Sermon for March 12, 2017

Posted by on Mar 13, 2017 in sermons, Uncategorized | 0 comments

First Parish Congregational Church
United Church of Christ, Yarmouth Maine

Sermon by
Rev. Kent Allen
March 12, 2017

Scripture: Luke 13:1-9, 31-35 Psalm 122

“I promise if you just give me one more chance, I’ll do better.”
Perhaps you have thought these words or said them, or perhaps someone has said them to you. They come at times when we are in a jam, when we can tell that someone with whom we are in a relationship has had enough. The fabric has been torn, the hurt significant. You are at a crossroads.

There are two stories in the reading from Luke this morning that are both related to this same theme. They both address the matter of strained relationships and the call for genuine change. The idea of repentance is a familiar one with Jesus. John the Baptist, as he was announcing Jesus’ ministry, told his followers to repent. As Jesus encountered folks, his focus really was on the amazing love and grace of God, but he also encouraged people to make a shift, to come clean, to turn their lives around so they could live in to becoming disciples. The Common English Bible does not use the word “repent” in its translation. Rather, it reads, “No, I tell you, but unless you change your hearts and your lives, you will die just as they did.”

The season of Lent is set aside to be a time when we consider how we are doing at being disciples. We ponder what we might give up. We consider perhaps taking on something new. But at its heart, Lent is very much about our relationships — with one another, with the planet on which we live, and with our God. Are there ways we have been thoughtless or hurtful? Are there those who we have never forgiven? Have we forgiven ourselves? Are there behaviors which seem to keep getting in our way that distance us from others?

In Jesus day, the belief was that if something bad happened to you, it was because of a sin you had committed, or because of a sin that your parent had committed. Folks were questioning whether or not sin and disaster and pain were connected. Does the hurricane only fall on those who have done wrong? Is a war lost because the losers are worse people? Jesus clearly rejects this thinking and instead urges his followers to focus on their relationship to God. This would not prevent one from experiencing hardship, but it will provide one with a presence and a strength that helps one get through.

Working on our relationship to God includes this notion of repentance, of changing our hearts and our lives. And it goes beyond simply going through the motions of saying we are sorry. Repentance is one of those things that lies deep within us. It includes that sense of being able to understand what it is like to be in the other’s shoes; to understand how we have hurt the other. And once we get into that place, we can promise that we will try our best not to make the same mistake again. That we will turn from that place to a higher one.

The second story Jesus tells is about a poor fig tree. For 3 years it bore no fruit. It took up space in the garden with no positive results. It was just wasting good soil. And so the land owner came and ordered his laborer to cut it down. But the gardener pleaded with the owner; “Please, give me one more chance. I know I can help it bear fruit.” So the tree was spared.

I promise that if you give me one more chance, I’ll do better.
When we say those words, only we know how sincere we are. Only we know how willing we are to actually change our behavior. But the first step is being truly sorry. The second is to make a true commitment to making amends. There is good news in this fig tree story, for it lets us know the depth of God’s patience, and the depth of God’s love. The goal is always for reconciliation.

The writer in this week’s Spill the Beans reflection writes, “Perhaps it would be right to say that given the theme of patience around repentance, we can come to understand that repentance is not a once and for all, but an ongoing way to live, as individuals and as a community. It’s not something where you can miss the boat, but something you can always work on.”

The notion of restorative justice seems to fit so well with the teaching of Jesus. When someone does something wrong, when someone hurts us, the place we most naturally go, is to determine what the punishment should be. We want those perpetrators, either of our possessions or our hearts, to serve time, to feel pain. That old sense of “to be punished to the fullest extent of the law.” Restorative Justice takes a different path. Its emphasis is to repair the harm caused by criminal (or heartbreaking) behavior. Its focus is not on punishment, but rather on how to heal the relationship.

So, if I threw a rock through my neighbor’s window, the police might be called, and they might come to my house. They might have me arrested and ask a judge to decide the punishment. At the very least I would have to pay to have the window repaired. But with restorative justice, I would need to go to meet with the neighbor, to listen to them talk about how this affected them. I might be encouraged to say I’m sorry, and then together we would decide how to heal the harm done. Perhaps I’d fix the window myself and promise never to do it again. And the goal is that we could continue to live next to each other without the animosity that might otherwise ensue. When Jesus talked about repentance, this is what he had in mind. How do we restore broken relationships? How do we move toward the kind of community that he had in mind?

In the last part of this morning’s scripture from Luke, Jesus is lamenting. He knows that he is headed for Jerusalem, where people will turn against him and he will be killed. Jesus proclaims his hopes and his love for the people he came to serve, “How often I have desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.”

In yesterday’s “Still Speaking” devotional, John Nelson ended his reflection with the following prayer, “Mothering God, grant us grace to break our stride, to draw deeper breath, to set aside the whirlwinds of passion-even for a moment. In that still moment we shall praise you for your sheltering wing, stretching out to us today.”

How do we use this Lenten season? How can we come clean? Are there actions we can take that move beyond the words, “I’m sorry”? Are there ways that fences can be mended without a punishment levied?

The gardener pleaded with the landowner, “Please give me one more chance. I know that I can help that tree grow.” And the One who is like the mother hen with her brood said, “Yes.” A second chance.

Sermon for March 5, 2017

Posted by on Mar 8, 2017 in sermons | 0 comments

First Parish Congregational Church
United Church of Christ, Yarmouth Maine

Sermon by
Rev. Kent Allen
March 5, 2017

Scripture: Luke 10:25-42 Psalm 15

It’s probably safe to say that the story of the Good Samaritan is one of the mostly widely known stories of our tradition. Sometimes when we know something so well, its impact gets lost or its message gets watered down. Samaritans and Jews were arch enemies. Although Samaritans did share some of the tenets of Judaism, there were parts about which the two groups vehemently disagreed. They were not even close to being on speaking terms, and they looked upon each other with particular disdain. For the Jew living in Jesus’ day, little was seen about the Samaritan as good.

Lawyers were, by their very profession, cognizant of what one must do to be a good citizen. They knew about the laws that governed their society. But as this lawyer encountered Jesus on this particular day, he was much more concerned with how to be right with God. He wanted to know what he had to do to inherit eternal life. So Jesus responded with the great commandments — love God, love neighbor. But the lawyer wanted more information and so he asked, who is my neighbor? And rather than answering the lawyer directly, Jesus told him a story:

A man had been beaten and robbed and was lying on the side of the road, described as half-dead. So first the priest goes by, on the other side of the road, his eyes toward the ground. At least for the priest, there was a rule that the priest was to stay away from a corpse, so that he could remain pure ritually. The Levite was also a person who had been trained in the law, but was considered like a lower level priest and did not have the same purity requirements. So we don’t know why he failed to stop. Perhaps he had an important meeting to go to. But then Jesus throws this bombshell into the story. It was a Samaritan who stopped and saved the day. He bound the man’s wounds, he took him to an inn, he paid for his stay and offered to cover any additional expenses.

