cuts down on reaction times and a hastily made judgment mistake could easily escalate to full nuclear war. Does that make us feel safer?
Stephen Hawking, that famous wheelchair bound astrophysicist, said that we have not made contact with other intelligent civilizations in the universe because it is very possible that once a civilization makes enough progress to reach out into space that it has also learned enough to destroy itself. Maybe we haven’t heard from anybody else because that’s exactly what happens every time.
Maybe “love your enemies” is not as absurd as it sounds.
Or how about this from another perspective? I imagine that we’ve all seen movies where someone is being tortured, but the person can’t be broken. Then the villains bring in someone that the person cares about. The one who would not crack when harm was endured personally could not tolerate the thought of harm being done to someone they loved.
What if God in Jesus was willing to face the torturous death of the cross Himself, but God cannot bear what we do to each other, His beloved children? What if the agony of our harming each other is even more fearsome for God than the cross?
Imagine how our hatreds and violence, even to the point of nuclear destruction, must cause God to shudder? This is an offense at the very nature of who God is and the strangeness of “love your enemies” is only strange because it’s asking us to be like God.
Let me close with the words of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on this our last Sunday of African-American History Month. He had many a reason to return hatred for hatred, but he clung to Jesus’ Gospel instead and in the end he would say: “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.”
Love your enemies, I believe, is the hardest lesson of Christianity, but it is essential to Christianity. There’s just no way to soften its severity. We can hear it or we can truly listen to it, but we can’t say Jesus didn’t mean it.
May we pray for peace and for lessening the number of our enemies so that this commandment is not as hard to bear, and may we find the strength in our worship to not only preach but practice this strange commandment in our lives. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
A Simple Question
Written by Emily Heath
One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, 'Do you want to be made well?'"- John 5:5-6
There is a common saying in recovery communities used when someone relapses and returns to alcohol or drugs: "Well, maybe they just needed to do a little more research."
It is certainly gallows humor, but there's some truth there. As much as you can lead someone in the right direction, show them the tools that will help them make better choices, and support them all you can, in the end nothing will help someone to recover unless they want to recover.
When Jesus comes to a man who has been lying at the pool of Bethesda for 38 years he asks him a deceptively simple question: "Do you want to get well?"
The man doesn't answer him. Instead he tells him what was keeping him from getting well. Jesus seems to ignore these things and says simply, "Stand up, take your mat, and walk."
It's important not to equate physical disability with "getting well" in other senses. Jesus did the physical healing that not even modern medicine can do. But I sometimes wonder what Jesus would say to others who have been hanging around the pool for 38 years, for whom recovery is very much a choice.
To put it in recovery terms, no one chooses to be an alcoholic. That's a disease over which no one has power. But when you're sober, you can absolutely choose whether or not to relapse because in the end no one forces a drink down your throat.
In other words, "Do you want to get well?"
And I sometimes wonder what he would ask congregations who have been kicking the metaphorical can down the road for years and years, bemoaning a culture that has passed them by, blaming a changing world for declining membership.
"Do you want to get well?"
Truly, we who are "still sick and suffering" (and that includes the church) are not responsible for some things. But we are responsible for working with God towards our own recovery.
Great Physician, help me to say "yes" when you offer your healing to me. Amen.
About the Author
Emily C. Heath is the Senior Pastor of The Congregational Church in Exeter (New Hampshire) and the author most recently of Courageous Faith: How to Rise and Resist in a Time of Fear.
I share this "Daily Devotional" with you because it is a perspective I never imagined as I read the story of this man long ill.
Rev. Heath also brings up the condition of the church. We can see church mergers and closings in so many communities. We recognize that attendance wasn't what it once used to be.
Is the problem only with people no longer being sufficiently "religious" or is part of the problem that churches are not where people are looking for "religious"?
Do we want to be made well?, Rev. Heath asks.
I would ask you to keep this Daily Devotional in mind and maybe think about joining us on Saturday from 11AM - 1PM as we have invited Rev. Corey Sanderson to come and talk with us about church growth.
Rev. Sanderson has built a church from the ground up, where nothing was he helped to establish a congregation. I again invite you to come by and let's talk about this topic.
And hot soup will be served to boot.
Sixth Sunday After Epiphany
“May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” (Ps 19:14)
The other night I stayed up to watch the first episode of Miracle Workers. It looked like it could be a bit funny and maybe a bit interesting. I’ve been watching The Good Place for a couple of seasons now and I have enjoyed that show.
The Good Place is a story about trying to get four people into heaven – the Good Place. I’ll give Miracle Workers one my try, but the first episode was anything but funny or interesting.
