Your are Seen, You are Valued and You Can Do Hard Things
Preached for Wollaston Congregational Church Virtual Worship
On June 21st, 2020
Scripture: Matthew 10:29-39
What is it like to feel unseen?
People glance your way and then their gaze swiftly changes direction, or perhaps they look over you or even through you as though you are invisible.
Perhaps you are old, and your hair is white, your body is shrunk from the stature you once had.
Perhaps you navigate the world in a wheelchair.
Perhaps your role is invisible to many. You mop the floors, empty the trash, care for and clean the very old and the very young. You are not seen in the office building, the hospital, or the nursing home.
Perhaps your skin is the wrong color.
Perhaps your body is the wrong shape.
Or your identified gender looks odd in the body you were born with.
Or people think your mannerism don’t fit the gender you present: you’re not man enough, you’re not feminine enough.
There are so many ways to be unseen, unnoticed, ignored.
In our gospel passage for today, Jesus makes it very clear:
God sees you, God notices you.
Your importance to God has nothing to do with your importance in the world.
God sees the sparrows, the smallest, most prolific, not necessarily pretty birds. God does not only see them as a collective, God sees each one as individual.
God has a granular view of all that is created. It seems hard to believe we deserve it, and yet God pays particular attention to us humans. God pays so much attention that God knows every hair on our heads.
The more downtrodden and disenfranchised we may feel, the more comforting and the more beautiful the text is.
So let’s sit with it, and let it sink in for a moment.
Because there’s something else.
The second part of the reading, is a little less comforting. You might even say it is disturbing.
Jesus tells the disciples not to think that he has come to bring peace to the world. No, he has not come to bring peace, but a sword.
Is this really gentle Jesus meek and mild, Jesus the pacifist, Jesus the one who says love your enemy and turn the other cheek? Where is this coming from … this announcement that he has come to bring, not peace but a sword?
There’s more. He goes on:
“For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
and one's foes will be members of one's own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”
Right after the declaration that God values us to a level of detail down to every hair on our heads, we are presented with this image. Jesus says he has come to bring the sword. And, on this Father’s Day, of all days, he says he has come to set us against our families.
All this is being preached to a group of people who are steeped in the laws of the God of Israel. The ten commandments are of supreme importance. “Honor your father and mother” is the fifth commandment from the book of Exodus. It is the first commandment that concerns human relationships. It follows right on from the commandments that concern a person’s relationship with God.
The requirement of discipleship … spelled out in our text today … is to acknowledge Jesus before others, to put God first. Jesus is clear that this will not always make life peaceful and smooth for us.
This is hard. And still, we are seen by God, we are valued by God and so, surely, we can do hard things.
Some years ago, I belonged to a group of young mothers at my church. We would meet each week to discuss and study books and texts that related to our experiences and challenges of raising children in the Christian faith. One week the chapter we read mentioned the family dynamics that come up during the holidays. The moms in the group must have spent the next 45 minutes talking about the conflicts around family gatherings at Christmas. The meeting took place in May!
Even in May, these moms were already worrying about Christmas.
Just this past week, I heard a discussion between a white radio presenter and a black woman minister, Rev. Irene Monroe.
The presenter noted that white families avoid speaking about racism, especially during family events such as the holidays. The issue is just too divisive for most families to handle.
Rev. Monroe pointed out that this is a perfect illustration of white privilege. Black families talk about racism all the time, because it is an ever-present issue in their lives. They simply cannot avoid it.
Perhaps for those of us who belong to white families, the division Jesus brings could mean conversations about racism.
Especially at this time when our country is experiencing disruptions around race.
May Americans have also recently celebrated “Juneteenth.” Juneteenth is the holiday on June 19th, commemorating the end of slavery in the United States.
I don’t know whether you will be heading off to a physically distanced back yard family barbecue this Father’s Day. Or perhaps you will be doing a family Zoom call.
This may seem like the worst time to talk about racism in your family, if this has been a divisive topic in the past. No one wants to be told they are “a racist”, or that they are uninformed, or bigoted.
It’s worth remembering that the fifth commandment still holds true. We are commanded to honor our father and mother. And we, naturally love our family members regardless of their opinions. Our intent must be loving, not intentionally hurtful.
So how are we to follow Jesus’ example in standing up for the outcast and the downtrodden while honoring our family relationships?
Perhaps this starts with curiosity, simply asking co-workers, family members, fellow students, why they say what they say, how they formed their beliefs.
There are many guidelines that can be found online. For example the Teaching Tolerance website gives a six step process for speaking up. These steps include:
Preparing questions and responses: When someone says something that sounds wrong to you, maybe ask “what do you mean?”
Identifying the behavior:
Sometimes, pointing out the behavior candidly helps someone hear what they're really saying: "Jess, what I hear you saying is that all Mexicans are lazy."
Appealing to principles:
If the speaker is someone you have a relationship with, call on their higher principles: "I've always thought of you as a fair-minded person, so it shocks me when I hear you say something that sounds so bigoted."
The sixth step is “Be Vigilant.”
The guidelines remind readers, change happens slowly.
People make small steps, typically, not large ones.
Stay prepared, and keep speaking up.
Don't risk silence. Bob Carolla of the National Alliance for Mentally Ill puts it this way: "If you don't speak up, you're surrendering part of yourself. You're letting bigotry win." 
Confronting racism with family and friends may sound like too much of a hard thing. And heaven knows, we have been asked to do many hard things over the past months. We’ve been required to separate from many of our friends and loved ones.
We’ve been required to behave differently when we go out and about. We wear masks, distance from others, and are wary about every place we go and everything we touch. This is exhausting. We may wonder, why is our reading for this Sunday throwing one more hard thing into the mix? And, still, I’m convinced that the message for us today is “you can do this hard thing.”
Leaning into divisiveness requires courage. It requires us knowing where our allegiance lies.
Being in conflict does not mean that one person is right and the other is wrong. Being in conversation about the things that matter helps each party to come to a new and better understanding.
In the coming months, in the fall, our church will have some hard decisions to make regarding our future and our building.
That will mean talking through some things that may bring up conflict. If we do those conversations well, they will help us get at who God is really calling us to be and what God is really calling us to do.
One thing I am sure of: we can do that hard thing.
Remember the verses we reflected on in the beginning: God sees you, God values you? I’m going to add one more thing: God also has confidence in you.
Remember: You are seen, you are valued and
you can do hard things.
And now, we’ll listen to a song, sung in community, by Carrie Newcomer … You Can Do this Hard Thing.
May all God’s people say,
We Are All In this Together
Preached for Wollaston Congregational Church
During Virtual Worship on June 14th, 2020
Scripture: Matthew 9:35-10:8
Whether or not we attend school or college, most of us think of breaking for the summer. This is typically a time when we pause to reflect on what we have accomplished over the “school year” and wonder what we will be doing in the fall.
And so, this week I took the opportunity to stand back and take stock. Where are we now as a church? How are we all doing? Have we accomplished what we hoped to accomplish? What more do we have to do?
These questions apply to our church, to our communities and also our individual lives. There is always work for us to do. And still, once in while we need to evaluate how we are doing right now. As I posed these questions, as you might imagine, I felt quite overwhelmed.
Last fall we could not have imagined that we would end this program year in the midst of an ongoing global pandemic. In March we did not expect our worship to move to online for the remainder of the program year. The projects we hoped to do were put on hold while we tried to get a handle on what the future would look like. This year has not shaped up the way we expected at all. The pandemic has been a traumatic event in everyone’s lives.
Some of us have been sick, some of us have had friends and family become sick and die. Many of us have been separated from loved ones, whether they live in residential care, or we simply cannot visit them in their homes because of quarantine restrictions. Many of us have been confined to our homes and are alone. Many have lost their employment, and no one knows what life will look like when “all this is over.”
As a colleague said to me, this past week, there is no “us” and “them” in a community disaster. Those who provide care are in the midst of the same event as those who receive it. As Arun Rath’s daily program on WGBH radio reminds us, we are all “In It Together.” 
Even as we, church people, seek to help those who need food, shelter, shopping, and social contact, we are experiencing the same shock waves as everyone else. Those who provide medical care, emotional and spiritual care in hospitals and other places, are experiencing the same distressing effects.
Just these past couple of weeks we have also been challenged, yet again, to remain engaged in the struggle against systemic racism in our culture. We have been challenged by our black American siblings, to step up and act as allies in this struggle.
We have been reminded that whenever our communities experience hard times, it is people of color who suffer most. We have been reminded that complacency is not acceptable, especially in the face of police brutality. And indeed there really seems to be a tide change in opinion and engagement with this issue. At best, white, and other allies with the black community can adopt an attitude of “we’re in this together.”
When one member suffers, we all suffer. We can show our solidarity and support by confessing that systemic racism is our problem. Systemic racism is a white problem.
