I Know a Syrian …

I know this Palestinian from Syria. He is a dental surgeon. He is working at a gas station – the kind where the attendant sits inside a cubicle and people slip their money under the depression in the counter before they buy their gas.

The number of Syrians who have fled their country is in the millions. It is getting increasingly difficult for them to find a new place to call “home”. The news this morning tells me that 24 governors of American states have said their state will not accept any refugees from Syria.

The dental surgeon is married to a woman who was a High School English Teacher when they lived in the Yarmouk Refugee Camp in Syria. She was able to get a job as an aid in one of our local public schools.

The couple literally ran for their lives when they left Yarmouk. The handwriting was on the wall regarding the turmoil that is the result of the Assad regime. With an uncle in the US, they had a place to land. They knew that whatever they left behind they would never see again – which was not only true for their material possessions, but may well be true for loved ones as well. With their three children, they ran; and when they got to the US they had a place to land – at least for a while.

The United States has welcomed – if we can call it that – 1,900 Syrian refugees in the last four years. But if the governors of Illinois, Massachusetts and Texas – three states who have heretofore received a large number of refugees from Syria – there is no place for a Syrian to call home there. Whether or not governors have the authority to enact such a policy is debated.

The eldest of the three children had completed one year of university. While the family is seeking asylum there is little by way of assistance for them. It was a high hurdle just to get the necessary documentation for them to be able to legally work. But when that documentation came they went to work with a vengeance. That eldest child also got a job. Hoping to major in Computer Science, he got a job at a convenience store. And after a log of letter-writing, hand-wringing, pleading, he got into Champlain College on a scholarship.

Sen. Ted Cruz and former Gov. Jeb Bush say the US should admit Christian refugees, not Muslims. Pres. Obama has responded: “We do not have religious tests for our compassion. That’s not who we are.” But is that who we are becoming?

The two girls were in their Junior Year in High School upon arriving in the US. They finished at Burlington High School. Motivated, willing to work, wanting to contribute, they got jobs. One of the girls is matriculating at UVM, hoping to get into Medical School. They other is taking classes at Community College of Vermont and plans to attend UVM full time next year.

The logic behind Sen. Cruz’s concern is the inability we have to determine who is and is not a terrorist. The New York Times describes this as “The intersection of the refugee crisis with the nation’s immigration debate.” What this means essentially is that compassion has collided with politics; and when that happens empathy takes a back seat.

“This is for our children.” That’s what the surgeon-turned-gas station attendant and teacher turned aid say. Those scholarships are coupled with some loans and the entire family works to insure that rent, utilities and loans are paid every month right on time.

Technically they are Palestinians; but they have lived for decades in Syria. So I feel like I can say: “I know this Syrian …” and I have to say that I am humbled by their work ethic, awed by their intelligence, inspired by their devotion to each other, and so very grateful that they are our neighbors. I only hope they will continue to feel welcome in our midst and know they are loved.



Response to RHE

Rachel Held Evans wrote a piece recently, published in the Washington Post, titled: “Want millenials back in the pews? Stop trying to make church ‘cool’.” She has landed in the Episcopal Church and touts the sacraments as the draw for young people.

“When I left church at age 29,” writes Evans, “full of doubt and disillusionment, I wasn’t looking for a better-produced Christianity. I was looking for a truer Christianity, a more authentic Christianity.” She reminds us that while coffee is available almost anywhere, you have to go to church to get ashes on your forehead, reminding you of your mortality. We are named a “Child of God” by way of a plunge into cold water. That’s not cool; that’s church. And Rachel is telling us that is what the millenials are looking for.

I’m almost twice Rachel’s age. I grew up in a devout Catholic family and I have wonderful memories as a boy and young man of the smell of incense, the tolling of the bells at the Easter Vigil, the beauty of the candles lit at a “High Mass”, and the regular reception of the Eucharist. But the Sacramental life of the Catholic Church did little to hold those of my generation. We left in droves for a whole host of reasons. Folk Masses notwithstanding, and with the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council in full force – now delivering the liturgy in a language we could understand and with a strong focus on ecumenism, first the youth, then the young families (as the “youth” got older and married), and finally the middle-age and “boomer” generation – and all their children – gone from church.

The problem was the disconnect between the life and teachings of Jesus and the practice and preaching of the church. It wasn’t enough to say the Lord’s Prayer and pass the peace. We weren’t living the peace. It wasn’t enough to say: “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned …” The blatant sin of power, the acquisition of stuff and the in-your-face hypocrisy at every level of the institution created a tsunami effect – young people drawing back from “the Faith” and leaving the pews empty.

I don’t doubt some might long for a greater sense of mystery – it’s not coffee they yearn for, but the Spirit. And I know that young people want to “do” while they are figuring out the “why” and “what do i believe?” parts of the equation. I agree – it’s not marketing to the outside that must happen; it’s a complete internal remake – a metamorphosis on the inside of the church that all of us yearn for.

And that, finally, is where Rachel lands. An “inclusive community” – that’s what young people want, she writes. And I am grateful for the admission after the not-so-veiled criticism of the mega-churches for their marketing and advertising, that yes – even they “can offer the sacraments”.

