“Ancestry.com” 3/19/17

Ancestry.com

1 Samuel 16:1-13

Matthew 1:1-17

March 19, 2016

Chilmark Community Church

Rev. Vicky Hanjian

In June of the summer before Armen and I “retired” to move to the Vineyard we spent three weeks living on several of the Lakota Sioux Reservations in South Dakota with a group exploring   “Learning Nonviolence With the Lakota”.  At the very beginning of the trip we visited the state prison in Sioux Falls to meet with some Lakota prisoners and to hear about their experience of trying to live nonviolent lives in the prison milieu.  My anxiety was high as our van approached  the prison grounds. I wondered what it would be like on the “inside.”  Needless to say, we were only given access to the outermost areas of the prison campus. We entered a sunny courtyard and two young Lakota men, Mike Standing Soldier and Stan No Heart,  arranged some picnic tables so that our group could sit more or less in a circle for conversation with them.   This all happened a lot of years ago.  Many of the details of their stories are lost  to me now, but one story vividly remains in my memory.

Mike Standing Soldier told a story from his childhood when he asked his grandfather “Why are white people the way they are?” – referring to his experience of white prejudice and his exposure to racism and indignity at the hands of white citizens and local bureaucrats in his brief life span.    His grandfather answered: “They have lost their drum, they have forgotten the dance, and they do not know where the bones of their ancestors are buried.”

Those words  have stayed with me all these years as I have continued on my own spiritual path.  They surfaced again as I was reading today’s scriptures – – especially the phrase

“they don’t know where the bones of their ancestors are buried.”   Across this country, many of us of us do not know where the bones of our ancestors are buried.  While there are a lot of Vineyarders  who can trace their ancestry back for many generations,  many of us of us can’t go back more than 2, maybe 3 generations at the most, when we try to tell our kids their family history.  As a nation of people who have come from someplace else, many of us have lost any deep connection to “the bones of our ancestors.” We  have, in some very essential ways, become spiritually uprooted and ungrounded.  In the process, as a nation, we do not always have  a strong and healthy sense of who we are.   When we don’t know where the bones of our ancestors are buried we are in danger of becoming disconnected from our own history, our own sense belonging to a great stream of life.   Without a firm grasp on our own stories, we are vulnerable to finding threat  where none exists.  The unfamiliar face becomes the other, the stranger, possibly even the enemy.

I’d like to suggest that  this morning’s scripture lessons  help, in a way, to root us securely in a lineage that goes back several thousand years.  As a people of God, it is a lineage, an ancestral line, that we can all claim as our own.   We began with Samuel’s search for a person whom God desired to anoint as king.  In early Biblical history, kings were made and unmade in the service of the Divine purpose.  King Saul was the first king of Israel. He lost God’s favor due to disobedience.  This led to the search for another king.  Through a bit of subterfuge, Samuel, God’s priest and prophet, makes his way to the tribe of Jesse.  Samuel rejects several of Jesse’s sons as candidates for kingship.  Finally, the youngest son, a shepherd, is brought before Samuel.  David, the baby of Jesse’s family is anointed to become the great King David who would unite the tribes of Israel and lead them to the heights of glory. 

Reading the genealogy at the beginning of the book of Matthew can be pretty dull stuff until we realize that this is our genealogy as well as the genealogy of Jesus.   It is the place where we find our roots in our faith tradition and it has a lot to tell us about what a  complex and diverse, and even quirky, family we are as the people of God.

In Native American tribes, there are always members  of the tribe who are the memory keepers.  They are the ones who remember the ancestors and can tell the stories that go back at least seven generations  and often much farther back than that.  Some of you can go pretty far back.  With effort I can trace back one line of my lineage to the 1700s, but for the most part I can only go back  3 or 4 generations – and many of the stories are lost with only names and dates surviving.   Whenever I would talk with my dad about family history he would jokingly say “You might not want to look too closely.  There’s probably a lot of horse thieves in the family tree.”

But we do have a fascination with our ancestors.  ANCESTRY.COM  and mail order DNA testing and other similar resources are gaining in popularity as people seek to understand where they came from.  The first 17 verses of Matthew are an ancient forerunner of our digital age efforts to reclaim our lineage.   

Our faith ancestors are a fascinating bunch.  Matthew’s story carries us backward from Jesus 42 generations!  Now that is an ancestral line!  One of the benefits I have derived from studying Torah with Jewish friends is that I have come to embrace the many rich and colorful characters in the first 5 books of the Bible as my own family of grandparents and great grandparents – – an oooh – – the stories!!

