Sermons

Sermon for October 15, 2017

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

First Parish Congregational Church
United Church of Christ, Yarmouth Maine

Sermon by
Rev. Kent Allen
October 15, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon for August 27, 2017

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

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

Sermon by
Rev. Kent Allen
August 27, 2017

Scripture: Exodus 20:14-15; Psalm 124

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Sermon for August 20, 2017

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

First Parish Congregational Church
United Church of Christ, Yarmouth Maine

Sermon by
Rev. Kent Allen
August 20, 2017

Scripture: Exodus 20:14-15; Psalm 124

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

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

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

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

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

Do not kill.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen

Sermon for August 6, 2017

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

First Parish Congregational Church
United Church of Christ, Yarmouth Maine

Sermon by
Rev. Kent Allen
August 6, 2017

Scripture: Exodus 20:1-6; Psalm 17:1-7,15

For the next five weeks, we are going to be focusing on the Ten Commandments, choosing two each Sunday. We will be pairing those commandments with the reading of a Psalm. This morning we read a Psalm where David, or whoever really wrote them, has found himself in a jam and is pleading for God’s help, not an unusual thing for David to do. David is in trouble.

Enemies are pursuing him and so he calls upon God to save him from harm, to protect him from an enemy, to free him from his latest batch of troubles. There is a self-righteousness evident, “if you test me, you will find no wickedness in me.” Perhaps not a wise or completely honest statement. The writer is desperate and scared and looks to God.

At the very least he is hoping that God will see that his enemy is a far worse person than he is. Just get me out of this jam. Perhaps you might recognize this phenomenon. It’s amazing how we have the tendency to call on God when we are in a jam. And perhaps God would be justified in saying to us sometimes, “The only time I ever hear from you is when you need something.”

The phenomenon of forgetting God, of not always living a faithful life, was not unique to David or to us. It is the very thing that brought Moses up to the mountain. The very thing that inspired God to send the commandments back down to the people.

So the story goes that Moses went up on the mountain, encountered God and was given there a list of rules. Humanity had a hard time remembering God and they were having difficulty getting along. So Moses brought down the tablets and shared them with his people. Ten rules — shape up or ship out. Break them and God will be mad and there will be consequences. But under closer examination it’s more complicated than that.

Here’s how the Ten Commandments begin; “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” Out of God’s love, God has set people free. In the chapter before this one are these words, “I bore you on Eagle’s wings and brought you to myself.”

With God it seems that is always about the relationship. This not a story about an angry God that demands obedience, but rather about a loving God that seeks depth of relationships. And that is where we need to begin. Only when we are in relationship, can we have high expectations of one another. Only when we are committed to another can we expect covenants to be honored.

Rolf Jacobsen says that there are two important things to know about the law.

“The first is that God does not give the law as a means to salvation. To use the law to earn salvation, to win your soul’s way into heaven, is like trying to build a faster-than-speed –of light spaceship or a time travel machine out of plywood. It’s not possible. And neither is it possible to earn salvation through the law. God does not give us the law as a way to relationship with the people. God establishes the relationship and then gives us the law.”

But if it’s all about a relationship then what does that look like, what does it mean to be in a relationship to God?

Amanda, her daughter Cora and husband Christian welcomed Henry into their home this week. Perhaps you saw his picture on Facebook. Or perhaps you marveled at what is growing in your garden, or got a glimpse in the early morning of the fog rising up above the water, or felt deep appreciation for the folks you get to share life with. There are moments of gratitude and wonder, when we are filled deep within and in our own way, either out loud or silently, give thanks to God for the journey. One of the powerful ways we grow in our relationship to God is through gratitude — an appreciation of the things that fill our hearts. A second way is when we take seriously our calling to take care of the earth and all that is in it. A third way is when we open our hearts with compassion to fellow travelers along the way, when we live grace filled lives, seeking justice and offering love.For the Christian, following the ways of Jesus puts us on the road to a deeper and more connected experience of God. It all begins with relationships.

Rolf Jacobsen goes on: “That leads to the second point about the law. It isn’t about “us” per se. God does not give you and me the law in order to perfect us or even to make us a better “you” or a better “me.” The law is not about us—its all about our neighbors. God gives you the law, not so that you can be more spiritual or have your best life now, but so your neighbor can have her best life now.” He goes on to say often in the Ten Commandments this point is made.

