The Incubation of Hopes for Peace
Preached at Wollaston Congregational Church
on December 9th 2018
Scripture: Luke 1:68-79
The psalm we read today is not from the book of psalms, it is from Luke’s gospel. It is the song sung by Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, and it is a song of praise and prophecy. Zechariah’s psalm, is known as the Benedictus – for its beginning “blessed be the Lord God of Israel.” It is one of the four canticles the gospel of Luke uses to punctuate the birth stories of John the Baptist and Jesus.
In our reading we heard the song, but we did not hear how it came about, and so, here is the backstory.
Zechariah stands before the altar in the holy of holies of the Jerusalem temple. This is possibly the pinnacle of his life as a member of the priestly division of Abijah. He has been chosen, by lot, to go into the temple and burn incense.
He has spent his entire life preparing for this great honor and responsibility. He focuses intensely performing the duty correctly, consistent with his life of obedience to God’s decrees. He is not expecting anything untoward to happen. Least of all, the appearance of the angel of the Lord, Gabriel, standing at the right side of the altar of incense.
“Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John.”
Years ago Zechariah and Elizabeth had hoped for children, even just one child. They had hoped and prayed, and anticipated. They’d planned their busy household. They’d imagined girls singing and dancing around the home, learning the how to prepare foods according to the law, from Elizabeth. And they’d imagined boys, laughing and tumbling, learning their letters and then going to synagogue to study the scriptures with Zechariah. And then, as time had gone by and nothing happened, they’d stopped imagining and stopped praying. They’d settled for one another’s company in their quiet household. And they had thought they were content.
Now, here is a terrifying apparition, telling Zechariah that his prayer has been heard. He’s not even sure he wants that prayer anymore. He and Elizabeth have grown old. What would they do with a crying baby, a mischievous toddler, an energetic child?
None the less, the angel goes on.
“He will be great in the sight of the Lord, filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born … he will be great in the sight of the Lord … even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord."
“How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years."
Zechariah dares to question the mighty apparition.
“I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur."
And so, Zechariah the priest is silenced by the angel. It is a prolonged silence, the length of Elizabeth’s pregnancy and until the time of the child’s circumcision and naming.
It was a particularly quiet time in their household. The child was growing and forming in Elizabeth’s womb: incubating. Her aging body was stretching and aching. She raised her swollen feet each evening, working on the swaddles and tiny clothes she would need. And she had the joy of greeting her young cousin, Mary, come to stay in their home. They kept their voices low, to avoid disturbing Zechariah in his strange exile. They hushed their chatter and laughter, both finding themselves in the same surprising condition.
And at the same time, something was incubating in Zechariah. Something was forming in the silence, as his spirit stretched and ached. His consciousness began to grasp the gifts and the responsibilities that would come with this infant son. So far, only he knew what this child was destined for.
A couple of weeks ago, I attended a short overnight retreat in the mountains of the Adirondacks. It was the week that a Nor’easter hit the region. I left home early in the morning and drove west through pouring rain. Then I discovered snow, as I worked my way north of I-90. Fortunately the roads were clear until the last short stretch into the camp at Lake Pleasant. Other attendees had already arrived and were gathered around fire in the lodge. I crunched my way through the snow, carrying in my bag. I realized I had traveled from a noisy, hectic fall into a silent winter in those few hours.
I got to know my companions during the scheduled program and over lunch and dinner. I was ready for rest, and also to distance myself from busy-ness at home.
Our topic for discussion was ministry in “these times.” Following dinner and another short session, our retreat leader invited us into a time of silence. We would keep silence from about 7:30 that evening through until 9 the next morning. We’d move quietly about the lodge, giving one another the space we needed to be fully present to whatever God was saying to us.
I’d practiced silence before for longer periods, and so I had no reservations about this experience. I was a little disappointed that I would sleep through most of it. Even so, the hour or two to settle before going to sleep was enough. I woke the next morning, with time to drink tea and eat breakfast, do my morning stretching routine, and meditate on my daily Bible passage all in silence. I had walked slowly, silently in solitude in the woods, listening to the wind in the trees and the snow crunch beneath my feet.
We resumed our program that morning, in an atmosphere of settled quietness. We talked about the things of these times that were causing us to lament: struggling congregations; epidemics of addiction, depression and suicide in our communities; environmental disasters; the inability of people across the political spectrum to talk to one another peacefully.
Then our leader invited us to take some time alone to write a psalm of lament. We were provided with the structure: address and opening cry; lament; confession of trust; petition and praise or vow to praise. I went to my room at sat at the little desk and began to write. The thoughts and themes of the two days came together and words poured out. In 45 minutes I was done. When the group re-gathered we shared our psalms in pairs. My partner seemed so moved by the psalm that I accepted the invitation to share it with the group.
When I had finished, they sat in stunned silence, and I began to worry. Was the psalm over dramatic? Was I presumptuous, thinking I could compose a psalm in that short time? But no, the group members sighed, asked if they could have copies for themselves. Just last week I heard from a pastor who wanted to share the psalm in worship. I guess that the time of silence had incubated words in me, which spoke to each person on the retreat.
My gift was a psalm of lament for these times. Although Zechariah’s song is not a typical psalm of lament, he might well have lamented in those times in which he and Elizabeth were living.
Roman soldiers patrolled the streets. Religious rituals were permitted, but the imperial powers were always looking over their shoulders, for signs of rebellion. The Jews were charged crushing taxes by the Romans for the privilege of keeping their own religion. And yet there was a continual erosion of Jewish practices and values, as Roman emblems and idols crept into the temple. Meanwhile, zealots plotted acts of violence against the occupiers.
Perhaps this was all too much for the elderly priest, who simply wanted to be left alone to perform his duties in peace.
And, yet, now – in this strange exile of silence – as his baby son was growing, a song was incubating. It was a song of joy and praise, a recognition of what God was about to do among his people.
And so, we might ponder, what God is doing among God’s people in “these times.” Our times are long after the time of John and Jesus. And yet we live in in-between times. We live between the coming of Jesus in the flesh and his return when all things will be made right. It is expected that we would lament. These are not yet the times of fulfillment, we are still in times of struggle. But, even in these times there are silences in which words of praise and hopes for peace are incubated.
Last Thursday I arrived a little early for my session of “spirituality” at the acute treatment center, just down the street from here. Pr. Alissa and I do a twice monthly “spirituality group” at Gavin House, with the women and men who are in recovery from drug and alcohol addictions. While I was waiting for Alissa, I sat and talked with the security guard, Dave. He told me how glad he was to know that our church provides hospitality for the Alcoholics Anonymous groups that meet in this building.
Then he reminded me of the good work that you and I are doing in the world. We need that encouragement, because sometimes the work is, well, discouraging. Sometimes all those things of “these times” that cause us to lament seem insurmountable.
Dave reminded me how much everyone needs the pause of worship, prayer and meditation. I sighed. “It’s so true,” I said, “but sadly most people do not know their need.” We talked of the pace of the culture, about how everyone is too busy.
Dave shared with me his practice of reading and meditation, morning and night. And then Alissa and I went, to create space, silence and meditation with those men and women. It was the space for tears to fall, and sobs of lament to rise up. And somewhere, deep in that collective spacious silence, something was incubating: words of lament, songs of praise, and tiny hopes for peace beginning to be birthed.
May all God’s people say,
Hope is a Candle Lit by the Prophets
Preached on December 2nd 2018
at Wollaston Congregational Church
Scripture: Jeremiah 33:14-16
It is always appropriate that the first candle of Advent is for hope. So often, by the time we reach this season hope is all we have left. And this year, more than ever, I think that Advent is going to be that kind of season. Today, we are finding our message of hope in the Old Testament scripture passage we heard today from the book of Jeremiah.
It is astonishing that Jeremiah, writing from a prison cell, can preach a message of hope. And yet he does. The reason for his imprisonment is that he is too committed to speaking the truth. He has warned the delusional King Zedekiah that the enormous power of Babylonian Chaldeans cannot be pushed back. Jerusalem is still standing, but its fall is imminent. Many members of the elite class have already been taken into exile in Babylon. Soon there will be just a handful left in Jerusalem, a remnant. And the city will be destroyed.
It is at this moment, writing to those exiles far off in Babylon, that Jeremiah reminds them of God’s promises. God’s promises. What kind of sense does that make, when all seems lost? What does God even promise?
A few years ago, I was writing a special paper to present to the United Church of Christ Committee on Ministry. It was a statement of my theology and beliefs, that would – hopefully – quality me for ordination in the UCC. I put this paper together by writing a few paragraphs on each section of the United Church of Christ Statement of Faith.
The section that challenged me the most was this one:
“God promises to all who trust in the gospel forgiveness of sins and fullness of grace, courage in the struggle for justice and peace, the presence of the Holy Spirit in trial and rejoicing, and eternal life in that kingdom which has no end.”
“All the promises named in the statement of faith are intangibles: Forgiveness , fullness of grace, courage, God’s presence in trail and rejoicing, and eternal life in the kingdom.”
How are these intangibles supposed to help – to quote our final hymn – when the storms of life are raging? How are they supposed to help when we hear the very worst news, that a young man – full of promise, yes promise – has been killed in a tragic car accident. And that his buddy beside him landed in the ICU.
Parents whose children have died in car accidents, or due to drug overdoses, or by gang warfare, or by being shot in the shopping mall, may be forgiven for thinking that God has abandoned them. When tragedy strikes, we often hear the lament “how could God allow this?” God’s promises seem futile and far away in the face of such a loss.
William Sloane Coffin, a renowned protestant minister and chaplain of Yale University, experienced this kind of loss first hand. At the age of 23, his son, Alexander, was returning a tennis game with a friend when his car plunged into a South Boston channel shortly after midnight. Coffin was pronounced dead at New England Medical Center at 2:25 a.m. He had been recovered from the channel by fire department divers. 
