Sermons

Sermon for June 11, 2017

Posted by on Jun 13, 2017 in sermons | 0 comments

First Parish Congregational Church
United Church of Christ, Yarmouth Maine

Sermon by
Rev. Kate Dalton
June 11, 2017

Scripture: John 3:16; Acts 2:43-47; Psalm 8

Mornings like this in our congregation remind me of our rich history. In just a few minutes we’ll move into the fellowship hall for the annual meeting of First Parish Congregational Church. A practice that has likely been taking place since the church was founded in 1730. A practice that honors the inherent worth and dignity of every church member by giving us voice and vote – a chance to shape what the church does in the world.

This morning’s scripture reading is a description the workings of the earliest Christian community. It includes a laundry list of what the community does – they work miracles, hold things in common, care for the poor, spend time with one another, eat together, and praise God together. This is a fine list to guide our activities and for us to aspire to, but I think the most important part of this scripture is when it tells us how they went about these things – it describes their attitudes – day by day they went about living in the ways that Jesus showed them with glad and generous hearts.

Annual meetings are a great opportunity to reflect on the many ways in which this church organization has changed and evolved over the past 275 years. While some things remain the same – like holding Sunday worship services, the structure and content of those services has changed. Believe it or not, the Clam Festival was not an original church activity. And things like investing in solar panels could not have even been imagined as the light bulb and use of electricity would not begin to come into use until the last 1800’s. And even the annual meeting itself has changed – as the only people originally worthy to have voice and vote would have been men. Luckily for me and other women here, the church has changed. What we do as a church, in the name of the church, is constantly evolving – sometimes before the world is changing and sometimes because our spirits are discerning ways in which God is calling us to change. But how we go about doing these things is timeless. We are called to live out our faith with glad and generous hearts.

The United Church of Christ just released a resource guide called Be The Church Planning Guide. The guide identifies 9 different areas that churches can focus on: Protect the Environment, Care for the Poor, Forgive Often, Reject Racism, Fight for the Powerless, Share Earthly and Spiritual Resources, Embrace Diversity, Love God, and Enjoy this Life. Quite a list of worthy focal points and slightly overwhelming for me. The idea of going out and trying to create programming and support to check all of the boxes seems near impossible. But then I realize that checking the boxes is a good guide for propelling us to do work outside of these walls, but not the most important part. The most important part is to focus on how we go about doing the work of our faith. Venturing out into the world with glad and generous hearts has the power to shape everything that we do so that our entire lives reflect our faith in God and belief in the power of Jesus witness.

So as we move into our annual meeting – may our actions be guided by the spirit. May we engage one another with generosity and love. And may we give thanks for the faith of our ancestors that has been handed down generation after generation for us to care for and to hand to the next generation. Amen.

Sermon for May 7, 2017

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

First Parish Congregational Church
United Church of Christ, Yarmouth Maine

Sermon by
Rev. Kate Dalton
May 7, 2017

Scripture: Acts 8:26-39, Luke 24:44-47

It might not be immediately obvious – but this morning’s scripture reading from Acts is packed with unusual circumstances.

Philip first appeared in last week’s scripture reading from Acts. The Hebrews are being criticized by the Hellenists for not giving their widows enough food. The Hebrews response is that they can’t take time away from spreading the good news to ensure equity. So the apostles direct the Hebrews to appoint people whose charge is to make sure food is distributed equally, as Eric Barreto says in his Working Preacher commentary for this week – they are entrusted with waiting tables.

Philip is one of those people. His commission is to wait tables and make sure food is distributed equally, but in this week’s story, God directs Philip to go beyond this role and Philip obeys. What if he hadn’t been open to listening for God? Or what if he had refused because the directions given by God were outside of his commission?

The Ethiopian eunuch in this story has his own peculiarities. First, of course, he has no name. He is just, the Ethiopian eunuch. For me this signals that he represents something larger than himself. Who he is as an individual is not important rather what is important is the group he represents. So, who does he represent?

Well, there are many perspectives to consider here. First of all, he is a person of means. He works for the royal court. He has enough money to be riding in a chariot not to mention he seems to own a Biblical scroll. He has political and financial power.

