Sermons

Sermon for February 10

Posted by on Feb 11, 2019 in homepage-slider, sermons | 0 comments

Sermon for February 10

First Parish Congregational Church
United Church of Christ, Yarmouth Maine

Sermon by
Rev. Kate Dalton

February 10, 2019

Scripture: Luke 11:5-13; Isaiah 62:6-9

       In his book entitled Prayer, Philip Yancey writes this:

…I interviewed ordinary people about prayer.  Typically the results went like this: Is prayer important to you?  Oh yes. How often do you pray? Every day. Approximately how long?  Five minutes-maybe seven. Do you find prayer satisfying?  Not really. Do you sense the presence of God when your pray? Occasionally, not often. Many of those I talked to experienced prayer more as a burden than as a pleasure.  They regarded it as important, even paramount, and felt guilty about their failure, blaming themselves.

I would dare say that most of us would name prayer as a standard practice of Christian faith.  And yet, prayer is one of those things that can be so confusing – hence Yancey’s finding that most people don’t find prayer, satisfying.  What is the purpose of prayer?

When you google the word prayer, the first definition that appears is this:

a solemn request for help or expression of thanks addressed to God or an object of worship.[1] 

Based on that definition it’s no wonder so many people don’t find prayer satisfying.  How often is it that we pray for something and it seems like it makes no difference at all.  I have a hard time with the scripture when Jesus says, “Ask and it will be given to you.”  That has not been my experience.  I have asked and it hasn’t always been given to me. 

And this notion about Ask and you shall receive can cause a huge crisis in faith.  You might wonder why haven’t my prayers been answered?  Why am I not receiving what I asked for?  Sometimes people think they aren’t praying correctly or enough.  Sometimes people think the response or lack of response to prayer reflects God’s judgement on them.

Commentator David Lose takes a different approach to the purpose of asking God for things in prayer.  He says:

Why do I think asking is so central to prayer? Because it affirms our fundamental dependence on God. God has given us many, many gifts, yet we never stray far from our original condition of ultimate dependence on God’s mercy, goodness, and provision. When we ask God for something in prayer, we acknowledge both our need and God’s goodness. [2]

I like this idea, prayer helps us remember our relationship to the world and to God.  In fact, what if we thought of prayer as conversation with God that builds relationship. 

The University of Texas Counseling and Mental Health Center offers these suggestions with regards to building healthy relationships:

Build.  Build a foundation of appreciation and respect….say “thank you”

       Explore.  Explore each other’s interests.

Establish.  Establish a pattern of apologizing.  [It’s important to say] “I’m sorry.”[3]

When you think about it, the patterns we learn for prayer follow this format. Lets start with build and establish. We build when we give thanks for God’s work and presence  We build when we recognize and name blessings and dwell on the gifts that we have been given. And we establish when we confess.  When we apologize for where we have gone wrong in our relationship with God.  Confession forces us to recognize how we have strayed from the relationship that God wants and allows us to grow and try again.

The benefits of building and establishing a relationship with God are almost tangible.  Giving thanks puts us in a better frame of mind to engage with the world and confessing allows us to grow.  Exploring our relationship with God though is where I think it becomes hard.  It often feels like there is no tangible return on the investment.  And yet, when you look at it, the Lord’s prayer is all about exploring our relationship with God.  It reminds us of God’s interests.  And when we share our petitions with God, our worries, our requests, we share with God our interests.  We build relationship.  In the same way we would build relationship with another person.  We share what’s important to us.  We don’t expect the other person to be able to fix something we’re worried about or be able to cure someone who is ill – but we share anyway.  The speaking and the listening are important.  They bind us together. 

Listen again to the words of David Lose,

The second thing I believe is that God listens to our prayer. There is nothing more important to God than being in relationship with us, and so when we speak we can count on God’s attention. When my first child was born, I was overwhelmed by how much I loved him. I couldn’t get over how strong in the very first moments of his life was my desire to love, protect, and provide for him. In those initial moments, I looked forward to a lifetime of relationship, a lifetime of listening and talking, of laughing and even crying, together. If so with us, Jesus asks, how much more so with God (11:13).2

When I teach about prayer in confirmation class, I sometimes feel at a loss.  I wish I could be more definitive about how prayer works.  Instead, all I can do is assert that prayer is a mystery.  I don’t know why it seems like some prayers are answered and others are not.  But, like David Lose, I do believe that prayer is important.  Our scripture tells us so.  My own experience tells me so.  Even if there are no guarantees when I ask God for something, I feel better having shared.  I feel better feeling connected with something larger than myself.  I am comforted by the confidence that God listens.

And so we pray the words that Jesus taught us to pray. The words that connect us with the heart of the divine.  The words that build, explore, and establish our relationship with God such that our lives will reflect that relationship. 

Our God, who art in heaven, hallowed be they name.  Thy kingdom come.  Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.  Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.  And lead us not into temptation, but deliver from evil.  For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. 

May it be so. 


[1] https://www.google.com/search?client=firefox-b-1-d&ei=MsRdXLriHoK3ggfm4ZqQCg&q=definition+of+prayer&oq=definition+of+prayer&gs_l=psy-ab.3..0l4j0i67j0l5.8920.12749..12944…0.0..3.127.2746.10j16……0….1..gws-wiz…..0..0i71j0i131.1V_ElP-TTB0

[2] https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&post=1570

[3] https://www.cmhc.utexas.edu/vav/vav_healthyrelationships.html

Sermon for February 3, 2019

Posted by on Feb 5, 2019 in sermons | 0 comments

Sermon for February 3, 2019

First Parish Congregational Church
United Church of Christ, Yarmouth Maine

Sermon by
Rev. Kate Dalton

February 3, 2019

Scripture: Luke 5:33-39; Galatians 4:8-9

       This week I started reading a book written by Charles Eisenstein entitled Climate: A New Story.  As the title suggests, it’s a book about climate change, but it’s different.  Eisenstein takes a different approach in unpacking the ecological challenges our world faces.  He criticizes the simplicity of approaching climate change as something to be solved or conquered – suggesting that the source of the problem is deeper.  He likens our destruction of the planet to addiction – citing that often if one addiction is eliminated, another manifests.  Chasing behaviors does not solve the issue, instead you must focus on the root of the behavior.

