Ongoing Epiphanies   

Readings: 1 Samuel 3:1-10 and John 1:43-51

Jan.17, 2021

By Rev. Marguerite Sheehan

Last week I made an error in my message to you. I wrongly said that the season of Epiphany had past. In fact, we are still in that church season until we enter Lent.  

Epiphany Sunday — when we remembered the Wise Ones finding the baby Jesus, giving their precious gifts, and, in a dream, being warned to go home by a different way — that day has passed for another year, but what happened to the Wise Ones happened to us, too. Whether we are wise or foolish today and every day we are still being invited to go home by a different road. The season of Epiphany continues because who Jesus is, and who we are, and how we are called to follow him on his Way of Peace and Justice, continues to be revealed. 

In our time and place, January 2021, we are looking long and hard at what road our country is on especially since Jan. 6, when our Capitol was assaulted and the people inside were terrified and some were killed. We are looking long and hard at how we, our country, and our churches have stayed and strayed from the Jesus Way. 

On this Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend we are listening to the timeless dream of the Beloved Community and where this Beloved Community is going. This looking and listening is personal – each of us is being spoken to. And it is communal, which is why we are gathering this morning. It is about us. 

We heard this morning how our friend and neighbor Sarah Pirtle heard a call to keep the flame alive and how she put that call into a song of hope and what she calls “everyday bravery.” 

We heard singers and preachers of all ages, colors and nationalities speak afresh the dream of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In their singing and preaching, the Jesus Way broke open again. Was your heart stirred and broken? Were you troubled and consoled? 

We heard in our spoken and silent prayers gratitude for hearing the Word and seeing our divided and hurting country in ways that some of us profess to have not known, but now we do. 

We heard in our scripture today that Christ, who is still on the Road to Freedom, is calling people of all ages to listen and watch God at work in a broken world. 

At the center of all we have seen and heard and felt is a deep truth, one that if we are paying attention can keep us awake at night and strengthen us to go the longest mile. The truth is that we might choose not to listen. 

We might choose not to follow. We might choose to hide out, covered in our fears and unwillingness. But whether we turn to follow Christ or not (did you notice in our reading today that it is not exactly clear if Nathanael dropped all his hesitation and followed Jesus?), no matter what we do, God continues to search and know us. God is well acquainted with our human ways and will not stop searching our path to greet us in love and accountability. No wonder many of us are having trouble sleeping, watching “the heavens open and God’s angels going up to heaven and down to earth on the Human One.” 

I am going to end my message this morning with the psalm that was suggested for us today, because in this epiphany — that God is searching us and knows us — I find the dream and hope and courage to keep seeking a better day, keep seeking to be my, and our, better angels. In this song I hear an echo about who we are; ones known and held in the Lord. 

From Psalm 139 

O LORD, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
O LORD, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is so high that I cannot attain it.
For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother's womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written all the days
that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed.
How weighty to me are your thoughts,
O God! How vast is the sum of them!
I try to count them — they are more than the sand;
I come to the end — I am still with you.

Amen. 

Disruptions and Blessings 

Readings: Genesis 1:1-5 and Mark 1:4-11 

Jan. 10, 2021 

By Rev. Marguerite Sheehan

I love the blessings that we received in our readings this morning. I don’t know about you, but I can use as many blessings as come my way, especially as we enter a new year. Especially with all that we have endured this year and this week. 

From Genesis we heard that on the morning of the first day God named the light “day” and the darkness “night.” And both day and night are deemed in their essence as good. 

In the Gospel we heard Mark preach about Jesus’s baptism and the voice from heaven calling out, “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness” or “with you I am well pleased.” 

Today, as we officially end the season of Epiphany, we are getting another important “aha” about who Jesus is and who we are as we walk with him into his ministry. We are part of the world, with darkness and light part of our DNA. We are siblings whom God dearly loves. 

The baptism of Jesus was a sign of his relationship with God and with us. As his baptism marked a new beginning in his own commitment to walk only in God’s way, our immersion in this story is a starting place for our re-commitment to walk in the way of Jesus. In a few moments we will recommit our baptismal vows, as we do every year, but now I invite us to stand for a moment in the blessing of light that broke over Jesus as he stood in the Jordan. Before we say goodbye to the season of Epiphany, can we just stand in the light? 

Maybe John knew who Jesus was when he sent him under the waters. Maybe not. Maybe to John Jesus was just one of the crowd. Either way, John did what he was called to do — baptize the next one in line. While Jesus was coming up out of the water and maybe shaking his wet hair off his face, Jesus “saw heaven splitting open and the Spirit like a dove came down on him.” 

I often think about Jesus’s baptism as being all about him. I focus on the dove or the voice or the blessing. But today I am stepping back, like one of the people standing in the Jordan stood, and witnessing a disruption of the very heavens. Our world is filled with disruption right now and I am hoping to see where God is in such times. 

The heavens split open and nothing would ever be the same – not for Jesus, not for the bystanders, and not for us. When the sky split open, Jesus had to make a decision to run or stay standing, to duck back into the comfort of the river of his old life or accept that he was forever marked as God’s own son. Spoiler alert: If you read on from this Gospel today you will see that the next thing that happened for Jesus is Spirit came down on him and immediately sent him into the wilderness to face his demons. To make important choices. To commit and recommit to God’s claim on him. To not give in to the temptation to bend to the will of evil. That is where God is during times of disruption, giving us the freedom to choose. 

And so it is with us. The Spirit, the creative energy that we call God or Christ disrupts our old ways and gives us the chance to become someone new. This happened for many of us in our baptisms as children or adolescents or adults and it is happening again now. 

Now, in the chaos of our time and place, we are here to renounce the powers of evil and accept our freedoms and responsibility. Now we recognize our call to be Jesus’s brother and sister and God’s sons and daughters. Now we accept the holy disruption and the blessing of the Spirit. Immediately. Now we take Jesus’s story for our own. It is all about him AND it is all about us. 

The season of Epiphany is over but the “aha” in our lives continues when we let the light of Christ shine on us, disrupt us, and bless us on our way in the year 2021. 

Come with me to the River Jordan. Step in as far as you are comfortable and then a bit farther. Remember who is with you in the water and reaffirm who you are. We are not being baptized today. We are remembering Jesus’s baptism and our own and renewing our faith. 

Renewal of Our Baptism

God created new life forms and brought them up from the waters of chaos, embraced them, and called them good. Jesus, baptized in the river Jordan by John the Baptist, became living water for us and embraces all of us, including the oppressed, the marginalized, and all others who come seeking. Our baptism marked a starting place for our commitment to walk in the Way of Jesus. As we renew our baptismal vows, we renew our desire to follow Jesus in love and service.  Let us prepare our hearts and minds to see, feel, and hear once again the vows of baptism.

Vows of Renewal.
        Do you renew and affirm the promises made at your baptism?
        I do.

        Do you renounce the powers of evil and accept the freedom of new life?

        I do.
        

        Do you recognize the call of God to be God's people always?
        I do.
        

        Do you embrace the way of Jesus in faith and ministry?
        I do.
        

        Do you accept the nurture of the Holy Spirit who renews your spirit each              day?
        I do.
        

        Do you accept and embrace others who seek a liberating faith in God?
        I do. 


In renewing your baptismal vow, remember your baptism as a mark of acceptance and welcome into the care of Christ's church, where you may begin again your Christian faith and life. Let us pray. 

Oh, God, we rejoice in your grace, given and received. We thank you that you claim us, that you wash us, strengthen us, and guide us, that you empower us to live a life worthy of our calling. In the way of Jesus, make us as water in a dry and thirsty world. Establish us to be places of refreshment. Root us and nurture us in love, that with all your people we may rightly and justly serve you. Fill us with your fullness that our lives may overflow in service and love. 

Amen



Arise and shine, for your light has come!

