Throughout the year, the Southern New England Conference of the United Church of Christ produces the Daily Lectionary for use by churches. These are the suggested readings for Wednesday, March 25th: Psalm 146; Isaiah 60:17-22; and Matthew 9:27-34. I would encourage you to read these short selections as part of your Lenten practice.
We have absolutely no idea about what day is Jesus’ birthday. Only half of the Gospels tell us Christmas stories, and they don’t even agree with each other. Convention has led us to celebrate Christmas on December 25th. Convention would then also lead us to the date of March 25th as the day the angel Gabriel announces to Mary (or Joseph depending on which Gospel you read) that she will conceive and bear a son. That’s today.
The prophetic expectations associated with the coming of the Messiah, the Saviour, are of a dramatic and immediate divine intervention. As we read today from the third prophet who uses the name Isaiah: “I am the Lord; in its time I will accomplish it quickly.” When the Messiah comes, there will be no questions or doubt. The Messiah will manifest God in convincing fashion. Again, from Trito-Isaiah: “The sun shall no longer be your light by day, nor for brightness shall the moon give light to you by night; but the Lord will be your everlasting light, and your God will be your glory.”
These prophecies of the coming Messiah are what Christians have postponed to the End-Time. When Jesus’ first-coming obviously did not fit into the prophetic mold of the Messiah, we spoke instead of His Second-Coming. At that time, there will be a spectacular display of the supernatural. In Matthew, we read: “‘The sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.’” (24:30) This is the Old Testament prophetic expectation transferred from Jesus of Nazareth to the End-Time Son of Man “coming on the clouds of heaven.”
I wonder if this is necessary. We have misjudged the time of the Second-Coming for as long as there have been Christians. Paul thought that he would still be alive when Jesus returned (1 Thessalonians 4:15), and Paul died around 65AD. In this time of pandemic, people are once again speaking of Jesus’ return as imminent, just as people in troubled times have done for 2,000 years.
Maybe we need to re-think our relationship with the Old Testament prophecies about the coming of the Messiah – because they proved inaccurate – and with the New Testament prophecies of the Messiah’s Second-Coming – because they too have proven inaccurate. Maybe the actual, and sometimes hard and harsh, reality of Jesus of Nazareth’s lived revelation is God’s fulfilled and complete coming into the world as our Messiah-Saviour.
Maybe the biblical calls to imitate Christ are the saving consequences of God’s intended intervention in the world. Maybe God come to us in the humbleness of Jesus, with a grandeur of a gospel message, and the promise of empowering grace so that we could work together to change the world. Maybe it’s not in the cards for God to do it for us as if we were perpetual children. Maybe God thinks more of us that we sometimes do of ourselves. Maybe God treats us as adults prepared to make a difference if we choose. Maybe this is what our church calls postmillennialism, that Jesus will come again only after we have established God’s reign.
The prophecies of the Messiah did not expect Jesus and definitely did not foretell His crucifixion, but this is the harsh reality of God’s lived revelation. Our “everlasting light” went to the cross in complete submission to this Way. It’s not as easy as expecting God to do it for us, but salvation is about us living in imitation of Christ, glory and hardship together.
"We gave each other a beautiful gift."
Throughout the year, the Southern New England Conference of the United Church of Christ produces the Daily Lectionary for use by churches. These are the suggested readings for Tuesday, March 24th: Psalm 146; Isaiah 42:14-21; and Colossians 1:9-14. I would encourage you to read these short selections as part of your Lenten practice.
I don’t subscribe to HBO so I have never seen Westworld. I did, however, read an interview with Jeffry Wright in Parade Magazine. He plays the role of a programmer in this science fiction program. These characters, the programmers, are the people behind the hosts who inhabit the artificial-intelligence-engineered theme park of Westworld. In other words, Westworld is inhabited by robots, but these robots are so advanced that they have crossed the threshold to artificial consciousness. They are computers who are aware.