This was not where the lawyer thought the story was going. In fact, he was probably amazed that the wounded man would even accept help from a Samaritan — that’s how much hatred there was between Jews and Samaritans. The assumptions and the stereotypes they carried about one another were that strong. And then Jesus makes the lawyer tell him that it was the Samaritan that was the better neighbor. It was the Samaritan who demonstrated the path to eternal life. Fascinating.

I hope you can picture the scene. Perhaps you may have even encountered this very thing. It’s not unusual for people to pretend they don’t see, or to cross to the other side when one sees trouble ahead. Or perhaps you have been the one in need of help, and been frustrated by another’s hesitancy to get involved.

The book The Faith Club is the story of three women, each from a different faith tradition, who engage in a series of conversations over several years that look at the perceptions and misunderstandings that are often at the root of these kinds of assumptions and fear. Suzanne, a Christian, and Ranya, a Muslim, and Priscilla, a Jew, met in each others’ homes with the purpose of exploring one another’s traditions and faith journeys. Although The Faith Club was published 10 years ago, it seems particularly relevant. In a time when Jewish cemeteries are being vandalized, when there are declarations about “radicalized Muslim extremists” and when Christians are characterized as believing they hold the only key to salvation, dialogue seems particularly important.

As the Faith Club began to meet, one of the first things they had to face were the stereotypes that they held about one another. The assumptions that they made, that quite frankly, just weren’t true. At first, they were unaware of their misunderstandings. They each felt they were more enlightened than that. So some of their personal work, which was encouraged by the others, was to face and to deal with these shadows. Through their honest and often uncomfortable conversations, they worked through the challenges and in the end were able to develop and grow in their understandings of themselves and each other.

The book makes clear how challenging the relationship between Ranya,
Palestinian Muslim woman with Palestinian roots, and Priscilla, a Jewish woman
proud of her attachment to Israel. The two worked hard to understand each other’s stories, and to make corrections where appropriate. How complicated must it have been for them to navigate this part of who they are, this connection to sacred land; this land that causes the world tension and has led to violence for years. We continue to watch as world leaders debate about whether there should be two separate nations. A struggle because both sides feel it is their homeland that caries sacred significance. Certainly, a good part of the division is a result of the prejudices that are held about the other’s religion. This dynamic doesn’t just play out on the world stage, but it was right there, in the living rooms and around the kitchen tables of their homes.

The women began their journey together thinking that in the process they would learn more about each other’s faith. The unexpected consequence was that in the process, each woman found herself questioning and coming to terms with her own faith. Isn’t it true that when we are in a place of sharing our faith with another, we find that we really need to explore what we actually believe? It was interesting to read about how their faith developed through their relationships.

They not only spoke about their faith, but also shared opportunities with one another to experience their own traditions. They shared stories about their families, and lo and behold they became friends, good friends. They moved away from seeing “the other” to seeing that even with different beliefs and different experiences, they were in this together. Building relationships always makes a difference, and in this case allowed the women to see connections they had not previously realized were there.

As Suzanne, the Christian, reflected on her experience she said, “Who’s to say that God isn’t revealing himself (Godself) in many ways to many people who fit their epiphanies into their own cultural experiences? How can I judge which is right? Might they all be different paths to the same end?”
Sometimes we forget that these three faith traditions all worship the same God, each share a common foundation, and each is characterized by its focus on love. Each strives to help others have a sense of peace. Somehow that seems to have gotten lost in our cultural conversation.

So, as I read this book, I began to consider my own prejudices, my own assumptions about people of the Jewish and Muslim faiths. I wondered about ones I haven’t yet explored and how I might go deeper. This is a worthy challenge for all of us I think.

Last fall the Dalai Lama was quoted as saying this: “Buddhist terrorist, Muslim terrorist. That wording is wrong,” he said. “Any person who wants to indulge in violence is no longer a genuine Buddhist or genuine Muslim, because it is a Muslim teaching that once you are involved in bloodshed, actually you are no longer a genuine practitioner of Islam.”

Jesus told the lawyer the story of the Good Samaritan, a shocking and counter cultural tale. He was reminding the lawyer that compassion and love are at the heart of the Christian message. That our call is to practice what we preach. Curious that he used a Samaritan to teach it, an adversary, one who did not believe exactly as the traditional Jew, Jesus said that it was he that would find the path to eternal life. How does that speak to us today? Would we reach out to one we perceive as the other? Would we accept help from one we don’t consider our own?

The Faith Club provides us with an interesting model. When we pause to share, to ponder, to listen, we discover we are not as far apart as we really thought. Amen

Sermon for February 19, 2017

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

First Parish Congregational Church
United Church of Christ, Yarmouth Maine

Sermon by
Rev. Kent Allen
February 19, 2017

Scripture: Luke 7:36-50, Psalm 130:3-6

The Pharisees had been keeping Jesus on his toes. They had been watching him very carefully. They spoke up when they thought his actions weren’t in keeping with the Jewish law. It’s easy to criticize what they were doing, but in actuality, they were just doing their job. They were the ones who had studied long and hard. Their job was to help interpret the law to help others be faithful. They were given this responsibility because they were smart. But it did seem they got a little harsh with Jesus. It did seem that they were trying to “catch” him saying the wrong words or doing the wrong thing.

It seems pretty clear that Simon had a sincere desire to get to know Jesus better. Inviting someone into your home is very different than criticizing someone after a service in the temple or when one encounters another on the street. There was a curiosity here that exceeded whatever differences of opinion they might have. Simon wanted to learn more about this unique man Jesus. He seemed to understand that adage, “You can’t hate me if you don’t know who I am.”

In our household, when we invite guests, we try not to overdo the preparation. But I have to say, there is still a lot of thought that goes into getting ready. The house looks a little neater. There is thought into what people like to eat. There’s dessert — which normally doesn’t happen and makes me think that maybe we should have guests more often. There is some attention to what we might talk about, or perhaps a game we might play. My bet is that it wasn’t that much different for Simon.

So Jesus took his place at the table. And then “that woman” barged in, unannounced and uninvited. She wasn’t just any woman. She was one who everyone knew. The talk of the town in a not so positive kind of way. Poor Simon, his party was not going very well. With her, she brought an alabaster jar of ointment. And she began weeping. Mind you this is at the dinner table, crying, her tears falling on Jesus’ feet. And then with her long hair she wiped the tears away and began anointing Jesus’ feet.

