Sermons

Sermon for February 11, 2018

Posted by on Feb 12, 2018 in sermons | 0 comments

First Parish Congregational Church
United Church of Christ, Yarmouth Maine

Sermon by
Rev. Kent Allen
February 11, 2018

Scripture: John 9:1-41; Psalm 27:1-4

I can’t tell you how old I was, I’m not even sure if I can recall what city we were in, but I do remember the blind beggar sitting on the sidewalk, and I know I couldn’t take my eyes off of him, even though my mother told me not to stare. I don’t remember if he held a basket or a cup to get coins from passers-by. I didn’t know his story, except that the cloudiness in his eyes made me understand that something had gone wrong. So the city became a scary place. One saw stuff that made one uncomfortable.

It seems strange now to think that the people of Jesus’ day thought that if someone had a disability that it was because either the person had done something wrong or his parents did. The person was being punished because of some kind of sin. The whole idea of redemption seemed as though it was not even on the screen.

In fact, one would think that if you witnessed someone being healed, that there would be celebration — that there would be wonder and thanksgiving. But what happened the day Jesus healed the man was just the opposite. There was critique and disbelief and suspicion. Who healed you? Who gave him authority? Are you really the man who was blind? Where are your parents? We want to have a few words with them.

In some ways, you can understand the Pharisees. They had much instruction about the Jewish law. They were responsible for passing that on, so that people could live faithful lives. It was important that folks followed the letter of the law. So when they saw that Jesus healed someone on the sabbath, they took it very seriously. They felt it was their duty to offer their objection. But somehow, they turned Jesus’ good deed into an evil act. There was no joy, no sense of wonder that the blind man had been healed. In fact, they were actually questioning whether or not the healing had happened at all. There was a cognitive dissonance going on in their brain. Even though they were presented with information, they could not accept it because it did not match their expectation.
Jesus gives us a window into what God has in mind. Compassion is more important than anything else. Period. And that when compassion is granted, pay attention, because surprising, unexpected things occur. Things that cause us to wonder.

I had two encounters on my vacation that caused me to wonder — wonder because they were unexpected. The first was my church worship last Sunday, which was not in a church building, but rather sitting in front of the computer. Brene Brown, the Social Worker and TED talk personality, had preached at the National Cathedral two weeks ago. Her sermon was about several things. She talked about loneliness and about church and about how we in this society have sorted ourselves into bunkers. We tend to hang out with folks just like ourselves, and that we have created common enemies. And her thesis is that it’s not working very well for us. Because in the process we are dehumanizing others. Making them less than. Since we are all connected, this is creating a spiritual crisis. At one point she says if you are concerned with how Michelle Obama was treated in the White House by critics, you should be just as concerned with how Melania Trump is treated, and the same holds true for their children. When we only stay in our private bunkers, we can get to the place where we dehumanize someone else.

That’s exactly what seemed to happen with this man who was blind. He was treated as less than human. He was healed and people were upset. There is no congratulations. No “good for you.” No “Praise God.” Rather it was, “something is not right here.”

The other dangerous thing that happens when we dehumanize someone is that we start to think there is no redemption for them. They are stained by a sin, just like the blind man. End of story. In the process, we live into the story with little compassion and consequently no possibility for us to experience wonder. Wow the blind man sees!

The second unexpected encounter we had occurred in the steep hills of Central Costa Rica. Somehow I hadn’t imagined what they would feel like on a bicycle seat. One of our guides was an indigenous Peruvian women who lived in a remote mountain village. She leads tours, raises a 4 year old, and lives cooperatively with some other families. Her wisdom simply comes out of her pores. The way she speaks and uses her hands and holds her body. She listened as people expressed concern about the divisiveness and turmoil in this country. And she said, “That is all real for you.” Then she put out her hands, reaching to the beauty of the land, and said, “All of this is real, also.” There is wonder and beauty in relationships, and exercise, and community, and creation.

There is blindness, yes, manifested in many ways. But there is also light. There is light for our darkness. The story that Jesus brings is the story of God’s blessing to the world that comes in unexpected ways. And if we’re not careful, we can totally miss the surprise. We can get stuck because what we expect isn’t what actually happens. A blind man was healed.

Jesus always had a way of turning things upside down. He uses a bling beggar to be a hero and he makes the religious leaders of the day look foolish. No wonder he got himself in so much trouble. But what he seemed to always be pointing to was compassion. And the lesson is that the road to change and the road to God’s kingdom is through compassion. He cared about the man in the road.

Could it be that some of us took a turn because someone had compassion? Could it be that we are our best selves because someone cared? Is there a chance that someone shed some light on the blindness that was in us? What is more effective than the judgement someone placed upon us? Judgement seldom makes us wonder, it seldom fills us with joy. It usually just leads us to shame. Compassion and caring are more effective.

That being said, Jesus could also be harsh and this story ends with some pretty tough words. “The Pharisees asked him, “Surely we are not blind are we?” And Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.” Ouch. What is it that Jesus was trying to say? As soon as we think we have it all together, when we think that somehow we are superior, that’s when we are really in trouble. Arrogance has slipped in. The blind man is no less human than you. The person in the bunker across the way is no less beloved than your son or daughter. The person who cut you off on the road is no less a person than you were when you did it to someone else yesterday. We are all in this together and we are all connected, like it or not. Jesus words to the Pharisees remind us of the radical, unrelenting love of God, that is all inclusive but also all demanding. Brene Brown said, “We are called to see the face of God in every single person we meet, and there is really nothing more unholy than stripping away someone’s humanity through language or any other endeavor.”

Our job, above all else, is to have compassion. Because at the end of the day it just might be the only thing that actually can heal the world, outside, of course, of the ways in which God surprises us. Sometimes I think they are one and the same.

It makes one wonder. I still see that cloudy eyed man on the city street in my mind’s eye. I wonder if anyone had compassion and took him by the hand. It makes me realize that it just as easily could have been you or me. To the wonder and the mystery of it all.

Amen

Sermon for January 21, 2018

Posted by on Feb 5, 2018 in sermons | 0 comments

First Parish Congregational Church
United Church of Christ, Yarmouth Maine

Sermon by
Rev. Kent Allen
January 21, 2018

Scripture: John 2:13-25; Psalm 1127:1-2

So it would appear that Jesus was pretty upset. If John got the story right, when Jesus found that the Temple was being used as a marketplace, it seems that Jesus came unglued. We read, “Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the Temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.” He certainly got folks’ attention!

But in some ways his anger doesn’t really make sense. It was a commandment that people go on pilgrimage. If not every year, at least once in their lifetime. And it was understood that when you entered the temple, you were to bring a sacrifice. So outside the Temple, you were able to purchase a sheep or a cow or a dove. It didn’t make sense, if you were traveling from a distance to bring those sacrifices with you. In order to purchase them, if you were from away, you would need to exchange your local currency to a Roman coin. In essence, the Temple was providing a service to the traveler. Why did Jesus object to that?

It would seem that Jesus was really upset about the whole system.

First of all, if you were poor, you were excluded from pilgrimage. It not only cost money to travel, but your sacrifice was really your entrance fee into the Temple. Secondly, it separated people out by class. The rich could purchase cattle for their sacrifice, those with less could only afford a dove. And this was apparent to all who came to the temple. There was separation of the rich and the poor.