I have attended some conferences at “mega-churches”. I have been inspired by the level of sacrifice I experienced from so many of their parishioners. I have been blessed by the sense of the sacred that ran deep in their celebration of Holy Communion. I have been awed by the risks they have taken, for it was the mega-church at Willow Creek that began to utilize the big screens, the fancy lights, the slick video and the catchy marketing over thirty years ago now. They were criticized by the “established church”. They have been made fun of, ridiculed, and had every corner of their theology scrutinized and their finances audited.

But it was there – in a mega-church, sitting amidst a crowd of tired mainline denominational clergy – that I heard words that got me back on track and solidified why I felt called to the ministry in the first place. “The local church can change the world!” proclaimed the lead pastor. “But it is going to cost you!”

I don’t know the statistics with regard to the Episcopal Church in America. It may be they are bringing in young people by the thousands. But in the final analysis, I don’t think it’s the Sacraments that are going to make people want to be part of the church. And I don’t even think a “radically inclusive” theology will do it. People will be attracted in correlation to their experience of the integrity in a community that believes with all its heart that before we loved, God loved us. Celebrate it with cold water, warm bread, good wine, stale grape juice, oil or ash on the forehead. But I think that’s at the heart of the Gospel and the root of the ministry of church.

I wonder if what Rachel Held Evans has experienced in the church she now attends is working for her because at a level beneath the sacraments and beyond the horizons of inclusion, she senses the willingness to suffer a bit so that at least those 200 (or 100, or 50, or 30, or however many people attend the liturgy with her) can be “the body of Christ”. “Suffer the children, and forbid them not, to come unto me…” says the old KJ translation of Matthew 19:14. Perhaps Rachel is now a part of a community that “suffers” her! That’s what all of us want, whatever our age. Someone, please, suffer me! And love me. And we’ll take our order of worship on the big screen or a simple bulletin, with communion every week or once a month. “Suffering” communities – they are the ones changing the world.

Rachel – thank you so much for your post!

text:  Isaiah 2:1-5;  Mark 8:31-38

The Message begins with this audio clip from “The Takeaway” – “Risking Death for Freedom

Proverbs 29:18 is translated in various ways. The New Revised Standard Bible reads: Where there is no prophecy the people cast off restraint. The New International Version is close to that: Where there is no revelation, people cast off restraint.

The King James Bible says it this way: Where there is no vision, the people perish.

Prosperity has a way of dimming vision, of dulling prophecy, of limiting creativity. I suppose extreme danger can have the same effect. But there are thousands of stories about people who say their determination to live was all that got them through. Pascale Dang’s father had a vision – it was not just to live, but to be free. It was not just to be free, but to be reunited with his family – to make his family whole . He was willing to sacrifice his very life for this dream, this vision. And the way the story is told, his vision and determination is all that kept other people with him on his boat from getting on that Russian ship. With no guarantee that they would not perish at sea, they cast their lot with one whose vision was larger than life.

Jesus is the person writ large for me – the one with a vision that does not deny the fact of suffering and sacrifice, but that also will not let go until the entire human family is “whole”, reconciled, and re-united.

I was at a meeting this week – not a meeting here at our church – where several of us were conducting an “Exit Interview”. We asked the person what they wanted us to know – what information should we take back to our peers. Without hesitation, the response was this: Trust me! Just because I am in my mid-thirties doesn’t mean I haven’t had any life experience! If you bring someone else on board who is my age, let them lead.

Jesus is the one in his thirties whose vision keeps me wondering and hoping and believing. And I am amazed at his tenacity – his unwillingness to let anyone, not even his best friends stand in the way of that vision.

I can’t help but think of the folk song that was popular when I was growing up and still reverberates today.

Come mothers and fathers throughout the land

And don’t criticize what you can’t understand.

Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command

Your old road is rapidly aging

Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand.

For the times, they are changin’.

At our Nominations Committee meeting yesterday someone said something that gave me pause: We aren’t taking care of the building just to honor the past; neither are we taking care of it just to meet the needs of the present. We are taking care of it because we most honor those who were here fifty years ago by doing what we can to insure this place of worship is present – and I would add “relevant” – fifty years from now.

I read in this morning’s Free Press the story about Twincraft Skincare, a business started in 1972 by two brothers. In 1995 the business was bought by Peter and Richard Asch, sons of one of the original owners and founders. Peter and Richard sold the company in 2007, but when the new owners – a New York based company – planned to move the business out of Vermont, Peter and Richard bought it back so as to keep it in the state. But the point of the story has to do with the hiring practices of the business. Twincraft hires people no one else will. And the reason is because of the experience Peter Asch had as a young man volunteering as an assistant parole officer. Seeing the recidivism rate and recognizing that people coming out of prison who actually wanted to change their lives often didn’t have a second chance, he vowed to try in his life to do something about it. He envisioned a different future. “Our culture,” he says, “is to embrace people and give them second chances.”[1] The article goes on to tell of one specific example where this “culture” is being actualized.

