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(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.

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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.

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You Are Not In Control

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

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Text: John 3:1-16

Title: You Have To Start Over … Again

There is this absurd joke – more of a ridiculous story than a “joke” – that I tell about a shaggy dog. If it’s told correctly it takes about twenty minutes to tell. It is extremely repetitive. When I told that joke to my children they never asked me to tell it again. It’s somewhat boring, even tedious. And, to be honest, if you tell it right, it’s exhausting. Because the textual content is so repetitive and boring you have to put a lot of physical energy into it to keep it interesting. You have to try to convince the people listening that it is worth their time; so vocal inflection and even gesturing is a big part of it.

A couple months ago I was in Connecticut helping out with our grandchildren while my daughter was traveling. Alina is four years old and I was bringing her home from day care this particular evening. It’s about a twenty minute ride with the evening traffic, so I decided to tell her the Shaggy Dog joke. I wanted to time this so I would get to the punchline just as I was opening the car door in the driveway having arrived at their home. I gestured in ways that were conducive to safe driving. I used vocal inflection. I would see her in the rear view mirror and scrunch up my face. I was putting a lot into this in order to keep this tired four-year old engaged, and I was doing a good job.

The joke repeats the line: That’s a pretty shaggy dog you’ve got there some 42 times if you tell it right. I timed it perfectly. We were pulling into the driveway, my granddaughter having given my performance her full and rapt attention. I parked the car, went around to open the door for her and delivered the punchline: I don’t think your dog is so shaggy. There was silence as she sat, frozen in her car seat, staring at me. I could see the wheels turning, trying to figure out if she was supposed to laugh now, or not. I looked at her. She looked at me. Then, I heard the words I’d never heard after telling this joke. She said: Do it again, Grandpa. Start over from the beginning. I quickly came up with several good reasons why that was a bad idea.

Adam, Rachel and I were discussing how difficult it can be to “start over” … Have you ever worked on a document on a computer only to inadvertently delete it with no knowledge of how to get it back?

You must be born again, says Jesus to Nicodemus. Or, if you prefer, you must be born from above. But that doesn’t alter the fact that Nicodemus was being told he was going to have to come up with an entirely new way of thinking about life. It’s as if Jesus hit the “refresh” button. It’s not exactly the same as “delete” for sure, but it does have a way of completely altering what we see on the screen of our lives. It’s not what a lot of us want to hear.

I’m in my 70th decade. When I was a child I thought like a child. And foolishly, I thought I knew several very important things about adults. First, I was always amazed that adults seemed to have money in their pockets. It occurred to me that my mom or dad could buy a piece of bubble gum any time they wanted, and they didn’t even have to ask. And I thought: I can’t wait to be an adult!

Adults always seemed to know where they were going. And if they were not certain about how to get there, they had maps that told them exactly how to get there. Here I was, always being asked what I was going to be when I grew up, asked what my favorite things were to do, asked what my favorite subject was, what sport did I like the best … Adults always just seemed to know these things. I can’t wait to grow up, I remember thinking, because adults have it all together! They know their favorite subject. They’ve figured out what they are going to be and there seemed to be little doubt as to their favorite sport teams.

My wife and I were sitting at dinner the other night and Jan reminded me of her waitressing days during college. She’s given me permission to share this story with you. Jan never enjoyed waitressing. Her first restaurant gig was at the Sheraton. “I was a terrible waitress,” she said. Always mixing up orders, charging the wrong price … Jan said: For six weeks running I told everyone I waited on: This is my first day. The strategy behind this chronic lie of hers was that people would be more forgiving if they thought she was just starting.

Nicodemus, you are an adult, studied in Scripture, wise – so you have come to believe – in the ways of God. But if you are going to experience the kingdom of God, you are going to have to start over. We’ve got to hit “refresh”.

Upon being pressed for more detail, Jesus gives the news that only made things more confusing for this holy man, set in his holy ways. “Set,” yes; but not satisfied. Nicodemus is aware somehow that he was missing something. The road map to God’s will and ways is expressed and experienced in the windy breezes of an untamable Spirit. Nicodemus would have to come to grips with the fact that in the midst of an ordered spiritual life – at its core, actually – is the truth and power of a divine spontaneity that defies any structure that leads to complacency. Every day, every hour, every moment, Nicodemus would have to be willing to start over; and so must we.