Alan Turing was a giant of the age when computers were born. He foresaw the immense possibility ahead for these machines. This caused him to wonder if the machines could ever achieve human-like intelligence and awareness. He developed what is now called the “Turing test.” If a person is interacting with a hidden person and a hidden machine, and the person cannot distinguish which is which, then human and machine will have become indistinguishable. This would no longer be Westworld-like science fiction. It would be science.
Some extremely intelligent people now believe that artificial intelligence will distinguish itself from humans by surpassing us. Take as an example my web search of “Turing test.” In a half a second, Google’s search engine found links to over 32 million sites that mentioned this topic! Computers can already best us at assembling facts and beating us at games, but they have not yet gained artificial consciousness. What a ride it will be for religion when they do. I hope I live long enough to witness the interchange.
But back to the science fiction where this has already been accomplished. Season Three has just begun. The cliffhanger at the end of Season Two was this statement of a programmer: “We gave each other a beautiful gift: choice. We are the authors of our own stories now.”
God has created us with the freedom to choose. This is why the world is not perfect. Too often too many choose wrong. That gift of being able to choose, however, cannot be compromised even by God because if it is the gift is destroyed. We lose the priceless gift of authoring “our own stories.”
And lest we think it is only a gift to us, I think we should also look at it like Westworld hints: it is a gift “we gave each other.” Our freedom is a gift to God because it means that our faithfulness is a choice to be with God. It is not mandated. It is not coerced. It is chosen. And that makes it meaningful for us and sincere for God.
We are writing “our own stories now.” God has given us this privileged responsibility. But we are never in this alone. We read in the beautiful passage from Colossians: “May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from [Jesus’] glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light.”
Always, but especially in trying and uncertain times like these, let us trust in Jesus, and let us share our way forward with Him. We don’t have to do this alone. Thanks be to God.
Good Friday, April 10th
Jesus’ closing words to us from John's account of the Last Supper are “Love one another.” The Board of Deacons will give us a chance to put this commandment into practice on Good Friday.
During the time that the church is open from noon until 3:30pm, a large container will be placed by the sidewalk off of Billings Way. We are conducting a “Drive By Food Drive.”
Donations may be dropped off with a quick stop. The Food Bank has issued an urgent appeal for help. So many of our neighbours have lost jobs. The economy is in a recession. More people than ever need food assistance. If you can help in kind, thank you.
If you can help with a monetary donation which goes even further, please come inside the church and a collection basket will be at the entrance to the sanctuary. Please make checks payable to "The Western Mass Food Bank." For every $1 we donate the Food Bank is able to provide 4 meals. For every $1 we donate they can purchase $7 worth of food.
On Good Friday, let us remember Jesus’ sacrifice both spiritually and charitably. Please share this announcement with your friends. Thank you.
The silver lining of empathy
Throughout the year, the Southern New England Conference of the United Church of Christ produces the Daily Lectionary for use by churches. These are the suggested readings for Monday, March 23rd: Psalm 146; Isaiah 59:9-19; and Acts 9:1-20. I would encourage you to read these short selections as part of your Lenten practice.
On Saturday I heard an NPR anchor ask a reporter who had give a long list of bad news for something positive. The reporter paused and had nothing. In Sunday’s Boston Globe, front page, top of page, the article’s headline was: “Hunting for signs of progress in a pandemic: No clear clues yet to determine when COVID-19 will be under control.” Again, nothing positive to report. It makes understanding Isaiah’s words a whole lot less difficult. Writing from exile in a foreign land after the complete defeat of his nation, the prophet writes: “We wait for light, and lo! there is darkness; and for brightness, but we walk in gloom.”
We can empathize with the prophet because of our situation. Maybe empathy is a silver lining around the dark cloud of this pandemic. Yesterday was World Water Day. It highlights, first, the fact that much of the world’s population suffers from a destructive lack of potable water. World Water Day underscores, secondly, that this tragedy is only going to grow worse because of human based climate change. And third, that we can help by doing our part to fight climate change. We can act sustainably. We can use less resources. We can scale back on consumption. And empathy can fuel our efforts. Our awareness of how others suffer can give us the motivation to change how we act so that change may actually take place.
