And Why Do you Worry?

And why do you worry…….?

Matthew 6:24-34

Chilmark Community Church

United Methodist

Rev. Vicky Hanjian

November 22, 2015

Way back in 1988, a simple song flooded the airways for a period of time – Bobby McFarrin’s – – “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”. Some days, just listening to it would lift my spirits. But on other days, I would want to turn it off and throw something at the radio because life really can be very heavy and there is a lot to worry about. A simple “Don’t worry – be happy” can sound pretty callous and unfeeling in the face of the enormity of what life throws at us sometimes – and especially in the light of the trauma of the daily news of terrorist attacks in Paris and Mali – – and the continued threat in different places around the world.

Jesus’ message about “don’t worry” doesn’t seem quite realistic in the complexity of our lives. His words seem out of step with our society and the world we live in. On the surface they lack coherence with the lived experience in the 21st century. As Ulrich Luz has put it, “when [Jesus’ words are] interpreted in a superficial manner, this statement could only have been written by a single guy living a carefree life on the beach in sunny Galilee.”

But there they are – – impertinent questions and teachings, really: “Why do you worry about your clothing?” “Don’t worry about what you will wear or eat or drink….don’t worry about your life……

Worry is another word for anxiety – – and anxiety is always directed toward the future – – what will happen if…….. What will happen if I lose my job…..what will happen if my social security is not enough to sustain me? What will happen if I get really sick and my health insurance won’t cover expenses? What will happen if I can no longer take care of myself? What will happen if I can’t meet the rent or the mortgage…..Who will take care of my family if something happens to me?…. What will happen if the terror afoot in the world cannot be contained?……..anxiety is with us a lot.

In our culture and our time and location, for the most part, our food and clothing needs are pretty well met. On this island if we are up against it, there are organizations and systems in place to help us. Food Pantries, free clothing ministries, Meals On Wheels, community dinners, food assistance programs and so on. In a small community like ours, there is no need for anyone ever to go hungry or without adequate clothing. It was not so for Jesus’ listeners who might only own one garment and who might face starvation if a family was not able to trade for food in the local markets, if a father thrown in prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his hungry children.

So how are we to hear these words for us today? Part of the answer is in verse 34 at the end of what we just read – but I think it needs a little unpacking. Jesus teaches “Don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

Ram Dass, a meditation teacher in the Eastern religious tradition, sums it up this way when he says “Be here now.”

Many spiritual teachers across the ages have taught that God can only be experienced in the present moment – – we cannot reach back into the past and feel God’s presence – although we man be able to see where God has been at work in our lives. We can’t reach into the future to find God because the future does not yet exist. When Jesus challenges us with the words “Do not worry…” he is inviting us to stay very much in the present where we can indeed feel and know the presence of God working in our lives and in the world right here and now – from moment to moment.

The more we are able to focus on that holy energetic presence working with us, the more our anxiety quotient goes down. When, through worry and anxiety, we move ourselves into some imagined and frightening future, we have lost touch with the companionship of God in this moment. How often do we manage to create tension and worry about something that is going to happen and then we get on the other side of it and realize that all that anxiety simply wasn’t necessary at all?

I think it is important to know that there is no moral judgment in Jesus words here. Jesus simply recognizes that his followers do indeed worry – this does not make them sinful or bad – it is just a state of being human. What Jesus is saying is that we don’t have to worry so much – – that by focusing on the truth that the Holy One dwells in every moment of our lives – and does indeed know exactly what we need in any given moment, we can relax into that truth and give ourselves some breathing space when we are feeling challenged by what life is presenting.

Now – I have to tell you – – I have to listen to my own sermon, because I can generate anxiety with the best of them. I need a little help along the way. So – I listen to teachers who suggest practices, spiritual disciplines, if you will, to keep me focused and present to the Holy. One practice is to notice when I am feeling worried or anxious about something – especially about things over which I have no control. That is the first step – – simply noticing my anxious state of mind – to say to myself – Hmmmm – -getting a little uptight about this aren’t you?” A second practice is to acknowledge that when I am anxious, I have in that moment separated myself from the Presence of God. As soon as I realize that, I have taken a step away from the worry or anxiety and a step closer to feeling myself back in God’s Presence. A third practice is to ask “What is God unfolding for me in this moment?” Now, a direct answer to that question may not come right in the moment, but the question has the effect of bringing me back into the awareness that God is indeed working with me even in the midst of my worry and I can begin to relax. I also have to tell you that this is not a magic formula. It is a discipline and I have to practice it over and over again – – sometimes a dozen times a day. Anxiety is a slippery thing – – but – – here’s the reward – – – the more I practice, the more aware I become of the active, energetic presence of the Holy in every moment – – and that leads to gratitude and thanksgiving. Gratitude and anxiety cannot share the same space for very long.

As we approach our national day of Thanksgiving, in a world fraught with danger and suffering, with violence and uncertainty about what it all means, it is good for us to take the teachings of Jesus to heart, to affirm that God does indeed, know what we need, and to give extravagant thanks for God’s continual involvement with our lives for our benefit.

Some of you might remember the old Ma and Pa Kettle television series? In a classic scene that was to be found in many of the episodes, Ma Kettle would bang the triangle on the porch, and from every corner and crevice around the yard hordes of screaming, yelling children would pour into the house fighting for a place at the table. Then Ma, in her best stentorian tones would holler, “Hold it!” and everyone would freeze in silence. Pa Kettle would roll his eyes heavenward, tip his hat, and say, “Much obliged.” And immediately the melee began again as abruptly as it had stopped. Maybe those simple words are enough, but it would be good for us, wherever we are on this Thanksgiving Day, if we stop for longer than a breath and bless God for all the ways the Holy Presence clothes and feeds and sustains us throughout the moments of our days, through all the years of our lives. Have a blessed and happy Thanksgiving.

Helen Stratford writes:

Keeping Time

Sunday I was seated on a park bench, beneath the branches of an elm tree, playing the squeeze box.  I had been sitting there for quite a while.  It was that intermediary point between late afternoon and dusk.  The amber street lamps ignited almost imperceptibly. Their soft glow accentuated the golden hues of the autumn foliage.  Topaz chips of glitter.  The skies were smokey and subdued.  The November winds twisted through the yellow leaves that had collected on the pavement.

With a symmetry intelligible only from altitudes, the park consists of a  maze of  concrete walkways, footpaths trimmed with wrought iron gates on either side, lined with benches.  At various points the pathways open into small piazzas, where skateboarders can circle and cruise, fathers can play catch with their sons, lovers can stroll, and pigeons can flock amidst a spray of crumbs. There are notable varieties of elms growing amidst such asphalt expanses, their roots writhing and swirling from the exposed and hardened surface of the earth,  protectively sectored by cobblestone masonry that designate where the ground ended and the concrete began.  Squirrels habitually shimmy up and down the gray bark of the trunks.  Dogs are drawn to sniff  the scent left by the squirrels, and, in summer months, the Hari Krishnas are known to gather beneath one particular elm, the largest in the park and centrally located.  The monks sit cross legged in their orange togas and shaved heads, and chant mantras.  And so to some, it has come to be known as the Hari Krishna tree. It is reputedly the oldest in the park, and serves as a centerpiece, of sorts, the spindle of a circular shaped plaza, the compass needle of a binnacle.  This tree serves to inform many of their bearings.  It is the source, the meeting place, so to speak.  Its branches gracefully extend themselves at great length, sloping and bending, with smooth, soft curves, inclined in all directions.  Its foliage provides shade to those who sit on the partial ellipses of benches situated around the interior parameter of the piazza.  It was on one such bench that  I sat late Sunday afternoon and into the early evening, with my instrument, savoring the unseasonably warm temperatures which combined with the brooding, tempestuous skies.

Barely visible amidst  the leaves at my feet, was a small cigar box i had bought from a neighbor at a sidewalk sale enroute to the park.  A wooden cigar box that she had transformed decades ago into a receptacle for keepsakes and mementos, by cutting and affixing a detail from a well known Modigliani to the topside of its wooden exterior.   Inside too, another well known female figure by the same artist was inserted into the underside of the lid.  It had probably been refashioned in during her college years, when many drank Mateuse and used the bottles as candlestick holders afterward.  Because of the predominate golds and browns,  the box was barely distinguishable from the dry crumpled foliage.