In a sense that is much deeper than the trivial cliché might have us believe, every day is the “first day”. Today, we start over.

Yesterday’s histories and today’s stories must serve to inspire us to raise the sales of our lives higher if we hope to catch the heavenly winds. We have to believe, as hard as it can be to do so amidst all the sadness and grief and violence and uncertainties of our times, that God’s Spirit blows among us still. We have to raise our sales higher than the prejudices of this world. We have to look up beyond the tired politics, believing there is a heaven worth claiming for this earth.

Come to Jesus by day or make your way to him in the darkness, but listen to what he is saying. In ancient times it was a serpent raised high to ward off evil. In the “Christ moment” it is the cross that draws attention to the power of evil and what it causes us to do to each other. Though he would have to endure it, Jesus doesn’t stop at crucifixion. Look at the cross, yes; but look beyond it for all the things swaying in the winds of God’s Spirit. Be born again! Look above yourself and be birthed in breezes of divine grace and forgiveness. Live there. Love there. From that place, perched only on the gloriously shifting back of the Holy Spirit, begin to see the wonder of God’s love not only for you and yours, but for all the world.

Tim Keller reminds us of the rather tedious 25th chapter of the Book of Leviticus which contains all the rules related to the Jewish “Year of Jubilee”. As you may recall, every fifty years, on the day of atonement, a trumpet was to sound throughout the land calling everyone back to their home, their property and their family. Every fifty years there was to be a year off. No planting and harvesting. The rule was to be that you could buy or sell property with the value to be determined by what the property would produce until the next Jubilee, when it would return to the original owner. Keller points out what this meant was no matter how irresponsible a person had been and no matter how far into debt they had fallen, at least once in their lifetime “each person had a chance to start afresh”.[1]

If you need it, let today be your “jubilee”. If you don’t think you need it, then maybe you need to offer it to someone else – forgive them, and love them, and walk with them. Give them a “jubilee”. If you want to catch a glimpse of this “kingdom” – this radical God-presence that Jesus speaks of, maybe you need to start over and walk with him.

In the game of Monopoly the place you start is called “Go”. And every time you return to that spot, you get a little something to help you on your way. Jesus saw it in Nicodemus; perhaps you see it in yourself – you not only need to … you want to be born again! You want to start over! Jesus is saying – with him, you can.

——-

[1] Tim Kerller – Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just. Published by the Penguin Group (USA), 375 Hudson Street, New York, NY  10014. © 2010. Kindle Location 463-478.

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Text:  Mark 1:9-15

“My son, if you come forward to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for temptation.” That quote is from the Book of Sirach, Chapter 2, the first verse – one of the books we refer to as the Apocrypha. These are books which appeared in the Latin Vulgate but not in the Hebrew Canon of the Bible.

The only change I might recommend to the verse would be to suggest that, sons and daughters alike, if you come forward from the womb, prepare yourself for temptation.

We began our Lenten Series this past Wednesday. We are looking at seven sayings – not The Seven last words of Christ – but seven things the scriptures tell us that we might not want to hear. Remember: dust you are, and to dust you will return. That’s the main theme of the Ash Wednesday service. We are mortal. We are all going to die, not to put too fine a point on it.

Today we home in on the fact of temptation. Central to St. Mark’s understanding of the ministry of Jesus is that it happens in the context of a “cosmic battle with Satan”.[1] We aren’t half way through the first chapter of the gospel but that Satan is trying to tempt Jesus away from the redemptive script of his life.

With regard to the temptation of Jesus we should note how lean Mark’s telling is. We are more familiar with the story as told by Matthew and Luke, and it’s worth our time to take a moment and look at the comparison.

In Matthew and Luke Jesus is tempted by the devil throughout his forty days in the wilderness; but it is only after the forty days that Jesus is tempted to turn stones to bread, jump from the temple with the expectation the angels would catch him, and bow to Satan in order to attain the wealth and glory of the world.