Conversely, as a Eunuch, he would be an outsider. While Isaiah eventually invites eunuch’s to worship, Leviticus originally prohibits Eunuchs from entering into the congregation of the Lord as they are not able to reproduce. And finally, of course, he is a foreigner. He is from Africa. This is considered to be the ends of the earth at this time – not an area the disciples were reaching.

So this morning’s scripture gives us this weird story. Philip listens to God and goes out to essentially the middle of nowhere with no other instruction than that. The commentaries remind us that it’s not like these were well traveled super safe roads. They were remote and dangerous. But Philip goes seemingly without reservation. And then when he gets there, Philip sees a chariot coming along and God tells him to go over to it. Philip goes over and asks the Ethiopian eunuch, do you understand what you are reading?

Here’s Eric Barreto’s take on the situation:
Can you imagine the scene? A lone stranger jogging by your chariot breathlessly asking you such an audacious question. How would the Ethiopian in the comfort of his chauffeured chariot react to this bold even rude question? How quickly would such a powerful and highly educated individual dismiss this deluded interloper?

Sounds somewhat ridiculous, doesn’t it. And yet the story gets even weirder. Instead of the eunuch just dismissing Philip, he asks for his help. He doesn’t understand what the scripture is saying and so Philip explains. And upon explanation, the eunuch is ready to be baptized – to convert right there on the spot.

While it’s a pretty weird story, this scripture presents lots of great opportunities for us to examine our lives and how we engage our faith today.

First, do you listen for God’s promptings? How do you listen? How do you know when to follow where God might be leading you? If Philip had had a preconceived notion about his role in the faith community, he might have ignored God’s request? Why do you think he didn’t ignore it?

Do you ever ignore what you think might be a prompting from God? Why? What is getting in your way? What would it take for you to follow the request?

Second, despite wealth and privilege, the Ethiopian eunuch shows great humility in this story. He could have just ignored Philip and gone on his way – but instead he acknowledges that he does not understand and he would like assistance. Think about how hard that is. How often do you acknowledge your own need for assistance? What makes is harder or easier to ask for assistance? How would your life change if you opened yourself to more readily receiving help?

Third, as I mentioned earlier, according to Jewish tradition from Leviticus eunuch’s are not allowed to enter into God’s community as they cannot reproduce. But, Isaiah reverses that order and welcomes eunuch’s into the temple. This week’s working preacher podcast explains that the Ethiopian seems to have traveled to Jerusalem to worship – although we are unclear as to whether he would have been allowed the same access to the temple as others who were not eunuch’s. The commentators suggest, however, that he may have experienced some kind of exclusion as his response to Philip’s testimony is to ask if there is anything to prevent him from being baptized. The commentators note that the eunuch’s baptism symbolizes that the good news should be spread to the ends of the earth.

So at it’s core, this story is about the transforming power of sharing the good news of God’s love. While I know many of us would be quick to affirm the good news of God’s love, I know the sharing part is a bit harder. So, what does it mean to you to share the good news? How do you do that? What gets in your way? How could your life be changed by sharing the good news? How could the world be changed?
May God bless us and strengthen us as we endeavor to do God’s work in the world. Amen.

Sermon for April 16, 2017 10:00 am Easter Service

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

First Parish Congregational Church
United Church of Christ, Yarmouth Maine

Sermon by
Rev. Kent Allen
April 16, 2017
10:00 am Easter Service

Scripture: Luke 24:13-35 Psalm 30

Dick Cook is a great photographer, at least he was years ago. Back in the day when you had to load film. He was one of those folks who would come to the Easter sunrise service out on Salisbury beach. I remember the morning – gorgeous, the kind of sunrise that came with just the right amount of clouds, the sun that perfect orange dome rising up. He shot lots of pictures. But imagine his disappointment when he realized there was no film in the camera- nothing but the memory of what he saw. He was good natured about it, laughing at himself.

There is something chilling and powerful about the Maundy Thursday service, as the lights dim and the story is told, as Pam Dietz bangs her pot after each reading, as betrayal and arrest and Jesus death are revealed, and we sing, ”Where you there when they laid him in a tomb?” It always makes the sunrise service that much more powerful, even if we do have to get up at 5am to experience it.