Now one can imagine through all of this Simon is watching Jesus very carefully. There’s an important detail that is worthy of note. The text says, “Now when the Pharisee who had invited Jesus saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him — that she is a sinner.” He did not speak the words out loud. It could have been that he was hesitant to speak because he was afraid of Jesus’ reaction, but it would have made sense for him to speak. After all it was his party, and my bet it is there were other guests that were aghast at what was happening.
It could have been that he was simply waiting to see what Jesus would do. Or maybe he was processing all of this. Maybe he was starting to get an inkling of what Jesus’ message really was. Could it be that as he looked at that woman on the floor, that he began to see that the difference between he and the woman was not as great as he had assumed.

How many words have we spoken to ourselves that espouse our own biases, that we find ourselves checking, because it just doesn’t feel right to say them out loud? We sense a turning within, a turning toward more compassion and a desire for better understanding.

Jesus must have sensed this open door, because immediately he assumed the position of “teacher of the scriptures.” Again, the subtleties are very important Jesus said, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” Now, here is this embarrassing thing happening at the dinner table. Jesus is allowing this woman to take center stage. Simon might have said, Jesus please escort this woman out. This is going too far. But instead, Simon placed Jesus above himself and soon he called Jesus Teacher. He said, “Teacher, speak.” And what follows then is a little scolding about how this woman treated Jesus better than the host had, but more so it was a teaching about the nature of repentance and forgiveness and their connection to love.

Simon said to himself, if he were a real prophet, he would know how sinful that woman is. He would know to escort that woman out the door. But as he was watching this weeping woman, beside herself, a change began to occur. Is this dinner party only for those who are perfect? Does my house only welcome those who always get it right, or always agree with me? Have I not ever had a sleepless night fretting over a mistake I’d made or a hurt that I had caused?

I shared a meal with someone recently, an encounter that, quite frankly, I had in some ways dreaded, but also knew was important. I had carefully considered what topics to avoid, those icebergs that I assumed would lead only to disaster. And as I steeled myself, I recognized that there was the kind of judgement going on, that Simon had about “That Woman.” Except in my case it was “That man.” But somehow, I also made the decision to enter this lunch with an open and compassionate heart. And I vowed there was to be no conversation about politics or about gun control. Let me just leave it at that.

So how did it go? Well it was a great afternoon. I don’t think it was because my brother had changed, although all of us, if we allow it, soften with age. I’m curious if it was because I entered with a compassionate and forgiving heart. And the other remarkable thing that occurred was that even when we spoke about politics, we came to realize that we’re not as far apart as we assumed. There’s still a few miles between us, but we did find a way to walk on common ground. I don’t know why I’m so often surprised, but really it is all about love and forgiveness. And that’s the sweetest part about softening our judgement of those who we encounter, those for whom we come to have compassion. Simon watched this woman weeping, tears flowing down her face, by her actions begging for forgiveness, begging for another chance.

As Simon saw her humanity, he also saw his own. If she can be forgiven, than maybe I can be also. If sinners aren’t allowed in my house, if perfection is expected within these four walls, then I will find myself homeless.

Jesus was showing that it’s all about love and forgiveness. It’s all about finding a way to live into that. Love and forgiveness not just for the other, but also for us personally. Not just for those with whom we assume we share a great deal, but also for those with whom we think we share little.

“That woman” was so sorry for what she had had done, she had faith that she could be forgiven and she showed great gratitude for the love which Jesus shared.

“That woman” left the party forever changed. “Your sins are forgiven. Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”
Go in peace. Amen

Sermon for February 12, 2017

Posted by on Feb 15, 2017 in sermons | 0 comments

First Parish Congregational Church
United Church of Christ, Yarmouth Maine

Sermon by
Rev. Kate Dalton
February 12, 2017

Scripture: Luke 7:18-35, Psalm 146:5-10

This year, the deacons are reading the book Living the Life You’ve Always Wanted: Spiritual Disciplines for Ordinary People by John Ortberg. This past week we discussed chapter 4, “A Dee Dah Day” The Practice of Celebration. At the beginning of the chapter, Ortberg talks about bathing his children together when they were young. He had one out and in pajamas, one was still in the tub, and the third was dancing around the bathroom making it difficult for John to dry her off. He was getting frustrated and furiously trying to hurry along. To which the child responded – why?

He had to admit there was no particular reason why – other than he wanted to get done with the task at hand. To check off the box. To move on to the next thing. In that moment, he had clarity of mind to recognize this in himself and instead of justifying his hurrying he decided to join his child in dancing and look for the joy in the moment.

This chapter of the book – as its title suggests – is all about finding joy or maybe more accurately seeing the joy in the whatever moment we are in. For me it was full of powerful reminders – but one that struck particularly hard was this quote from Lewis Smedes, “To miss out on joy is to miss out on the reason for your existence.” What do you believe your reason for existence is? What if joy was integral to that? How would your life change?
What Ortberg emphasizes in the chapter is not necessarily new to any of us – locating joy is really a matter of perspective. We make choices about what we focus on and how we interpret things. Our perspective influences the narrative we tell ourselves as we experience things in life.

In this morning’s Gospel story, the people are trying to figure out what is going on. Their trying to make sense of their experiences through their perspective. Specifically, it seems like John the Baptist is trying to make sense of what he’s experiencing. When he sends his followers to Jesus to ask if he really is the One, John is in prison. Seemingly, it doesn’t make sense to John that Jesus could be the one and John could end up in prison. From John’s perspective, this wouldn’t happen with the One, or at least the one John is looking for. And yet Jesus recounts his actions and asserts he is the One.

Remember, Israel has been waiting for someone to come and to save them. To liberate them from oppression. Chances are they expect a war hero. Someone who will violently overthrow the government and reestablish their independent sovereignty. Jesus doesn’t do this. Jesus can’t even follow the Jewish law correctly. How can he possibly be the One. Well, of course, it’s a matter of perspective. He’s the One depending on how you understand God. Depending on what you are looking for. Depending on your perspective and interpretation.

The idea of being saved, of course, did not die with Jesus. We’ve had various points in history where people have yearned for a savior and some would say we are in a place like that right now. And what still rings true is that our perspective matters. How we approach our experiences matter. Our ability to experience joy or have a capacity for hope is integrally tied with how we understand our reason for existence.

Some believe that President Trump will be the savior we are looking for – that he has the answers to make America Great Again. Others believe that focusing on America first is short-sighted and dangerous. Our explanation as to why we line up in either or these ideological camps or even an entirely different one depend on our own personal experiences and the values that we choose that we choose to prioritize. And I am saying prioritize on purpose. We’ve talked about that here before – we might have a lot of values that we espouse, but when it comes down to it – our actions can probably only support a couple of those values explicitly – so we have to make a choice. We have to decide where to focus. What’s important. How will we determine our course of action and how will we frame our experiences once we act.