Matthew tells us that after Christ resists these temptations the devil left him, and then angels came to wait on him.

Luke tells us the devil left Christ while looking for another, more opportune time to tempt him. Luke makes no mention of angels coming to wait on Jesus.

Matthew takes eleven verses to tell the story of the temptation of Jesus. Luke takes thirteen verses.

What does St. Mark tell us?

  “The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan, and he was with the wild beasts, and the angels waited on him.”

Two verses. Much is left to our imagination. Mary Ann Tolbert is the dean of the Pacific School of Religion. She writes: [The gospel of Mark] is a self-consciously crafted narrative, a fiction, resulting from literary imagination, not from photographic detail.[2] This doesn’t mean, she continues, that there is “no connection to history”. But rather than paint a precise picture for us, Mark leaves us a lot of room to wonder and ponder … and imagine. I have been wondering about “temptation”.

At our worship planning meeting last Tuesday we said we did not want to focus on the mundane – like the temptation of a chocolate donut over brussel sprouts. This isn’t to say that such temptations are of no consequence.

Then there is the list that Paul offers in Galatians – things he calls “the works of the flesh” – things like fornication, impurities, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, strife, jealousy, anger, dissensions, envy, drunkenness – and just to make sure we understand this list is not exhaustive, he concludes the verse open-ended by saying: … and things like these.[3]

In I Corinthians Paul assures the Christians there that the testing they are experiencing is “common to everyone”.[4] And, continues Paul, God “will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.”

While I don’t ever recall being tempted by “sorcery” and a few other things on Paul’s list, I wonder if there aren’t at least two temptations common to all of us.

First, there is the temptation to be comfortable. From the mattress we sleep on to the pew we sit in, we want to be comfortable. Sometimes the temptation to be personally comfortable trumps our desire to be connected in community. We had talked about roping off the back and side pews in an attempt to make a statement for community. You could still sit in the back pew; it’s just that the back pew would be closer to the front and occupied by more people. But as I thought about that, it felt a bit hypocritical. Who is to say people who sit in the center front aren’t doing so for exactly the same reason folks are sitting on the sides or in the back – this is where they are most comfortable!

So I resisted the temptation to make people on the sides and back uncomfortable. Isn’t it true, though … that we will go to some pretty amazing extremes in order to be comfortable?

Perhaps you have heard it said that the purpose of the Christian Gospel is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. It’s quite a dramatic change from hearing the voice of God saying: “You are my Son, the Beloved” to being driven out into the wilderness to do battle with the devil.

There is another temptation I want us to consider today – the temptation to be certain. This is a temptation that much religion succumbs to. We see it expressed in the scriptures when religious leaders ask Jesus about his authority. They were looking for signs that would prove Jesus was the messiah. Give us a sign from heaven, they say to Jesus in Mark 8:11. By what authority are you doing these things, they ask Jesus in Mark 11:28.

This is to say: “How can we be sure you are who you say you are?”

We yearn for certainty in every aspect of our lives – from the diagnosis of the doctor to the guidance on our GPS.

I was talking with my sisters yesterday and something came up about one of my nieces. She is quitting her fulltime job, effective March 1. She owns a home. She doesn’t quite know what she is going to do. My sister said she wasn’t sure how to feel about her daughter’s decision – to take a year off and see what comes of it. But then, upon reflection, my sister who is 67 years old said: When I think of the times in my life that I took risks I don’t regret any of them – even the ones that didn’t work out the way I had hoped they would.

All of our best efforts to “insure” our lives – financially, socially, professionally – are futile. Life doesn’t offer us certainty. In his book Disarming Scripture, Derek Flood defines faith. He writes: Faith is not about certainty, it’s about vulnerability.[5] That might seem to fly in the face of what we read in Hebrews 11 where the author writes: Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. But isn’t this line from Hebrews telling us to step away from the known, the comfortable?  The Oscar-winning star of faith in the Bible is Abraham, a man who stepped toward an unknown destination, trusting in an unseen God, leaving everything that was certain behind. The book of Hebrews says of Abraham: By faith he set out, not knowing where he was going.[6]

Without being foolish, we must fight against every temptation to live lives of certainty – certain that this group doesn’t belong, or that that group is unworthy. We must fight against the temptation to assume we know a sin that can’t be forgiven, remembering Jesus’ words to take the log out of our own eye first.