Most of us are familiar with the story of Grandfather Abraham and Grandmother Sarah. We’ve heard how Grandfather Abraham packed up the family to head out on a faith journey without knowing where he was going or where he would end up.  We try not to think too much about how he passed Grandmother Sarah off as his sister to save his own skin – with her ending up in a foreign king’s harem until Abraham’s trick was discovered.   We might not ever think about Grandmother Tamar who seduced her father-in-law, Judah, to gain some justice for herself  and as a result gave birth to Perez who would be the great grandfather of Nachshon.   

According to a traditional story, all the Israelite slaves who were escaping from Pharoah were huddling on the shore of the Reed Sea – looking at the cold, dark water and then at each other and saying “you go first – -No – YOU go first.”  Nachson took the leap of faith and walked into the murky water – – up to his knees – – up to his chin – – up to his eyeballs – – when – – finally, the waters parted and Israel crossed the Reed Sea on dry land. Now – – there is a courageous great grand father to be proud of!   Nachshon lives on to become the grandfather of Boaz whose mother is Rahab  – a prostitute.  Boaz marries Ruth – a non-Israelite – a stranger – a widowed outsider – and eventually he and Ruth become the great grandparents of David.   14 generations!   And we have barely scratched the surface.  The next 14 generations produce many kings – some wise – like Solomon, David’s son.  Some great reformers like Hezekiah.  Others not so great, like the inept Jechoniah who was the first of the  kings to go into exile and who was later cursed by Jeremiah – that he might never have sons. 

The next 14 generations after that produce names that are less familiar to us – more obscure – until the lineage gets to Matthan, the father of Jacob who is the father of Joseph who is the husband of Mary who is the mother of Jesus.

Matthew’s is the only gospel that takes the time to set down the genealogy of Jesus.   So I have wondered why?  Why does this writer want us to know where Jesus came from?  And what can we learn for ourselves by paying attention to our spiritual family history?  What is the point of including the ancestors at the beginning of the story of Jesus when it is so easy to just skip over them and ignore them?   What do we gain from knowing Jesus’ family history?

There are a couple of things that I take from the stories that are embedded in Jesus’ genealogy.   First, placing Jesus with his ancestors helps us to know that as a human being he came from somewhere – he had roots – he had a cultural identity.  He had heard the stories of his ancestors from the time he was a child. He was rooted and grounded in his sense of who he was and where he came from. As a Jew, he was accountable to all the generations that preceded him.   We don’t often think of him as being a person with a family history – with grandparents and great grandparents who had hopes and dreams and expectations.

Second, by telling us about Jesus’ ancestry, Matthew helps us to understand  a little more  about why people were so eager to accept Jesus as a Messiah when he finally appeared on the historical scene.  Matthew creates the family history that tells the story of the longing for a leader for Israel – – and he gives it a very human face. The story grounds the reality of Jesus in the flesh and blood history of a real people.

Third, Matthew gives us the opportunity to graft  ourselves into that family tree just by being connected with Jesus as the center of our faith tradition. The branches of Jesus’ family tree are full of illustrious figures like King David and Abraham – but they are also filled with people from the margins – – widows, wise people, prostitutes, adulterers, foreigners, and a few scoundrels.  The genealogy teaches us that all are welcome and part of the great family tree. Matthew leaves no one out. 

But lastly, my own personal take on the importance of the family history is that without too much searching, we can see the trace of God weaving throughout the stories and adventures and relationships of all the colorful characters – -God’s trace flowing through history in flesh and blood people.   I think Matthew gives us a lot of permission to look at our own physical family tree and see the trace of God weaving its way through our personal histories as well. From Abraham to Jesus, generation after generation  divine influence and grace is demonstrated in the story.  We might entertain the notion that that Divine influence continues on in our own family patterns and ancestry – always working to bring about the intention of the Holy One – regardless of how unpromising our own family trees might appear to be.  The genealogy of Jesus gives our own biological family history significant meaning.  Our ancestry becomes a means of grace.  Whatever the twists and turns our lineage has taken, it has brought us to this moment in time.

As we move deeper into Lent and into this year, 2017, we will be continually confronted by issues of identity – – by questions about who belongs and who doesn’t. Our fears about people clinging to the delicate branches of the human family tree will be cultivated and exploited. Whole families will be left wondering when and if they will ever feel safe and at home in the human family.   It behooves us to learn about and embrace our spiritual ancestors – to discover from their rich diversity what they have to teach us about identity and inclusion.

We can learn as much from their imperfections and scandals as we can from their illustrious and God-inspired accomplishments.   As we continue the journey toward Jerusalem in the weeks ahead, may we be more alert to searching for the bones of our ancestors.  May we be about the work of fleshing out our own stories so that we can see how they blend and harmonize with the stories of the rest of humankind.   