Darkness is one of the realities that we have to live with. No night light can take it away, no trying to protect ourselves helps us to escape it. It doesn’t go away even we refuse to talk about it or face it. Darkness is a part of all of our lives, and not just the outside variety, but the darkness that we sometimes experience internally. A few years ago Barbara Brown Taylor wrote a book, that in fact we used as one of our book reads, entitled “Learning to Walk in the Dark.” She encourages us not to run and hide. Rather, she says, out of that darkness, spiritual growth can emerge, and that we can discover light even in the darkness. The one thing that she points out in the book that I will never forget, is that when the women arrived at the tomb at dawn, Jesus was already gone — whatever happened to him, however he left that tomb, had occurred in the darkness.

According to Luke, the women went very early that Sunday morning to the tomb, to prepare Jesus body. The stone was rolled away, and Jesus was nowhere to be seen. They were perplexed and then they saw two men in dazzling attire. Whenever I read that I think of a couple of guys with rhinestone vests, maybe cowboy boots with diamonds, dazzling! And the women were terrified, and were told by the men that Jesus had risen, just as he had said he would. And for them, at that moment, the light began to dawn, and they went to share the news. When they went and told the disciples, the disciples were not impressed. Yeah right. An idle tale — fake news. Okay ladies, thanks for telling us. It shed no light upon them.

Darkness, for them, still prevailed. All except Peter who ran to the tomb and was amazed. But before we get too critical of these other disciples, I think we should be thankful for their doubt, for their questions for their reaction. Who among us has not questioned what happened that day? There are no snapshots any one took. There is no video reel or Youtube download. Who hasn’t wondered if this was just some idle tale?

What if this narrative is calling us to move beyond our cognition when it comes to resurrection?

As many of you know, Suz and I are headed to Scotland on Thursday to the Isle of Iona, a place that has been described as a thin place. The Celtic saying goes, Heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in thin places the distance is shorter. There are places in our world where we seem to feel closer to God, where we feel God’s presence in an intimate sort of way. There are experiences we have with others where we feel grace or light or peace, in a way that is beyond our rational understanding, moments when we are so overcome with emotion that we cannot speak without blubbering. We have moments when we are dazzled, by an event or a person or a spectacular place, experiences when we are amazed-beyond reason. I dare say that the tomb was a thin place. And in that thin place, doubt and fear are allowed. In fact in those places light often appears in the darkness. When we experience such thin places, it is like a resurrection experience. If I can experience that kind of resurrection within, then the idea of what happened on Easter morning does not seem so hard to imagine.

Doubt and fear and darkness are part of our journey. What the Easter story tells us in a dramatic way is that light still shines. It tells us that love wins.

William Sloane Coffin wrote, “There never was a night or a problem that could defeat sunrise or hope. Easter has less to do with a person’s escape from the grave than with the victory of seemingly powerless love over loveless power. Easter presents a demand as well as promise — to pledge our loyalty to the risen one.”

Coffin and Dick Cook had something more in common than being lovers of Easter sunrises. Both lost teenage sons, one to a car accident, the other to an illness and yet somehow they were able to find light in the darkness, somehow they emerged practicing resurrection with their lives. The story of Easter morning was not some idle tale.

Dick came back the next year to the sunrise service with camera in hand laughing. It was pouring rain- again there would be no proof that the sun had risen. Somehow that didn’t seem to matter. The proof was in his presence.

What if this narrative is calling us to move beyond our cognition when it comes to resurrection?

The empty tomb tells us that love wins, despite the odds. That this is God’s intention-our job is to practice resurrection, that we not be afraid to be amazed or bedazzled. That we not allow despair or darkness to prevent us from seeing beauty and living life and sharing love. But like the disciples it’s okay to bring our doubt, as long as we leave space to be amazed.

Mary Oliver says it this way:
“When it is over, I want to say all my life, I was a bride married to amazement. I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms
When it is over, I don’t want to wonder if I have made my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened, or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.”

Is it simply an idle tale? This resurrection. Can it happen within me?
Wendell Berry encourages us not merely to experience it, but to pass it on, as testimony to the truth that love wins:
“So friends, every day do something that won’t compute. Love the Lord. Love the world. Work for nothing. Take all that you have and be poor. Love someone who does not deserve it. Denounce the government and embrace the flag. Hope to live in that free republic for which it stands. Give your approval to all you cannot understand. Praise ignorance, for what one has not encountered one has not destroyed. Ask the questions that have no answers. Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias. Practice resurrection.”