I am inspired by the thirty-three year old Nazorean who, when asked how many times we should forgive, responded with a number which meant “infinity”. “Seventy times seven!” he exclaimed.[2] In the world Jesus imagines, everyone gets a second chance – over and over again. It’s a world in which the sinner is invited to come in, to be forgiven and loved, and through the power of forgiveness and love, to be transformed. It’s a world where the folks “no one else wants” are not only welcomed, but are designated as “part of the family”.

Buildings – yes; but also, ministry disintegrates when it lacks the imagination of vision. John Lennon imagined that if we rid ourselves of notions of heaven, hell, national boundaries, possessions and religion in general, everything would be fine. And, the truth be told, sometimes in life in order to achieve our goals we have to lighten the load and give something up. Lennon isn’t the first one to suggest this. Jesus hits the same subject very hard: You are going to have to deny yourself, he tells his disciples and the crowd who had gathered around him. But unlike John Lennon’s somewhat amorphous notion of “peace”, Jesus – and Isaiah – get more specific.

And Jesus reminds his listeners that he did not come to abolish the law and the prophets. He does not “imagine” a world absent religion. Rather, he imagines what the world would look like if the prophetic message of justice and peace, of generosity and hospitality, of faith in God rather than the use and abuse of power were put in play.

It does take some imagination to envision what is “in heaven” – that is, what the prophets see – actually happening here on earth. Jesus doesn’t jettison the idea of “heaven”. Rather, he calls upon it as the vision which is attainable here and now, but will only come about through the willingness to love unconditionally, forgive without limits, and to sacrifice for each other. This is the central, consistent motivating fact of Jesus’ ministry. We can’t just dismiss it as an outdated bit of theological detritus from ancient times. It is the enriched plutonium that energizes the mission and ministry of anyone who claims to be Christ’s follower.

In the midst of the moral and spiritual depravity of his day the prophet Isaiah let’s fly this “no holds barred” vision of a day when swords and spears and implements of violence no longer influence public policy or force humans to acquiesce to injustice. If you think it made any more sense for him to suggest such a thing twenty-seven hundred years ago than it makes for us today, you are mistaken.

Not to pick too much on John Lennon, but were you to watch the video for his song “Imagine”, you would find him in an idyllic setting. A country road with gentle mist rising. A beautiful home with a committed and loving partner. Whether he knew it or not, he was presenting his vision of “heaven” and it would be interesting to have had the chance to ask him: “John, what are you willing to give up in order for others to enjoy the security of a roof over their heads?” Perhaps not quite as elaborate a roof as he enjoyed, but something that could be depended upon to be there at the end of the day.

A major difference between the Beatles’ “John” and Christianity’s “Jesus” has to do with the reality of what truly had to happen in order for peace and justice to prevail. Jesus lived among the masses, traveled the dirt roads, understood hunger, enjoyed a good party, did not succumb to substance abuse, was not a hoarder of material things – and in the midst of the commonplace and the everyday, Jesus caught the glimpse of heaven in what happens when human beings love each other.

I will confess to all of you that I tend less toward activism on the large canvass and more toward implementation on the local level. What inspires me is less what we might convince our legislators to do and more what we ourselves are willing to do. Can we relate to each other with honesty? Can we confess our sin to each other and live with the full weight and freedom of forgiveness? Can we put aside our own power issues, our own personal preferences, our own individual self-righteousness and live in true community? Are we willing to make sacrifices in our own schedule so that our Sunday School has plenty of teachers, our nursery has an abundance of helpers, our youth ministry has a myriad of volunteers, our Thrift Shop is well staffed, our Fellowship Time has bakers and folks willing to set up, our list of ushers includes everyone, our role call of liturgists is long?

Jesus – and Isaiah – realize the intimate connection between the prophetic vision for all and the individual sacrifices necessary to make it happen.

I enjoy reading about the future. It’s fun to watch science fiction with the requisite Hollywood predictions of what the future might hold for us; but I’ve yet to read a book anywhere near as fascinating – or as challenging – as the Bible when it comes to powerful visions and the intense honesty about what is needed if our yearnings and Jesus’ dreams are ever to come to pass.

—   —   —   —

Something concrete you are willing to do …

[1] Free Press article by Dan D”Ambrosio, Ap;ril 26, 2015 – “Three Feathers and the company that saved him.”

[2] Matthew 18:21-22.

Text:  Acts 4:32-35; Philippians 2:12-15; 4:4-9;  Matthew 6:25-34

What is the last experience you had in which time seemed to stand still?

The Beatles sang about “Yesterday” – a time in which troubles “seemed so far away.” But now, the “trouble” of loneliness, of love lost makes today seem like an empty forever. Do you remember the words of the song – those of you old enough to have heard it –

I said something wrong, now I long for yesterday. It’s another way of saying: “I wish yesterday could last forever.” But the song goes on:

Yesterday love was such an easy game to play. Now I need a place to hide away. Oh, I believe in yesterday. Ah, the pull of Honor the Pastthe “good ole’ days”.

Tony and Maria wait for evenfall when they can be together. Their absence from each other makes the day seem endless. They long for the moon to shine bright with the hope that “endless day” will become “endless night” – in each other’s arms forever. The future, they believe, is their salvation.