Throughout the Bible, we hear stories of people challenging the behavior of Jesus and his disciples.  This morning’s story is no exception.  The reading from the Gospel of Luke opens with the Pharisees questioning the behavior of Jesus disciples.  It seems their behavior is not “pious” enough for them.  Not only are they eating and drinking and enjoying themselves, but just before this passage we are told that their feast is being held at the house of Levi, Levi, a tax collector.  Jesus and the disciples are feasting with tax collectors and sinners – the Pharisees are not happy. 

Eisenstein posits that an us vs. them dichotomy has been promoted in environmentalism.  The idea that the natural world is something other than we are.  Eisenstein suggests that such a distinction causes us to forget that our well-being is tied to the well-being of the natural world.  He asserts that the distinction between the two is false, there is not them – only us.   Jesus seems to be suggesting the same.  There is no other – the well-being of the tax collector, the well-being of the sinner is our well-being.  As such, we are called to engage one another, not separate ourselves.

Jesus, however, doesn’t leave his teaching at that.  He uses the Pharisees opposition to challenge their practices – to suggest another way of understanding obedience to God.  We hear stories of Jesus doing this throughout the New Testament.  This is his legacy – he lives out his faith differently from the norms of the day.  In doing so, he makes those who are wed to their own ways of doing things so angry – they eventually conspire to have him killed.  They don’t ever seem to stop and consider the possibility that the root of their behavior could be based upon a flawed understanding, a flawed story.

Make no mistake, the Pharisees and Jesus all believe that they are living lives that are obedient to God.  The Pharisees believe that obedience can be set in a certain set of rules.  This does not require an internal orientation to God per se, it just requires knowledge of the rules.  Know the rules, follow the rules, be pleasing to God. 

Jesus is suggesting a different way.  In the beginning of his book, Eisenstein tells the story of a man who is lost in a maze.  He has limited time to escape that maze and as such rushes around furiously trying to find the way out.  The more he races, the more he just repeats the same path, the more tired he gets.  Out of necessity, the man stops – but while he is stopped, he realizes he can hear music.  He also realizes that there are parts of the maze he keeps passing by because he doesn’t expect them to lead to the exit.  When he begins to look for the exit again, he proceeds slowly – listening for the music.  He moves where the music leads him – even if it seems unlikely, and eventually he makes his way out of the maze.

When I read this, I couldn’t help but think it was a great image for how we are called to live out our faith.  We must listen for that which others are not hearing.  We must trust and follow even our culture tells us otherwise.

A couple of weeks ago I attended a training for clergy.  The leader of the training came from a faith background and had a master’s in business administration.  He had some great insights regarding where church communities are often missing the mark.  He knew that the marks of ministry from the days of yore are no longer helpful.  Tracking membership, worship attendance, and even giving does not necessarily capture the story of a faith community – nor should it define the story.  And yet, one of the suggestions of the training was to have a plan – what’s your plan for your congregation to live into the future you want for it. 

My relationship to strategic planning for church communities has changed over the years.  When I first started out, my guess is I would have been wholly behind the idea.  Trained as an engineer, I love planning.  I love breaking down tasks into bite sized pieces.  I love moving forward and chipping away at the steps.  But over time I have become less enamored with strategic planning for churches.  I couldn’t exactly put my waning enthusiasm into words until this week when I read this in a book entitled, The Present Future: Six Tough Questions for the Church by Reggie McNeil.  McNeill says,

Typical approaches to the future involve prediction and planning. … The better (and biblical) approach to the future involves prayer and preparation, not prediction and planning.

McNeill reminds us that the stories in the Bible tell of people who follow God’s lead.  Abraham didn’t plan to become the father of the Israelites, Moses didn’t plan the exodus, and Jesus followers didn’t plan for a messiah to be born.  Instead, all of these people had to open themselves to what God was doing in the world and prayerfully follow.

Living a life of faith is not about pressing forward to some end goal that we have set.  It’s not about executing a rote set of rules to make God happy.  Instead it’s about listening for the music and following.  We must prepare ourselves to hear the music.  We must prepare ourselves to follow where it leads.  As Eisenstein and McNeill both suggest in their books, it’s critical that we understand and clarify our values – the why behind the what. How are we trying to be in the world?  It’s actually impossible for us to know what God may want from us in the future, but if we stay rooted in the values that Jesus demonstrated to us, we have the ability to faithfully follow.  May God grant us strength and wisdom for this journey.  Amen.

Sermon for January 13, 2019

Posted by on Jan 30, 2019 in sermons | 0 comments

Sermon for January 13, 2019

First Parish Congregational Church
United Church of Christ, Yarmouth Maine

Sermon by
Rev. Kate Dalton
January 13, 2019

Scripture: John 3:22-36; Hebrews 1:1-4

In the Traditional lectionary cycles (the cycles that tell us what scripture to read on a given week) this is the week when we remember the baptism of Jesus. The schedule we are using this year doesn’t actually include the story of the baptism of Jesus, but rather tells us of friction that occurs after Jesus has been baptized and is now baptizing people on his own.

The United Church of Christ says this of baptism, “The sacrament of baptism is an outward and visible sign of the grace of God.” It’s one of just two sacraments that we recognize, the other being communion. Visible signs of invisible grace.

This week’s worship planning resource from Spill the Beans included this reflection printed on the front of you bulletin.
Grace is not a pie to be divided, then, no more.
There’s plenty left to go around, and plenty more beside.
Grace is not a shrine to be protected, kept secure.
It’s unconstrained and knows no bounds; it swims against the tide.
Grace is not a prize, that we can buy or bargain for.
It’s freely given love profound; it brings abundant life.