It was growing continuously darker. The skies had gradated from lavender to a deeper shade of amethyst.  The hours advanced like a troop of soldiers marching fearlessly into the frontline of an austere enemy line that awaited ahead.  The winds were recurrent, of varying velocity, sometimes gentle and enduring, other times occurring as sudden blast that seemed to be a torn segment from a greater gale, vanishing as instantly as it arrived.  When such winds passed through, they  swirled through the bed of leaves compiled beneath the elm, air lifting them momentarily and causing them to toss and turn in their suspended state, to flip and flop.  Those that remained on the ground seemed to chase each other in circles and scuttle across the concrete.  Toddlers were often induced to run from their mother’s side, and kick through the accumulating mound, further releasing  the rich and fecund aroma notable to the Fall.

Autumn has its own ominous beauty, calling us back, letting us know another season is coming to its conclusion – and, if only as an innuendo,  preparing us for what’s ahead.

People drew nearer, compelled by the plaintive cry of the music.  From various, directions they deviated temporarily from their course, beckoned by the distant appeal of the intoned melodies.   Combined with the magisterial beauty of the foliage,  the music persuaded many to take a seat , to rest and ponder for a moment.   Slowly  the crowd continued to gather, disparate individuals, who were permitted and persuaded to pause, to observe the richness and slender of the elements occurring about them. The foliage of the trees, the turgid skies, the fragrant aroma which seemed to be intensified by the unlikely threat of rain. Still visible, beyond the parameters of the park,  the soft wash of tenements and brownstones rising above the tree tops – Emitting a certain charm and appeal probably not so different than when Henry James inhabited such an address. Sienna, Rust, and Brown Brick edifices that retained a well kept stateliness, with water towers on their roofs, and onyx fire escapes zig zagging down their facades.

Each time a breeze passed through, a shower of leaves began to flutter from the elm.  It was a majestic, mesmerizing. An umbrella of falling petals.  Butter colored, the disengaged leaves flitted and fluttered, frivolously, in no particular hurry, catching glimpses of light as they descended, to the pavement below. They seemed to flicker, as the underside and topside of the leaves alternatively wavered, revealing the subtle gradation and variation in hue.  Throughout the park, and perhaps throughout the city, all the trees participated in unison.  Munificent showers of supple amber leaves, swept by the momentary tumult and turbulence of the tempest.  There were other varieties of trees as well.  The supple fan shaped leafs of the ginkgo,  the leaflets of the honey locust, and the massive, paw shaped leafs of the Oak, all contributing to the confetti of amber, gold and topaz.  It was stunning and ritualistic.  A moment that pulled everyone out of the confines of their own mentality to behold in unified wonder. It  induced the same awesome sense in all those that beheld with steadfast gaze –  the same feeling as experienced by all who had ever watched in generations past, regardless of the particular landscape or setting.

The descent of an autumn leaf is Iconic in this sense.  And en masse, symphonic.

Old timers could not help but  observe the occurrence and wonder, how many autumns they  had left.  They inhaled the caramel flavored air, smelling of summer’s sweetness slightly toasted in ghee.  Children leapt from their mother’s side to run beneath the cascade, with outstretched arms, kicking through the accumulative mound of leaves.  Mother’s watched from the benches, strollers parked nearby.   Soon, they thought,  it would be time for mittens and sleds, for ice skating on ponds  beneath a vast prairie  the stars.  But perhaps that was their own remembered winters they were envisioning.  For this was new york,  the nostalgic interlude was occurring within an urban landscape.

Strange how the past stencils itself so readily upon our apprehension of the future.

An elderly asian woman bent over from a nearby bench, and picked up a leaf to press between the pages of a volume she held in her lap.

A student wrote copiously in the pages of a composition book.

Lovers sat beside each other hand in hand.

Onlookers, incredulated by the great spectacle,  snapped photographs with their smart phones.

Still others shuddered to think of what waited in the coming weeks.  Leafless and barren, etched against the pallid and anemic skies, the elms would appear  attenuated and arthritic,  as if scrawled and scribbled with charcoal on low grade scraps of a sketch pad. Which is what the drab and dreary skies would be comparable to – cheap rag paper.  Even if propped on an easel, each day could be torn off from the tablet and discarded. Crumpled up and tossed on Avenue B. Temperatures would plummet.  In less than a month’s time, these very same trees would seem so gaunt and haunting.  And even that would only signify the beginning. The bleak passage toward the season of the Undertakers. The morticians and pall bearers whose elongated apparitions still stride along the widened sidewalks in front of the brownstones.  Tall wooden figures in tuxedo jackets and stripe pants, with top hats and walking sticks.

Perhaps it was the knowledge of what waited ahead, that  served to make these moments even more precious.  Increasing the intensity of the offering.  Likely it persuaded some to cling more tightly to the beauty unfolding before them.  To surrender.  To be pliant.

(Completion?  Finality?  Such concepts seem an anathema to the Divine.  God is an unaccomplished artist just setting out, and each day is an awkward clumsy sketch, that will be torn off and begun over. Constantly being altered, edited, modified. Never finished. Never perfect.  Always a work in progress. )

My fingers deftly knitted and crocheted the keys, as reminiscent melodies wheezed out.

The poignancy of the falling leaves compelled something in the depths of each singular heart to dance.  It reached in and invited the soul to tango.  Each interior landscape  was momentarilly transformed into a ballroom,  Roseland, a massive dance hall  in which an often unconuslted aspect of our being was called forth from the shadows and recessitudes to exult.  To be swung around in the rhapsodic embrace of a mysterious and faceless stranger.

The angels are always pleading to be let in.  They scurry amongst us.  Fleeting.  As Vaporous as the el greco clouds that were beginning to assemble overhead.

An ember in the smoldering ashes was stirred.  A glint, a glimmer. A gleam. For some, its always a matter of such a flame is being ignited. Or extinguished.

The skies darkened. A storm of pigeons squabbled. They strutted across the pavement in their red shoes and grey suits, clucking their heads to some unheard rhythm that had nothing to do with the songs i was cranking out.  Individuals seated on the benches eventually rose, drifting off in various directions, though their places were constantly replenished by new wanderers, that had been compelled by the music. Songs known the world over.  The theme from the Godfather. La Vie En Rose. Somewhere Over the Rainbow.  Songs that i had played throughout India, Morocco, South East Asia, Egypt, Europe.  Songs that had angered me rides on elephants in Udaipur,  camel rides across the moon drenched desert sands to the great pyramids.  Songs that had persuaded the old and unwanted indian women, sitting in endless succession along the dusty streets of Delhi, to remove bangles from their wrists and offer them in exchange for another melody.

No, please don’t go, they pleaded in Hindi.  The same appeal as we held toward these final rhapsodic days of the season.

Like the leaves, the songs had a universal appeal.

Beauty  is like that.  It has such traits and attributes.  It is capable of knocking down borders. Slipping through barriers.

Multitudes of men dressed in sheets followeed through Marrakesh singing Hi Lili Hi Lili Hi Lo.  Women in burkas peered out from the corners to watch in fascination.

Had the cigar box been more conspicuous it might have dissuaded many from pausing.  Especially the poor, the elderly, those who might feel guilty not being able to contribute.  Because the box was so submerged, people took no notice.  those who did, approached to thank me, and discreetly dropped a few dollars in before leaving.

It was when i began cranking out Moon River that another shower of butter colored leaves began to descend, prolonged by a breeze that did not want to let up.  The air seemed to suddenly condense and thicken with moisture.  The predicted evening rains were drawing closer. With darkness encroaching,  the glow of the street lamps seemed more vibrant, the chips of amber blazing throughout the park.  Like metallic chips in a painting by Hunterwasser.  Or Klimpt.  The line between dusk and twilight, between day and night, was disputable. The borders were being smudged.  The leaves fell in great multitudes.  Like the flakes of snow that fall when a child’s glass dome is shaken.  I lifted my gaze as my weathered fingers pressed on, and beheld the tree from its underside.  The leaves fell on my shoulders, on my lap, and on the bellows.  They collected in the rim of my hat.  They continued to descend into the innermost depths of my being.  They forced the lips open of an invisible mouth, one hitherto muted, that had remained undisclosed in my own interior darkness.  The beauty tore at the crack that sealed shut those lips. It ripped apart at the seam that confined its secrets.  Unrelentingly it pried.  And as the leaves continued to fall, and my fingers continued to press the succession of notes, while the bellows continued to expand and contract, to heave pendulously and with certain intent, the power of beauty suddenly yanked from the throat of that dark orafice – an apology to the universe.  Yes, suddenly my soul cried out.  It wrenched out a thank you.  The song continued like a moon lit river through the tributaries of the past. Bursting forth, from such unconsummated depths, a tacit and unprecedented gratitude for my childhood.  For growing up in the woods, and having a pond that my foster father had made with his bulldozer in a clearing formed after sawing down a lot of  trees.  There were brooks that tickled through those woods, with moss covered banks and gurgling black waters that fed into the pond. The earth, especially where the truncated stumps had been removed, smelled of anise and sasparilla. Of horehound. Overhead the stars began to glimmer.  The stars in the skies of my memory, and in the skies above tompkins square park, abolishing time. Eradicating the line between the past and the present.