Readings: Isaiah 60:1-6 and Matthew 2:1-12)

Jan. 3, 2021

By Rev. Marguerite Sheehan

The standard wake-up my seven siblings and I received just about every day of our childhood was my mother calling out “Arise and shine” and my dad whistling a wake-up call up the stairs. My mom was a lifelong teacher and my dad began his working life in the Marines. They really knew how to get the troops going. So it is with delight that I come pretty much every year to this text from Isaiah, “Arise, shine; for the light has come.” 

Can you hear this morning what dreams the Magi might have been dreaming, the ones that woke them up to go home by another road? Could the dreams have been a call to risk being more and doing more than the same old, same old? Was this the consequence of having an epiphany and taking it seriously? 

Ours was a family that celebrated Christmas with the Wise Ones. Each day leading up to Christmas and then on to Epiphany we would take turns walking the Magi and their camel down the stairs until they finally arrived to greet the Christ Child. That is one reason that I love our annual tradition here at Trinity Church, walking the Magi through the church and out to the Christmas scene. And that is why I corralled some of our Trinity Church wise men this year to get out them out there, even if all of you could only witness it in this virtual Epiphany service. 

Christmas and now Epiphany is a wonderful mix of emotion and memory, of wonder and reason, and lots of hard work. No wonder by now, even in the pandemic when we did not get to do everything we usually do, many of us are tired like those Magi were after they left the family to start their long trek home. 

Suzanne Guthrie is an Episcopalian priest whose words I read closely when she sends them out to the world. This week she wrote that in many ways she identifies with the shepherds who were caught by surprise by the star and the angel and the baby. They fell on their knees in wonder and delight, never having expected such a marvel. I feel that way, too. I am always caught up in emotion when that baby shows up — in the manger and everywhere else in my life. 

Suzanne also says the Wise Ones are something else entirely. They had “seen the light” a long time ago and persisted in a long journey to meet the infant ruler. Hear Suzanne explain why she needs the friendship of the Magi:

“They prepared for every hardship of the journey across deserts, mountains, and plains, for the occasional watering site, for weakness, fatigue, boredom, and hardness of heart. It takes a wise person to know enough to go the distance, pace by pace, keeping perspective.

While I need to learn what the shepherds have to teach me about being present to the moment, I cultivate the friendship of the Magi, too, because their wisdom and poise can guide me through many an unlikely landscape toward my destination. I don't need to wait for the sky to open in front of me. On any day, I can wake up and choose to journey toward God.”

That this is the lesson that my parents were trying to share with our family. We do not need to wait for the sky to open, the Light is already here. And it is up to us to choose to rise and shine and keep going forward, one day at a time. 

We do not cause our own epiphanies, we receive them when something simple, like a baby or a star or an ordinary moment in life, suddenly shines with new meaning. Here is the truth: the Magi brought gifts to the infant Jesus and when they had given what they thought was something appropriate for a king (although what baby needs frankincense and myrrh?) they received an epiphany. Don’t go home the way that Herod thinks you will, go by another road. 

We need to be friends with the shepherds who know just how wondrous God is and with the Magi who are faithful by staying the long-haul course toward God. We need to befriend Wonder and Reason. 

Christmas is over for another year but the hard work of listening and staying open for direction and action begins again today. We get to choose. Are we going to put the tree and the stable and the Magi back in the attic for another year as if it were all just a little child’s dream of sugarplums and fairies? Or shall we take this Light with us into 2021? Can we keep the lights of hope on in our communities even when it means going home by another road? 

The other road has its risks. We don’t know what is going to happen when we yield to God’s nudges. We don’t know what losses we might experience if we stay open to new directions. We might fail if we try new things. We might get lost for a while. But taking risks is what it means to follow not just the stars in the sky but the Light of Christ. 

Who knows what this year will bring us? We sure did not know what 2020 would bring. What we do know now is that we are in good company; walking in Love, in Light, and toward what awaits. Arise and shine! 

Amen 




It is never too late

Readings: Galatians 4: 4-7 and Luke 2: 22-40

Dec. 27, 2020

By Rev. Marguerite Sheehan

It is just a few days after Christmas and thank goodness we are getting to hold on a bit longer to that infant Jesus. Today we heard a sweet and powerful story that, as our Call to Worship describes, is an encounter of old and young; the infant Jesus, his young parents presenting their first child at the temple, and elderly Simeon and Anna, who have been waiting a very long time for this moment. 

Anna had been living in the temple for 84 years. During that whole time she was fasting and praying and keeping her eyes wide open. Simeon was another elder eagerly waiting for years for the Messiah to appear. If Mary and Joseph were holding back from recognizing who their child was, those hesitations must have been swept to the side when they heard Simeon declare that Jesus was the Christ. “My Master, let your servant go in peace according to your word, because my eyes have seen your salvation. You prepared this salvation in the presence of all people. It’s a light for revelation to the Gentile and a glory for your people Israel.” 

What this story says to me at this time in my life is it is never too late to recognize God in front of me. It also says to me that we need to share our visions and hopes. Children need adults. Younger adults need seniors. Seniors need the younger generations. Telling stories, sharing hopes and visions, and calling each other often strengthens individuals, families, and communities. 

I have been thinking about this story during this Advent and Christmas season. While most of us have not been able to be physically close to each other, many of us have found creative and sustaining ways to keep in contact and that contact may even be saving lives.

Here is a small example. Dorrie and I have missed spending physical time with our children and grandchildren. We were delighted when our eldest daughter asked if we could find a way to continue our holiday tradition of making a gingerbread house with her husband and kids, her sister, and us. Dorrie made the gingerbread house. We dropped it off with some bags of candy and frosting at their house in Amherst and the next day we gathered on Zoom. We decorated cookies in our kitchen at the parsonage. The adult “kids” zoomed in and the grandchildren sat around their table with their mom and dad and creatively brought the gingerbread house to life. We told stories and reminisced about other holidays and promised to do this again next year — we hope, in person. We took our time together seriously and playfully and by the time we said goodbye, we were all satiated with sugar and connection and hope. 

This little story may not sound much like the amazing encounter of Simeon and Anna and Mary and Joseph and infant Jesus, but, well, what can I say? You had to be there. 

I know that you know that when we connect with love — around the table, on Zoom, in our homes and neighborhoods, on walking trails and in every other way — when we share our stories, we get stronger. Our faith in God is restored. Spirit gets stirred up in a good way. 

That is why Jesus came to be with us in a fully human and fully divine way. And that is why whenever you get a glimpse of God’s presence it is good to share it with another person. Sometimes God’s presence comes in strange forms, like a child taken to the temple by his parents to be dedicated and the elders making amazing pronouncements, or a child who has never successfully decorated a cookie smoothing frosting all over the thing and excitably showing it to someone sitting at the table or watching from the computer screen and everyone says, “Wow! That is so beautiful!” 

The child shines at being recognized, not just as the littlest one but as someone who made something beautiful. That is a glimpse of God that is worthy of being shared. That is an incarnation, when something of the Christ shimmers. 

The Apostle Paul and other letter writes in the Bible did not do Zoom. Paul, or whomever wrote to struggling Galatians, used this simpler way to connect. The Galatians thought that Jesus should have come back by now and made everything better for them. They were disappointed and maybe even feeling foolish for having hoped against hope. Paul wanted to show them that the generations before them had brought them to where they were. God had, indeed, sent the Spirit of Christ to be in them and with them. “Therefore you are no longer a slave but a son or daughter, and if you are God’s child, you are also an heir through God.”

The story of the birth of Jesus is a legacy that we received and continue to pass down to each other — seniors and adults and children — so all will know in a profound way that we are God’s Beloved. There is something of Christ within and between us. That is why we are all now doing everything we can to stay connected, to tell our personal and religious stories, to share this Love. 

Hold that infant close to you for as long as you need to and then pass that Divine and very human Love on to the generations. Tell someone today how you see the Christ in them and all around them. Call someone on the phone. Write a letter. Zoom. Reach out to someone from another generation. This is how hope spreads. This is how your faith grows and matures and gets stronger. Whoever you are and however old or young you are, believe that God is waiting to be recognized in this world. 