In Miracle Workers, Daniel Radcliffe of Harry Potter fame plays a low-level angel who alone is responsible for handling all of humanity’s prayers. There’s just this one angel and his office is located in the basement, of a heavenly office building.
In his decrepit office, all alone, this forgotten angel contents himself every day by answering prayers like “where are my keys” or “where is my glove.”
All of the other prayers are marked “impossible” and sent off to God, and God in Miracle Workers is a beer-drinking, despondent, defeated boss. He created earth and after millions of years of failed attempts to make earth a better place, he has finally given-up.
All of those impossible prayers kept pouring into his office day after day, century after century, civilization after civilization, and God couldn’t take it anymore.
In Miracle Workers, God is unable to answer most every important prayer because of the consequences of doing so. It was like another God-moving. In Bruce Almighty, when Bruce who is now filled with God’s power wants to impress his girlfriend, he pulls the moon closer to make an amazingly romantic full moon in the night sky. That good intention caused terrible floods all around the globe because the moon’s gravity effects ocean tides.
I think Miracle Workers is going to play on this same idea that it’s really hard to be God, that it’s really hard to answer prayers.
This quandary is not something recently discovered by Hollywood. This has been thought about as long as people have thought about God and wondered why bad things happen to good people.
There’s even a theologically technical term for all of this. It’s theodicy. It’s the problem of believing in a good and caring God when we’re faced constantly with the reality of accidents, sickness, crimes and wars. How does a good God allow for such things? This is basically all of those impossible prayers sent up to God in Miracle Workers that drives God to drink heavily.
Jesus was even asked about it. One time His disciples saw a man born blind and they asked Jesus whose sin caused this condition. (John 9:1+) They figured there must be some morally justifiable reason that could explain why this man suffered.
They couldn’t accept that it was random, that his blindness had nothing to do with him deserving to be blind. That wouldn’t be fair. Jesus’ quick answer is that the man’s blindness is not a moral question, and this kind of suffering doesn’t fit into categories of fair or unfair.
Another time Jesus was asked about people who suffered the intentional cruelty of a dictator or who died accidentally as a tower collapsed on them. (Luke 13:1+) And again Jesus said that such people did not suffer because they deserved it more than some others. Deserved is not part of this discussion.
So some may ask, and justifiably, then why believe in God, why bother to pray to God? Well, one answer is what Paul was talking to us about in today’s first reading that Becky read. There’s the hope of our resurrection.
We are people of faith. We believe that this life is not all that there is to who we are. Eternity awaits us on the other side of the funeral. This life is dwarfed by eternity. In the picture that only God can see, blessings will abound. We just sang the African-American spiritual "Swing Low Sweet Chariot." The hope of heaven is what helped sustain the slaves through the trials and tortures of their lives. We believe and we pray because, as Paul says, since Jesus resurrected, we can trust that so will we.
But I hope there is more to our faith than patience, than waiting for heaven. And that’s where today’s Gospel enters the story. The Sermon on the Mount is famous; the Sermon on the Plain that we just read is not.
I think a lot of us have at least heard of the phrase “The Beatitudes” from the Sermon on the Mount, but the Sermon on the Plain is stricter and maybe that’s why it’s not as famous.
The Sermon on the Mount says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” but the Sermon on the Plain says more starkly “Blessed are the poor.” It’s not a religious quality; it’s an economic reality.
The Sermon on the Mount says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” while on the Plain it’s only “Blessed are you who are hungry now.” And to add to the impact of these statements, the Sermon on the Plain says, “Woe to the rich” and “Woe to you who are full now.” This is not only spirituality. This is a social-political-economic condemnation of a system that leaves too many with nothing.
The Sermon on the Plain and the Sermon on the Mount come from the same tradition of Jesus-sayings, but the Sermon on the Plain is told by Luke and Luke’s Jesus is agitated and distressed and bothered and not wanting to wait until heaven makes things right.
The Sermon on the Plain is the Jesus of all the activists in the world, the reformers, the ones who want to make changes for the better, the ones who will not sit and wait for heaven, the ones who are offended by inequality and injustice, the ones who take seriously the words “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” This is hard and it demands something concrete from us now to change things for the better.
The Sermon on the Plain is Jesus standing on the level with everyone who will listen. It’s Jesus not asking us to do anything that He is not committed to doing fully and completely. It’s not Jesus the general giving orders from the rear. It’s Jesus the sergeant fighting by our side.
I don’t know in what direction Miracle Workers will go with its story of a God ready to give us all up, but in the first episode God is overwhelmed because God has nothing to do with us. God sits in heaven; we struggle on earth; and never the twain shall meet. The prayers are only words not people.
But Jesus is the full-fledged opposite of this kind of God. Jesus can’t alter creation with a miracle every time we ask for one, but Jesus can stand beside us when we hurt, and inspire us to make a difference so that hurting stops.