But perhaps, what Jesus objected to most of all was that it gave the notion of a God who needed to be appeased. It was that same feeling that Martin Luther objected to with the church’s practice of indulgences — the idea that to be faithful one needed to somehow buy God’s favor. And then there is the matter of the fact that this practice of going to Jerusalem, separate from the community, was done so that the individual could become right with God. Jesus had a different idea. He created community so that people could share the faith journey, encouraging one another and then making a difference, not just as each person doing his or her own thing, but the possibility of a joint effort in building a kingdom.

Jesus was not as angry with those who set their tables in the Temple as he was about a system that misrepresented what God had in mind; that misrepresented who God was at heart. The practice exhibited exclusion and it made a statement that seemed to suggest that God only offers love conditionally. Jesus would have none of that. Somehow the backdrop of these practices in Jerusalem didn’t point to what the true nature of worship is to be. Jesus hoped that when one came to worship one would feel in his or her bones that he or she was beloved, he or she was enough. In addition, the practice really encouraged a faith that didn’t value community, that didn’t foster relationship. Jesus objected, not because there was a market place outside the Temple, but he objected because it seemed like a marketplace inside as well.

Jesus said more on that day. He used a word play to make his point. He spoke of himself as the temple, and spoke of his resurrection should he, the temple, be destroyed. Jesus came to show us the way, and to promise that this spirit’s presence would not disappear.

So how is worship to be? What was Jesus trying to teach?
When we gather on Sunday morning, what is it that we are seeking? What is it that we are coming to experience?

So there are all these elements of worship: prelude to postlude, Scripture reading and preaching, praying and the passing of the peace, and the hope is that somewhere within the hour one might feel moved. As we enter any sacred space, hopefully we come with humility, we come with gratitude, we come with some thought that we want to be and do better, not just seeking forgiveness, but also committing ourselves to rise above hurtful ways. The focus is to be on God, and so maybe the most important thing we can bring to the liturgy is an openness, a willingness to be surprised or shaken or comforted. Rather then to try to get God’s approval or make some kind of deal, or bargain for God’s favor, or fulfill some kind of obligation, maybe we just need to be open to receiving God’s unconditional love. And then see what that does. Have you ever cried your way through a peace candle reflection, or wondered if a preacher had read your journal or felt like a prayer was written for you or listened to a piece of music that resonated deep inside your soul? Have you ever been changed by hearing somebody’s story and felt yourself soften? That’s worship. It’s not to be transactional. It is meant to be a gift.

But worship is not just something meant to make us feel better. It’s meant for us to share. When we receive and allow ourselves to feel gratitude deeply, our perspective on the world and on other people changes. It can move us, if we let it, to not just think about it, but to act.

As I thought about Jesus’ reaction to what was happening at the temple, how worship was becoming a private affair, aimed at assuring that one was right with God, I couldn’t help but think of something I had read that Jim Wallis wrote years ago, that reminded me how little times have changed.

Jim Wallis is a preacher and a writer and the founder of Sojourners magazine. He wrote, “Perhaps the greatest heresy of twentieth-century American religion was to make faith into a purely personal matter and a private affair, which went neatly with the rise of the consumer society. Faith became merely another commodity. But in the Bible faith is not something that you possess. Rather it is something you practice. You have to put it into action or it really doesn’t mean anything. Faith changes things. It’s the energy of transformation, both for individuals and for a society.”
When we gather for worship, what is it that we are seeking? My guess is that it might just depend upon the week. Those on pilgrimage the day Jesus was there had to buy a sacrifice in order to enter the Temple. Many thought they were merely fulfilling an obligation, hoping that God would look upon them with favor. They hadn’t thought too much about the marketplace outside the sanctuary space. Jesus got their attention, and told them God had a different thing in mind. Worship was not transactional. It was not merely a personal or a private thing. One was to come open to an experience, a relationship, an awakening. One was to focus on God, yes, and to open to the surprise God brings- the surprise of loveThe part that no one really expects and in fact might not even want, is that it can be transformational. It has the potential to change us.

Jim reminds us that for 150 years, people have been gathering in this building, worshipping here on Sunday morning. People have been given the good news about God’s unconditional love. My guess is that people have gone into the world and brought this message with them. That’s why we worship. If we keep it all to ourselves, if it’s just a private matter, or transactional, its power is simply lost. There is work left to do. So let’s practice, practice, practice.

Amen

Sermon for January 14, 2018

Posted by on Feb 5, 2018 in sermons, Uncategorized | 0 comments

First Parish Congregational Church
United Church of Christ, Yarmouth Maine

Sermon by
Rev. Kent Allen
January 14, 2018

Scripture: John 12:1-11; Psalm 104:14-16

According to the writer of the gospel of John, the first thing Jesus did after he called his disciples was to perform this wedding miracle at Cana. The other gospels have him healing the sick. In Matthew 4 it reads, “those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics and paralytics, and he cured them.” John takes a completely different tack. It’s curious.

I don’t know if it was true back then, but weddings tend to be pretty complex affairs. They are a mixture of excitement and anxiety. The tradition then, as it often is now, is that the family or families would host a party, a celebration, a kick off to the couple’s new life. There is hope and in that hope the bride and groom, parents and grandparents dare to dream, that the couple’s days will be long and their lives will be rich. There is the wish that the couple will have the opportunity to help one another become their very best selves.

Wedding days are usually pretty important events in the life of a family. The hosts often feel a lot of pressure to ensure that the day runs perfectly. I’m not really sure where this expectation came from, but it is widely prevalent. I have had couples pick wedding dates, based on the National Weather Service statistics that show Saturdays least likely to have precipitation. This church has been chosen by people from out of town, because our carpet matched most closely with the bridesmaids’ dresses. There are lots of stories. I will spare you. The point being that weddings are big deals and people hope that they can be perfect.

So, John tells this story about a wedding in Cana. I love that Jesus’ mother is there. I love that she is the one that tells her son that there is a problem that he needs to fix. The weddings of those days were not as simple as a reception following — the celebrations sometimes lasted days. The parents had done all the planning, had thought that they had ordered enough refreshments to make it into the third day, but they were wrong. There wasn’t enough. And of course, they would have been worried — people would leave and their wedding would be remembered as the one where the hosts fell short.
Reluctantly, Jesus responded to the need. He made it possible for there to be a lot more wine available that was of the finest kind. He did so quietly. He didn’t stand up and say, “I just saved the day.” The hosts were remembered for their amazing party, a party where the very best wine was saved for last.