Action is an essential piece of this equation. Jesus didn’t say, I am the One just because I am. Nor did he give some long litany of theological explanations to explain his claim to John’s disciples. Instead he lists his actions. His actions point to the kind of One that he is… Whether or not he’s your One – depends on your expectation, your desires, your perspective.

Jesus reinforces this idea at the end of the scripture reading – when he mentions that there are those who are unable to accept that he is the One. Those, he says, point out where he fails to meet their expectations – he can’t be the one because he is a glutton and a drunkard, friend of tax collectors and sinners. The same people said John couldn’t be the one because he abstained from eating bread and drinking wine. These people will never see the One that Jesus is because they are looking for something else.

We must remember that our call as people of faith, as Jesus disciples is to follow the One. The challenge is to figure out what that One looks like today. Frankly I think that Ortberg and Smedes are on to something profound. What if joy is the reason for our existence? The idea being that joy should not prevent us from recognizing and dismantling the broken unjust systems that exist in our world today – but rather joy can buoy us to face even that. And in that joy – we experience God. Amen.

Sermon for February 5, 2017

Posted by on Feb 6, 2017 in sermons | 0 comments

First Parish Congregational Church
United Church of Christ, Yarmouth Maine

Sermon by
Rev. Kent Allen
February 5, 2017

Scripture: Luke 7:1-17, Psalm 119:105-107

As Jesus entered Capernaum, some Jewish elders approached Jesus and asked him if he would heal a Centurion’s slave who was close to death. The Centurion had sent these messengers to ask for this kind act. Centurions in Jesus day were persons of power. Under their command were Roman soldiers. They were known to carry vine-sticks which were the symbols of their authority. Wikipedia states, “Being held personally responsible for the training and discipline of the legionaries under their command, centurions had a well-deserved reputation for dealing out harsh punishment. The vine stick was the symbol of the centurion’s authority and the implement with which he would mete out punishment.” The centurion admits in Luke that he is a person with authority. That when he orders those in his command to do something, they obey.

But it seems that this was not the run of the mill centurion. Jewish leaders had come to know him, and they were willing to advocate on his behalf. They were willing to ask Jesus to heal his slave, vouching for the centurion as an honorable man — as one who had helped build the temple, one who had compassion. And we get this sense that he had asked the Jewish leaders for this healing- not because he was above making such a request himself, but rather because he did not feel worthy to ask such things. So when Jesus came to meet him, he sent friends saying so and wanted only for his slave to be healed.

The humility and compassion of this centurion should not be overlooked. “Evidence suggests that centurions had important social status and held powerful positions in society”. And yet, he was concerned about his slave, so moved by Jesus’ words and example, that he put that power aside, he allowed himself to show his vulnerability and humbly ask for Jesus’ help. The centurion opened his heart to witness and experience the pain of his slave. Jesus was so moved by his faith and his compassion that, “when those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.”

Back in the 90’s, I seriously considered making a career change. So, I went back to school thinking that I might pursue a career in a growing industry, continuing care communities. So I enrolled in Antioch New England Graduate School, wondering how I would be received in this secular program. The focus of the program I was in was all about servant leadership. I was amazed how much I felt at home; for the very principles which Jesus lived and taught were being integrated into a program for people who desired to lead human service agencies. Robert Greenleaf, a pioneer in the modern servant leadership movement wrote, “This is my thesis: caring for persons, the more able and the less able serving each other, is the rock upon which a good society is built. The best test, and difficult to administer, is ‘Do those served, become healthier, wiser freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?’
So, of course as I went through this program, I was constantly aware of how it meshed with my own understanding of the gospel lesson. In the gospel of Mark it is written, as Jesus is instructing his disciples (and, by the way, that would be us), “Jesus called them together and said, “ You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be servant of all. But the Son of man did not come to be served, but to serve.”

So who would have guessed that his star pupil would be a Roman centurion? And this servant leader knew that his slave, who was near the bottom rung on the social ladder, had no standing, no agency of his own- and he knew that he had to be the servant’s advocate. Jesus taught us that that is what disciples do. “For as you did it to the least of these, you did it unto me.”

One of the problems with the reading of the gospel is that it forces us to look at really difficult things. It forces us to really look and to experience both the joy and the pain of the world. So we see a Roman official humbled and compassionate who speaks up for a slave; we see goodness where we expect the opposite; where we expect the lashing of the vine stick on one who is disobedient, we see instead a worried and caring man. But the gospel also opens the door to those who are in excruciating pain. As Jesus and his disciples and others were entering Nain, a funeral procession was passing through the gates of the city. There was a coffin and a widow and a large group of mourners from the town. There is no greater grief than that which is felt by the loss of a child. And this widow had already lost her husband. Again, she was in that position, at the bottom of the social order. Without her family, sadly she was considered no one — no agency, no real identity. Jesus really saw her. He had this amazing capacity to level the playing field. Rich or poor, Jew or Gentile, powerful or powerless, he saw all the same. He taught that compassion should not be limited just to those like us, that service is not limited to those who happen to be on our particular social or socioeconomic scale. He taught that compassion is to be given even to those who are from away. He saw the woman and he went to her and said something, which those in the helping professions are discouraged from saying. He said, “Don’t cry”. It really is a ludicrous thing to say, after all she had just lost her son. But he got away with it, because he knew what was coming next, “Young man, I say to you rise.”

Jesus invites us to live lives of compassion. He had compassion for the powerful centurion and for the woman who had lost her son. He invites us to use our eyes to really see — not just so that we can keep on the path that we have determined to go, but to really see the people we encounter along the way. He invites us into relationship, but one that requires that we take a good honest look at ourselves, for when we do, we get a better sense of our connection to others, of all we have in common with the other. The centurion was aware of his humanity and didn’t even feel worthy to encounter Jesus. He came with a humble heart.

In communion we are invited in a similar way. We are invited to come in humility. We sometimes sing the hymn, “When I fall on my knees, with my face to the rising sun, O lord have mercy on me.” The Catholic liturgy for the mass goes like this, “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.” This honest look, is not meant to defeat us, but rather serves as an opening so that we can be healed. It serves as a window, so that we can really see others.