Jesus is the power of God standing with us and giving us the courage and conviction to believe that we can make a difference. It’s hard. Suffering still surrounds us. But Jesus is always going to work with us if we work with Him, and just maybe this is how God answers all those impossible prayers – by inspiring and empowering us to make a difference.
Mary Luti is a UCC seminary teacher and I share her prayer in closing: “God, may we find the work that is ours to do, and the courage and grace to do it.” In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
That They May All Be One
Rev. Dr. John Dorhauer
General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ
January 28, 2019
Dear Partners in Christ:
The vision of a body united –in purpose, in mission, in vision – is one that inspired the birth of our denomination. All of our spiritual impulses reverberate in an effort to call us into a more perfect union. Throughout our shared history as a people of faith and as a part of the Body of Christ, we have challenged ourselves to widen the circle of inclusion. Widening the circle has always come with growth pains as we shed old skins and welcome those whom we had previously thought unwelcome. And, with each new articulation of a more fully expressed Body of Christ we have realized new joy. Through it all we remain focused on the call to be one and committed to meeting the challenges inherent in that call.
We are now living in and through a season when the threats to unity are legion. Talk of walls that mark refugees as threats, labels like ‘terrorist’ that attach too easily to Muslims, overt racial bias that normalizes fear and hatred, a pandemic of abuse to women with the trigger reflex to forgive the men who author that abuse have turned America into a land many of us no longer recognize and that too many of us are finding harder and harder to reconcile with our faith.
Now more than ever, the Holy Spirit of the Living God and the Risen Christ is seeking to partner with anyone committed to unifying the human community. The gospel mandate to love our neighbor as we love ourselves resonates deep within us. It calls for the better angels among and within us to always resist impulses to hate, to condemn, to vilify, or to castigate. In such a time as this, the United Church of Christ’s call to fulfill the prayer of Jesus, that they may all be one, stands as an urgent mandate to disciples who envision a just world for all.
United with you in God’s service,
The Rev. Dr. John C. Dorhauer
General Minister and President
Music is a special gift at Hatfield Congregational, and one best enjoyed in person. If, however, you can't make it to church, you can still listen to it on any of our posted Sunday Service videos, Here are a couple of recent selections that have been taped in HD. We hope you enjoy.
All of us at the church want to say "Thanks!" to our Music Director, Anthony Tracia and to our all volunteer choir for the time and talent they put in to help make our worship that much more uplifting. And please know, you are more than welcome to come and join us on any Sunday.
Thank you to everyone who supported our Kindness for Kids (K4K) breakfast this morning. K4K is a program of the church’s Benevolence Committee. Its purpose is to help Hatfield’s public-school students participate in school activities that they may otherwise not be able to because of financial difficulty.
The organizers of the K4K breakfast were Melody Edwards, Leeanne Rubeck and Amy Novak. We thank them for all of their enthusiasm and hard work. We appreciate also the many volunteers who came forward from Hatfield Congregational Church, including Maddie and Morgan from our Confirmation class. I’ll see if they won’t let me post their names.
Leeanne and Art Rubeck were a huge help in the kitchen. Leeanne invited so many of her fellow parishioners from Our Lady of Grace Roman Catholic Church to come over and we appreciate their support. Being only a few days shy of Valentine’s Day, a card-making area was set up for our youngest guests, and we thank Ali and Brooke for supervising this activity.
We were truly blessed by the generous support of the Hatfield Lion’s Club and Goggin’s Realty. The Lion’s Club donated $500 to the K4K fund and added eight gift cards to the Texas Road House Restaurant in Hadley.
The Goggins Real Estate Agency contributed $250, and on top of that four employees came and worked with us at the breakfast. They were: Micki Sanderson, Tess Coburn, Rachel Simpson and Julie Rosten. Every month Goggins’ employees volunteer at a local charitable event.
We need also to thank the Hampshire Gazette Newspaper. They ran an article in the Gazette in advance of our breakfast and helped us to get the word out about the event and K4K. Here, again, is the link to the article:
The posted article on our FaceBook page has already received over 500 hits. The Gazette sent a photographer to the breakfast and we are looking forward to seeing those pictures next week.
Lastly, the initial count on the proceeds we made at the breakfast, 100% of which will benefit students in need in the Hatfield public schools, is $1,450! Thank you to everyone who donated, worked and attended the breakfast to make this possible.
Fourth Sunday After Epiphany
“May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” (Ps 19:14)
I tend to donate blood on a regular basis, and the Red Cross doesn’t let you forget when you’re eligible to donate again. They call constantly. So what happens is I get into a repeating loop of donating at the same location and often with the same Red Cross staff.