It’s curious that John relates this story. And somehow, it’s not really just about turning water into wine. It’s got a bigger message- and what it tells us is about the nature of our God and what God intends for us. At its core it is about abundance, about the abundance of God and the abundant life that God wants for us. On that wedding day the hosts must have felt like they were on the verge of disaster and embarrassment. Jesus said to them through this act there is enough and you are enough. You are enough, enough to be loved. God is not a God of scarcity, but rather a God of abundance. Because of that reality, we can dare to dream — dream that our sons and our daughters can grow up and start their lives and can also dare to dream. They can go forth with opportunities to become their highest selves. Isn’t that what we dream for them? Isn’t that the dream Jesus came to proclaim? Dare to dream, even you with infirmity, even you with sin, even you a stranger, a prisoner, a Samaritan, a widow, a leper. You can dare to dream, because you are enough and there is enough. There is abundant love and there are abundant resources.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was a master of the word. His “I Have a Dream” speech will always go down in history as one of the most powerful speeches ever. But it was in many ways more sermon than speech. It reflected his faith and how he had come to understand scripture and Jesus’ life among us. His mention of the Promised Land, in another speech, was not his construct, but rather a biblical one, where peace and justice would prevail. He said, “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation when they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

Isn’t it true that all parents, godparents, favorite aunts and uncles want their children to be able to dream. To be able to have opportunity to be their best selves, without doors being closed, just because they come from a different land, or because they are a different color, or because their faith isn’t exactly the same as mine.

We have a long way to go as a nation to end discrimination, but thanks to people like King, great strides have been made. Great conversations have been had, folks have begun to see the hidden racism within and have begun to address it, some discriminatory policies have been shut down. And yet this progress seems fragile. It seems almost like it’s under attack. And we really need to pay attention to this. We need to let those with influence know that this is unacceptable.

How can one dare to dream, when one is treated as less than?
How can one dare to dream, when the rules change because of your skin color, or because of your faith?
How can one dare to dream, when a culture expects you to fail?

And the reality is that this problem is as much a spiritual one as it is a political one or a social one, because it forces us to ask a question: Do we believe in a God of abundance and generosity? Do we believe that God’s design and Jesus’ coming into the world is to say that there should be winners and losers, haves and have nots, justice for some, but not for all? Somehow, it’s hard to look at Jesus’ life and have that understanding. Jesus came to tell us that all our children can dare to dream. He came to show us that we are responsible in helping to make the world that way.

King is quoted as saying, “Our lives begin to end the day we are silent about things that matter.” We have come a long way in facing the “isms” that have poisoned this land. People like King have given their lives to awaken us. If our progress is under attack, and it feels like it is, we cannot be silent. We must let our dreams for all of God’s children take voice. And we must find ways to use that voice in ways that do not hold hatred but rather speak hope. How can one argue against a dream for all children? How can one argue with a God of abundance that holds all of us dear?

There was a wedding at Cana, a couple with their lives ahead full of dreams. Jesus came and offered abundance. He was a master at making people feel as if they were enough. He didn’t discriminate, rather his life always moved justice forward. I have a dream, because in God, we can dare to do so.
Amen

Sermon for December 10, 2017

Posted by on Dec 12, 2017 in sermons | 0 comments

First Parish Congregational Church
United Church of Christ, Yarmouth Maine

Sermon by
Rev. Kent Allen
December 10, 2017

Scripture: Ezekiel 37:1-4, John 11:25-26

The scene is pretty dramatic. It is reminiscent of a battlefield. Across this valley skeletons were strewn, as if no one had come to carry them off, to provide a proper burial. Ezekiel lets us know that this was a vision, but even so it is quite dramatic. The symbolism here was that the dry bones represented the members of the Jewish faith. The Babylonian captivity had taken its toll. The people had lost their faith. Their hope was gone, their anxiety great. The scripture reads, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost, and we are cut off completely.”

We are cut off completely. They had lost a great deal. Jerusalem had fallen. They certainly couldn’t worship the way they once had. They wondered if God had abandoned them. Their despair and anxiety prevented them from imagining that God was still with them, they wondered whether the Jewish faith would even survive. One commentator writes, “The clarion call of the prophets, familiar during this season of Advent, was that God’s creation had become a place that was ‘dead’ to God’s ways. Humanity had traveled off course, had diverted far from what mattered, and had travelled so far down this road that there was no turning back without the intervention of God.”

I can see the bride shaking even before she comes down the aisle; her flowers moving. So much pressure for this one day, that anxiety has taken over. It’s hard to be present, when anxiety has set in, hard to feel joy when one is focused on, “what if?” As she takes her place next to her spouse to be, I find myself saying, “breathe.” Years later that same bride goes into labor, her partner trying to encourage her to focus on her breathing, as it helps to ease the pain, and minutes later, as the child emerges everyone awaits that first breath of life. Weeks later, her mind goes crazy in the middle of the night, understanding fully the responsibility of being a parent, mind full of ‘what ifs’ when sleep is at a premium. The only remedy is to focus on her breathing so she can return to sleep, to turn off the mind gone wild, to bring back a sense of peace. From that first baby’s breath to the last one we take, breathing not only gives us life, but it is also what keeps us connected to the ground of our being.

In Ezekiel’s vision, the bones could come back to life, the sinews and skin return, but without ruach — God’s breath — the bodies were like zombies.

For most of us, breathing is something we just take for granted. The second creation story from Genesis, reads like this, “then the Lord God formed the human from the dust of the ground and breathed into the nostrils the breath of life and the human became a living being.” From the beginning, God’s spirit, God’s breath has been with us, which makes this breathing a special, sacred part of our lives. A modern Christian mystic, Abbott George Burke writes, “the rhythm of breath leads to something deeper. It points to the center of the soul, the core of the being, the sovereign point of the spirit, the divine spark, the true self, the realm from which enlightenment arises. This is the truest thing that exists.”

So into these bones God breathed life, in Ezekiel’s vision. The anxiety abated, the despair disappeared, and peace and hope emerged.

There is so much about which to be anxious. No wonder sometimes it’s hard for us to get to sleep. There is the Middle East, and North Korea, there is the Russian intervention in our election, and global warming that is taking its toll. There is the struggle to try to preserve rights for the poor and those who are different. There is ISIS and there are random terrorist attacks. So as we go through this season of Advent, how do we find the peace for which we pray? There is the illness of a friend, the financial concerns we face, the dissatisfaction with a job, and the worry we have for our adolescents. How is it that we get through such times, without our anxiety overtaking us and despair consuming us?

Somehow the power of positive thinking and the suggestion, to not worry, just be happy are not enough. Ezekiel’s vision is first a reminder that God has not disappeared. Sometimes situations are so drastic that God needs to intervene. The faith of the people had gotten so diminished that they were like dead people. They could not return to their old life, the past was gone, but new life could emerge once people breathed in God’s breath again, God’s spirit, God’s possibility. There is a leap that we are required to take, and that is to believe that it is possible for God to make all things new- and that possibility occurs when we take in that sacred breath.

One of the biggest challenges we face in life is living in the present moment. Sometimes our fears and our anxieties are stuck on past failures or are focused on some future catastrophe or dream, and the present ticks away and we fail to notice its beauty. Thoreau wrote, “You must live in the present moment, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment. Fools stood on their opportunities and looked toward another land. There is no other land.”

How do we find peace, when there is so much that turns inside of us? How do we move forward when we get worked up about all the things that might go wrong? We breathe, we try to stay in the present and we believe in the power of transformation. We believe in the promise that God can make all things new.

God can take rattling bones and breathe in new life.