“Today” has a way of casting either some yesterday or some tomorrow as better than now. “The Good Old Days” or “The Best Days Are Yet To Come” – these are the ways we put parentheses around the present, canonizing what was or inflating our hopes for what will be.

The book of Acts is often called the “history of the early Christian Movement”. St. Luke, the one who scholars believe is the “author”, moves back and forth between “they” – that is, telling the story from the standpoint of one who has heard about the events from another source – and “we” – that is, telling the story from the perspective of one who was present at the events being described. Acts 4 is a “they” event. But, there is contained in this text in a subtle way a kind of longing for what had been before to be again now.[1]

While specifics are not known regarding exactly how long the shared life lasted or even how widespread it was among Christians,[2] what becomes clear is one of the earliest, if not the earliest characteristics of those who were members of the “Way”[3] was their life together in koinonia (κοινωνία). This Greek word is best translated communal form of life. In his commentary on the book of Acts Joseph Fitzmyer points out that before Christians were ἐκκλησία – that is, “church”, or “congregation” – we were κοινωνία – “fellowship”, “community”. This may be a gentle yearning for the “good ole’ days” on Luke’s part.

This leads me to think two things. First, why is it that throughout human history we keep finding various expressions of communal life? From the kibbutz in Israel to the communes of the 1960’s in this country; from the monastic movements of the Middle Ages to the madrassas of the 21st century, what is it about living in community that keeps tugging at us? Why, in spite of all our individualism, do we still hanker for commonality and unity of purpose?

And second, why is this yearning never fulfilled for more than a brief period of time? What is it about us that prevents us from experiencing the fulfillment of this yearning today?

Last Monday evening at our Bible Conversation someone suggested the main problem with communal life is corruption. We cannot depend on leadership to remain pure when it comes to motive and power. The truth be told, neither can we trust one another. Who we are here and now works against us.

Fitzmyer acknowledges in his commentary on Luke that the author may well have idealized the situation.[4] That every need was met is reminiscent of a line right out of Deuteronomy: There will be no one in need among you, because the Lord is sure to bless you in the land the Lord is giving you[5]

This is an interesting concept – that the sign of God’s blessing is not that any particular individual has their needs met, but rather that all in the community have their needs met. And again, as was pointed out in our Monday Evening Bible Conversation, the “community” here doesn’t mean everyone in town. It refers to those who are members of the faith community.

But the text from Deuteronomy that may have inspired the early Christian κοινωνία has a catch to it. The needs will be met because of God’s blessing, andIf you will obey the Lord your God by diligently observing what is commanded of you today.[6]

So, it’s not enough to say we were obedient yesterday, or we promise we will be obedient tomorrow. The question is: Where are we at today?

St. Paul acknowledges to the Philippian Christians that while he was there the community was faithful. Now, he writes, in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.[7] In other words, my days of being with you are over. Now you’ve got to do the work. And later in his letter, Paul reminds us: The Lord is near. This is the trump card that Paul plays. Paul may not be there; but the risen Christ is. Initially it was understood to refer to the imminent return of Jesus. But soon, it had to be recast as the actual presence of Christ – here and now while awaiting the resurrection consummated in the Second Coming.

And what is it that witnesses to our faith in that divine presence? Simply this: that we think on whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, worthy of praise. It’s not enough that while Paul was with them they were faithful; this must be their future intent as well if their present is going to be a joyful, Christ-filled one. I think I can safely speak for all of us when I say that such a transformation of the mind is something we aspire to, something we’ve not yet perfected in the present. And it is work. This is the work we do every day.

So, yes … Jesus is so absolutely right when he tells us with regard to tomorrow: Don’t worry. It’s not that there will be no challenges when the morrow comes; it’s that in worrying about them we might fail to take note of the ones facing us today.

The centerpiece in our Trinitarian theme for the Capital Campaign is: Live the Present. The “What if’s” we might worry about – What if we don’t raise enough money? What if we experience a major facilities melt-down? What if … What if … But all those “What if’s” are future possibilities, not present realities. Our present reality is the script we are writing today.

There is that wonderful story in the Gospel of John in which Jesus is at a wedding with members of his family, including his mother. When they ran out of wine and Mary brought this to Jesus’ attention, his initial response was: It’s not my time – my hour has not yet come. I picture Mary, sitting back, with hand to chin as she contemplated her son’s response. Perhaps she thought to herself … or even muttered loud enough for Jesus to hear: Your hour has not yet come? When do you expect your hour to get here?

When I was in high school at Rice and the end of the day would come, those of us with licenses and cars to drive would come down the hill to the traffic light at the bottom. And the car right at the light would wait when the light turned green. He would wait … and wait … and everyone was hitting their horn … and then, the light turned yellow, and he would wait another instant … and then just as the light turned red the car in front would peal out, leaving the rest of us to wait for the next cycle. If you were the fifth car back in the line you could do your homework while waiting to make that light.

Have you ever been stopped behind a car at a traffic light, and when the light turns green the car ahead of you doesn’t move? How long before you tap on your horn? Will you give the driver ahead of you ten seconds? Would you give them five seconds? I’ll bet we wouldn’t give them two seconds! The light is green. Now is the time to go. This is the instant you must move! God forbid that I might have to wait for the light to cycle around again!

