Sermons

Sermon for April 8, 2018

Posted by on Apr 19, 2018 in sermons | 0 comments

First Parish Congregational Church
United Church of Christ, Yarmouth Maine

Sermon by
Rev. Kent Allen
April 8, 2018

Scripture: John 20:19-31; Psalm 145:13-21

It had only been a week since they had had the amazing encounter with the resurrected Jesus. Certainly that must have been a highlight of their lives. We can only imagine that they were on top of the world. But then life went back to normal, at least as normal as it could now be. John gives a glimpse of them one week later. They are back in the room together, and afraid. The door is shut. They wondered about their safety and their future. They worried about what the religious authorities of their time might do to them. In their fear, it seemed almost that their faith had taken a back seat.

Like the wave at a baseball game, our faith has its share of ups and downs. Great things happen, we are moved to tears by a kind gesture, we spend time with a trusted friend, we land a job that we longed for, a son or a daughter has a great success, we are moved by beauty, or by an example of justice done before our eyes. And these moments are not limited to us just feeling good. We can get a feeling deep within with a sense of a greater presence, a sense of a divine encounter, a moving by the spirit.

But there are other times when fear can overcome us, or when disappointment or grief settles in, and despair can show its face. It can happen even right after a time when we have felt God’s presence deeply. We lock the door, we wring our hands, we worry. And perhaps we have learned how to hide this up and down phenomenon, but it is the nature of the spiritual journey. If the disciples, who actually encountered the resurrected Jesus had such times, it’s probably okay that we do also.

We don’t know why, but Thomas was not with the disciples, when Jesus appeared to them the week before. They had had this amazing experience together. Thomas was merely trying to get caught up. They had seen Jesus hands, felt his presence. So many think that Thomas has gotten a bad rap here. He will be forever remembered as “the doubter.” But perhaps he was just seeking more information, more understanding. And the great thing is that he was courageous enough to make his questions known. He wanted assurances that somehow, even though Jesus had died, that he would somehow still be present and available. He asked really for some proof, and Jesus responded that his spirit would not let them go. The power, however, really came with the encounter they had.

There are those moments, even those stretches of time, when we want proof. We want some kind of sign, that this God is real. That the spirit which Jesus promised, is really with us, within us, beside us. And at the end of the day, the mysterious presence of God really can’t be proven, but it can be experienced and in response can be lived. From the very beginning, Jesus demonstrated that it is very difficult to be on this faith journey in isolation. If Mary hadn’t returned from the tomb to find the others; if Thomas hadn’t declared to the others that he wanted proof; if they hadn’t been able to all gather in that house a week later and share their fear — then where would this story have gone? What would have happened to their faith? And the gathered body was not expected to hold all the answers or to always be solid in faith. It was to be a body where questions could be asked, where doubt could be expressed and where their faith and doubt could be shared and also heard.

I don’t think that has changed. I think it’s one of the reasons we gather here.

Thomas isn’t scolded because of his questions. Jesus is patient and kind. He met Thomas where he was. It’s amazing what can happen, when we meet others where they are, rather than where we want them to be. Jesus was the master of that ability. He was not afraid of another’s questioning or another’s doubt. He saw these as natural components of a person’s faith journey. He understood that the encounter he had with them was just as important as any answer he might provide.

It’s interesting that included in this 21st Chapter of John are some words Jesus shares about forgiveness. Some of you were probably here when Barbara Stevens gave us that great image of carrying around a backpack that is full of grudges or mistakes, that she or others have made, that she had yet to forgive. After that peace prayer someone said to me, “Oh I don’t have a backpack, I have a large suitcase that doesn’t have wheels that I drag behind me.”

So Jesus says this, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained,”

So, what might Jesus be getting at here?

One commentator had a lot to say about this and approached it in a way that was new to me. The Greek word that we translate as forgiven, is probably better translated as ‘to let go’. As Barbara talked about unloading her backpack, she was letting go of the anger or the grudge or the distance that the hurt had caused. There is a freeing involved with such letting go. When we let go, we can take a brand new step forward. The other piece of this statement by Jesus is the one that has me thinking. Jesus says, “If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Again if we look at the Greek word which has been translated as retained, another possible translation is hold fast. But I thought we were supposed to forgive, what’s up here? It seems important because at least for John, these are some of the last words of wisdom that Jesus speaks. Are we supposed to let go, or are we supposed to hold fast to wrongs done? And how is this connected to Jesus saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit?”