Freely given love profound. We are God’s beloved children – the practice of baptism and communion are here to remind us of that.

Unfortunately, I think the UCC definition of baptism leaves out a key part. When the stories come upon John baptizing people in the New Testament – it seems pretty clear that baptism is not really new. We don’t get a lot of explanation about what he is doing and people don’t seem shocked or confused by the practice. Baptism was ritual cleansing. A washing to clean yourself of sin. John’s baptism though went a step further. John was baptizing with water for repentance.

Repentance changes things. This is not just a passive ritual anymore. Repentance requires a person to take responsibility for their actions. Repentance requires a person to recognize where they have strayed. When baptism is an act of repentance it means we must have awareness. And awareness is what allows us to experience God’s grace in our lives. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think God’s grace is contingent upon our repentance, but I don’t think we can experience God’s grace without repentance.

As we talked about last week, the Gospel of John seems to be addressed to a Jewish audience (remember Jesus was a Jew). John is challenging the Jews, saying ethnic identity is not what saves you. Faith coupled with action is what saves you. This is not a passive endeavor.
There’s another aspect to this morning’s scripture that is also noteworthy. The premise of the passage is that Jesus has already been baptized and is now baptizing people and John is also baptizing people. John’s disciples are not happy about this. They come complaining to John about Jesus actions.

John’s response – this is not a competition. We each have our own role to play. John is inspiringly self-differentiated and self-assured at this point in the passage. Jesus actions don’t seem to bother John one bit.

John is projecting a spirit of abundance. John is not concerned with amassing more disciples than Jesus. John recognizes that they are acting in accordance with one another. They are both doing God’s work as they understand it. (Notice John also does not stop baptizing people just because Jesus has come on the scene.) There is no need to label one’s work as better than the others. They have different roles and God is in control.

For me, acting out of the spirit of abundance is a profound opportunity for us to witness in the world. American culture in particular seems very content to contend that abundance is dangerous. Scarcity prevails. We must protect our own. We must provide for our own. It’s perfectly fine to amass more than we need in the name of hard work and in the interest of security. And when others suffer because we are afraid, we shrug it off and say oh well. That’s their problem.

Except it’s not their problem. It’s our problem. We are failing to live into the abundance Jesus and John are modeling. We are failing to repent, to honestly look at where we fall short and take responsibility for our actions. We are failing to let the knowledge of God’s love shape who we are in the world.

One of my favorite songs is entitled “The Story of the Grandson of Jesus” by a group named Cloud Cult. Here are the lyrics:

Today’s a good day to flex the muscles of the weary
(a miracle is a miracle, even when it’s ordinary)
We will walk on the water even though it seems scary
if someone will show us the way

I shook hands with a man who honestly thinks
he’s the grandson of Jesus with a penchant for pinchies
He served us communion of cola and Twinkies
I guess everyone has their own view.

He stood on his soapbox and told us a parable
of a man with eye-glasses so small they’re unwearable
And the moral of the story is that it all looks terrible
depending on what you look through, what you look through

He said
“Do unto yourself as you do unto your neighbor
it’s not an eye for an eye, it’s a favor for a favor
and it’s okay if this world had a billion saviors
cuz there are so many things to be saved.”

Take my words with a boulder of salt
or blame it on your devil,
always the scape-goat’s fault
we all point fingers when it comes to a halt

Will somebody show us the way?
Show us the way

Aren’t we all the grandchildren of Jesus? May repentance show us the way. Amen.

Sermon for January 13, 2019

Posted by on Jan 7, 2019 in sermons | 0 comments

First Parish Congregational Church
United Church of Christ, Yarmouth Maine

First Parish Congregational Church
United Church of Christ, Yarmouth Maine

Sermon by
Rev. Kate Dalton
January 13, 2019

Scripture: John 3:22-36; Hebrews 1:1-4

In the Traditional lectionary cycles (the cycles that tell us what scripture to read on a given week) this is the week when we remember the baptism of Jesus. The schedule we are using this year doesn’t actually include the story of the baptism of Jesus, but rather tells us of friction that occurs after Jesus has been baptized and is now baptizing people on his own.

The United Church of Christ says this of baptism, “The sacrament of baptism is an outward and visible sign of the grace of God.” It’s one of just two sacraments that we recognize, the other being communion. Visible signs of invisible grace.

This week’s worship planning resource from Spill the Beans included this reflection printed on the front of you bulletin.
Grace is not a pie to be divided, then, no more.
There’s plenty left to go around, and plenty more beside.
Grace is not a shrine to be protected, kept secure.
It’s unconstrained and knows no bounds; it swims against the tide.
Grace is not a prize, that we can buy or bargain for.
It’s freely given love profound; it brings abundant life.

Freely given love profound. We are God’s beloved children – the practice of baptism and communion are here to remind us of that.

Unfortunately, I think the UCC definition of baptism leaves out a key part. When the stories come upon John baptizing people in the New Testament – it seems pretty clear that baptism is not really new. We don’t get a lot of explanation about what he is doing and people don’t seem shocked or confused by the practice. Baptism was ritual cleansing. A washing to clean yourself of sin. John’s baptism though went a step further. John was baptizing with water for repentance.

Repentance changes things. This is not just a passive ritual anymore. Repentance requires a person to take responsibility for their actions. Repentance requires a person to recognize where they have strayed. When baptism is an act of repentance it means we must have awareness. And awareness is what allows us to experience God’s grace in our lives. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think God’s grace is contingent upon our repentance, but I don’t think we can experience God’s grace without repentance.

As we talked about last week, the Gospel of John seems to be addressed to a Jewish audience (remember Jesus was a Jew). John is challenging the Jews, saying ethnic identity is not what saves you. Faith coupled with action is what saves you. This is not a passive endeavor.
There’s another aspect to this morning’s scripture that is also noteworthy. The premise of the passage is that Jesus has already been baptized and is now baptizing people and John is also baptizing people. John’s disciples are not happy about this. They come complaining to John about Jesus actions.