What about living the glorious, mysterious truth of the resurrection? What about embracing the good news of the divine presence with you – in the pain of life, in the unemployment, the deteriorating health, the emotional strains, the exhaustion and the frustrations of life? What about seeing the beauty not only around you, but the mystery within you!

Jesus is right. Maybe he spoke those words on the mountain about not obsessing on tomorrows’ concerns while missing the challenges facing us today because early in his life, while attending a wedding, his mother pushed him beyond his comfort zone, and opened his eyes and his heart to the needs of people today. If we don’t live the present with full faith in the power of life over death, of hope over despair, of love over hate, what kinds of memories do our tomorrows hold out for us?

Right here, right now, Jesus invites us to wake up from watching past history or worrying about future history and make the history of his grace and justice and peace a present reality.


[1] “Us / We” appears in Acts for the first time in 16:10-17.  Luke does not count himself to have been imprisoned with Paul and Silas and apparently was not present again until rejoining their company at Troas in Acts 20:6. See also Acts 21:1-18 and Acts 27:1-28:16.

[2] Joseph A. Firzmyer, The Anchor Bible – The Acts of the Apostles. Publisheed by DoubledaY, a division of Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc., 1540 Broadway, New York, NY 10036. © 1998.  Page 313.

[3] Acts 24:22.

[4] Fitzmyer, The Acts of the Apostles – Page 313.

[5] Deuteronomy 15:4.

[6] Deuteronomy 15:5.

[7] Philippians 2:12.

(This is the “manuscript” as it exists on Saturday evening. It may not be what is shared on Sunday Morning.)

Text: Haggai 2:1-9;  Hebrews 11:1, 4, 8, 23-25, 29-40

About 1815 a Methodist Class was formed in Burlington, meeting at the home of Mr. Henry Noble, about three miles east of the village.[1]

“The time before we are born is not ours and the time after we die belongs to others. Yet truly they can both become a part of our lives if we think of the past as it relates to today and reach out with our minds to envision (and we might say imagine) the future.”[2]

So begins this parish’s story as recounted by Florence G. Greene and written down in her 1979 history of our church.

There is a program on Public Radio called “Back Story” with the “History Guys”. When you come right down to it, we are all part of tomorrow’s “back story”.

Wouldn’t it be fun some time to go around the church and ask each of us to tell one story about someone from our past – a colorful ancestor, or a piece of family lore that speaks to some idiosyncratic event. I would tell you a story about my maternal grandfather, George Zephyr Allard who, as a thirteen year old boy was a guide to a wealthy blind man who traveled between Boston and New York just before the turn of the 19th to the 20th Century.

How does the stubbornness of our foremothers and the shortsightedness of our forefathers continue to play out in our own lives? Where does the wisdom of our ancestors pop up and guide us in the decisions we make today? And what place does faith have in the stories of our past and the history in the making that is our life now?

Rum cost 6 cents a pint when the Methodist Class was formally organized in 1823 in Burlington. The members of that nascent Methodist Church experienced hardship, self-denial, frugality, intense devotion, and total abstinence from intoxicating liquors – and this was enforced among the members no matter how cheap and available the rum was.[3]

Maybe one of history’s greatest challenges is how to tell it so the children – and many of the adults – don’t go to sleep fromHonor the Past boredom.

One Boy Scout Sunday in Groton Vermont, the local leader who was a faithful member of our church asked to make an announcement on behalf of the scouts. He stood up in his Scout leader. He paused for dramatic effect, looking out at the congregation. Finally, in a regal voice, he said: Boy Scouts: It all began with the Boer Wars. There was a collective “Oh oh…” through the pews. Even if you didn’t know the exact dates of these wars, you just knew they were a long, long time ago. Ten minutes into this announcement, Harold Puffer was making paper airplanes out of the extra bulletins in the back of the church. The other usher had nodded off. Parents with young children were exhausting their supplies of Graham Crackers, mints, cookies, crayons and the valium they had brought to church to keep the babies quiet. Fifteen minutes into the announcement – which for some of these country folk was well over 25% of how long any church service should be – I feared the choir was going to break out into How Great Thou Art in an attempt to thwart this determined scout leader’s efforts to give us more scouting history than General Robert Baden-Powell could endure.

At twenty minutes into the announcement I was getting notes up in the pulpit that if I did not put an end to this people would put a lean on parish properties in order to recoup every financial contribution they had ever made to Groton United Methodist Church. I hated to do it, because by this point a part of me wanted to see just how long this man would take this announcement; but at 20 minutes we were only up to the 1940’s. I had stop him. The telling of history, like the showing of slides from your last vacation, can cure insomnia.

Maybe that’s why the author of Hebrews decides that it would be better simply to mention Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel – and to lump all the prophets together – no matter how brave, how extraordinary, how miraculous their exploits. For many people the past is best left there – in the past.

As late as 1950 the Secretary of the Official Board of our church was instructed to send a letter to U.S. Army Headquarters in protest of the practice of sending beer to the men in service.[4]

And yet – here we are on the brink of genetic testing in order to excavate at a molecular level what our past is in order to equip us to live with better health in the future.

