Let the Words of My Mouth Be Acceptable…Feb. 7

Chilmark Community Church

February 8, 2016

Rev. Armen Hanjian

LET THE WORDS OF MY MOUTH BE ACCEPTABLE

James 3:1-11 Matthew 12: 33-37 Psalm 19

If we are to take all Jesus has to offer us, we are to move more and more toward “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” It follows that not only my deeds must be measured by the stature of his life, but so must my words. The importance of the use and misuse of words in our daily relationships was made clear to me when Jesus said to his disciples, “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will render account for every careless word they utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” (Matt. 12:36)

Why was Jesus so concerned about mere words? Because the words a person uses are an important indication of his or her character. Jesus was saying in effect that the quality of our inward life determines the character of our speech. You don’t get good fruit from a dead tree. Then the saying follows: Take with you words and you have taken with you the mother of deeds.”

To the thoughtless, nothing is so trivial as a word. Jesus and the people of Israel were taught differently. They were taught to attach the greatest importance to a solemn vow. In contrast, how lightly people take their vows today – baptismal vows, membership vows, marriage vows. Whenever I find myself letting my word or vows become trivial, void of significance, I find my inner integrity has begun to erode. I need Jesus, I need the scriptures, I need you, the faith community, to help me in my keeping my vows, filling my life and words with meaning and thus prevent mass erosion.

The fact that words are symbols was driven home to me back when Vicky and I were discussing desserts in front of our preschooler Clark. Clark was by-passed only two meals when ice cream was discussed by spelling. The next time Clark said, “I want some I-C-E.”

A word is a flash of understanding between two minds. It may be spoken, written or even a gesture. A word is an external act which carries meaning. If then words are the mother of deeds, if words are freighted with meanings, then it follows that our words can hurt and our words can heal.

In Charles Dickens’ novel, “Dombey and Son” there is the lovely little girl, Florence. Her mother had died and nothing of a mother’s love is in the father at all. His whole demeanor is icy and frigid and there is no expression of affection at any time. Dickens points out how this little girl tries to win her father’s love and wonders if she is doing everything she ought to do to melt that icy exterior. He speaks no good word of love with his tongue. What a tragic situation. The tiniest expression from his lips of affection would have meant everything to her. Words can hurt because they are never said.

It is strange that a soft substance like water has the power, under certain conditions, to burst pipes that hold it. Ordinary things can have unsuspected power. That is true of water; it is also true of words. They seem so innocent; yet, they can cut and burn and humiliate. The danger is not in sharp penetrating words; we know from Jesus that there are times when piercing speech is necessary. The danger comes in the motive behind the words. Digest these two proverbs:

The words of a whisperer are like delicious morsels”

(There is a difference between gossip and goodnews.)

Faithful are the wounds of a friend; but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful.”

(Motive makes the difference.)

I am sure you have experienced times when even while you were speaking you knew your words were hurting and unjustifiably harsh. Yet, you were unable to quit, unable to ease off, unable to turn from the negative to a positive conversation. Here are 3 things I have found helpful. 1) Go through your vocabulary and weed out those terms you use when you really get mad. I am not saying don’t express your anger. Weed out those words which cut, which close off conversation. I believe I made a big step in the right direction when I ousted “shut up” from my vocabulary. But there are other words I unthinkingly use which my dear friends could bring to my attention.

2) I have found that I have been able to turn the tide from negative repelling relationship to positive one by prayer. By asking God to help me be Christ like in this matter.

3) The next time you find yourself stewing in self pity, take this positive action of prayer early in the period of tension. The longer you stew, the harder it is for reconciliation to take place. In these matters, an once of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

This brings me to the other emphasis I wish to make. Words not only have the power to hurt; words have the power to heal. Before I likened words to water which seems innocent enough, but can do damage. Well, there are words like faith, hope and love, which seem innocent enough, yet which can likewise become powerful forces that can do what nothing else can do. They can break through artificial barriers of suspicion and prejudice and make life clean and sweet.

Every couple (and I’ve married 240 couples) hears me emphasize two things needed for a lasting marriage: out-going, self-giving love, obviously and forgiveness, necessarily. These words seem innocent enough, but how powerful they become when we include them in our daily living: “I love you,” “I am sorry, will you forgive me?” These are healing words as sure as any medicine can heal. But these are hard words to say honestly. Once a word issues forth and we see it in its starkness, we would retract it but pride says, “Let it go spoken lest the blame be shifted back on me.” The best way to maintain a healthy relationship with family, fellow workers even with God, is to be in the habit of saying words like, “I love you,” and “I was wrong; will you forgive me?”