Amen 

Christmas Returns

Readings: Isaiah 9:2-7 and Luke 2:1-20

Dec. 24, 2020

By Rev. Marguerite Sheehan

Merry Christmas, everyone! What a joy it is to be here with you and to imagine each of you this evening wherever you are celebrating this night and tomorrow morning. Merry Christmas! Rejoice tonight! Emmanuel. . .God is with us. 

Because the ongoing pandemic has had us worshipping virtually since March, this has been the most unexpected year and this must be the most unusual Christmas Eve in our collective history, unless you stop and think about the dark night long ago when Mary and Joseph saw Jesus for the first time. That event of that night was totally ordinary, a child pushing his way into the world,  and a most unexpected gift; hope for the world which, in those dark days and these dark days, was hard to find. 

“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.” 

That Holy Night is why we are here tonight. To remember the darkness and the bright light of hope that came as a guiding force for the family, some shepherds, their animals, and the onlookers who came bearing their troubles and wonderment. Tonight we are remembering and honoring the darkness and the light. Remembering both darkness and light brings us together and oh, we need to be together now. 

We come together on this Holy Night acknowledging first of all what what and who are not here. There is not the fun of crowding into the church on Christmas Eve. There are no crowds on this night, or our traditional Christmas choir. There are no kids of all ages dressed up and carrying Baby Jesus out to the stable. There is no passing of the light down the pews.

And then (because this is not just another night, it is, after all, Christmas Eve) we also rejoice in what and who are here front and center — the Christ Child, who in his birth and life brought heaven and earth and all of us back together. 

Our rejoicing tonight is because Jesus came into the world long ago and because Christmas returns every year with an assurance that life itself is a gift and is good, even if it is often painfully hard. If there ever was a night to give thanks for the good gift of life itself, this is it. 

Listen now to Reverend Howard Thurman’s Christmas Eve blessing: 

Christmas returns, as it always does, with its assurance that life is good.
It is the time of lift to the spirit,
When the mind feels its way into the commonplace,
And senses the wonder of simple things: an evergreen tree,
Familiar carols, merry laughter.
It is the time of illumination,
When candles burn, and old dreams
Find their youth again.
It is the time of pause,
When forgotten joys come back to mind, and past dedications renew their claim.
It is the time of harvest for the heart,
When faith reaches out to mantle all high endeavor,
And love whispers its magic word to everything that breathes.
Christmas returns, as it always does, with its assurance that life is good.

Tonight wherever you are, I urge you to pause and to allow all your joys to come to mind and your spirit to lift in this wondrous story and in the common places where Christ is lodged. 

Lodged not just in a long-ago Bible story or out in the stable on Severance Street, but in the common beauty of our human life, starting with ways you are already reaching out in loving care to your neighbors, showing up at someone’s house with cookies or a meal, calling someone shut in even more than you are, Zoom calling with grandchildren or friends, asking for and giving forgiveness. 

Long before that first Christmas Eve, the creation story tells us that after breathing life into every single thing, God declared it to be very good. And so it is tonight. God is with us as we bring our lamentations and joys into the Light that continues to heal and guide us, whispering, “Love came down at Christmas, Love, all lovely, Love divine.”  

I am pausing tonight to rejoice for the gift of Nancy Parland and her family, who are gracing us with song. For Keith, who is making that old organ sing! For Brook, who every week is here filming our services. For the shepherds and animals who trekked from Winterberry Farm to be with us in the cold. For the Porter family, lighting the Advent candles. And for all the candles, those already lit and those that will soon be lit. Your hopes and dreams for the world. Pause now, on Christmas Eve and believe that the gift of life is good. 

Merry Christmas Eve! Come and bring out your own candle, whether it lights with a match or with a battery. Raise your voice in song so this night will ring out. The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight. Glory to God in the highest heaven and peace on earth. 

Amen 

A Divine Love Story   

Readings: Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26 and Luke 1: 26-38

Dec. 20, 2020

By Rev. Marguerite Sheehan

Here we are at the last Sunday in Advent and a few days before Christmas Eve. We have been walking together these past weeks companioned by hope and peace and joy and now we are coming close to the end and hearing about love. As Paul said, “and the greatest of these is love.” 

The Christmas story is in many ways a radical (meaning “at the root”) Divine Love story that is embodied not only in Mary and Jesus, but also in all of us. If we hear this just as a sweet story about a teenaged girl from long ago who was visited by an angel, the story stays a story, something we tell our children but do not take seriously because it’s about them and long ago not about us and now. But if we hear this as a true story, meaning a story that touches the deep truths of our lives, if this story actually rings true for us, it is because we have found our place in the story. 

Here is a prayer I received this week from Rev. Steve Garnaas-Holmes. It was a help for me in finding my way through the Advent and Christmas story and I want to share it with you. 

If Christ is to be born
it will not be in a manger:
that was long ago.
Now it will be in you.
You yourself: be Christ;
bear love into this world.
Dare to believe
that what is holy
may be conceived in you;
that the eternal Word
may be made flesh
in your flesh.
All God intends
is that love be embodied,
and you, child—you
are called to bear this love
into the world.
With Mary, say Yes
to the divine in you.

Can you hear Mary’s story now a little differently? Here comes the angel or, if you prefer, the messenger, or someone knocking on the door of her life. The messenger says, “Hail Mary! Greetings Favored One! Guess what? The Lord is with you! The Lord is not only knocking on your door, but the Lord also wants to be with you and in you!” 

No wonder Mary was perplexed and wondering what kind of greeting that was. My guess is that she was in the least skeptical and maybe suspicious. I bet she was thinking what every young person I know would be thinking: “You have got to be kidding. What is so special about me that God wants to be with me? How can I bear this divine child? I can hardly bear myself.” Before Mary could say “yes,” she had to first say or at least think, “You have got to be kidding.” 

Put yourself, just for a moment, in Mary’s place. Imagine a messenger coming to your door and telling you that God wants above everything else to be with you. You! What would you say? How long, if ever, would it take for you to say, “yes”? What kind of excuses would you come up with? I am too old, I am not good enough, I am or am not a virgin. I am too tired or too scared or too skeptical or just not up for this. What would bring you from “no” to “yes”? 

If the greatest of these is love, it must be true that what God wants from each of us is to bear love, to risk doing the hard work of loving and being faithful not just to a story but also to Love itself. God desires us to be as steadfast and faithful in our loving as Mary and Jesus and Joseph and Elizabeth were after their own first incredulous reactions.

Our love affair with God and, by extension, with the world is a powerful thing. It helps us be more than we can be alone. When we say “yes” to God we become as Mary would become, “heavy with child.” As everyone who has ever mothered or fathered or in any other way taken full responsibility of caring for and about another person knows, when you say “yes” and bear this Divine kind of over-the-top and give-all-you-have kind of love, your life is magnified. Which, of course, is what happened to Mary and Joseph and all the disciples who grew to love Jesus right up to and past his death. Nothing stays the same when we give ourselves to Love. 

“If Christ is to be born, it will not be in a manger; that was long ago.” 

Maybe this wonderful story about waiting for Jesus to be born was passed down in this way not because it is word-for-word true but because it speaks truth. 

Our Fourth Sunday in Advent message is this: dare to believe that what is holy may be conceived in you, in your family, in your church, or community; in your flesh and bones. All that God intends is that love be embodied. 

What a wonderful message in this year when we are so concerned about our bodies and the body of the world. It is true. God is with us, even now. . .especially now. God is over-the-top, steadfast love. And you, child, you are called to bear this love. 

Amen  

Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord

Dec. 13, 2020  

Readings: 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 and John 1:6-8, 18, 28 

By Rev. Marguerite Sheehan

Those of you who were with us last Sunday might be scratching your head and saying, “Didn’t we hear that Gospel last week?”  

It is like the game some of us played as children called “telephone.” A group of kids gets together. One person tells the next person a story or part of a story. Then that person retells the story to the next person and on and on again until it finally gets back to the first storyteller. What he/she hears sounds something like the initial telling, but often there are big changes, some of them funny and others radically different. 