At the end of our visit with Mike Standing Soldier and his friend, Stan No Heart, a very soft and gentle clasping of hands was passed around the circle with the whispered words “Mitakue Oyasin” – – “we are all relatives.”  A prison courtyard seems like the last place to look to find hope, but there it is in the story of a young boy and his grandfather’s wisdom.  Finding our drum and learning to dance is the stuff of another sermon.  For now it is enough to think about re-collecting the bones of our ancestors so that we might find the way to live with all our relatives in the world in greater peace.

 

Between Two Gardens 3/5/17

Between Two Gardens

Genesis 2:15-17 and 5:1-7

Matthew 4:1-11

Chilmark Community Church

March 5, 2017

Rev. Vicky Hanjian

It would seem that whether one finds oneself in a lush and primal garden or in the middle of the wilderness, there is danger and temptation in the Bible.  There be serpents and devils abroad!  I love that we begin Lent in the Garden of Eden and that we will end Lent in another garden – -Gethsemane this time – – and how different the two gardens are in terms of what they mean to us. And in between the gardens there is time in the desert wilderness.

Let’s begin in the first garden.  Depending upon how we read the story, this is a tale either of our descent into a failed experiment on the part of God – – or it is a story of our immediate elevation to a status just a little lower than the angels.

We begin with a gift and a command.  The gift is a glorious place to live with meaningful work to do.  “God took the human and placed him in the garden” and gave him responsibility for caring for it as God’s steward.  There are all kinds of good fruit bearing trees and full permission to eat from any of them  EXCEPT… and here comes the command: There will be no eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil on pain of death. 

This is the stuff of a good story.  Any of us who have had any dealings with toddlers, or even teenagers, for that matter, know the fundamental truth that if you set down the rule that under no circumstances are they to pull at that shiny ornament just within reach on the Christmas tree or sample that pot that seems so enticing when all the other kids are doing it – – before you know it,  that  ornament – and maybe even the tree will come crashing down – and the teenager is going to experiment.   But – God tries anyway – – do not eat of this particular tree or you will be punished – you will die.

There are ALWAYS reasons why human beings skirt or break the rules.  And there is always someone else to blame for the transgression.   The serpent says “come on – try it. “ The Woman says “no – If I do I will die.”  The Serpent says “Naaahhh! -You won’t die.  God only said that because God knows that if you eat it you will become like God – you will know the difference between good and evil.”

She bites the fruit – – she shares it with her human buddy – – he blames her – – she  blames the serpent – – and the rest is history.

For centuries, this story has been used to help us understand how sin and suffering came into the world.  It has also given us someone to blame for it all.   If we give weight to 4th century Christian thinker and eventual saint, Augustine, we understand that it is through woman that sin came into the world – that woman is the devil’s gateway.  Augustine and others of the early church fathers were very committed to this line of reasoning and interpretation.   At different  times across the 2000 year history of the church  women have suffered stigmatization, abuse and discrimination because of the  of the early church fathers exclusive interpretation of the story.

But they do not have the last word and theirs is not the only line of meaning that might come out of this ancient story of humankind’s beginnings.  Other interpreter’s find a different way of looking at it.  A place to start might be with the serpent – that much maligned creature so often equated with fear, poison, slipperiness, death.   The serpent is  described as  cunning – crafty – having skill.  It seems that the serpent knows a little more about God than the humans do at this point – – and the serpent knows that the woman will not literally die if she chooses to do what is necessary to know the difference between good and evil.  So the serpent says “go ahead -try it!”

The woman makes a choice.  She eats the fruit of the forbidden tree.  Does she instantly know the difference between good and bad?  The story doesn’t say.  But it tastes so good that she offers it to her partner – and immediately they see the world with different eyes. …their eyes are opened.

Actually, a kind of death does, indeed, happen.   They become fully conscious human beings – –  responsible for their own actions – – they suffer consequences from every choice they make from then on.  Like the serpent that appears to die as it sheds its skin when it no longer fits, the first humans “die” to a kind of innocent unconsciousness in order to become fully functioning adults in relationship with God.  This may be our earliest story of death and resurrection.  Rather than pointing to the sin and depravity of humankind, the story embraces curiosity and a hunger for something more. The story embraces life. And it tells the truth.  When human beings are ready and willing to strive for  a higher levels of conscious awareness, there will be consequences.  A certain naivete needs to die – and with increased knowledge and wisdom about both the goodness and the evil that pervade all of life  comes increased responsibility for that knowledge.