Other words too should become more and more part of our vocabulary as a Christian; words like: “nevertheless” and “in spite of it all”. You know the story of Robinson Crusoe. The original of that story, the man who really was cast on a desert island, was Alexander Selkirk. He wrote the poem beginning “I am the monarch of all I survey. My right there is none to dispute.” He was rescued after being on an island alone for four years. The sailors from the rescuing ship found him on the beach wildly waving his arms to them. They reported, “He was a Scotsman, but he had so much forgotten his language for want of use that we could scarce understand him.” Let that sink in “he had forgotten the language for want of use.” We can forget the great language of our faith, such thrilling words as “forgive us our trespasses,” “thy kingdom come, thy will be done”. Only as we use that language everyday can we keep it fresh in our vocabulary and in our activity.

Do not underestimate the healing ministry of your words. Alice Freeman Palmer taught a Sunday school class of girls in her younger years. One day she went to visit a class member who lived in a dingy tenement. While there she happened to say that the sunshine made the little girl’s hair so pretty. This chance remark had a strange effect. For the first time this girl saw beauty even in her dingy, drab home.

She began to look for it everywhere. This habit became a beacon for her spirit. Later she worked her way through college and was happily married. Years later, this woman told. Mr. Palmer that she owed everything she was to the lady who taught her to look for beauty everywhere. So even our chance remarks may have results beyond all belief.

Don’t underestimate the healing power of your words. I am in whole-hearted agreement with the man who wrote: “An inferior man will make more impressions on hearts by a single word animated by the spirit of God, than another by a whole discourse which has cost him much labor and in which he has exhausted all his power of reasoning.” –Louis Lallement

Addison has a passage (in the Spectator) about the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory, how some authors must stay there until the influence of their evil writings has disappeared. But who can tell when that influence will end?

The wonder and the danger of it all is that no one can tell where the influence of our words will end. Thanks be to God that God works with us in our ministry of healing and reconciliation.

Before we share in the opening of our lives to the presence of Christ by way of communion, let us share in the prayer which preceded the sermon. Would you repeat after me? Let the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord my rock and my redeemer. Amen.

WHAT SHALL WE TELL THE CHILDREN? January 31, 2016

“What Shall We Tell The Children?”

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10

Luke 4:14-21

January 31, 2016

Chilmark Community Church

Rev. Vicky Hanjian

Bruce Feiler is a popular American writer.  He has recently published a best selling book entitled Secrets of Happy Families.  In the book he makes a rather interesting point.  He writes: “The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative.”  He cites a study from Emory University that shows that the more children know about their family’s story, “the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self esteem, and the more successfully they believe their family functions.”  Our family stories and narratives are important for our well-being.

On Wednesday, at the Oak Bluffs Library, I came across a quote from the late Alan Rickman also known as Professor Snape in the Harry Potter stories. He wrote: “,,,it’s a human need to be told stories.  The more we’re governed by idiots and have no control over our destinies, the more we need to tell stories to each other about who we are, why we are here, where we come from, and what might be possible”.

We read about some significant story telling from the prophet Nehemiah.  He tells the story of the people of God, Israel, returning from exile in captivity under the Babylonians, resettling in the towns they had left many years before.

This is a stunning story.  In the unfolding of the scriptures, it is the first time that such a public reading of scriptures happens.  The stunning part is that it happens at the request of the people – – not by the command of God.  A people governed by foreign forces not of their choosing – – a people who for a generation or more had experienced no control over their own destiny.  They need and want to hear their story.

It is not at all certain exactly which texts Ezra read, but tradition suggests that he may have been reading from Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Number and Deuteronomy – the Law of Moses – the stories of creation; the stories of the journeys of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob; the stories of Joseph and his brothers and the descent of Israel down into slavery in Egypt; the stories Israel’s liberation from slavery and the  story of the 40 – year sojourn in the wilderness where they gradually become a  cohesive people of God with a shared sense of identity. So perhaps we can imagine Ezra standing in front of the gathered multitude, answering their hunger for their story – recapitulating their family history – for hours on end.