The most significant point of what Moses brought down from the mountain had more to do with relationship than it did with a set of ethical standards. I am the Lord your God.

Since our daughter and husband are Quakers, I often attend Quaker meeting when I visit them. I have probably shared before that I get restless sitting in silence. So the hour had begun, on this one Sunday of my sabbatical. The rhythm of worship there is that children are present for the first 15 minutes, and people only speak during the hour if they feel moved by the spirit. Christine was working hard to keep her 2 and 5 year olds quiet. Across the room I could see a small child contorting his dads face as children sometimes are apt to do. And the other children around him watching started to giggle. Just a little at first and then it swelled and the laughter began to spread and soon the adults chimed in. It was hilarious. The unspoken rule about silence was broken. At the end of the day, it was about the relationships, first and foremost. And all people could say at the time of speaking was about how happiness was contagious and how the spirit sometimes appears in surprising ways.

The first commandment is to not place anything else in our lives ahead of God. The second commandment is that you shall not make anything an idol. Jacobsen writes, “An idol can be anything we love, worship or center our lives around that isn’t God.” The lure of money, the quest for power, an obsession with pretty much anything, can get in our way. Such things tempt us to give our time and energy , that in the end leave us only wanting more.

Our call is to work on our relationship with God and to work so that others might have their best lives now, to work not toward what benefits us the most, but what contributes to the common good. When we choose idols, when we “choose to center our lives around things other than God—whether it’s money, fame, power, pleasure, beauty, even religion, or anything else, our neighbors will pay.”

The Ten Commandments were given to a person, but meant for a community, a community where members would remind one another what matters most, a community where gratitude and service would make a difference. As we gather around the table, let us give thanks for God’s blessing, let us recognize the idols we hold dear and let us commit ourselves to lives of grace.

Amen

Sermon for July 30, 2017

Posted by on Aug 1, 2017 in sermons | 0 comments

First Parish Congregational Church
United Church of Christ, Yarmouth Maine

Sermon by
Rev. Kent Allen
July 30, 2017

Scripture: Psalm 105:1-11, 45b; Acts 9:1-20

Thin Places

I don’t really know what happened to Paul on the road to Damascus. Whatever it was it brought him to his knees. He saw a light and he heard a voice. He felt the presence of God as he had never experienced before. Heaven and earth seemed closer, and he felt compelled to make huge changes. Suddenly he felt the impact of how he had been participating in the persecution of Christians. And one can only imagine the pain that brought. There was sorrow and shame. But that sense was mixed with this new sense of purpose — a sense of God’s grace and a powerful feeling of God’s presence. For Paul that road and that experience would always be a thin place for him. He was compelled in that moment to live life differently. There was a precious quality to life that he hadn’t before acknowledged.

My sense is that most of us have had the experience where life brings us to our knees. A loss or a disappointment, a betrayal or an illness. There are times when we are overwhelmed with a sense of vulnerability. Our natural reaction is often to try to tough it out, to keep a stiff upper lip, or to hide it so that others might not know the pain we are in. We box up our memories and put them in the attic because they are too hard to hold. Or we run from mistakes we have made and choose to hold our shame within. We keep busy, we eat chocolate, we hide on social media, portraying a facade that all is well. Or we find ourselves angry or isolated, feeling we are not enough.

One of the presenters at the Wild Goose event I went to a couple of weeks ago, asked her congregation to consider the answer to this question: “When you think about yourself, what’s the one descriptor that comes up more than any other?” The overwhelming response was variations on the theme of “I am not enough” — thin enough, fit enough, talented enough, successful enough. Church folks. Folks that hear the message about God’s grace on a regular basis. Folks who are reminded that they are beloved children of God in a world full of God’s beloved children. We talk a lot about grace, we remind others of its reality but have a harder time internalizing it. So what does all this have to do with thin places?

People have been going to the Island of Iona for spiritual pilgrimages for centuries. For generations monks inhabited this beautiful, somewhat stark island. A beach where many of them were slaughtered has been nicknames “the place of new beginnings.” In its beauty, and also in its history — the prayers that have been prayed, the lives that have been renewed, the ethos of the Isle of Iona is the recognition that joy and sorrow can rest together, that vulnerability is not just important but, rather, essential.