It seemed like there was a real crisis in the faith community of Ezekiel’s time. It seemed like the possibility existed that the faith might just fade away. A sort of resurrection happened in that dream, surely a miracle, but the real work, the real hope, the real transformation rested, not on God, but on those folks who had the gift of restored life. The miracle came alive through the people who accepted that breath, that God spirit, and brought it into the world.
How do we find peace in an anxious time? Somehow it has to include transformation, internally and then a turning to transform externally, to move with God’s breath, helping the world to be its best.

Transformation. Perhaps the poet says it best. Sometimes people mistake Judyth Hill’s poetry for Mary Oliver’s. This one is entitled, Wage Peace.

Wage peace with your breath.
Breathe in fireman and rubble
Breathe out whole buildings
And flocks of red winged blackbirds.
Breathe in terrorists and breathe out sleeping children
And freshly mowed fields.
Breathe in confusion and breathe out maple trees.
Breathe in the fallen
And breathe out lifelong friendships intact.
Wage peace with your listening;
Hearing sirens, pray loud.
Remember your tools;
Flower seeds, clothes pins, clean rivers.
Make soup.
Play music, learn the word for thankyou in 3 languages.
Learn to knit, and make a hat.
Think of chaos as dancing raspberries,
Imagine grief as the outbreak of beauty
Or the gesture of fish.
Swim for the other side.
Wage peace.
Never has the world seemed so fresh and precious.
Have a cup of tea and rejoice.
Act as if the armistice has already arrived.
Celebrate today.
Wage Peace.
Into the dry bones, God breathed ruach. An anxious and hopeless people found life. They were transformed and went into the world passing it on. God makes all things new with breath.. May it be so, during our Advent journey. Breathe.
Amen

Sermon for December 3, 2017

Posted by on Dec 5, 2017 in sermons | 0 comments

First Parish Congregational Church
United Church of Christ, Yarmouth Maine

Sermon by
Rev. Kent Allen
December 3, 2017

Scripture: Daniel 3:1-30, John 18:36-37

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were refugees. They left their homeland, but they had not left behind their faith, and a consequence of keeping their faith was that their very existence was threatened. Not only were they forced to change their names — names that pointed to their faith, translated as “God is gracious,” “Who is like God?” and “God keeps him,” respectively. But the names given were replaced by names that pointed to Babylonian gods. To add insult to injury, they were then ordered by Nebuchadnezzar to bow down before the king and forsake their God.

What is sometimes lost in the telling of this story is that it has satirical elements. One just has to imagine the scene. Nebuchadnezzar has had a giant golden idol made, an idol 60 cubits tall — that’s 90 feet tall and it was reportedly 9 feet wide. And the king commanded that whenever the horn was sounded, which would be accompanied by pipes and lyre and trigon and harp and drums and a whole ensemble of instruments, that whenever that happened one was to bow down before this golden idol. Here is this puffed up, ego driven, self- inflated pompous king ordering people to kneel before gold to honor their king. And if they chose not to, into the fiery furnace they would be thrown. Again, try to imagine. A statue as tall as the Steeple, as wide as this altar area, bowing down. How can one not laugh? How can one imagine that this idol can do any good, can provide anything of worth? It’s a chunk of metal. And it really makes the King look foolish. It makes him look like a total buffoon.

So, these refuges have a choice to make. They can give into the pressure of the king and abandon their faith, or for survival’s sake they can pretend and remain silent about their objections, or they can resist. They can stand their ground and face a most certain punishment.

The story demonstrates their choice. They are hurled into the fire, but not before they make their case. They refuge to worship the idol or the king, and declare their trust that God will save them, but if not, they will still rather face the fire then to follow the king. The king’s wrath was as hot as the flames in which they were thrown, but the fire did not harm them, and the bindings that were placed upon their hands were untied. Another person was seen with them in the fire, an angel, and they walked out of the furnace unscathed.

I have to admit this is not a scripture that we usually use to kick off Advent. Yet in some ways it fits perfectly. As Evan led us in the lighting of the candle of hope this morning, we are reminded of hope’s importance.

Sometimes, the evening news can drive us into a feeling of disbelief. Sometimes the apparent priorities of our culture cause us to wonder if we are on the right planet. The temptation can be strong to put our heads in the sand or to stop reading the paper or to turn off the news, or worse yet it can drive us to despair. Sometimes we hear of injustice or abuse or discrimination of those who are different, and we throw up our hands and ask, “How can this be?”
This morning scripture carries valuable insights into how hope is born.

Now certainly, there were other folks during the King’s reign that saw how ludicrous his demands were. How empty his big, huge statue was. But, out of fear, people remained silent. They did not dare to make waves, and quite frankly, who would blame them. But hope arises, when someone dares to speak the truth. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were victims in this story. Out of their faith conviction, they mustered the courage to speak the truth to power. Not all victims can produce that kind of courage. Some silently struggle, often internalizing their pain, or they blame themselves, certain that they have done something wrong. Sometimes telling the truth seems more painful than silence.

We have to imagine that there were those gathered around the fiery furnace, who were very troubled by what they saw. Why was the King demanding this? Why is he demanding that they give up their faith, to change their name, to worship this silly object? But the crowd remained silent. No one wanted to get involved or to risk punishment. So, these 3 men took the risk, trusting that God would be present. Their act of defiance was not a violent one, it did not threaten or seek revenge on Nebuchadnezzar. Rather it was an act of Civil disobedience.

During the civil Rights movement in this country, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. spent some time in the Birmingham jail. He was jailed because he was participating in demonstrations that were occurring to address injustices. These injustices were carried out simply because another’s skin color was different. Interestingly enough, there were 8 members of the clergy at the time that criticized his actions. And his letter was a response to their critique. He makes his case to these clergy, saying that his faith compelled him to act, and includes as part of his case this story found in Daniel. He wrote, “Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake.”

A higher moral law was at stake.

It’s hard to look at this passage- this story and not see how it relates to today. The whole idea of speaking truth to power. The notion of including those who are different and respecting their customs, their faith experiences, and seeing them as beloved. The whole notion of what it must feel like to be a refuge, a stranger in a foreign land. The image of this huge piece of gold being bowed down to. The idea of placing profit and material things over compassion and human decency and justice. So, these 3 brave souls stood their ground, an angel came and rescued them, and it appears that the King’s heart softened, and he was transformed or perhaps he allowed them status out of fear. I hope that wasn’t the case, acting merely out of fear.
There are those that can stand up like these 3 and others who can’t do that on their own. In the gospel reading for today, Jesus is asked if he is the king. His manner was slightly different than Nebuchadnezzar. He responded that he was born to testify to the truth. Part of his truth telling during his ministry, was to speak for those who didn’t have voice in the culture. The poor and the lame, the widow and the forgotten. When he saw injustice he spoke out or reached out or both. He told the truth, even when it upset those who held power, those who had something to lose: he spoke truth to those who could harm him. What he brought to those he encountered was a renewed sense of hope. Hope, when things seemed impossible; a son who had lost his way, a woman who had committed adultery, a foreigner beaten up and on the side of the road, a tax collector hated for how he had taken advantage of others, and yes a number of everyday people who felt powerless with a government gone sour. He saw injustice and he stood with and for those folks. He came to tell the truth with an eye toward a higher moral law. And we are called upon to do likewise, because sometimes the only way change happens is when those with influence, those with standing, those with agency say, “Enough.”