Eric Baretto writes, “What if this narrative is calling us to move beyond our cognition when it comes to resurrection? Believing in the resurrection is not a matter of mental effort. Such belief does not dwell in the space between our ears. That belief becomes life in our very bones”.

The tomb was, and continues to be a thin place- a place where heaven and earth got closer, where amazement was experienced, where darkness produces light, where love wins.
Amen

Sermon for April 16, 2017 8:00 am Easter Service

Posted by on Apr 18, 2017 in sermons, Uncategorized | 0 comments

First Parish Congregational Church
United Church of Christ, Yarmouth Maine

Sermon by
Rev. Kate Dalton
April 16, 2017
8:00 am Easter Service

Scripture: Luke 24:1-12 Psalm 118:17, 21-24

To me, although Easter is the pinnacle of Christian holidays it is also the weirdest. We come together and essentially celebrate death. Resurrection of course is what gets touted for today – but what is that anyway. Have you ever known someone who has come back from the dead? I haven’t. The resurrection part is much harder to grasp. The death, however, is easy to understand. We all experience death in our lives and we will all die. And for the most part, many of us resist that reality. So why would we gather and literally celebrate the death of the one believed to be God’s son. The one who is part of the holy trinity. The one who came to save the world. Shouldn’t that be bad news. Something we want to forget.

The power of Jesus life is incredible. He modeled a different way of being and reminded us that at the heart of our lives should be love. Just as God loves us, we should love one another and the world. Jesus did not ask God to smite his enemies. Jesus did not even consider fleeing when he knew death was imminent. Instead, the stories tell us he lived true to his beliefs right through to the end – not even death could deter him.

As Jesus death nears the Bible stories make him seem pretty calm, cool and collected. Only for a moment does he seem to struggle like the rest of us and ask God to spare his life if possible, but he quickly accepts the reality that this is not to be. I don’t know what gave Jesus so much courage in those final days. But I do know that he was intentional in creating community during his ministry.

Jesus made a point of not only finding and calling disciples, but also investing in them. He spent time with the disciples, teaching them his ways. And his disciples spent time with one another. Seemingly they traveled together, learning from Jesus and supporting him, and undoubtedly learning from and supporting one another as well.

In a few minutes, Mikayla will sing the song Rise Up by Audra Day. It’s a resurrection song. A song about facing the overwhelming brokenness in the world and giving each other strength to work for transformation. The song is relational. In the middle the lyrics say:
All we need, all we need is hope
And for that we have each other
We will rise

For me the relationship is the key. Jesus knew that he couldn’t do what he was doing alone. Instead he cultivated community. He built close relationships – not with everybody, but with those who would continue his work in the world. With those who would be left behind, with those who would need to rise up.
Our world today is an incredibly scary and unsettling place. Around the world people lack the basic necessities food, water, and shelter – the things needed to preserve sacred human life. And then there is the violence, whether it’s perpetrated by one individual or a political superpower, it is disturbing and overwhelming. And even if we want it to stop, it’s incredibly unclear how to affect such change.

So what are we to do? What are we to do as followers of Jesus – the one who went to die on a cross 2000 years ago. We’re doing it right now. We must continue to gather in community. We must continue to build relationships. We must continue to support one another and look towards a better future. We must continue to hope.

Jesus died on the cross because of his convictions. He believed that the world needs love, not hate. The world needs forgiveness, not judgement. The world needs to know that what seems impossible is actually possible.
And so Jesus left us with the resurrection. His life was not conquered by death and we are the living proof. We are here 2000 years later, gathered in Jesus name, continuing the work that he started and cultivating the community that will pass it on for generations to come. May we continue to give one another hope and to rise up and meet the world’s challenges, asserting that Jesus death was not in vain. Amen.