People tried to comfort Rev. Sloane Coffin by telling him that Alex’s death was somehow the will of God. This did not go down well with him. Ten days after Alex’s death, Rev. Coffin preached a eulogy for Alex at Riverside Church in New York. He said:
“For some reason, nothing so infuriates me as the incapacity of seemingly intelligent people to get it through their heads that God doesn't go around this world with his fingers on triggers, his fists around knives, his hands on steering wheels. God is dead set against all unnatural deaths … The one thing that should never be said when someone dies is ‘It is the will of God.’ Never do we know enough to say that. My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God's heart was the first of all our hearts to break.” 
The people of Judah, taken off into exile while their home is being destroyed, may also be led to believe that God has abandoned them. They may think that this is the act of a mean and vindictive God. They may think that this is God’s will and God’s punishment for them. But God speaks through Jeremiah, words of comfort and hope, to remind them of God’s promise to them.
This message recalls the covenant God made with Moses at Mount Sinai when the commandments were given. The people’s side of the covenant was to remain faithful to the YHWH by following the commandments. YHWH’s side of the promise was quite simple: “I will be your God, and you will be my people.” God had brought the people out of slavery in Egypt and now had promised presence and relationship, through their trials and their rejoicing.
“I will be your God, and you will be my people.” Sometimes this doesn’t sound like much of a promise … until I recall my friends, Bill and Jo, who adopted a son about 10 years ago. Brendon came into his new family with complex problems from his family of origin. But, my friends were determined to go ahead with the adoption. They simply wanted to be a family.
And so, following a period of fostering, the family stood before the judge and declared to Brendon “I will be your mom” and “I will be your dad” and “you will be our son.”
The years since that time have been full of trials, but also rejoicing. The nurturing that Brendon missed in his early years is not easily reclaimed. Right and wrong, cause and effect mean little to him. And now that he has entered the teenaged years, there are the regular trials of issues at school and visits from the police. And there are times of rejoicing, when Brendon makes a new friend, or shows an act of kindness.
This is not a journey for the fainthearted. And yet Jo and Bill kept their promise, “I will be your mom, I will be your dad, and you will be our son” through it all.
Another example of this powerful promise of presence comes from the book “Tattoos on the Heart” by Father Gregory Boyle. I had heard Father Boyle speak some years ago, at a conference on prison ministries at Boston College. He had recently published the book and had obviously traveled to many speaking engagements. He sounded weary. “I’m looking forward to going home to be with my family,” he said. For a moment I pictured a cozy scene of a wife and maybe 3 or 4 children welcoming home the Father. But, err … he’s a Catholic Priest. No, Father G, as he’s known, was talking about the “home boys” and “home girls” he had worked with for a couple of decades in the slums of Los Angeles. They were his family.
The book tells of the love of this man for his frustrating and heart-breaking family. Father Boyle rescues teenaged boys and girls from a life of gang violence by loving them. In many cases he saves their lives.
“Gang violence is about a lethal absence of hope,” Father Boyle has said. “Nobody has ever met a hopeful kid who joined a gang.” 
He created a business “Home Boy Industries” to make silkscreen printed T shirts. He employs the least employable. Kids who’ve had no parenting and no schooling, who don’t know how to get up on time for work or how to speak without using obscenities. He loves them by letting them know that they matter: to him and to God.
In this way he instills hope in many young men and women who would have been lost to gang violence and drug addiction. This work comes at an enormous price. As often as he baptizes and marries the young ones he serves, he also buries them. When a “homie” turns his life around he is most vulnerable to being shot and killed by a rival gang. The young man who’d escaped the neighborhood and gone to college, was taken down when he was back on a visit for the holidays. And there was another one who was home on leave from the military, having survived his tour of duty. The gangs did not care.
And yet, with the many trials, there are triumphs worth rejoicing. G. had visited a homie named “Grumpy” in prison and offered free removal of his gang insignia tattoos when he was released. Grumpy had rudely refused and resisted. And yet, months later, they met by chance, Grumpy had had a change of heart – “I’ll meet you on Wednesday when I get out, I want my [gang related] tattoos off” he said. These are the kinds of things that caused God and Father G. to rejoice.
Boyle quotes Emily Dickinson, “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul, that sings the song without the words and never stops at all.” 
Jeremiah writes to the people of Judah, to tell them that the days are surely coming when a righteous branch will spring up for David, the former King. This branch will reaffirm the promise of God: “I will be your God and you will be my people.”
For Christians, this promise is the coming of Jesus: God with us, Emmanuel.
Through it all, the heart break, the frustrations and the triumphs that cause us to rejoice. God with us.
That is the promise and that is the hope of the one candle.
Let all God’s people say, Amen.
 Boyle, Gregory. Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion (p. 127). Free Press. Kindle Edition
A Woman Who Gave Her All
Preached on November 11th, 2018
At Wollaston Congregational Church
Scripture: Mark 12:38-44
Today I want to tell you about Violet.
Violet was a woman at my own home church in England. I cannot remember a time when she was not there. Violet was a middle aged woman when I was a teenager, a part of that generation of women who experienced a dearth of suitors during the second world war. I don’t know if Violet had ever wanted to marry, or whether she ever had a sweet heart. A number of the single women I knew in my childhood had lost their beaus in the war. But this was rarely discussed.
Violet was a petite and quiet woman, who generally dressed in brown: dress, shoes, coat and hat. When she smiled, which was often, her eyes twinkled. Violet lived a modest life, in a small home rented from the local council. I picture her small brown teapot on the counter; a table and two chairs, one for Violet and one for a guest; and a comfy chair set in front of the rented TV. Many evenings were taken by church activities, but when Violet was alone she’d enjoy a little entertainment. Her community was the church, and a small extended family who lived elsewhere.
The married women in the church were known as “Mrs.” There were several Mrs. Scott’s (including my grandmother) and then Mrs. Steel, Mrs. Meadows, Mrs. Grimes … Mrs. Barron. Both the adults and children generally called the unmarried women by their first names. Except, of course, me, since my mom insisted I called Violet “Miss Dixon” which felt awkward because no one else did.
Now Mrs. Barron was Violet’s best friend. They were more or less joined at the hip. They taught Sunday School together and ran a youth group out of the church. Violet was also “Brown Owl” to the village Brownie troop that met in the fellowship hall.
Violet and Mrs. Barron had a heart for the youth of the community. The teenaged girls would confide in them. The ones who did not have care and support at home depended on them. Unfortunately, the duo had little control over the youth group shenanigans. Windows were broken and property was smashed. There was evidence of drinking, smoking, and other inappropriate activities. The church leaders despaired and fretted over the property damage. And yet, Violet and Mrs. Barron, soldiered on, hoping the best for their beloved youth.
As years went by, the impact of the church in the community diminished. The youth group closed. Mrs. Barron died and Violet became smaller in old age, as osteoporosis took its toll.
The last time I saw Violet she was coming into church one Sunday when I was home on a visit. We hugged and I felt her tiny frame in my arms. She smiled, eyes twinkling, to see me again. When I asked how she was, she said “I’m fine, thank you … but I miss Mrs. Barron.”
The church had owned two adjacent buildings when I was a child. The church itself: “chapel”, and the fellowship building next door. After I had moved away the chapel was sold, and the congregation moved into the fellowship hall. This was adequate for their needs, with classrooms, a full kitchen and room for a sanctuary. And still, it was an old and expensive place for the small group to maintain. They struggled on, committed to providing a place for Christian worship and witness in the village. Then, as so often happens, a major building expense landed on them. The little remnant of church members gathered with the minister for the area to talk about what they were to do.
What the minister lacked in eloquence he made up for in passion.
“We’ve gotta pray like stink, work like stink and give like stink,”
he announced, paraphrasing John Wesley.
The group shifted uncomfortably in their seats. People examined their fingernails or checked their calendars. How much more could they pony up? Then Violet spoke “I suppose I could give up my television” she said.
In our gospel story today, Jesus is teaching in the temple in Jerusalem. We are reaching the end of Mark’s story, this is the final week leading up to the crucifixion. Jesus has hard things to say about the temple and the cooperation of the religious leaders with the Roman rulers.
He is outraged by the lack of consideration for the vulnerable poor of the community, especially the widows. He has seen some of the religious elite, the scribes, flaunting their robes and taking the best seats in the synagogues and social events. He sees that those who have the responsibility to care for the poor are enjoying their power and privilege instead. For Jesus, there is a rotten-ness about the power structure of the temple. No matter that this temple is the center of religious life - the dwelling place of God - Jesus will predict that soon the whole place will be destroyed.
For now, though, Jesus sits and watches people come to the treasury, the place where donations are being made. And he notices someone who usually goes unnoticed: a poor, stooped widow. I imagine her dressed all in brown, as she passes by quietly and deposits her two little coins. They are the last of her savings, and now her pocket is empty. She has given every last drop of herself for the sake of the religious institution. Jesus contrasts this with the ostentatious giving of the wealthy. They have deposited large sums, but they can afford it. They don’t sacrifice, they are giving out of their abundance. But, the widow gives out of her poverty, she has nothing left to live on.
I don’t know what kind of a fundraiser the temple was running. I don’t know who had instilled this widow with the idea that she should give her very last tiny coins to the treasury. But I do see some parallels between Violet and the widow.
For Violet the church was her home and her family. She had already given her all, in the care of the youth, the leadership of the little brownies and in teaching in the Sunday School. She has shown up for every service, every potluck supper, every concert and every meeting. Violet was willing to give up her one small luxury: her TV set to help the church, but I hope that she didn’t have to. What kind of loving community would require this sacrifice from someone who had already given so much?