And the promise is that we will not be alone in that effort. The other truth is that Jesus did not send the disciples out alone. He had them partner up. So that when we feel compelled to tell the truth about something we see as unjust, our call is to find a partner who can stand as well. The curious thing is that one of the ways we get a feeling of hope is when we dare to stand, when we dare to speak truth, when we dare to partner with another with a cause we hold dear. And to follow in the Jesus way to act non-violently. Civil disobedience.

For all who have felt like refugees, who have felt like a stranger in a foreign land, who have been oppressed but couldn’t speak, may hope arise, either because a voice is found within or because someone with agency and power dared to tell the truth because a higher moral law was at stake. In the process the spirit of God might just be felt in the process, like the angel that appeared in those fiery flames. Amen.

Sermon for November 5, 2017

Posted by on Nov 7, 2017 in sermons | 0 comments

First Parish Congregational Church
United Church of Christ, Yarmouth Maine

Sermon by
Rev. Kent Allen
November 5, 2017

Scripture: 1 Kings 19:1-18; John 12:27-28
Elijah was literally running for his life. He had made Queen Jezebel really angry. He had made fun of her God Baal, challenged its prophets, and Jezebel was determined to have him killed. So Elijah ran.

This job, this calling to be a prophet, was too hard, too costly. He had had enough. He was exhausted, and understandably depressed. He would find a hiding place where Jezebel couldn’t find him. He wanted desperately to feel God’s presence, to sense God’s protection.

What Elijah did was to head for the hills, not just any hill, but the same one where Moses experienced God and received the tablets. Mt. Horeb.

Maybe there he would find relief, maybe there he would get some kind of sign. So as tired and scared as he was, he traveled to the mountain, where he found the shelter of a cave. And then he listened for God, he waited for a sign. A mighty storm came, but he did not sense God’s presence. And then a mighty wind, and then an earthquake that made the mountain shake, and then a fire, with flames dancing in the sky. Nothing.

So much for God’s presence. But after such dramatic events, when all became quiet, Elijah heard the voice of God.

Hopefully, none of us here are presently running for our lives. My guess is that we are not headed for some mountain looking for a cave that can protect us. And yet that said, there are things that keep us up at night. There are hard things we go through, from which we just as soon hide, just putting the covers over our heads, to avoid thinking about these things.

It can be as daunting as a physical accident, or as scary as financial difficulty, or even just the pall that is upon our land due to our present political crisis. And it’s not enough for us to just endure such things. We are on this journey of life, wanting to live it faithfully, wanting to proceed with hope, wanting to make a difference. Do we ever say to God, in that 2 AM restlessness, “Just give me some kind of sign, God!” Do we ever wonder what’s next, what direction we are supposed to turn?

I really appreciate the first Sunday of November each year. I love that we light candles for those in our lives who have had saintly characteristics, who have inspired us to go deeper, who have given us an example of how to live life fully.

My grandmother died almost 50 years ago. My grandfather died before I was born, leaving my grandmother with little financially. Out of her living room she created a seamstress business. She had felt the loss of a child, experienced financial crisis, was widowed young, never drove a car, traveled little. I imagine she spent some restless nights and am certain that during hardships she prayed, “Give me some kind of sign.” She will always be my #1 saint.

Saints aren’t saints for us because they live perfect lives. They don’t have some superhuman qualities to which mere mortals can only aspire. I think saints become saints to us because they find a way. The dark night comes, as it will for us all, and when morning comes they find a way to persevere. They do so without long lasting bitterness. They find a way to face their fear and then to move forward with courage. And at least for my grandmother, that courage, that ability to face the new day with hope, was grounded in faith.

The Working Preacher podcast for this week reminds us of the truth that this listening for God is not always clear and not always easy.

For most of us, Mother Theresa would be included in our short list of modern day saints. She worked with the poorest of the poor. She was honored again and again for her selfless giving. And ten years ago, Time magazine shared some of her writings. In them she confessed that there were times when the silence and the emptiness was so great, that she looked for Jesus, but did not see; that listened but did not hear. And yet her sense of call was so strong and her conviction of God’s love so great, that she could carry on. And carry on she did.

We can be pretty sure that Elijah was hoping that God would provide for him some safety and security, hoping that God would let him rest from his labors and that he could cash in on his well deserved pension. But in fact, that is not how the story goes. Instead, what God said to Elijah was this: “I still have work for you to do. So get some nourishment and get some rest and go back and do what you are called to do. Go back into the new day and do what needs to be done in the world to help bring about God’s dream.”

Brent Strawn writes: “So what Elijah mostly gets is not reprimand (for running away) but marching orders. He is not commended for his zeal, nor corrected for Israel’s [apostasy?], nor confronted about his precarious circumstances. Instead, he is told to go on his way and het back to work.”

Strawn then quote Lawrence Farris, who says: “Remarkably, it is neither the experience of God’s dramatic nor quiet presence, for which many so long in the midst of such feelings, but in attending to the work at hand and needing to be done, through which life is renewed.”

Sometimes, isn’t it true that God’s still small voice is heard most clearly when we pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off and do what needs to be done? That’s not to say that we are not justified in sometimes pulling the covers over our heads or running from hard things. Even the saintliest among us has given into that temptation. But we have the model of those who we have admired, that have somehow found a way to persevere after the dark nights.

Lesbia Scott was a British writer of children’s hymns. In 1929 she published some of these hymns in a collection entitled “Everyday Hymns for Little Children.” You might know these words from “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God,” which she included in that collection:
They lived not only in ages past, there are hundreds of thousands still;
The world is bright with the joyous saints who love to do Jesus’ will.

You meet them in school, on the street, in the store,
In church, by the sea, in the house next door;
They are the saints of God, whether rich or poor,
And I mean to be one too.

How do we face those things which bring despair or loneliness or challenge? How do we awaken after the dark night? Do we hear God’s still small voice?

God listened to Elijah and then said, “Okay, be on your way. Go back to work.” Perhaps that is the road that the saint finally walks.
Amen.

Sermon for October 29, 2017

Posted by on Nov 7, 2017 in sermons | 0 comments

First Parish Congregational Church
United Church of Christ, Yarmouth Maine

Sermon by
Rev. Kent Allen
October 29, 2017

Scripture: 1 Kings 5:1-15, 8:1-13; John 2:19-21
Perhaps you remember that church song. It goes something like,

“I am the church; you are the church; we are the church together.
All who follow Jesus, all around the world.
Yes, we‘re the church together.
The church is not a building; the church is not a steeple;
The church is not a resting place;
The church is a people.”

And so perhaps you have sung those words, the church is not a building. And yet, it seems that it is almost in the DNA of those of a religious persuasion to have a place, a space set aside especially for God, a holy place.

Moses led the people through the dessert in search of the Promised Land. They took with them the ark of the covenant which held the tablets. Even as they travelled they would worship God before this relic, and longed for a day when the ark could have a permanent home. By the time Solomon came along, it became the central focus for the people, and the major task for the king. Its building however did contain some controversy that can be seen in the text of 1st Kings. There was critique about the forced labor, “the work gangs” that actually built the temple and the supervisors who didn’t always treat the workers very well. And there was the fact that it took but seven years to build the temple, whereas it took twice as long to build Solomon’s palace. A reminder that power can go to rulers heads in any age.