I hesitate to make this confession, but it’s the summer and not too many of us are here, so here goes. If someone asked me what I did on my sabbatical, I could list a whole number of things — all very inspiring. But I did one thing more than anything else. I spent a great deal of time trying, sometimes unsuccessfully, to hold back tears. It started in Iona, but pretty much carried through my whole time away. Tears of sadness for those in our lives we have lost, tears acknowledging the sometimes subtle yet undeniable reality of aging, tears of overwhelming gratitude for family and friends and this church, tears of shame for those things I have yet to allow grace to penetrate. Joy and sorrow mixed. I took the lessons of the Iona Community and the words of Brene Brown seriously and allowed myself for a time to be vulnerable. And there I found a thin place.

The wisdom that we have from Jesus is that we should have a traveling companion, and that we do this as a part of a community, not in isolation.

In the thin place, we recognize that joy and sorrow can coexist at the same, and the result at least for me is a powerful sense of how precious life is. Not a sentimental or sappy sense of appreciation or emotion, but something deep within.

People have been sharing with me their own reflections about thin places this last week and I have really appreciated it. I’d like to share one such story. A mom and her daughter went to a storage unit to begin to go through some items. And there in a box was a wedding photograph. Her husband has been deceased many years. And as the picture revealed itself, there was a return of great sorrow, a real sense again of such a huge loss. My guess is some tears came. The decision was made to bring the photograph back to display in her bedroom, which has continued to bring joy and gratitude, a sense of how precious this relationship has been. A thin place where sorrow and joy can sit together. A place where the presence of God is deeply felt.

One can become an associate member of the Iona Community. To do so one must commit to a Common rule which includes:
Daily prayer and the reading of the Bible;
Mutual sharing and accountability for the use of our time and money;
Regular meeting together;
Action and reflection for justice, peace and the integrity of creation.

I don’t know if I will become a member, but I have come away from this experience committed to being accountable for how I use time, and how I use money and share our tithe, how I care for this creation and how I speak for Justice and peace. Discipline and accountability are more important to me than they have been before and I sense this is because it is coming from a place not of duty, but rather as a recognition of how precious all of this is.

We sat with a woman who is a member of Iona and she described one of their meetings. Questions were typically asked at the meetings, such as:

So how did you share your tithe this month? Who did you give to?
Was there a way you spoke up for justice with specifics, a way you helped bring peace?

How were you at setting aside time for prayer and reflection and rest?
Did you share time with others, helping them along the way?
These monthly meetings are a part of how the members of the Iona Community live with intentionality and accountability.

The questions nudge me. They appeal to me. They feel worthy to pursue.

The challenge goes back to making sure there is room for grace. It’s too easy to go back to the temptation of wondering, “Am I doing it all well enough? Am I good enough, faithful enough, worthy enough?”

Sorrow and joy, preciousness and discipline, accountability and grace. God’s presence is surely in this place. In this sanctuary, songs have been sung, prayers have been prayed, tears have been cried, confessions have been made, anger and fear expressed. Iona is a thin place, but we needn’t go much farther than here.

Paul’s life really was never the same again. He got a new sense of God’s grace and God’s love. It compelled him to never act or be the same again. May it be so for us as well.
Amen

Sermon for July 16, 2017

Posted by on Jul 19, 2017 in sermons, Uncategorized | 0 comments

First Parish Congregational Church
United Church of Christ, Yarmouth Maine

Sermon by
Rev. Kate Dalton
July 16, 2017

Scripture: Psalm 119:105-112; Exodus 3:1-15

In her book Succeed: How we can reach our goals, Heidi Grant Halvorsen talks about two ways people approach achievement. One approach is to achieve to prove what you already knew to be true. Achievement shows was is already present. The second approach is to achieve as proof of growth – the achievement is only possible because of work that has been put in. The achievement essentially represent something new – something that was not possible when you first set the goal.

Halvorsen points out that those who achieve in order to prove themselves (in order to prove what they already believe to be true) do not develop as much as those who think of achievement as a growth process. As I read about these ideas I wondered how they might apply to our understanding of thin places – places where God is present – holy ground. Do we believe that holy ground is pre-determined? If so, our goal could simply be to find the holy places and declare their existence? Or do we believe that holy ground can be cultivated, created, discovered? If that’s the case, then our goal as people of faith would be to participate in that cultivation and creation.