Have you ever been absolutely certain about something only to find out you were wrong?

We can’t be certain about tomorrow. I think the striving after security and comfort and the need to be certain about so many things regarding our future robs us of living the miraculous adventure of now.

Even absent many of the details that Matthew and Luke offer us, Mark gives us this – that angels waited on Jesus. Face your temptations; and in your encounters with the devil, perhaps you will see the host of angels attending you as well.

—————-

[1] John R. Donahue, SJ, Daniel J. Harrington, SJ. The Gospel of Mark – the Sacra Pagina series. The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesoata. © 2002. Page 23.

[2] Ibid., Page 13.

[3] Galatians 5:21.

[4] I Corinthians 10:13.

[5] Derek Flood, Disarming Scripture – cherry-picking Liberals, violence-Loving Conservatives, andf Why We All Need to Learn to Read th Bible Like Jesus Did. Published December 1, 2014.  Kindle Location 1543-1557.

[6] Hebrews 11:8.

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Into Your Arms

Text:  Luke 2:22-40

Dr. George Thabault was an obstetrician gynecologist at Mary Fletcher Hospital and back in the 60’s and 70’s he was old school, which meant he probably was more comfortable with the 1950’s. But in his special way he was a gentle man, and when he delivered our daughter on June 28, 1976 I remember him taking her and saying as he placed her on my wife’s tummy: “This is what everybody seems to be doing nowadays.” My sense of it was that he didn’t see any great advantage either for baby or mother by doing this, but that was the “in” thing to do and it wasn’t going to do any harm.

The truth be told, like any parent, Jan did not want the baby on her stomach nearly as much as she wanted her in her arms.

A couple months ago I met someone and since then we have had several conversations. We are not in the category of “friend” quite yet, but that could change. He shared with me that he and his wife were in the early stages of expecting their first child. The first trimester would be heading into the second as Thanksgiving gave way to Christmas and he was so looking forward to telling everyone at the various family celebrations.

On Friday I received an email from him. After expressing holiday greetings he wrote that on December 23 he and his wife had experienced “what seemed to be the worst thing imaginable”. They miscarried. “We lost our baby girl,” he wrote. The pain in that email was palpable.

I’ve been aware as we planned our Christmas Eve service focusing on the question: When is the best time to have a baby? that for some the answer would be: “Any time.” Some are not able to conceive; others seem unable to carry to term. Some will never hold their baby in their arms.

We need to acknowledge several things about the gospel text we have heard this morning. Scholar Darrell Bock points out the following:

“For the first time Jesus’ mission is explicitly related to the Gentiles. We have the first hints of the coming rejection and suffering” that will be associated with Christ’s message and mission. And right at the outset of the Gospel “we have all of humankind – male and female – offering praise to God for Jesus.”[1]

Darrell Bock also notes that from the outset Jesus forces choices. As a result some will rise and others will fall.[2] There is a lot going on in this passage.

With all the historical, prophetic, political and theological details the author of the gospel is tending to in this hyper-intense passage, we read that Simeon took the child in his arms. Amidst attention to the details of the law of Moses, sacrifices offered in just the proper way, predictions of suffering and despair, swords piercing hearts, an entire nation either rising or falling, the overwhelming tasks of saving the world, Simeon took the child in his arms. And seeing the babe in arms, Anna comes upon the scene and is inspired to tell all of Jerusalem that their redemption was at hand.

New parents have to make decisions with regard to when they will begin to share the baby with the rest of the world. Certainly grandparents are quickly allowed to hold the baby. Perhaps the very closest of family friends will be granted a few moments of child-holding. But when do we bring the baby out into the world? When do we begin to be comfortable handing off the baby to the well-meaning, germ-infested public?