But, as interesting as that image is, I think it is even more interesting to see how the people respond – keeping in mind that they are the ones who asked Ezra to read to them.  It was a highly emotional time.  We read that the people were in front of and below Ezra as he read from a special platform built for the occasion – perhaps with the rubble of the war ravaged city behind him.  When Ezra began to unroll the scroll, all the people stood up as Ezra blessed God and gave thanks.  They lifted up their hands and said “AMEN!” – -They bowed their heads, prostrated themselves, and worshipped God.  Some of them wept, whether with joy and relief at being home again  or with recognition of how far away from God they had drifted.  And Ezra tells them to eat good food and drink sweet wine – tells them not to grieve because the day is holy and “the joy of the Lord is their strength” – – and they ended the day rejoicing because they had understood the words that had been read to them.

This is the power of the “family” narrative.”  Through the hearing of their narrative, covering their faith history from the beginning, the returning exiles were being “reconstituted” as a people – finding again their joy and their strength as the people of God after a long time in exile –finding their identity as a people.

Some 500 years later, the story has been transmitted and received by Jesus.  He enters his Jewish life.  He is circumcised on the eighth day according to the ancient custom.  He grows to adulthood and enters the waters of Jordan along with his fellow Jews, claiming his identity as the beloved child God.  He heads out into the wilderness and wrestles with his demons. Each of these events in Jesus’ life symbolically reflects the story of his ancestors who entered the waters of the Reed Sea and sojourned in the wilderness and claimed their identity as people of God on the other side.  Jesus claims and lives out his family narrative – until we find him on the steps of the synagogue, unrolling a scroll, delivering yet another word of hope to a deeply troubled people – this time in exile in their own homeland.

The new word to these hungry people is that Jesus is living out his family story by identifying himself with the ancient promise.  His family narrative gives him his identity: ”The Spirit of the Lord is upon me – -I am anointed to bring good news to those of you who are poor – to proclaim a new kind of liberty and freedom to those of you who are in captivity, oppressed.”

In every generation, we human beings have needed to connect and re-connect ourselves to our faith narrative.  This is what the constant re-telling of the story is all about.  We are the children who need to hear the story. In a challenging and often chaotic world, we are the ones who need to hear it over and over again.  But we are also the ones who need to be telling our faith narrative to our children.  And just as we need to be telling our ancestral faith story, we need to be telling our children and grandchildren who their great-grandparents were – what our own personal family narratives are.

A few years ago I took the opportunity to ask my aunt, the only surviving member of that generation on my mother’s side of the family, what some of the family stories were. I learned that my grandmother, an Irish immigrant, saved her pennies, literally, until she had saved enough for a $5.00 sewing machine on which she then stitched clothes for my mom and her 5 siblings. She walked the mile or so into town to purchase the machine and carry it home.  Apparently, back in Ireland, my great- grandmother had done much the same. My mom, in turn, bought an ancient Singer sewing machine early in her marriage and made all my clothes when I was a kid. Early in our marriage, I, in turn, bought a second hand Borletti – New Home machine and sewed clothes for Armen and our sons.  Until I heard the story of my grandmothers, I had no idea how the deep satisfaction of owning a sewing machine and creating a garment was connected with my family roots.  Some subtle sense of my own identity fell into place with the hearing that part of my family narrative.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes: “A family narrative connects children to something larger than themselves.  It helps them make sense of how they fit into the world that existed before they were born.  It gives them a starting point of identity.  That in turn becomes a basis of confidence.  It enables children to say: This is who I am.  This is the story of which I am a part.  These are the people who came before me and whose descendant I am.  These are the roots of which I am the stem reaching upward toward the sun.”

Ezra read the “family” narrative that re-connected and reconstituted Israel after years of separation from her own sense of identity.  Eventually, the people lived out their dream of re-building the temple and reclaiming Jerusalem as their home. We hear Jesus claiming his family narrative and we witness how he re-connects the people of his generation to the hope and promises of God.  He passes the story telling on to us.  It is our job to tell and re-tell both our faith narrative and our family stories – to make the connections between them in a strong way so that our children grow up with a healthy sense of who they are.  There is no right way to do this –we are left to develop our own creative way of continuing the narrative.  As Alan Rickman reminds us “…we need to tell stories to each other about who we are, why we are here, where we come from – – and what might be possible.”  The seeds of our own future rest dormant in the stories we tell about our history –as a church and as families within the church.  This is where we draw our strength as we move forward as a community together.  Perhaps in this new year, we can commit to finding the time and the space to tell the important stories.  If we can do that, we will surely bless our children and grandchildren. May God bless us as we take up the task.  We do, indeed, belong to a God who loves a good story.

