Every church is free to decide its own course. (https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2019/06/12/for-gender-fluid-pope-enlightenment-has-soul-crushing-limits/IhTx2PER9Lxo8VfyubY0AN/story.html)
One of the reasons why I am proud to be a member of the United Church of Christ is that it embraces Jesus' openness to all people, especially the ones most in need, the ones pushed to the side, the ones rejected in God's name. There is an alternate and valid reading of Mark 1:41 that goes like this: "Moved with anger, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched [the leper]"
Jesus' anger is directed against a religious system that would cause a person in desperate need to wonder if God were also disgusted with him. Jesus doesn't only heal the leper, the man declared ritually unclean and unfit to be in God's presence, Jesus touches the person. Jesus becomes unclean. Jesus connects with the man and simultaneously destroys the notion that God rejects the ones we reject in His name. This is the Jesus behind Open and Affirming. ONA is not only "fashionable." It is gospel.
The UCC celebrates "Open and Affirming Sunday" this year on June 30th. I am not sure why this Sunday was chosen, but June 28, 1969 is the date of the Stonewall Inn riot in NYC, 50 years ago. I imagine there must be a connection. On this day we will celebrate Jesus' extravagant welcome of all God's people whoever they may be. This is the course that the UCC has decided to follow.
What would Jesus have us do?
God as my witness, on the same day that I heard David Ortiz was shot, I was talking with someone who was considering the possibility of declaring bankruptcy because of medical expenses. The person has medical insurance through the employer, but the deductibles are so high that a serious medical issue that required extensive care may bankrupt that person. It is a blessing that Big Papi has access to the world’s greatest medical talents and institutions. However, is it conscionable that an organization like the Red Sox who can pay the astronomical amounts needed to have a beloved Boston sports icon flown on a chartered plane with all the attendant medical attention and equipment from the Dominican Republic to Mass General Hospital for extremely costly care, while others are locked out of far less because they have less? Is the value of people’s lives, like in some future science fiction dystopia, measured by wealth?
God as my witness, on the same day that I heard about the shooting of Number 34, I heard on the news that the Vatican had declared an end to the discussion and treatment options for the transgender, declaring the issue settled by God at birth. On the same day, I heard an interview prior to the opening of the Southern Baptist Convention in which a church leader declared that the gospel needs to be preached with a male voice because that is what Jesus commands. Men must be unquestioned as Jesus’ mouthpiece. This is the same denomination at the same Convention that must also deal with the same male privilege tragedy of clergy sexual abuse that was tolerated for who knows how many generations by the Vatican.
Churches seem to be unhesitant in preaching gospel as what they want to hear it. But what about the gospel we hear in the Gospels? Doesn’t Jesus stand with the marginalized and the oppressed? Doesn’t Jesus warn against the selfishness that becomes more and more possible with the accumulation of more and more ridiculous amounts of wealth? If churches are so willing to intervene in the political discussion of issues of sexual morality with a male-centric bias, issues which are far from biblically clear, shouldn’t they also speak out and protest the morality of something like the divide in medical care based on wealth? Or is that just not the gospel that they want to hear? If this is the case, can we blame people for abandoning organized religion as hypocritical? Have churches become overrun with the very same sins that Jesus opposed?
Is it time again for reform fueled by Jesus’ example and Jesus’ presence?
A busy Sunday morning
On this Pentecost Sunday 2019, we thanked our Christian Education volunteers for their work with our youngest members every Sunday of the year. They don't even take the summer off. We also presented goodie-bags to our students.
Also, we presented our two Smith Academy graduates with gifts as they will head off to college in the Fall, and we Confirmed four of our teenagers.
Come back and visit our website to watch the video of this morning's worship. It will be up on Monday evening or definitely by Tuesday.
“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)
It’s closing in on nine years since a friend of my daughter’s was involved in an accident on River Road in Whately. It was a bad one. I remember visiting her at Baystate Medical Center. It was touch and go. She survived, but was left paralyzed.
A lot of people would have given up. She was so active, and now she needed help to do everything. I would have understood depression. Instead, this strong, young woman grabbed life with more gusto than anyone I know.
She plays basketball. She wheel-chaired up Mount Washington. She’s gone white water rafting. She skies. She’s fearless with her wheelchair. She’ll go anywhere. If she wipes-out, she picks herself back up, and off again. And she mentors others who have been injured like she has and helps them physically and emotionally.
She’s the one you may have seen in the Baystate Medical Center commercials and billboards. When I’m driving north on 91 in Northampton, I see her looking at me and as it says on the billboard, “I will not let a spinal cord injury define me.” What an amazing attitude.