The scripture contains within it, the story of an actual physical resurrection. But it points to ones that happen all the time. Hope lost and then hope found. Overwhelming darkness that begins to have shafts of light. Those resurrections do not occur as a result of punishment or violence or oppressive authority. They come along when another notices, when another sees us as an equal, when another has compassion. The compassion required for servant leadership. Amen

Sermon for January 29, 2017

Posted by on Feb 3, 2017 in sermons | 0 comments

First Parish Congregational Church
United Church of Christ, Yarmouth Maine

Sermon by
Rev. Kent Allen
January 29, 2017

Scripture: Luke 6:1-16, Psalm 92

When we were small children, my assumption is that most of us were fairly compliant. Our parents would share with us the rules and we would obey. Now I didn’t say everyone, but by and large that is the case. However as children enter their adolescent years, they begin to question authority. They begin to ask that age old question, “Why?” And again for most of us the answer, “because I said so,” isn’t enough. Adolescents want us to give good reasons. They want to hear our rationale. They also do want to rebel a bit.

As a parent, I know that my ego got in the way when our adolescent children bucked the rules. But most of the time, I wanted them to follow the rules because I was afraid of their safety or because I wanted to guard them from the consequences they would face if they broke the rules. My guess is that hasn’t changed for parents with adolescents today.

I also know that if we place those in our lives on very short leashes, we can probably force compliance, but what we lose is access to the person’s heart. We end up with someone who follows the rules, perhaps out of fear, but with whom we lack relationship. The result of getting hardened like this, when we are rule obsessed, is that we can fall into a posture where we are actually waiting for the other to fall or to fail. Such is the complexity of being in relationship.

Now perhaps you have been in a situation when someone is trying to make you conform or making you do something the “right” way, whatever that might mean. And you earnestly make an effort, but whatever you do, it just seems like you just can’t win. And the rules to which you are trying to conform, don’t seem to make any sense. The result can be despair and hopelessness.

But I think it is important to take a closer look at ourselves. I am not proud of this, but there have been times when I have allowed myself to be in the position of being very rigid, expecting someone to comply, expecting someone to do something “my way”, times when I know that I have contributed to another feeling that they just can’t win. In fact, I have raised the bar of expectation that has made it difficult for another to succeed.

Many years ago, I struggled with a colleague, and was overly critical of too many things to list. One day, after listening to me rant, a person of great wisdom said, “Kent, what would it cost to be compassionate and kind? What would it cost you?”

Early on, the Pharisees were threatened by Jesus’ teaching. He seemed to say some things that weren’t quite in line with their instruction. After all, it was their job to interpret the law. Who did he think he was? So they began to listen and watch very carefully, hoping that they might catch him in some heresy, they might find some excuse to bring him down. This morning’s scripture from Luke was one such example. It was the Sabbath and Jesus and his disciples were traveling. They walked through a grain field and the disciples plucked some grain and ate it. The Pharisees jumped all over this. Why are you breaking the law?

One commentary by Michael Burns reflects on this passage: “Observance of the Sabbath was extremely important to the Jewish people, especially the Pharisees. Sabbath observance was one of the main markers of obeying the law and being the people of God. Those that broke the Sabbath laws had, in the mind of the Pharisees, clearly demonstrated themselves to be anything but the true people of God. The problem came that the Old Testament law was not very specific about what it meant to keep the Sabbath holy. It forbade working on the Sabbath, but didn’t give very many specific examples of what that meant.” He goes on to say that later many other rules were made that had little scriptural connection, but which nonetheless became part of the cultural norm. Somehow the Pharisees seemed to have lost sight of what the Sabbath was for.

Now it has to be said that Jesus did provoke the Pharisees after this encounter. On another Sabbath, again as the Pharisees carefully watched and listened, Jesus saw a man who didn’t have the use of one of his hands. Jesus made sure to heal him on that day. He knew that this would incite the Pharisees, but he did it anyway. And the scripture says, “But they were filled with fury and discussed what they might do to Jesus.”

What would it cost you to have some compassion and some kindness?
The Pharisees were well aware of the first two commandments, to love God, to love one’s neighbor. Yet they couldn’t seem to see how those two laws could go along with the rules about Sabbath. Their insistence on doing something, because they said so, wasn’t cutting bait anymore. Jesus wanted them to know that.

It wasn’t that Jesus was trying to do away with Sabbath. In fact it can be argued that he was making a case to make Sabbath more powerful. First of all Jesus was trying to help people make sense of the law — to relook at what its purpose was to be. It was not about following a rule, or about being isolated for a day. Where is the beauty if we are only following a rule? Where is their connection, if there is no room for grace? The Sabbath is rather about taking a deep breath so that one can be fully present — rested and recharged. When our heads are down trying to accomplish our tasks, or our head is down and transfixed on an electronic screen, we miss not only the beauty of life and the presence of God. We might also miss seeing the man with a withered hand or another person in need. The Sabbath was a gift given so we might take time to think about what matters, a gift given we might broaden our view, that we might put our life in perspective. If we don’t make time to do this on the Sabbath, then when?

Jesus provoked the Pharisees and my sense is that he probably embarrassed them. He asked, is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to destroy it? How could they answer such a thing without looking foolish?

But I think his point was this: A strict insistence on following the letter of the law might result in compliance. It might have the capacity to change someone’s behavior, but it is incapable of changing someone’s heart. It is only through compassion and kindness that we can do that. Only then can we move toward the kingdom Jesus taught. Maybe in and of themselves compassion and kindness are not enough sometimes, or so it seems. But it feels like it is a pretty good place to start.

This sermon in many ways grew out of the Peace Candle from last week. Liz Reinsborough told the story about members of the church who reached out to someone we didn’t know at Christmas time, an outsider from another land, who found herself and her family in need. So some meals were lovingly cooked and delivered. The rule could have been, “members only.” It could have been “not on Sunday.” The question could have been, “if we do it for this one than where do we stop?” But instead, within a couple of hours after an email went out, commitments were made and now there is a family who knows that here there is kindness and compassion.

The Pharisees saw things from a very legalistic perspective. After all, that was their job. They wanted people to do it right, and they bought order and discipline to the day. But Jesus then showed them to consider the dynamic of love. He didn’t want to abolish the law. Rather, he wanted them to view it in a different way, one that held the screen of kindness and compassion. What is it going to cost us to be kind and compassionate? Amen

Sermon for January 22, 2017

Posted by on Jan 25, 2017 in sermons | 0 comments

First Parish Congregational Church
United Church of Christ, Yarmouth Maine

Sermon by
Rev. Kent Allen
January 22, 2017

Scripture: Luke 5:1-11, Psalm 90:14-17

In the lobby area right behind me, there is a copper sculpture that was created by Warren Michaelson. As we were focusing on the renovation of our building, Warren was busy imagining a piece of artwork that would not only represent us as a congregation, but also would inspire us to faithfulness. Once he had the idea, Warren spent several weeks inviting us to have him trace our hands. First Parish folks young and old did so, and several weeks later Warren presented us with the sculpture. If you haven’t noticed it, I invite you to take a look today.