Home By Another Way 1/3/16

Home By Another Way

Matthew 2:1-12

Chilmark Community Church

January 3, 2016

Rev. Vicky Hanjian

All week long as I worked with today’s text, images of “Where’s Waldo” and images of the search for Luke Skywalker kept invading my imagination. If you are a grandparent or the parent of young children, you may have spent time searching for Waldo, the diminutive storybook guy in the red and white striped tee-shirt and horn rimmed glasses who blends in with the multitude on crowded beaches or city streets, or department stores. It takes good eyes and often a lot of patience to find him hidden in plain sight.

The engine that drives the latest Star Wars movie is the search for Luke Skywalker –the emblematic carrier of The Force –who has disappeared at some point in the long Star Wars saga. In this latest episode, Skywalker has become the stuff of legends. He has become the one who must be found if the evil power of The First Order that threatens to destroy the universe is to be defeated.

Whether by design or uncanny coincidence, the story of the search for a mythic savior emerged on the big screen just as we immersed ourselves in the stories of our own search for the Holy Child.

We pick up the biblical story this morning with the quest of three wise men, scientists of their day – astronomers and astrologers – who observed signs in the heavens that eventually draw them into the search for a royal child.

We have strong images imbedded in our imaginations – – elegant and colorful robes of rich silks and brocades, dignified beards, scholarly faces, haughty looking camels, and, of course, extravagant gifts. It is a beautiful story of human beings searching for truth and light and hope.

Their quest and their eventual coming to the place where the great Light of God has come into the world – their finding of the infant Jesus after many years of observing the heavens and reading the signs in the stars, all of this has been named in our tradition as The Feast of the Epiphany. Epiphany – – the celebration of a manifestation – – a striking appearance – – a sudden and striking realization – – a new and different perspective – according the Wickipedia definition of epiphany. How better to describe God’s bursting into human life in human form?

But as with any good drama, there is also a dark side to the unfolding events – King Herod hovering just off stage – – caught up in his dreams of power and his fear of losing it.

He seems just a little too eager to know where this longed for child has been born. Herod does not have a good track record when it comes to any threat to his seat on the throne. He has killed off at least 4 possible candidates, in addition to two of his own children and his wife. He clearly wants to maintain his grip on his kingly power and on his control of Jerusalem no matter what the cost. As a puppet king under the thumb of Rome, Herod always lives with a measure of anxiety and fear.

The story tells us that when King Herod heard the news of the birth of this child, born to be King of the Jews, “he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.” Herod fears the threat to his rule – – and all Jerusalem is afraid of what Herod will do when his rule is threatened. If we were to read on a few more verses we would see exactly what Herod’s fear would accomplish as he orders the annihilation of all the toddlers in the vicinity of Bethlehem of age two years old or younger. No wonder Jerusalem was afraid.

Fear is a powerful motivator. In the most primitive of scenarios, fear provokes the “flight or fight” response in all of us – – we either want to run from the threat, or we allow the fear to become anger and we fight the threat in some way.

Herod was afraid –but he was not about to relinquish his power – so he fought the threat instead – and in a fit of fury, he issued the order to eliminate the innocent children who threatened him.

But – – as the scriptures assure us, perfect love casts out fear. Love nourishes wisdom. The wise men pay attention to their dreams and refuse to cooperate with the politics of fear. They refuse to cooperate with the forces of violence and destruction. They find another way home.

The story is instructive for us as we enter a new year. As followers of The Way, we will be called upon this year to be wise and discerning as we pursue our own individual and collective search for the light and truth of the Newborn King.

We will be called upon to listen carefully – – to read with wisdom the currents of threat and fear that swirl around us as political rhetoric ramps up even further. But even more, we are called upon not to participate in the fear mongering around us by lending our own energy to it. Mahatma Gandhi’s name for this was “nonviolent non-cooperation” – a simple refusal to buy into and cooperate with the voices and the forces that would snare us in the web of fear and uncertainty.

The admonition to “fear not” appears many, many times across the scriptures, beginning with God’s word to Abraham way back near the beginning of our faith story: “Do not be afraid Abraham, I am your shield; and your reward shall be very great”1 and near the end of Matthew’s story of Jesus’ life when Jesus tells his disciples “Remember I am with you always, to the end of the age.”2

God speaks through Isaiah to Israel’s fears in exile: “do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you.”3 The Psalmist reminds us “God is our refuge and strength –a very present help in time of trouble…”4

These are not just pious platitudes designed to offer a false comfort that would blind us to the difficult issues that confront us in the world today. They are reminders that help to ground us and keep us focused and oriented in the right direction –not unlike the star that guided the Wise Men.