Sermon for April 9, 2017

Posted by on Apr 11, 2017 in sermons | 0 comments

First Parish Congregational Church
United Church of Christ, Yarmouth Maine

Sermon by
Rev. Kent Allen
April 9, 2017

Scripture: Luke 19:29-44 Psalm 118:19-23

It was a risky thing for Jesus to make the trip into Jerusalem. He had been trying to tell his disciples for some time that their journey together would not end well. Jesus knew that eventually his actions and words would get him into trouble. He questioned authority, he stood up for the lame and the blind, he called for justice and he dared to question a culture where oppression and greed caused harm. He wanted people to understand that their obsession with rules sometimes got in their way of doing what was really important, which was to love God and love neighbor.

So, Jesus made preparations to enter the city. He sent two of his disciples to arrange for a colt upon which he would ride into the city. By this point he had a whole host of people who followed him. By this time many had heard of Jesus, many had been healed or had been touched by his words, and believed that he was the One that would bring change, he was the one sent as the Messiah. So as he began to make the journey, people lined the streets. They took their coats off and lay them on the ground as a carpet for his entrance. And then the people began to shout, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord.” These words and these actions were most likely disturbing to the officials in government, but also to others in the religious community. However you felt about Jesus, this action was definitely raising eyebrows. Jesus was taking a risk and was extremely vulnerable.

My good friend and colleague, Dana Douglas, who was actually the minister in Cumberland years ago, once preached a sermon on Palm Sunday that I have never forgotten. I believe it was inspired by his friend, Bill Coffin. He spoke about Jesus’ entrance as a bold statement about Jesus standing up against the odds and the status quo for the sake of justice. Like Rosa Parks, sitting in the front of the bus, or the young man standing in front of the tank in Tannimen Square, or Martin Luther King Jr, marching in Washington. Sometimes we are called to act and other times we are called just to stand for another, to stand for justice.

It isn’t immediately apparent in the lectionary, how the Hebrew text and the Gospel are connected. So in my first reading I wasn’t certain how the Psalm fit in with Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The Psalm begins, “Open to me the paths of righteousness that I may enter through them and give thanks to God. This is the gate of God, the righteous shall enter through it.”

What does it mean to be righteous in God’s eyes? What is the password to getting through the gates? Is it simply living the good life, having the right answers, following all the rules? What did Jesus model as he walked this earth? In the Bible, justice and righteousness are often paired. Could it be that one of the ways to discover a full life in God is through empathy, through trying to imagine another’s experience, trying to look at a situation from the balcony, rather from the floor; keeping an eye out for those who don’t have the same opportunity or who are being blocked or who are held with scorn or suspicion. I think Jesus coming into the city the way he did was a declaration that he, for one, stood for justice. Justice that was not limited to an elite few, but was meant for all of God’s creation, regardless of zip code, or class rank, or the amount of gold they held in their pockets, or who their ancestors might have been. And believe it or not that frightened those who had power and influence. They would prefer that he leave well enough alone.

But just as there were those that day that wanted him to go away, there were many who he had touched that were on the side of the road cheering him on because he had given them a second chance, he gave them the ability to hear or see or offered them grace that helped them forgive another or themselves. On that road there were those who had been silenced that he had given an opportunity to speak. They were grateful for the gift of empathy and compassion that he offered them. This entrance was really for them. He was their advocate, their hope, their blessing. He was speaking for them as he rode into the city.

As the disciples shouted, “Blessed be the King that comes in the name of God,” some of the Pharisees asked Jesus to order the disciples to stop. To which Jesus replied, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would weep.”

Barbara Lundblad teaches preaching at Union Theological Seminary. She wrote a piece for Working Preacher this week. She asks the question,
“Who is shouting to be heard this week? Followers of Jesus are called to listen to those who have been silenced. Who is longing to be heard where we are? What stories do they long to tell? Will we walk past without stopping?”

A child being bullied, a joke told that is insensitive or worse, a practice that excludes another out of pure prejudice, an assumption made about another, without ever trying to get any information, treating someone differently because we don’t acknowledge how much we actually share. So, Jesus rode into the city, knowing that it would cost him his life, because he knew he had to stand up for those who felt put down.

What does it mean to be righteous in God’s eyes? What’s the way in which we can enter the gate? First of all its important to remember that gate is wide open and that we are invited in. The ticket is for us to fill our lives with empathy and compassion. We are invited to open our eyes wide and take notice of the ways in which the playing field isn’t even and to consider if there are small ways that we can use our lives to help to even things up.