Craig Koestler, the commentator, suggests that what Jesus was trying to say here was that Jesus was making it clear that a dynamic exists between holding someone accountable and, by the same token, being able to let it go. If someone hurts you again and again, you are not to be a punching bag. It is okay to hold that person accountable. No need to turn a blind eye, no sense in enabling the behavior to continue. Sometimes, it’s necessary to hold fast, merely for self- protection. And yet to hold fast to the anger and the hurt, in the long run, only serves to hurt ourselves.

And where does the Holy Spirit sit with all this? Perhaps it gives the courage to hold fast, to make someone accountable and the wisdom for us to know when to let go. There is to be both accountability and release. The balance holds us together in community.

We go through those stretches when we don’t know what we believe. We have more questions than answers, more doubts than faith. Perhaps we are in the middle of something which is keeping us up at night. What we might want are answers. We might want to know why? We might ask, “Where is God?” We might just want to pull the covers over our heads. Thomas saw the others and wanted the same assurance that they had received. Assurance that somehow he could have an interaction with the one who had opened his heart. In that house, he had an encounter with Christ and he was reassured.

We gather with faith and doubt. Sometimes we come to church just to be reassured. That reassurance comes to us sometimes in hearing the word, sometimes in hearing one another’s stories, sometimes it comes when we feel like another sees us as we are, not as one wishes we should be. Could that be when the Holy Spirit is present?

More than being a doubter, Thomas really needed an encounter with Jesus. He needed a sense of the Living God. Perhaps the story of Thomas reminds us to be on the lookout for such encounters.

Amen.

Sermon for April 15, 2018

Posted by on Apr 17, 2018 in sermons | 0 comments

Ananias was in a tough place. He woke up one morning and the dream he had had seemed so real. In that dream, he was approached by God and asked (perhaps a better word is told) that he was to get up find this man Saul, place his hands on him and pray that he might regain his sight. Now we know that Ananias was a man of faith, a disciple. He was well respected by the community. And yet he still felt like he had to push back at God a little in this dream. He had heard about this Saul, the one who sought out Christians so that he could arrest them and bind them and bring them to the authorities. Saul was an enemy of the Christians, one that posed a real threat to all who followed Jesus. So Ananias basically told God what a bad idea he thought this was. But God wasn’t convinced. In essence God said, leave the judgement stuff to me. Go and pray for this man so he might be healed.

I don’t know about you, but if someone hurts somebody that I love, my first impulse is not to pray for them. I know I’m supposed to, but it never is an easy exercise. Go and pray for your enemies. Pray for the people that drive you crazy, that push your buttons, the ones that are cruel or arrogant or clueless. And Ananias is not just asked to pray for Saul, he is asked to get up close, close enough to touch, close enough to lay his hands upon Saul while he was speaking healing words. And not only does he agree to do so, but when he does, he calls Saul his brother.

We don’t know if Ananias was aware that Saul was in Damascus for the purpose of going to the synagogues to look for anyone who was a disciple of Jesus. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that Ananias could have been caught up in this very web.

When Ananias questioned God, God basically said, leave the judging to me. But that takes so much of the fun out! It’s so satisfying to judge sometimes —especially when we are hurt or afraid!

The story about the conversion of Paul (his name changed after his blind encounter) is a very significant one, both for what Paul went on to do for the early church as he helped spread the gospel, and also about what his story says to us. Do we believe that someone who has done horrible things can then turn around? Can redemption occur? Is a bad apple always destined to be a bad apple? But the story is not told just so that we can have an intellectual conversation about this possibility. It’s here so we can wrestle with it on a much more personal level. Do we believe that we can ever make right some of things that we have done, ways we have hurt others? Saul was pretty bad, at least his behavior was, and somehow he still managed to do a lot of good in the world. And what about others? Our ten most wanted. The close friend that betrayed, the politician undoing things we hold dear, the arch rival at work who seems to undermine us at every turn, the neighbor who is anything but neighborly, the relative who is the master of embarrassment. That’s what I mean by the 10 most wanted.

How might we respond, should God visit us in a dream and instruct us to go lay our hands on one of them, and pray that he or she might see? And to do so without judgement. But that is what Ananias did. And the remarkable thing is that it worked.