The fundamental principle of the story is so contemporary as we daily have to come to terms with what technology and social media have unleashed in our lives.  We are at a Garden of Eden moment as we figure out how to be responsible for all the increased awareness of good and evil, for what it means for our lives and for how we take responsibility for what we can know and do.  We have tasted the fruit – and it is really good – – but now we have to learn how to live with the consequences.

Serpents gradually came to be equated with the devil – with Satan.  But in the Hebrew scriptures, the word Satan only means “adversary”.  Biblical thought has no conception of a devil personified with horns, tail and pitchfork. That imagery came much later in the church’s development.   Indeed, in the scriptures, the adversary occasionally works in realtionship with God to bring about God’s purposes.  We meet just such an adversary in the Book of Job. If we follow the more ancient meaning of the word, Satan – Adversary –  we might find that the serpent in the story accomplishes God’s yearning for human partnership in the work of sustaining creation.  God needs partners who know the difference between good and evil.  I just happen to think it is really cool that the woman is the one who takes the first step! And here is a curious note.  The woman is not given a name until the 20th verse of Chapter 3 when Adam names her Chavah or Eve, and she is identified as The Mother of All Living.  Her name means  “Life.”  She receives her life bestowing name after she has broken the rule and after God has meted out the consequences for her choice to taste the fruit.   

Perhaps 500-1000 years after this story of our human origins was circulating around the campfires, another amazing human being emerges on the scene.  He begins his life journey in total innocence as a long awaited infant.

We catch up with him as he leaves his baptismal waters and begins a 40 day sojourn in the wilderness.   As a young adult, he is already fully conscious of what his moral and ethical and spiritual responsibilities are all about.  He already has the gift of being fully and intelligently human – passed on to him through the centuries of the evolution of God’s people.   But even he wrestles – just as his ancestors did.  His temptations are even greater – because his heightened degree of consciousness and sense of responsibility are greater. 

He must turn down the temptation to supersede  the laws of God by turning stones into bread.   He must turn down the invitation to test God by throwing himself off the highest  point of the temple to see if God will really save him.  He must turn down the offer of wealth and power in order to be faithful to serving God.  In a very short time, his conscious refusal to knuckle under to the enticements set before him will lead him to the second garden.

The stories provide a curious balance for each other.  On the one hand, the humans are given a direct limitation by God – do not eat the fruit of that particular tree.  Because the woman is curious  (what is she doing exploring the garden all by herself?) she interacts with a stranger in the form of a serpent.  In that moment, what the serpent says makes sense to her.  She risks her very life in the service of learning more.  She tastes the fruit.  She and her partner eat together.  It is only after this sharing of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil that  she becomes “the mother of all living.” 

On the other hand, Jesus resists the enticing temptations set before him in the wilderness – – he refuses to be led off course back into a lesser state of consciousness that would make magic and power and money his way of life.  He chooses the much harder way of being fully conscious and aware of his truest nature as  the offspring of God.   The woman was threatened with death as a result of her choice – – and she lived.

Jesus  made a choice that would lead to his death.  The paradox is that by his refusing what the world had to offer in the way of power and wealth and the kind of security that  might have come with them, he shows us the Way to eternal life. 

Our choices are not always as clear or dramatic – but we have to make them every day.  In the world we live in, we are constantly bombarded with the choice to live fully in richness and integrity because we seek greater knowledge and awareness of what is going on around us.  The Mother of All Living  bequeathed us this ability when she chose to eat that forbidden fruit.

With the presence of Jesus in front of us,  we have a greater awareness that our choices for the right and the good and the just may be very costly – – – those choices may lead to persecution, imprisonment – perhaps even death. 

As we set our faces toward Jerusalem with Jesus in these next 40 days, it is well to keep both gardens in our line of vision.  In our thinking, in our spiritual lives, in our actual physical interactions, we are continually faced with the choice for ignorance and bliss on the one hand – – and the knowledge of good and evil on the other. Jesus and the Mother of All Living chose knowledge, wisdom, clear vision and resistance to whatever might cloud a bright and alert human consciousness to the reality of life that God places before us. 

Both made choices that led to a kind of death – for the woman it was the death of ignorance and bliss.  For Jesus it was the death of his body on the cross.  Both made the paradoxical choices that led to the fullness of life that is possible in partnership with the  presence of God.  Between the Garden of Eden and the Garden of Gethsemane  there is life – the everyday challenges that we face as we try to live consciously in the way that Jesus did.  We are challenged to make the same kinds of choices that faced Jesus.  We are given the gift of a simple meal to both remind us and to sustain us along the way.  May God grant us the curiosity of the Mother of All Living and the faithful wisdom of Jesus as we find our way to the table.