Warren also wrote a piece that is framed next to the sculpture and entitled it, Celebration of Hands. It reads:

“They are in constant communication with our consciousness and soul. They facilitate our planning, writing, the arts, healing, prayer, work and play. They greet you with a shake or an embrace. They touch a broken heart, repair a damaged heart, wipe a tear and restore sight. They can stop a tank in Tiananmen Square, cradle a baby for its first breath. Large, small, soft or worn, their power is endless. They are tools of hideous violence, compassion and bravery beyond comprehension. They sort through the scars of a fire and make order from chaos. They affirm the majority and change the world one by one. They point the way to someone lost or alone. They hung from the cross and give us hope. Imagine…”

The fishermen that Jesus approached that day by the Sea of Galilee must have been surprised. They had had a difficult night. There were no fish in their nets, which meant no money in their pockets. They still had to clean the nets and I’m certain they weren’t in the best of moods. But Jesus asked them nonetheless to get back in their boats and fish again- and it was in the same place where they had already tried. But they obeyed Jesus and their nets became so full that they were breaking. Here in the midst of Jesus’ call to the disciples is a miracle story, yet right from the beginning, it’s not simply something that Jesus does, it’s rather something Jesus and these fishermen do together, and, incidently, it’s an act which required that they use their hands.

Simon Peter got all emotional at the events of the day, this miracle and this man, and got on his knees and said, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man”. There are no specifics given, no specific confession made. But clearly Simon Peter was struggling with his humanity — with the realization that he was not perfect. Perhaps he wondered about his usefulness or his direction or his purpose. Perhaps, he worried whether he was worthy or reluctant to follow because of the things he might have to give up. And it’s interesting that Jesus does not offer words of forgiveness, he does not ask Simon Peter to elaborate. Rather he says, Do not be afraid. And then basically says, ‘Now let’s get to work.’

It’s common as we read scripture and as we look at these passages about call, to focus on the importance of our faith, the importance of trusting that God will be there to help us in our lives, will give us strength to do the work of love and justice. What we sometimes overlook, at least I do, is the power of the faith that God has in us. Jesus knew he was getting an imperfect bunch in these fisherman. He knew that these salty characters were a little rough around the edges and had a few skeletons in their closets, and yet he said, ‘Do not be afraid, Come on, let’s get to work.’

There has long been a debate about the relationship between faith and works. To what are we called? In the Letter of James in the Bible it says, “…faith without works is dead.” But by the same token it is faith to which we are called and which can move us to make a difference. It can drive us, even when despair and cynicism raise their ugly heads. It is faith that can drive us beyond our excuses, it can help us to get the courage to act in spite of our fears, it can propel us to do something for another, that alone they just can’t do right now.

The other night we had a meeting with Jim Gertmenian, a retired UCC minister and an occasional worshipper here. Jim is helping Preble Street to develop a Faith Advocacy network. He was encouraging our participation — something we will be sharing more about soon. But in the midst of our conversation, we began to talk about the folks in church who, in spite of limitations, in spite of the cards they have been dealt or the burden they carry, quietly go about making a difference, lending a hand or speaking against an injustice they perceive. And Jim was saying that it is amazing to be a leader in the church, because as one looks out at the congregation one is aware of the power, not only of so many individuals doing so, but also at the power of the community. We are reminded in their deeds of both the individual and of the community. Don’t be afraid. Come on. Let’s get to work.

The Psalmist seems to be on the very same page. The writer rejoices as he is reminded again of our need for God’s love and faith in the people, “Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,” the Psalmist cries. But the connection is made here as well between what we believe and what we do. And so the Psalmist prays, sings, “Let the favor of our God be upon us. And prosper for us the work of our hands. O prosper the work of our hands”.

So it has been said that the call to discipleship is a call for our hearts to be for God and our hands to be for God’s work. Our hearts to give thanks to God for the blessing of life, to acknowledge that we are beloved as we are, and that we are not alone. But with that there is also the charge to use our hands to help and heal. Hands not just for wringing but writing letters that can make a difference and for lifting up and rejoicing. To have our hands open to help heal rather than clenched to hurt; for us to use not so that we can grab, but rather so that we can give; to use them not to keep someone down, but rather to lift someone up; to use for prayer rather for pointing blame; to use as agents of welcome rather than as weapons to dismiss. Our hands are to be used for holy work, and when that work is done, it is amazing the difference we can make.

The hands that lifted those fishing nets also became hands that helped to establish what we now call Church. The disciples were afraid. They felt unworthy, they had excuses about why they couldn’t follow. There were things that they just didn’t want to give up. But they found that together they could make a difference that continues to this day.

The world needs a hand, even still. There are many who need a hand getting up. There are systems that hold people down. There are hands that grab for more than they can hold while others walk away empty handed and there are those hands that dismiss those who somehow seem different, rather than offering a hand of welcome. Heart for God, hands for work, God’s work.

Don’t be afraid. Come on. Let’s get to work. There is a lot of work to do. Let’s roll up our sleeves. All hands on deck. Amen.

Sermon for January 8, 2017

Posted by on Jan 9, 2017 in sermons | 0 comments

First Parish Congregational Church
United Church of Christ, Yarmouth Maine

Sermon by
Rev. Kate Dalton
January 8, 2017

Scripture: Luke 3:1-22, Psalm 146

Many of you have attended baptism here at First Parish. And you might recall, before the actual baptism, there are formal questions:
Do You promise, by the grace of God, to be Christ’s disciple, to follow in the way of our Savior, to resist oppression and evil, to show love and justice, and to witness to the work and word of Jesus Christ as best you are able?

Do you promise, according to the grace given you, to grow in the Christian faith and to be a faithful member of the church of Jesus Christ, celebrating Christ’s presence and furthering Christ’s mission in all the world?

Do you promise to participate in the life and mission of this family of God’s people, sharing regularly in the worship of God and enlisting in the work of this local church as it serves this community and the world?

The affair tends to be rather quiet and understated. Sometimes a child cries. But in general, the pastors and the people gathering to be baptized are cordial and polite. I have never had anyone ask me to be baptized because they heard of the wrath to come, nor have I ever heard anyone be called a viper at a baptism. Obviously, John’s baptisms are a bit different than those we practice today. And yet, I think they can be instructive to us even now.

In this morning’s story, John is baptizing people at the river. John understands baptism as an act of repentance. A symbolic act for someone to say they recognize that they have fallen short and want to turn back towards God’s ways. In this case it would be the ways set out in the Jewish law. John clearly, however, does not want baptism to be the starting point of repentance hence the brood of vipers comment. Baptism is meant to be a symbol after the fact – kind of like graduation recognizes work that you have already done – not work that you intend to do. So when people come to be baptized and their actions do not reflect their repentance, John gets angry.