Ignorance of history dooms us to repeating its mistakes – this takes on a whole new meaning in our day as we learn that disease of many kinds may well be deeply embedded in our past, as are immunities that come to us as gifts from our ancestors.

The first building constructed on this site was far simpler than where we sit today. In 1831 plans were made to purchase this land. Our forebears in the faith began to imagine a future that would give them a spiritual home in which and from which to do their ministry.

As in the days of Haggai, when there were those returning from Exile who remembered a more glorious temple than what the people were able to construct, our home here would be no match for the cathedrals of Europe or even many of the Congregational houses of worship that graced the New England towns, villages and countryside. Still, there was determination and faith in the project. And one John Knox Gray, a man described as a Christian who “lived as he believed”, subscribed more money than he was financially worth at the time. He would then spend his life earning what was needed to meet his promise.[5]

What child wants to hear their parent or grandparent say: When I was your age … That is an introduction to a time which young people have no access to. A good friend of mine who has an aversion to computers in particular and electronics in general had an IBM Selectric on his desk. He shared with us one day his disbelief that a high school student walked into his office, looked at it and asked in all seriousness: What’s that? It’s one thing to show someone an antique; it’s quite another thing to be an antique.

In the 1830’s 100 people started showing up for services at the Methodist Episcopal Church, and their numbers grew over the years. Something else was growing – what Florence Greene refers to as a “natural dividing point” between the Methodists who believed they had attained full salvation and those who were a bit less enthusiastic when it came to the demonstration of their faith.[6]

And so another Methodist Church was constructed over on the Southwest corner of Cherry and Pine, complete with a parsonage. This was the “Second Methodist Episcopal Church” in town, where the more assuredly saved went to worship – and that’s why this church is known as the “First”.

The early Methodists were as attentive to the needs of the poor and to ministry with children and youth as they were determined to stay sober. In the 1850’s it was against the law in Vermont to shout, holler, scream, run, ride, dance, jump or blow a horn near churches on Sunday. “Giggling girls,” writes Florence Greene, “mischievous boys and sleepy old folks found themselves touched on the head by a foxtail or a sharp prod on the end of a stick” if they misbehaved or snoozed in church.[7]

Barely ten years passed from the time the Methodists split to the time both congregations realized their diminished influence as a result of their inability or unwillingness to get along. A plan was put in play to reunite the Methodists. And unlike the complaints Haggai faced – that the new temple lacked the luster of the old, the new church that was planned by the Methodists would be more glorious than either the “first” or “second” before it. The total cost of the structure, when completed and dedicated in 1870, was $65,000.[8] That’s about 5% of what we need to raise in this Capital Campaign. The morning of the dedication service, $6,000 still needed to be raised – just under 10% of the total cost of the structure. There must have been some arm-twisting going on in the sermon that day because by nightfall that $6,000 had been pledged.[9]

I’m six pages into this message. We just don’t have time to tell of Rev. Noah Levings (1823), L. B. Lord, Nancy Towle, Rev. James Caughey, Captain Almus Truman, Mrs. E. J. Spaulding, Mrs. Caroline Chauvin, Rev. Thomas Thompson, Prudence Roby, The Rev. Drs. Paul Hydon and Stanley Moore, The Revs. William Vigne and James Perry.

But this we know – We sit here today not just because these wanted to build buildings. We sit here because these are people – all of them – of great faith. Jesus called them. The Spirit equipped them. The church grew because of them. I read with interest that this sanctuary underwent dramatic renovations in the 1940’s. People in the past were not so married to their present that they refused to alter the furniture, bring in a new back altar and rearrange the chancel. Their faith spurred them on to good works, as Hebrews says – a place they would not live to see, but a place that could not be absent their vision. Indeed, we could not be made perfect in the living of our faith if they had not paved a way for us. The history of this church is not about a people determined to keep everything the same. It is a history of a people constantly hearing the words of Jesus in Revelation: See, I am making all things new!

— —

[1] Florence Greene, History of Methodism in Burlington, VT. 1979. Available at First UMC Burlington. P. 4.

[2]Ibid. P. 1.

[3] Ibuid. Pages 4-5.

[4] Ibid., P. 5.

[5] Ibid., P. 12

[6] Ibid. P. 17.

[7] Ibid., P. 6.

[8] Ibid., Page 20.

[9] Ibid.

Text: Mark 16:1-8

A young mom – an attorney by profession – had just put her six-year old son on the bus headed for school. She had a busy day ahead of her with a number of errands to run. She had her three month old baby in tow in the approved child carrying apparatus. After several of those errands were done, next on the list was a quick stop at the post office. Her plan: Hope for a parking spot close to the door of the post office, run in, take care of business and be back in the car in under a minute.

As luck would have it – or Providence – she was pulling up just as another person was vacating a parking spot – right by the door. It was crowded, so she felt that fate was smiling upon her. With a quick glance in the back seat, she jumped out of the car, leaving it running with the baby inside. Everything went just as she planned in the post office. When she emerged … What do you think this mom hoped would happen next?