The area minister was not at all like the scribes Jesus was describing. The Methodist ministers in my home-town took a very modest salary, and they took care of several small churches at one time. And this particular minister did not have any airs and graces. Nor did he have much sensitivity for the circumstances of those he was asking to “give all they could.”
Violet didn’t live much longer after that last time I saw her. Members of the congregation checked in on her as her health deteriorated. And they knew how to put together her funeral service when the time came. “Blest be the Ties that Bind” would be sung. This was Violet’s favorite hymn.
You see, Violet wasn’t actually bound up in the bricks and mortar of that aging fellowship building. Her attachment was for the living breathing fellowship: the teenagers she counseled, the children she taught, the little ones she recited the Brownie promise with, and her dear friend Mrs. Barron. Here’s Violet’s favorite stanza of that hymn:
“When we are called to part,
it gives us inward pain;
but we shall still be joined in heart,
and hope to meet again.”
Violet did not live to see her congregation depart the aging building and take a weekly rental in the modern community building on the main street. Church meetings are not so anxious now that they have been able to let go the worries of maintenance and repair. And no elderly single woman is put in the position of having to give up her television.
And I wonder, is this what Jesus was getting at, when he criticizes the scribes and the wealthy people? They have no clue, do they, of the plight of the widow. They’re too busy counting the large gifts.
It happens that the temple will come to an end. And the faithful people will be devastated. And yet, out of this destruction there will be the birth of new groups of faithful people. Rabbinical Judaism will begin, with the focus on the small local synagogues and the home and family. And the Christian church will branch out from the synagogue.
Sometimes something has to end for the thing that God is doing to begin.
And so, I ask you to remember Violet, as you decide how you will support our church in the coming year. If you have the resources will you give so that others do not have to turn out their last coins from their pockets. And if you’ve given all you can financially, perhaps you can invest yourself in the community of the church. Violet would tell you that this is the wisest investment of all. It is a gift that keeps on giving long after the bricks and mortar have crumbled away.
May all God’s people say Amen.
Stories Change Things
Preached on November 4th, 2018
At Wollaston Congregational Church
Today we heard the story from the book of Ruth. Or to be specific we heard a part of it. Ruth is a short book, only four chapters, and so we can take in the whole story in one sitting. And that is what I intend to do today. It is a story that sits in our Bibles between the book of Judges and the first book of Samuel. It’s so short you could easily miss it. And yet, it has a powerful role to play in the greater stories of both the people of Israel and the followers of Jesus. And because of that powerful role, it also stands as a counter to a worldview that is strongly and lengthily presented in some other books of the Hebrew Bible.
Ruth is named for a woman, like the book of Esther we read a few weeks ago. In the Old Testament, 23 books are named for men, and only two for women. And in the New Testament, 15 books are named for men and none for women. Ruth, like Esther, is an exceptional story … particularly as the woman the book is named for is a foreigner whose people are considered enemies of Israel.
The story tells of Naomi and her daughter-in-law Ruth, who are migrants in the land of Judah. Years before the story begins, Naomi and her husband Elimelech, who are Israelites, move from Bethlehem in Judah to the foreign territory of Moab. They travel in search of food security because there is a famine in Bethlehem.
While they reside in the country of Israel’s enemies, Naomi and Elimelech’s sons grow up and marry Moabite women: Orpah and Ruth. And then, tragically, this displaced family experiences more loss. All the men, Elimelech and the two sons die, leaving Naomi and her daughters-in-law alone in a strange land. Naomi decides she must return to Bethlehem. The young women cling to her, and beg to go with her.
She tries to send Orpah and Ruth home to their mothers. She has nothing to offer them, they would be better off with their own people. Orpah agrees to go home, but Ruth refuses. Ruth insists that she will stay with Naomi come what may. Ruth’s speech of loyalty and love is one that is often used in wedding ceremonies, it is so beautiful:
“Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people, and your God my God,
Where you die, I will die – there will I be buried.
May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!”
The story goes on, with a wonderful surprise ending.
Naomi finds a way for Ruth to approach the owner of the field in Bethlehem where they glean their grain. This man, Boaz, is actually a distant relative of Naomi’s family, and so he is responsible for taking Ruth as his wife. He does not take much persuading. And soon a child is born. And so the story ends with the birth of Obed, the one who will become the father of Jesse, who in turn is the father of the great King David. We Christians find ample foreshadowing in this story: a child born in Bethlehem!
This is a story of the love and loyalty of Ruth and Naomi. It is a story of destitute women, of different ethnicities, receiving compassion and hope in the land of Jesus’ birth. While this moving story can stand alone, it also stands in defiant witness to some of the other parts of the Hebrew scriptures.
This is possible because Judaism is a tradition that is in conversation with itself. There is no “one way” to interpret any scripture ... something that I discovered through my seminary’s relationship with Hebrew College in Newton.
While I was at Andover Newton Theological School, there were many opportunities to join in group activities with the Rabbinical students at the college. And no matter what the purpose of the gathering was, there would be Havruta learning. This is a reading a passage of scripture which the students then discuss one-on-one. This process begins even before the professor (or Rebbe) teaches a class. I love the idea of it, because it empowers the students to ask their own questions and put forward their own ideas. In fact, there is no excuse. Everyone has to participate and contribute to the discussion.
I remember one occasion when a couple of students were disagreeing. The issue? What were the motives of the captain of the ship that took Jonah away from Ninevah. You might think, like me, that this is a pretty minor detail in the scheme of things. But these two students argued their points at length and with passion. When I observed that they were getting a little heated, they laughed. This had been an incredibly polite exchange by comparison with the noise you would hear coming from a typical session of Havruta in the Yeshiva … Hebrew school.
And so, I can easily imagine some lively Havruta learning going on over the book of Ruth, especially in relation to some of the other books of the Hebrew Bible.
Many scholars believe that Ruth was written to counter the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. These longer books tell of the remnant of Israel returning to Jerusalem following their 100 year exile in Babylon. The trauma of the exile and separation has made them determined to re-establish their home and their identity. They set up boundaries. Marriage to “foreign” women is expressly forbidden and existing foreign wives and *their* children are to be expelled and sent away.
Ruth may have been written to counter these double-down measures, but it certainly isn’t another book of proclamations about what is unacceptable to God. Nor is it a book of counter arguments that lift up the values of inter-marriage and diversity. Instead we simply hear the story of these two migrant widows, who journey together through wilderness country and who depend on the compassion of Boaz of Bethlehem. This story poses a challenge to a worldview that the people of Israel are threatened by the people of the neighboring lands. It reminds the Israelites that their survival as a tribe has depended upon their giving hospitality to and receiving hospitality from strangers. Arguments and disagreements do not usually break into our worldviews. But stories might.
Over the past few weeks, here at Wollaston Congregational Church, some of our members have been gathering for a “Circle Process” after worship. This is the method we have chosen to discuss the way we hold our relationship with our nation together with our relationship with God. We tell stories from our own lives, because storytelling reaches people on many levels – emotional, spiritual, physical and intellectual.
We have tried to move our conversation away from one opinion versus another, and toward a setting in which one person’s story can sit side by side with another’s. We try to practice active listening to one another, because our stories will not be effective unless they are listened to.
Why listen to stories? Why should we listen to someone who has a different perspective on the flag, or on immigration, or on marriage, or on race and diversity, from ourselves?
It is because most of us here will never have the experience of those two destitute women migrating from one land to another.
Most of us here will never know what it means to look visibly like an enemy in the only place that can offer security.
Most of us here, will never know what it means to survive by picking left over grain from a field that has already been harvested.
Does the story of Ruth break into your worldview?
Do the stories of your fellow church members challenge what you thought was right and true?
Over these past weeks, I have had the opportunity to listen to some stories. They have been stories from some of you in our Circle time. They have been stories from people I have met in my daily life. And they have been stories that are woven through the daily news cycle.
How do these stories challenge my worldview?
I cannot know what it is like to be a visibly gay or transgender person and experience verbal and even physical abuse when I go out and about. But I can listen to your story.
I cannot know what it is like to be a member of a minority religion, such as Judaism, and live through the shooting at Tree of Life synagogue and a see graffiti, in the shape of swastikas, daubed onto my house of worship just this past week. But I can listen to your story.
I cannot know what it is like to immigrate, as a child, from a different culture and to be teased and provoked in school because I do not understand the language and seem to be stupid. But I can listen to your story.
I cannot know what it is like to fear for my children on a daily basis, because people see them as suspicious and threatening simply because of the color of their skin. But I can listen to your story.
I cannot know what it is like to travel through hostile lands, away from violence and fear and toward a hope that may never be realized. But I can listen to your story.
And in listening I can be changed.
Yes, the story of Ruth and Naomi stands alone. It is a heart-warming tale that explains the lineage of King David and our savior Jesus. And yet it is more … a tale that turns upside down expectations of where greatness will be found. It is a tale that upends a worldview of xenophobia, self-protection and boundaries …
Many all God’s people say,
What Do You Want Me to Do for You?
Preached on October 28th, 2018
At Wollaston Congregational Church
Scripture: Mark 10:46-52
This morning, instead of the usual prayer for illumination we begin with a meditation. After this brief meditation the sermon will begin. And so I invite you to settle comfortably in your seat, close your eyes or let your gaze fall softly in the distance.
What do you want me to do for you? Jesus asks.
Let the question sink in.
What do you want me to do for you?
Allow the question to enter through your ears and reside in your head for a moment.
What’s your reply?
Pay my rent this month?
Find me a new partner, someone who will actually understand me?
Get me an A on the test?
Cure my sick child?
What do you want me to do for you?
Allow the question to sink down to your throat, and spread out over your shoulders.
What’s your reply?