When fear is the predominant force that motivates action, it removes the possibility of creative problem solving and solutions. When we are afraid, clear thinking goes out the window. Love and awe of God leads us toward a richer imagination for what a possible future might look like. Our faith tradition leads us away from fear and the violence it spawns toward a more confident and creative future – – characterized by compassion for others and nonviolent solutions to intractable problems. This is a long slow journey without quick fixes; a journey that requires clear thinking and patience, resilience and strength – – and it is a journey that is meant to be shared with one another in community.

One of the things that struck me about the Star Wars search for Luke Skywalker was the way that the stories and memories of his life and adventures kept him with the searchers even though he was absent – – still way out ahead of them somewhere –still to be found and encountered again as a force for good in a very dark world.

So it is with our faith tradition. We affirm Emmanuel – God with us – present and yet inviting us onward – – a force still to be encountered in all its fullness.

It is not by accident that this small community of three wise seekers traveled together to seek the truth. Our own wise Jesus said “wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I am there in the midst of them.”

The journey is not meant to be taken in isolation. So, as we enter a new year, let us enter it together – perhaps to discover our own epiphanies, our own new perspectives, our own new and striking realizations, knowing always that The One for Whom we search is already in our midst, hidden – – kind of like Waldo – – in plain sight – – while all the while beckoning us onward. Let us commit to finding another way home – – a way that will not lead us to the terrible harvest of fear and the hatred and violence it breeds, but to a bright and shining vista of a future filled with hope.

As we move toward the Epiphany feast of bread and cup, may we move together with the intention of drawing closer to one another and to the One who both beckons and feeds. May our communion be the first step on another way to be in the world as the new year begins.

1 Genesis 15:1

2 Matthew

3 Isaiah 41:10

4 Psalm 46:1

Bishop’s New Year Message

Image

Dec. 31, 2015

My Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

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

As we celebrate the arrival of 2016, I recall with gratitude that I began 2015 with a group of teenagers from the Northeastern United States, fellow bishops, and other lay and clergy leaders in the city of Bangalore, India.

Some members of the team preached and others participated in the Holy Communion services as we greeted 2015 in churches from both the Methodist tradition and the Church of South India, a united church consisting of Anglicans, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and British Methodists.

Everyone on the team, especially the youth, was impressed, not only for the opportunity to partake in the Holy Communion Service, but also to see sanctuaries filled to capacity on New Year’s Eve. Some of the youth wondered why it was important for families to be in prayer, reflection, and taking part in the Holy Communion Service instead of being at parties and New Year’s celebrations.

The answer is simple: Like making resolutions, it is also important for people to be at the altar, thanking God for the blessings of the past year, asking for forgiveness for our shortcomings, and making peace with our Creator and one another.

It is also a time for discernment and taking stock of our own earthly lives as Christian pilgrims and asking God to lead us as we join in the extension work of the Reign of God in our world as disciples of Christ, seeking to be led by the Holy Spirit and not by our own mental and physical devices and drives.

Though all of us will probably spend time this month looking both backward and forward, may I encourage us to reflect on one more thing? I want us to concentrate on and pray to God to show us the gifts placed in each and every one of us. May we not only ask how we can use them for the Glory of God, but also for the extension of the Reign of God in our communities, nation, and world.

Some of us may wonder if we have made any difference in our communities or world. We may worry that we have wasted our gifts and graces or even doubt we have any gifts at all. To encourage you, may I share with you a testimony of one of the great evangelists of the last century, Dr. E. Stanley Jones, who wrote:

“I thought my book Mahatma Gandhi An Interpretation was a failure. It did not seem to dent the Western world with its emphasis on armaments. But when I saw Dr. Martin Luther King, he said: ‘It was your book on Gandhi that gave me my first inkling of nonviolent non-cooperation. Here, I said to myself, is the way for the Negro to achieve his freedom. We will turn this whole movement from violence to nonviolence. We will match our capacity to suffer against the other’s capacity to inflict the suffering, our soul force against his physical force; and we will wear our opponents down with goodwill.’ ‘Then my book was not a failure,’ I replied. ‘No, if we can keep the movement nonviolent,’ he answered.” (E. Stanley Jones, Song of Ascents, Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, pp. 259-60).

I share this quote because we often second guess our gifts and graces with questions such as, “Am I making a difference?” or “Am I effective?”