Guess what actually happened … A well-meaning citizen had watched her get out of the car, noticed there was a baby inside, and immediately called the police. They came and arrested the mother. That’s as much of the story as I know – a true story that happened to an acquaintance of my daughter and son-in-law last fall. I never followed up so I can’t tell you how it all ended.

For a moment, put yourself in the position of the well-meaning citizen who called the police. Is that what you would have done? For a moment, put yourself in the position of the young, busy mom. Have any of you ever knowingly done anything that compromised the safety and welfare of someone you loved? Because of circumstances, a harried schedule, trying to get just one more thing done – you left the baby for an instant, or turned your attention away for a moment – hoping, praying, trusting that all would be well … Have you ever done that?

I can put together a list of significant length of the times when things did not turn out as I had guessed they would. Most of these “moments” would not be all that earth-shattering. But one day, when money was extremely tight for my wife and I and our young family, we picked the mail out of our box to find an anonymous check for $1000.00 made out to us. Had you asked me that day: What would you guess is in your mail box? I never would have answered: A check for $1000.00.

Who is going to roll away the stone? I would have guessed the women would have given that some thought prior to heading out. I can’t say for certain, but I am guessing that had my wife been with them, she would have awakened me and told me that I needed to go with her so I could roll away the stone.

But if they hadn’t thought of that important detail in advance of heading out, imagine what happened when they arrived to find the stone already moved. Maybe some of them were thinking: Oh what a good man my husband is! He knew we would need help with the stone and he got up ahead of us and took care of this!

There is so much about the story of the empty tomb that leaves us guessing, where should we start? We are quite certain Mark’s gospel in a more primitive form – what musicians might call the “Urtext” Edition – ended right here at verse eight – with “fear” and “trembling” and “silence”. Everyone is left guessing. And all bets are off as to which “guess” is the closer to the truth.

Scholars speculate that the other gospel writers were not comfortable with the possibilities of where too much “guess-work” could lead, so they filled in some detail. St. Mark, however, for all its brevity and fast pace, is more like an abstract Picasso than it is a Rembrandt. And because of lack of specific outlines, Mark lets us guess through the details of the Resurrection using Uptown Funk or an old, beloved Easter hymn. It can be as traditional as the anointing oils of baptism or as free and unscripted as a kite caught in a spring breeze.

It’s low church or high church, with candelabra in the Cathedral or a deep woods star shine. After the fear and trembling and silence, guess what happens next! The final redactors of Mark’s gospel were, like the other gospel writers, skeptical when it came to leaving too much to the imagination; so they added verses 9 through 20, and even put in a reference or two that ran a parallel course with the other gospels.

But whichever way you are most comfortable with the telling of what happened immediately after the tomb of Jesus was found empty, the most important point is what your guess is with regard to the difference it is going to make in your life.

As my father neared his death he spoke a number of times about what would happen next. He knew that he could believe whatever he wanted to believe, but when it came to the “knowing”, he was only guessing until he experienced it. And yet, for my father – and for all those who give some credence to this story of a Jesus having died and a Christ having risen – we are moving past the wondering of “guess what happens” to a conviction that in life, in death and beyond death there is a truth and a love that embraces us. My personal witness is to say that I believe Jesus meant it when he said: With God all things are possible.[1] The resurrection story – especially this open-ended one as told by the earliest manuscripts of St. Mark’s gospel – take us from cradle to grave inviting us to embrace not only the teachings of Jesus, but the hope Jesus inspired. It’s a hope for a better here and now. It’s a promise of Divine Presence in a universe that grows larger with every blink of Hubble’s eye.

Perhaps most important of all, resurrection sets us free from the tyranny of dogmatism. We can say to the most guilty of criminals, to the most downcast of terminally ill friends, to the most destitute and left out, to the most oppressed, to the most powerful of tyrants, to the most arrogant of religious leaders, to the most unbelieving and the most faith-filled persons – Jesus was dead. Jesus was dead indeed. But you will never guess what is about to happen now.

[1] Matthew 19:26.

Text: Luke 19:28-40

(Note the difference between “Visual Illusion” and “Cognitive Illusion”.)

(“Chaos Clip” from Jurassic Park.)

Are you in control? Are absolutely certain that what you see is what is truly there? Do you have control over your emotions? Can you own your decisions, trusting that it is truly you who have decided?

Slide We have all seen optical illusions. Dan Ariely taught for ten years at MIT, and since 2008 has been a Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University. Dr. Ariely says that we have an entire portion of our brain dedicated to vision. Our eyes are the primary way most of us take in information.

(Discuss the slide). How are the two blocks moving in this image? Step-wise, yes?

I recall when I was having physical therapy because of surgery on my knee, I was balancing with one foot on a cylinder that was inflated. With my eyes open I was able to balance far longer than when I closed them. My therapist explained that vision is a critical component in balance. Feelings of falling don’t reach the brain nearly as fast as visual cues do. With eyes open I am able to adjust my balance much more quickly than with eyes shut. But, as the illusion demonstrates, our eyes, as loyal as they are to us, don’t always tell us the truth about our world.