Last week we heard Mark talking about John the Baptist. Mark sounded pretty certain that any minute Jesus was going to return in person to the planet. He was convinced that people needed to wake up and stay awake so they did not miss Jesus’s arrival. The Gospel according to John talks about John the Baptist, too. John is not so focused on Jesus’s coming back in his Jesus form. His story says that what is coming is a Light so brilliant it could change your life forever. 

Here we are thousands of years after Jesus walked the Earth and we are still re-telling this story, even if sometimes the Light is so bright we don’t know what we are seeing, like the people surrounding John did not see or know who Jesus was even when he was standing right there in the water with them. We are still singing the songs of Advent and Christmas. We are still waiting for something good to happen in this weary world. We don’t always see the light shining bright. 

One hymn writer put it this way: “What is the crying at Jordan?/Who hears, O God, the prophecy?/Dark is the season, dark our hearts/and shut to mystery.”

Maybe you are having trouble with this whole story, even when hearing it twice. Maybe you are like the friend who confessed, “I am not great at seeing you, Jesus. I need you to see and reach out to me!” 

There is something refreshing about that confession. It sounds like John the Baptizer’s testimony. John knew who he was not and who he was not. He did not try to be more than he was, but he also did not shirk from testifying to the Light that had overwhelmed him and would soon overshadow him. 

One of my favorite reminders about being who we are is a prayer by the Quaker Isaac Penington: “Be no more than God hath made thee. Give over thine own willing, give over thine own running; give over thine own desiring to know or to be anything and sink down to the seed which God sows in the heart and let that grow in thee, and breathe in thee, and thou shalt find by sweet experience that the Lord knows that and loves and owns that and will lead it to the inheritance of life.”  

During Advent we are preparing to meet the Light of Christ through the stories of John the Baptist and the infant Jesus and in our own anticipation or resistance or skepticism. Advent says God finds us in our wilderness, darkness, or grief, or in an amazing peace, hope, or joy.  Advent does not just look at Jesus, Advent also looks at who we are and what in us needs to die so that we can receive this Light. 

This week I heard about a re-telling of this Gospel that I missed when I was 21 years old and making my way out to the big world.  It’s the musical “Godspell.” In the Gospel according to “Godspell,” John the Baptist is found where he is always found, in the water and calling — or in this case, singing  — “Prepare ye the Way of the Lord, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, Prepare ye the way of the Lord!”  

The response of the people is to run toward John while tossing off whatever piece of clothing or of their history that had been holding them back from sinking down in the water or, as Penington describes it, the seed that God plants in them to be who they were meant to be. I looked at a clip from “Godspell” this week and there were John’s followers, singing and dancing and splashing in the water, as joyful as John the Baptist must have been, a voice calling out for other people to see the Light of Love. 

We are not living in a musical, but we are three quarters of the way to Christmas. Then again, who is counting? I am using this week to pray on what I need to give up, what race to stop running so that I might see the Light of Life in all of you and in me, too. 

“From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace.” 

This Sunday is about rejoicing, expressing a deep joy in knowing that we are loved. The message is this: Be no more than God hath made thee and rejoice in that gift. 

Can you hear John calling out, “Drop everything on the shore. Look who is with us! Look who loves us! It is the Light we have been waiting for! Rejoice!”

This is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice — even in our sorrow and unknowing — let us rejoice and be glad in it – not glad for it but in it! 

Amen 

A Peaceable Kingdom

Readings: Psalm 85: 8-13 and Mark 1: 1-8 and Peace is an Offering by Annette LeBox

Dec. 6, 2020

By Rev. Marguerite Sheehan

Our psalm this morning began this way: “Let me hear what the Lord God says, because he speaks peace to his people and his faithful ones. Don’t let them (and don’t let us) return to foolish ways.” 

This morning we join the psalmist in praying that we will hear something about peace, and that when it is time to leave this worship service, we will not return to our foolish ways but we will walk into the world bearing and practicing peace, one encounter at a time. 

The overall theme of the second Sunday in the season of Advent is the peace that is coming in Christ and that we glimpse in the world and in our daily lives. Today Lois read a children’s book about peace as an offering of something small and beautiful and totally doable. This sweet, childlike willingness to sit with another person’s suffering and the promise to wait with another whose pace may be slower than ours is transformative when we have the “courage to bear a wounded heart.”

I know that all of you know about wounded hearts. And courage. So did the psalmist, pleading with God to give a word of strength and peace. And so did Mark. The Gospel according to Mark is the oldest of the four Gospels and it was written during (or just after) the Jewish revolt against Roman imperial occupation. That conflict, along with Rome’s subsequent desecration and destruction of the Jewish temple, made everything seem stark, severe, even godforsaken. It was a time of war and broken-heartedness and hopelessness, yet Mark begins his testimony by saying this is also the beginning of hearing Good News.  

That time is much like our time. With the pandemic raging and our country at war with itself, it can all feel stark, severe, and godforsaken. Amidst this bad news, all our readings today bring the Good News that in the midst of conflict and heartbreak God’s peace is already making its way toward us. When we trust that peace is not only on the way but has already begun, we can see that peace at work — in people feeding people, in forgiveness being offered, in a deep trust that “all shall be well. In all manner of things all shall be well.” 

John the Baptist came wearing camel hair and eating locust and wild honey and standing for hours in the River Jordan shouting out one prophecy after another, but he was also deeply humble about his role. He knew that he was born to bring people to their knees and to then pass the torch on to the Prince of Peace who would not preach domination, but a peaceable kingdom where the lion lays down with the lamb, swords are beaten into plowshares, and God is even now wiping away the tears of the people. This is a courageous vision of heaven on earth where God abides. There is nothing about this vision that is “godforsaken.” 

The hope of the psalmist and Mark and John the Baptist and the author of our children’s book directly points us to this advent of peace. Here we can rest our eyes and hearts on possibility. Here we can ask God to make our paths straight and to ready ourselves, if we are not there already, for the Spirit to break through our foolishness so that we will see peace walking freely and joyfully beside us.

The four Sundays of Advent are testimony that this peaceable kingdom has begun and is still coming. Advent 2020 is our time to commit ourselves to walking in the way of hope and peace and joy and love — one doable act at a time — so that other broken-hearted men and woman and children will see there is light ahead. We are not godforsaken. God is with us, giving us the courage to be changed by the Spirit. 

Amen 

What is God thinking?

Readings: Psalm 123 (interpreted by Christine Robinson) and Matthew 25: 14-30

Sunday, Nov. 15, 2020

By Rev. Marguerite Sheehan 

Our Gospel this morning is, like last week, another disturbing parable — as if the folks who suggest our weekly readings are saying God’s way is way bigger and more upside-down than we thought. 

One clue that the parable of the three servants, or slaves as they are called in this version, is more than a story about how to invest capital for the rich master is the psalm that we got to hear in concert with that story. Psalm 123 is a song of mercy. Listen again to Reverend Christine Robinson’s interpretation: 

I gaze at the starry skies
Drawn to every tiny light.
Drawn to what I know of each one’s unfathomable distance,
astounding size, profound age.
I look to this big picture to help me imagine You.
The intricate patterns bind us.
Have mercy on your tiny servant.
Who watches for you in the watches of the night.

The other clue to the upside-down Kingdom that Jesus points to is a small word about halfway through the parable. The word “fear.” When fear is announced, it speaks to our condition as vulnerable human beings scrambling for safety while God is turning us to the liveliness of joy. 

As your pastor, I am often called on when people like me and you are living our lives as well as we can and in walks fear. Fear might be clocked in a grief that pulls the rug out from under us. A death. A job loss. A breakup of a relationship. A coming face-to-face with our own poor decisions or behavior. A national election that shows our collective and sometimes very different fears. People sometimes want me, as if I have some kind of in with God, to make sense of what is happening and to answer the question, “What was God thinking?”  