I’ve come to know the Blood Mobile driver and several of the phlebotomists, the ones who actually draw my blood. This past Tuesday was one such visit to the Blood Mobile.
I don’t know if it was the threat of snow or the cold, but it was kind of slow that day. I was talking with the one who was in charge of my donation when another one of the phlebotomists who was just sitting on the empty donor-couch across the aisle chimed in too.
She mentioned that she recognized me even before I signed in. I thought that was nice. I took it as a compliment. I thought maybe she remembered me as a pastor or for some funny story or something like that.
But it was nothing of the sort. She remembered me and all of her other regular donors – by our veins. “That donor has good veins, that one not so much. This donor is a hard stick. That other one an easy stick.” What mattered to the phlebotomist was what was important to the phlebotomist – veins.
I’m sort of friendly with my gastroenterologist too. I’ll have to ask him if the same applies when I come around for my colonoscopy.
So along that same line of reasoning, what is it that stands out as the most recognizable identifier of a Christian? What’s most important to us? I’m sure going to church would be one of the quickest and most repeated answers, especially among people who are in church and who hear that question in a sermon.
It’s not hard to identify some Christians on a Sunday morning, but what are the identifiers during the rest of the week?
You probably remember Rev. Robert Livingston. He has been a supply minister here in the past. He posted a cartoon on FaceBook the other day that shows an upset gentleman whispering to his wife in church and saying, “As if Sunday isn’t enough, now he wants us to introduce religion into our everyday life.”
How do we do that? What does it look like? What are its identifiers?
I caught a quick look of an interview with Toni Harris, a defensive back for the East Los Angeles College Huskies. Toni wants to be the first female NFL player.
If you’re going to watch the Super Bowl this evening, you’ll see Toni. She’s the star in a car commercial. “They said she was too small, too slow, too weak.” The commercial continues with the voiceover saying, “People have made a lot of assumptions about Toni.” Then the camera zooms in on her face and she looks right at us and says, “But I’ve never been a big fan of assumptions.”
I think we also need to be wary of assumptions when it comes to defining the identifiers of a Christian because they also can be far too limiting.
Jesus knew this and was quite direct when He said, “‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.’” (Matt. 7:21)
Paul repeats this message when he writes to the early church in Rome and says that a believer is not defined by the superficial. Instead, real faith “is a matter of the heart.” (2:29) It has to be sincere.
So we’re back to the question about what are the identifiers of a Christian? I think among us that question is going to remain open to debate, but I think we should consider Paul’s words in today’s first reading that Bill shared with us.
For Paul and for that first generation of Christians, love was the essential identifier of faith.
This goes far beyond the assumptions of love. The Greeks had three words that English translates with the one word love. There is a physical love and there is also a brotherly love, but the word Paul uses today is agape, a selfless, unconditional love.
Faith matters, hope matters, but “the greatest of these is love,” agape, says Paul.
The physical and the brotherly love are normal human emotions. Jesus once said, “‘If you love those who love you,’” basically, big deal. Anyone can do that. (Matt. 5:46)
Christian love, however, comes from the presence and the power of God within us. This kind of love is more than human. It’s transformative. It changes people. It becomes an identifier.
There’s an on-going article on NPR about anger. The link will be posted with the sermon later today. Scientists argue that anger is found even down to the level of fruit flies. It’s so common it must be natural. It’s something living things are born with.
When we talk about this in human beings, some people say it’s original sin. I wouldn’t. I would call it human nature. I wouldn’t, therefore, call who we are by nature sinful because I don’t think God made a sinful creation.
But we are called to be more than our human nature. That’s when the natural instinct of anger is subdued by Christian love, and all of a sudden we look different. We can be identified. We stand outside the expected.
In that NPR article, the scientists say, “One way the human brain may differ from an animal's is in the circuits used to control emotions, including anger. … Our ability to use these circuits probably depends more on nurture than nature.”
For our purposes here, nurture is where our faith jumps into the story and helps us become better than we could be without it.
Anger seems to be hardwired into living things from fruit flies to humans. It’s a natural response. What identifies a Christian though is that love is stronger. That’s unnatural. That’s the difference faith makes.
The Red Cross phlebotomist looked at me as a phlebotomist would and saw me as my veins. As Christians we need to look at ourselves and others and see love.
Let’s hope that people can tell we are Christians not only by our cars parked outside the church, but by the fact that they can see love in how we live even in our everyday lives.
Such a love needs to be nurtured. It needs to be fed. And this is why we will now gather together at the Lord’s Table to share in Jesus’ sacrament of perfect love. So let us prepare ourselves for Communion. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
Faith, love and chitchat.
Children Sunday School 9:30-10:30am
Nursery care available during worship