When one travels through Europe, one is overwhelmed by the grandeur, the beauty and the magnificence of church buildings. Beautiful artwork displayed in windows and frescos, sculpture and painting. One marvels at the size. How could such large stones be lifted so high? Steeples rising up into the air, pulpits so high that it would intimidate even the most confident preacher. Houses of God. As glad as we are that such buildings were built, we recognize that they are from a different age. And maybe from a different mindset as well. Were they built to impress God or rather to impress someone else? Was God one that needed to be appeased or delighted by impressive structures? Did one believe that God could be contained inside 4 walls? Even the youngest among us recognize that although God is present in the sanctuary, God’s presence is not limited to this space. Or to any space.

I am really glad that 150 years ago, some brave souls decided to go across the street and create this building. It was obviously built on a pretty grand scale —seating for 500, a grand example of Italianate style with wonderful woodwork and curved pews. There was a great sacrifice from those early dreamers, some of whom still have their names at the end of these pews. A house of God, a place to remind us to “pause a while and know that I am God.”

500 years ago Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church. This act became known as the spark that led to the Protestant Reformation. It caused a schism in the Catholic Church and had a great effect on Europe. Luther’s major critique was against the practice whereby preachers sold indulgences. They took money from parishoners, who then received a certificate which entitled them to a reduced punishment for their sins, and that had an effect on how much time they would spend in purgatory. Luther thought that was wrong. He was also upset that the church focused on external solutions to internal spiritual issues. He focused on faith and repentance. He was really trying to help the church by asking, What matters most? What is at the heart of the faith that Jesus calls us to?

Today is Reformation Sunday and we celebrate Martin Luther’s courage at asking questions and in seeking truth. Questions that encouraged others to really think about, What is the church called to be in the world? What message do we want to relate to those fellow travelers along the way?
Phyllis Tickle was an amazing woman who was a pioneer in helping us to understand and make sense of what has been happening to the church, Protestant and Catholic, in these last 50 years. Through her amazing research, she was able to identify that every 500 years, in the history of people of faith, the institution goes through a reformation time. And her thesis was that we are in the middle of that now.

For some, the Church, with a capital C, has been a place of pain. Abuses have occurred. For others the church has not been very welcoming. It has discriminated against those who are different, either by sexual orientation or physical ability, and sometimes socioeconomically and racially. Sometimes it has been so rigid in its beliefs that it has scared off those seeking a safe place, those who presume they will never measure up.

So this year the Council is asking the question, what does it mean to be church, in this time and in this place? In a day when a reformation is in process, who are we to be?

And believe it or not, our building plays a role. It’s hard not to see this church when one drives into town. Our steeple is pretty high, our architecture pretty unique. When people drive by, what images come to their minds? And how do they think of us as a community of faith? Welcoming? Inclusive? Open? Generous? Do they suspect that within these walls, God’s presence shines?

The building is not a place that holds God in. It’s not a place that we keep up to make God smile, but rather the building is a vehicle so that we can have a place to worship and a place that benefits the community that we serve. It is special because within these walls, prayers have been shared, children baptized, loved ones joined together and remembered. But it is also a place where people have been fed through the Food Pantry, lives have been saved as people have come to AA meetings, dreams have been dreamed as people have used this space to start new things.

John Pavlovitz, who identifies himself as a ministry veteran, published a piece on his blog this week entitled, “Why you might want to try church again.” At a gathering of a conference he was leading in Connecticut, there were several there who had given up on the church. He writes, “some had been estranged for years or even decades from their former faith community. Many came with more than a bit of trepidation.” But he goes on to describe how some experienced transformation, because they got to witness church that was different than what they had known before. He writes, “Chances are, even in a community where basic theological tenets are seemingly diametrically opposite from your personal religious convictions, there will still be people less rigid, more open and willing to learn; those committed to hearing other’s stories and serving people in need and transforming their communities and being a source of goodness in the world.”
“There are faith communities where LGBTQ men and women are fully celebrated, where women are valued as leaders, where divides of race and economics are reached across, where theological deviations are warmly welcomed, where hospitality is offered to all.”

When people drive by our church, that’s what I dream of them thinking. And if they drive by enough, I want them to maybe make some kind of connection. Maybe have their children participate in a program, or to maybe make a connection with Kate or me to dip their toe in by coming to worship some Sunday. It might even be that in this troubled world, driving by this place gives them some hope.

But the church is to be that place of light, a beacon. The building can’t do that by itself. The beacon comes from those who have chosen to make a connection here. It is not unusual for institutions to become self-focused, to concentrate on inner workings and the development of relationships within. But in this reformation time we are called to turn our focus outward. We are being reshaped. Jesus proclaimed that the temple would be destroyed but he would rebuild it in three days. The focus was not to be on the building, but to be at work in the world, doing the work of Christ. The church is not just a building. It is not just a steeple, it is not just a resting place, the church most importantly is the people.

Phyllis Tickle writes: “Christianity isn’t going to die! It just birthed out a new tributary to the river. Christianity is reconfiguring. It’s almost going through another adolescence. And it’s going to come out a better,” she says, “a more mature adult. There’s no questions about that.”

Amen

Sermon for October 15, 2017

Posted by on Oct 18, 2017 in sermons | 0 comments

First Parish Congregational Church
United Church of Christ, Yarmouth Maine

Sermon by
Rev. Kent Allen
October 15, 2017

Scripture: 1 Samuel 3:1-21; John 20:21-23

Back in the day, no self-respecting Protestant boy would even consider dating someone of the Catholic faith. At least that is what my mom told us. So, it was pretty hard for her when both my brother and I did just that. Not only were our girlfriends Catholic, but both were involved in their church. Horrors. At least on that front, we have come a long way! My girlfriend was not only active in her church but also went to confession regularly and I imagine that one of the things she confessed was that she was dating a Protestant boy. At the time I laughed about the practice of Confession, this notion that one would go into a booth, and share with the priest private things thought and spoken and done. It felt more like a belief in magic — confess, forgive, say the Lord’s Prayer and sin no more.

Now I realize the genius that this practice can be. First of all, it is a testimony to a belief in forgiveness. It is also a reminder that we are accountable, that the gift of life is not given just so we can do whatever we want. We are to love God and love neighbor and to spend our lives making the world a better place- and when we don’t, it matters. God cares. Part of our journey includes taking responsibility for what we do. I love those theologians that postulate that Adam and Eve didn’t get kicked out of the garden because they ate from the tree, but rather were expelled because [no one] took responsibility. It was either Adam’s fault or Eve’s fault or the serpent’s.

Now I realize how central confession is. It is included in the Lord’s Prayer (forgive us our debts), and is often used in other prayers during worship. The Bible reminds us of the adage that it is the truth that can set us free. But facing the truth and telling the truth is not always as easy as it may appear. We deny things right in front of us when we don’t want to believe them. And there are things that we have said or done that we don’t want anyone to ever find about- and we will go to great lengths to hide them. I can hear my grandmother say that in the end there is no such thing as a secret — the truth eventually finds its way. Some things are true, whether we admit it or not. Whether we lie to hide them, or are too scared to speak them. Sometimes we allow lies to exist out there because to expose them will cost us, or because somebody in power can hurt us.