John’s response – this is not a competition. We each have our own role to play. John is inspiringly self-differentiated and self-assured at this point in the passage. Jesus actions don’t seem to bother John one bit.

John is projecting a spirit of abundance. John is not concerned with amassing more disciples than Jesus. John recognizes that they are acting in accordance with one another. They are both doing God’s work as they understand it. (Notice John also does not stop baptizing people just because Jesus has come on the scene.) There is no need to label one’s work as better than the others. They have different roles and God is in control.

For me, acting out of the spirit of abundance is a profound opportunity for us to witness in the world. American culture in particular seems very content to contend that abundance is dangerous. Scarcity prevails. We must protect our own. We must provide for our own. It’s perfectly fine to amass more than we need in the name of hard work and in the interest of security. And when others suffer because we are afraid, we shrug it off and say oh well. That’s their problem.

Except it’s not their problem. It’s our problem. We are failing to live into the abundance Jesus and John are modeling. We are failing to repent, to honestly look at where we fall short and take responsibility for our actions. We are failing to let the knowledge of God’s love shape who we are in the world.

One of my favorite songs is entitled “The Story of the Grandson of Jesus” by a group named Cloud Cult. Here are the lyrics:

Today’s a good day to flex the muscles of the weary
(a miracle is a miracle, even when it’s ordinary)
We will walk on the water even though it seems scary
if someone will show us the way

I shook hands with a man who honestly thinks
he’s the grandson of Jesus with a penchant for pinchies
He served us communion of cola and Twinkies
I guess everyone has their own view.

He stood on his soapbox and told us a parable
of a man with eye-glasses so small they’re unwearable
And the moral of the story is that it all looks terrible
depending on what you look through, what you look through

He said
“Do unto yourself as you do unto your neighbor
it’s not an eye for an eye, it’s a favor for a favor
and it’s okay if this world had a billion saviors
cuz there are so many things to be saved.”

Take my words with a boulder of salt
or blame it on your devil,
always the scape-goat’s fault
we all point fingers

Take my words with a boulder of salt
or blame it on your devil,
always the scape-goat’s fault
we all point fingers when it comes to a halt

Will somebody show us the way? Show us the way

Aren’t we all the grandchildren of Jesus? May repentance show us the way. Amen.


Sermon for December 16

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

First Parish Congregational Church
United Church of Christ, Yarmouth Maine

Sermon by
Rev. Kate Dalton
December 16, 2018

Scripture: Luke 1:26-42, Matthew 1:18-23

I have a problem with this birth narrative – it puts forward an explanation of God that I don’t subscribe to.  If you listen carefully – you’ll notice that the passage makes a point of explaining that Zechariah and Elizabeth are righteous before God.  Luke 1:6, “Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord.”  And yet they have been unable to conceive.  There is an underlying notion that perhaps God is angry at them – otherwise, why wouldn’t they have had a child.

As the story goes on – I like it even less. John’s conception is seen as a gift from God, an answer to their prayers. Almost as if God was testing them to see if they could remain faithful and finally gives them a reward. In Luke 1:25 Elizabeth says, 25 “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.” John’s conception is seen as an answer to their prayers – provided because of their faithfulness.

I have no doubt that John’s conception is an answer to their prayers – but I don’t believe that God’s work in the world is transactional like this. If you just have enough faith – your prayers will be answered. While there are many times when I wish this were the case – too often prayers such as those for conceiving a child are unfulfilled. I believe that God is love. And as such, I don’t believe that God would allow us to suffer if prayer worked this way.

That being said, I think scripture always has some kind of truth for us to explore and this passage is not an exception. This morning scripture contains some repetitive themes from stories throughout the Bible. First, let’s look at Zechariah’s reaction to encountering the angel. Luke 1:11-15
11 Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. 13 But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. 14 You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord.

Like so many others in the Bible, when Zechariah encounters God’s angel he is afraid. I always wonder why the biblical characters are afraid when they encounter the divine. Is it because it’s rather unexpected? Are they worried about being punished? Is the power projected in that encounter just so overwhelming they can’t handle it? It seems like if anyone should be able to handle such an encounter it would be Zechariah – after all, he is blameless before God. And yet he is afraid.
While I don’t believe that God is scary and that we should fear encountering God, I do wonder if one of the truths this might be reminding us of is that following God can sometimes be scary. Sometimes following God requires us to do things that are counter-cultural. Sometimes following God comes with disapproval from those around us. Perhaps that is the fear that Zechariah is experiencing. Perhaps there is a sense that he will be asked to do something scary.

And he is – he is asked to name the child John. This is not the convention of the time. The convention of the time is to name the child after the father.
Being overwhelmed by the entire situation, Zechariah is having a hard time believing what he is hearing. He questions Gabriel – as anyone in his position might do and we learn the he is “punished”. He is struck dumb and is unable to talk until he asserts John’s name at the baby’s circumcision. I have a hard time with that idea as well – that he is punished. People questioning God is a regular occurrence in the Old Testament – not all of them are punished. I wonder if Zechariah’s inability to talk might serve another purpose. Perhaps the pressure would be too much if he discussed the baby’s name before it was time. Perhaps the silence strengthened him the angel’s instructions.
Finally, we get to the part of the story where John is named. The community is taken aback when Elizabeth announces that his name will be John. When Zechariah is consulted, he agrees (and consequently, now that he has successfully followed the angel’s instructions, he is able to speak again.)

The reaction of the crowd says a lot. Luke 1:66 “All who heard them pondered them and said, “What then will this child become?” For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.”

What then will this child become? A simple name change, and it seems that the people who have gathered suddenly have a different sense of possibility for John. His life is no longer ordinary – the people suspect extraordinary things will happen because his parents have the courage to depart from convention, to depart from what’s expected and to give him a “new” name.