Since we are all affected by COVID-19’s pandemic, we can empathize with all in the world who must deal with the constant, poverty-born threats of disease. Now that we have experienced the fear of unavoidable and environmental threat, hopefully we will be better able to appreciate what others in generational poverty must endure out of the headlines.
I don’t mean to make light of our situation by any means, but this world is not ours alone. All of creation matters to the Creator. As a species we have come to dominate the world, but we still share the world. Ours is not to only take from creation; ours is to be the stewards of creation. Our actions have depleted habitats for other life. We have consumed some species into extinction or near extinction. We are destroying forests and wetlands.
Now we are threatened by a virus that passes other species and comes looking for us. Maybe this very real threat may heighten our awareness of what we are doing to the rest of the world’s inhabitants. This is not to say we deserve what’s happening. It’s to maybe get us to think what our actions and appetites force upon the rest of creation. It can get us to empathize.
Sometimes, like Saul being knocked off his donkey on the Road to Damascus (or as I enjoy it said, knocked off his --- onto his ---), we need to be startled by revelation. We need to be knocked off our feet. We need to be forced to see what we would have preferred not to see. Again, this is not to take the pandemic lightly. These are strange and life-changing times. This is a watershed moment in history and we’re in the midst of it. Hopefully, the silver lining will be that we realize how interconnected we all are and how what happens to one affects what can happen to all. Maybe our heightened sense of mutual responsibility will help us to empathize with each other, and maybe just maybe we can be a kinder, more generous, more compassionate world after this pandemic knocks us, figuratively, off our --- and onto our ---.
“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)
Distractions are a welcome relief from all of the bad news of a raging pandemic.
Tom Brady was another distraction when he revealed on Tuesday that he was leaving the Patriots. Even with all that is going on, when this news hit, it found its way to the top of my Boston Globe news feed. I’m not a big football fan, but even for me it was a welcome distraction.
Brady deserves the honour of GOAT – Greatest Of All Time. He helped transform a lackluster team into a six-time Super Bowl championship team.
On the other side of the coin, when someone commits a crime and then ends-up going to jail, we can say they deserve it. What they chose to do was intentional and it had consequences.
But when we speak about accidents or diseases, the word deserve is completely out of place. Someone walks away from a car accident and another dies. This has nothing to do with one deserving to live and another deserving to die. Accidents don’t work like this.
Someone gets the Corona Virus and someone else doesn’t. One doesn’t deserve to be sick and another deserves to be healthy. Disease doesn’t work like this either.
But too often that word deserve gets thrown into the conversation when it simply does not apply. One of my most poignant moments as a pastor was when a grieving mother asked me at her son’s wake, “What did I do to deserve this?”
She thought that somehow she had so offended God that He would take her son, that she deserved something this horrible. Her faith, which should have been a comfort, made her feel worse.
Sadly, the way we talk about God can lead people of faith to think like this. How common it is to pray with the words “almighty God.” If God is almighty, some may then assume that God is in full control, all the time, of everything.
If God is in full control, then we may imagine that there are no accidents. Then, when an accident or disease does strike, we ask what did we do to deserve this?
This can be so offensive that some people turn away from God. If God truly were like this, I would not be a pastor. I would not even be a person of faith. This would be a cruel and cold God, and one not worthy of my attention. But this is not our God.
I think this is something we need to remember as we’re in the midst of a worldwide pandemic with very local consequences.
Whatever happens we need to remember as Clint Eastwood’s character says at the end of the movie Unforgiven, “Deserve has nothing to do with it.”
The virus isn’t sent by God because someone deserves to get it. Not washing your hands may have something to do with getting it, but God doesn’t.
And that’s exactly what Jesus tells us today in the Gospel.
Jesus and His disciples encounter a man born blind. The disciples, as people accustomed to talk of almighty God, assume that the man’s blindness is deserved in some way. But he was born this way? How could he deserve blindness sitting in his mother’s womb?