Dr. Ariely poses the question: If vision, with so much brain power dedicated to it, fails to give us information that enables us to behave accordingly, how can we possibly assume we are in control of any other aspect – from finances to romance – of our behavior?[1]

Slide  Let’s consider one other situation. The chart shows the percentage of drivers in these European countries who have opted to be organ donors. Why the dramatic difference betweScreenshot (15)en the four nations on the low end of the spectrum and the seven on the high end? We might think culture would account for this; but how different is Denmark – on the low end – from Sweden on the high end? How different culturally from the Netherlands is Belgium; or Germany from Austria?

Slide   When signing up for or renewing their licenses, the drivers in the four low percentage nations are invited to do the following on the form: Check the box below if you want to participate in the organ donor program. The drivers in The Netherlands came in the highest with 28% checking the box.

Slide Compare this with what happens in the other nations when they sign up for or renew their license: Check the box below if you don’t want to participate in the organ donor program.

Slide  For those of you who are in control, how many of you read the entire document before you click or sign on the line that says: I Agree?

Slide  So … I wonder if everyone applying for or renewing their driver’s license from Austria, Belgium, France, Hungary, Poland, Portugal and Sweden really took the time to read the entire form before signing at the bottom.

Slide Teacher, order your disciples to stop … I wonder what kind of response the Pharisees were expecting from Jesus. Did they assume he would immediately acquiesce to their demand? Then, the other question is this: How much control did Jesus have over his disciples back then? For that matter, how much control does he have over those who purport to be his disciples now?

As they were happening, it may well be that the events we commemorate during “Holy Week” seemed to the followers of Jesus as if everything had gone haywire, out of control. Beginning with the spontaneous crowd that gathered around him singing his praises as he came toward Jerusalem and concluding with the tragic horror of his gruesome death, things were out of control. Particularly frightening to the Pharisees were the political implications of what the crowds were chanting – Blessed is the king … Such chants threatened the fragile détente that existed between Roman politicians and Jewish religious leaders.

It is probably safe to presume that at least some jealousy existed as crowds focused on Jesus rather than on those accustomed to undivided attention.

Jesus was able to see a potential in the stones that no one else could see. We don’t know how the crowds would have responded had he directed them to be still; but he did not have ultimate control on the praises that would be lifted heavenward.

What used to be a profound spiritual and philosophical question has now also become a serious issue for biology: Just how much control do we have? As we map the brain and come to grips with both intuitive and instinctive behavior, we human beings should be growing more and more humble in both our actions and our assessments as they relate to others.

And isn’t a recurring question the one that gets expressed like this: If there IS a God, how could a loving God allow all the pain, suffering and injustice that goes on in the world? Are some of the families and friends of those who died in the Germanwings airplane crash this past week asking that question? Is God in control or not?

Given how fragile our own powers of observation are, and given how vulnerable we are to the prevailing winds of whichever bias we choose to follow and swallow at any given moment, what makes us think we could ever know for sure whether God was in control? And what if it is in the nature of God not to be in control?

We are headed down a rabbit hole with these kinds of questions. Should we throw up our hands and simply adopt a kind of fatalistic point of view?

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem is not one of triumph or joy from Christ’s perspective. Listen to the next verses:

And when he came near, beholding the city, Jesus wept over it. He said: “Would that even today you knew the things that make for peace! But now they are hid from your eyes.” If Jesus had the kind of control he seems to have wanted, things would have been different for the city of Jerusalem.

Our bible begins with chaos, a formless void full of nothing but darkness. The creative power of the Divine Spirit blows across the void and brings order. That same Spirit breathes into creation and causes life to be. Who could have predicted Adam and Eve would sin? Who could have known God would react by expelling them from the Garden where all was in perfect order? How do we understand the human impulse to control – everything! Does this impulse arise from our wanting to be like God as the serpent suggests in the creation story? Does God work to undo the hubris of human control – as happened at the Tower of Babel when God commanded that we speak in different languages so as not to be able to understand each other?

Does religion promise to set us free from having to worry about such things? Or is it an invitation to ask such questions?

If the rocks began to cry out in praise – if the stones of this Sanctuary were to suddenly burst into song, where would that leave us? Wouldn’t we first have to explain such a phenomenon? Would we have to look for a scientific way to understand and describe what had happened? But we can’t even explain ourselves!

To say “we are not in control” is not the same thing as saying “I am not responsible for my actions!” An article by Catherine Marshall makes a distinction between “resignation” and “relinquishing”. One accepts things as they are with an attitude of hopelessness. That’s being resigned. The other accepts life and what  delivers, but always believing in the presence of divine potential – the possibility that, while we accept things as they are, there is a God who makes all things new.

Jesus did not try to be in control. He could not control Peter, his faithful disciple. Neither could he control Judas, the one who would betray him. He could not control John, his beloved; neither would he control Pilate, the one who put the period on his death sentence. He could not control the crowds who praised him or the Pharisees who loathed him. What he could control was the direction his will would carry him.

He could no more force a city to believe in him than he could an individual. “Follow me” was never so much a command as it was an invitation. And to follow Jesus is to relinquish control even as it is to expand and deepen one’s faith.

— — —

[1] For Ariely’s TED talk – https://www.ted.com/talks/dan_ariely_asks_are_we_in_control_of_our_own_decisions#t-423797