HOW DOES GOD GUIDE? Feb. 26, 2017

HOW DOES GOD GUIDE?

MATT. 7:21-28 REV. ARMEN HANJIAN FEB. 26, 2017

A man moved out West and joined a Lutheran Church; a drought came and ruined his crops. He concluded God didn’t want him in that Church. So he joined the Baptist Church; lightning struck his barn and it burned down. So he joined the Methodist Church and that year his wife ran off with another. He fell down on his knees and thanked God for leading him to the right Church.

Most people don’t expect to be guided by God. I believe there is a rightful place to seek and find guidance from the Creator of the Universe – the God of our Lord Jesus Christ. To honestly seek God’s direction is a great act of faith, for it means you believe God is a living God – a God who can respond.

Most of us would acknowledge that over the years there is some guidance from God by way of evolution. The question for today is, “Can God be counted on to give concrete guidance in the affairs of individuals and nations? I am convinced the answer is yes. Allow me to share some of the ways God guides those who seek God’s guidance.

I say “those who seek God’s guidance because this matter of freedom seems to be tied up with how God deals with us. God will guide , but will not over ride. A minister once stood by a coffin of a young man whose life was cut off untimely by human measurements. After the young widow poured out her grief and asked the unanswerable questions, the minister said, “God will give you strength and faith, and out of this good will come. “ “No”, she answered, “good will not come out of it!” And no matter how much God wills it, good will not come out of it for her unless she also wills it. God will guide, but God will not over ride.

With that as background let us turn to the channels most used in discovering God’s will for given situations. Perhaps it’s too obvious but we must say that God would have us discover God’s will by using our minds. An instance of intelligence of being a useful test of God’s will is given in Dr. Heiser’s book, “An American Doctor’s Odyssey”. He was the health officer in Manila when cholera broke out in various parts of the city. Simultaneously, a fisherman reported a miracle in the bay. He had observed on the surface of the water a black streak in the form of a cross and the water was sweet not salty. He called the priest who confirmed the miracle. The people then paddled out carrying bottles and drank the holy liquid. Immediate investigation revealed a break in the sewer, whereupon Dr. Heiser appealed to the police to suppress the miracle. He was told that the people would riot against interference with what they believed to be the will of God. The doctor said he would rather deal with a riot than an epidemic. So the people were held back until the sewer was repaired. What God wants us to do should meet the test of intelligence.

St. Paul counseled whatsoever things are honorable, just, pure, lovely, gracious, worthy of praise, think on these things. Fix your mind on them, dwell on them. Don’t let your mind go where the wind blows, where the advertisers want it to go.

Another channel which should be obvious, but is seldom appropriately used is reading the Bible. If you really want to fix your mind on things worthy of praise, let biblical thoughts soak your thinking. This is exactly what Jesus did – how often he quoted from the Psalms and Isaiah and other writing in the Hebrew scriptures – some call the Old Testament.

I’m sure he didn’t seek God’s direction like the man who opened the Bible and pointed and it read: “Judus went out and hung himself. He didn’t like that guidance so he pointed again and it read “Go thou and do likewise.” Didn’t like that. Pointed again and it read ”What thou hast to do, do quickly.”

No, Jesus let the collected wisdom and insight given to others be one of his guides. He knew well the saying, “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.” The Bible may not be as specific as we would like it to be – it doesn’t tell us simplistically how to deal with marriage problems or environmental problems for today, but it does provide us with the norms to deal with these and other problems – that is what keeps it from being out dated. The Bible speaks to us and then we are better able to speak to the situation that confronts us. The norms of love, forgiveness, obedience and Christlikeness are but a few of the graces God would have grow in us. We can be sure of this, that God will never guide you in a way that cuts across the Christ we know in the Bible.

In addition to our minds and the Bible, the conscience can be used by God to direct us. Yet, it is not sufficient to say, “Let your conscience be your guide.” A Hindu was once asked what would happen if he should break caste and no one else knew about it. He replied that his conscience would trouble him. Now my conscience would trouble if I kept a caste system. Two consciences trained to approve opposite things. For a conscience to be a safe guide, it must be trained at the feet of Christ.

So often we make our decisions by our immediate desires, but Christians should be guided by long-term purposes. The training of our consciences is a long-term matter which will stand us in good stead in our specific decisions.

One of the most rewarding and joyous channels to discover God’s will is the channel of prayer. Too often prayer can degrade from communion and communication to requests for God’s blessing on decisions we have already made. We make the same error that the Disciples made: we offer God two propositions and then wait for God to give us an inkling as to which we should follow. The Disciples you recall put up two men to take the place of Judus, and asked God which of the two men God approved; they cast lots. And the lot fell on Matthias. But apparently God didn’t choose either. He chose Paul. I like the way George Buttrick put it: Prayer is “exposing oneself to the promptings of God.” Prayer can put things in proper perspective such that we see God’s will and receive from God determination and power to do it.