In moments like these, may we turn to God in the precious name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ for reassurance and encouragement. May we be inspired by the words of Jesus, as paraphrased by Eugene Peterson, “Walk with me and work with me – watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace.” (Matthew 11:29)

As Pentecost people, may we each constantly pray to God for the Holy Spirit to lead us, and not rely on our own self-centered mental GPS. May this be our resolution – on New Year’s Eve and always.

Prema joins me in wishing you and your loved ones a happy, blessed and joyful New Year.

In Christ’s love,

Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar


 

 

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Transformed by the Holy Spirit, united in trust,
we will boldly proclaim Christ to the world.

So-Now What do we do?

So – Now What?”

Isaiah 60:1-3

Luke 2:41-52

Chilmark Community Church

December 27, 2015

Re. Vicky Hanjian

Quite few years ago now, Armen and I spent a wondrous Christmas in Toronto when our grandchildren were 2 and 4 years old. Most of the activity around the holiday centered on their church’s celebration of Christmas.

On the Sunday morning before Christmas, we walked the 12 or so blocks on the downtown city streets of Toronto and went to Trinity-St.Pauls UCC with Ellie holding our hands and swinging between us. On that particular Sunday morning, the church’s large gymnasium was converted into the market square in Bethlehem. There were stalls and booths around the perimeter of the square offering homemade breads and hand sculpted oil lamps. In the center of the square several women were weaving on portable looms. In a back corner young girls were having their hands painted by a henna artist. There were street dancers with drums and tambourines and a beggar lay on a mat near the entrance of the square. The air was fragrant with the aroma of a spicy lentil stew and freshly baked afghanistani bread from the church kitchen.

At some point, some shepherds drifted in – asking if anyone knew where a special baby was to be born. A flustered midwife ran through the square looking for clean cloths and hot water. There were strangely dressed foreigners also inquiring about the whereabouts of a newborn baby. The crowd of Christmas shoppers milled around the square, largely ignoring the drama that was being played out in their midst. Then a young girl – maybe 10 or 11 years old – came running into the room shouting A BABY IS BEING BORN! A BABY IS BEING BORN! COME AND SEE!! People finally began to pay attention and we followed the girl through the winding hallways of the church into the sanctuary where Mary and Joseph and the newborn child were in place in front of the altar. We sang the familiar carols and prayed prayers of thanksgiving for this most wonderful birth. Our journey to Bethlehem had been made more real by the drama.

My granddaughter’s eyes were wide with wonder at the unfolding story and she was quite disappointed when the service was over. As we walked out into the grayness of a Toronto December afternoon, Ellie looked up at me and asked “Grandma, now what are we going to do?”

Her question lent itself well to a sermon title for the Sunday after Christmas – – although I have to confess her question probably had more to do with whether or not we could stop at Tim Horton’s on the way home for hot chocolate and a doughnut than it did with any lofty theology about the meaning of the birth of the Christ child. Still, the timing of her question was uncanny as we walked out into the downtown buzz of traffic on Bloor Street on the Sunday before Christmas.

We have celebrated the magnificent birth. So – now what?

On Tuesday evening of that week, we again made our way back to the big stone church on Bloor Street, this time with our daughter-in-law, Mary – to help wash dishes and clean up after the weekly dinner offered to people who live on the streets of Toronto. I was humbled by the range of conditions I observed as people came in for a hot meal, perhaps a night on a foam mattress in the same room that had only a few days earlier been a market square in Bethlehem. I was deeply moved by the difference in the crowd this time – the vacant faces of many who should have been in sheltered, assisted living situations; the gaunt faces of others who clearly did not have enough to eat, the adult woman who clutched a teddy bear under her arm and wandered around talking to herself, the tentative politeness of the heavily bearded man who asked if he could have seconds on the pea soup.

This too is Bethlehem.

Once again, we walked out of the church into the cold Canadian night and Ellie’s question echoed in my ears: “Grandma – now what are we going to do?”

Inevitably, Christmas Eve arrived right on time. Mary and I took Ellie to worship at the 7PM service. We listened to the sounds of Christmas….the wind, the rain, the chirp of the cricket that kept Joseph awake, the groaning of a camel who refused to travel any further, the braying of a donkey settling in for the night. We sang again the familiar carols and celebrated communion – hearing the sound of the bread being broken – -the sound of wine being poured –and then – once again we were back out on the darkened city streets, walking home – – this time Ellie asking “Why is that man sleeping on the street?”