There’s a lot going on. There’s a lot of work to be done. And there are enormous challenges to that work.
This morning’s gospel reading, from gospel of Matthew, fits this situation perfectly.
In the story we meet Jesus in the midst of ministry. He has gone about the countryside healing the sick, casting out demons, feeding the hungry, and teaching, always teaching about the Kingdom of God come near. Now he is ready to commission the disciples. They are going to receive a new job description. Instead of being “disciples”, that is students or followers, they are going to become apostles: those who are sent out.
Jesus looks out over the crowds he sees that they look harassed and helpless. They look like lost sheep without a shepherd. He has compassion for them, and he realizes that the work of caring for them is enormous. We might expect Jesus to be overwhelmed. Instead he seems to see this as an opportunity.
He says to the disciples “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Therefore, ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”And so he gives the disciples authority to cast our demons and heal every disease, every sickness. And then he tells them they are to do just that, proclaiming that the Kingdom of God has come near.
He warns them that this is not going to be easy. It’s going to be hard. He says “see I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be as wise and serpents and as innocent as doves.”
Not everyone is going to accept them. Their proclamation that the Kingdom is coming near is going to upset some people. They will be dragged before governors and kings because of their testimony to the way of Jesus.
This work is not for the feint of heart. The work of caring for, healing and feeding the lost sheep, and speaking out about the coming kingdom, is going to be exhausting and overwhelming. And yet, the Jesus movement needs them to survive.
Jesus needs them to remain healthy and rested, so that they can continue the work when he is gone. He has already demonstrated to them the need to observe the Sabbath, not out of a sense of duty, but for their own needs. He has shown them that they need to regularly withdraw from the crowds to pray. He has attended to their need for nourishment and social interaction, eating, drinking and laughing with them. When they no longer have Jesus to turn to, they will have one another. The are all in it together.
Exhausting and overwhelming. These words may resonate with us all right now.
A few days ago, this meme came up in my newsfeed:
“If You’re Tired, Learn to Rest. Not to quit.”
I thought this message for quite some time. It answered a question for me. I’ve often wondered why I have given up on certain things in the past.
Why, when I was so committed to a project, did I decide to stop? What was going on? Sometimes a former passion has been re-ignited in me, and I’ve wondered, why ever did I let this go before?
The answer is that I got tired. And then, instead of taking the advice of the meme, I quit. That can happen when we keep going too long on something without taking a break. It can happen, in general, if we don’t take a weekly Sabbath. Rest is especially essential when there is an emergency … or we live, as now, in an ongoing disaster mode. Remaining healthy, as best we are able, is also essential.
Last week “A Memorial for George Floyd, A Call for Unity” was broadcast on Boston’s Channel 5 from the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Jamaica Plain. This was a powerful service of memorial and a call to act, delivered by black clergy from the Christian, Jewish and Islamic faiths.
The church was not filled with worshipers, as we might usually expect. Instead the representative clergy were very carefully distanced from one another. There were a few musicians, equally carefully distanced. All those present wore masks until it was their turn to speak. Then they came forward to a lectern and microphone, well distanced from everyone else. Another person, in mask and gloves cleaned the lectern and the microphone between speakers. All other worshipers watched the service on TV or online.
Rev. Dr. Gloria White Hammond, co-pastor of Bethel AME, spoke to her congregation and others who had joined the service. She said
“We, as a congregation, are committed to adhering to our public health colleague’s wisdom
Because we need you to survive.
We need your voice to speak truth to police power.
We need your voice to speak truth to the political powers
We need you to survive
We follow these recommendations
Because we need your body to act up in civil disobedience
We need you to survive ... ” 
Resting, physically distancing, refraining from in-person worship does not mean we have given up on doing the work of the kingdom of God, which according to Jesus in Matthew has come near.
And so, I ask you … what are your passions in life? Where do you see lost sheep and feel compassion for them? Perhaps you
-Care for the elderly
-Or you seek justice for the poor and the outcasts
-Maybe you support for our veterans and others who serve us
-Perhaps you are the nearest relative or support person for someone whose health is vulnerable
Friends, whether we are doing church work, community work, or caring from our friends and loved ones, there is no “us” and “them.” When one person hurts, we all hurt. When one person dies, we all die a little. When one person is weary, we are all weary. We are all in this together. And so, let’s commit ourselves to one another and the work we have to do.
This summer let’s rest, let’s prayerfully consider our responsibilities in remaining distanced and refraining from in-person gatherings. Let’s remember, we have our family and friends, and we have our church family.
We need you to survive, because we’re all in this together.
May all God’s people say “Amen”
Keeping the Promise
June 7th, 2020
Scripture: Matthew 28:16-20
The passage we read from the gospel of Matthew today is known as the “Great Commission.” For those who of us who know that, the title most likely frames our hearing of the passage. The Great Commission: so grand and empowering.
The words resonate in our memories:
Go, therefore and make disciples of all nations,
Baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit!
Behold I am with you, even to the end of the age.
The disciples are being commission to make disciples of all the nations, all the world. Surely Matthew is anticipating the worldwide Church: a great sweep of conversions around the globe, Christ reigning over all.
The traditional title of this passage tempts us to declare “mission accomplished!” This has been done. Christianity has reached every nation. And indeed the Church was a global force to be reckoned with for centuries. For some readers this passage may even evoke nostalgia for the era of Christendom.
But, what about us? We, disciples of Christ, of little Wollaston Congregational Church. We who worship on Zoom. We who are unable to gather together in person, because of our concern for our most vulnerable members. Does this scripture have anything to say about us and our mission in these massively disruptive times? In these times of the COVID-19 pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests breaking out all over the world.
If we look closely at the scene without preconceived ideas, things may look a different – the Great Commission title less appropriate. The passage begins with the eleven disciples going out to Galilee to the mountain to meet Jesus.
There are not very many and they do not seem to be empowered. Jesus was recently crucified in Jerusalem, he has reappeared to them and only them. “The powers that be” in Jerusalem consider that he has been put to death, the Jesus movement is over and done with. And the disciples themselves have retreated, perhaps in fear. They are back in little Galilee, far north of the city. Notice there are only eleven disciples. The one who outwardly betrayed and deceived Jesus has already gone.
Jesus appears to them on this mount. When they see him, some of them worship him, but others doubt. Even in this small group of most loyal followers, some are not buying it. Some are not fully committed to this resurrection story.
Jesus does not seem fazed by this though. He announces “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me …” and then he instructs them to go to all people, making disciples, teaching them to obey his commands, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Then he promises them “behold, I am with you always to the end of the age.”
The bedraggled group of eleven disciples have trudged back from Jerusalem to Galilee. They have arrived back where the story began, where they – fishermen – were called to follow. There is no Christendom, no worldwide church, no church at all. Just them. And this appearance of Jesus to commission and to reassure. Go, baptize, teach. The work may seem enormous, but he promises he is with them. Even though they may tremble and quake at the thought of it, his presence will give them the strength.
Perhaps now the passage seems a little more applicable to our situation. We are reduced in number, trembling and quaking at the responsibilities we are given. We are hindered by the restrictions and fears of our time.
But … the command to baptize. We can do that. In fact we really like to baptize.
One of my greatest joys is to baptize someone into the membership of Christ’s family. And I know, from the way those services feel, that our congregation loves baptisms too.
I hold the fuzzy little head of an infant gently in my hand, lifting the water from the font. Or I stand with my hand on an adult’s shoulder leading them to the waters of baptism. It is always beautiful. One great sadness of this time is that hands-on baptism is not possible.
One very important feature of baptism services is that we are reminded of our own baptismal promises. As we promise to support the candidates for baptism, we also renew the promises we made or were made for us.
When someone is going to be baptized in our church, I have them, or their parents, come and meet with me. Mostly candidates for baptism are excited about the sacrament. Parents may be preparing for a celebration, lining up God-parents, and a cute little outfit or gown for the child. We discuss the logistics of the event. Will the baby be OK with water splashed on their forehead? Will the adult be wearing glasses or makeup?
It is my responsibility to remind them that while the sacrament is joyful, it also comes with some weighty promises. We generally read over them together.
These are the UCC baptismal promises, those of other denominations such as the United Methodist Church are quite similar …
“Do you renounce the powers of evil and desire the freedom of new life in Christ?”
The answer is “I do”
“Do you profess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior?”
Again, the answer is “I do”
“Do you promise, by the grace of God, to be Christ’s disciple, to follow in the way of our Savior, to resist oppression and evil, to show love and justice, and to witness to the work and word of Jesus Christ as best as you are able?”
The answer to this one is “I promise with the help of God”
These promises are entirely consistent with Jesus’ instructions in the commission we heard this morning. The new disciples are to be baptized and to be taught to obey everything he commanded them.