The angels are always waltzing with the phantoms across such borders.  The spirits are entangled in each other’s embrace, dancing amid the casualties and corpses.  The shapeless shadowy adumbrations.

How many leaves had fallen from the elm in the few hours i had played.  Hundreds? Thousands?  Tens of thousands?  How many autumns had i played through.  How many more awaited?   Each a requiem as much as a rendezvous.

The rapture induced by the falling leaf. Multiplied to the square root of poetry.  Some would call it God’s duplicitous sense of mercy.  For it diverted our attention from the branch that was being denuded.  Slowly, incrementally, death was nibbling at each limb, and licking its chops.  Gazing up from beneath the boughs, the heavens became increasingly more visible.Seconds passed.  Minutes.  Hours.  Time marched like an indefatigable  troop of soldiers impervious to the passage that had left so many of us battle weary. The most we could do was trudge. And even that would be with belligerence.


Soon the snow would fall and the branches would be articulated by its accumulation, as would the park benches and the railings of the wrought iron fences. The swing sets of a nearby play ground would creak arthritically in the wind.

Suddenly a mother rose,  lifted her toddler from the pile of leaves, and began dancing with him in her arms.

Dream maker.

Heart breaker.

Helen Stratford

November 8th 2015

Completed November 12th



“Harmonizing With Hannah”

Chilmark Community Church

United Methodist Church

November 15, 2015

1 Samuel 1:4-20; 2:1-10

Rev. Vicky Hanjian

Rev. Dawn Chesser, Director of Preaching Ministries for the United Methodist Church reminds us that there are many things to admire about Hannah.  What she finds most compelling is Hannah’s audacity before God. “Hannah is frustrated with her situation. She expects God to hear her and to respond. She’s not going to sit back and try to be sweet and patient and wait for others to come around to see her point of view. She going to get in there and pour it all out before God — all of her years of pain, all of her sadness, all of her anger, all of her frustration over the oppressive position in which she is caught. She’s even willing to try bargaining with God if it will help.”

In her sorrow and distress and bitterness, Hannah goes to God and prays for a child.  Her prayer is ecstatic. She stands and moves her lips without making a sound.  Eli, the priest, is quite sure she is under the influence of wine.  She sets him straight and Eli hears the passion of her desire for God’s attention.  Eli reassures her of the possibility that God will grant her prayer.  In time, the child, Samuel, is born.  Hannah dedicates the child to the service of God – – and the grand saga of Israel takes a quantum leap as Samuel, priest and prophet, grows up to become a kingmaker for Israel.

In this brief part of a much larger story, God brings about a great reversal – bringing life where it did not exist – bringing justice for Hannah where it was absent – bringing joy where there had been bitterness and sorrow.

I want to pay attention to the song that Hannah sings in response to what God has done in answering her prayer and giving her a child.  First and foremost, Hannah sings a song of gratitude: “My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted (made even greater) in my God….there is no Holy One like the Lord….there is no Rock like our God….

Hannah prays…..God answers… By God’s grace, Hannah becomes pregnant.  When her long awaited son is born Hannah sings to God in joy and gratitude.  She is no longer at the bottom of the pecking order.  She will no longer have to endure the insults leveled at her by Peninah – her heart leaps with joy – – she is the barren woman who has conceived and born a child.  It is a deeply personal and moving song of gratitude for God’s gracious reversal of her barrenness and suffering.

But the song moves quickly from the personal to a decidedly universal and political note.  Hannah sings: Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil…..God raises up the poor from the dust; God lifts the needy from the ash heap….the barren woman bears seven children – but the one who has many children is forlorn.

Hannah sings about a God who works in great reversals – – a God who makes the rich poor, who gives children to the barren women.   She sings of a God who is powerful and who works in all of creation to bring justice to the world God has created.  Hannah sings about a God who turns things upside down in order to make things right.  Her song celebrates and gives witness to the power of God to create possibilities for the future that seem impossible through human resources alone.

I couldn’t help thinking about this God while reading the headlines of The New York Times and The Boston Globe this week.  Both papers featured the story of a democratically elected government in Myanmar – a country that has been abusively dominated by a powerful military regime for many years. It seems as though that small land so ridden by corruption and violence for so long may be going through a great reversal.  Might we see the hand of God in their history? 

There are moral implications that flow from Hannah’s song.  The God of reversals is a God who notices the difference between the faithful who attempt to cooperate with the Divine vision for humankind and those who do not. (v.9)  While this idea of God as judge is often an uncomfortable notion for us to grapple with, for Hannah, it was a sign of hope.  She lived in a time when the power of violence and corruption and oppression determined the direction of life for Israel. Hannah’s song is a song of trust in God’s power to transform the life and the social and political realities in which she lived.

In many ways, the world we live in today is not so very different from Hannah’s world.  A short paragraph from the Interpreters’ Bible sums up the similarities:

“We live in a world that constantly evidences a belief in human might.  Militarism, in its modern technological guise, made the 20th century the bloodiest century in human history; and still it is easier to raise budgets for weapons than for diplomacy.  Consumer driven market realities determine our cultural preferences and appetites. Elections are influenced more by financial resources than by political ideas.  Even in the church, energy often seems directed to issues of membership growth, institutional maintenance and popularity of programs than to the discernment of what God is doing in the world.” (from the NRSV New Interpreters Bible).

Hannah sings a song of hope for ancient Israel. Her song offers us hope us too.  We need an assurance that a different reality is at work in the world from what we customarily acknowledge.  We need to know that the language of  “the 99%”  and the “1%”,  the ongoing violence in the Middle East, immigration issues around the world,  and the battle for the welfare of the middle class are not divorced from the gracious concern and oversight of God.

  At the beginning of Hannah’s story, she seems powerless.  She is sad and depressed. Her husband doesn’t understand her.  Her “sister-wife” taunts and abuses her.  She prays passionately to God and her priest accuses her of drunkenness.  Wherever she turns she is cut off from the fullness of life. 

But still, she prays and then she sings with passion.  Her song reminds us that power is not irrevocably tilted in favor of those the world defines as powerful.  Those worldly definitions of power leave far too many human beings feeling powerless and without hope. 

Hannah sings of a God whose transforming power can reverse the patterns of power and wealth. She sings of a God who does not accept the world’s power arrangements.  She sings of a God whose might is not wielded in a disinterested fashion.  God is heavily invested in the welfare of the weak, the powerless, the poor, the hungry, the dispossessed, the barren.”

Hannah’s song is the beginning of the lead up to the story of David finally being anointed as King of Israel – the king who will unite all the 12 fractious tribes of Israel  – who will bring justice and peace to the land.  Any king whom God will anoint and empower must serve the reversals of power that Hannah sings about. 

In our own time, the people of God are called to identify and minister with  those who wait for the great reversals – people who yearn for adequate housing, for a living wage, for safety for their children, for affordable education, for adequate health care, for freedom from fear.  We are called to attend to the most powerless among us.  But even more, we are called upon to trust in an invisible power that often seems to be absent or not strong enough to do the job of reversing the order of things.

For followers of Jesus, the melody of Hannah’s song is echoed in the song of Mary – known as the Magnificat (Lk. 1:45-55).  On hearing that she is to bear a son, Mary sings about God: He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. Both songs see the power of God as transforming the world in behalf of the powerless.

Mary becomes a part of long tradition of singing women. She has an ancestry that includes Hannah who sings at the birth of Samuel.  But there are other singers too.  On the shores of the Reed Sea, Miriam, the sister of Moses, calls out the women to sing about God ‘s deliverance of Israel out of slavery in Egypt.