In his commentary, Darrell Bock calls upon the scholarship of another scholar – a man I had the privilege of studying with for only several days, but whose wisdom and way of sharing it touched me. Swiss scholar Francois Bovon, whose primary interest was in the Gospel of Luke, lifts up the notion that Simeon represents not only Jerusalem, not only Israel, but “all humanity” in embracing the messianic hope the Christ Child holds out for us.[3]

In preparing and consulting scholars on this particular text for the message I wanted to share today I learned that Dr. Bovon had passed away in 2013. In the service at Harvard’s Memorial Church to remember and honor their colleague the dean of Harvard Divinity School spoke of Francois Bovon as a man of “unfailing courtesy and transparent goodness.” He described him as having “a characteristic twinkle in his eyes mixed inevitably with sadness and pain.”

It was within a year before my studying with Dr. Bovon that his own son had taken his life. In my brief encounter with this scholar I experienced what Harvard’s Dean described – ‘unfailing courtesy, transparent goodness, a twinkle in his eyes,’ all mixed with sadness and pain.

Oh, to hold my son in my arms.

In the email from that one whose daughter was no more, this is what he wrote to me: “I know that the Lord has a plan for everything however it is hard me to wrap my head around what has happened. If you have any words, scripture or just plain good ole wisdom that could possibly lighten my heart at this point I would greatly appreciate it.”

I listened to a video an acquaintance posted to Facebook – a 45 year old who is married with three children and has just learned that he has Stage Four Pancreatic and Liver Cancer. In his video he instructs people how he wants us to pray for him. He is a person of faith, and he is trying to be both honest and optimistic.

“God does not have cancer in mind for the people he loves, the people he created. We are looking for positive, positive belief,” he says. He goes on at some length to say that, while sympathy is ok, that’s not really what he is looking for. All prayers and posts to his Facebook wall must be positive. There is a kind of surreal quality to his post – it begins and concludes with a cheerful “Merry Christmas”, but between the salutation and the closing there is a 6 and a half minute instruction on what God will do if enough of us agree. He asks for money, announces a fund-raiser and encourages everyone to attend, then brings his wife into the video and tells us that she is a storm-trooper and together they are going to kick butt.

I applaud his can-do, up-beat attitude. But frankly, I don’t know how to respond.

“God With Us” is not a kick-butt, can-do divine presence to get us where we want to go. Miscarriages happen. Tragedies occur. Children take their own life. The most generous and humble among us experience joy and suffering. Taking Jesus into your arms is not to acquire some kind of “Get Out of Suffering Free” card.

Of course we pray for healing. Of course we pray for solace and peace. I will pray for the sender of the email and the one who posted the video. And yes – God does have a plan; but the plan is not that everything will go your way. The plan is that God is with us and that we become aware of that.

Perhaps one of the most glaring obstacles to evangelism is the proclamation that if you truly believe you will live life on “Easy Street”. That’s not what Simeon takes into his arms or Anna proclaims to Jerusalem.

I recall a dream I had a long time ago that spoke truth to me about the presence of Jesus. In my dream I was working in a garden when suddenly a snake leaped out of the soil and coiled itself around me. Increasingly the pressure around me tightened to the point of making it hard for me to breath. Just as suddenly the snake released me and crouched in the soil, staring at me.

Just then a man came in a truck to deliver a load of soil. As he came out of the truck toward me, I frantically explained to him about the snake. “I’m afraid,” I said to him, “that the snake is going to leap on me again and this time he will kill me.”

He looked and saw the serpent in the soil, then turning to me he said: “Come close to me. Put your arms around me, and I will put my arms around you.” He stepped toward me and I toward him. We embraced. Then he said:

“You’re right. That snake is going to come back. He’s going to wrap himself around you, but he will have to go around me as well. And when he does he won’t have the strength in his coil to crush you.”

I awoke. And I was convinced the snake was all the evil and suffering and sin and pain I would experience in my life. And the man was the Christ. With him in my arms and me in his, the evil and suffering and sin and pain would not crush or destroy me.