In this morning’s scripture, Moses encounters God and clearly stands on holy ground. But I’m not sure that where Moses was standing was particularly holy before or even after the encounter. Instead, the sacredness of the place was directly related to Moses encountering God there, at that time, in that exact moment. It’s sort of like how many protestants understand communion. The bread and the juice are not holy apart from the act of communion. So in the moment when we pray and share them together they are holy sacraments. But before and after they are just regular bread and juice.

While the Bible certainly has places that it notes as being particularly holy – like Mount Sinai (believed to be the dwelling place of God), it’s also important to note that when the Israelites finally escape from the Egyptians and wonder in the wilderness, they carry a tabernacle with them. The tabernacle is where God dwells. God moves along with the people, the holy ground constantly changing – accompanying them on their journey.

I fear that in today’s world we like to label things, sacred and secular are no exception. There are sacred and secular texts. Sacred and secular music. Sacred and secular art. Sacred and secular buildings. Etc. Etc. Etc. But I wonder what is the cost of these labels? Don’t they function a little like the goals Halvorsen talked about. By labeling things sacred and secular, our goal is to prove the truth of the label. For me this approach reinforces a scarcity model. All that is sacred already exists and is deemed sacred. There is no room for additions. Only call for exclusions.

But what if we approached the world as if everything had the potential to be either sacred or secular. What if our goal was to be in constant discernment, birthing that which is sacred wherever we are. This is a position of abundance. This is an approach that opens us to possibility instead of walling ourselves off from the profane.

If we believe that God is with us everywhere we go, then it follows that there is always the possibility of experiencing the holy. The challenge, of course, is to figure out how to open ourselves to the possibility – allowing our sacred experiences to grow and develop rather than remain static.

Which brings us to the reflection questions this week. What might we do as a community of faith to make more room for the spirit, the holy? What should we keep doing? What might we leave behind?

As we ponder these questions, I invite you to remember a time when you experienced unexpectedly experienced the holy. Recall the experience in your mind. Where were you? What were the surroundings like? Who was with you? Or were you alone? What happened? What signals did you receive that tipped you off that something holy was happening? Maybe you physically got goosebumps. Maybe you just suddenly felt peaceful. Maybe you experienced elation. What was your experience of the holy? If you had to give someone a description – figure out what markers you might point to. And finally, think about why you might have been able to experience the holy in that moment. Were there circumstances that opened you to that experience? Are there ways to open yourself to more experiences?

We are people of faith living in a broken world. Everyday our lives are infiltrated with bad news. There’s war, suffering, sickness, and destruction. We know that we have a responsibility to work for a better world, but we also know that our ability to affect change may feel very limited. However, as people of faith, we are uniquely positioned to open ourselves to and call attention to the presence of God as it manifests around us.

So prayerfully walk through the world, discovering God’s presence. Living into the abundance of the sacred. Living out the good news of God’s love. Amen.

Sermon for July 9, 2017

Posted by on Jul 19, 2017 in sermons | 0 comments

First Parish Congregational Church
United Church of Christ, Yarmouth Maine

Sermon by
Rev. Kate Dalton
July 9, 2017

Scripture: Psalm 45:10-17; Genesis 32:3-31
In the movie The Last Word, the main character, Harriet is a bit of a control freak. She goes through life meticulously controlling everything from how her hedges are trimmed, to how her meals are cooked, to how her doctors’ complete examinations. She speaks her mind and goes after what she wants even if she alienates people in the process. So, it’s no surprise when she decides she wants to control what her obituary will say when she dies. Harriet seeks out the young obituary writer, Anne Shermann, at the local paper and demands that she pre-write the obituary.

As you might imagine Harriet hasn’t made very many friends over the years, in fact mostly people hate her guts and so despite being given two pages of references to contact, the first obituary returned by the writer is a simple one paragraph, just the facts, kind of deal. Harriet is not satisfied. She studies a myriad of obituaries and concludes that good obituaries include 4 things: Meaningful work, loving friends and family, affecting one individual for the better and a wild card. Harriet realizes that currently her life does not contain any of these things and gets to work with Anne in tow to create a life that only the best of obituaries can capture.

Although Harriet is incredibly difficult, as time passes Anne comes to a better understanding of who Harriet is and why. Harriet wanted the best for everyone around her – unfortunately her controlling and brusk way of telling people what to do often broke her relationships. And her fierce commitment to her creating excellence at work threatened those around so much that they her eventually push her out of the very business she founded.