So, we are introduced to Samuel the boy, who was in the temple. His mother, Hannah, had promised that if she could but have a son that she would give him to God as a blessing, a servant. And she did so, and that is why in the story we find Samuel lying in the temple. We get an account of God calling Samuel to be a prophet, one called to be a truth teller. When Samuel heard God’s voice, Samuel assumed it was Eli calling him, but soon discovered that it was none other than God. Eli was a priest and so were his sons. But here is where the story gets hard. Eli’s sons were not the model of priestly behavior. Not only were they stealing the sacrifices, the offerings that people brought to the temple, but they were also taking advantage of the women outside of the temple. They abused their power for personal gain. Their father Eli was well aware of their unethical behavior, but remained silent, protecting them. So, this young man Samuel was being called upon to be the whistle blower, to be the truth teller. The lies were hurting others.

And God spoke, “For I have told Eli that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them.”

So, in a time when “fake news” seems to be the topic of the day, when scandals are exposed and the fear of speaking truth to power seems ever so apparent, it seems like this Biblical story might have something to say to us. God called Samuel because when truth does not come to light, there are serious consequences. Damage is done, human beings are scarred, and untruth can create a pall over the land.

It was not lost on our bible study group that this scripture appeared in the lectionary the same week as the breaking of the Harvey Weinstein scandal. There are allegations of harassing and abusing women over many years by a powerful man who used his influence to cover up stories again and again. The truth matters. Lives have been broken. Like Eli, with his sons, there were powerful people who knew and turned a blind eye, because they were afraid that the truth might cost them something.

The prophet’s job, by and large, is to simply tell the truth. They remind us to take responsibility for our actions, and to try to right our wrongs. We are here to make the world a better place, not just for ourselves, but for one another. To fess up, because the truth, sooner or later, will be exposed. Eli’s sons did not get away with what they were doing. But they did, in the process, hurt many along the way.

There is power in the act of confession. Even more in that feeling one has of being forgiven. But God’s grace doesn’t come cheaply. Part of our daily journey is in trying to right our wrongs and health comes as we gathersupport around us to help us to act and speak as we long to do. Without such work and without the help of those around us, we can fall back into habits, or make the same mistakes multiple times. Growth requires that we tell the truth, not just to others, but to ourselves as well. The truth really can set us free. And it’s nice to be reminded that we are beloved and that in forgiveness there is great power.

If ever there was a time when the truth was important, this is the day. We desperately need prophets who, with love, can remind us of the truth about our fragile planet, the truth about racism and mysogeny and homophobia, about the hatred that exists for other religions, and for the ways in which the poor are looked upon with disdain, blaming them for their misfortune, and the lie that is told that the rich are entitled to anything they want. Prophets come to set the record straight, to remind us of what God has in mind. They dare to speak the truth to power. Jesus came to show us such a way.

Perhaps it all can begin with a word of confession, a word to God about the truth. A dedication to walk as God would have us walk with a heart open to forgive ourselves, but also to one seeking forgiveness. The prophet comes to set the baseline again, to find the common, holy ground. Not the one of our design, but one set by the one who will not let us go.

Prophet come, come among us, help us to dare to speak the truthful word.
Amen

Sermon for August 27, 2017

Posted by on Aug 30, 2017 in sermons | 0 comments

First Parish Congregational Church
United Church of Christ, Yarmouth, Maine

Sermon by
Rev. Kent Allen
August 27, 2017

Scripture: Exodus 20:14-15; Psalm 124

I think when Kate first told me that we were preaching about about the Ten Commandments this summer, it didn’t really dawn on me how challenging it could be to address them. Do not commit adultery. We are aware of the impact and the damage that adultery may cause. That being said, I’m not sure this law is simply about marital fidelity. I think its real impact and statement is about the importance of committed relationships.

It’s important for us to remember what the world was like in Moses’ time. First of all, it was not a monogamous culture. All we need do is read a few Biblical accounts of the number of wives some pretty famous Biblical male characters had.

Secondly, this law came down from the mountain in a time when women were considered a possession. Women were considered adulterous if they slept with more than one man, but for men it doesn’t seem like the rule really applied. Although there is at least one reference in the Talmud where it says men should limit the number of wives they have to four. Thank goodness cultures change. Thank goodness that the Biblical text often seems trans-cultural. Thank God that this text still speaks to us and informs our lives about what matters.

I have quoted previously what Rolf Jacobsen says about these Ten Commandments, that they were shared “not so that you can be more spiritual or have your best life now, but so your neighbor can have her best life now.”

It seems pretty clear to me, and this is definitely drawn out in the scriptures, that we are created to be in relationship with one another. The nature of our relationships are not be centered around what someone else can do for us, but rather the goal is to develop relationships where each person feels affirmed and honored and beloved. We are to enter into partnerships where this is the aim. And we know that this is not magic. It’s not easy. It’s hard work. We hear that about 50% of all marriages fail, a sign of how hard this is.
I don’t believe that this commandment is simply about someone refraining from cheating on someone else. In fact, in many relationships one of the partners feels betrayed in some other way – maybe by so much time spent at work, or using substances of some sort, or even when their partner spends inordinate hours in front of a TV or computer. Rather, the commandment serves as a reminder that we are to work hard so that the fabric of our relationships isn’t torn. It carries with it an exclamation point to the importance of commitment and of working overtime to ensure that others aren’t hurt. It brings us back to the notion of permanence, and reminds us of the importance of that. As Joan Chittister states, “it brings us back to what it means to be a family, of the spiritual meaning of the constancy of relationships.”

She continues: “You shall not commit adultery”, is the word that calls us to truly care about the people we say we love. Not to use them. Not to exploit them. Not to ignore them. Not to patronize them. Not to manipulate them for our own satisfaction. People are not toys or trophies to be collected and abandoned. The people we love are those to whom we commit our lives, entrust our futures, and share ourselves with, so that both we and they, they and we –can grow into fully loving people.”

Adultery happens. Seldom is it what really destroys the relationship because it is often just a sign that fabric is already torn in the relationship. It’s a call that things need to change, and that requires a lot of work from both partners. God’s grace is sufficient whatever the outcome might be, if we open ourselves to that gift.

Again, I want to share some of Chittisters’ words,” This is the commandment that says: When you love, love rightly. Love truly. Love without feigning it. Love when it hurts. Love with body and soul. Love so it lasts.”

When our daughter was about 7, she was friendly with a girl next door who had a wonderful collection of little dolls. Somehow our daughter Christine managed to sneak them out of the other girl’s house and hide them in a half doored closet we had under the stairway. When the girl’s mom notified us that these toys had disappeared from her house, we approached our daughter urging us to her to tell us what had happened. She was very resistant, and the truth finally came out, but it took an awful lot of prodding. We see something another has, and we might covet it, but there are times when humans make the decision to actually steal, and this next commandment addresses that.