The hard reality that Jesus taught dramatically, is that doing so has a cost. If we chose to stand for justice, if we opt to live into righteousness, there will be those who want to silence us. There will be those who want to protect privileged ground (including sometimes ourselves!) Sometimes it’s difficult to stand up for another. It’s easier to walk away or to be silent.

But then it comes to mind that there are also people in our own lives who have stood up for us, who have taken a chance on us, who have forgiven and helped us to heal. Those who have had empathy and compassion for us, those who have literally changed our lives, and cheered for us on the sidelines. They know about the gates of righteousness. I return to Lundblad’s question, “Who is shouting to be heard this holy week?” Who in our lives, at our school, in our communities? Who in our nation and our world. And what might we do to stand with them or for them? How might we bring justice in our small way to the world?

Jesus came into the city, knowing how dangerous it was, to stand up against injustice, to bring a realm of compassion and empathy, often focusing upon the least and the lost and the outsider. The gates of righteousness.

Amen

Sermon for April 2, 2017

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

First Parish Congregational Church
United Church of Christ, Yarmouth Maine

Sermon by
Rev. Kent Allen
April 2, 2017

Scripture: Luke 18:31; 19:10 Psalm 184:1-4, 10-12

Perhaps as a child you learned that song, “Zacchaeus was a wee little man and a wee little man was he. He climbed up in a sycamore tree for the Lord he wanted to see.” Hardly a flattering description — and it wasn’t just that he was short, but he is depicted by his very job title as a small man, meaning that he was of low regard.

People never like to pay taxes, but that was especially true in Jesus day. First of all, the Roman government was oppressive and its officers were not a trusted bunch. To add insult to injury, it was common knowledge that tax collectors would add a little to people’s bills to line their own pockets. They knew Zacchaeus was rich and they also knew that he was not your ordinary, run of the mill tax collector. He was chief among them. So you can imagine when people saw Zacchaeus that day, he was not greeted with open arms. And since he was short, we can picture him trying to get a spot in front of others so that he could see. Those in the crowd would have none of that. We can feel their tension as he tries to slip ahead. So the only thing at that point for Zacchaeus to do is to climb a tree.

Why do you suppose he was so anxious to see Jesus?
So Jesus begins to walk by and he sees Zacchaeus in a tree and he calls him by name. Now as Jesus called him by name, my first thought would be, finally, someone is going to put this man in his place. Justice will be done at last. But then there is this twist. Jesus is going to his house to share a meal. There seems to be a whole stream of unexpected events in this story. One would think that this would make this tax collector very nervous, sort of like being called to the principal’s office, to be laid out in lavender for behavior unbecoming. But instead Zacchaeus is eager for the encounter.

Why do you suppose he was so eager to meet with Jesus?
The reaction by the crowd was a lot of grumbling and murmuring.
For years I have been reading commentaries on this passage and they have always pretty much come up with the same conclusions. Zacchaeus encountered Jesus, repented for his bad behavior and promised to turn his life around, to make it right with all he had treated unfairly, in fact to go above and beyond that promise. But this year I read a commentary with a different spin.
The folks at Working Preacher went back to the original Greek, and focused on the words from verse 8, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor.” The way it is translated in most present day Bibles declares that Zacchaeus will do this sometime in the future. Working preacher states that actually the Greek words here are in the present tense. So it would read, “Look, half of my possessions I give to the poor,” … already.

It’s an interesting idea. It changes the story somewhat. Last week we also talked about a story that had to do with a rich man, but he wasn’t even given a name, and he was pretty much depicted as heartless.
Could it be that Zacchaeus was so excited because he felt so good about his present generosity? Could it be that he was excited because he had been lost, and now he had found a new energy in the joy he felt in releasing the greed that was part of his daily work? And could it be that Jesus shared this meal to also celebrate Zacchaeus’ new freedom?

What was the point Jesus was trying to make? Whatever it was, he got the crowd pretty riled up. He had just helped to heal a blind man. As he and others walked by, a man was shouting at him to get his attention. The crowd was annoyed then as well. They tried to hush him. But the blind man was insistent and so Jesus listened and the man was healed and the crowds, once annoyed, now reportedly praised God.