In Matthew’s gospel this refers to the Sermon on the Mount- healing the sick, caring for the poor, loving enemies, lifting up the needs of those who have been forgotten.
I haven’t done many baptisms, I must admit, but I am surprised that no one has ever questioned the promises. And to be honest, I’ve never dared to ask: are you not fazed by the promise to follow the way of Jesus by resisting oppression and evil, showing love and justice and witnessing to the work and word of Jesus Christ?
Are you not concerned that this is going to be really difficult, even dangerous? I sometimes think that if I draw attention to this particular promise, the candidate or parent might decide not to go ahead with baptism after all.
The given answer to this question is not a simple “I do.” It is the exception – the answer is “I promise with the help of God.” Who among us would be able to make this intimidating promise except with the help of God? We surely need the help of God and the promised presence of Jesus to keep this promise.
When it comes to resisting oppression I’m late to the party, I know. I just learning about what it means to be an ally, that it is not always about taking a lead. Often it’s about standing at the back in witness, showing support and solidarity.
One thing I witnessed this past week was the Black Live Matter vigil in Quincy. The organizer, Sue Doherty, is a founding member of Quincy Neighbors Mutual Aid Facebook group. The intention was to denounce police brutality and call for justice in the deaths of black Americans at the hands of law enforcement. Sue anticipated a relatively small gathering and called for participants to remain quiet and peaceful, lighting candles and sharing words of solidarity.
Members of the Quincy Interfaith Network, of which I am a member, were invited to attend. Clergy from a number of faiths and denominations were glad to be there.
Sue might have felt a little overwhelmed as protesters and demonstrators flooded into Quincy. There were estimated to be 5,000: many, many young people, adults and children. Almost everyone wore a mask. The speakers were powerful, and well distanced. The crowd was peaceful, although the chants were passionate. The righteous anger over the death of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and many others, was palpable.
We said their names out loud and took a knee together.
The police presence was appropriate. They wore regular uniforms with reflective vests and rode bicycles alongside the marchers. I stood back and watched the young people take the lead.
Sadly, I left before the climax, but I saw it later on video. The demonstrators approached a roadblock of police, slowly and deliberately, and knelt. The chant changed to “Cops, take a knee … cops take a knee …” it went on for a while. Then as the kneeling protesters stood, one by one the cops knelt. The crowd cheered, shouted out “thank you” to the cops, exchanged fist bumps. I can still feel the chills.
This was resisting oppression and evil, showing love and justice, as best I’ve seen it for a long time.
Resisting oppression can be hard. Sometimes it’s scary. Often it’s not comfortable. And sometimes it’s not difficult at all. It can be simply a matter of doing one small thing and then another small thing, until you have done many small things, such as
-connecting with someone new … a former stranger, someone who does not look like you
-reading a challenging book by an author you wouldn’t usually read …
-having a conversation that you didn’t want to have, and listening with openness and curiosity
-examining yourself for your own privilege and racism,
-being willing to sit with discomfort for a while.
And so … what of us, Wollaston Congregational Church in this time of COVID-19? Are we still like the little ragtag group of eleven, standing at the foot of the mountain, Jesus standing in front of us, commissioning us? Some of us may doubt, others may fall down and worship.
Our task remains the same: to be disciples, make disciples to teaching them all he has taught us. To baptize and to be true to our baptismal promises.
These are difficult promises, and may seem impossible in these incredibly disruptive times. And yet we still have Jesus, true to his promise to us, that he is with us even to the end of the age.
May all God’s people say…
God’s Breath, Our Breath
If you are a parent, you understand this all too well.
When your child hurts, you hurt.
When your child is rejected, you are rejected.
When your child cannot breathe, you cannot breathe either.
Scriptures: Psalm 104, Acts 2:1-21
We all need to breathe, that we know only too well. We need to breathe air for life, we cannot do without it. These past weeks we have been weeping with those whose loved ones could no longer breathe, because their lungs were destroyed by coronavirus. This week, we weep yet again, over something equally insidious … in Minneapolis a young black man, George Floyd, was deprived of breath by a Police Officer and died.
Rev. Adam R. Taylor, executive director of Sojourners, writes “George’s death feels like too much, adding insult to injury as the black community deals with the trauma of losing such a disproportionate number of loved ones due to COVID-19 and now has to see what feel like almost daily reminders of our dehumanization.” 
It’s hard to imagine anything more frightening than having your breath taken away. Though I don’t mention it often, I have mild asthma. It usually goes away quickly. And still, when I am out on a walk and I feel that pressure in my chest, my first response is fear.
Still I remember a much deeper sense of panic, when my children were little and suffered from bronchiolitis, their little chests expanding to take in what air they could.
“I can’t breathe” is not a sentence we want to hear on our news. It is physically shocking to see someone having their life taken away in this way.
Today we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, which came as a rush of violent wind. God’s Spirit shows up as breath or wind throughout our scriptures. In the beginning God’s Spirit sweeps over the chaotic waters like a wind, a creative wind bringing life to a lifeless void. In the second chapter of Genesis the Lord God appears as a kind of craftsperson, forming humanity from the dust and breathing life into their nostrils.
The Psalm we read today, 104, celebrates God’s creation, telling the hearer that when God takes God’s breath away creatures die (Psalm 104:29). There is no survival without breath.
In John’s gospel the day after the crucifixion Jesus comes to stand among the disciples in the upper room. He says "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 29:21-22). Jesus imparts the Holy Spirit with his breath. This is the very breath that was taken away from him on the cross as he died of suffocation. It is God’s breath.
And then, in the passage we read in the book of Acts today, the disciples are together again, when the Spirit of God sweeps into the room like the rush of a violent wind. It is this event that enables the disciples to preach and witness to Jesus’ work and teachings. It is an event, that enables people of different tongues, different experiences, different cultures to understand one another.
Human breath, air, open pathways, healthy lungs, are all necessary for life. But what about God’s breath: the Holy Spirit, how does this differ from human breath.
Sitting with the scriptures and the stories from the news these past weeks, I have become convinced that these two kinds of breath are not separate. They are the same. The psalmist says that creatures die when God takes away God’s breath. But what of God, when a person’s breath is taken away, doesn’t God die a little too?
The story of Jesus coming to the world is the story of God’s great empathy with humanity. What Jesus feels, the parent God feels. And there is no doubt that when Jesus was crucified, suffocating on the cross God’s breath was taken away. God died on the cross too. Any parent who has lost a child can attest to this experience.
Throughout his life Jesus showed his own oneness with the people around him. He felt their hunger. He felt their thirst and he felt their pain when they were sick.
We often think of Jesus’ wonderful kindness for those he met. We see it as an example for ourselves. But we sometimes forget that all the actions and teachings of the gospel come with the powerful message … each episode in the story reveals something already true about God.
God is fully present to us in Jesus.
And in the Pentecost story, God’s Spirit is breathed into the disciples’ lungs. God’s breath is in us. When we – or even any creature – have our breath taken away God dies a little. God feels that pain.
If this sounds improbable, remember that we are talking about our parent God. If you are a parent, you understand this all too well.
When your child hurts, you hurt.
When your child is rejected, you are rejected.
When your child cannot breathe, you cannot breathe either.
A few years ago, I attended a workshop on ethics, given by the Martin Luther King, Jr. Professor of Ethical Leadership, Walter Earl Fluker. This workshop took place a few months after Michael Brown had been killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri. Professor Fluker presented a case study based on the story of Michael Brown and asked the attendees to break out into groups to discuss.
There was one black woman and one black man in my group.
The other group members were white, well meaning, sensitive women. Ministers and seminarians.
As we went around the group sharing our emotions on first hearing the story of Michael Brown, the one black woman took her turn.
She began to weep with grief and fury as she explained what it feels like to be the mother of black sons in these times. Then she stopped, “I can’t do this … I can’t stay here, I need to leave,” she said.
One of the white women in the group tried to let her know she had been heard. But, she was right. She couldn’t stay. A part of her died in that shooting in Ferguson and every one before and since then. Each man taken could have been one of her sons. She was telling us white people we needed to do our work alone. She couldn’t be expected to be a part of it.
I know institutional racism happens, I know it exists. I have friends and colleagues who told me about being stopped for driving while black.
But I have never had a close friend lose a child to jogging, walking, singing, shopping, driving while black. That day, at the workshop, I learned why white people need to do their work alone. And we have a lot of work to do.
When I hear stories like the one we heard this past week, I think about holding the police who committed the crime accountable. I think about the need for police training in de-escalation. I wonder who raises a man who can go ahead and suffocate someone who is already immobilized and crying out “I can’t breathe.”
These are all externals: ways to pass out blame, ways to get myself off the hook for my complicity.
This is not at all what God’s great empathy looks like. What if I felt the same connection to George Floyd as to my own children, when they were little, sick and struggling to breathe?