I do not have a special “in” with God. I don’t know what God is thinking or if God even thinks in a way that we can grasp. What I have and you have is a God that is part and parcel of every single thing. Our God is astounding and deeply merciful, watching for us in the watches of the night. Just like last week when we heard about the wise bridesmaids searching for the bridegroom, God is searching for and with us in our fear-filled times. God shows up in many ways, including in the life, words, and actions of Jesus. 

This morning I am listening for the Big Picture that Matthew is telling us about Jesus. Matthew is talking to his community, one of the first groups of Christians trying to make sense of life with Jesus no longer walking by their side. They are asking, “Who are we now that Jesus is gone? Have we been totally abandoned? How can we — and should we even— keep walking in the Way he taught us? What was God thinking, leaving us here to deal with life?” 

Matthew chooses to retell some of Jesus’a parables, the ones about people waiting and watching in the night, servants, most of them, who have been given what one pastor called “their working papers.” What to do and how to be in the world as Jesus’s followers. Being faithful for the long haul. Listening to the Word. Staying in conversation even when the world seems to be falling to pieces. Doing what we are asked to do to the best of our ability. 

If you read on into Matthew’s gospel, you will soon come to the end of the parables and you will find Jesus, about to be betrayed, going out to the garden and praying for mercy. “My father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me. Yet not what I want, but what you want.” Matthew wants us to know that Jesus is not just a storyteller and he is not immune to fear and trouble.  

When we listen to the psalms, our hearts are being spoken to: “Have mercy on your tiny servant.” When we listen in on Jesus praying, our souls are spoken to: “Let this cup pass from me, yet not what I want but what you want.” And when we hear the parables, our minds are shattered. Is it true that to those who have more, more will be given, and they who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away? I don’t think so. When we are out in the darkness weeping and gnashing our teeth in anxiety or sadness, is God still searching for us? Yes. 

When we are spoken to in all these ways, we come to the heart of what it means to be people engaged in deep conversations with God. We can speak back to God, like the servant who out of fear buried his money spoke with the landowner, even if it turns out, as it always does, that our understanding is only partial. We get to do that with each other: speak while staying open that our version of the story is likely partial. We also get to take risks like all the servants did while being held accountable for our actions. “This is what I am doing with what you have given me.” 

Our country and our world are turned upside-down now. We wonder what our neighbors are thinking and what God is thinking as our election and the pandemic play out. The Big Picture is too big for us to grasp, never mind understand, yet we are bound to each other, human beings striving to live faithfully on this precious earth for the long haul. 

I do not know what you, never mind God, are thinking today, but I do know that Jesus wants us to keep talking and listening to God and to each other and to keep the Big Picture of fearless mercy front and center. That we can and must do. 

Amen 

A Fueled-up God-focused life  Readings: Wisdom of Solomon 6:12–16, Matthew 25:1-13

Nov. 8, 2020

By Rev. Marguerite Sheehan

Today’s parable from the Gospel according to Matthew is matched up with a little heard text from the Wisdom of Solomon. The Wisdom of Solomon did not make it into the Bible that we usually hear. It lives on in sacred texts that Jesus would have been schooled in. I have heard that the word “wisdom” is mentioned 222 time in the Hebrew Bible — right up there with “kindness” and “justice.” The book of Proverbs says that Wisdom was present with God before Creation. If we want to understand wisdom from Jesus’s point of view, it seems worthy to look to this text today.  

Let’s take a moment now to listen again to hear what Wisdom has to say to us about being prepared and staying the course for what is coming into view as we get ready for Advent and as we walk with eyes wide open in our world during this election year. 

“Wisdom is radiant and unfading,

and she is easily discerned by those who love her,

and is found by those who seek her.

She hastens to make herself known to those who desire her.

One who rises early to seek her will have no difficulty,

for she will be found sitting at the gate.

To fix one’s thought on her is perfect understanding,

and one who is vigilant on her account will soon be free from care,

because she goes about seeking those worthy of her,

and she graciously appears to them in their paths,

and meets them in every thought.”

Wisdom is radiant and easily discerned by those who love and seek her. Even when we are sleeping (did you notice that both the foolish and the wise bridesmaids fell asleep?) Wisdom is searching for us. When we rise early (at the stroke of midnight!), she is found  right at the gate. 

No matter how prepared we are, the presence of God is here to meet us in the middle of our complex lives. Yet, being in the presence of God (what Jesus might have meant by this parable being like the Kingdom of Heaven) is not everything. What humans need is to fix our thoughts on the presence of God, to desire more than anything to see what God is up to now.

The wise bridesmaids were ready. Knowing as they did what bridesmaids know about weddings (the couple might show up late), the bridesmaids knew they needed enough oil to see and rejoice whenever the bride and groom arrived for the banquet. (Remember, “joy comes in the morning!”) 

The foolish bridesmaids wanted to get to the party, but they did not keep their eyes on the prize. They were not prepared with enough fuel for the long wait. 

What is the fuel we need to have enough of to be prepared to receive God’s messages whenever God shows up? A good night’s sleep for one thing. Wisdom from the ages. Strong, honest relationships. The certain knowledge that we are not on our own. And a commitment to keep wisdom linked with kindness and justice. 

This kind of oil readies us to receive God’s embodied Word and to act, even imperfectly — usually imperfectly. A fueled-up God-focused life means putting God front and center all the time. 

The Gospel according to Matthew was written down about 60 years after Jesus died. The early Christians believed, with all their hearts and souls and minds, that they were going to be in his presence again. Some of them for the first time. This makes me think about the book by Marcus Borg called Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time.  If anyone would like to do an Advent book study, I would love to dive into that one!

Matthew’s people talked about keeping their lamps not just lit, but fueled, because today just might be the day! They trusted that when Jesus arrived again he would not grill them but would receive them in the light of how they had served “the least of these” in his absence. 

None of that has changed. We are in the same place they were. Centering and re-centering for the long haul. That goes for church life and political life, family life, and daily life. 

Matthew preached, “It is not too late!” Stay fueled up, keep on the lookout for the Christ Light. Live a fueled-up and God-centered, Jesus-centered life prepared to meet Wisdom calling you. 

I know that many of you feel like I do at times. You were not prepared for a pandemic life. You were not prepared for the roller coaster, sometimes dog-eat-dog, world of politics. You were not prepared for being a church that gives out dinner in a parking lot and gathers for worship online and in zoom meetings. You were not prepared for whatever terrible grief has taken up residence in your heart. That is how many of us feel on many days, but today I say this: Don’t believe everything you feel. 

We who have heard these and other parables and wisdom stories and we who live alongside our less-than-well cared-for neighbors know that the presence of God is here, loving us and all Creation beyond measure, and is eager to meet with us and help us see the Light. We have all that we need for the long haul. 

Solomon in all his wisdom says, “Wisdom is radiant and unfading, and she is easily discerned by those who love her and is found by those who seek her.” 


We say in response, “Lead us Lord. Make thy way plain before our face. For it is thou Lord only, that makest us dwell in safety. Thanks be to God.”


Amen





Where Are All the Saints? 

Readings: Psalm 34:1-10 and Matthew 5: 1-12

Nov. 1, 2020

By Rev. Marguerite Sheehan

I have been thinking this week about what Jesus meant by blessing the hillside of people we heard about today in the Gospel. Not so much why he mentioned those people (the poor in spirit, the meek, the peacemakers, and the lot) but what did he mean when he called them “blessed?”

Some translations of the Sermon on the Mount (which this text is often called ) use the word “happy” instead of “blessed.” I don’t think that Jesus is talking about happiness. Happy does not fit the rest of his words. “Happy are those who mourn?” To me, calling someone blessed feels more like saying, “I see you and value you!” 

Jesus is up on the mountain. He is surrounded by people desperate to hear a good word. For the most part they are people that no one cares about. They do not have much, if any, power. They are not successful in commerce or politics or religion. They are the common lot. And they are among those who I would call “the saints.” In the Congregationalist strand of our church we say that saints are people coming together to offer each other support and to work for the betterment of our world and the lives of all people. 