The great judge, Devorah, sings of God’s victory when God shifts the balance of power against the Canaanites in the Book of Judges.  (5:1)  These women in our faith tradition were singers of new possibilities.  They were singers of new communities and new power arrangements.  The songs of the mothers remind us that our story as the church is part of the song God has been singing since the beginning of time.

  We are rapidly approaching the season of Advent when we will be focused on the coming of Jesus for the healing of the world.  Hannah’s song reminds us that the history of God’s healing and restoration and salvation did not just begin with Jesus – rather it was part of the history into which Jesus was born – – a history that Jesus inherited and brought forward, profoundly enriched by his life and teaching.   Jesus in turn becomes part of the history into which we are born.  As his followers, it is our sacred task to share in God’s great work of bringing into being a more sane and just and compassionate world. 

It is our turn to take up the song – to give thanks to God for all that God has done since the beginning of time – – and to harmonize our voices with Hannah and MIriam and Devorah and Mary to sing of a God of justice who will continue working to transform this world until we become the kingdom God has had in mind since the beginning.

May God give us the strength and the wisdom, the courage and the faith, and the creativity to see our role and to take up the song.

A Grandmother’s Story November 8,2015

A Grandmother’s Story

Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17

Chilmark Community Church United Methodist

November 8, 2015

Rev. Vicky Hanjian

I have come to love the story of Ruth as a story about one of my grandmothers. Indeed, I have met her in the lives of my actual grandmothers. So I wonder if we can imagine that kind of relationship with her as we look at the story today.

There are so many ways to enter the story of Ruth – – -so many story lines to develop and consider.  Hers is a story of exile and return – one of the major movements throughout the Hebrew Bible;  it is a story of welcoming strangers and of the call to be compassionate and kind to others who are not like us.

Her story is a story of emptiness and fullness as Ruth and Naomi experience incredible losses and sorrow and then gradually move toward lives that are full and rich.

This is also a story of loyalty and love between family members and how they deal with issues of justice and poverty. The possibilities for meaning in the story of Ruth are almost without limit.

The ancient sages pondered the question of the meaning of Ruth.  Since the scroll says nothing about the Biblical laws of ritual cleanness and uncleanness and it doesn’t have any information about what religious law prohibits or permits, they wondered why it was written and saved in the first place. The scroll doesn’t even say very much about the nature of God. So we well might ask along with the ancient rabbis: What is the purpose of the Story of Ruth?  As followers of Jesus we might also ask “Where is the gospel of God – -where is the good news for us in this ancient folktale?”

As the 1st century sages turned the scroll again and again, they concluded that the story was written to teach about lovingkindness – – and not only about lovingkindness, but about how great the reward is for those who do deeds of kindness. (Midrash Ruth Rabbah 2.13).

The Hebrew word chesed is indeed one of the key words controlling the text. The word occurs three times: at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end of the story (Ruth 1.8, 2.20, 3.10). The scroll begins with the chesed or kindness Ruth does for Naomi – from gleaning in the fields to bringing home food. Then there is the kindness she does in honoring the memory of the dead in Naomi’s family (which becomes, by marriage, her own).

Later in the story, Boaz acts in Ruth and Naomi’s behalf to insure that they are able to have enough food and safety in their rather extreme situation.  He gives permission for Ruth to glean in his fields and instructs his people not to harass her.

Every character acting in this brief story–from Naomi to Ruth to Boaz to the minor characters–behaves in a manner that demonstrates this heroic concept of some form of kindness. The main actors of the story all act in the spirit of chesed; some perform ordinary kindness, and some–especially Ruth– perform  extraordinary chesed.  Ruth is a story of a super abundance of lovingkindness – – there is more than enough to go around.

As Maimonides puts it, the concept of hesed: “Includes two notions, one of them consisting in the exercise of beneficence toward one who deserves it, but in a greater measure than he deserves it. In most cases, the prophetic books use the word hesed in the sense of practicing beneficence toward one who has no right at all to claim this from you” [Guide for the Perplexed].

Ruth’s mode is the second. She practices kindness toward people who have no claim on her for it.  Herein lies the good news.

Way back in the book of Exodus, at the time of the sin of the making of the Golden Calf and Moses’ destruction of the first set of tablets given on Sinai, God commands Moses to cut two more stone tablets – and then carves the law on them again.  This time, God also reveals God’s self in the form of 13 attributes – a sort of self description: God is compassionate, gracious, slow to anger, abundant in kindness and truth, the preserver of kindness and the forgiver of sin for thousands of generations.

The words “abundant in kindness and truth, preserver of lovingkindness…” jump out of the passage.  In the tradition of Jewish biblical interpretation, every word has meaning – the placement of words in a sentence – the space between the words – the repetition of words all has meaning.  When the same word appears more than once in close repetition it kind of means “dig here for buried treasure” when it comes to understanding the meaning of a text.

So let’s look again at where this chesed appears in the story:

We see it in Naomi’s concern for Ruth and Orpah as she encourages them to go back to their mother’s homes and start over again. Naomi does not bind them to her even though she is within her rights to do so.  She releases them in the service of their best interests.

We see kindness in Ruth’s refusal to abandon her aging mother-in-law, choosing rather to accompany her back to her home in Bethlehem –even though it means living among people who may not accept her because she is a Moabite. 

We see lovingkindness in Boaz’s actions toward Ruth – providing for her safety, assuring her that she will have enough grain for her and Naomi’s daily needs.  Midway through the story, Boaz negotiates with an unnamed kinsman in Ruth and Naomi’s behalf to be sure they are entitled to inherit Elimelech’s land holdings. Boaz extends radical kindness especially to Ruth, who as a hated Moabite has no right to claim anything from Boaz.

  We see kindness near the end of the story as the women of Bethlehem celebrate Naomi’s return and rejoice with her at the birth of her grandson, Obed. In an extravagant act of lovingkindness, the village women “own” the child and give him his name – – thus offering the ultimate welcome to Ruth, the foreign woman, into the bosom of their community.

The story of Ruth invites us to consider the nature of Divine grace – – especially if we go back to Maimonides’ thought that chesed includes two aspects: one – doing acts of lovingkindness in a greater measure than is deserved – – and two – practicing lovingkindness toward one who has no right at all to claim this from you.

In the Exodus story, God reaches out to the Israelites after the sin of the Golden Calf.  God offers them wholeness and a cohesive way of life again through a second set of laws.  But even more, God reveals the Divine attribute of chesed – – lovingkindness – – more than the people deserve – – and far more than the people have any right to claim.   Kindness is a wispy trace of God that weaves its way throughout so many of the stories in the scriptures.

There is one more thread to follow in this quest for the good news in Ruth.  In the final verses there is this brief witness at the time of the birth of Naomi’s grandson, Obed:”They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David. (Ruth 4:17b).  When we riffle through the pages of our Bible and fast- forward some 42 generations, we find that Matthew’s gospel traces the lineage from Ruth through the generations to King David and from there to the generation of Joseph who is the earthly father of the earthly Jesus – – who is God’s gift of grace – of lovingkindness. 

I wondered a little at the placement of Ruth in the lectionary readings for today – – and then began to realize that we are encountering the deep back ground in the scriptures that helps to get us ready for the season of Advent.  If we are not connected with the witness to Divine abounding grace that flows through the narrative of our faith history through the stories of people like Ruth, we are impoverished when it comes to receiving it as fully as we might.   

The weeks are flying fast.  In the blink of an eye we will be at the first Sunday in Advent – – waiting and anticipating the celebration of God’s great gift.  We owe a great “thank-you” to our Grandmother Ruth for the role she plays in the story as she teaches us about the way of kindness and the way of the grace of God.  In the coming weeks, may we softly and gradually open to the meaning of the gift of abundant lovingkindness that is always flowing toward us – – and may each act of kindness we do reveal God’s trace through us as we approach the holiday season.


“You Are Cordially Invited”

Luke 14:12-24

Rev. Armen Hanjian

Chilmark Community Church

November 1, 2015

This will be a good sermon because I am dealing with an area in which I am quite an expert – that of making excuses. It would have been a great sermon – – but I was pretty busy this week.