God also guides us by bringing to our door opportunities and needs. Dick Sheppard, the great preacher, said, “Christianity does not consist in abstaining from doing things no gentleman would think of doing, but doing things that are unlikely to occur to anyone who is not in touch with the Spirit of Christ.”

The story is told about a widow of a preacher who cared for all the orphans and illegitimate children and poor in the neighborhood. A man in town so much appreciated her work that he had built for her a snug little home on his property and equipped it with new furniture. The first person she invited into it was the most disreputable woman in town. Horrified, he asked how she could have invited such a creature into her pretty new home. The old lady’s quiet reply was, “Jesus would.”

None of us should dare to seek directions for the intricacies of life if we do not follow God’s guidance in the simplicities of life.

There are other ways God can guide us. Let me share one more: certainly God can guide us through other persons. How many of you owe your spiritual heritage and life to some great or unknown saint that passed your way? “Yes there are many channels to discover God’s directives,” you say, “but I want to be absolutely certain I’m doing God’s will.” E. Stanley Jones, the Methodist missionary wrote, “Do not expect guidance to be as explicit as two plus two makes four. There will always be a degree of probability in any of his guidance, for that degree of probability puts adventure and daring into life, and it is at the point of adventure and daring that we grow. Guidance must be sufficiently clear to act upon but never so clear that an act of adventurous faith is not required.” In another place he wrote, “If you do make mistakes in guidance, don’t be discouraged. I have mentioned the Disciples did 31 things which were wrong and yet were guided into changing the world. You may slip up on the marginal things and yet be centrally right.”(The Way, p282; Growing Spiritually p277)

In so many things, it is later on that we see how God has guided us. No one would assume there was no point to a plot in the middle of a novel. Even at this point in my life I am more and more sure that God has guided me. God guided me into the ministry through an ordinary person; although the ground of my life had been nurtured before and after that one invitation. Biblical standards I see have become some of my many daily standards. I almost went to the church in Clinton N.J. – there was a nice-looking red head on their pastoral relations committee, and besides I never heard of that odd-named Church of Mt. Horeb. But I thank continually God for guiding me there and for guiding me here.

How has God guided you? Tell others about it. It is a witness you alone can make and if you don’t make it we are cheated of spiritual encouragement and you may lose your faith that God guided you at all.

An African patient once asked Dr. Albert Schweitzer, “Why did you come?’ The doctor replied, “Jesus sent me.” My friends God guided that man and he can guide you into avenues of service and love.

Only those who want direction and seek after it with heart and mind, with patience and honesty, who devote blocks of time to the quest can ever hope to find direction.

The promise remains: those who seek will find.

February 14../17 Tuesday Supper

IMG_1082Everyone had plenty and looks what’s left…Shepherd’s pie, peppers and sausage, frittata,   American chop suey, chili bean soup with roasted kernels of corn, salad, bread.. Desert was Valentine fluff( cherries and whipped cream and pineapple) and undercooked brownies, ice cream and home made sugar cookies.

Bananagrams after supper.  Good company.

“Parting Words” February 12/17

Parting Words

Deuteronomy 30:11 – 20

Matthew 5:21-26

Chilmark Community Church

February 12, 2017

Rev. Vicky Hanjian

We are starting out in the Book of Deuteronomy this morning. It is the 5th and final book of Torah in the Jewish tradition. Biblical tradition considers the entire book to be written from Moses’ perspective as a farewell address to the Israelites. Moses is nearing the end of his life and he is doing what modern hospice work encourages people to do as they approach their death – he does a “life review” – – he goes back in time and looks again at all the events that have transpired since he led the people out of slavery in Egypt into a 40 year trek with God in the wilderness. His parting words to the people recapitulate all the events and struggles and encounters with God that the people experienced from the time they left Egypt until they reached the mountains overlooking the Jordan River – the last river to cross before entering the land of Canaan. Moses already knows that he will not cross the Jordan with them. In his final address he exhorts them, blesses them, encourages them, warns them, teaches them and reminds them. He reminds them of the overwhelming events at Mt. Sinai when the law that would govern them was given to them in the midst of fire and thunder. He reminds them of the first time they broke God’s law – – of their transgression and the lack of faith that led to the creating of a Golden Calf that they could worship in place of an invisible God. He reminds them of how God provided water and manna for them in the wilderness so they would not die of hunger and thirst. He reminds them of all the complaining they did – wishing to be back in Egypt where things were bad, but at least they were predictable. Over and over again Moses calls Israel to remember the system of law that sustained them and that would continue to sustain them and keep them functioning as a cohesive people as they faced the challenges of the future. Over and over again, his final words to the people are that they must keep the law ever before them – – that being mindful of what God commands will allow them to live full and abundant lives – and he warns of the dire consequences if they forget or abandon the law.