Or how about the story of Paul and Silas that Amy shared with us today. They’re dragged into the center of town. A mob has gathered. Paul and Silas are strangers and they’re talking about some strange new religion. People don’t like that. It gets them all worked up.
The politicians go along with the mob. Paul and Silas are stripped of their clothing and beaten with rods in front of a crowd who loves the spectacle. They’re thrown into a miserable prison cell and their feet are locked into a stockade.
Do they give up? Just the opposite. You know the way that girl wouldn’t let being paralyzed define her, how she drew on some inner strength and is far more adventurous than I would ever dare, well, Paul and Silas are like that too. They would not let their situation define them.
It’s the middle of the night. They’ve been beaten and people enjoyed it. They’ve been locked up in some dirty, cold prison. And they’re singing, says the Bible.
Their faith gave them the freedom to not be overwhelmed by anything in this world.
Faith was liberating and powerful. Thrown into prison – didn’t matter. Beaten – didn’t matter. Despised – didn’t matter. They were singing hymns at midnight because their faith set them free no matter what. Now that’s the power of faith!
Jesus hears the singing and Jesus needs them to keep preaching so miraculously they’re freed from their chains, and the doors of all the prison cells swing open. The jailor thought all the prisoners had escaped. Back in that day, if they escaped it was his life that made up for the loss.
He was ready to kill himself, but Paul yells from inside the cell, “We’re all here.” It didn’t matter if they were in prison or had escaped into the night they were already free. The jailer was so moved by this strange and powerful faith that he and his family were baptized.
Victor Hugo once said: “There is one thing stronger than all the armies in the world, and that is an idea whose time has come.”
I wonder if it’s the time again for Jesus’ gospel. I wonder if His gospel is the idea whose time has come – again.
Jesus’ gospel is not just Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – the Gospels. It’s the entirety of Jesus’ message and life, and what comes from it. Looking at the way the world is today, crass, selfish and violent, Jesus’ gospel is as strange now as when Paul and Silas upset the people in ancient Philippi.
The gospel is as radical and uncompromising today as it was when it got Paul and Silas beaten and imprisoned. We don’t have to be led by our fears though. The gospel leads us by our dreams. It lets us sing no matter what.
And you know why? Because the Good News, the gospel, is that Jesus believes in the good in us. Jesus is so optimistic about who we are that we even have trouble hearing it.
Think back to today’s Gospel. Jesus proclaims that He and God the Father are one. This is one of the key texts that led eventually to the teaching of the Trinity. But then Jesus continues and says, “So that they [,Christians] may be one, as we are one.”
Think about that. … Jesus and the Father are one. Jesus shares that same glory shared between Father and Son with us: “‘The glory that you [Father] have given me – I have given them.’”
That’s an amazing statement and we don’t really hear it because we’re so used to being told that we’re sinners. But the gospel, the Good News is that we are like God. We share something of the divine nature. And isn’t that the same message that the Bible begins with in the book of Genesis? Isn’t it a consistent and optimistic message?
God sees us for our dreams not for our fears. He sees the good we are capable of. There’s nothing stronger than “an idea whose time has come.” I think and I hope it’s the time again to hear for the first time the strange message of the gospel, of the good we are capable of in Jesus.
It’s time to figuratively sing hymns in the prison, to realize that nothing in this world is stronger than our faith. Let’s now come together at the Communion Table to feed our souls so that we are strong enough to be like God and to go out and startle the world with this new gospel.
In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
For larger print text or to download, click the PDF file below.
“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)
A guy walks into a restaurant and the day's special is beef tongue. He says to the waitress, "I don't want anything that came out of an animal's mouth. That’s gross. I'll have two eggs instead."
I love steamers in the summer, but who was ever the first person to eat one of them. They look ugly. Or what about raw oysters? Whoever slid one of them down the throat for the very first time?
But somebody had to be first.
Two wrongs, it’s said, don’t make a right, but two Wrights make an airplane.
Somebody had to come up with the preposterous idea of human beings flying through the air, and Orville and Wilbur Wright were brave and smart enough to be the first.
I know a Minister who loves to travel to exotic locations that she’s never been to before. She’ll go through the flight schedules for Logan Airport, find a non-stop to a place she’s never been, and off she goes.
In a couple of weeks, she’s flying to Cape Verde off the Atlantic coast of Africa for the first time because of that very reason – it will be her first time there. She loves the thrill of first time experiences.
