Once again         

Readings: 1 Corinthians 1:3-9 and Mark 13:24-37

Nov. 29, 2020

By Rev. Marguerite Sheehan

 

Happy New Year! I love that our church year begins again every year with Advent, the season of expectant waiting. Our year begins with a focus on who — not just what, but who — is coming our way. We start today with hope in our ability to stay awake to perceive, as Nancy sang this morning, the “the rose e’re blooming.” Hope, as the Apostle Paul said, that we will accept the invitation to be in full partnership with God. We expect Jesus to show up once again this year in all God’s disguises and we hope that we recognize him in each other. 

I say once again because every new year, whether church or secular, follows the last. Last year at this time we were gathering in our church building. We were lighting Advent candles in person with the choir singing an anthem to keep us on track and joy filled. We were collecting contributions to Adopt-a-Family and making a big pile of wrapped presents under our tree. We were already talking about looking forward to Christmas Eve and singing “Silent Night” as the church lights were turned down and candles lit, one by one. Last year on the first Sunday of Advent we accepted the invitation to live in partnership and thank God we did, because it turned out that the work of the year was, and still is, hard, and partnership was, and still is, needed. 

That is why in this Advent season we are talking about stewardship giving as a partnership. I cannot say this often enough: we need each other for the long haul.

This year we are collecting money for Adopt-a-Family gift cards instead of wrapping presents. We don’t have a Christmas tree in our narthex entry area because for the most part we are not in our building. We are home. In fact our narthex looks pretty crowded because it is filled with the tables and signs that we need for our drive-up weekly community meal. There is also a table filled with books and other material that the parent/child playgroup is giving out to local families to help them keep learning while they, like we, are mostly home. 

This year we have simple greens on our altar this year because simple is the word; simple waiting and praying on why and how and what we give and receive. 

We don’t know where this year will take us. Thank God we do not know, as Mark says, the day or the hour or the way that God will invite us to answer the knock on our church door. If we knew, I think we would do the opposite of what we are asked to do today. We would crawl under the covers. But we don’t need to know much, we just need to wait in expectation and hope— and in peace, joy, and love. 

I say hope and peace and joy and love because all four of these actions — not feelings but actions —  form the circle of light that guides us through Advent and through our lives. It is true that the greatest of these is love, but without expectant hope, we would not be awake to greet love. Without peace, we would be too busy fighting each other to pay attention. And joy, well without joy, even love may dim. 

So let us begin at the beginning again in expectation that we will accept the invitation to partner with Jesus in this great act of caring for our church and for the world. That we will walk hand-in-hand into whatever challenges and gifts we are given this year, that we will stay awake to see what the year has to bring. We don’t want to be found sleeping, do we? We want to be found alert and ready for who and what is coming into the world. 

This week I found a prayer I want to share with you. It is a prayer about how our shaken hope and peace and love and joy is met in a victorious God who is coming again today in our partnerships, our unity, with Him. 

From Thomas Merton:

“Oh, God, we are one with You. You have made us one with You. You have taught us that if we are open to one another, You dwell in us. Help us to preserve this openness and to fight for it with all our hearts. Help us to realize that there can be no understanding where there is mutual rejection. Oh, God, in accepting one another wholeheartedly, fully, completely, we accept You, and we thank You, and we adore You, and we love You with our whole being, because our being is in Your being, our spirit is rooted in Your spirit. Fill us then with love, and let us be bound together with love as we go our diverse  ways, united in this one spirit which makes You present in the world, and which makes You witness to the ultimate reality that is love. Love has overcome. Love is victorious. 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.