The Bible is a great book in many ways, particularly so in describing life. In Genesis, old Adam says, “Eve made me do it.” Eve says “The serpent made me do it.” And millions say “The devil made me do it.”

Recall the rich young ruler who was invited to follow Jesus. He could have been a part of the greatest adventure in history, but he made an excuse and went away sorrowful.

Once Jesus asked aloud:”…to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market places and calling to their playmates, ‘We piped to you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.”

Here, Jesus describes John the Baptist’s ministry and his own in vivid contrast. “For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say ‘he has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking and they say, ‘Behold, a glutton and a drunkard.’” John’s ministry was stern like a funeral; Jesus’ ministry was joyous, like a wedding. The people Jesus was addressing didn’t follow either one. They were playing the game of religion in their own way and like irritable children, refused to play any game but the one they knew best: “I’m doing my religious thing so don’t mix me up with what God expects of me!”

The place in the Bible that makes most clear our inclination to excuse ourselves from God’s service is today’s parable of the rejected invitation.

A great banquet is planned. Matthew’s gospel refers in this parable to a king throwing a sumptuous wedding reception for his son – – not sandwiches and punch as we had at our reception, but the whole works. Lo and behold, the people who were invited chose not to come to the joyous feast.

Jesus was always drawing parallels. If there was a fishing boat around, he would say “I will make you fishers of people.” If someone pointed to the harvests, he would say “The fields are white with harvest but the laborers are few.” In Luke’s parable our vision is raised from this banquet and human hospitality to God’s hospitality with the implied question “Will you be there at God’s home?”

This invitation went to the most likely, the so-called “friends of the family.” This likely refers to “religious people.” How nice. Mr. and Mrs. So and So request the honor of your company. Mr. and Mrs. Thus and thus regret that they will be unable to be present.

Sometimes we invite because we have to. Sometimes we don’t go because we don’t want to. But certainly no one would decline an invitation to God’s banquet in heaven. Yet the folly is in this story: “Please present my regrets to the Lord of Heaven and Earth. I can’t come.”

Why did the guests refuse the summons to the feast? Why do people refuse Jesus’ summons to the joyful life? It is not because people are outright wicked. Rather it is because they are absorbed – – -absorbed in their own things.

All three men in the parable who sent their regrets probably repeated their excuses so many times that they thought their reasons were valid. The banquet might be dull and my own affairs seem to promise more happiness. Things are finally going better for me so don’t distract me with other affairs.

Let’s look at the specific excuses they give. They symbolize the successful secular society. “I have bought a piece of land and I must go and look it over.” This can represent our possessions and investments. Certainly we need land to live on and homes to live in and so on, but is that reason enough to ignore the God who made us when God calls us to God’s priorities?

The second excuse avoids the invitation by saying: “I have bought five yoke of oxen and I am on my way to try them out.” This can represent our attempts at maintaining our self-esteem. “World, look at my car, my house, my creations, my crafts, the power I wield.” God know, we need to build up our reserves of self esteem, but these are dead ends that lead to idolatry rather than life when leaned upon.

The third avoids the invitation by announcing, “I have just gotten married and for that reason I cannot come.” At best, the spouse and family represent our human centered comfort and at worst our cult of exploitive sex. God knows that we need to give attention to family and that sexual realtionships can be among the most beautiful channels of love. But even good things, when over emphasized, can lead to an unbalanced life which can lead to death.

Perhaps these are not our excuses for being slow in responding or for not responding at all to God, but our excuses are not so very different. Do any of these sound familiar? “We unfortunately had parents who were too strict – -or too lax – -or too distant — or too affectionate. Our parents conditioned us. “ “We were born during a difficult period that emphasized materialism and drugs and fear of war.” “We were too rich – – or too poor” “What we are is simply a product of our environment and our heredity.” “God made us this way.” “What ever will be will be.” “I don’t pretend to be religious.”

Our excuses are endless. The one that bugs me the most is when someone puts a label on something and thinks he or she has thereby dealt with the matter: “maladjusted and introverted” instead of dishonest and self-centered; “a spasm of re-adolescence” instead of adultery and so on.

One need only listen to conversations on the boat or in line at the post office to know what has absorbed our minds and hearts. The concerns are with boats and houses and sports and vacations. Any one who talks about human destiny or the claims of Jesus is thought of as odd; it makes others shuffle with discomfort. When death or sickness comes, we are tongue-tied because we are used to more trivial topics like the weather or the traffic. When a crisis has passed we return to casual speech with great relief.

Our misguided emphasis on the things that absorb us is not harmless. That way of life can lead to tragedy. That way can lead to broken relationships.

The parable insists that God’s plan will not be thwarted. God graciously invites, but God does not force. If you will not come, God will invite others. When “nice” people beg off, then God goes to those who are considered to be the wreckage of society And if the church becomes too comfortable and self-righteous and deaf to God’s invitation, then God may well take up some secular movement and use it to fulfill God’s glad purpose.

What then must we do? Can we respond to the invitation? Can we change? We keep thinking we are pretty much set, now that we are the age that we are. But don’t be fooled. Each of us is still growing –or slipping. We move subtly, often quietly. The slopes are gentle and easy. We compare ourselves with others rather than with Jesus. It is like riding in a car at 55 miles per hour and being oblivious to the fact that we are pat of a larger system in which the earth rotates at the equator ¼ mile per second while revolving around the sun at some 20 miles per second. At the same time the sun with its planetary companions including the earth orbits the center of the Milky Way galaxy at an estimated speed of 200 miles per second. The sooner we realize that this is God’s world and that it is God’s will that is primary, the better it will be for all of us.

Yes, heredity and environment do affect us all, but they are never the final word. There is our free choice. The boy from a broken family does well. The family that has every right to produce criminals creates leading citizens. If there is a secret, it seems to be that if a person sees someone she wants to be like, she can break away from the powers that mold her. This is why the church holds before the people the person of Jesus Christ.

There is a proverb that the furniture store favors: “Home comes first.” It is nearly true and thus tragically false. For a home trying to feed itself is like a man trying to feed on his own body. It is a cannibalism that succeeds at first but finally yields to the law of diminishing returns. How can we be loyal to family and do our duty to God? How can we be loyal to our nation and differ with it when it is going astray? There are conflicting loyalties wherever we turn.

The only answer I have found is to have one over arching loyalty to the hierarchy of our loyalties. Jesus alone is worthy of such a place. He who said, “He who loves father or mother, son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” knew that putting Christ and his kingdom first would be the way one could best love his family.

When we look to Christ, then we love as he loved. Our love does not depend on how others behave. Thus, we put a stop to our “there are hypocrites in the church” excuse.

Once Christ is made primary in our lives, then we must get busy prioritizing. There is no end to our responsibilities – – so many people to help by our visits, so many causes that would benefit from our time and talent and resources. What is one to do? We can write down and then pick out the priorities. Which will do the most good for the most people for the longest amount of time? We can keep testing our actions by the fruit they produce. Not that we always have to be successful; we need primarily to be concerned with being obedient to God. Through the years, God has proved the abundant fruit-bearing capabilities of those who have trusted in their God.

When we prioritize, this will put an end to our excuses that we do not have enough money or we do not have enough time.

We should look to Christ, we should prioritize, and finally, we should relate to Christ’s people. That will speak to our excuse that we are tired. Every person gets tired while depending on his or her own strength alone. But where Christ’s people are gathered, Christ is present with the resources of God.

It isn’t often verbalized, but many are paralyzed with the excuse of being afraid: fear of what people will say about us; they might hurt us or reject us. We don’t need more of that. Keeping close to Christ’s people can help overcome fear – Christ‘s love casts out fear.

To those who are not 100% sure about Jesus Christ and the Christian way, I say: relate to Christ’s people. The faith of others will encourage us to act on whatever faith we do have.

Look to Christ. Prioritize. Relate to Christ’s people.


A certain man held a feast on his fine estate in town.

He laid a festive table, he wore a wedding gown.

He sent invitations to his neighbors far and wide,

But when the meal was ready, each of them replied:

I cannot come to the banquet, don’t trouble me now,

I have married a wife, I have bought me a cow.

I have fields and commitments that cost a pretty sum;

Pray hold me excused, I cannot come.

The Master rose up in anger, called his servants by name,

Said go into the town, fetch the blind and the lame.

Fetch the peasant and the pauper for this I have willed.

My table must be crowded, my table must be filled.