Mend my broken heart?
Free me from the painful memories that haunt me?
Teach me how to forgive?
Take away my addiction?
What do you want me to do for you?
Let the question sink deep into your chest, penetrating your heart.
What’s your reply?
Help me, help me, help me!
In the gospel of Mark, Jesus asks this question more than once. Let’s hear from the cast of characters who first heard it and gave their answer.
My name is Bartimaeus – Bar – timaeus – son of Timaeus. And my patch is a spot on the road just outside of the walls of Jericho. Or it was, until I met the one called Jesus from Nazareth. Jesus Son of David, that’s what I called him.
I’d worked that patch for years, sitting cross-legged with my cloak spread out beneath me. When night came in and the travelers stopped passing by, I’d gather up the coins I’d collected on my cloak. I’d pull it around me, and go to the spot among the other beggars where I slept.
I was begging because I was blind. I could not see, so I could not work. I could not marry. But I could hear, I could taste, I could smell. When the Rabbi called Jesus came out of Jericho, he was followed by his disciples, and by a crowd behind him.
I could tell something important was going on. I could hear their excitement and anxiety. “Next stop Jerusalem,” some of them were murmuring. They’d been on the road for a while. I told you I could smell. I could feel the grit on their hands as some of them placed coins in mine.
I’d heard of the teachings of this Rabbi, and I could feel the beat of his purposeful stride. I knew there’d be trouble in Jerusalem. We’d heard of the executions going on down there, the crucifixions for insurrectionists.
And this Rabbi was about doing something. Who was this? King David, come to take Jerusalem back for our people?
He had a power others could not see. Their sighted eyes prevented them from grasping it. This was my chance. There’s nothing to lose when you spend your days sitting in the dirt begging for scraps.
I cried out as loud as I could “Jesus, Son of David, take pity, have mercy on me!”
The crowds tried to stop me.
They formed a wall in front of me and muttered “shut up” between their teeth.
The more they did that, the more I cried out. I may have been blind but I could wail. And he heard me!
He called me forward. And then he asked … he asked me:
“What do you want me to do for you?”
We’re Jesus’ disciples, the ones he called first: Peter, James and John. We’ve been following Jesus for some three years. First we’d just traveled through the villages of Galilee, healing the sick, casting out demons, proclaiming the Kingdom of God was coming near.
But, then, just a few months ago the message changed a little. The direction of the tour became more purposeful. We were headed for Jerusalem, for the Passover. Jesus had been talking a little crazy these past weeks. We were trying to get him back on message. But he kept talking about suffering and death and something about rising again. The first will be last and the last will be first. Crazy stuff.
When he first started this I, Peter, rebuked him. He set me straight. And then there was that day on the mountain top, when he was shining with divine light and talking with the old prophets. Now we don’t know whether to be excited or afraid.
We brothers, James and John, saw this was our chance. We asked for a special favor. It was for our loyalty and our courage, you understand.
“What do you want me to do for you?” He’d asked.
We asked to sit on his right and left when he came into glory. We wanted him to know we had confidence in him. He would take Jerusalem and reign. We’d have a share, after all, we were the first disciples, right? He didn’t make any promises. He was vague as usual, something about a baptism and cup … and then he said “what you have asked is not mine to grant.”
Now, as we are leaving Jericho, he hears this blind beggar. The crowd tries to shush him and hide him but he is crying out “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” He won’t stop. The wailing goes on and on. There’s really no need – Jesus always sees and hears. He called him forward – called him! Then he asked the question, the same question he asked us, just a few days before:
“What do you want me to do for you?”
I am the man, yes, just the man, no name in this gospel. You know me as the rich man. I’d met him on the road, back north, before he came to Jericho. They told me this Rabbi knew all the answers, and so I had asked him, what could I do to inherit eternal life?
I’d already inherited a lot, my family was wealthy. But, I needed to know: would I get into heaven?
He quizzed me on my life, but I passed the test. I’ve obeyed all the commandments since my youth. I have a position of respect in the community. He told me I must sell everything, give it all to the poor, come and follow him. Then I would enter the kingdom of God. This wasn’t even what I asked.
I didn’t pay attention. He’s only a dirty itinerant Rabbi from Nazareth, after all. But I followed the crowd. I wanted to know what would happen.
Ha! Things don’t look so good for them now! They’re headed for Jerusalem and there’s talk of suffering and death. He has that right. I see no future in this “movement” of his. That would have been a useless investment.
And then here, just outside the walls of Jericho, he stops. He stops because a blind, filthy beggar is crying out for attention. All this man has is his cloak on the floor and the scraps he has begged for. Not so much for him to give up! The Rabbi calls him over – the outrage – and he asks:
“What do you want me to do for you?”
What do you want me to do for you?
The next time you pray, imagine Jesus is asking you this question.
And then reply, “help me.”
We’re not supposed to pray this way, are we?
We’re not supposed to come to church for what we can get out of it.
We’re not supposed to talk about our needs and wants, are we?
We good Christians are supposed to meet the needs and wants of others.
And yet, here is Jesus, giving us this chance … to ask for anything.
There’s a catch, though.
In fact there are a couple.
The first catch is, we can’t pull seniority or loyalty. We can’t say,
”I’ve been your good friend for so long, just look what I’ve done for you!”
My 50+ years in the church won’t cut it. Whether it is time served on the missions committee, teaching in Sunday School or providing coffee hour. None of these things will cause Jesus to ask that question.
The next catch is that “Just look how I’ve obeyed the rules and always done right!” won’t count for anything either.
Really? My self-righteous recycling, my Bible study and praying, my abstinence from smoking and recreational drugs, my moral objection to a state-run lottery, my visitation of the elderly and the sick … all make no difference. Zero.
So, what will do it? Let’s return to Bartimaeus and see how things worked out for him.
When he called to me, oh how the crowds changed their tune!
“Take heart” they said, “he is calling you.”
I know, I heard. I leapt up.
I left my cloak, my patch on the road, my blanket. The collection of coins taken that day scattered and rolled in the dust.
I didn’t turn back.
“What do you want me to do for you?” he asked, and I answered “teacher, let me see again!”
And, just like that, I could see: everything.
I could see the sign pointing to Jerusalem, 15 miles away.
I could see the disciples bright eyed, and anxious.
I could see the crowd, not understanding but filled with hope.
He told me my faith had made me well and I could go on my way.
But I could see his eyes, inviting me to go with him.
He had heard my cry, what else could I do?
I would follow him, all the way.
Writer Anne Lammot says there are three essential prayers: Help, Thanks, Wow.
She says “Sometimes the first time we pray, we cry out in the deepest desperation, ‘God, help me.’ This is a great prayer, as we are then our absolutely most degraded and isolated, which means we are nice and juicy with the consequences of our best thinking and thus possibly teachable.” 
And, as one of my seminary professors used to say, “the only prayer you ever say, is when you haven’t got a prayer.”
“Help me!” Is the plea that Jesus hears, “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me, take pity!”
The trick is, we have to cry, and we have to cry out loud.
We can’t allow the crowd to block us out.
We can’t let Miss Manners shush us.
We can’t let years of loyalty and credentials get in the way.
And, so, I invite you to let it rise, from your heart, from your inner most being.
The grief, the lament, the wail.
At first it’s a low moan, barely audible.
Up, from the gut, to your throat.
Don’t stifle it, don’t swallow it back down.
Let it out … Jesus Son of David, have mercy on me!
And then hear him say “What do you want me to do for you?”
You will know the answer.
May God’s people cry out,
 Anne Lammot, Help Thanks Wow: Three Essential Prayers, (New York, Riverhead Book, 2012)
Can You Drink the Cup?
Preached at Wollaston Congregational Church
On October 21st, 2018
Scripture: Mark 10:32-45
In the passage from Mark’s gospel that we heard this morning, Jesus refers to drinking from his cup. This is the first of three references to “the cup” leading up to the final moments of Jesus’ life on earth.
Our text also includes the third time we hear Jesus predict his suffering, death and resurrection in this gospel. The prediction is given to the disciples while they are on the road, coming ever closer to Jerusalem. Jesus says that, here in the holy city, the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes and they will hand him over to the Gentile rulers. He will be mocked, spat upon, flogged and killed. After three days he will rise again. It’s not surprising that the crowd of followers are afraid.
The disciples are still digesting this grim but hopeful prediction when the brothers, James and John, come up with a bold request. First of all they ask Jesus to give them whatever they want. They are already acting kind of forward. And then when he asks what it is they want, they say: “grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left in your glory.”
These young fishermen, who left their father’s business to follow Jesus, seem to have a notion that glorious things lay ahead of them. They are ready for their reward. And, although it may seem pushy, they want to seize the moment. What’s to lose if they ask Jesus about getting the best seats in heaven? He can only say no.
Jesus does not say yes and he does not say no. There’s always a different way of looking at things with Jesus. He tells them that they don’t know what they are asking. And then, as a Rabbi would, he answers them with a question:
“Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?"
The book “Can You Drink the Cup?” was written by Dutch Priest, theologian, and author, Henri Nouwen. This small volume is entirely focused on the question Jesus asks the brothers, James and John: “Can you drink the cup?”
Henri Nouwen, a celibate gay man, was known for his quest to live his faith authentically. Ultimately he left a successful academic life and an appointment at Harvard Divinity School. He went to live in L’Arche community at Daybreak: a community for people with mental and physical disabilities in Canada. There he served as pastor and cared for a young man named Adam, who had severe disabilities. In that setting, Nouwen was finally able to live into his true self and to confront his own hidden wounds. 
Nouwen sees the response to Jesus question “can you drink the cup?” as living life deeply and fully. It means discovering our true selves and exposing the wounds we have hidden.