This week we focus on Joy. In a recent episode of God Friended Me one of the characters remarked that every time he sees someone smile – he sees God. God is joy. And God’s joy can propel us through our fears. It is impossible to live a life without fear. Not even the Bible greats could escape it. They even feared God – the very source of joy. And yet, joy strengthens us to move forward. Joy can give us the courage to take a risk – to follow God’s leading even when it is overwhelming because joy does not require anything we don’t already have. Joy simply requires recognizing the presence of God around us such that we can’t help but smile. I imagine silent Zechariah smiling as he awaited the birth of John, experiencing the joy that gave him the courage to boldly name his child and follow God.

Sermon for December 9

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

First Parish Congregational Church
United Church of Christ, Yarmouth Maine

Sermon by
Rev. Kate Dalton
December 9, 2018

Scripture: Judges 13:2-14, 24; Numbers 6:2-5

I wonder what it’s like to be designated as a savior before you are born. The pressure – not only on you but also on your parents, on your community. And to what end does the designation make it so? Do you have to be designated ahead of time in order to be a savior? Do pre-designated saviors always go on to save? To fulfill their “destiny”?

When we think of saviors, Jesus is typically who comes to mind – but the Bible is full of stories of people whom God uses to deliver Israel from oppression.

Last week we read to story of the birth of Moses. Unlike, Samson and Jesus, Moses does not seem to have been tapped before birth. But given the circumstances into which he was born, his life is miraculous. Not only does he survive – but he goes on to eventually free the Hebrews and lead them faithfully into lives of new possibilities.

Samson’s mother on the other hand – is clued in to the special nature of her son. Even if you’ve never heard of her before, her story should seem familiar. She has been unable to have children when an angel visits her and tells her that not only will she have a child, but her child will save her people from oppression. She seems to grasp the weight of the situation – but when she shares the news with her husband, he’s not so sure. He wants to hear from the angel himself and takes quite a bit more convincing before he is on board.

What’s great about these narratives is that they allow a way for either inclination. If you are inclined to get on board quickly and follow as you feel led by the spirit, you might identify with Samson’s mother. If you are more skeptical and need more to follow, you might identify with Samson’s father. God works with both – even if Samson’s father might be a bit frustrating – God wants him on board. And so God obliges his request.

For me, this suggests the importance of being surrounded with the idea of possibility. If God had not taken the time to convince Samson’s father – how would Samson’s life have been different? Would he have grown up to be the savior that God tapped him to be? Or would he have never overcome his fallibilities. Because, of course, Samson didn’t get it all right. You might remember that he’s famous for letting Delilah cut his hair – which violates the rules set out for him at birth. And yet in the end, God seems to restore his strength one more time so that he is able to topple the Philistines.

This story is a good reminder of the importance of how our understanding of our own lives shapes how we live our lives. What would happen if we taught every child that they could save oppressed people? This week two things from the commentary Spill the Beans caught my attention. First, they point out that the stories in the Bible feature a repetitive setup – God’s people are oppressed and a child brings the possibility of salvation. Second, the mothers participate in annunciation: the breaking through of the divine presence in order to announce the coming of change.

On the second Sunday of Advent, we focus on peace. In today’s world, peace can seem elusive. Violence dominates the news cycle. And now that news is available to most of us at any time in almost any place, it can be hard to imagine a different reality. And yet, that’s exactly what God asks us to do. We are asked to imagine and to believe that we can nurture a world that topples oppression. We are asked to imagine and believe that peace is possible.

And we must remember that peace is possible right now. Not the peace that sees the end of all war and violence between people, but the peace that unites us with God. The peace that fuels purpose. The peace that passes all understanding and allows us to accomplish feats of great strength like Samson.

I’ve led many mission trips with this church to a wide variety of places and it never ceases to amaze me the impact they have on participants. So often people return from the experience and are impressed by the happiness they observe in the communities with which we work. These are people who live in some unbelievably difficult conditions with very little. And yet, they often seem to have a connection with something that enables them to power through rather than wilt. They have a peace about them.

We can participate in that peace. That peace is God’s presence breaking through – bringing strength and courage even in the face of horrible oppression. That peace comes from how we understand our lives. How we understand our relationship with God. How we understand potential and possibility.

Give thanks that in these turbulent times, Advent is our annual reminder to reconnect with peace. To reconnect with hope and love and joy. To remember the extraordinary promises of God and our ability to participate in God’s story. May God bless as we continue to journey – connecting with peace that empowers us to work for deliverance. Amen.

Sermon for November 25

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

First Parish Congregational Church
United Church of Christ, Yarmouth Maine

Sermon by
Rev. Kate Dalton
November 25, 2018

Scripture: Numbers 17:1-13; 21:1-14 John 3:10-14

Poisonous Snakes that are biting us today? What do you think is happening in the world because we are disregarding the sacredness of God’s creation and the forgetting that our call is to serve God not ourselves.

The people brought the judgment upon themselves. What if we think of their suffering as a direct result of their disobedience instead of an intervention by God?

The cure to the snakes represents obedience to God. If people are willing to turn back towards God they can be saved. The John passage refers back to this with regards to Jesus crucifixion. People must turn towards Jesus to be saved.

What does Jesus crucifixion save us from? Perhaps fear. Fear leads us to protect ourselves without regards to the greater good. Jesus showed a different way. Jesus did not let fear dictate his actions.

Fear, of course, is our natural instinct. I’ll let you figure out how that fits if we believe we are created by God. I suppose some might argue that fear comes into play as a result of the fall, as a result of turning away from God. Jesus reminds us of a different way – but it is no longer a natural way for us.