Some of these saints are suffering, like those in mourning and those who are persecuted and are hungry for justice. Others are standing up for peace and mercy in every situation. They are all clamoring for Jesus’s attention and it sounds as if they are the ones that Jesus purposefully surrounded himself with as if he needs them as much as they need him to keep his eyes focused on what is important. 

When I envision Jesus preaching, I imagine being on that hillside and being named and embraced by him. Maybe that is what some people think will happen in heaven, but Jesus says this is a here and now experience. “I see you. I value you. I love you.” In this teaching he is talking about Reality – the truth as he knows it.  

I once read a fable about a man who died and went to heaven and was wandering around looking at the pearly gates and the golden streets. He said, “Heaven looks just like what I imagined.” Except there were no people there, not even in heavenly form, so he went to the gate and found St. Peter and asked, “where is the Holy Family? Where are the saints?” Peter looks at him kindly. "Oh, them? They're all down in hell, ministering to the damned. If you'd like to join them, I'll show you the way." (from Madeleine L'Engle in her book A Stone For a Pillow)

It we want to see all the saints, we need to look in unlikely places. In heaven on earth and in hell on earth. We need to do what Jesus did, which was go to the unseen people, find out who they are, and stick around to get to know them. 

When I say “they,” I am talking about all of us (this is All Saints Day, after all!), all who need reassurance that when we are ignored by society, we are seen by God. 

This year All Saints Day is also the Sunday before election day. We have already begun to hold our country and our leaders in prayer and we will continue to do that in communion, but now, before we bless and break the bread, I would like to offer a thought experiment I am calling, “Who are the saints in your life?”   

If you are willing to go along with me and agree that the saints were spread out all over that hillside, who do you imagine would be crowding around Jesus today, hoping to be seen and blessed? On the other hand, who do you think would be surprised to find Jesus naming them? 

Who do you think that Jesus needs to see to remember that God sent him and is still sending us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick, visit the prisoners, and sit in silent and loving witness with the grieving? Who are these saints “who from their labors rest?”  

I am thinking this week about the many teams over the years from our church and community who have put on a free weekly community meal no matter the weather and I am thinking about the people who this year are walking or driving by to pick up their suppers. 

I am thinking about the teachers among us who are struggling alongside parents in this pandemic trying to reach and teach children who would rather be in actual recess or hanging around school lockers and talking with friends.  

I am thinking about the people, many volunteers, in our towns who are showing up to work the polls so the rest of us will know our votes are being counted, that we are all being seen. 

I am thinking about the service workers at LaBelle’s, the last standing rest home in our town, caring for the least among us. They are making a house into a home. 

These are a few saints on my mind. How about you? Who do you imagine is hoping to touch the hem of Jesus’s robe or is surprised when he says, “I see you!” or “Come, follow me.” 

Do you see yourself in that crowd? I hope so, because I see you there. 

Blessed are these. . .and these. . . and these among us who sit or stand alongside Jesus, listening for words of compassion and affirmation in our time, listening to Jesus as he preaches a riff on Reality: Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. 

Thank you, Jesus, for helping us to see you in each other. We all stand in the need of a blessing. 

Amen. May it be so! 

The Heart of the Matter  

Oct. 25, 2020 

By Rev. Marguerite Sheehan

Did you know that every week, three or four and sometimes even five of us gather to study the Gospel, not word for word, interpretation by interpretation, just for the sheer joy of listening to the Gospel for the upcoming week?

That is why the group is called “Listening to the Gospel,” not “Dissecting the Gospel” and not debating which of the teachings is the greatest hit. We try to just listen. 

During the pandemic, we are meeting on Zoom and you are invited to join us. It is an open group. You do not have to be a scholar to attend. You just have to be willing to develop a joy of listening to the Gospel, to the silence between the readings, and to each other. Our motto is, “hush up and listen,” or as one of us quoted an infamous saying, “Well, shut my mouth!” 

In this day and age, when the times are so contentious and our hearts and minds are so troubled, listening deeply is a delight. Like our psalm says, “Happy are those who do not follow the wicked. . .but their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law, they meditate day and night.” 

This group is a delight. It is tender, sometimes really funny, and always surprising. We would love to have you join us on Tuesday mornings at 11.  

In today’s Gospel we hear that Jesus had already silenced the Sadducees and now here come the Pharisees trying to test him, to trip him up, to show that Jesus was not all that hot, or maybe just to throw power around. 

Jesus aces the test; he gives them the heart of the Jewish religion. “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

At that moment, the Pharisees might have said a gracious “thank you” and backed away, but like good legalists they wanted to stay in the game, so they did what our Listening to the Gospel group does every week: they listened some more. Jesus stumped them with a long-winded question that befuddled them just like it befuddled our group when we heard Jesus casually ask, “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” 

Was Jesus trying to change the subject or does his question get at the heart of the matter? Maybe he was saying, in effect, “Don’t try to trick me, get to know me. Get to know God, yourself, and your neighbors. It just might save your life.” 

In these past couple of weeks our greater Shelburne Falls community has grown by leaps in bounds in our desire and ability to sit with our suffering neighbors. Many people have been praying for a neighbor who suffered a massive heart attack and has been receiving lifesaving treatment at the hospital. Another family tells us how amazed they are by the outpouring of neighbor-to-neighbor care for their mother who was lost and is now found and is in the same hospital receiving treatment. We are learning about God and our neighbors, and we are better for it. 

I also read a story this week about a child in another community. She was about 5 or 6 years old, and a sensitive child. When she started hearing her parents and other adults talking about the hardship of COVID and their concerns about social issues, she came up with an idea that she was determined to put into practice. She told her mother, “We need to meet our neighbors. We need to tell them who we are. We need to find out who they are. We need to tell them that we can help if they need something.” 

Her mother, God bless her, listened. The daughter wanted to start with the next-door neighbors. The child brought a notepad and some markers and told the neighbor her name. In fact, she wrote it down for them and she asked them to write their names on her notepad. That went pretty well. The next-door neighbor (who did know this child) thought it was sweet. 

Then the girl told her mother that she wanted to keep going. Not just to the next-door neighbors but the next and the next and the next, along the street and around the corners. The mother felt embarrassed — not for her daughter, for herself. Why have I not done this? When they came to houses where no one was home, the girl and her mother left a note saying who they were and promising to return to meet them. 

The little girl did not want to hear her parents talk about the troubles of the world. She wanted to get to know her neighbors so they would know her and her family, as sources of help and sometimes as people who needed help. She understood that this is the two-fold heart of the matter. Getting to know and love our neighbors is a fine way to get to know and love God. And vice-versa. 

God is Love in Action and Silence and is known by knocking at neighbors’ doors. That is true for Jesus, too. Knowing God and Jesus (it you separate the two) involves letting ourselves be embarrassed by our own ignorance. Quieting our anxious hearts and souls and minds. Meditating day and night on these questions: Who and where is God? Who and where is your neighbor? What is Jesus up to? What are you up to or not up to? 

I think that Jesus was very familiar with what the Pharisees were doing. He knew how frightened they must have been, how troubling it was to have a rabble-rouser preaching and teaching while the Empire was gaining more and more power in the world. They wanted to hush Jesus up, one way or another. They may even have thought that hushing Jesus would protect the neighborhood. Jesus knew that. 

And he knew something else, something much more powerful than emperors and tests about the law. He knew them and us. We are his neighbors. And he knew God. After all, he is the Messiah. He wanted them and us to quiet our minds so we can listen to the heart of the law, the prophets, and the children.  

Amen. 


Sing to the Lord a New Song

Readings: Psalm 96:1-13 and Matthew 22: 15-22

By Rev. Marguerite Sheehan

​​​​​​​Sunday, oct. 18, 2020

Jesus was, and is, smart and quick. He speaks in parable and story and loves to turn us on our heads. He is personal and prophetic, consistent in his message; he does not waver. He walks around with nothing in his pocket but his love for and allegiance to God. . .and he is a perfect target for people to try to trip him up. As he said once, ‘Truly I say to you, no prophet is welcome in his hometown.” 