Along with all the exegetical complexities, this compact text from Luke is inviting us to take Christ in our arms and to wrap our lives around him. It is an invitation to let Jesus wrap his arms around us. This doesn’t mean there will never be suffering or grief. It just means that we will never be alone. It means that God is with us.

God is with us. Whatever 2014 has dealt you and whatever 2015 has in store for you, remember this. Wrap your head and your heart around this good news. God is with you – always, even to the end of your days.

——————-

[1] Darrell Bock – Commentary on Luke: Volume One. Published by Baker Academic, a division of Baker Publishing Group, PO Box 6287, Grand Rapids, MI 49516-6287. © 1994. Page 230.

[2] Ibid., Page 233.

[3] Ibid., Page 241.

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When You Run Out of Oil

Text: Matthew 25:1-13

To remind us: Fred Rogers recalls the time when he was a little boy that his mother assured him: Remember, Fred: whenever there is trouble, look for the helpers. There will always be helpers.

Have you ever been driving in the car and had the “Check Engine” light on the dashboard light up? Or what about that little icon that says you need to check the oil?

I’m not sure if this is politically correct, but there was a time when these dashboard symbols were called “Idiot Lights”. The suggestion here was that the person who was driving the vehicle had not donNovember 9 Oile their due diligence when it came to maintaining the vehicle. If they had been smart the problem would not be presenting itself. The other factor that would weigh heavily in the matter is that, should one of these lights come on, you needed to get immediate attention. Stop driving the car. Pull over!

It wasn’t the “Check Oil” symbol that popped up on a recent trip to Connecticut. It was the “Check Engine” light. I was 250 miles from home. My time was limited. When I go to Connecticut it is for the purpose of running interference with the grandchildren for my son-in-law while my daughter is away. When I am not helping with children I need to be working – phone calls, blogs and sermons to write. I didn’t want to spend the day at a gas station. So, with that light flashing, suggesting I was drawing perilously close to Mordor I made a command decision. I decided to ignore it. I headed back to Vermont. I figured I could always call Triple A.

That’s a service the five “foolish bridesmaids” or “virgins” did not have access to.

The text in Matthew is speaking specifically about a time in the future. The wedding is a metaphor for the Coming of Christ. Jesus is the bridegroom. The bride is not specifically identified. The sense of the story suggests the bridesmaids represent those listening to Jesus – the disciples. The disciples, we are told, had come to Jesus privately. They wanted to know when would be the culmination of his ministry. What will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age? they asked him.[1]

I suspect the reason they asked for this information is because they did not want to miss it. They wanted to be prepared. What is the light that will flash on the dash hoard of our lives to warn us of your imminent return? And so, one of the stories Jesus tells is this one, with an emphasis on those who are not prepared.

Because this is a story told to his disciples in private – presumably the Twelve – we need to exercise some care before we expand the meaning to everyone. The “Twelve” are those called by Christ to partner with him in his ministry in a specific way. That being said, anyone who wonders about such things as the fulfillment, the culmination of Christ’s ministry should heed Jesus’ words.

Last week we referenced two sayings: God helps those who help themselves. And God helps those who know they are helpless. Both sayings have a thread of truth in them. And maybe they are actually sending the same message.

So …Remembering that one story is not the sum of all of Christ’s teachings, I don’t want us to assume that none of us need the help of others or that we are never called upon to offer help to others. We will talk more about that in a couple weeks. With that being said, the focus of this story is on what we need to do for ourselves that no one else can do for us.

When the “Check Engine” or “Check Oil” lights come on, it’s up to us what to do and how to proceed. If you blow your engine because you did not heed the warnings, don’t blame Ford, or GM, or Toyota or Honda.

On this idea of what you can only do for yourself, I’m reminded of what looks to be a discrepancy in the gospel tradition. Mark, Matthew and Luke all tell us that Jesus had assistance carrying the cross.[2] John, on the other hand, states rather emphatically that Jesus carried his own cross.[3] Interesting efforts have been made to reconcile these texts. Raymond Brown offers the reasonable solution that Jesus carried the cross as long as he was able, and when he couldn’t carry it anymore, Simon of Cyrene was pressed into service.[4]

Perhaps more important than the details of whether Jesus went the distance carrying his cross alone or with assistance, is the self-awareness that Christ had. The son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed…[5]

And when his closest friends tried to protect him, he told them: Get behind me!