The people who John chastises push back a bit and say, then what is it John that we are supposed to do. Where are we falling short. He explains in very simple terms living within the intent of the religious law. Basically saying to them, do not be tempted or corrupted by power, instead you need to be fair and just. Then you will be showing that you are turning towards God’s ways. Then you will be ready for baptism.

This answer causes people to wonder if John is the messiah – the one they have been waiting for who will save them. He is very clear – he is not the One – but the One is coming. And sure enough at the end of the scripture passage, Jesus joins the story. He has been baptized with the others – but there is something different. The heavens open, the holy spirit descends and we hear the voice of God, “You are my Son, the Beloved;[u] with you I am well pleased.”

I always find this passage odd. Jesus comes to be baptized by John. John doesn’t really want to baptize him – John doesn’t feel worthy. Jesus insists. The holy spirit comes down – Jesus is declared beloved. Commentaries offer a few different theories on why Jesus would be baptized. Remember, this baptism is to indicate that you are repenting. If you could consider Jesus to be the perfect example of following God’s ways – God incarnated – there would be no need for Jesus to repent. But he insists on the baptism anyway. Some say that his action shows his support of what John the Baptist was doing. Essentially giving his approval of John’s ministry. Others say that he was showing solidarity with the sinners. By partaking in baptism he was indicating that he was not too good to participate.

But I wonder if the point of including the story of Jesus baptism is to change our understanding of baptism. Instead of being a symbol of our repentance – that we are recognizing our shortcomings, baptism is a symbol of our beloved-ness. A beloved-ness that exists from birth simply because we are God’s children. And maybe the declaration of Jesus as a beloved is meant to help us understand the potential that each of us has. We are all beloveds. We all have the potential to live like Jesus. Will we fall short, yes? Will we need to repent, yes? But baptism focuses us and reassures us of our potential.

Baptism is one of two sacraments recognized in the United Church of Christ. St. Augustine, a 5th century theologian, described sacraments as being outward and visible signs of inward invisible grace.” Baptism is a reminder of who we are and an encouragement to live lives that reflect that identity.

Living lives in accordance with God ways was apparently not easy in Biblical times (as we hear stories of people constantly getting it wrong) and is still not easy today. The cultural values that surround us are often in direct opposition to the values that Jesus taught us about God. But we are beloved. We have the capability to live in God’s ways and we are in fact asked to do so. This can be difficult and we might get it wrong. But that is why we gather as a community of faith – because we recognize the potential of our beloved-ness and know that we need encouragement and support to continue living into our best selves in this broken world.

So to end this morning, I want you to close your eyes if you are comfortable and repeat after me. “I am God’s beloved. I am God’s beloved.” If this makes you feel uncomfortable, if you know there are changes you need to make – embrace those changes. Feel the love and support of this community. And go out into the world having repented. Having recognized your shortcomings and reorienting yourself towards God’s ways. Amen.

Sermon for December 25, 2016

Posted by on Dec 27, 2016 in sermons | 0 comments

First Parish Congregational Church
United Church of Christ, Yarmouth Maine

Sermon by
Rev. Kent Allen
December 25, 2016

Scripture: Luke 2:8-20; Psalm 123

I must confess I was a little anxious on Friday night when it was reported that churches and other houses of worship should be on alert in this holiday season, that the FBI is concerned about ISIS terrorism. My internal reaction was not just one of fear, but rather a recognition, sadly, that there are many religious communities that live with this reality every day; folks who are afraid that someone might harm them because of what those gathered believe.

This morning we gather, recognizing the darkness that exists in the world, to proclaim that there is light that is more powerful than the darkness, that love is more powerful than hate, and that in community, we can face and overcome our fears.

There were shepherds keeping their flock by night. It was dark, and there they were met by an angel who stood before them, and yes, they were afraid. These shepherds were not at the top of society’s ladder. It’s not a stretch to assume they were young. The work was difficult and the hours long. They were not landowners, but more like tenant farmers. Not movers or shakers, and yet they were chosen to be the first witnesses to Christ’s birth. What in the world was God thinking? And of course the shepherds were taken aback. Of course they were afraid.

But angels usually appear, and start out with the same old words, “Do not be afraid.” And then the angel announced this thing that had happened, this child that had been born, this one who would bring light to darkness, who would set the people free, who would turn the world upside down. And just in case they were not convinced with just one angel, we read that there then appeared a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and promising peace.

The Iona community was created in 1938 by George Macleod, a minister of the Church of Scotland. He created it to “close the gap” between the church and working people. There are members of the community living all over the world, and many go on retreat at their Abbey which is located on the Island of Iona, Scotland. It is where Suz and I will travel first when I begin my sabbatical in April. One of the gifts of the community is that it develops worship resources. Here is a Christmas prayer from several years ago:

“When the world was dark and the city was quiet, you came.
You crept in beside us.
And no one knew. Only the few who dared to believe that God might do something different.
Will you do the same this Christmas, Lord?
Will you come into the darkness of today’s world; not the friendly darkness as when sleep rescues us from tiredness, but the fearful darkness, in which people have stopped believing that war will end or that food will come or that a government will change or that the Church cares?
Will you come into the darkness and do something different to save your people from death and despair?

Will you come into the quietness of this town, not the friendly quietness as when lovers hold hands, but the fearful silence when the phone has not rung, the letter has not come, the friendly voice no longer speaks, the doctor’s face says it all?
Will you come into that darkness, and do something different, not to distract, but to embrace your people?

And will you come into the dark corners and the quiet places of our lives?
We ask this not because we are guilt ridden, or want to be, but because the fullness of our lives that we long for, depends on us being as open and vulnerable to you as you were to us when you came, wearing no more than diapers, and trusting human hands to hold their maker.

Will you come into our lives, if we open them to you and do something different?
When the world was dark and the city was quiet you came.
You crept in beside us.
Do the same this Christmas, Lord.
Do the same this Christmas.”

Throughout the gospel accounts of Jesus birth, I am aware of the humble roots of the characters — Joseph the carpenter, a peasant teenager, and her cousin Elizabeth, the strange character that was John the Baptist, (I am sure that the family talked about him around the table), some young shepherds, an innkeeper, and, oh yes, strangers, aliens from another place with other beliefs. Royalty was not there, nor were religious leaders of the day. Ordinary folks. It dawns on me that one of the messages that the story brings is one that is so easy to forget.

We are all in this together.
Sometimes our comfort and our privilege lead us to forget this. We can get this view that somehow we stand isolated from the darkness or the difficulty that life can bring, We might fall into the trap of feeling that somehow we are different or better or exempt. We might look at those different from us because of the way they look, or because of what they believe or because they are from a different place that they are not as deserving.