When all the poor had assembled, there was still room to spare,

So the master demanded: Go search everywhere,

To the highways and byways and force them to come in;

My table must be filled before the banquet can begin.

Now God has written a lesson for the rest of humankind;

If we’re slow in responding God may leave us behind.

God’s preparing a banquet for that great and glorious day.

When the Lord and Master calls, be certain not to say:

I cannot come to the banquet, don’t trouble me now,

I have married a wife, I have bought me a cow.

I have fields and commitments that cost a pretty sum;

Pray hold me excused, I cannot come.

Bishop’s All Saints letter

Together in Christ

Nov. 1, 2015

My Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

Greetings in the precious name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Today we observe and celebrate All Saints’ Day! Though we may each define saint differently, I think we can all agree that saints are change-agents or “balcony people.” “Balcony people” are not those members of your congregation who sit in the upper seats! (Or maybe they are; read on).

Consider this definition from a blog I recently read: “A Balcony Person brings people to a higher place – where they can flourish, live freely, pursue their passions, and become better human beings. Balcony People encourage, help, give, serve; they are considerate, enthusiastic & joyful, quick to forgive, good listeners, diligent, compassionate. They make people’s lives better. They also make people better. They know how to encourage others to grow into the best versions of themselves.” Taken from the blog “You Are the One that I Want.”

As we observe All Saints’ Sunday, may we think about the saints in our lives who have been our change-agents and balcony people – those who have gone to their eternal rest since we observed and celebrated All Saints’ Sunday in 2014.

May I share with you four people in my life who have been my change-agents and balcony people, those who have left us in the last few months to enjoy their heavenly home?

First, Padma Punja, who was one of my earliest role models. She opened her house to people of all faiths and backgrounds, rich and poor alike. The youth, lay, clergy, and bishops who visited India always enjoyed her powerful hospitality. Even on our last Mission of Peace Pilgrimage to India, she, along with her son and his family, gave us a gala dinner. She was an inspiration to others through her humility and gracious smile.

Second, Ursula Veigel, the spouse of a missionary from Germany who I knew in my childhood and teenage years. Ursula’s radiating smile and compassionate eyes always spoke to us on our level as children and youth. She taught us how to love and care for the poor.

Third, my Aunt Betsy, a positive thinker who had the wisdom of Solomon and the patience of Job. She always encouraged people to see the goodness in others. I still remember with gratitude her great ability to listen to others and always see the gifts they possessed. I was also touched by her radical hospitality.

Fourth, Bishop Taranath Sagar, a global ecumenical leader and bishop of the Methodist Church in India. Though I only came to know him in this last decade, he amazed me with his ability to speak the truth with a touch of humor. On my visit to India this summer, I enjoyed spending time with him. We engaged in holy conversation with one another without any fear. It was a beautiful visit where I enjoyed his and his wife Padma’s graceful hospitality. Bishop Sagar challenged me to go places I would not have gone on my own, thus enabling me to stretch my imagination and thoughts.

Friends, may I prayerfully encourage you to think about all those who have been your saints – your agents of change, your balcony people?

May we take time to talk about them and share how they influenced and changed us through their lives and their roles as children of God?

May we take time to thank our Creator for each of them and for the gifts, in all shapes and forms, they have given us that continue to make us better people?

May we also take time to write a note of appreciation to those saints who are still living, letting them know how they have influenced us for the better; let them know that we recognize them as our saints, our balcony people.

Interestingly, someone just recently sent me this quote from Albert Schweitzer: “In everyone’s life, at some time, our inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit.”

May God grant all of us the power and grace to be a change agent or balcony person, rekindling inner spirits in others, filled with the compassionate love of God and with the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

In Christ’s love,
Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar



Attending to The Margins”

Mark 9:30 – 37

Chilmark Community Church

October 18, 2015

Rev. Vicky Hanjian

When I was a kid, I used to hate getting book reports and tests back from my teacher. There were always those annoying and sometimes downright upsetting little comments in the margins – – written in red ink so that I would be sure to see them – – or worse, so that my parents would be sure to see them. It was not until I was completing my undergraduate work and then working my way through seminary that those comments in the margins began to take on a much different meaning. Frequently there would be bits of editing information in the margins that helped me see nuances I had missed. If I paid attention and incorporated the suggestions into my paper, my writing actually became stronger and clearer. As I continued on in my academic career, paying attention to what appeared in the margins became an important part of my growth as a student and a pastor.

Jesus was a teacher who attended to the margins. In the story we just read, Jesus and his disciples are on their way on the road through Galilee. Jesus has just disclosed to them that he will be betrayed and killed and will rise again. They don’t understand what he is talking about. Indeed, in Mark’s Gospel the disciples never quite seem to catch on to what Jesus means or who Jesus is. So their conversations drift to other concerns. When they finally get to the house where they will be spending the night, Jesus asks them – – maybe in an offhand kind of way – – “So, what were you arguing about on the way?” It seems pretty evident that he had a good idea of what they had been discussing or he probably wouldn’t have asked them in the first place – – and Jesus seizes a teachable moment. They had been jockeying for power – – wanting to know who would be most favored – – who would be at the top of their little hierarchy.

Jesus asks – but he doesn’t wait for their answer. Maybe he just didn’t want to hear their inept arguments or deal with their embarrassed responses yet one more time.

Instead, he gives a teaching: “Whoever wants to be first must be the last and the servant of all.” This was a pretty paradoxical and even radical teaching for that time in history. Power and abuse of power was the way of life. The Romans exercised massive military power over Israel. Males exercised power over females. Heads of families exercised the power of life and death over their wives and children and slaves.

Some time ago, archaeologists in the middle east discovered a letter written at about the same time that Mark’s gospel was written. It was written by a man named Hyperion, an Egyptian laborer who was separated from his family because of his work assignment. He wrote to his wife who was expecting their second child. The letter is written in tenderness and concern. Even so, Hyperion advises his wife that if the newborn child is male, she should embrace it, but if it is female, she should “put the child away” – that is she should let the child die of exposure. Hyperion exercised his judgment about what was best for his family. His power over the life and death of his wife and children was a part of the way society was structured under Roman culture. The poor, the weak, the sick, the female, the slave, the child –

All were powerless and all were vulnerable – – all lived in the margins of the mainstream of life.

Then he took a little child and placed the child in the midst of them; and taking the child in his arms, Jesus gave them a teaching: ”Whoever welcomes one such child in my name, welcomes me, and not only me, but the One who sent me.”

Jesus paid attention to the margins. His greatest concern was for the little ones who lived at the margins of life. By his words and actions he directed the attention of his disciples toward the margins – – telling them that it was no longer appropriate for them to be arguing about who would be greatest among them. Indeed, the commentary from the margins was that their greatness was dependent upon their willingness to be servants of all.

This teaching is an example of the ministry which eventually led Jesus to the cross. It was a dangerous and revolutionary teaching. It reversed the accepted order of things – and in the end, could not be tolerated by the regime in power. Staying in power meant exercising control over every aspect of human life. When Jesus brought a little child into their midst and taught that the disciples must give up their power and become servants of the ones who were powerless, His revolutionary message reverberated. Jesus was dangerous. People who attend to the margins tend to be dangerous to the status quo – – but, in the end, that is what discipleship is all about.

Martin Luther King Jr. attended to the margins. The Mahatma Ghandi attended to the margins. Doctors Without Borders attend to the margins. Iconic figures like Mother Theresa attend to the margins. Their unrelenting commitment to listen to the voices from the margins brought them to servanthood. Servanthood is not glamorous and in the case of King and Ghandi, and more recently in the case of Doctors Without Borders, servanthood can be dangerous and fatal. Jesus called his friends to be servants, nonetheless.

Jesus brought a child from the margins of the disciples’ awareness right into the center of their attention. It is an image that challenges us today. Our own desire for stability and security and predictability often narrows our peripheral vision. When we are trying to keep our own lives together, just keeping up with daily concerns is enough to occupy all our attention. We aren’t very different from the disciples in that way. They all had their day to day concerns and hopes and fears, their issues of survival……and yet, Jesus directed their attention to the margins.

But his teaching was even more than a teaching about our responsibility to care for and attend to those who live precariously at the outer edges of the fullness of life.