Her innocent 4-year old voice haunts the adults around her. Her questions force us to pay attention to the disconnect between the warmth and joy and light of the sanctuary and the dark, unrelenting reality of the city streets.

Luke’s gospel moves us in an amazingly quick way from the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem to an event that happens when Jesus is 12 years old. The scene is Jerusalem – different city – different time – but people are still searching for Jesus. This time it is his parents – frantic because they have lost track of him in the holiday crowds at Passover. When they find him he is sitting calmly in the midst of the elders – – asking them questions. His parents scold him for making them worry. Jesus has pesky questions for them too. “Why were you searching for me? Didn’t you know that I must be in my father’s house? – – being about my father’s business?” I can imagine his parents asking “Now what do we do?”

Ahhh! The questions of children! How they haunt us! How they challenge us to come up with answers that will satisfy their longing to know why the world doesn’t always make sense. For 2000 years, Christians have celebrated the birth of Loving Compassion into the world, and still we are confronted by the innocent question of a child – -“Why is that man sleeping on the street?”

I wonder some times with Mary and Joseph, “Where is Jesus?” ‘How did we get separated from him?” “Why is he stressing us this way?” And then, all of a sudden, there he is in the midst of the crowd challenging those around him with pertinent questions….. and they wonder – as parents so often do – – “Now what?”

Jesus questions still come to us – but now they are often in the form of a bearded man asking for more pea soup, or a woman clutching a teddy bear and talking to herself, or an anonymous soul curled up in a dirty sleeping bag on the sidewalk on Bloor Street.

City streets are amazing places. The gospel springs to life there. We cannot avoid the Living Christ amidst the sounds of traffic and the smells of exhaust fumes and the sight of so much human diversity.

Isaiah was a man of great hope and the city of Jerusalem was on his mind. His words are both a prophecy and a challenge for the city – – a call to greatness: “Arise! Shine! For your light has come and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the face of the earth, and thick darkness (will cover) the peoples; BUT, the Lord will rise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light, kings to the brightness of your dawn.”

Isaiah challenged Jerusalem with a grand vision for her future. His words are a call and a challenge and a vision of hope for us too on this 1st Sunday after Christmas. There is great possibility for great goodness to emerge out of the all the confusion, out of political mis-adventures and war, out of economic and social injustice. And that greater good will happen because it is the Divine Intention that it should – – that we will move toward the light of a future filled with compassion and justice.

For us, it all begins in Bethlehem. Somehow each year we find our way there through all the milling around and confusion and doubt that life offers us. In the midst of war and terrorist threat, economic pressures, ambiguity about laws that would protect us while at the same time infringing on our privacy, political mis-adventures at the highest levels – – somehow, in the midst of all that, we find our way to Bethlehem and we find rest and peace and hope.

But Jesus does not stay in Bethlehem and neither can we. Being a Follower of the Way means being on the move. The road away from Bethlehem eventually leads to Jerusalem – to a more challenging Jesus and to our response to what we have witnessed at the manger. The road away from Bethlehem carries us into the work of becoming the peace and hope and light for the world that Isaiah talks about. We walk the road out of Bethlehem holding the hand of a child who asks “Didn’t you know I must be in my Father’s house –attending to my Father’s business?” or, perhaps, holding the hand of a child who asks “Why is that man sleeping on the sidewalk?”

In a few more minutes, we will leave this sanctuary of warmth and peace and light – – this Bethlehem of sorts – – and head out for whatever new Jerusalem awaits us. Perhaps it would be well if we paused on the steps before heading out to our cars – just long enough to ask the question “So – – now what?”

And if there is enough silence within us, we may hear the ancient challenge resonate within us to find whatever ways we can to do justice, love mercy, and walk hand in hand with the One who lives and walks among us right here in Chilmark and in our island community. Every new birth challenges us by disrupting and changing our lives. May we join hands and walk together into whatever newness awaits as this year ends and a new year begins. Perhaps we will find that a questioning child is leading the way. AMEN

GETTING DOWN TO EARTH 12/20/15

Getting Down To Earth“

Micah 5:2-5

Luke 1: 39-45

Chilmark Community Church

December 20, 2015

Rev. Vicky Hanjian

I love the story of Mary and Elizabeth. In my memory banks there is a painting of the two women, one slightly stooped, older, with somewhat wispy, scraggly graying hair, visibly pregnant, reaching out to embrace a much younger

woman – – a girl actually, who looks relieved to be in the company of what turns out to be her older cousin.