In Mark’s gospel, Jesus’ first reference to the cup is in the passage we heard today. A few chapters on, we can read of Jesus gathering with the disciples for the last supper before his crucifixion. During this gathering, Jesus takes the cup of wine from the table where they are feasting, holds it and give thanks for it. He says “this is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many.” He offers the cup to each friend gathered around the table.
Later that same night Jesus and the disciples are out in the garden of Gethsemane. Jesus is waiting with James, John and Peter. Soon the soldiers will come and arrest him. Jesus asks the disciples to sit with him while he prays, but they keep falling asleep. While they are sleeping, Jesus prays “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible: remove this cup from me. Yet, not what I want, but what you want.” He is talking about the cup of sorrow. He is wrestling with his calling to go to the cross and die.
The communion cup was central to Henri Nouwen’s life. He had known he wanted to be a priest from a young age. He was honored on the occasion of his ordination, when his uncle, also a priest, gave Nouwen his own communion cup. This was a golden cup, embellished with diamonds, that had once belonged to Nouwen’s grandmother. Since his ordination, Nouwen was the only person to touch that cup. At the time he was ordained in the Catholic Church, only the priest ever drank from the cup during communion.
Years later at L’Arche community, communion was celebrated with several glass cups. Every member of the community could hold, lift and drink from the cup. The cups were transparent and the contents could be seen. The residents and staff knew what they were taking and they drank gladly.
Daybreak was a place of both joy and sorrow for Nouwen. At first he had feared Adam and his disabilities. He says “After caring for Adam for a few months I was no longer afraid of him. Waking him up in the morning, giving him a bath and brushing his teeth, shaving his beard and feeding him breakfast had created such a bond between us … knowing Adam became a privilege for me.” 
The sorrows of L’Arche community at Daybreak were evident and on the surface. The residents clearly struggled each day just to get through the tasks of living. Some had terribly sad family histories and L’arche was the first place they had found a family.
The able-bodied people who came to assist at L’Arche, like Nouwen, also had sorrows. They had broken families, sexual unfulfillment, spiritual alienation, career doubts and confusing relationships. The only difference is that the assistants’ sorrows were hidden.
There was also great joy at L’arche, Nouwen says. The members of the community lived together and ate together, they also laughed and cried together. Sorrow was on the surface, but so was joy – joy in the power of human community.
This past summer, Pr. Alissa, of Good Shepherd Church, and I led some spirituality sessions at a local addiction treatment facility. We had thirty minutes, first with a group of women and then with a group of men. We’d share a story from our tradition with the group, inviting the participants to “find themselves in the story.” We were careful to say that we were not there as an attempt to convert or persuade anyone to join our churches. We were simply there to sit with those in treatment and share stories. Once we’d told our story, we’d lead the men and women in a short meditation.
Some people in the groups were resistant to our ideas, and so we’d remind them that they could leave the group at any time. Others would find the stories opened wounds that were too raw, and they would leave of their own accord. Some people stayed in the group but couldn’t grasp how to find themselves in the stories. And others made themselves vulnerable, relating powerfully to the stories and sharing their struggles with addiction.
One week, two young women told us about their struggles simply to sit still and meditate. “I have never known joy” said one woman. I couldn’t speak for a moment. The sadness was too much. No moments of joyful play from childhood, no moments joy in a body that can run, and swim, and embrace another, no moments of sheer pleasure with family and friends.
I couldn’t imagine living a life without even moments of joy. Being present with this woman in her sorrow felt like a great privilege. We invited her, in the meditation, just to imagine freedom from her addiction as a possibility. My prayer is that one day she will taste joy.
I believe that being present to one another in sorrow and joy is what Jesus is talking about when he asks us if we are willing to drink his cup.
During the last supper Jesus goes through the motions of demonstrating how the cup contains both joy and sorrow. It is passed, in celebration, around the circle of a shared community. The friends look into each other’s eyes. Communion accentuates both sorrow and joy.
The most sorrowful moment of Jesus’ life was when he was taken to the cross. He knew the pain and suffering he was about to experience, but the sorrow came from something deeper. This moment was his deepest connection with all of humanity. He experienced all the sorrow that human life has to offer. He took on all of the suffering of the world. His invitation to us to drink from his cup means to participate in all the joy and the sorrow of the world. This is the cup of salvation.
I’m afraid that James and John, though, live in their optimistic “first half of life” when Jesus offers them the cup. For these young men, living life fully means shooting for the stars. They are ambitious disciples, focused on the honor of getting alongside Jesus when he rises in glory. They have not yet encountered the cup of sorrow and joy, and they do not know their need for the cup of salvation.
We meet Jameses and Johns in life all the time – the ones who have their “eye on the prize.” Our schools tell our children that they can live their dreams. And we buy into the story, cheering them on, whether in sports, academics, or the performing arts.
Even in our church, we sometimes skirt the need for true community gathered around the table. We are anxious to be released from the intimacy of communion to the bustle of the coffee hour in the social hall.
But Nouwen brings us back to the cup. He offers us three ways to drink from it:
The first way to drink our cup is in silence because, he says, “it is precisely in silence that we confront out true selves.”  So often we’d rather distract ourselves with entertainment than face ourselves in silence. When the quiet becomes uncomfortable, do you turn on the TV or reach for your phone ready to check email or social media?
The second way to drink the cup is with the word, says Nouwen. We need a trusted circle of friends to share and hear our stories. “Silence without speaking is as dangerous as solitude without community.” 
Do you have a hope or fear you have not spoken out loud? Can you find someone in this church community, or among your close friends, who will listen to that joy or sorrow with respect?
And the third way to drink the cup is in action. This may sound like being busy, but it is not. Nouwen says “true action leads to the fulfillment of our vocation.”  What action are you being called to right now? Have you explored this as a part of your vocation? Does this action lead you to drink more completely of the cup of your life? Does this action draw you more deeply into true community?
Today, I ask more questions than I answer. The most important question is the one Jesus asks those brothers: “Can you drink the cup that I drink?”
May all God’s people say,
 Henri J. M. Nouwen, Can You Drink the Cup? (Ave Maria Press, Notre Dame, IN, 2006)
 Henri J. M. Nouwen, Can You Drink the Cup? (Ave Maria Press, Notre Dame, IN, 2006), 44
 Ibid., 102
 Ibid., 106
 Ibid., 109
Treasure in Heaven
Preached at Wollaston Congregational Church
on October 14th, 2018
Scripture: Mark 10:17-31
This week I have another confession … I don’t like talking about money.
I get bored with discussions about investments and the economy. That kind of conversation often goes over my head. And, then there are the conversations about my money, and my wealth that are just uncomfortable for me.
This is not a problem, for those who prefer that the sermon doesn’t touch on money. We’re on the same page, right? “Pastor Liz doesn’t like talking about money, and we don’t like hearing about it.” What’s to fix?
Well, of course, there is a small problem. Jesus liked talking about money, a lot!
16 of the 38 parables talk about the ethics of one’s money and possessions. In the Gospels, one out of ten verses deal directly with the money. The Bible has 500 verses on prayer, less than 500 verses on faith, and more than 2,000 verses on money and possessions. 
Today’s gospel text is one of those many examples. So I’m afraid to say, we have no excuse.
The story follows on from last week’s text. Jesus is continuing on his final journey toward Jerusalem. We hear that as he is traveling, a man runs up and kneels at his feet and asks:
“Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
This man seems to be unsure about his salvation. He seems to be seeking for answers. And in his case, the answers concern obtaining eternal life.
First Jesus checks in to make sure that the man is following the main commandments. It seems that he lives an exemplary life. He has kept the commandments since he was a youth.
Then Jesus looks at him carefully and with love. He says, “you lack one thing, sell what you own and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
The man is deeply saddened by this news. He owns many possessions. He is a rich man. We don’t know what he does. We don’t find out whether he is saddened because he will lose all his possessions. Or perhaps he is saddened because he doesn’t have what it takes to build treasure in heaven.
Jesus isn’t talking about eternal life at this moment. Jesus is talking about something far more immediate for the man. He is talking about him becoming a part of the community of faith and a part of God’s kingdom. He’s inviting him to be a part of the answer to the prayer “your will be done, your kingdom come, on Earth as it is in heaven.”
As the conversation progresses we see this disconnect between Jesus and others. Jesus makes the point that riches get in the way of people participating fully in the Kingdom of God. And the disciples ask “who then can be saved?”
Even though they are not getting the idea, Jesus commends them. After all, they have left everything to follow him. And he tells them they are to be rewarded – both now and in eternal life. They will receive a hundredfold of what they have given up. Then Jesus gives a warning, that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God."
This is a well known story from the gospel. Jesus likes to challenge his followers to give up on their attachments to follow him. And these attachments include money and the things that money can buy.
One reason I may not like to talk about money is that I have quite a lot of it. I don’t earn a lot, being part-time in this position. But I do have significant resources from my former career. My family situation also allows for a lifestyle far beyond what a part-time pastor’s salary would usually provide. Even before I came into this embarrassment of riches, I was uncomfortable with this particular story of Jesus.
I grew up in post-World War II austerity of England. My family might have been described as “well to do” and Middle Class. By all accounts, we were comfortable. Yet our lifestyle was nothing like the contemporary American or British way of life.
As a child, I had everything I needed, much more than my parents had during the war. One toy I remember was a miniature chocolate machine. I loved those little squares of wrapped chocolate the machine would dispense when I deposited a penny. At the same time, I could see the finite of supply chocolate going down. And when I ran out, that would be the end. I didn’t know how or where to buy more. And so I was miserly in my use of that machine, because I always feared running out.