Imbedded in the story this morning is also a lesson about our relationship to God. Jesus points out that in welcoming the child, we welcome him – – but not only him. When we welcome the child –that is when we attend to those most in need – – we find ourselves welcoming God – – the living God of all creation, the Holy One who breathes life into every living thing.

So, underneath a teaching about attending to life in the margins is Jesus desire for us to be in intimate relationship with the One who sent him. It is the work of Jesus to draw us into close communion with God. It was his greatest desire for his friends – -and for us. And so he gave a double barreled teaching: If you would be great, place yourself in the role of servant to all whom you meet – – live from the center of an attitude of servant hood. And then he adds the part that leads us into closer knowledge of God: Whoever welcomes one such child in my name, welcomes me and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the One who sent me.”

A number of years ago, I spent a long weekend at a retreat center in the Catskills. There was a large arched, wrought iron gate in front of the entrance to the main building. Welded into the design of the archway overhead were the words “See God In Each Other.” It is the spiritual principle by which Mother Theresa lived her life. As she bathed and cared for the most destitute people on the streets of Calcutta, she was caring for her Beloved Jesus. Thereby, she spent all her waking moments in the company of God. Even as she acknowledged her spiritual struggles later in life, it was this servant ministry that kept her aware of the presence of God in her daily life.

I am often amused and perplexed by the way we humans are so easily drawn to take literally the words of judgment and harshness and condemnation we often encounter in the scriptures – – yet we are unable or unwilling to take literally a principle of Jesus that we ought to understand very clearly – – when we welcome any human being into our presence – – whatever their place in life – – we are welcoming not only Jesus – – we are welcoming God.

As followers of the way of Jesus, we do not come up short on good works. What we consistently fail to do is to cultivate a vital, consistent, conscious awareness of the Living Presence of God being offered to us in our encounters with other human beings, with each other – indeed in our encounters with ourselves.

Imagine, just for a moment, what would life in our communities be like if we consistently saw the face of Christ in every resident on this island…….not just the nice ones, but the difficult ones, the ones we don’t want to be around.

The supreme gift of God to humanity is the gift of Jesus. In the human face of Jesus, we see God – – we feel the love of God. Jesus’ gift to us is even more profound. In his visible human form, he becomes our guide – – he points us toward a state of being – – a state of conscious awareness in which every human interaction is full of God.

So here is the challenge of discipleship that Jesus offers to us – -to discipline ourselves to cultivate a conscious awareness of God in each human being we encounter. Jesus invites us to attend to the human beings at the margins of our lives who are showing us the Divine Presence waiting to be welcomed – – and then to watch what happens.

Graceful Boundaries 10/11/15


2 Kings 5:1-14

Luke 17:1-19

October 11, 2015

Chilmark Community Church

Rev. Vicky Hanjian

A few years ago, our son had the experience of a sudden and frightening plummet from robust health into being in a hospital bed while literally dozens of practitioners teamed up to try to figure out what was wrong. Multiple tests, several different diagnoses over the period of several days, surgery, vague answers to dozens of questions – – – he had crossed the boundary from health to disease – – the boundary between wholeness and brokenness.

All of us will experience life in the borderlands between wellbeing and sickness at some point in our lives. That’s what happened to Naaman – a strong military leader in the service of the King of Aram – – a valiant soldier. The story doesn’t tell us how long he may have suffered with symptoms – perhaps he was too busy – – too engaged to pay attention. There are just the terse words “…he had leprosy.” It is a slave girl who starts the referral process when she says to Naaman’s wife “If only he would go see the prophet in Samaria – he would cure him!” To do this Naaman has to take a leave of absence from work so he goes to his boss, the King of Aram, and gets a letter of introduction to the king of Israel. As occasionally happens, the referral isn’t quite the right one. The king of Israel can’t do anything to help Naaman – and, indeed, feels like someone is trying to trap him by referring the leprous man to him. Enter Elisha, the prophet, who is willing to take on the case. Elisha gives Naaman a prescription: “Go and wash seven times in the Jordan and you will be cleansed” – -you will be OK.

And – again, as sometimes happens, Naaman is skeptical about the prescription – – even angry. What? No extensive treatment? No soothing ointments? No rituals? – – -Naaman wants a lot more drama from Elisha the Prophet – – not just a bath in a river far from home.

Curiously, it is the servants, again, who bring a bit of wisdom. “My father, if the prophet asked you to do some great thing to be healed – – maybe an expensive sacrifice or a huge donation to the king’s treasury – – wouldn’t you do it? All Elisha is asking is that you go bathe in the river seven times. Naaman follows the prescription and is healed of his skin disorder.

The story is a story of moving about in the borderlands between illness and health – – and it is about the grace that may inhabit those moments in life that constitute the boundaries that we cross when we get a diagnosis that requires life changing and life affecting treatment.

Long ago, in another life, I was a nursing student at a small community college in NJ. In an introductory course on how to interface with a patient in a hospital the class was asked to imagine what it would be like to cross the boundary into a foreign country. The first thing that would happen as we passed the boundary into this strange new world would be having our identity taken away and being given an impossible- to- remove -bracelet with a number on it. From then on, whenever we needed anything, that number would be our ID. Next –all our clothing would be taken and we would be given ill-fitting garments that would not keep us warm and indeed would not protect us from indignity. After a long uncomfortable wait, we would be prodded and poked by strangers who spoke in a language we would be expected to understand- – even though we had never heard it before. Terms like BP, and OR, and CBC and URI and UTI and MRI would fly rapidly around the room. Strangers would enter our rooms at any time demanding more information, extracting our blood, bringing us unpalatable food, asking us questions we had already answered for the fifth time. Getting our bodily needs met would depend on someone else’s schedule. Our nights would be punctuated by strange sounds and frequent unscheduled visits by another group of strangers. We had crossed the boundary from health to sickness.

Crossing the border, crossing some boundaries, can be a terrifying thing. One wonders how Naaman felt, having to go to a strange land, to obtain the services of a strange king only to be referred elsewhere to an equally strange prophet who told him to go take a bath!

Samaria and Galilee were traditional enemies. Jesus moved along the border between the two domains. Ten people with leprosy saw him and asked him for help. They were outside the boundaries of participation in family life, in social interaction, in meaningful employment. Their skin condition marked them as outcasts. It seems Jesus will see people without a referral. All the men ask for is compassion. Jesus ignores the social borders between himself and the 10 men. He flows into the space marked by the social boundaries and extends his loving and healing grace toward them. There is no account of any ritual, any sacrifice, any special incantations – – just “go and show yourselves to the priests” The difference between these 10 and Naaman, is that they go without question – — except for one – – the double outcast – -the leprous Samaritan who turns around to say “thank you.”

We might wonder why Jesus asks the one who turns “Where are the other nine?” –After all, aren’t they doing exactly what Jesus instructed? – – heading off to find a priest who will declare them cleansed and ready to be back in society again? We might imagine the 9 to be running toward the temple, overjoyed at the prospect of returning to normalcy again.

What is different about #10? What is different about the one who is outcast on many levels – – a mistrusted stranger in foreign territory, a traditional enemy on the wrong side of the border, a person with leprosy, a person without an identity grouped with others by their disease?

It may be that through the experience of living in the borderlands between health and illness, between enemy territories, between trust and mistrust,

#10 has learned to see the world differently. When we have to move back and forth in those strange border lands, we sometimes learn to experience life from a new perspective – perhaps at last seeing the gifts that may be encountered – – the gracefulness that might appear in the little things: The admissions clerk who calls us by name. The housekeeping person who asks after our comfort. The nurse who tracks down information for us. The physician who sits down and takes time to answer our questions in a language we can understand. When we are on the receiving end of these ever so mundane courtesies, we are also on the receiving end of compassion. We may feel more seen and heard and understood – our humanity is returned to us – – the boundaries begin to soften – – grace happens – we begin to heal. Most often, our healing and our return to wholeness is due as much to the graceful caring that emerges in unexpected places as it is to the drama of complicated tests and treatments implied by all those cryptic initials.

The borderland between two enemy territories is an unlikely place for healing and grace to happen. In real time, we witness daily the horrors, the risks, the fear, the pain and suffering that so many human beings endure in their attempts to make it through the boundaries from the brokenness of their lives to something more whole. Boundaries can be frightening, dangerous and difficult places.