Don’t take what doesn’t belong to you from someone else. So that seems pretty black and white. The ethic of this commandment might just reach deeper. We were created in God’s image and given the responsibility to be good stewards of all the earth, to love God and to love our neighbor. We live in a day when the gap between the rich and the poor has widened. The richer nations exploit the poorer ones, often for financial gain. There are 3 billion people in the world who make $2 a day and yet there are executives in major corporations that make millions of dollars a year from profits, often on the backs of those $2 a day workers. I’m not sure that we can really look at this commandment without considering what the cost of our privilege is. Is this commandment asking us to consider how we share? These are the questions I’ve wrestled with this week.

Do we need to put our lives in perspective, not just of those who have the same privilege, but to those who have less? If we have more than we need, how can we begin to share some of our plenty? If our task is to help others have the best life they can have, are we not obligated to share? Do we need to reexamine whether or not the notion of survival of the fittest is a faithful idea? And I thought examining the Ten Commandments was going to be easy.

Chittister writes, “Stealing in the biblical sense, is not so much a private or a personal sin as it is a social sin. To take what we do not need, to destroy what is useful to another, to deprive those in the community of their basic needs is stealing.”

I don’t happen to believe that any of these commandments are designed to make us feel guilty or ashamed or not good enough. What they are designed to do is clarify what God has in mind and to challenge us to consider how we might move toward greater faithfulness. Do not steal. Chittister writes, “Stealing is not about things. It’s about relationships. Stealing is about spiritual gluttony.”

We find ourselves saying it over and over again. It’s all about relationships. It’s about leveling the playing field and having respect for one another. But in the end, isn’t that what really matters?

Amen.

Sermon for August 20, 2017

Posted by on Aug 21, 2017 in sermons | 0 comments

First Parish Congregational Church
United Church of Christ, Yarmouth Maine

Sermon by
Rev. Kent Allen
August 20, 2017

Scripture: Exodus 20:14-15; Psalm 124

Even when I was a young parent, I knew when I was asked by a child why they couldn’t do something, that saying “because I said so” was not really a good response. Even so, I’m sure there were times when I resorted to such a tactic. When I began thinking of this commandment to honor your mother and father, I did wonder if this gave some justification to that tactic. “Respect your Dad — it’s one of the commandments in the Bible.” But Biblical scholars have a different interpretation of this word. They suggest that this was really directed at taking care of those as they age. The idea was to honor those who have lived a long life, to recognize the wisdom of their experience and knowledge, and when age prevents them from handling life alone, to participate in their care. Joan Chittister writes, “The commandments single out for special consideration those parents and elderly, the sages of our lives, who have cared for us and now need our care in return.”

Our culture has made carrying out this commandment more complex. People are spread out, and lives are certainly more apt to be overloaded than they once were. The expense of medical and support care is beyond some people’s means, and social programs such as Medicare are being evaluated and scrutinized. Culturally the elderly are sometimes viewed not for their wisdom, but rather seen as a potential or present burden. So, the commandment provokes us to think about this important issue and consider how we might participate in honoring and assisting those who have paved the way for us.

Chittister writes, “It is the requirement of this commandment that saves us from the terminal disease of immediacy. This commandment demands that we respect the past. It keeps us in touch with our roots. It is not simply a mandate to remember the past but to be aware [through?] of our own responsibility to the future. We are the sages of tomorrow.”

Honor your mother and father. Certainly, the commandment speaks to the culture, but it also speaks to us as individuals.

The events in Charlottesville have deeply affected many of us. Displays of hate for anyone else who is not like you and acts of terror meant to harm are unbearably disturbing. Words and actions that espouse beliefs that somehow one race is superior to another are just plain dangerous and actually are violent.

Do not kill.

I think of all the commandments Moses brought down from the mountain, this is perhaps the most challenging, and perhaps it is one that deserves a great deal of our attention. The Ten Commandments are a testimony to God’s desire for us to live in community. In scripture and in Jesus’ life we are reminded of the importance of love, to love even our enemy, to forgive again and again. We are to find ways to live together in peace. At the very least we are challenged to “Do no harm” – not to our family or our neighbors or the earth. This is supported by the recognition that life is precious and that all are beloved, and we are to act accordingly. As I quoted from Rolf Jacobsen’s post a couple of weeks ago, these ten words or commandments are “not so that you can be more spiritual or have your best life now, but so your neighbor can have her best life now.” Do not kill.

Although the commandment seems to only apply to actual acts of murder, I’m not sure we should limit its definition to merely physical, life ending violence. For years I worked on the Board of a Women’s Crisis Center, a center which had its focus in the early days on domestic violence. Merely because of this tag line, domestic violence, some women felt they could only come to the center if they were being physically abused. Some of us lobbied at that time to expand the vision to include any one who felt abused, anyone whose spirit was being diminished or broken.
The events of Charlottesville are ones that are spirit breaking. We cannot condone or support racial attacks. Even if they don’t result in bodily death, they still result in diminishing souls, in killing the spirit. Our faith reminds us that all are beloved, and that we shouldn’t dehumanize those involved. That certainly doesn’t mean that we can condone such outrageous behavior.

In community, we are to act in ways that do no harm, that do not diminish another, that do not kill one’s spirit or one’s life. And the reason grows out of the belief that all are precious and beloved in God’s sight.

But the commandment does create its complexities, as do Jesus’ words about what we do with enemies. Is there, in God’s eyes, such a thing as just war? Is Capital punishment an act that stands up to this biblical directive? What about abortion or assisted suicide or euthanasia? Or consider our cultural obsession with the right to own arms capable of killing many people in a matter of seconds. What makes this so complex for me is the belief that each of us is precious in God’s sight, and to live in community peacefully requires us to constantly seek ways to do no harm, to support life rather than deplete it. We will not solve in this hour the challenges that this commandment poses, but it is important for us to consider how it speaks to us. It is important for us to determine how we personally respond to these words.

These have been fragile days. The threat North Korea poses has had some once again concerned about the possibility of nuclear war. The commander of Enola Gay, as the bomb was being dropped could only exclaim, “What have we done?” We need to learn to learn the lessons of our past. We need the best negotiators, the most talented peacemakers to be at work. God’s dream for us should not end in a cloud of smoke. Violence is not the solution.

Joan Chittister writes, “When I care enough about something to want to save it rather than end it, I have come to the real meaning of creation. “The salvation of humankind,” Solzhenitsyn wrote, “lies only in making everything the concern of all.”
Do not kill. Chittister continues, “Physical death is far more kind than the smothering of the spirit that comes with rejection, distance, disinterest. Physical death only ends physical life. Spiritual wounding takes away the joy that life should bring.”

She continues, “Medicare and Social Security and food stamps and unemployment compensation are not simply “social programs.” They are the very essence of what it means to sustain life for others, to refuse to kill, to make life livable for everyone. The greatest sin against the fifth commandment, “You shall not kill,” may be indifference to what is sapping life out of the world around us.”

And then Chittister makes a very bold statement, “The life we fail to enable and sustain we condemn to death.” Jesus had an affinity for those who felt diminished by the culture and by those in power. He modeled a way for us so that all could feel their spirits soar. The task is not just for us to refrain from doing acts that damage. The challenge is for us to participate in things that enable and enhance life. There are those who have come before us and those who are our mentors and sages who show us a way of caring that brings life. May we continue to walk in ways that are life giving.

Amen