Close to the end point of the story in this 30th chapter of Deuteronomy we hear Moses saying to the people: Surely, all that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us that we may hear it and observe it? Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us that we may hear and observe it?” No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.” (Deuteronomy 30:11 – 14)

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks tells the following anecdote:

When I was a student at university in the late 1960s – the era of student protests, psychedelic drugs, and the Beatles meditating with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi – a story went the rounds. An American Jewish woman in her sixties travelled to north India to see a celebrated guru. There were huge crowds waiting to see the holy man, but she pushed through, saying that she needed to see him urgently. Eventually, after weaving through the swaying throng, she entered the tent and stood in the presence of the master himself. What she said that day has entered the realm of legend. She said, “Marvin, listen to your mother. Enough already. Come home.”1

We are living in a time when we are watching the mainline churches decline in membership. Even though there are large and thriving congregations spotted here and there around the country, the trend is toward smaller and aging congregations who wonder what their future will be. There are innumerable reasons for this. Some point to the overarching reality that we live in a secular culture and that secular values supercede religious values. Others point to the notion that the church is no longer relevant for the times in which we live. Still others find that religion as they have experienced it or as they have inherited it does not meet their spiritual yearnings. This last group may identify as “spiritual but not religious” – – a whole population searching for spiritual meaning and not finding it in the structures of “organized religion.”

I wonder if Moses was anticipating the same kinds of concerns and searching on the part of Israel as they sat at the borders of Canaan – not knowing what they would encounter as they crossed the Jordan River – – the challenges of coping with a culture that was strange to them – – figuring out how to maintain their sense of unity and identity in the midst of their own tribal factions – – encountering other attractive religious options that would lead away from the covenant they were called to fulfill. I wonder if Moses had concerns about relevancy and secularism and spiritual seeking that might lead the people away from the dynamic relationship they had known with the elusive and invisible Presence that accompanied them during their wilderness years.

Like Marvin’s mom, Moses seems to be challenging Israel to look close to home to maintain their integrity as the people of God – – reminding them that the strength they need is not in the heavens or across some enticing sea – but rather is already in their hearts and in their mouths – – ready to be appropriated for their life as they move forward. They have lived for 40 years with the guidance of this God through the commandments that have given shape and structure to their lives – – a holy law that morphed them from a rag tag group of escaping slaves into an organized society whose life in community was based not on revenge and violence and killing, but on the rule of law.

In his parting words, Moses reminds the people of the laws under which they have lived. Laws about honoring the elders – the mothers and fathers; keeping the sabbath; not creating idols to worship; not taking what does not belong to you; laws about not lying or being dishonest in business; not stripping a field or a vineyard bare and leaving part of the crop behind for the poor; laws about not withholding wages from the poor; about paying a person a living wage; laws about not going around as a slanderer among the people; not rendering unjust judgments; not being partial to either the poor or the rich when making a judgment; adhering to one law for all – whether a citizen or a stranger within your gates. These are just a sampling of the law from the scriptures for living in covenant with God and with one another. Surely, this commandment that has been given to us is not too hard for us, nor is it too far away – – nor is it irrelevant. In truth, the commands challenge us to live in the highest spiritual commitment possible.

Matthew’s Jesus reinforces the law – – drives it even deeper into our hearts. HIs words are not easy to embrace at every moment. He says , in effect “Never mind about murder – most of you would never do that- your challenge is to keep from being angry with one another. Your challenge is not to shame one another by diminishing one another in any way. For Jesus, these are as serious an infringement of the law as is murder. Jesus brings the law directly into our human relationships – – so much so that he teaches that the worship of God can only be authentic if we come to worship and prayer having done the work of reconciliation with our neighbors, our family and our friends.

Near the end of his long review of Israel’s history in the wilderness, Moses refers to all that he has reminded them about. And referring to all that history, all that journeying, all that commitment on the part of God to the people, Moses says: See! I have set before you today [the possibility] of life and prosperity [and the possibility of] death and adversity……If you choose to enter the land and to live by the commands I have given you – you shall live and become numerous – – I will bless you…..but if you turn away….don’t listen……follow other gods….you will perish. There are logical consequences to be endured when the choice is made to turn away from the gift of order that makes life worth living. Sometimes those consequences can feel like a death is happening.