Yet, that is where the story tells us that Jesus does his work of healing. Jesus meets us on the boundaries. Indeed, the powerful grace of God may do its best work in those uncomfortably ambiguous spaces in our lives where our future wellbeing is uncertain – – but like #10, we may have to learn how be able to feel and see that grace in action – to see what the Holy One is doing. And when we do, we are able to come back and say thank-you. We begin to heal – to become whole – in spite of the time we have spent in the borderlands of illness and pain and suffering.

We may not ever go back to who we were before crossing the boundary into illness, but we may return and be renewed in ways we could not have imagined. A kind of death and resurrection happens. It can be amazing – – but this is the way grace works. May we have the eyes and ears and the heart to see it and give thanks.

OPATCO sermon October 4,2015

Exodus 3: 1-7
Luke 16:19-31
Chilmark Community Church
October 4, 2015
Rev. Vicky Hanjian
One of the more memorable courses that I took in seminary was titled “Church and Community”. It was taught by an equally memorable professor named David Graybeal. Dave was “mensch”. He was wise and he definitely practiced what he taught. He served as pastor, mentor and, often, confidant, for us struggling seminarians and fledgling pastors. He kept an eye on us.

He gave us an acronym that he said he hoped we would remember because it could help to shape our ministries in meaningful ways. That acronym is “OPATCO” – – and it stands for “On Paying Attention To The Community.” By the end of the semester, he had pretty passionately and effectively convinced many of us that our future ministries would be well served by doing just that – -paying attention to the communities in which we were called to serve.

I think, in the images and metaphors suited to his own time, this thing of paying attention was on the mind of Jesus too.

There are a lot of possible directions to follow in today’s story. It might lead us into thinking about life after death. It might take us to a discussion of income inequality and economics. It might lead us to thinking about the “evils of wealth”. It might even take us in the direction of good news for the poor. It all depends on where we put our focus.

We know from a lot of biblical analysis that when a story begins with the words “There was a rich man……” that this phrase is a literary convention – – and it lets us know that that the rich person in the story will serve as a poor example. When a poor person appears in contrast, we know that the story is headed toward teaching us something about the moral and ethical relationship between the rich and the poor.

The contrast is stark in this story. The rich man dresses opulently – he wears purple garments colored with the most expensive dyes. He wears linen – – the most expensive fabric. By contrast, the poor man reclines in the dust at the city gates, too poor and too weak to even beg – he waits for crumbs. The rich man ends up in the eternal fires and the poor man is welcomed into the peaceful, nurturing comfort of the bosom of Father Abraham.

The story might lead us to “rich is bad and gets punished – – poor is good and is rewarded” and it all balances out in the end. But, as Amy Jill Levine points out, we need to think carefully about that. If we are not affected, do not feel any sense of compassion for the rich man’s suffering in the story, then we are not much better off than he is. If we identify with Lazarus’ reward in heaven, then we also have to be able to imagine ourselves enduring his abject poverty in this life. So we have to proceed cautiously with this story.
As I kept wrestling with the details, and with David Graybeal’s acronym rattling around in my brain, I began to wonder if the rich man’s sin wasn’t so much that he was rich as it was that he wasn’t paying attention – – he was able to walk by Lazarus without even seeing him. Lazarus received more comfort and attention from the dogs who licked his sores than he did from another human being.

What was Jesus saying to his audience when he told this story?
Both Roman and Jewish cultures had imbedded in them the expectation that people of means had a responsibility to care for people without means. Justice was enacted when those could afford to attend to the needs of the poor did just that. It was a cultural and also a religious expectation. So, the rich man was going against the norm. He did not pay attention and therefore he did not act.

Paying attention is an attribute of God. When God called Moses from the flaming bush, this attribute of paying attention was the first thing that God revealed to Moses: “I have seen (witnessed, observed) the misery of my people….I have heard their cry…..I know of their suffering……God was paying attention to the suffering of God’s people.

God really had to prod Moses to pay attention, to witness the suffering of his people, to hear their cries, to know and understand their suffering –to act in their behalf. Moses was being called to reveal God’s face to the Hebrews in the midst of their captivity and suffering. Jesus’ story is a way of prodding us too. Because we too are responsible for revealing God’s face in the world. When we neglect this business of paying attention, in a sense, we hide the face of God. We neglect our responsibility to reveal God’s face when we fail to pay attention to what is going on around us. Not paying attention has consequences. God doesn’t speak from burning bushes so much anymore. But I think the Holy One fairly screams at us from the headlines – – vulnerable children suffering abuse, young black men being persecuted and killed because the are black, elders suffering from neglect at the hands of people who are supposed to protect them.
The great chasm that divided the rich man in the fire and Lazarus in the bosom of Abraham was not put in place by God. It occurred through human frailty and neglect – through a failure to pay attention to what was happening at the city gates.

So –what does the story demand of us as we encounter the human family around the communion table this morning?

I wonder if there is a clue in the name of the poor man. Lazarus is the Greek form of the Hebrew name “Eliezer”. Eliezer is made up of two Hebrew words: Eli – meaning God and Ezer – meaning help.
Lazarus’ name means “God helps”. So I wonder if Lazarus – the epitome of human suffering – is our teacher – our helper. Does his name imply that through his suffering presence at the city gates, God is helping us, calling us to awaken? To pay more attention? To Respond? Does God work through the constant reminders of poverty and economic inequity and human suffering to prod us into action that will help to bring the kingdom closer?

Maybe it doesn’t have to be very complicated. The acronym might just work. OPATCO – paying attention to the community – – whether it is the community within these walls, or within the boundaries of Chilmark, or the world community bounded by the ever moving sea –paying attention is the first step in building a more just and humane world. When we pay attention we begin to reveal the face of God – we make real the attributes of a God who pays attention, who listens, who hears and knows – – A God who responds. Paying attention is the first step. May our time around the table strengthen us in the work of attending to the community around us.

CRAVING by Armen Hanjian September 28,2015

Craving Num. 11:1-2,4-5,18-20,31-34 Matt.5:1-12 92715

When Jesus shared the Beatitudes, he wasn’t addressing children or youth; he was talking to adults who had sharpened their focus regarding life and its meaning. This is particularly true with the beatitude that stated: “Blessed (that is, “happy”) are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.”

A person has to let go a lot of his or her agenda items in a day if he or she is going to focus on doing what is right – righteousness, to focus on doing what is just – justice. Part of Jesus learning in his younger years of Jewish training was the truth that Micah proclaimed: “….what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

THAT CALL IS JUST AS TRUE FOR THE MATURE JEW AS FOR THE MATURE CHRISTIAN; just as true centuries ago as for today; just as directly a call to me as to you.

How can I right what is wrong in my life, my church’s life, my community’s life? How can one person right what’s wrong in the world? How can I address someone or some group that has been unjustly treated?

I don’t have a single easy answer this morning. Rather, I am trying to help me and you to include it in our daily agenda – the truth that there is deep happiness when we make space in our hearts and minds whereby we hunger and thirst for righteousness.

When the Hebrews were in Egypt, they complained, “We want freedom; we want out of here.” When they were out of Egypt, they wanted the good old days when they had meat to eat. What is it I complain about, or better put, what is it I crave?

I mean more than biting into sweet corn. I mean other than our gradual growth toward hungering and thirsting after righteousness. Through my years, I thought what I really craved were women, sex, that sort of satisfaction. I have concluded what I crave is intimacy. It’s a hot potato; I can’t hold onto it very long. A helpful way of understanding is: into-me-I-see.

Intimacy involves me in various forms, various ways:

1. Eye contact that is sustained.

2. Touching.

3. Hugging with my whole self and being hugged back by another’s offering their whole self.

4.Hearing and/or saying just the right words.

5. Music.

6. Beauty

7. Reminders that connect me with past intimacy, e.g. someone who looks like an early loved one.

A reason we can’t hold onto the feeling of intimacy very long is that it is a powerful charge of energy to be used to move me and you into appropriate action. The pattern is this: ENERGY moves us to ACTION which moves us to INTERACTION with a persons or persons or thing. And those three things (energy, action, interaction) yields: MEANING.

If we are not in touch with the energy of our feelings, no energy emerges and gets named. If that step is missing there is little or no action.

If we are short on feelings/energy, action or interaction beyond our world, our self, we are short changed on something else we crave: meaning.

Be in touch with your feelings. Act on them and discover how God’s blessings will abundantly flow.

I invite you to take a moment, then share your thoughts or feelings on this perspective.