So the angel came to the shepherds. Who knows how many nights they had been out there. Who knows when the last time it was they changed their clothes. Come and see this child born. They listened to the angels, they left their flock, probably risking their jobs to do so, and then they looked at this child Jesus, and they went and told others what they had seen and what they had heard, that God had crept in beside them.

Could it be that this strange cast of characters were chosen to remind us that we are all in this together? We all have those dark moments. We all have days when the future scares us, when the news feels like it just gets worse and worse. And even if we try to hide our fear by overdoing or overbuying or overindulging in whatever way we do, the fear is still there. Even if (or maybe especially when!) we try to convince ourselves that we are somehow better than the other, the fear is still there. So Christmas comes, with a message that we needn’t be afraid, that God has crept in beside us. That we are in this together, to overcome the darkness with our light, to join together with our love, to make a difference with our lives.

“Do not be afraid; for see I am bringing news of great joy for all the people.” Amen.

Sermon for December 18, 2016

Posted by on Dec 21, 2016 in sermons | 0 comments

First Parish Congregational Church
United Church of Christ, Yarmouth Maine

Sermon by
Rev. Kent Allen
December 18, 2016

Scripture: Luke 1:26-45; Psalm 113

So if we take a hard look at this particular passage, it does present itself as a little shaky in its believability. First of all an angel appears, which is probably not something that we have had personal experience with. The angel has already visited Zachariah and told him that his wife, who was beyond child bearing years was to have a child, and the penalty he had for questioning this was, that even though he was a rabbi, he lost his voice. So, then the angel visits a teenage peasant woman, who happens to be a virgin, and tells her that she will give birth, not just to anyone, but to God’s son. And to make it even more challenging we read that Mary, not only accepts all this, but then sings this beautiful song. And my job as a preacher is to try to explain all this, so it makes some kind of rational, believable sense.

Angels serve in the Biblical narrative to speak for God. And usually they have a particular message. The angel Gabriel starts by saying to Mary, you have found favor with God. In other words, you are beloved, you are special, you are accepted. And angels, being angels, do so in such a way that the receiver believes it. So, if it happened to one of us, say that an angel appeared in your living room, for instance, you probably wouldn’t argue with the angel when the angel told you that you had found favor with God. But the angel’s message wouldn’t end there. Because the problem with being chosen by God, is you are about to be given an extraordinary assignment. So that is what angels do, they make you feel like you have found favor, that you are beloved and then angels inspire us, call us, nudge us to do something wonderful that just might be very difficult — something outside our comfort zone.

Now, I think Luke makes it look way too easy, at least as he describes the interaction with Mary. Consider her situation. First of all, she is a teenager, and I assume that her parents were not exactly thrilled that their daughter had somehow managed to get pregnant, and then there was her boyfriend — a difficult thing for him to hear, and of course the scandal that would ensue. Most folks probably did buy her explanation. As Matt Lainey suggests in Still Speaking, this first Christmas just might have been awash with tears. He writes, “Joseph, when he wasn’t fit-to-be-tied over his betrothed’s “situation,” certainly shed a few tears. Mary’s parents probably mourned their daughter’s out of wedlock pregnancy. If Mary shared her vision of an angel, mom and dad cried some more, concerned that Mary was more than just dreamy. Mary, no doubt, did her share of weeping. The birth of Christ, about whom the angels sang with joy, was preceded by a rainstorm of tears”. Mary’s beautiful song only came after a whole lot of tears.

I don’t know what I think about angels, the kind that have wings that visit people and love them and then commission them to do hard things. I do know, when I look at my Christmas tree, that there are lots of angel decorations that curiously I have chosen over the years. I do like what they symbolize. And I do know that there have been folks in my life that have served that angelic function, have made me feel special, and then challenged me to do something that has caused some stretching and that sometimes has brought tears. Often times, it has been people that have surprised me, not the usual suspects, not what I might expect.

Suz’s brother Peter has struggled with mental health issues his whole life. The professionals have worked with him for years balancing medications and providing support so that he can live basically independently. But it is a rocky road. Not that many years ago, he spent more days in the hospital than he did at his home. He is not able to work and lives modestly off his disability check and with some assistance from his family. He has never driven a car, never had a significant other, and seldom goes far from his home due to his anxiety. He calls just about every day — sometimes on a rant, sometimes with a funny story, sometimes to tell us how grateful he is for this or that, and perhaps most often to tell a joke or give us the weather forecast. If we don’t pick up when he calls he always leaves a message. At his apartment complex, which is very large and actually very nice, he is much like the main character in the book, A Man Called Ove. He makes sure everything is in order. He shovels or sweeps, makes sure that no one puts trash in the recycling bin. And sometimes he can be a pain in the neck. But the administration there has decided to embrace him, to settle him down when he gets riled up and to accept him the way he is. He called this week all excited. In the superintendent’s office, he found a package with his name on it from a Secret Santa. He couldn’t wait til Christmas and opened it up. It was a brand new warm jacket. He was over the moon with joy. He left me a message and Suz a message and kept calling until he got one of us. So, by the time I talked to him, there was more to the story. Peter walks everywhere, and in his travels he had encountered someone in this cold weather, that didn’t have a jacket on. So Peter went back to his apartment, took his old jacket out of the closet and of course returned to the man and offered it to him, saying, Please take this, I don’t need it anymore. Unfortunately his neighbor scolded him for his generosity, but I assured him that what he did was wonderful. He told me that he totally believes in paying it forward.

It has been said that the season of Advent is a time of waiting, but it is also a time to wonder, to be amazed and to be expectant. We can wonder about something. Like about this story and how outrageous it is, and how unbelievable it all seems, or we wonder in a different way, wonder at how much it speaks, about what it holds and the message that it brings. We can wonder at how God works in the world in unexpected ways, and is hoping for us to be on our tiptoes to look for that revealing way, to take in again God’s love, and to respond to the ways God is nudging us. And oh, by the way, it might bring us some tears. But don’t most of our joys grow out of tears? Is there any positive change that is made that doesn’t require the tears of our fear and of our toil and the tears of what we have left behind?

We wait and we wonder. We look for angels in our midst, who meet us on the road and make us feel beloved, who remind us that we are favored, we wait and wonder and might just realize that there is a message in their presence a summons in their interaction, to take on something also, that might cause us some anxiety, that might produce in us some tears, that might result in some sacrifice. It might come to us in some very unexpected ways. There was an Angel and a peasant woman and a promise. So we wait and we wonder. Matt Lainey writes this Advent prayer.

“Consider that you never know what that love will look like. Consider that you have no idea when it will show up. So pay attention. Dwell in delight. Stand on tiptoe. Be on the lookout for Jesus.”