And today we hear about some really important firsts. The church was born in Jerusalem on Pentecost, and from there it began to spread. People moved on and as they did they told others about Jesus. The most successful of them all was a man by the name of Paul.
He was like my minister friend who’s going to Cape Verde. Paul would go anywhere new. He planned his trips by making sure that no one had gone there to talk about Jesus before him.
One night Paul had a dream. He felt called to cross over to a new continent. He decided it was time to start talking about Jesus in Europe for the very first time.
He immediately heads off for Philippi. This is all brand spanking new to Paul.
He takes a chance and on the Sabbath goes down to the river suspecting that this may be a place where Jews would gather for prayer since they needed the water for ritual cleanings. He was planning according to the expected.
There is a gathering, but it’s of women. Where are the men? This isn’t a worship gathering after all. Maybe this is a group of women washing clothes and enjoying the chance to talk with each other because they’re seldom allowed out of their homes unaccompanied.
But the unexpected does not scare off Paul. He doesn’t go looking for the men. He joins the women. He sits down with them. This is simply not done.
On top of that, Paul doesn’t patronize them. Paul preaches to them about Jesus. Paul preaches to these women like they matter. This is something radically new. Religion was men’s business. But Paul really believed Jesus when He said, “See I am making all things new,” like we talked about last Sunday.
Paul’s Christianity was a radical and disruptive equality and he had no problem breaking through the old rules and talking about Jesus to a group of women, and the church grew.
And then we are told that Lydia believed, and for the first time Europe has a Christian. Lydia was a strong woman. Independent. Not afraid to be a first. In a day when men ruled their women, Lydia owned her own business. And Lydia listened to Paul.
She heard this message of a strange kind of God who loved His people so much that He died for them. She saw how this man Paul treated her like she mattered in a world where this would not have been common. And the newness of this message so impressed Lydia that she chose to become a part of it. Faith was liberating and empowering.
Think about this for an extra moment. Think about what the biblical author is telling us. Last Sunday I mentioned that no one who had read only the Old Testament could ever have expected Jesus.
Now we hear that the first Christian in Europe was not a man as would be expected. The first Christian in Europe was converted by an apostle who dared to talk to women like they mattered, and that first convert was a free-thinking business-woman.
Paul shouldn’t have done what he did. Lydia shouldn’t have done what she did. And Christianity shouldn’t have barged into Europe among a group of women washing clothes. But this story is told because Christianity’s message is anything but ordinary or expected. It is filled with the courage and conviction of firsts and first-timers.
It offers us God’s new and different, and what a shame it is when the faith settles for anything less, when it loses its thrill of exploration.
Jesus needs us to take those first time opportunities to be like Paul did when he spoke to those women about his faith.
That respect for each other no matter who the other is central to our faith. It should be obvious in the way we live. And what a pleasant change that would be in our world today. Respect. The meanness has become tiring.
I was so impressed by the pictures I saw of Danielle and Brian and their supporters outside of Town Hall on election day. Two candidates competing against each other for a spot on the School Committee, but with respect for each other. Maybe politicians higher up the ladder could learn from this, and what a wonderful first that would be.
And Jesus needs us to be also a first like Lydia. Don’t let others define who we are and what we’re supposed to do or be. That limits God and it limits us, and that doesn’t work for Jesus.
Jesus gives us the courage to be ourselves and it simply does not matter what anyone else says or thinks. Jesus made us who we are, and He loves us like this. There’s only one of each of us so whoever we are becoming is a first. That’s why we need to be like Lydia. Jesus lets us be happy being our own first.
Paul went into Europe when no one knew who Jesus was or what a Christian was supposed to be, and I think a lot of people today don’t know what our faith is all about. I think even some Christians have defined Christianity in strange ways, filled with judgment, anger and violence.
Maybe people are just tired enough of the usual ways of the world and of that kind of religious message to be ready to listen again for the first time to the startling new and liberating message of Christ and church.
May this be our prayer in Jesus’ name. Amen.
This is Memorial Day Weekend. I saw on the morning news that the beautiful weather has filled the highways and the beaches, but let's remember that this is not only a three-day weekend. This is the solemn time of remembrance.
Tomorrow at our 10AM Service we will share in the singing of some patriotic hymns and we will offer Memorial Day prayers. Then we will have the opportunity to participate in the town's Memorial Day observance at the parade and the gathering at Smith Academy Park.
Enjoy the long weekend, but we also need to honour those who fought and died in the Armed Services of our country. They deserve no less.
Faith, love and chitchat.
Sunday 10-11am (9:30am July + August)
Children Sunday School 10-11am
Nursery care available during worship