Rev. Don Remick, Bridge Associate Conference Minister of the SNEUCC
spoke of his reactions to the past week’s news in a conference video on Friday.
He said he could feel emotions around him from those who are disheartened, those who grieve, those who fear, and those whose anger is rising to rage, that this just keeps happening.
He confesses that his own reaction is tied to his whiteness. He wants to “calm down the rage,” to say “take it easy, don’t act out.” He wants to console the grieving and offer statements of hope for the disheartened. He says, “As white folks, we want to take away the pain.
We don’t want to be exposed to uncomfortable emotions:
they hold a mirror up to us of complicity, silence and neglect.”
And so Rev. Remick invites us white folks “to pay attention to those emotions. Don’t fix them or dismiss them, respect them and honor them. Let them into you heart and to your soul, to the place where awareness and behavior can change.” 
He invites us to act within our communities, starting with ourselves. To examine what we have inherited, what has been hardwired in us through our families and life experiences.
At Wollaston Congregational Church we began some of this work when we read and studied the book “Waking Up White” by Debby Irving.  We still have a lot of work to do and so we need to stay on it.
This isn’t the sermon I wanted to preach on Pentecost. I wanted to preach a sermon of celebration and joy, for the gift of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the Church. But it turned out that I couldn’t preach anything else. The Holy Spirit of God is our very life breath. To turn away from its pulling and prompting is to die a little ourselves.
Here’s a prayer by Steve Garnaas Holmes. 
May we pray:
When you send forth your spirit,
all beings are created;
and you renew the face of the ground.
His name was George Floyd.
I will pour out my spirit on all flesh.
He was God's beloved, breathing God's Spirit.
In the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body.
He was black. The Body of Christ.
When you take away their breath,
they die and return to their dust.
He was slowly choked to death
by a white cop. His life didn't matter.
We do not know how to pray as we ought,
but that very Spirit intercedes
with sighs too deep for words.
“Please, I can't breathe...”
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
 Debby Irving, Waking Up White, and Finding Myself in the Story of Race, (Elephant Room Press, Cambridge MA, 2014)
Preached on May 24th, 2020
For Wollaston Congregational Church Virtual Worship
Scripture: Luke 24:44-53
Some time ago you decided to follow this teacher. He was saying wonderful things, he was doing wonderful things. In his presence the hungry are fed, the sick are healed, the down trodden are lifted up. He pays attention to children and women, those who are blind or cannot hear, those who are disfigured by leprosy. He is kind and he is true.
When you are near him, you feel more complete, more whole, more at home in that deep down longing kind of way, than you have ever felt before. When you are near him, you know that you can be your truest self, you can live your truest life.
You, too, can be kind.
You can also feed the hungry and heal the sick.
You are no longer afraid to be around the dispossessed and the disfigured.
He empowers you to turn toward, instead of turning away.
You can do all things when you are near him.
You have been following this teacher through villages, and along the rough tracks inbetween. You have become a part of the community who follow him. You have made camp together, broken bread together, talked late into the night together. These people became your family.
You knew it was too good to last … and of course it didn’t. Things got weird, frightening. He took the road toward the Holy City on that Passover Festival. You all followed, descending the route into Jerusalem. You were confused when he stopped to weep. What happened next …. the memory is a blur, things happened so fast. He was taken by the authorities and crucified.
You knew he was a once in a lifetime, maybe even once in the history of the universe, kind of person. It seemed impossible that his life could be snuffed out like that.
And … get this, it’s true!
He came back.
How, why. You don’t know.
But he was really back, blessing you all with peace, eating a piece of fish.
He was with you all for a while.
Until today … yes, it’s become clear. His time back with you all was just a blip, a brief moment of reassurance. He takes you all out to a hill. Not just any hill, of course. Everything he does, everything he says has a purpose. It’s the hill where that Passover week first began, when you all paraded down into the humming, buzzing city. That seems so long ago now, but really it’s just a few weeks.
It was a different time, a more innocent time. The time before he gave you the supper ritual that will become so important to your community. A freer time when you ate and drank together, embraced and laughed together without a thought.
Just over these past weeks, you have begun to feel so much older. Less innocent, less ignorant. The curtain has been pulled back. The truth of the world and it’s brokenness has been revealed. You carry yourself with more gravity. Smiles come less easily. Tears catch you unawares.
This is going to be a moment, you know it. Is this the time the religious people are always talking about, especially those fringe folks who make their camp out in the wilderness? Is this the time when the kingdom of Israel will be restored to her rightful place? Is this the dawn of the golden age?
No, he replies, it’s not for you to know that time. God’s timeline is beyond your comprehension.
No, now is the time for you all to begin the task of becoming my church
… you are going to be my body on Earth
… not only in Judea, but around the whole world.
You are to birth this global movement, there is no going back. There is no return to what was before.
So, now go to the city. Wait and pray for further instruction, for God’s powerful Spirit to come upon you.
You can’t take it in. You don’t get his meaning. It’s going to take time to process all this. And then … this part you still can’t quite get your head around …
He starts to go up.
Yes, up. Off the ground.
There are clouds in the sky that are weirdly low, given that’s it’s such a pleasant day. He is going up into the clouds.
You stand, unable to say anything, just staring.
Your gaze follows him up, until all you can see are the soles of his feet.
You and all the disciples are frozen, you cannot move.
You just gaze up at the spot where you last saw those feet.
Your heart plunges in your chest.
A cry, a moan rises in your throat.
What are we going to do?
He is gone.
They are gone.
It is gone.
And so there is nothing else to do but wait.
So much is lost, you have to stop now and take it in. You and your fellow disciples, your beautiful communal group, have lost the one who gave you identity. This is where you stand with the other disciples.
And this where we all stand, in our nation and in our world today. Many are gone. More will be gone.
We are changed by the loss, even if we did not know them.
We are changed by the collective trauma of this new way of dying, surrounded by strangers in masks and protective gear. It will take us a long time to process.
We know how to grieve those who are lost to war. We will observe that special holiday tomorrow: Memorial Day. And we know how to grieve those who are lost to terrorism, foreign or domestic. Community leaders, religious leaders, political leaders speak out, they offer words of comfort and communal mourning.
This year we will need to learn to do something new: to grieve those who died in a pandemic.
At this time almost 100,000 individuals have lost their lives in America: parents, sons, daughters, spouses, siblings, grandparents, great grandparents, aunts and uncles. On this weekend, in particular, we remember that this pandemic has taken many veterans. They returned from their wars years ago. Now they die at home or in long term care facilities.
Professor and author, Micki McElya, writes “Americans have a common set of expectations and rituals for responding to national losses, whether they’re from war, terrorism, school shootings, natural disasters or assassinations. We lower flags to half-staff. We hold candlelight vigils. We leave flowers, stuffed animals and messages of sympathy at sites that have witnessed horrors. We pause for moments of silence. We speak the names of the dead. We observe funereal pageantry from sidewalks, on television and online. We build memorials.”
But sadly we do not know how to grieve those who die in pandemics. Add to this lack of experience the fact that we cannot come together in person.
McElya goes on “The pandemic dead have received almost [no communal grieving] and the omission is significant — even if the dying is still just beginning. Shared grief brings people together like little else. “ 
We cannot move from this spot, gazing at what we do not know, until we can grieve and mourn. This is our community and our world right now.
And then there is our church … our community of faith.
The first disciples gathered on the mountain, looking up, are no longer disciples of a living, present teacher. Their identity is changing. Although they don’t yet know it, the newborn church is emerging in them.
We are already a church, but how is our identity changing and how do we remain true to our calling to worship, prayer, service and gathering?
Would we truly be Wollaston Congregational Church if we were ushered in and out of worship, social distanced and wearing masks, without a time to gather and find out how everyone is doing?
Would we truly be Wollaston Congregational, if people over 65 and with preexisting health conditions had to stay away?
Would we truly be Wollaston Congregational if we could not eat and drink together, embrace and laugh, or sing together?
Would we truly be Wollaston Congregational if we had to limit the ways we could invite groups into our building?
As onlookers observed the sad disciples returning to Jerusalem, they may have said, “that Jesus movement is over.” As onlookers see our building, still closed today, they may say “the church is shutdown.”
They are both wrong.
A small group of us gathered on Wednesday evening, since last Sunday’s worship service never happened due to Zoom problems. Worship in the evening time always feels a little more tender to me, and we closed our service listening to and watching the “UK Blessing.” This video has spoken to many souls around the world. It was released on May 3rd and had gone viral by the next day.
The video was created by an amazingly diverse collection of singers and choirs from Christian denominations in the UK. They sing a stirring contemporary arrangement of the blessing from the biblical book of Numbers, “May the Lord Bless You and Keep You.” The video ends with the message: “Our buildings may be closed but our church is still alive.” 