I was the same way with the allowance my grandfather gave me each week. I’d save it, with some plan of what I was going to buy. I would never make a large purchase until I’d saved a few more weeks to buffer the shock of having nothing left. No wonder the story of Jesus telling the rich man he must give everything away makes me uncomfortable. And, maybe that’s the intention of the story.
Let’s remember, that although this instruction is uncomfortable and challenging, Jesus looks on the rich man with love, not anger. We know that Jesus is deeply concerned for the poor, we have heard him talk about that many times before.
Right now, though, he seems to be most concerned with saving this man.
Not saving him from the fires of hell, but from the trappings of his wealth. Not only for eternal life, but for full participation in the community of faith and the coming kingdom, for full relationship with God and with others of the community.
When we hear Jesus’ instruction to the rich man “sell what you own, give the money to the poor, and you will find treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” we realize the man’s wealth is an obstacle that prevents him from following Jesus.
The disciples are commended by Jesus for leaving behind all their attachments to follow him. He assures them they will receive far more in return. They will gain mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters. They will receive houses and fields. These are the things that represent wealth. And there will also be persecutions.
The list of benefits sounds little odd, but isn’t it something like the advantages of becoming a part of the Church? In coming into this community, we have a new family, new friendships. We have a new fuller lifestyle, more authentic connections than before, with God and with one another.
Just this week I heard a story of a man who left behind a lifestyle of material wealth for the sake of his soul.
I listen a National Public Radio show called Marketplace. This show has enough human interest stories to keep me engaged. And the reports on the markets and the economy are simple enough for me to understand.
This year Marketplace has been presenting a series of “How We Changed” stories. These are stories of how different people have changed since the financial crisis of 2008.
This past week they interviewed a 39 year old Rasanath Das, an immigrant from India who was an investment banker on Wall Street. Growing up in India in the 1990’s Das saw the movie “Wall Street” and heard the message “greed is good.” He was decided to come to the USA and his plan was to own a yellow convertible and a blue motor boat.
He was convinced the New York was the place he was meant to be. After graduating with an MBA, he interviewed for a job as an investment banker. In the interview he was given the quote “investment banking is a business where thieves and pimps run freely on the corridors and a few good men die the death of a dog.” The interviewer asked the question “which are you?”
Was this Wall Street’s way of saying that it easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God?
In the booming economy of the early 2000’s, Das felt discontent and experienced a hollowness in his working environment. He spent time in a monastery in New York, talking with the monks about his conflicts. Even while he was still working on Wall Street, he began living by monastic principles. He meditated 2 hours each day, and abstained from meat, alcohol and caffeine.
In 2007 there were six rounds of layoffs in his workplace. There was a feeling of inhumanity as employees were let go and walked out of the premises. They were not even allowed to return to their desks to collect their personal belongings. This was a wakeup call for Das. He realized that he had been living a life of “success without substance” and so he moved into the monastery. He lived there for four years. Since then he has started a business developing mindfulness and his life is back on track. 
Most of us are not investment bankers and yet we all have attachments that keep us from full relationship with God and with one another. They are the pennies we hold on to, the chocolate and treasures that we squirrel away and eek out. These are the things that we cannot bring with us because they will not squeeze through that eye of a needle and into the kingdom.
Jesus recommends letting go of these attachments and storing up treasure in heaven. The band Ceili Rain sings of a man who dies and goes to heaven. He is shown his home there by St Peter. It’s just a two room shack. The man is confused. Why doesn’t he have a one of the many mansions? Peter tells him that his heavenly house is this size because that is all the lumber he’d sent ahead. The man had not lived a generous life. He had not stored treasure in heaven. The man gets the point, and says if he had his life over again he’d be “the givin’est guy” that he could be.
And, so perhaps, this is the reason why we give our tithes and offerings as a significant part of our worship service. When we offer our money to God, through the community of the Church, we are not just participating in a fundraiser. It isn’t only about shoring up our institution.
When we give, we are depositing treasure in heaven.
May all God’s people say,
Created for Relationship
Preached on October 7th, 2018
At Wollaston Congregational Church
Scripture: Mark 10:2-16
I have a confession to make this morning. I have a pet peeve when it comes to biblical interpretation. It’s one of those peeves that has me calling out the “message” that arrives in my inbox, or the sermon delivered by a TV evangelist.
My hackles rise when someone takes part of the Bible out of context, especially if their interpretation is prefaced with the phrase: “the Bible says …”.
The Bible says “the world was created in seven days and dinosaurs never existed.”
The Bible says “women should not teach or exercise authority over men” … another woman minister and I were confronted with this one recently when we were speaking to a group of men.
The Bible says “sex before marriage is a sin”
And then there’s the Bible says “divorce is an abomination” and the Bible says “marriage is (only) between a man and a woman.” These last two “teachings” make their case using the gospel text we read today.
So, let’s take a closer look.
Jesus has been traveling around the countryside with the disciples for some time. He has been performing healing miracles and teaching what the kingdom of God is like. Now his journey has taken a turn toward Jerusalem. Jesus has warned the disciples several times that this is a journey toward suffering, death, and then resurrection.
Today’s reading finds Jesus on the far side of the Jordan river, in John the Baptist’s territory. John had criticized King Herod for divorcing his wife, Phaseaelis, and unlawfully marrying Herodius, the wife of his brother. Herod threw John into prison, and later he was beheaded. This was done at the request of Herodius’s minor daughter, who had been summoned to dance provocatively for Herod.
Now, as crowds gather around Jesus to hear teaching, some religious leaders come with a question. These are the types of people who like to say “the Bible says this or “that.” They like to know that God is on their side. And they like to contemplate the terrible things that will happen to those who are on the other side.
They ask Jesus "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?" This is a test. They know that the Torah, in the book of Deuteronomy, allows for divorce, at least for a man against his wife. Perhaps they are wondering if Jesus has the same view as John the Baptist. Perhaps they hope to connect Jesus with John so that Herod will also have him imprisoned and beheaded.
First Jesus gets them to tell him what is in the law. Then he turns the question around on them. He moves from the religious leaders’ prescriptive style of teaching, to a descriptive mode. And he summons a much earlier, affirming text from the story of creation in the book of Genesis. He says:
“… from the beginning of creation, 'God made them male and female … For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.'”
“From the beginning of creation, God made them male and female” the man and the woman. God also made many other things: every animal and every plant, a great diversity of sea, land, and sky creatures. All flora and fawn. And of humanity, God made them male and female. There’s nothing to say that variations on this description are a problem. In this story there is only blessing, that all of creation was good. All of it.
Next Jesus says that a man leaves his parents to be joined with his wife. Because this is what happens in a 1st century Palestinian marriage. The man leaves his parents’ home, where he has lived his whole life, and moves in with his in-laws.
Then comes a more universal description:
“And the two shall become one flesh. So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate."
Jesus describes God’s entering into the union of the married couple. Somehow, in marital intimacy, they have become something holy. Elaborating on the story of creation, Jesus is saying this is “good and blessed”, that their relationship is affirmed by God. He has moved beyond a description of a 1st century contractual marriage and into something quite timeless and wonderful.
We do not hear how the religious leaders respond, but we don’t really need to know. We have enough to sit with, for today. This juxtaposition of the prescriptive “the Bible says …” and Jesus’ lovely description of holy relationship.
And we could end right there.
Only we know that this is not the end.
There is more to talk about than this.
We still have to deal with the reality of divorce.
Historically, marriage in the church has been modeled on this passage and passages in scripture. The focus is often “what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
And yet, we all know, divorce still happens. And perhaps we are left wondering why Jesus describes marriage in these terms. And why, later, when the disciples ask him about this, he is even more strict. He says that whoever divorces their spouse and remarries, commits adultery.
And again, I say, context.
First century Palestinian marriage favored the man. As the religious leaders rightly cited from the book of Deuteronomy, a man could divorce his wife simply because she was not pleasing to him. And this could leave her, and their children, destitute. A wife and her children had no legal recourse. Jesus speaks harshly about those who divorce, because it hurts the vulnerable.
So, how are we to think about marriage and divorce in our, very different time and culture: in our context?
- In our context, a woman’s family no longer provides a dowry for her husband.
- In our context, many young adults live independently before they are married.
- In our context, a couple does not usually move in with the in-laws, although it can happen.
- In our context, a young girl is not espoused to man by her parents before she’s had the chance to meet other possible partners.
- And, of course, in our very particular context – something few could have imagined in generations past – a man may marry a man, a woman may marry a woman. And some people know that they are neither all male nor all female, and still they are created for relationship.
Jesus could not have anticipated these changes in culture. There is no reason why we’d expect him to know. There’s no reason why he would have to include these things in that one brief description of marriage for them to be acceptable.
One thing that has not changed, though, is that humans fall in love with one another and wish to spend their lives together.
What has not changed is that God created us to be in relationship. Relationship reflects God’s relationship and love for humanity.
What has not changed is that some people do not marry, and still have different loving relationships with one another. And these relationships also reflect God’s love for humanity.
God is love and anytime we love, God is in the midst.
A second thing that has not changed is that relationships often do not work out. What Jesus calls “hardness of heart” applies universally to the human condition.
Often it is the baggage of one partner’s past that causes a breakdown in relationship. We promise to remain together in sickness and health, but mental or physical illness may cause a marriage to fail.
If one partner abuses the other, the victim may need to end the marriage for their own safety. And even though children often suffer in divorce, sometimes they will do better once their parents have separated.
The United Church of Christ service book provides a liturgy for the end of a marriage. A marriage can be ended well, and the sadness can be recognized, if both partners are willing to acknowledge it.
The duration of a marriage very often has to do with circumstances beyond the control of one of both of the partners. This is something my parents tried to acknowledge, just this August when they celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary. It caused some consternation in the family!