Jesus walked that lonesome valley; and he had to walk it by himself.

This story of the ten bridesmaids is not a threat. It is a statement of fact. There are some things we have to do for ourselves. And not even God can do them for us. We might ask: Why didn’t those with extra oil share with those who had none? After all, wouldn’t that be the Christian thing to do?

But “Christianity” as it manifests itself in spiritual discipline is not always a team sport. No pastor or priest; no book or bible verse – not even a cosmic savior can do for you what you are destined or called to do by and for yourself.

In a sense, we are healthiest when first and foremost we Look for the help needed within.

Think for a moment … When tempted to judge others what does Christ instruct? First, judge yourself.[6] A cursory review of the Sermon on the Mount is testimony to the extent to which Jesus tries to show us that instead of complaining about anyone else we need to mind our own business. We are ill equipped to remove splinters from others eyes whilst walking around with logs in our own. As if to telescope this text in Matthew 25, we read in Matthew 7 that Not everyone who says: “Lord, Lord” will enter the kingdom of heaven. Only the one, teaches Jesus, who does the will of my Father.

Do you remember how that text concludes? Though many say “Lord, Lord,” and claim to have prophesied and done many deeds in the name of the Christ, he will say to them: I never knew you. Go away from me. [7]

There is an interesting spiritual paradox in all of this. The more honest we are with ourselves about ourselves, the more apt we are to come to the realization that we need “saving”. Criticizing others, and complaining about others who don’t meet the expectations we have set for them – that’s a distraction that all too frequently captures us.

When we hear ourselves saying: They should do “thus and such” … perhaps we would better use our breath asking: What am I called to do?

From the sentimental to the sublime there is an intensely personal quality which makes some of our hymns and prayers memorable and, in their own way, relevant in every time.

If I sing: “Let there be peace on earth …” what is the next line? (“And let it begin with me.”)

“Let peace begin with me; let this be the moment now. With every step I take, let this be my solemn vow: to live each moment in peace … let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.”

Lord, make who? an instrument of thy peace … Make me an instrument.

The fact of the matter is that it’s not really the bridegroom who shuts the door on those five bridesmaids. They shut the door on themselves.

We don’t experience the kingdom of heaven by universal consensus. We experience it through individual commitment. The good news here must be heard; and that good news is this: No one can prevent you from experiencing the love of God, the power of grace, the liberation of forgiveness, the blessing of the presence of Christ – no one can keep that from you … no one except yourself. And no one can give it to you other than God who gives it to us liberally.

I know it is too early for Christmas, but this story tells it so well that I want us to see a glimpse – and warning: Spoiler Alert. If you have never seen How the Grinch Stole Christmas, you should cover your ears and eyes.

Here is an individual whose life was dedicated to taking joy from other people. And upon stealing every present from under the tree – and then stealing the tree itself; after taking every snack – and even the Roast Beast – the Grinch was certain he had thwarted Christmas. Every physical sign of preparation had been removed. On Christmas morning he listened from his high perch, awaiting and expecting to hear cries of lamentation. Let’s watch what happens…

Video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_eulSbXIjzk)

How could it be so?

It came without ribbons it came without tags.

It came without packages, boxes or bags.

He puzzled and fussed till his puzzler was sore.

Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before.

“Maybe Christmas,” he thought, “doesn’t come from a store.

Maybe Christmas … perhaps … means a little bit more.”

Perhaps, and just maybe … Jesus tells this story with the fervent prayer that no one would shut heaven’s doors on themselves – not when he comes in glory … and not as it blesses us here and now.

[1] Matthew 24:3

[2] Mark 15:21; Matthew 27:32; Luke 23:26.

[3] John 19:17.

[4] Raymond Brown – Anchor Bible Commentary, Vol 29A: The Gospel According To John. Published by Yale University Press. © 1970. Page 899.

[5] Mark 8:31ff.

[6] Matthew 7:1ff.

[7] Matthew 7:21-23.

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