If we look back in the scripture to the 8th chapter the story becomes even more remarkable. It is clear that Ananias has no idea that Saul had an encounter with Christ — no idea that he was blinded as a result of that encounter. No idea that something had shaken Saul so much that he was ripe to turn his life around. He thought he was going to see the same despicable Saul. Even so Ananias held out his hands and prayed for Saul, not about him.

Is that how we come to new life? Is that how we are redeemed and transformed? Someone comes to us with compassion and understanding rather than with judgement or shame. If someone closes the door on us, we can sense it. If someone has given up on us, we don’t need them to say the words. But when someone comes and reaches out to us, our chances of turning back around are multiplied. The caveat is that Ananias was willing to go and reach out and Paul was ready to make a change. When that occurs, it’s magic. Well maybe not magic, but certainly it is sacred.

I love how the commentator from the Spill the Beans resources describes this:
“At the same time as Saul was losing both his physical sight and his murderous rage, a man named Ananias had a vision, a moment of spiritual insight, which challenged him to reconsider both his preconceptions about Saul and his understanding of the radical inclusiveness of the gospel. It is a tribute to both of them that they were willing to change their opinions and admit publically to having done so, though the transition was much harder for one than the other. For Saul, who had backed himself into a corner as well as working himself into a frenzy of hatred, God’s intervention needed to be more dramatic than for the gentler, more open Ananias, who needed only a quick word of reassurance before reaching out to his former enemy with remarkable generosity and grace.”

The hard thing to accept can be the realization that sometimes in another’s eyes we are seen as the enemy, or at least, perhaps, as a threat in some way. Perhaps another is praying that we might turn around, that we might soften, that we might be less angry or more approachable or perhaps that person just wants to sense that we feel some sadness or that we take some responsibility. It’s worth pondering. It’s worth being on the lookout when another is trying to reach out.
Or maybe we are on the other side, stewing about someone else. We might be looking for ways in which our judgement can be fueled, our list of criticisms lengthened. Ananias gives us a glimpse of what God has in mind. All are redeemable, all of us deserve second chances. Somehow the willingness of Ananias to reach out, to get in close and to pray for Saul to have sight seemed to work pretty well.

The gospel is one that proclaims a radical inclusiveness. It dreams about the time when the lion and lamb get to lie down together, when enemies can find a place of common ground, where one can both forgive and be forgiven, where mistakes are expected and forgiveness runs like an ever-flowing stream. Is it possible for someone to do horrible things like Paul did, persecuting Christians, and have a second chance? Is it possible for one to suspend judgement and receive another that has been hurtful with open arms and prayers for healing? Realistically, there are times when it is relatively easy and others when it is incredibly hard. But that is the vision before us. There will be many starts and stops along the way. There will be those who would not want us to pray for them in person, and that’s okay. But if we do pray for them privately, we might be the ones softened, we might be the ones whose burden is lifted. And who knows, maybe someday it will lift theirs also.

To pray for your enemies is a tall order. To pray for someone rather than about them. Not wanting to judge is harder still. Living with anger and resentment, that is the hardest of all. Ananias went to see his enemy Saul. He went in close enough to touch him, and prayed that he might see. O Holy One, may we see too.
Amen

Sermon for February 25

Posted by on Feb 26, 2018 in sermons | 0 comments

First Parish Congregational Church
United Church of Christ, Yarmouth Maine

Sermon by
Rev. Kent Allen
February 25, 2018

Scripture: John 13:1-17; Psalm 51:7-12

What does love look like?
When tragedy occurs in the world, the normal phenomenon is that the story stays on the news cycle for a couple of days, only to be replaced with something new. Since January 1st, there have been 18 school shootings, but somehow the one that occurred at Marjory Stoneman Douglass High School still dominates the news 11 days later. Perhaps it’s because our culture is finally saying enough. But my sense is that it has more to do with the students there and their bold resolve, and because the way the story has been told — the way the students there have told it.

Aaron Feis was the Assistant Football Coach at the school and as the shooter took aim at the students, he placed himself as a shield to protect them. Peter Wand, a student, was shot and killed as he held the door open so that his classmates could make it out safely.

What does love look like?
The students at the school watched as their friends were shot. And yet somehow they have had the courage and the wisdom to take their grief and anger, and use their feelings to make a difference. Out of their love for fellow students, their school and their generation, they are acting and trying to help move our nation toward creating common sense gun laws. Love is an action. They, of course, are also using their deep grief and anger in a constructive way, aiming to do nothing less than change our society.