We celebrated the anniversary with a lunch party. The extended family arrived in their Sunday best: toddlers and children with their parents, grandparents and great-grands. Everyone wanted to hug and kiss my parents and say “congratulations.” And on an occasion like this, a member of the family will often give a speech and propose a toast. But, my parents had also told my brother and myself that they didn’t want “any of that.”
Their thinking was that they had not done anything to deserve their long and happy marriage. It was all by the grace of God and they were simply thankful. They thought it was inappropriate to be congratulated on something they saw as a gift. They would be embarrassed by speeches that lifted up their virtues and ignored their failings.
However, they did allow me to give a grace at the beginning of the meal and my brother to propose a brief toast at the end. Before praying the grace I did get a chance for a little speech. I told my parents, that like it or not, they had played their part in making it to that day. I asked them to humbly accept whatever we had to offer: congratulations, compliments and gifts. My brother book-ended the meal with a toast to warm every heart. He recalled a Tahitian practice of love and forgiveness: “I love you, I’m sorry, please forgive me and thank you.”
And that, in the end says it all.
We honor our God, of relationship, every time we say “I love you” to another person of God’s good creation.
We honor our God, when we say we are sorry to our loved one for our hardness of heart.
We participate in God’s grace and mercy when we seek forgiveness.
And, of course, we honor our God, of relationship, every time we say “thank you” to our loved ones and for our loved ones.
So let all God’s married, single, divorced and widowed people say:
For Such a Time as This: The Story of Esther
Preached on September 30th2018
At Wollaston Congregational Church
Scripture: The Book of Esther
Over the past few weeks our Old Testament passages have been taken from the “Wisdom” literature, or “Writings” of the Hebrew Bible. The passages that we read each week are excerpts from the longer books that make up the Bible. The passage assigned for this week is from the book of Esther. This is the only time Esther appears in our lectionary readings, and to read only the excerpt would not make sense. The book, Esther, actually tells a story that is important to the Jewish people. In fact this story is remembered in the joyous holiday of Purim to this day. And so, I am going to start the sermon today by telling the story of Esther.
Now, the story is set during the reign of King Xerxes, somewhere between 486 and 465 BCE, in Susa the capital city of the Persian Empire. The Jewish people live in diaspora. They have been separated from Jerusalem and the temple for 100 years now and live dispersed throughout the empire. There is quite a large population of Jewish people living in Susa. Some are assimilated into the culture, so that it is impossible to know they are Jewish. Others maintain their identity at the cost of appearing “different” from the Persians and risking persecution. Esther is a young and very beautiful Jewish woman who keeps her identity a secret. She has been advised to do so by Mordecai, her uncle and guardian.
The story begins with the King, Xerxes, giving an absurdly extravagant banquet for dignitaries from all around. This banquet is a display of the “vast wealth of his kingdom and the splendor of his majesty.” It goes on for 7 days. The furnishings are off scale: finest linen, gold, marble. Wine is served in golden goblets and the guests drink without restraint. This is an all male gathering, while Xerxes’ queen, Vashti, entertains the women separately in the palace.
On the 7thday of eating and drinking, Xerxes calls for Queen Vashti to dress in her finest clothes and come to the feast. He wants to show his drunken guests what a great man he is, to have such a beautiful woman as his queen. Vashti realizes what a spectacle and humiliation this will be and refuses to come. Outraged and embarrassed, the king consults with law makers to permanently change the law of the land to keep wives from rebelling against their husbands. All women are required to give honor to their husbands - that every man in the empire would be master in his own house.
In his anger, Xerxes banishes Vashti. But later decides he needs a new queen. He sends out his servants to gather all the beautiful young virgins of the land into a harem. Esther is one of those young women who are rounded up and taken to the palace to be prepared for presentation to the king. These girls are subjected to “cosmetic treatments” for months on end, until it is time for them to be sent in to “delight” the king. It turns out that Esther pleases the king better than all the other virgins and is chosen to be his new wife. Through all these preparations, Esther’s uncle, Mordecai, is worried and hangs around the palace gate listening for news of his niece. During this time, he overhears two of the king’s eunuch servants conspiring to murder the king.
Mordecai tells Esther about this plot, which Esther conveys to Xerxes. The traitors are found out and they are hung on gallows. Now Xerxes owes his life to Mordecai.
At this stage in the story we are introduced to the villain: Haman. Haman becomes King Xerxes’ viceroy and insists of obeisance of all the subjects. As a Jew, Mordecai does not bow to this Gentile ruler. This enrages Haman, and he turns his anger toward Mordecai and also Jews in general. He determines to “destroy, kill and annihilate all the Jews, young and old, women and children on a single day.” The day will be chosen by casting lots. He is plotting a pogrom!
Mordecai appeals to Esther to use her influence with the king. This is a terrifying prospect for Esther, as she knows that the king has the right to put to death anyone who approaches his throne without a summons. But Mordecai persists with her, suggesting that maybe she has “come to royal position for such a time as this.”
Esther asks all the Jews in Susa to fast with her for three days, so as to be certain of what she will do. Finally she decides “if I perish, I perish.” What will be will be.
Then, with a plan in mind, she finds the courage to approach the throne. The king spares her life and Esther invites both Haman and Xerxes to a series of banquets she is preparing.
The men both enjoy the first banquet very much, as Esther plies them with wine and compliments. Xerxes is so pleased, he guarantees Esther he will grant whatever she asks. Haman is proud to be invited to this private banquet and yet he is still angry with Mordecai’s failure to honor him. He decides that he will set up the gallows for Mordecai’s execution at his own house.
Later that night, perhaps suffering from indigestion, Xerxes cannot sleep. For a little light reading he reviews his records. He realizes that he has not paid Mordecai back for his loyalty in uncovering the assignation plot. At this moment, Haman returns to talk to the king about his plan to hang Mordecai. Xerxes asks Haman how best to honor someone who has shown great loyalty. Of course, Haman thinks that he is the person, and advises the king to dress the man in royal robes, give him a royal horse to ride and parade him through the streets. Haman is outraged when it is Mordecai who is given the parade. He goes home to sulk, until his next banquet with Esther.
At the banquet, Xerxes asks Esther what he can do for her … he will do whatever she desires. She asks that he will spare her life, and the lives of her people from someone who is planning their annihilation. Horrified, Xerxes asks who is this person? Esther points to Haman, the villain: “An adversary and enemy! This vile Haman!”
Haman attempts to beg Esther for mercy, but even this backfires. Xerxes thinks he is molesting Esther and has him taken away to be hanged. Ironically it is done on the same gallows Haman had set up for Mordecai. The story ends happily for the Jewish people. Esther inherits Haman’s estate, Mordecai receives his signet ring. The Jews are granted the right to assemble and protect themselves from assaults. It is a good day for the Jewish people.
It’s only a story, of course, a pantomime. The characters are exaggerated, the men in power are buffoonish. During the holiday, Purim, Jewish people ham it up: lampooning the rich and foolish King Xerxes, booing and hissing at the villain, Haman.
Esther is the one book in the Bible that does not mention God. The Jewish people are freed solely by the actions of Esther and Mordecai. God feels distant in this story. Perhaps the people may have been far away from Jerusalem for so long they have forgotten what God is like.
Yet, without being named God is present. Esther acts with courage and wisdom that are God-given. We hear echoes of Esther centuries later, when Jesus says to the disciples "See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” Esther certainly was a sheep among wolves: a young virgin rounded up into the King’s harem, and finding herself in the company of Xerxes and Haman. She was both an innocent as a dove, and grew to be as wise as a serpent.
And Mordecai’s exhortation rings true, all these years later. As he implores Esther to do something about the threat to her people, he suggests that she has “come to royal position for such a time as this.” And I wonder, do we all have times and places we have come for such a time as this?
Some years ago I attended a retreat organized by the women of an African Methodist Episcopal Church. I went with a small group of white women from my suburban church who had decided to accept the invitation from our sister church in the city.
The setting was a resort on Cape Cod and the gatherings took place in a large tent set up for functions. For that weekend the tent had the feel of a revival meeting. There was loud praise music from a band, powerful preaching, and praying in tongues.
As soon as our group arrived, we headed into the first prayer meeting. I felt as though I’d been hit by a tidal wave of holy presence – as I sat in the midst of these faithful, spirit filled women – and my tears began to flow.
At the time of the retreat, the long-time and beloved pastor of our church, Ken, was dealing with terminal cancer. Our church was dealing with the repercussions. These circumstances had drawn me into church life in a deep way, and I had begun an email prayer circle for our pastor and our church.
I was coming to the realization that the Spirit was calling me to an even deeper commitment. In my mind this was straight-forward: would I continue in my career as a software developer and do my church work in my spare time? Or would I look for a way to attend seminary and enter ministry as my vocation?
But the Holy Spirit had bigger questions in mind for me. That morning there were break-out workshops and I attended one for women entering a new phase of life. This was intended for women over 40, and so I was at the younger end of the group. I barely remember the content of the workshop, although I’m sure it was helpful.
At the end of the workshop the leader asked each woman in the room to find another women they had not known before and bless them. Often blessings, in the AME tradition are given in the name of the biblical patriarchs: Abraham, Jacob, Isaac and so on. The leader invited us to bless our sisters in the name of the women of the biblical stories: Sarah, Rachel, Rebecca.
One of the women had blessed me, and I had blessed her. But then, one of the retreat leaders, a strikingly tall and elegant woman, turned and said– “Oh, I need to bless Liz.” She came and laid her hands on me … blessing me for what I had been and what I would become, I heard her say I had been called “for such a time as this.”
I was blown away by this blessing, which has been so wonderfully channeled through this Spirit-filled woman. Such a time as this– in my world, at the time, meant the illness of my pastor.
It meant preparing the church to say ‘good bye’ to him.