Sometimes I wish that Jesus would just stand there, like in a Broadway musical, and rather than speak in sentences, burst out singing. I wish that he would, just for a moment, be the cantor. Maybe because I am missing our choir. Maybe because the stories, including today’s story about the question of taxes, are so familiar to us. Maybe because in this season of talk, talk, talk between and among political candidates and voters, I am tired and discouraged. I want and need Jesus to respond to the parties of his time and our time with a psalm.

Jesus, don’t get me wrong. Do ask the people to look into our own pockets for a clue as to who and what we prize and what we give away to be used by someone else. Continue to refuse to be swayed by people who flatter you, but Jesus, could you also belt out the laments and the praises that ground us and bring us home? 

“O sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth. Sing to the Lord, bless his name; tell of his salvation from day to day. Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples. For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; he is to be revered above all gods. For all the gods of the peoples are idols, but the Lord made the heavens. Honor and majesty are before him; strength and beauty are in his sanctuary. Ascribe to the Lord, O families of the peoples, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength. Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name; bring an offering and come into his courts. Worship the Lord in holy splendor; tremble before him, all the earth.”

What do you think, Jesus? If you belted out this psalm, would the Pharisees and the Sadducees, the Herodians and the Republicans, the Democrats and the Greens, the Independents and the Pundits, tremble before God? Would we know who and what to revere? Would we know who we belong to?  

“Say among the nations, ‘The Lord is king! The world is firmly established; it shall never be moved. He will judge the peoples with equity.’ Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar, and all that fills it; let the field exult, and everything in it. Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy before the Lord; for he is coming, for he is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with his truth.”

In the Gospels it is easy to be silent listeners and watchers, the ones who watch folks try to trip Jesus up. We, the watchers, know that the Caesars of our time do not own our souls (even as they all vie for our attention while we try to decipher what they are saying and doing with their slippery questions and demands), but we are not just watchers. The people never are. The world is firmly established. It shall not be moved, but we are moved way too easily. We sing, “We shall not, we shall not be moved. We shall not, we shall not be moved, like a tree planted by the water. . .we shall not be moved,” but we are. We waver and move this way and that way all the time. 

Jesus knows we live in the world, a world firmly established by God and judged with righteousness. Rather than debating the finer points of taxation, which, of course, are the same points we live with, he turns us to God. Like the time that he said, “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life.” 

Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. Give to God what belongs to God — your heart, your mind, your soul, your allegiance, your life. Plant yourself in the world like a tree beside the water and do not be moved. Take life seriously and with great joy. It is a precious gift. Live as if the Lord is always coming to judge the world and help us make sense out of nonsense. 

Jesus tells us in song and story and parable and in his very life to look at what is in our pockets and whose pocket we are in. These are very political questions because the word “politic” comes from the word “city,” which I equate with “the people.” 

He asks us to ask ourselves, “Who owns you? Who are you beholden to?” Then, like a good cantor, he says in parable and in story “sing a new song.” A song of hope. A song of love. A song of praise. Go about the business of the world with full participation because this is where we are planted. 

Remember who you are following. When you are confused and wavering, take your cue from the One who you belong to. Listen. Go still. Listen. Choose. 

Amen 

Thrown Alongside  

Readings: Matthew 22: 1-14 and Psalm 23

October 11, 2020  

By Rev. Marguerite Sheehan


Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be pleasing to you, Lord, my rock, and my redeemer.

Today’s Gospel story falls into the category of “sure wish Jesus had not shared that parable!” I wish he had not shared this parable because it is not a feel-good story. It is confusing and troubling and contradictory. If a parable is supposed to be a morality story, I am not sure that I am getting the moral lessons. If it supposed to be a clear teaching about the Kingdom of Heaven, I don’t know who the king is and I sure don’t like the idea of someone being tossed into utter darkness because they are not wearing the right clothes. This parable is making me weep and grind my teeth — it is too hard! 

The thing is, though, parables are not morality stories or fables or step-by-step instruction on how to live a good life. This week I learned that the word “parable” comes from two Greek words that translated mean “throwing alongside.” No wonder we feel thrown about with parables. They are stories thrown alongside a question or situation or idea. Our role as listeners is to wrestle with what comes up when we see these parables thrown alongside our lives.

In the Gospels we often hear Jesus using parables to help the people close to him understand in a deeper way our relationship with God, what he calls the Kingdom of Heaven. For instance, just before his parable today he had been asked, “By what authority are you doing these things?” Instead of saying clearly saying, “My authority comes from my relationship with God,” he threw down parables, most of which, like this one, help us experience something about Shalom, where we are in a deep and loving relationship with God and the rest of creation — where “our cup overflows,” where “surely goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our lives.” 

Jesus lived under the rule of the Roman Empire, where a few people lorded it over others and the economy was based on greed and scarcity and power grabs; where most of the population, including Jesus, lived in dire poverty. If, hearing this, thrown alongside our world, distresses us, that is a good, if hard thing. 

Jesus understood that he was thrown into the world to awaken us to something radically different. Some of us call this salvation or liberation. The theologian Howard Thurman would say years later in his book Jesus and the Disinherited (which I am reading right now), “Wherever his spirit appears, the oppressed gather fresh courage; for he announced the good news that fear, hypocrisy, and hatred, the three hounds of hell that track the trail of the disinherited, have no dominion over them.” 

Sometimes Jesus and the Gospelers who came after him painted tender pictures — lilies in the field, children coming to Rabbi Jesus, a table spread before us, a hand lifting up a suffering person. Sometimes they painted pictures that jolt our senses — a rich man grieving because he could not give away his fortune, a fig tree withering in the bright sunlight, a stinking corpse walking out of the grave, Jesus turning over tables. 

Each of these pictures, sweet or shocking, is an entry, if we choose to walk through it, that brings us closer to the truth, which is that God is present in every moment and that presence makes all the difference in how we live. Remember, one of Jesus’s names is Emmanuel, “God With Us.” Could it be that the presence of God is a banquet spread before us in the presence of all? 

Parables disturb us because they make us question our beliefs and feelings. Is the Kingdom of Heaven ruled by a capricious God, generous one moment and punitive another? Are we all invited to the table and why do we sometimes refuse the invitation? Could the banquet be not just a stand-in for, but the real Presence of God? What does it mean to serve in our time and place?  

I cannot take this parable or the psalm apart word by word to decipher meaning. That would defeat their purpose. What I can commend to you is to read this story and listen to the psalm yourself. Throw them both beside your life and see what comes forward for you and our world. 

This is what came for me when I tossed the parable and psalm into my life. 

I envisioned all the people at the banquet table surrounding the one without the proper clothes. I saw them taking their dinner jackets and putting them on him and then I saw the servants refuse to toss the fellow into the dark.  

I saw a group of people, a few hours from now, putting on red jackets and taking a walk through our town and praying for all the households and inviting everyone to find their places at the table of blessing — where no one has to fundraise for enough food to feed children and where CROP Hunger Walks are not needed because no one is lording it over the world. 

I imagined Jesus saying to me, “Marguerite, put all that ‘he said, she said’ stuff down and lay down alongside me in green pastures and on city streets. Come to supper, where we can all meet and talk with each other with respect and in love.” 

Let us end our service now the way we began. 

“We come convinced of many things but trusting very few. Holy God of limitless surprises, meet us here in this place as we touch that which we cannot see and that which we have not dared to hope. Guide us and strengthen us. Help us to walk in faith and in love. Amen”

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By Whose Authority? 

Readings: Philippians 2: 1-13 and Matthew 21: 23-32

Sept. 27, 2020

“If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”

This is a succinct and powerful testimony from Paul, spoken first to the ancient Christians and now to us. When we find ourselves torn between what to do and what not to do, when we are witnessing selfishness and conceit or asking about who to listen to and not to listen to, this word is for us. Let the same mind be in you that was in Jesus Christ. 