We recently had a meeting to talk about safety planning for First Parish and we were joined by a Yarmouth Police officer. He explained to us that you never know how someone will react in an emergency. People seem to be pre-wired at birth as to whether their response will be to flee, freeze, or fight. But public safety officials receive training to overcome that wiring so that they can do their job. They have to learn how to overcome their instincts so that they can calmly respond in an emergency.

This morning’s readings remind us that we too have to learn to overcome our instincts. We have to resist turning inward. We have to resist focusing only on our own self-preservation. Jesus models for us what it means to follow God. And so, if we look up at Jesus on the cross, we can reconnect to God. When we understand what the cross means. Jesus so embodied God’s ways, that he did not flee or fight back when the authorities came for him.

If you think about it, it’s scary that the cross is a symbol of what it means to follow God. None of us wants to be a martyr. And yet, we must also remember the flip side of what comes when we follow God. There is a freedom and a fullness to life that does not exist when we turn away. We miss out on all there is to experience – much like the Israelites. Instead of focusing on what was possible they focused on what was missing. They grumbled at Moses. They grumbled at God. And the commentaries say they brought judgment upon themselves. Perhaps it’s not God causing them to suffer, but they are actually causing themselves to suffer by turning away from God.

Of course, snakes suddenly appearing and killing them seems a bit extreme. How could they cause that themselves? And the antidote is even odder. It harkens to superstitions of the time. But what if we think of the snakes metaphorically? And what if what saves the people is not the actual serpent on the staff, but the fact that they were willing to look at it. That they were willing to turn back towards God?

That made me wonder, what are the snakes that appear in our world today? What is killing us because we fail to look towards God?

Sermon for November 11, 2018

Posted by on Nov 14, 2018 in sermons | 0 comments

First Parish Congregational Church
United Church of Christ, Yarmouth Maine

Sermon by
Rev. Kate Dalton
November 11, 2018

Scripture: Numbers 1:1-16, 44-54; John 15:9-7

In this morning’s reading from Numbers, a census is being taken to determine how many men are available for military service as the Israelites prepare to make their way to the Promised Land. God has promised them that they will be able to conquer the land of Canaan – but they would need an army to do so. And so, every tribe of Israel is counted with the exception of one, the Levites. The Levites are given a special assignment. Their job is to protect the tabernacle. The tabernacle is the tent where God dwells and the Levites are responsible for moving it and caring for it as the Israelites travel through the desert.

As I thought about this reading, I couldn’t help but think about the world we live in today. It feels like we are surrounded by conflict and that much of the world is geared up to fight (be it literally or figuratively) on behalf of its own interests. I wonder about the role of the Christian Church in this world. Could it be somewhat like that of the Levites – to faithfully serve the tabernacle? Of course, Christianity has evolved from the time of the Levites – there is no belief that God physically dwells in any one place. But the essence of the Levites role was to care for the people’s relationship to God. In a world enveloped in conflict, I wonder if that’s the role of the Christian Church today – to care for the people’s relationship to God.

You might say, well of course, the Church is a place that encourages faith and nurtures people’s relationships with God – and you would be correct. But I’m wondering how the world might be different if Christians focused on bringing the importance of our relationship to God to the world. If we understood the Church not just as a place that develops our personal faith – but as a place that obligates us to be the keepers of God in the world, like the Levites.

So, what does it mean to be the keepers of God in the world? The New Testament reading gives us a clue. The NRSV says this
15:2 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 17 I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

The NIV translates John 15:17 even more clearly, Jesus says: 17 This is my command: Love each other.

These verses contain some important hints about how to be the Christian Church in the world today. First, we are reminded that the Bible is full of commands. The word commands often has a negative connotation. But it’s important to remember that the commands recorded in the Bible serve the specific purpose of teaching us how to live in the ways of God of Israel. We’ve talked about this before – there are many gods in Biblical times and so the scriptures are focused on teaching people how to follow the God of Israel specifically.

These verses offer a concise summary of the point of the commands in the Bible. The commands teach us to love one another. Loving one another is how we love God. And the utmost expression of love is to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

Laying down one’s life for one’s friends. This statement stands out to me as I look at election returns. It seems like all across the country there is deep division. So many races were determined by just a few percentage points – indicating a deep split. A split that has unfortunately manifested in acts of hate and violence across our country as we try to figure out if there’s a way to bridge divides.

The world needs the witness of the Christian Church. Love each other. In one of the commentaries, the Rev. Dr. John Fairless reminds us, Laying down one’s life doesn’t have to mean that you are going to die for someone but rather could mean setting aside your own priorities to act in the best interest of someone else.
In another commentary, Bruce Epperly suggests that laying one’s life down for another can be enacted as the willingness to go beyond self-interest. Epperly says that when we expand beyond our own self-interest we open ourselves to the larger selfhood of Christ. He notes that: this is the foundation of peace, according to the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, in which our self-concern is identified with the well-being of larger and larger circles of reality. Delivered from the prison of the small self, we encounter and bring forth the divine in every situation.

And so, I wonder, how can we deliver the world from the prison of the small self. How can be the keepers of God in the world today?

Last Sunday, the deacons sponsored a service of Thanksgiving, Gratitude and Centering. During the service, people were invited to write down their vision for the world.

Here are a few of the responses:
• My vision for tomorrow is true justice, true compassion, true understanding – a place where my son only has to think about what good he can do in the world – where love truly is the answer.
• That we may seek to practice compassion – slow down and understand each other…

• A time when differences are celebrated – hate disappears, and all are recognized as beloved children of God.

• A world where God’s love and grace are played out in loving one another, in loving God and in world peace.

• Vision: People begin to act (win or lose) with kindness and empathy for those who are different thinking, looking, oriented, geographically, …

Our world is yearning for healing and for love. We have been entrusted with the Tabernacle. We are the keepers of God’s ways. May we lay down our lives for others and show the world the way of love. Amen.