As we move through the wonderful texts from the prophets – – the beautiful language of Handel’s “Messiah”, the great stories of expectation and yearning for the Great One of God who will save the people, the story and the image of Mary and Elizabeth embracing each other is one that brings it all down to earth.

Elizabeth takes her place in a long lineage of women reaching back to Sarah and and Hannah – – an elderly woman, barren, becoming pregnant by God’s grace for the first time late in life. It turns out that Elizabeth’s child, already 6 months in the womb by the time of the encounter with Mary will be the disturbing John the Baptist who will come charging out of the desert calling the people to repentance. He is the child who will grow up to be a messenger who prepares the way – – to make a straight path for another who is to come.

But, we don’t know this just yet – – all the story tells us is that Elizabeth’s baby “leaps” in her womb when Elizabeth hears Mary’s greeting – – and Elizabeth has an incredible moment of recognition – – a transcendent moment – – the story says she was filled with the Holy Spirit. She blesses Mary and the baby Mary is carrying.

But there is an even more powerful and telling exclamation that comes with Elizabeth’s illuminating awareness – – (Lk.1:45) Elizabeth says “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

As the celebration of Jesus’ birth approaches, we are called upon to suspend rational thinking for awhile. The stories we love and cherish are ones that defy logic and reality. A pregnant virgin, a barren old woman expecting her first child, angels appearing out of nowhere, babies leaping in wombs, shepherds receiving revelation from heaven, stars guiding visitors from foreign lands – – the birth of a much longed for infant who will save the world.

We are invited and challenged to stop thinking rationally – to stop trying to figure it all out – – to stop saying “well maybe this could be a logical explanation”. Indeed the stories invite us into an alternate reality – – they have the ability to throw us off balance while at the same time giving us great joy and comfort.

At the end of the day, the stories are faith stories – – not historical documentaries. Mary’s willingness to carry and give birth to the Living Word of God – – Elizabeth’s openness to recognizing another human being as a bearer of The Word – – John’s eventual willingness to “clear the way” for the Word – to open peoples’ ears – – all powerful stories that push and pull and prod us to examine our own willingness to receive the in-flowing presence of God in our own lives.

When Elizabeth says “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord” she encapsulates the challenge of faith for us in these times.

We are immersed, especially at this time of year, in sacred texts that span at least 2500 years – – texts that repeat over and over again the story of a God who continually seeks out humankind – a God who yearns for relationship with us.

It starts with the story of the creation of human beings at the very beginning as

God yearns for companionship that will partner with God in the ongoing work of creation. The story continues with God seeking out Abraham and Sarah to carry the notion of One God forward into the future. Then God seeks out Moses to bring God’s people liberation. Later, God seeks out prophets who call the people back into relationship with God when they have gotten seriously off track. And then, as our Christian tradition teaches, it seems as though God’s seeking for us comes down to earth – – two pregnant women greeting each other – – it doesn’t get more real than that. And Elizabeth blesses Mary’s firm belief in the promises of God – that God will fulfill all that God has promised.

Our tradition calls to us over the eons and over many generations to be bearers of God – – to bring the reality of God’s passionate love for us to each other and to the world. How we go about bringing this passionate love into the world is unique to each one of us and that is a sermon for another day – – but it is what we are called to do nonetheless. I think that what Elizabeth recognizes in Mary is what we are called to recognize in one another – that we each bear the presence of God, the very image and likeness of God, into the world wherever we go. In the metaphors of pregnancy and birth, Mary accepted that responsibility. The story tells us she absolutely trusted what the angel had told her would come to pass. Elizabeth saw Mary’s trust and responded to it – – and in a fraction of a moment, a little more of God came into being in their relationship.

As the story unfolds, Mary literally gives birth to God – With – Us – – – Emmanuel, the one for whom we yearn and wait. When we set aside all the rational inquiry – all the scientific discussion about virgin birth – all our resistance to mystery – – we are left with the most basic and fundamental truth – – we belong to a God who yearns and desires to be with us. We belong to a God who promises from the beginning that “I will be your God – if you will be my people.”

Elizabeth recognizes and blesses Mary as one who has said “yes” – – one who is willing to be wholeheartedly aligned with the fulfillment of God’s promise to be with God’s people. Elizabeth brings the challenge of a life of faith down to earth.

As the day of celebration draws near, may we be among those whom Elizabeth would recognize and bless as bearers of God’s Living Word of hope and light and peace in the world. May we be among the ones who bring it all down to earth.