In an interview, the worship leader Tim Hughes, who organized the video recording, shared the ways church is still alive during the UK coronavirus lockdown. He explained that the churches who participated in the recording had served a total of 400,000 meals to the hungry. And that online ministries are reaching many hungry souls. 
Even though we are not a church of 100’s or 1,000s here in the Wollaston Congregational community, we have also fed the hungry. Several times over the past weeks we have gathered donations and put together bagged lunches for guests of Father Bill’s shelter. Each time, three or four people have made sandwiches wearing masks and observing physical distancing. We’ll be doing another 50 lunches this week.
I have heard the expression, “the church is not closed. The church has been deployed…”
We don’t yet know what that deployment looks like for us. For now there may be nothing to do but wait, to process what has happened, to allow ourselves to grieve.
And so we wait.
May all God’s people say …
Overcoming Denial: the Spirit of Truth
Preached on May 17th, 2020
For Wollaston Congregational Church Virtual Worship
Scripture: John 14:15-21
Today we continued to read from the farewell discourse in the gospel of John. Jesus speaks to anxious disciples. Although they have tried to deny it, they know that Jesus will soon be taken away to die.
Jesus also speaks to anxious readers of John’s gospel who live after the time of Christ, toward the end of the first century. These followers are dealing the Roman Empire’s persecution of those who remain faithful to Jesus, the one who was crucified for speaking the truth. Anxious disciples and persecuted followers need to hear Jesus’ words of truth and comfort.
And so, Jesus reminds the disciples and the readers ourselves included, that when he has gone from them physically, he will still be with them in the form of another advocate and comforter … the Spirit of truth.
Jesus tells the disciples, “You know her” … the Spirit is familiar to them, they will recognize her. They will recognize Jesus in her. There is a strong sense of identification in what Jesus is saying. The Spirit is identified with the Truth, Jesus is identified with the Truth. Jesus, the Spirit and the Abba are identified with one another. All are One.
In his teachings, Jesus talked a lot about the truth. And on one occasion he didn’t even have to say anything, he simply had to be.
When Jesus was interrogated by Pilate, the Roman Governor, before he was condemned to die, Pilate posed the question “What is the truth?” Jesus did not reply, but simply stood there in silence.
Jesus had already told the disciples “I am the truth.” Jesus is seen to be the truth of God, in his healing and teaching ministries, his recognition of those who were ignored. He is seen to be the truth by putting the most vulnerable at the center … the sick, the elderly, children, and the poor. He is seen to be the truth in his silent witness to Pilate and the others who condemn him.
There were many opportunities for Jesus to talk his way out of crucifixion. There were opportunities to cease speaking the truth in the temple, to cease lifting up the hopes of the poor and oppressed, to refrain from the message that God desired a better life for them. But Jesus refused to do it. Like many the prophets who went before him, Jesus was executed for speaking the truth.
We are generally aware of what is the truth. If we knowingly lie, we are painfully aware of it.
Deliberate lying is problematic and usually unethical, of course. Still, perhaps a more common form of untruth is self-deceit. We practice self-deceit in a number of ways and for a number of reasons.
In these times, I am noticing my own inclination to self-deceit in the form of over-optimism and denial. I’d prefer to pretend that things will soon return to ‘normal.’ If I hope for a regular summer, visiting family and friends, eating and playing together, perhaps it will happen.
Optimism in itself can be helpful at times. The expression “hope or pray for the best, and prepare for the worst” attempts a balance between optimism and pessimism. And yet optimism can mask denial, and denial can lead to harm.
In these times denial and over-optimism may result in very serious harm. If we are over-optimistic about the trajectory of COVID-19 and decide to return to in-person worship prematurely, we could cause serious harm to our members and also our community. This sobering fact must inform our decisions in the coming weeks and months.
A more troubling aspect of denial and over-optimism is the deliberate sense of denial we are seeing in many of our leaders.
This denial takes the shape of a lack of communal mourning, in the face of 85 thousand deaths. It takes the shape of ignoring the warnings of health and scientific experts about the dangers of prematurely “reopening the economy.” It takes the shape of “magical thinking” that a COVID-19 cure or vaccine will suddenly appear well before the known timeline for such developments.
One form of truth telling our leaders could easily begin to practice is the habit of saying “I don’t know” in reply to questions outside their fields of expertise. They could begin to defer to the experts and to work collaboratively. Being truthful means being humble. And humility is sadly lacking in many leaders in these times.
Some of these problems are outside our control, of course. Still, we can contribute to the discourse in our communities and our state, by adopting a practice of truthfulness with ourselves and others. Who will we talk with in the coming weeks? Will we participate in a virtual town meeting? Will we demonstrate our commitment to physical distancing and protecting our vulnerable neighbors when we go out and about? Will we, as a church, remain mindful of the number of vulnerable ones in our congregation, as we discuss a timeline toward coming back together for in-person worship?
In our personal and corporate times of reflection and worship:
How might we invite the Spirit, in the form of the truth, to abide with us and among us?
Where will we find the strength and the courage to face the truth without denial?
How will we mourn in truth for all who have died, while we remain hopeful for the future?
Last week Marian sent me a picture of the Medieval mystic, Julian of Norwich, self-isolating, as she did, with her cat! Although she lived in seclusion in a cell in the church, Julian had people come by, appropriately distanced, for prayers of healing. She is known as the first woman to have written a book in the English language, in which she tells of visions given to her by God in her time of seclusion.
Author, scholar, and Episcopal priest Mary Earle writes:
“Norwich’s population was around 25,000 in 1330, until it was struck viciously by the plague known as the Black Death. At its peak in the late 1340s in England, [the plague] killed approximately [75%] of the population of Norwich.”
Julian was a young girl at this time. She surely must have been “affected in untold ways by this devastation. [Then] the plague returned, [when] she was about nineteen.” 
It seems that many people have been finding some comfort in Julian’s writings in current times. Author Veronica Mary Rolf answers the question “Why Julian now?” She says,
“in our age of uncertainty, inconceivable suffering, and seemingly perpetual violence and war … Julian shows us the way toward contemplative peace.
“In a world of deadly diseases and ecological disasters, Julian teaches us how to endure pain in patience and trust that Christ is working to transform every cross into resurrected glory.
“… Julian’s voice speaks to us about love. She communicates personally, as if she were very much with us here and now. Even more than theological explanations, we all hunger for love. Our hearts yearn for someone we can trust absolutely—divine love that can never fail. Julian reveals this love because … she experienced it firsthand …
“Again, and again, Julian reassures each one of us that we are loved by God, unconditionally. In her writings, we hear Christ telling us, just as he told Julian, ‘I love you and you love me,
and our love shall never be separated in two.’” 
Julian did not deny of the suffering of her time. And yet she was able to trust her fears and worries to God. Her optimism came from a deep appreciation of God’s profound love for her and for all creation. Julian’s most famous saying is still often repeated in these times:
All will be well and all will be well and every kind of thing shall be well.
In these times of fear and not knowing what is ahead, I have noticed that I’m inclined to spend a lot of time online. Besides video conferencing for work and socialization, I read many articles about the pandemic. Each day I check the statistics on infections, hospitalizations and deaths, in Massachusetts. They come out at 4 pm.
Over the past few weeks, I have discovered that I need to acknowledge today’s reality to the best of my ability. I need to study the risks of reopening in-person worship and how the virus spreads from person to person and in communities. I need to be aware of what the numbers mean for our state and our city.
When the numbers have been published and I have read them, I have confronted the reality. Then I need a time to let it all go.
And so I have added a new time of quiet at the end of my afternoon: with a yoga session, a time of prayer, or simply sitting in quiet and enjoying the view from my window.
Through the breathing, moving, and sitting in the quiet I begin to slow down my recurring thoughts. Then I find that I am sitting with God, the Sprit of Truth.
I hope that you have a practice like this too, or you can begin one.
So that we can all turn our hearts toward the eternal Truth that:
All will be well, and will be well, and every kind of thing shall be well.
May it be so.
 Mary C. Earle, Julian of Norwich: Selections from Revelations of Divine Love—Annotated & Explained (SkyLight Paths: 2013), xx—xxi.
 Julian of Norwich, The Fourteenth Revelation, ch. 58 (Long Text).
Adapted from Veronica Mary Rolf, An Explorer’s Guide to Julian of Norwich, (IVP Academic: 2018), 18-21.
Finding the Way Through
Preached on Sunday May 10th, 2020
For Wollaston Congregational Church UCC Virtual Worship Service
Scripture: John 14:1-14
Friends, today my heart is troubled.
My heart is troubled because ...
- Walmart has closed in Quincy due to cluster of infections
- Gun stores have reopened in Massachusetts, because it is deemed essential for us to be armed in a time when we all need more love than ever
- And petty fights are breaking out over the need to distance physically and wear face coverings or masks.