Sermon for September 9, 2018

Posted by on Sep 11, 2018 in sermons, Uncategorized | 0 comments

First Parish Congregational Church
United Church of Christ, Yarmouth Maine

Sermon by
Rev. Kent Allen
September 9, 2018

Scripture: Genesis 3:1-24, Ezekiel 28:13-18

For the next few months, the scripture readings that we will focus on in worship are ones that both the Narrative Lectionary and the Common Lectionary avoid. It is common practice for many if not most Catholic and Protestant Churches to follow one of these, which means that passages omitted are seldom shared in those churches. It is curious to me that this morning’s passage from Genesis is one of those omitted particularly since this story and the theology that follows it are pretty important in much of orthodox Christianity. This adventure that Adam and Eve have in the garden is often referred to as humanity’s “Fall” which is due to their apparent “sin.” One of the interesting facts about the story is that neither the word fall nor the word sin ever appear in this passage. The story goes like this. God says to Adam, “Don’t eat the fruit or you will die.” The serpent encourages Eve to eat and she does, then Eve offers it to Adam and the rest is history. But notice, God does not carry out God’s threat. Fortunately, Adam and Eve live to tell about it. The garden is the perfect place, idyllic as it can be, that is until Adam and Eve dare to question, dare to be curious, dare to do something that will make them self-conscious. The passage brings up for me more questions than answers and perhaps that is why it is excluded from the normal lectionaries.

I found myself turning back a few pages in the book of Genesis, to the Creation story found in Genesis 1, a description of God’s Creation on the 6th day. “Then God said, Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness. So, God created humankind in God’s image, male and female God created them. God blessed them. And God saw everything that God had made, and indeed it was very good.”
From the beginning we are told that we are made in God’s image and that as God looked upon us and I would dare still does look upon us and declares this is very good.

A couple of weeks ago, I talked a little bit about dependence and independence. That little children are dependent upon us for just about everything. Our job as parents and grandparents and uncles and aunts and teachers is to boldly love them and try to keep them safe and out of harm’s way. Oh how we wish we could protect them from the hard things of life. We want them to be innocent for as long as possible. But life happens, a pet dies, a best friend finds someone else, a disappointment arises, or a parent has a different idea than the child does about a behavior, and there is a subsequent consequence. It is complicated as children age and as they begin to declare independence. And most parents react. They want their child to be safe. They want their child to be obedient. They want their child to avoid the pain of failure. We all deal with this in a different way. Some become helicopter parents, some make stricter rules, most spend some time pulling their hair out. When such chaos enters our orbit, we long to be in Camelot. We wish we could go back to the garden where things were simple and peaceful. Perhaps you remember Joni Mitchell singing in the 60’s, “And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.”

This poem by Harold Stern, entitled Saying Good-by speaks
I wanted to know what it was like before we
had voices and before we had bare fingers and before we
had minds to move us through our actions
and tears to help us with our feelings,
as I drove my daughter through the snow to meet her friend
and filled her car with suitcases and hugged her,
as an animal would, pressing my forehead against her,
walking in circles, moaning, touching her cheek,
and turned my head after them as an animal would,
watching helplessly as they drove over the ruts, her smiling faceand her small hand just visible
over the giant pillows and coat hangers
as they made their turn into the empty highway.

This is a place where I connect with this passage. I see a God who so wants to protect, who so wants us to obey, and like any good parent even goes to the place of threatening punishment, but to no avail. The forbidden fruit is eaten.

We are told we are made in the image of God, made according to God’s likeness. We dream about simplicity, about a place where there is no pain, a place where children will obey us. But that is not the nature of human life. And I think in some ways this passage is a snapshot of that truth. There is good and evil, there is joy and suffering, there is life and death.

What would it be like to be in a relationship, when your most fundamental task would be to obey another? To be enslaved, never having a choice, if something was asked that made you feel uncomfortable? Where would the sense of adventure be, where would one discover one’s own gifts, one’s own joy? In fact, I think a real healthy relationship cannot occur when this is the dynamic. And yet especially in raising children, there have to be some boundaries, some rules, for safety’s sake, so that one can grow into a more mature being.

The writers of Spill the Beans share these words: “Once Adam and Eve have eaten they recognize the dualism of existence between life and death and good and evil which they did not know before. This is maturity. God said that by eating the fruit they would surely die, and that is exactly what happens in terms of the innocent perfection and dependence of childhood: it comes to an end. When you begin questioning the “perfection” of the world, in effect eating the forbidden fruit, then the world is discovered not to be so simple. Paradise has been lost. The rest of the Bible is about the maturing relationship that then develops.”

God did not live up to his promise, if indeed it was a literal one to kill them, and it seems pretty clear that he forgave them, sending them out into the world. He still looked and saw that it was indeed very good. And isn’t that how we also look at our children? They disobey us, we threaten to take their phones away for a zillion years, we stay up and talk, we tell them that the reason we are so scared is because we want them to be okay and we find ourselves watching them, when they don’t suspect it, and are filled again with such love. We find a way somehow for forgiveness also, because you see we are made in the image of God.

Somehow as I look at the passage from this perspective I don’t see the “Fall” or do I see horrible sin. I witness a relationship doing its dance to health and maturity. But there is one other piece of this story which we can’t ignore. It’s part that some say is the real reason God was so mad.

So we are in the part of the story where God asks, Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat? Notice the responses. Adam immediately blames Eve: She gave me the fruit. And then Eve blames the serpent, He tricked me, and I ate. What does God require? Somehow, I don’t think it is perfection. We will make mistakes, but maturity only starts to come to us when we take responsibility for those mistakes, when we acknowledge the pain that it causes another. When we do take responsibility for our actions and our mistakes, the probability that we will have deep and enriching relationships increases substantially.

Is this a story about disobeying God, and a resulting breach between God and us, or is it a story about coming into maturity, about acknowledging that paradise might be lost, and pain might come and failure is a possibility, but out of that the treasures and beauty of life become real. Are we not buoyed by the knowledge that we are made in God’s image, and that God sees us as very good and that even when we eat forbidden fruit we are sent back into the world?