But here’s what’s great about Harriet. When she realizes that Anne’s first obituary is all that can accurately recorded – she doesn’t wallow. She doesn’t ask Anne to fudge the info. She doesn’t even just write the obituary herself (a minor miracle no doubt). Instead she decides to jump in head first and create a life that will leave the legacy she wants. That means reconnecting with people who have shunned her. Facing her estranged daughter. Trying new things. And giving time and attention to others. Instead of running away to escape, she runs directly towards struggle and masterfully perseveres.

One of the themes that recurs throughout the movie is the importance of taking risks and the recognition that failure is what spurs growth. Failure gives us information that allows us to change and try again. At one point in the movie, Harriet is talking to her radio listeners (her wild card by the way) and says, “Have a day. Don’t have a nice day. Have a day.” Do something meaningful. Engage the world. Struggle, laugh, cry. Live life. Have a day. Nice days don’t make room for real life experiences.

Unfortunately, I think too often we strive for nice days. Days that don’t rock the boat or make us feel uncomfortable. Days that don’t make us work too hard or question who we are. Days that don’t involve conflict or struggle. But I wonder, where is our faith on those days? How does our belief in God come into play on nice days?

At one point during the movie, the young girl that Harriet has befriended (the life she is affecting) says to Anne – who are you? Anne responds, “I don’t really know.” And Brenda, the young girl, says, “God created you to be somebody. Something special that only you can do. You need to know and be that somebody.” Anne has been scared to death to take any kind of risk in her life. She has been having nice days. She realizes that it’s time to have days. To struggle, take risks, fall, get back up, and make adjustments to try again. As long as she is striving to live into being the person she was created to be – all of it is worth it.

In this morning’s scripture, Jacob is a bit like Harriet. He went after what he wanted – his father’s birthright – even though it wasn’t supposed to be his and is dealing with a great deal of conflict because of it. His brother, Esau, wants to kill him and his mother, Rebekah, has asked him to essentially go into exile so as not to be killed. And so Jacob wrestles with God all night and as day is about to break he demands a blessing. And when God finally concedes and blesses Jacob this is what is said, “…you have striven with God and with humans and you have prevailed.” Jacob is blessed (blessed means receiving favor with God), Jacob receives favor with God because Jacob chose to have a day. Not a nice day.

And to mark this momentous day, Jacob gets new name – name changes are important markers of transformation in the Bible. Jacobs new name is Israel, which means, “the one who strives with God.” Think about that for a moment. God’s chosen people, the people we follow throughout the Old Testament, the people whom God continuously forgives and invites into right relationships, the Israelites, are the ones who struggle with God. Not the ones who have a nice day with God. Not the ones who blindly obey God. Not the ones who sing God’s praises. But the ones who struggle, who wrestle, who persevere – allowing themselves to be transformed in the process.

My prayer for us this morning is that as we go through this life as people of faith – we struggle. We wrestle with God and the world and find ourselves changed. This is not an easy path – but it is the only path that enables us to become whom God created us to be. So don’t sit idly by. Go out and grow, claim your blessing, be transformed and have a day. May God bless us on our journey. Amen.

Sunday Message from July 2, 2017

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

First Parish Congregational Church
United Church of Christ, Yarmouth Maine

Message by
Edgar Beem
July 2, 2017

Scripture: Matthew 10:40-42King James Version (KJV)

NO ONE TRUE CHURCH, NO ONE TRUE RELIGION

In the preceding verses of this sermon, Jesus focuses on the rupture of the disciples’ most important relationships as they take up the cross and follow Jesus (10:34-38). Now, these final verses in the sermon affirm first the relationships between disciples, Jesus, and God (10:40) and then the certainty of the reward due to those who welcome prophets, the righteous, and the little ones (41-42).
“Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 41 Whoever welcomes a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever welcomes a righteous person as a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. 42 And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.”

“Whoever welcomes a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward.”
The prophet in question, of course, was Jesus Christ. But what if that prophet is Malachi? Mohammed? Buddha? Joseph Smith?