It meant praying for and discerning who would become our next pastor.
It meant ministering to people who could not imagine the church without Ken.
And, yet, such a time as this actually means much more.
As I proceeded through seminary and went into various churches and other settings, I experienced many more such times as this.
At the UCC church in Stoughton, the Senior Minister had to step down very suddenly due to another serious cancer diagnosis.
My seminary colleague, Mary, and I ministered at such a time is thisin that place, where I was able to bring my experience from my home church.
Of course,such a time as this is always happening.
It is not a finite event, over and dealt with.
The times that my home church was going through seemed so momentous at that time, and yet the history of the world is filled with such times as this.
The German pastor and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer is one example of a person who found himself in a certain place at a certain time, and was called to act with courage. Bonhoeffer was born in Germany in 1906. At the age of 24 Bonhoeffer came to the United States to study theology at Union College. However, he realized very soon that his calling at that time was to be in Germany.
When Hitler came to power in 1933, Bonhoeffer called for the church to resist. Ultimately, he became involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler. Bonhoeffer saw the need to remove Hitler from power, by whatever means, as greater than his own need for a clear conscience.
The plot was discovered and Bonhoeffer was imprisoned, and in 1945 as the Nazi regime was collapsing, he was executed by hanging. Bonhoeffer truly saw himself as a person who was called for “such a time as this.”
Have you ever wondered why you have found yourself in a certain place at a certain time?
Perhaps it seems like a very simple coincidence: you go out at a certain time to run an errand and find yourself called upon to help a stranger in need. It just happens that you have the life skills that this person needs.
Or perhaps, you find yourself in the proximity of someone in a position of authority and power. Could you influence this person, so that the needs of others can heard?
Or perhaps you, or I, might be called to tell our story, to exonerate an innocent person, or to convict and bring down a guilty, mighty person from their throne. And if that time ever comes, may God grant you, or I, the wisdom and the courage of Esther.
But where we are right now, who knows, perhaps we have come into the royal palace for such a time as this.
May all God’s holy people say,
Welcoming the Vulnerable Ones
Preached on September 23rd, 2018
At Wollaston Congregational Church
Scripture: Mark 9:30-37
In this week’s passage from the gospel of Mark, Jesus gives the disciples the second prediction of his suffering and death. The first time he revealed this news, he said "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
They have not really taken the message in, though, and so for a second time, as they are traveling through Galilee, he tells them again:
“The son of man is being handed over into human hands, and they will kill him, and having been killed after three days he will be raised.”
And again, we are told, they do not understand but they are afraid to say so.
Imagine the scene. You could cut the tension in the air with a knife. The last few nights they’d been talking about how the crowds have fallen away. Ever since Jesus started this talk about his suffering and death.
Why doesn’t he conjure up another sign of greatness, like those awesome miracles: the feeding of thousands, the dramatic healings and exorcisms? These are the kinds of things that draw the people in. Peter has already challenged Jesus on this downward turn of the message. A separation is building between Jesus and the group.
With a few pushes and shoves, the 12 drop back. Jesus continues his resolute and solitary way out of earshot. Peter pulls a hacky sack out of his robes and they begin to kick it around. Matthew jumps onto James’ back and they tumbled down to the ground scuffle that turns into a scrum of disciples. Soon they are arguing back and forth, “I’m the greatest!” declares Peter, “No,” says John, the beloved disciple, “it’s obviously me!”
They know that this posturing goes against all Jesus is saying. And yet, it seems that they can’t help themselves. Perhaps they needed a little good-natured sparring, to break the tension in this emotional journey.
Later when Jesus asks them what they were talking about along the road, there is an awkward silence. They know their conversation topic was inappropriate. They heard his words from just a few days ago: “for those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and for the sake of the gospel will save it.”
Jesus goes on as though they had filled him in on the whole thing. As they enter a home in Capernaum to stay the night, he calls them around him for yet another teaching.
He tells them "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all."
Then he scoops up a small child onto his lap. Perhaps she is carrying a serving dish back to the kitchen, or fetching a pitcher of water from the well. She enjoys the rest and laps up the attention she gets in Jesus’ arms. The other servants continue to scurry around preparing a meal for the guests. Usually she is at their beck and call: a servant of the all.
And he says:
“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me."
This is nothing less than mind-blowing for the 12. Embracing a scruffy urchin, a kitchen help, means embracing Jesus? Not only that, lifting up this snotty nosed child, barely noticeable as the food is served, means lifting up the great Holy One of Israel. Really? They sit there in stunned silence, wondering what is coming next.
Now, let’s put the story on pause for a moment, because this may not be the way we have heard it before. Perhaps it plays back a little differently in your memory, colored by Sunday School or years of reading this text a different way.
When my children were small we used to play the “Wee Sing Bible” tape in the car. “Jesus loves the little children all the children of the world … they are precious in his sight.” We’d sing along. And in my own childhood Sunday School a firm favorite was “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so. Little ones to him belong, they are weak but he is strong.”
Oh, how we can hope that every child in the world might hear this message: that they are precious in Jesus’ sight. It’s not wrong. It conjures for me fond childhood memories. A little child all scrubbed up in her bathrobe is ready to be tucked into bed. Then she’s allowed a few moments with the honored guest at her parents’ dinner party.
This is the domesticated version that plays in my mind.
It is a message for children, but not grownups.
The grownup message includes the full truth of Jesus’ suffering and death. It is the message of the cross. The little ones are weak, but Jesus is not showing any signs of strength. For their sake Jesus is becoming weak as well. To comprehend this, it is helpful to remember the status of children in Jesus’ time.
For even the most loving parent, a child in the ancient world was a liability: economically and emotionally. Parents could barely afford the emotional toil of becoming attached to every infant before weaning, when mortality rates were the highest. And then, the surviving children needed food and clothing. They were expected to contribute.
The economy did not allow for a carefree childhood. As soon a child could fetch and carry they were put to work. Children were on the lowest rung of the social ladder.
The children of Jesus’ time were extremely vulnerable: vulnerable to childhood disease and infant mortality. And they were vulnerable because of their status in society: they had no personhood, they were simply the property of their fathers. They could be sold into slavery without any recourse: sent to work in the fields, or in the steamy hot kitchens … or worse.
Jesus knows the suffering and abuse of these vulnerable ones, and he is planning to take it all on himself.
He is approaching the authorities in Jerusalem, preparing to absorb all of their abuse of power. Soaking up, for the sake of the vulnerable ones, all the cruelty that humanity has to offer.
The disciples are too busy tuning out this message that they do not hear Jesus say that in three days the son of man will rise again. That the suffering of the vulnerable ones will be transformed into new life, by his crucifixion and resurrection.
How are we going to hear this story? Are we going to tune it out too like our fellow disciples? Will we retreat to our childhood imagery, the saccharine scene cute little cherubs at Jesus’ feet? Or are we going to take seriously his identification with the vulnerable. And, if we are able to handle this as grownups, who in our culture are the ones Jesus asks us to receive in his name?
It’s shocking to think that children of Jesus’ day were considered to be non-persons. And yet, there are many children in our world and our nation today who suffer from non-personhood.
All Hands In, is a non-profit organization in Massachusetts, dedicated to raising awareness about local human trafficking. They report that girls as young as 5 are known to have been trafficked and sold into prostitution. Between 14,500 and 17,500 victims are trafficked in the United States each year. 
Traffickers frequently prey on runaway children, who are already experiencing some kind of trauma in their lives. The Polaris Project reports that “Youth without safe shelter and social supports are at higher risk of trafficking and exploitation.” 40% of homeless youth in the United States identify as LGBTQ. Traffickers exploit their needs and vulnerabilities. LGBTQ youth may be trafficked by intimate partners, family members, friends, or strangers.” 
Recently, organizers from “All Hands In” have approached our church looking for space for one of their ministries. This ministry is a sewing studio for formerly trafficked women. The women will learn new skills and build their confidence as they create products for fundraising. All Hands In is working toward offering a two-year residency program to get victims of trafficking back on their feet. Wollaston Congregational Church has the opportunity to become a partner in this ministry. It is an exciting opportunity to embrace and tell the stories of women who were treated as non-persons when they were at their most vulnerable.
Besides human trafficking, there is another troubling aspect of child abuse. In recent months more stories of abuse in the Catholic Church have been revealed. We Protestants may be tempted to point and say they we are not like that. But the truth is, child abuse has taken place in every type of religious institution from mega-churches to local mainline churches, as well as Jewish temples and Islamic mosques. I suspect that this is one reason parents are wary of bringing their children to church and Sunday School in these times.
Jesus’ example of lifting up the vulnerable child is a reminder that we, the church, are always called to be on their side. We are called to listen to what they have to say and believe them, when they report abuse. We are called to remember that adults in positions of power are capable of just about anything. Children and youth must never be made feel afraid to tell their stories.
The disciples distracted one another with talk of “greatness.” Jesus turns their sights back to the meaning of his coming suffering. He identifies with the weakness and lowly status of the child, so that the child may be lifted up. The end result, the good news, is that transformation is possible. Jesus will be raised, and those who have been abused and enslaved may be lifted up too.
Our church has an opportunity to stand with Jesus on the side of children and others who are vulnerable to abuse. It is an opportunity to become the servant of all servants.
First, we can create an open and affirming message of welcome for all children and youth, particularly LGBTQ youth who are so vulnerable. We can be clear about safe church practices, keeping children within sight of their parents, or with at least two CORI-checked unrelated adults. We can let the community know that this is our priority. And we can partner with All Hands In, to create a safe space for survivors of human trafficking: a space in which their lives may be transformed.
Jesus loves the little children … they are precious in his sight. But, more than that, when we welcome vulnerable ones in his name, we welcome him.
May all God’s children say, Amen.