At the end of the 6th day, God looked and behold- he declaled that what he had made was very good. Could it be that Jesus came to remind us of that truth- to remind us of God’s unconditional love?

Amen

Sermon for August 19, 2018

Posted by on Aug 21, 2018 in sermons | 0 comments

First Parish Congregational Church
United Church of Christ, Yarmouth Maine

Sermon by
Rev. Kent Allen
August 19, 2018

Scripture: Luke 2:41-52, Jeremiah 1:4-9

“Don’t you go putting words in my mouth!” Perhaps you have found yourself saying those words when someone assumed they knew what you meant. We like to have our independent thoughts. We don’t always appreciate when someone dares to speak without our permission.

Jeremiah, the prophet, seemed to have a different perspective. He had been summoned by God to be a prophet. He was merely a boy and he resisted God, declaring, “Ah, Lord God! I do not know how to speak for I am only a boy.” Somehow, it seems though that God won the argument, because only two verses later we read, “The Lord said to me, ‘Now I have put my words in your mouth. See today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”

So out of the text we receive testimony that God actually uses human beings to speak on God’s behalf. What do we think about that? Is that something that only occurred back in Biblical times? And how would we know, if it still occurred, whether it was God’s word or simply words created out of one’s imagination?

Certainly there have been folks who have done horrible things and then have declared that God told them to do so.

In 2004, our denomination, the United Church of Christ, began a campaign entitled, God is Still Speaking. It was begun with the belief that God still has a lot more to say. Its focus has been about extravagant welcome and its vision included the following components:
Where God is all loving and inclusive.
Where the Church of Jesus Christ welcomes and accepts everyone as they are.
Where your mind is nourished as much as your soul.
Where Jesus the healer meets Jesus the revolutionary.
Where together we grow a just and peaceful world.

So if we believe that God is still speaking in the world, what does that mean? How do we know whether or not it is just one’s imagination? Could it be that when we speak with compassion, or when we are advocating for inclusion or when we are standing up for the least of these, that God is putting words in our mouths? Could it be that that is the way that God is still speaking?

In the reading from Luke, we have the only gospel account of Jesus as a young child. Jesus is 12 years old and travels to Jerusalem for their annual pilgrimage there. The fact that the family took this trip every year is a testimony to the fact that their family was deeply rooted in their faith. The story is significant for a number of reasons. Perhaps it is helpful for those who have preteens and teenagers because it reminds them that even Jesus declared his independence as he found his path into becoming fully himself. But it is also significant because it highlights Jesus as one who listened deeply. “After 3 days they found him in the temple, listening to the (teachers) and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.”

It’s true that in the Bible we have several accounts of Jesus speaking. But as importantly we get the impression that Jesus was also a really good listener. He listened as he heard the rabbis, but also as he heard people’s struggles. He gave them the opportunity to tell their stories. He was more eager to listen and to help than he was to judge or condemn. And as he listened, what he offered as a response, in so many instances was compassion. And the word that he wanted people to hear and that he wanted people to put on their lips was love.

Do we believe that God is still speaking, and if we do what do those words sound like? Some are convinced that the words are harsh and threatening. That the words are full of judgement and threat. I personally find that idea hard to adopt, mostly because that is not who I believe Jesus was or who he came into the world to model.

A woman who has been given the name Carmen as a pseudonym and her daughter came into our country from El Salvador seeking asylum. Her story is that for the last 20 years, she has been sexually abused by her husband and not been safe in her country. Although she ran away and now lives separately, he continues to threaten and stalk her. In a culture where women are not always granted voice, she fled here knowing that this has been a haven for others who have experienced similar atrocities. But Carmen and her daughter were turned away without a hearing and flown back to El Salvador. When Federal Judge Emmet Sullivan of Washington heard this story, he ordered the government to turn the plane around. He ordered that the woman be allowed to have her day in court- her chance to tell her story.

I know nothing of Emmet Sullivan’s religious beliefs, and he might even be insulted for his presence in the sermon. But whenever I hear about acts of compassion, I hear God’s voice. Whenever I witness someone really listening deeply to someone’s story and honoring those words, I sense God’s presence. Whenever I know that someone is included in the circle that might be different, I have a deepened sense of God’s love, and I believe that it was what Jesus came into the world to teach us.

But this compassion, this inclusion, this listening has a cost. As we dare to get in touch with our pain and another’s, it can cause us to question our faith. When we have a dark night, or when we witness someone else’s darkness, it can shake us, it can make us wonder whether God is still speaking. If nothing else, a life of faith is an invitation to live life deeply. To listen, to feel, to dare to look at injustice, to be courageous enough to fail and then admit it. But all this can break your heart.

Mary Luti writes, “The Christian life isn’t about feeling feelings or having “powerful” spiritual experiences. Baptism ushers us into a life of greater depth than that — a life of faith. And at some point in every life, faith is a journey through the desert and the dark. If you don’t feel God right now, you’re not failing. You’re not a second class Christian. You have a gift. A hard gift, but a gift all the same. It’s your heartache, faith’s heartache. And like nothing else, it can lead you straight to the heartache of others, to neighbors whose abandonment is human, not divine. For them you can be company. With them you can outwait the night until the coming day.”

The church, in all its humanness, is to be the community where we can help one another get through the night until the coming day. Jesus not only offered wisdom and compassion, but he gathered people together in a community so they could live out what he modeled. We are called to open our hearts, to be present and to listen and to dare to care. If we go deep, to places that might be scary and vulnerable, there will be times when God puts words in our mouths. Not words of judgement or shame or anger, but words of compassion that God has placed on our hearts. Maybe you have felt it, when you have said things that seem just right, when you knew you made a difference. God is still speaking and sometimes it happens even through us. Sometimes it happens through the actions of a judge or the words of a young prophet or the words of 12 year old Jesus. God is still speaking.