But it doesn’t seem like they were quite so happy when the tax collector had received a healing of a different kind, a soul healing. Jesus surprises us. Rich or poor, gentile or Jew, alien or resident, healthy or ill. He found a variety of different ways to make his point. What he seemed to be showing us is that a generosity of spirit is essential.

This generosity can be displayed in so many ways.
Be kind to the beggar at the gate.
Listen to the one who is sick and is trying to get a compassionate ear.
Give the rich man a break and celebrate that he is displaying his own generosity.
Forgive another when a mistake has been made and he or she seeks a second chance as he she regrets the pain caused.
Be generous with those who we perceive to be different, for our similarities far outnumber the things that separate us.
And then there is that line he shared, that goes something like, “why do you see the speck in another’s eye, when you don’t notice the log in your own?”
Jesus told stories and most of them have a similar theme. Be one who has a generous spirit. Maybe Jesus went to the house of Zacchaeus that day to celebrate the opening that Zacchaeus had allowed in his heart. My guess is that if Zacchaeus continued that generous behavior, that in the future people would not see Zacchaeus so small, so week.
It is no secret that First Parish is able to do lots of extraordinary things as a church community. The outreach that flows from here is only matched by the internal work and worship and caring that lies within. And people marvel at this community and wonder, what is the secret to this? I’m sure there are lots of reasons, but there are two that come to mind. The first is that we fail well. Sometimes we don’t get it exactly right, try as we might, and hopefully we learn from our mistakes and are appropriately contrite. Folks seem to accept this tendency toward imperfection, not by lowering expectations, but rather by working with us so that we can become the people we are called to be. But secondly, related to this, I believe there is a genuine generosity of spirit. There are so many who offer time and talent and treasure. So many who help us to keep our foundation strong, who enable us to be a beacon in this community. Right after Easter, the annual pledge campaign will be upon us. Since I won’t be here due to my sabbatical, to pester you, I’ll give you my pitch now. Jesus came to show us the way, a way toward generous living, toward making a difference, toward doing something surprising that makes the world a better place, toward having generous spirits. We are First Parish Church are all called to do this ministry and to do that in the world we need you to have it be so. We need your support that runs against the tide of fear and hopelessness and injustice.

Jesus celebrated Zacchaeus newfound generosity around a table…. and he invites us to be generous as well. Jesus reminds us that a generosity of spirit is essential. We are invited to the table.
Hear these words I came across recently:
“the sheer generosity of love,
an uncalculating God
calculating heart of mine
be gone!
and may unbridled generosity take its place.”
Amen

Sermon for March 26, 2017

Posted by on Mar 28, 2017 in sermons | 0 comments

First Parish Congregational Church
United Church of Christ, Yarmouth Maine

Sermon by
Rev. Kent Allen
March 26, 2017

Scripture: Luke 16:19-31 Psalm 41:1-3

I love the Italian word Basta. It seems like the perfect word to use when you’ve had a good meal, and you choose not to eat yourself into that uncomfortable feeling of overstuffing yourself. The plate gets pushed aside and you proclaim, Basta! It’s also a word used when kids are fighting in the back seat of the car, or when someone is pontificating about a particular matter, Basta! Enough already.

The story of the rich man and Lazarus is one that has caused more than one person to squirm in his or her seat. It sets out quite clearly the great chasm that exists between the rich and the poor. We get a mental picture of the rich man in his fine purple linen robe, having a sumptuous feast every day in his home that is encircled by a gate. And then there is the poor beggar, covered with sores, gathering at the gate hoping that this rich man might give him some of the crumbs that fall off his table.

The story can cause us to wonder, what motivates this rich man. He clearly has all that he needs, and yet doesn’t seem to feel any responsibility to share his abundance with another. Does he really believe that one more robe, or one more estate will bring him satisfaction? Has he thought about considering, when is enough, enough? Basta. But before we are too harsh on this rich man, it’s important for us to acknowledge that greed is a powerful force. It can cloud our thinking. It can have the power to direct our focus not on what we need, but rather on what we would like to have. “Shiny and new” seem so important, and we get drugged into thinking that somehow we will finally be happy if we get just one more thing. It doesn’t help that we are inundated every day with images of stuff that we are coaxed into going out and buying today. Dan Lainey, one of our members, shared a great line with me this week. Somehow greed places a stupid cell inside our brain. Greed drives us to amass things for ourselves, and the result is there is less left for us to share. In fact the greed impulse convinces us that we have nothing really to give away.