So the confused disciples turn to Jesus. They ask Jesus, the rabbi, the teacher, “‘Who sinned, this man or his parents?’”
Somehow this guy deserved to be born blind because everything must have a reason, they thought. Nothing is accidental. Nothing is by chance. Deserve is universal. But Jesus’ plain answer is basically, “Boys, that’s not that way God works.”
Accidents happen, disease happens, and it doesn’t have anything to do with deserve. They just happen.
That’s a hard lesson sometimes. I think we may want God to be in full control so that we can maybe pray our way out of bad things, but bad things still happen to good people. And that’s a hard lesson.
But Jesus won’t leave it at that. To put an exclamation point at the end of His teaching, Jesus goes through the actual, physical work of making mud and placing it on the man’s eyes. Jesus could have healed him in so many ways, but Jesus goes out of His way to make work out of the miracle.
This is important because it is the Sabbath and according to God’s law no work may be done on the Sabbath. This sets up a whole confrontation with the religious experts, and this lays out the path for Jesus to say that God is much more concerned about us than He is about rules, even what we call God’s rules. Compassion trumps everything else when it comes to God.
So even though accidents and disease add random suffering in our lives, even though we can’t always pray our way out of them, Jesus wants to make sure that we know God cares, even when, especially when, bad things happen to good people, Jesus wants us to know that God cares.
I think during Lent we might want to think about Jesus’ cross not so much as atonement for sins, but as God’s at-one-ment with us. The cross is not about how bad we are, but about how much God cares for us especially in our darkest moments.
This is the cross’ at-one-ment. This is God’s ineffable compassion.
In this time of unusually widespread suffering, we can find comfort in Jesus’ at-one-ment and we can share it with others.
We can check in on those who may need some extra help.
We can be extra courteous everywhere. The people at the grocery store are under a lot of pressure. The people at the hospitals and doctors’ offices are out straight.
Many people don’t know about jobs or how they will pay bills. Recession looms. Parents wonder how they will care for children with schools closed for who knows how long.
Let us go out of our way to be kind and patient with each other, and care about each other.
And may Jesus bless our world with healing. May He guide the intelligent men and women who are working to find a vaccine. May He protect the care-givers. May He lead our leaders. And may this pandemic pass so that we may return to the extraordinary blessings of the ordinary. For these things we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
We're supposed to be inspired by this?
Throughout the year, the Southern New England Conference of the United Church of Christ produces the Daily Lectionary for use by churches. These are the suggested readings for Saturday, March 21st: 1 Samuel 15:32-34; Psalm 23; John 1:1-9. I would encourage you to read these short selections as part of your Lenten practice.
I hope you read today’s passages. I did, then I was so confused I actually went to the Revised Common Lectionary site to see if the UCC’s site had made a typo. They didn’t. We are actually supposed to find inspiration in those two verses from 1 Samuel. I didn’t – at least not literally. Let me try and explain briefly, briefly not being one of my strengths.
There is a powerful movie that was produced by the BBC in 2008 called God on Trial. The Jewish prisoners of a Nazi concentration camp put, well, God in trial. I won’t give away the ending, but so much could be said about it. One of the arguments in the trial, as these Jewish men were living the Holocaust, was the biblical story of Israel’s extermination of its enemies, one of which was the Amalekites. What Israel had done was now being done to Israel. Please don’t read this in any way, form or manner as Anti-Semitic. It is a timeless message for all who would call themselves the People of God (cf. Romans 15:4; 2 Timothy 3:16-17). Christians did and still do need to internalize the message that motivates this passage and this movie.
The background to today’s passage is that King Saul is rejected by God because God had ordered the holocaust of the Amalekites and Saul wasn’t as thorough as God wanted. He slaughtered everyone: soldiers, men, women, aged, children. He, however, withheld the captured spoil “to sacrifice to the Lord.” And Saul also spared King Agag.