I grew up in Pawtucket, Rhode Island and Westbrook, Maine, cities where the Protestant-Catholic split in Christianity was very pronounced. Most of my friends in Pawtucket were Roman Catholics of Italian ancestry. Many of my friends in Westbrook were Roman Catholics of French-Canadian ancestry. I could go to their churches – St. Maria Goretti, St. Hyacinth, St. Mary’s, but they could not set foot in my church, Smithfield Avenue Congregational and Warren Congregational, lest they risk their mortal souls. The attitude that they were right and I was wrong had a profound impact on me and on my faith.

I am not anti-Catholic, but I did conclude at the ripe old age of 14 that there was no such thing as One True Church, One True Religion.

The Second Vatican Council took steps toward ecumenicalism in 1964 when it acknowledged that there might be elements of truth in other Christian faiths.
In “Lumen Gentium” (Light of the Nations): the Church allowed that “ those who have not yet received the Gospel are related in various ways to the people of God…. But the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator. In the first place amongst these there are the Mohamedans, who, professing to hold the faith of Abraham, along with us adore the one and merciful God, who on the last day will judge mankind.

All organized religions seem to struggle with how properly to regard the legitimacy of other religions. In its 1989 Resolution on Muslim Community, for instance, our own United Church of Christ took the following stand on Islam:
“Faced with the recognition that history extends forward as well as backwards from the Crucifixion and that Christians have often ignored and been openly hostile to the revelation of God to Muslims, we ask for open hearts and minds as we as Christians learn about and support Muslims in their faithfulness in affirming the same God and our common prophets, as we discover in Islam a perspective on our beliefs and traditions and we rejoice in sharing with Muslims a hope in the principle of justice and righteousness and a belief in the peace of submission to God.”

Obviously, a lot has changed since 1989. Because violent extremists have perpetrated atrocities in the name of Islam, there is now a virulent strain of anti-Muslim prejudice in this country and in the western world. Just last week a note was sent to a mosque in Portland threatening violence.

In a statement last week, I was pleased that Bishop Robert Deeley of the Portland Diocese offered his support to the Islamic center, Imam El Harith Mohamed and all those affected by the threat in the letter.

“A threat against one faith is a threat against all who value religious freedom, enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution,” the statement reads. “It is foundational to who we are as Americans. As Catholics, our faith in Jesus Christ and the power of his message compels us to stand up in support of that freedom, especially when the threat to its existence also challenges human dignity and the rights supporting and celebrating that dignity.”

“A threat against one faith is a threat against all wo value religious freedom, enshrined in the First Amendment of the Constitution.” These are words that need me heard not just in Portland, Maine, but in Washington, D.C.

I am a Christian. I was brought up in the United Church of Christ. But I believe all religions are manifestations of the same human hunger for the divine and take myriad forms depending on geography, culture, history and personality. The idea that one religion – or more incredibly, one sect – might have a lock on the truth while all others are wrong is preposterous. That means religious tolerance is a dilemma for me, because I cannot tolerate the intolerance of other denominations and other religions. I find the way some churches treat women, gay people and non-believers intolerable. So I have to believe that a refusal to tolerate intolerance in others in not intolerance in ourselves.

A church, as Barbara Stevens so eloquently reminded us, is its people. In our Congregational tradition the Congregation is the ruling body. Yet sectarian violence is so very vicious because it takes place between people who imagine themselves to be completely different yet they are entirely the same. Think Catholics and Protestants in Ireland, Sunnis and Shiites in the Middle East, Tutsis and Hutus in Rwanda. Mortal enemies created by religious differences. Yet they are the same people. God’s people.

The people who are the church, however, often do not really believe what their church leaders teach. Most of my Catholic friends and relatives, for example, support marriage equality and reproductive rights.

In Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers, Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, the most godly man I have ever met, delivers a dharma talk about all the disillusioned Americans and Westerners, most of them Christians, who come to study and meditate with his Order of Interbeing in France and the United States.

“My tendency is to tell them that a person without roots cannot be a happy person. You have to go back to your roots. You have to go back to your family. You have to go back to your culture. You have to go back to your church. However, that is exactly what they don’t want to do, and they often become very angry when we try to tell them so…When the time is right, when they are capable of smiling and forgiving, we tell them, ‘Go back to your own culture, go back to your own family, go back to your own church. They need you. They need you to help renew themselves and no longer alienate their young people. Do that not only for your own generation but for the future generations as well.”

The truth is where you find it. There is no one true church, no one true religion. There is only God. And you should be able to find that God wherever you are and however you were taught to worship.

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.