My heart is troubled by the distressing lack of discipline and an excess of entitlement among sections of the population. And my heart is troubled by the tragic disparity in infection rates between rich and poor, white and non-white, those who are deemed essential workers and those who are able to stay at home.
My heart is troubled because I believe that we will need to reopen many businesses and activities without any control over infection rates. The consequence will be that many of us – our elderly and those with pre-existing health conditions – will be confined and isolated at home for much longer than we hoped.
My heart is troubled because I cannot envision us gathering physically for worship for quite sometime.
My heart is troubled because I read this week that singing and public performances will be impossible for many months to come, as singing transmits the virus much further than talking.
My heart is troubled because, even though we live in a “reasonable” State, viruses cross borders.
My heart is troubled for loved ones in other states and overseas, and the fear I will not be able to see them anytime soon.
My heart is troubled because I have seen many colleagues and friends hitting a wall this week.
My heart is troubled on this day, when we read Jesus’ words spoken to the disciples “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.”
My heart is troubled because of living in these times, of course. We are living in in-between times, liminal times. The time between one thing and another.
We live in the liminal time between pre-corona virus and post-corona virus. We remember well the time when coronavirus was not a problem. And, we can hope for a time when the virus will no longer be a concern. But for now we cannot imagine how we will get there. We cannot see the way forward. We do not know how long this liminal time will go on.
The most troubling thing about liminal times, is the not knowing … not knowing what is coming next.
The disciples are on the cusp of liminal times, too, as Jesus speaks to them during his farewell discourse in the Gospel of John. They are about to lose Jesus, he will be taken away and crucified the next day. Their three-year sojourn with him is coming to an end. They will need to learn “the way” of Jesus without his physical presence and his daily teaching.
Jesus tells them not to let their hearts be troubled. He tells them that in his Abba’s house there are many rooms and that he is going to prepare a place for them. The disciples cannot help their troubled hearts, because they do not understand Jesus. They fear that they do not know the way through their heartache.
For Jesus the way is death and resurrection. And for the disciples, who will become the church, perhaps their way is better understood as a birth. After all, Jesus has already taught them that a person cannot enter the kingdom of God unless they are born again. Both death and birth are journeys from one place to another. In that process we enter into a liminal time. But we do not have to go alone.
For persons in nursing homes, hospice or the hospital, their companion from life through death and to eternal life is often a chaplain. In these liminal times, when we have been lifting up the work of healthcare providers, we may also think about chaplains. In fact chaplains have been in the news recently, usually they are not paid much attention.
Now that family members are unable to be with their loved ones in the hospital, chaplains are being called upon to provide a vital link. They facilitate Facetime between families and loved ones, even when the patient is unconscious and on a ventilator. And they offer extra comfort to the sick and the dying who are separated from their families.
They are heartbroken that this has to be done from a distance. Chaplains are also there for heartbroken healthcare workers, praying with them and listening to their stories. These care providers are Rabbis, Imams, Priests, Ministers and specialized chaplains. WBUR aired an interview with some Boston chaplains, including my neighbor Katie Rimer, who is the director of Spiritual Care at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.
The chaplains said that they cannot hold hands or make close eye contact with their patients. These are things they would normally do with the dying. But they are doing their best to be present physically and virtually. They pray on the other side of the glass from patients, wondering if it is helpful at all. They pray in the morgue over bodies. They said they pray that their colleagues will be able to heal from the trauma of all that they have witnessed in these times.
Katie tells the story of praying a Jewish blessing for healing for man on a respirator with her hand on glass outside his room. She says that the hospital staff ask for her to pray with them all the time, in the hallways and break rooms. 
Chaplains show the way, in liminal places like nursing homes and critical care wards. They show the way to share love for families and loved ones of patients. They show the way through this crisis to nurses and other healthcare workers.
Of course, this is not a sure and certain way even for chaplains. Many are exhausted by the grief and unknowing. It is the way of prayer in the darkest hours. It is a ministry of presence, when even physical presence is not possible. They lead and guide the other administers of care, even while they do not know the way themselves.
We, church, are struggling to know the way at this time. Our hearts are troubled in these time, this liminal place, as we try to see the way forward. We don’t know what worship will look like when we eventually come back together.
Will we be distanced from one another?
Will we wear masks?
How might we celebrate communion?
Just this week I learned that it will be unsafe for choirs and others to sing and perform together, so long as infection is a concern. And it is likely that it will be unsafe for us to share coffee hour or meals together.
When I hear members of the congregation say they do not like Zoom and they will wait until we can be together in the sanctuary I am concerned. They may grow tired of waiting. They are missing the community of these gatherings in the meantime. Of course, I am also especially concerned for those who are unable to access Zoom and other virtual ways of gathering.
The way ahead, for ourselves, for our church for our world, into the post-coronavirus world is not clear. Just as the way ahead, for the disciples, into a world in which Jesus would be present in the church was not clear. Jesus doesn’t give the disciples a roadmap. In the passage we read today, he only tells the disciples that he is the way.
He is the way that their troubled and fractured little group will become Christ’s body on earth. Jesus gives them a relationship with himself and with Abba, our parent God.
When I meet with my spiritual director, Susie, I often talk about discerning the way ahead for my life and for the life of our church. Susie once shared with me an image of discerning the way ahead. She says that often when we pray to God to show us the way, we hope to see a red carpet leading us clearly to our future. Instead, God provides us with just enough light to take the next step on a darkened path, not knowing where it might lead.
We are to trust in the relationship Jesus offers, and the little pool of light we have for our next best step. We may rest assured that we are ultimately being led to the place Jesus is preparing for us. Our next best steps will surely lead us into the post-coronavirus world.
One moment of inspiration came this week when I came across a vision of that world, entitled “Imagine a Pandemic of Love.” It is a poem, written on a colorful cartoon image of Mother Earth. It says:
“There is still time to build a world of peace
Of easy words and bright rooms
Where everywhere we go we will be at home.”
So, my friends, may our troubled hearts be eased by the thought that Jesus shows us the way ahead. And then may we take our next best step toward that world.
May all God’s people say,
The Good Shepherd in a Time of Coronavirus
Preached on May 5th, 2020
For Wollaston Congregational Church Virtual Worship Service
Scripture: John 10:1-10, Psalm 23
It would be stretching the truth to say that I grew up around sheep. I lived close to the city in a not so rural area. But I did see sheep quite often, when my family took trips out to the North Yorkshire moors, or to the East coast. We’d see them in the fields, in early spring, while the weather was still frigid. They’d be bundled in their winter coats, mothers each with one or two little lambs in tow.
We’ve driven through the moors, and have them wander onto the road, so that we had to slow way down. These sheep are in the pasture: roaming and yet close enough to their flock. When the shepherd comes to round them up they will hear and come right along.
Our children did not see sheep quite so often, growing up in New England. A few years ago, when we were back in the UK on a visit, we took a walk in the countryside and saw the sheep grazing the hills. One of kids asked about how the sheep owners ever gathered them back again, having let them loose on the hillside.
The timing was perfect, as a shepherd and his dog strolled out ahead of us. With a few quick whistles, and minimal verbal instruction, the dog rounded up the little flock and brought them back down the hill to meet the shepherd. And then they headed down to the farm.
The whole exercise seemed to take just a few minutes.
Sheep herd naturally, they know safety in numbers. And still, they need to be protected from predators and from theft. In our gospel passage today, Jesus uses imagery that would be familiar to every child in the countryside of his time.
Jesus tells his listeners that he is the good shepherd. He is the one to care for and protect the sheep. He ensures that they remain in the sheepfold. He recognizes enemies and keeps them out.
The sheep, quite naturally, know his voice. They know that when they are with him they are safe. He will bring them into the fold for the night, where they will huddle close keeping one another warm.
He will keep the predators and the thieves away. He’ll rub their heads with oil to keep the fleas off. And when it is safe to do so, he’ll lead them out again, to a verdant green pasture, to abundant life.
This bucolic imagery sounds beautiful to our 21st century ears. We generally find it is comforting. Perhaps in our daily prayers and meditations we will slowly read this passage from John’s gospel and the 23rd psalm, imagining Jesus looking out for us and protecting us from all ills.
It’s a lovely thought, but it may seem like a fanciful distraction in these times. After all, we have not really been protected from all ills, have we? Jesus the good shepherd has not protected us and our community from the ravages of the coronavirus. And we have not been immune to the consequences of the response: loss of employment and income, shortages in the grocery stores and other economic woes.
For this passage to speak us today, we will need to go deeper, and ask questions such as:
- What does safety for a church mean, when we cannot herd together physically?
- Who and what are we to be protected from, in the imaginary sheepfold, in these times?
- And what does being led out to pasture and to abundant life look like, in these days?
We remember that sheep are herding animals. They do not travel alone. Remember the parable about the one lost sheep and the good shepherd who leaves the other 99 to find it? The lost sheep is the one in trouble. The other 99 are safe in their herd. Going it alone is dangerous for sheep.