Paul says that even when we know deep inside that God is our boss, it is still hard, but is now possible to listen to all that the world has to say and find our way through it with integrity and compassion. He is also telling us that right now consolation from love and compassion for others is needed, and when we participate in that compassionate exchange, we just might touch joy. 

The Gospel begins with Jesus entering the temple only to be accosted by the chief priests and elders. When we look to the backstory, we see that this is not just some random entering of the temple. Jesus is here because he knows the cross is, even now, being prepared for him if he keeps speaking the truth about his relationship with God. By now he has already overturned the tables of the money changers. He has cured the blind and the lame who came to him in this very temple. The children have already cried out, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” The word is out about who he is and where his authority comes from. 

Now he is being enticed into a war of words to silence him or murder him. This is not just a chat with the elders about theology or even politics. The questions “by what authority do you do these things?” and “who gave you this authority?” are intended to stop him in his tracks.  

Jesus knows his authority was given to him by God. He has no question about “whose he is.” This is why he, who turned over the tables, can now so easily turn the questions back to the high priest and the elders. Jesus has nothing to lose. His joy is with his relationship with God. Nothing can stop him from acting out of that compassion by emptying himself of pride so he can do what he is called to do. 

Jesus asks about John the Baptist so that the priests and elders will have to confront themselves and who their authority is, who they are working for and bowing to. If they speak the truth about where John the Baptist got his authority, they will have to face the anger of the crowds or the rage of Pilate. Because they do not want to tell the truth about who they know John to be, they reply, “we do not know.” 

The world is as troubled now, as it was when Jesus taught. Forces of greed and evil, lies and threats of violence, a “yes” that means “no” and a “no” that means “yes” are desperately trying to sweep us up in fear for our lives and for the lives of our children. The road to Jerusalem is not limited to long ago and is not just for Jesus to walk on. It is now. We are on the road, too. 

Now we are stopped in our tracks and asked, whose are you? Where does your strength and faith come from? Who are you following? Where is your compassion and joy in this time of so much discord? 

We live in the world just as Jesus lived in the world. Politicians and civic and religious leaders, saints and sinners alike are filling our ears with words, much of which are slant and troubling and destabilizing. As Jesus was set up, we are, too. No wonder many of us have trouble sleeping. The best answer that we can make on a good day is, “we don’t know.”

Today’s message is that the Way to stay centered and compassionate while we are being tossed up in the air is to “let the same mind be in us that was in Christ.” The mind of God. 

This is not easy. It was not easy for Jesus to keep walking to Jerusalem knowing what awaited him. It was not easy for his disciples, knowing how fearful and faithless they could be, saying “yay” one day and “nay” another. It is not easy to settle our minds while we are being purposefully twisted into knots, yet we need to do this anyhow. 

We need to be of the same mind that was in Jesus. We need to turn our minds back to the old question — not just “what would Jesus do?” but “what would God do?” Where do I see God at work? Where is evil courting my allegiance? By what authority am I making decisions? Whose am I? 

This take practice. When we, like Jesus, know whose we are, it is still hard, but possible, to make decisions about who and what to trust in our daily lives. When we can hear God’s Word above the roar of the words in the world we can attend to the world with courage and wisdom. When we stop the action many times a day and listen, we can make our joy complete knowing that while we know very little, what we do know is essential. Divine Love is our authority. 

Pray with me. God, we are listening to You above and below the roar of the world. We trust that You are helping us discern what to do and where to go next. Thank You for never leaving us alone, tossed on the sea, rudderless. Help us to come to You when we are tempted to give too much authority to anyone other than You. And God, help us to change our minds when change is called for. Thank you for creating all of us in Your image. Center us in You. 

Amen. 

We Need Help to Love  

Readings: Matthew 18:21-35 and Romans 14: 1-12

Sept. 13, 2020

What a time we are having. Not just the “we” that is us worshipping today on our Trinity Church YouTube channel but our whole world, suffering as we all are with this ongoing pandemic. We want to, and we do, pray, “How long, O Lord, how long is this pandemic going to keep going?” 

In the middle of the pandemic we are also singing the song of “how can we care for ourselves and each other?” It is as if there is a duet going on with two different parts singing to each other, like the sisters Nancy and Julie singing, “Just as I Am.” Even though we are far apart from each other ,we are still finding ways to nurture our spiritual community 

Melanie, who sang last week with her daughter Sammie, sent me a poem, a haiku, that went like this: “We isolate now/so when we gather again/no one is missing.”  I was glad to read the haiku because it felt to me that Melanie was preaching to me and I need a good talking to! 

“We isolate now/ so when we gather again/ no one is missing” speaks the truth about our need to take COVID precautions and lifts up why we are still taking those precautions. We are isolating physically for the health and welfare and well-being of the world. 

This morning I am reminded that we are more than a virtual group who happened to turn on our video this morning to see what Trinity Church might be saying. We were brought together today by the One we belong to so that no one goes missing. Our spiritual work is to nurture and strengthen our relationships with Spirit just like it was when Paul and Jesus were nurturing and instructing their communities. 

This week I read a small meditation about faith communities written by Jean Vanier. Jean died a couple of years ago and is remembered mostly for his years of writing about and caring for and about his spiritual community, which for him was an international intentional community of people with and without physical and cognitive disabilities. Hear what Jean has to say about the importance of communities of faith. This is from his book “Becoming Human.”

“It is because we belong with others and see them as brothers and sisters in humanity that we learn not only to accept them as they are, with different gifts and capacities, but to see each one as a person with a vulnerable heart. We learn to forgive those who hurt us or reject us, we ask forgiveness of those we have hurt. We learn to accept humbly those who point out our errors and mistakes and who challenge us to grow in truth and love. We support and encourage each other on the journey to inner freedom. We learn how to be close to those who are weaker and more vulnerable, those who may be sick or going through crises or are grieving. As we accept our personal limits and weaknesses, we discover that we need others, and we learn to appreciate others and to thank them.”

Hearing this powerful statement about the power of community to attune us to our vulnerable hearts you might think that Jean Vanier was not only human but a bit of a saint or at least a very wise teacher. That might be true. 

But this is also true. After Jean Vanier died, it became clear that on more than one occasion he had used his power to take advantage of women. The outcry from his community of faith was strong and sharp and clear; what he did was indefensible. The ripple of his actions will go out for years to come. And the ripple from his community — the faithful ways that they cared for their vulnerable hearts and the heart of their community — will also go out for years to come. 

Paul, in his letter to the Romans, talked about the need to welcome the person who is weak in faith and also to differentiate between what is just a difference of opinion and what is harmful behavior. Jesus, in his teaching about forgiveness, acknowledges that we rarely, if ever, match God’s ability to confront the unforgivable. In Jean Vanier’s own words, “to ask for forgiveness from those we have hurt.” But this is what we are called to do. Time and time again. 

Jean Vanier’s spiritual community continues to grow in love and in depth because they know that we all belong to God. As we are. Human and full of faults. They know we are called to give an accounting of ourselves to God and to each other. Even when we are physically apart from each other. Even now. 

So here we stand, six months into this pandemic. All of us are vulnerable in ways we might not have been “back in the day” before COVID-19 raised its head. We miss each other and we are struggling with how to reach across the divide of space and time to engage in the faithful work of spiritual caring.  

Our work now is the same work that the early Christians found themselves doing, finding new ways to connect with and to forgive ourselves and each other while also holding ourselves and each other accountable to Spirit. Calling each other on the phone, participating as we are able in our church ministries like the community meal, the CROP Hunger Walk, our community clothes closet, sending each other encouraging words, Zooming about anti-racism, and always reaching to the most vulnerable and standing with those who suffer and those we have hurt.  

I need a community like this right now, one struggling with how to be together in good and in bad and leaning into the mercy and justice that God dishes out 70x7. 

The refrain in our responsive reading today is, “we need help to love.” We all need help to love. Not later when we get back into our buildings doing all the things we like to do, and not just after we die, but now, in our time and our place. And thanks be to God, that help is here. Our faith tells us that we are loved beyond measure. 

Amen.