What does love look like?
As Phil (or Quinn) said this morning, in the culture of Jesus’ day, people commonly washed their own feet when they arrived as a guest at someone’s home. If someone did wash a guest’s, it would have been a servant, a slave, and the research tells us that in almost every case, it would have been done by a female slave. What Jesus does in this story is unthinkable. To the disciples, Jesus was the man. He was one that they had the highest regard for, and the thought that he would wash their feet was unthinkable. That’s why we got Peter’s reaction. Jesus was taking on the role of being their servant, a position of humility, an expression of his great love for his fellow travelers. And his point was that the greatest power one possesses is when one serves another with an act of love.

It does seem counter intuitive. The world can give us the notion that power is something one seizes. The ones who can amass the most money or the ones who have the largest arsenal or the ones who can manipulate others in whatever manner necessary, hold the most power. Jesus was teaching those who can warm hearts, who can be present, who can hold another’s grief or forgive another’s mistake, those who help bring out the best in others through humble service. Those folks hold the kind of power God has in mind. And sometimes they are the people in our culture who are taken for granted, or who are paid little, or who may not even feel noticed by those around them.

Have you ever witnessed the patience of a health care worker who has a patient struggling with dementia? Have you ever witnessed a hospice worker helping another move into the next chapter of their existence, or sat with a teacher helping a student with autism? It is a moving experience and it is not so much different than Jesus washing his disciple’s feet. They allow themselves to be totally drawn to the person they are serving. And if you question the power of such an act, all one needs do is to talk to a family member about the impact of that act of love.

I find myself reflecting these days on my years of ministry. In this vocation, it is impossible not to acknowledge how hard life can be sometimes. Unexpected and difficult things happen, things that can break one’s heart. And these things happen, not just to people out there, they happen to you and me. There are losses and tragedy and disappointments. Some things we have never spoken of, some that we can’t seem to shake. But here’s the thing. Acts of love are the most effective means to healing. Now that is not to say that our lives will ever be the same again, but love can put us on our feet so we have an opportunity to experience a brand new day. Perhaps you have someone who has offered to be your companion, your servant, figuratively washing your feet with care, letting you know that they are there for you not just with their words but with their actions. And there is the love, which Barbara spoke about, which gives the blessing of forgiveness, something which can be life changing.

So as I reflect on these years of ministry, there have been hard things, but in the church there has been the opportunity to see human beings, at their very best, making a difference, being a blessing to another, offering the generous gift of love.

Not everyone is called to be a health care worker or a teacher or a hospice worker. But all of us are capable of taking the love we have and turning it into an action. Doing something for another with no ulterior motive, no sense of obligation, no expected outcome. We are capable of freely offering our service to another for love’s sake-and there is nothing we can do in this world more powerful. Jesus authority did not just come with his powerful words, or his important connections, and he certainly didn’t have pockets full of cash. His authority was certainly by God, but it was received and accepted for the way he lived his life, for the way he became a servant, for his humility that moved him to get on his knees and wash feet. His authority blossomed because of his love.

What does love look like? What does it mean for you? How might we show it to others?

Mary Oliver writes,
“How do I love you?
Oh, this way and that way.
Oh, happily. Perhaps I may elaborate by demonstration? Like this, and like this and no more words now.”

Of course we know that Jesus washed the disciples that day, not just so we would have a story about Jesus’ love and that he demonstrated what it meant to be a servant leader, to be willing to even wash another’s feet. His point was that we were to be and do that also. Barbara Brown Taylor reflects on this with these words:

“After he was gone, they would still have God’s word, but that word was going to need some new flesh. The disciples were going to need something warm and near that they could bump into on a regular basis, something so real that they would not be able to intellectualize it and so essentially untidy that there was no way they could gain control over it. So Jesus gave those things that they could get their hands on, things that would require them to get close enough to touch one another. In the case of the meal, he gave them things that they could smell and taste and swallow. In the case of the feet, he gave them things to wash that were attached to real human beings, so they could not bend over them without being drawn into one another’s lives.”

Love is an action.
The students from Parkland Florida have captured our attention. Wherever one is with regards to gun control, how can one not be drawn into the love that they are expressing, into the cause that they are passionate about? The real power always rests with love. It is the only thing that has the capacity to really heal.

Jesus washed the disciple’s feet to show us the way to be servant leaders, to allow ourselves to really be drawn into one another’s lives.

What does love look like? Are there ways we can offer this amazing gift?

Amen.

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