And so, we are … “like sheep” as in the verse from the prophet Isaiah, that is sung over and over, in performances of Handel’s Messiah. We, the people of the church, need to herd together. We find our safety in the fold, shepherded by Jesus, who protects us from hustlers and thieves.
At the moment, we are remaining physically distant, for safety and protection, during the COVID-19 pandemic. We particularly want to protect our older and more vulnerable members. We also want to do our part to limit the spread of the virus in the community. This is how we show love for one another and for our neighbors, in these strange times: by staying home, and wearing masks and distancing when we do go out. We keep our church building safe, for future visitors, by keeping the virus out during in this time of high infection rates.
Some churches have continued to gather physically for worship during this crisis. Ironically, their services often include the laying on of hands for healing. It’s so sad that the pastors of these churches do not see the need to protect their vulnerable members. They are setting a harmful example for their congregants and their communities.
There are other safety concerns besides the possibility of infection for our churches, too. Perhaps you have heard about Zoom-bombers. These are people who get hold of Zoom meeting information and take over the meetings, sharing hateful material.
A few weeks ago a church known for their open and affirming stance for the LGBTQ+ community was bombed with hateful homophobic slurs. This kind of attack can cause literal harm to those who have been traumatized by hate speech in the past.
I’ve also heard of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings being bombed by people taunting the members to go out and drink. And, I’ve heard of churches with racially diverse congregations having their online services bombed with race-hating imagery.
Even while we are physically safe in our homes, these kinds of attacks can be spiritually and psychologically damaging.
That is why we do not share the Zoom link or meeting ids for our services publically.
Church members in our fold are spiritually and psychologically safe when we have a place to share our stories and our concerns. It takes vulnerability to speak out loud the prayers we need for ourselves and our loved ones. We need a place of safety, to tell one another what is really going on in our lives. We need to know that we will not be laughed at or put down. We need to know that our stories will not become the subject of gossip.
While we remain in the fold, our work is to praise God with glad and generous hearts. It is to share with one another, to ease one another’s burdens. This has been happening so well, with you all calling each other on the phone, checking in and finding out if there is anything anyone needs.
Even during virtual worship we can emulate the church in the book of Acts, by breaking bread and eating together. Our hearts are one, when are moved together by the music, or a particular video or our time of prayer.
And even while we are on lockdown, we can love our neighbors, individually and as a community. Last Sunday the stewards planned to buy supplies over the next week or so, so that we can provide Father Bill’s shelter with more bagged lunches.
Individually, we can shop for those who cannot go out and we can donate to the organizations who are relieving suffering.
But of course, our gospel passage reminds us that the sheep do not remain in the sheepfold for all time. Jesus says that the shepherd leads the sheep out to pasture. He leads them to abundant life.
We may draw on Psalm 23, as we acknowledge that the journey to the pasture and to abundant life is not straightforward. The route takes us through the darkest valley, the valley of the shadow of death.
I believe we are passing through that fearful place right now. This is probably one of the darkest valleys we have ever known. Some days the valley seems so dark, we can barely see the light at the end.
And yet, one thing that the gospel and the psalm both affirm is that our good shepherd, the one we know in Jesus, goes with us. He leads us through that valley and out the other side into abundant life.
And so, we might wonder what that abundant life looks like, given this crisis? Some people are speculating over what the church will be like in the future. Like many churches, we have been led out of our building. We have begun to expand our reach through online and electronic worship. Perhaps this is also the work of the shepherd?
As we pass together through the darkest of valleys, I cannot imagine the self-hatred that causes someone to Zoom bomb church services and AA meetings with harmful messages. And I’m mystified by those who lack trust in the community, and value their personal liberty over physically distancing to protect the vulnerable.
That kind of life must be so limited, fearful, and isolated. The fear, hatred and isolation is the evil that is to be rejected, not the people who are stuck in that life.
The abundant life to which the shepherd Jesus leads us is counter to all these things. It is the place where we can love and praise God with glad and generous hearts. It is a place where we no longer need to fear. It is a place of belonging, for members of the flock whose shepherd God guides and protects them from all evil.
May we all remain connected to the flock, protected by the shepherd, so that we may be led our to that abundant life.
May all God’s people say,
Known in the Breaking of Bread
Preached on April 26th, 2020
for Wollaston Congregational Church Virtual Worship
Scripture: Luke 24:13-35
The midday meal on Sundays, in my husband’s family, as in many English households was a roast. Mum would prepare the meal, calling on assistance from those around her as she needed it. But, carving the roast was my father-in-law’s responsibility. The memory is seared in my mind: he steps up, carving knife in hand, and later with an electrical version, to expertly slice the tender meat for lunch.
Similar memories include my mom, pouring tea from the shiny chrome teapot and milk jug. She would pass a carefully arranged selection of home-baked cakes, cookies and other delicacies, from one person to the next.
My husband, who expertly pours a glass of wine, turning the bottle just so for a special dinner.
Or our church ladies, gathered around the long butcher block in the kitchen, chopping and slicing, for canning or soup preparation.
Jack flipping pancakes on Shrove Tuesday.
Jonathan turning burgers and Bill serving chowder for the annual fall fair.
These are the ways we remember the ones we have broken bread with time and time again. And this is the way, that in our gospel story for today, the disciples remember Jesus.
The two disciples we meet today are disappointed. Things did not turn out as they had hoped. They had hoped that their teacher, Jesus, would be the one to redeem Israel. But it did not happen as they had expected. Instead he was crucified and laid in a tomb. Of the five stages of grief, perhaps they have reached depression. They no longer deny that the crucifixion took their beloved from them and they are too exhausted for anger any more. They are walking away from the other disciples, their community and their support system.
They walk slowly, one foot in front of the other, heads hanging. They leave the Jerusalem city wall and join the dusty track that leads to Emmaus. It is seven miles away, they have plenty of time to talk and reflect. They tell and retell the story to one another, as bereaved people often do until the truth has sunk in. Their hopes are dashed.
Then they meet a stranger, who seems strangely out of it. How can it be possible that this person does not know what has happened in Jerusalem over these past three days? Has he been in another world? They tell him the whole saga, ending by saying that some of the women had found Jesus’ tomb empty and were told by angels that he was alive.
The stranger chastises them for being slow of heart to believe! He then reminds them that is was necessary that the Messiah should suffer those things and then enter into his glory. He makes meaning out of these seemingly tragic events. And then he goes on to interpret all the Hebrew scriptures, beginning with Moses and the prophets.
The two disciples are captivated by the stranger’s teaching and don’t want to let him go. As they come to Emmaus and the evening is drawing in, they invite him to come and eat, and possibly even to stay with them. They usher him into their small home and begin making a fire and setting bread to rise and then bake, pulling together a simple supper.
They set the table, and gather round. He is no longer a stranger. They have invited him into their home, their inner sanctum. He takes the bread with his worn hands, blesses it with gentle eyes turned to heaven, and then gives it to each of them. In this momentary gesture, they finally know him. Memories flood back: meals eaten together in many different homes, bread broken to feed the multitudes on the hillside, and that last supper in the upper room. This is Jesus.
This is what the scriptures mean. Jesus is present to them in this humble gathering. He is present in their hospitality, extended to a stranger. Their eyes are opened to this new reality. As soon as they realize it, he disappears from their sight. They don’t wait around, even though it is evening, they run back to Jerusalem to tell the others. Jesus is risen, risen indeed.
At the beginning of the story, disciples had thought their hopes had been dashed. Perhaps we have the same feeling right now. Perhaps we, like them, are in one of the five stages of grief: denial, anger, depression, bargaining, acceptance. 
We do not necessarily experience these stages sequentially. We may be in one stage and they go back to another. There may be stages we revisit many times. There is also a sixth stage of grief, which is particularly important to me as a preacher. This is the stage of “making meaning." This is what I am called to do with you each week. And, I believe this is what Jesus was doing with the two disciples he met on the road to Emmaus.
We are in grief, over what has happened during this crisis, to our loved ones and our families, to our communities, and to our world.
And our grief is for the loss of many hopes
… hopes that the coronavirus would quickly pass through our cities and towns, with minimal casualties
… hopes that all healthcare workers and others would have all the protective gear they needed
… hopes that the development of a vaccine or treatment would be miraculously quick
… hopes that school would restart before summer.
What hopes that have been dashed for you?
At this stage, we may be tempted to walk away like the two disciples. If we are depressed we may give up on our support systems, like our church our community of faith. Maybe online worship doesn’t seem worth the effort anymore. We may become impatient and frustrated with the technology we need to use to gather in this way. We want to walk away from virtual connections.
And perhaps, in our grief and denial we have decided that shelter-in-place hasn’t worked and so why bother? We may be tempted by the spring sunshine to reject physical distancing. The weather and the green grass may invite us to gather for sports, picnics, even protests against the directives. We want to walk away from physical distancing. But we are required to stay the course. And we are called to remain connected in spirit.