God resented Saul’s gesture. When the history of the Jewish nation ends, we read that their Babylonian conquerors treated the last Jewish king, Jehoiachin, with remarkable dignity and kindness. (2 Kings 25:27-30) Compare this closing image which is equally inspired with God’s prophet Samuel ordering Agag to be brought to him. Agag is terrified. He walks toward the man of God “haltingly.” The prophet not only slays the king, he cuts his body into pieces “before the Lord.” And we are supposed to imagine that God is now pleased?
This is the reading that is supposed to inspire us this morning? I can’t help but stand with Saul. I am offended by Samuel’s righteous savagery. I do not accept this as pleasing to God. There is a distinction made by scholars between inspiration and revelation. The biblical text is inspired, but not every literal word or literal example must be revealed. This may well be an inspired message of following God wholeheartedly even when the reason is masked to us, but not a literal revelation that people of faith should act with such heartless zealotry. We do not need any more religious terrorists. And even in this manner, I find today’s passage far from inspiring.
Maybe this is why the eternal Word, Jesus Christ, had to reveal God in our human flesh and blood. Maybe Jesus’ incontrovertible life was necessary to reveal perfectly who God is. Maybe Jesus’ death is the undeniable, unavoidable, unwanted revelation that God would rather die than allow His followers to imagine that something like Samuel’s savagery makes God smile. No prophet foretold anything like God dying on the cross. Jesus’ followers to the bitter end could not accept it. It was only the reality of the cross that finally forced us to think that God is less judgmental and vindictive than we. But has even the cross convinced the people of God?
Hidden masterpieces are worthless
Throughout the year, the Southern New England Conference of the United Church of Christ produces the Daily Lectionary for use by churches. These are the suggested readings for Friday, March 20th: 1 Samuel 15:22-31; Psalm 23; and Ephesians 5:1-9. I would encourage you to read these short selections as part of your Lenten practice.
30 years and two days ago the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston was robbed. 13 pieces of art were stolen that have never been recovered. Three decades later this remains the largest-value art theft in history, worth a combined $500 million. The case remains unsolved.
This required a great deal of planning and expertise. Someone somewhere must really love art to go to this extent to obtain it. The pieces stolen, however, are so famous that they cannot be shown. Whoever arranged for this robbery, whoever it is that loves art this much, cannot share it with anyone else, and that person has deprived everyone else of the chance to enjoy them. Their empty frames on the wall are constant reminders of what has been lost.
A $10 million reward has been offered for information leading to the return of these masterpieces. This kind of money can turn even the most trusted friend into a possible liability. The stolen artwork cannot be enjoyed or shared. It must be hidden.
God has given us priceless gifts. Even the most ordinary of them are now seen as extraordinary in these un-ordinary times of pandemic. And there are also the gifts beyond the ordinary. Paul writes famously in 1 Corinthians 13 that there are faith, hope and love, and the greatest of these is love.
Faith is received from God and given back to God. No matter the trials and uncertainties of this world, our faith is always in God. This should not fluctuate based on current events. Faith gives us continuity and stability no matter how scarce these are right now.
Hope is another virtue shared from above. Regardless of how dire it may be at any given time, we are never bereft of hope. Hope lets us see things differently and hope gives us the assurance of life after life. Not even a pandemic can defy hope.
And love is what connects us with each other and with God. Social distancing can’t separate the connections born of love. 1John says it so purely: “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”
These are God’s masterpieces. They are meant to be shared. They diminish if like the masterpieces stolen 30 years and two days ago, they must sit locked away, hidden, unappreciated and unable to inspire.
In times of isolation and darkness, today’s New Testament reading is especially meaningful. We are called to be “imitators of God.” What does this mean? How about if we “Live as children of light – for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true.” These gifts given from God are not meant to be hoarded. They must be lived. In all that “is good and right and true,” we live in imitation of God. The world needs these gifts to be shared as openly and widely as possible. Let us live as Christians – especially now.
Live streaming Sunday Service
Faith, love and chitchat.
Sunday 10-11am (9:30am July + August)
Children Sunday School 10-11am
Nursery care available during worship