Jesus talked about money a lot! He made clear that money was not the problem. The real problem was our love of it. The concern he had was that we run the risk of making it our god. He also wanted to point out that there were some consequences when one went down the greedy path.

We have a vision of the rich man’s home with the gate that surrounded it. Certainly it was made to keep people like Lazarus out, but the result was that the rich man was isolated, he was out of community and he caused resentment and pain by his greed. The problem was not how much money he had, but rather what he failed to do with it.

Jesus made clear that for human beings, God’s intention was not that only the most fit should survive. God was not a proponent of “surivial of the fittest.” Jesus vision is one of a blessed community where there is to be sharing and where each person is to have a place at the table. A vision of a kingdom where resources were not to be amassed, but are be distributed. In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus is quoted as saying that the poor will always be among us. There will always be those who are poor, there will be those who are physically or mentally ill, those whose situation makes it difficult for them to rise up, those who somehow seem to have more than their share of bad luck.

Our choice is either to ignore those folks who sit at the gate, or to judge them and criticize the choices they have made, or to have compassion and work so that their needs are met. The only way those needs can be met, is for those who have plenty to share some of their abundance with those who have little. The argument can be made that that isn’t fair. Why should I do such a thing? Let them fend for themselves. Jesus recognized that the playing field wasn’t always level. The goal was for us to live our lives, not just for our sake, but for the common good.

Jesus chose to teach this lesson in a pretty dramatic way. He shared this story and said that the rich man died and went to Hades, which I understand was not a pleasant place. Lazarus, on the other hand, was carried away by the angels and held a spot next to Abraham. When the rich man saw this he begged that he might be comforted, but he was denied, and when he asked if his siblings could be warned against such fate, he was denied again. Ouch! This must have been and continues to be a hard story to hear. Jesus’ intent, I surmise, was that he wanted to get our attention. He wanted his hearers to stand up and take notice. His message was, “There is still time”.

This past week, I had a conversation with a colleague, who is coaching another pastor, a pastor who has come to the realization that he doesn’t feel empathy. You might imagine that might be a stumbling block. The great news is that he really wants to develop that in himself. It’s a talent that all of us are called to sharpen.

The rich man, although he knew Lazarus’ name, had never really paid attention to Lazarus. He had not bothered to really look at him. He had not, I assume, ever enquired about Lazarus’ plight. The rich man had not made a human connection. Lazarus was a problem, an eyesore, outside of his gate. My guess is that he had no empathy for Lazarus at all.

I wonder if the story would change at all if once in a while, as the rich rode by on his horse, if he threw some scraps of food Lazarus way. What might Jesus have said to that? Jesus advocated for connection. He advocated for the building of community. He advocated for tables to which people could gather around. Although sharing of our resources is an important act, it does not lead us to empathy. Empathy requires us to give our attention to another, it requires us to really see and really listen and really try to understand. There are no shortcuts we can take that get us to that place, but when we do, it is hard for us to walk away. It can move us to take some sort of action.

The rich man didn’t have any sense of when enough was enough. He thought, the more I have, the better I’ll be. He closed his eyes to those who had less, and tried to convince himself that somehow he was superior. What he neglected to develop was his soul. Our nudging God might be challenging us to consider when we might have enough. The parable of Jesus, makes us consider the question, “Is it time to push the dinner plate away, to recognize that we are more than full?”

Jesus wanted the rich man to see the beggar Lazarus, to understand how foolish he looked with all his wealth. He wanted him to take in the stark contrast between the haves and the have nots.

One of the most significant details of this story is that Jesus doesn’t even give the rich man the honor of a name, but is quick to mention Lazarus name, not once, but four times. Jesus was always trying to turn the world upside down. He told dramatic stories to wake us up. To think about what matters most, to remind us of the fact that we are all beloved in God’s eyes, and that sometimes we have to realize that we have enough. Basta. Enough already. Amen

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.
Amen

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