If we have access to technology we can utilize it, to chat over coffee with friends, break bread and create a virtual family dinner, hold game nights with those who are far away from us,
or even birthday parties for children and elders. Thank heaven for phones and for Zoom!
An NPR program, Cognoscenti, asked listeners
“What’s the first thing you’ll do when all this is over?” 
They said that “’Hug my mom,’ ‘visit family’ and ‘go out for dinner’ were common replies. So was ‘get a haircut’;
But there were also a number of truly surprising — sometimes sad, sometimes funny — responses.”
One respondent, who turns out to be the author Anita Diamant, said she sorely misses having guests over for dinner. She says
“I enjoy setting the table. I love seeing my guests clean their plates and ask for more. Most of all, I enjoy the conversation, the interruptions, the laughter, and the passionate disagreements that vanish into thin air. I miss the fellowship of the table, which can be a profound kind of connection even if the topic is nothing but binge-worthy TV.”
Another listener simply commented “when quarantine is over, don't ask me if i'm free just say when and where.”
When quarantine is over … will you be too busy with work on Sundays? Will you be too tired to come out? Will you prefer to stay home with the newspaper than gather in church?
I don’t think so.
Many of our hopes have been dashed. And yet, memories are being awakened in us, as they were in the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. For now, we have our memories of breaking bread together, whether it is during communion in the sanctuary, or over coffee hour and potlucks in the social hall. We have known the sacred presence in those moments gathered around a table, exchanging conversation, making eye contact, passing the soup or the cake, the burgers or the pancakes. This was always a much more tangible, sacred presence, than we could know sitting in rows, facing the same direction listening to sermons!
So let’s make a commitment, even a vow. When “all this” is over, when we have the possibility of gathering in the body again, let’s not make any excuses … let’s be sure to recognize that Jesus is among us in the breaking of bread …
May all God’s people say,
The New Normal
Preached during Virtual Worship for Wollaston Congregational Church
On April 19th, 2020
Scripture: John 20:19-31
The Brick Bible is one of my favorite biblical interpretations, when I’m in the mood for fun. It is a picture book in which each scene in the Bible is presented in Legos … yes, Legos. I would show it to you now, but unfortunately it’s locked away in my office at the church.
The creator of this unusual version of the Bible doesn’t gloss over the most lurid and gore-y details, so I don’t recommend the Brick Bible for young children. But, it’s great for teenagers, especially if they begin to yawn at the mere mention of the word Bible.
The Brick Bible provides both entertainment and illustrations of many of the great biblical stories. Often it is uncannily spot on. This is the case, for me, in the Brick Bible’s portrayal of our reading today from the gospel of John.
The scene is disciples remain in the upper room. Mary Magdalene has told them she has seen the Lord, but they haven’t taken in the news. Or perhaps it doesn’t mean anything to them. They remain locked in the room. They fear the temple authorities who handed Jesus over to be crucified. They fear the patrolling Roman soldiers, who are rooting out possible insurgents. They are waiting in that room, for what … they don’t know.
And so, the Brick Bible presents a very familiar scene for us these days. The gang is sheltering in place, aimlessly entertaining themselves. Some are playing cards. Others are taking a nap. They are sloppily dressed. Their hair is unkempt. Empty beer cans litter the floor. There’s not a whole lot going on. They’re a ragtag group … if you were to show someone this scene and say that this portrays the beginning of the global church, they probably would not believe you.
In the midst of this … Jesus comes and stands among them and says the words “peace be with you.” He shows them his hands and his side, which are wounded from the ordeal of the cross.
He repeats “peace be with you, as the Father has sent me so I send you.” And then he breathes on them, “Receive the Holy Spirit…”
Well, you know the rest of the story. Thomas wasn’t there. When he returns and the disciples tell him what happened, he doesn’t believe them. And then … well, they remain locked in again for another week. Nothing much happening. Until Jesus comes back again. He stands among them and again he says “Peace be with you.” Then Thomas is allowed to see Jesus’ wounded body for himself.
Fast forward … almost 50 days and the beginning of the book of Acts. We have to be a little careful here. Acts continues Luke’s gospel, not John’s story. And yet, this is point at which all the gospel stories end. And Acts picks up the thread.
We find the disciples together again. Now they are organized. They spend much time together in the temple, they break bread at home and eat their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.
We’ve heard it said that in the Easter story the tomb becomes a womb. In the fifty days between the resurrection and Pentecost, the Holy Spirit germinates in the disciples. And in that time the community is transformed.
In these days, in our COVID-19 world, we have been called to transform too. You might say that something has been germinating these past weeks while many of us have been shut away in our own homes.
In the beginning of the crisis I know I was just hoping for it all to be over, and for everything to “get back to normal.” We have heard that expression quite often “when things get back to normal.” It has taken a while, and it will probably take a while longer, for us to accept that things will not be the same again.
This feels both scary and comforting. One reason it’s scary is because of the impact on the local and global economy. When I look at the staggering levels of unemployment at this time I wonder:
how will we ever recover?
And on a personal level, I know that I want to return to what I knew. I want to go out and do the same activities I did before. I want to be able to visit the people I am missing. I want to experience the freedom to go to gatherings like our church services and to get coffee or lunch with friends. Perhaps you are missing sports: children’s and professionals games, the rites of springtime in Boston, Opening Day and the Marathon.
And at the same time as I want to get back to normal, I realize that things couldn’t have gone on the way they were. We couldn’t continue to consume and deplete our planetary resources at the rate we were going. Our human bodies and psyches couldn’t keep up with the non-stop busy-ness. Political discourse had descended to an all time low. And there seemed very little will to pay attention to the needs of people for food, shelter, and healthcare.
You might say that the pandemic has caused us to hit a huge reset button. Pollution levels in China are estimated to have gone down 25% since the beginning of the lockdown. And air quality has improved in many places. Perhaps the new normal will include better care for the environment.
And we have discovered that our bodies and souls need to slow right down. In a time of crisis it takes us time to think, time to process. We are recognizing our bodily need for a daily time outdoors. We are recognizing our need for rest, and our need to heal relationships with our extended families and the people we live with.
And we are realizing, on a communal level, that we are all connected. The pandemic cannot be stopped unless we provide food, healthcare and shelter for all members of the community.
When the resurrected Jesus appeared to the disciples in the upper room, perhaps they felt both comforted and scared. Perhaps they hoped that things would now return to the way they were, that Jesus would be with them again in the same way.
Instead, Jesus prepared them for a new normal. He breathed the Holy Spirit onto them and blessed them with peace. And in the same sentence he sent them out as the Father has sent him.
In the early days of the church, being sent out would require a great deal of courage. In order to share “the way” of following Christ, the apostles risked martyrdom and their communities risked persecution.
A generation after the coming of Jesus, Palestine looked completely different. Jerusalem and the temple had been destroyed by the Romans and one million Jewish people were killed.
The followers of Jesus were a part of that community. The loss of the temple and the city was as devastating to them as to the others. They would need to move their communities beyond the temple. It was just as well that they had already begun to establish home-based churches, where members ate meals, sang hymns, studied and prayed together.
The rapid growth of the Christian church had begun. The apostles took Jesus seriously. He had blessed them with a new kind of peace, that would become known as Pax Christi. It was the kind of peace that inspired them to live deeply into who they were called to be.
As the Father had sent Jesus, so they were sent. To bring good news to the poor and the outcasts, to forge a new community of peace and love, worship and prayer.
Friends, I hope that here in our community we will pay attention to the reset of COVID-19. One vision of that reset has been offered by a former chaplain, and now writer, Kitty O’Meara. 
O’Meara worked in palliative care in the past. She knows what suffering and grief look like. When the virus hit, she felt anxious and wished there was something she could do for her friends working in healthcare. Her husband advised her to use her gift for writing.
The poem she wrote has gone “viral” in a good way, all over the internet. Here is it:
“And the people stayed home.
and read books, and listened, and rested,
and exercised, and made art, and played games, and learned
new ways of being, and were still.
And listened more deeply.
Some meditated, some prayed, some danced,
some met their shadows.
“And the people began to think differently.
And the people healed. And in the absence of people living in ignorant
dangerous, mindless, heartless ways, the earth began to heal.
“And when the danger passed, and the people joined together again,
they grieved their losses, and made new choices, and dreamed new images and created new ways to live and heal the Earth fully, as they had been healed.” 
My friends, we will continue to pray for safety and healing for all our community, and for the world. We will continue to hope for the day when this danger will be behind us.
In this time of shelter-in-place may we allow Jesus’ blessing of peace to germinate in us. May the tomb become the womb from which a new community of peace and love, worship and prayer, will be birthed.
May all God’s people say,