I have set before you life and death, blessing and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live – loving God – living in harmony with the wisdom that is set before you.

Our ability to choose life and blessing is challenged in some way every day. But the commands for life are not far from us. We don’t have to go searching all over for what we need in order to live with care in this world. Whether we struggle with secularism, or irrelevance, or we search for meaning beyond what the organizational structure of a church can give, we can always listen to Marvin’s mom. We can always “come home” to the original blueprint for life in community and in covenant with each other and with God. It is not far from us – – it is in our mouths and in our hearts – we live with it everyday. To trust it or not – to own it or not – to live it or not – – that’s our choice. Moses parting words to Israel on the eve of his own death are poignant and powerful They come from the mouth of one who has made a choice for life at every bend in the road. We might hear him saying one last time to this difficult people with whom he has lived and traveled for 40 years: My dear children – – Choose life so that you and your children may truly live.

Jesus said: “I came that you may have life, and have it abundantly.” Elsewhere he says: I am the resurrection and the life…” From the very beginning of the great saga of God’s journeying with us, abundant Life in relationship with God is what matters. Both Moses and Jesus whisper to us down through the ages to stay grounded and centered in the law of God who makes the Divine Presence known through prophets like Moses and in the Person of Jesus – – Today – they may even be shouting to us across eternity: Dear children of God – – Choose Life! So that you and your children may live.

1 “Not in Heaven” teaching on Deuteronomy 30:11-14

An Acceptable Fast February 5/17

An Acceptable Fast

Isaiah 58: 5 – 9

Matthew 5:13 – 20

Chilmark Community Church

February 5, 2017

Have you ever fasted? For most of us, the closest we come to fasting is going without food after mid-night prior to having morning blood work done – or perhaps prior to surgery. Fasting is not something we normally or easily choose to do. Occasionally, fasting may be part of a spiritual discipline. Almost every religious tradition has a component that suggests or requires fasting for measured periods of time. Most traditions warn against fasting for the wrong reasons – – the most predominant warning being that a person should not fast in order to appear pious or holy. In both Christianity and Judaism, when fast days cycle around in the liturgical year, the wisdom is that no one else should know one is fasting – that one is to wash one’s face and groom one’s hair – dress well, smile, function normally – and not speak about the discomfort or the hunger that accompany fasting. Fasting can serve a spiritual purpose. When done with careful intention it may indeed open the mind and the heart to God in expansive and meaningful ways.

In antiquity, it was believed that fasting might open a fast track to God’s approval – perhaps make God more inclined to judge the people favorably. But the verses from Isaiah sound like the people weren’t satisfied with the results of their fast. They weren’t getting a payoff on their investment. We get the slightest hint of a dialog between God and Israel. The people’s voice asks of God “Why do we fast but you do not see? Why do we humble ourselves when you don’t even notice?” But the voice of God through the prophet responds: “Look, you serve your own interests when you fast, and you continue to oppress all your workers. Your fasting only makes you quarrelsome and you fight and strike out with a wicked fist. Fasting the way you do today will not make your voice heard by God.”

God continues: Do you think this is the fast that I choose – – a day to humble oneself? Do you think I want you to bow down your heads head like the bulrushes, or that I want you to lie down in sack cloth and ashes? Is this what you call a fast, a day acceptable to me? Perhaps we can use our imaginations a little here – – and see bull rushes – – or perhaps the tall invasive grasses – the fragmites – that edge some of our ponds – bending low in a high wind – humbled by a storm – and yet they bounce back as soon as the wind stops – – their humility is a temporary state. Sack cloth and ashes were literally that – rough garments – scratchy on the skin – – picture wearing the coarsest burlap you have ever seen on a steamy day in August. Then imagine drawing a bucket of ashes from a cold fire pit and dumping them over your head and body until you are completely covered. With these practices the idea was to assume a posture of total abnegation and humility – – extremely uncomfortable and dirty – – in order to appropriately fast. For some individuals, fasting and praying in this manner may have resulted in the desired state of communion with God. But for others, it was pretty much an outward show of false piety.

God’s idea of a fast is different. It has nothing to do with people starving themselves or abasing themselves with harsh self-humiliation. God’s fast has to do with addressing the injustices in society – – with addressing the social systems that oppress people and weigh them down like a heavy yoke – things like chronic unemployment, unaffordable child care, the loss of the dignity of being able to provide for one’s family. God’s fast doesn’t require starving oneself but rather requires the sharing of one’s bread with someone who is hungry. God’s fast does not require creating barriers, but rather bringing the homeless and the refugee into a safe circle of care – – God’s fast requires that the naked – – all human beings who are desperately vulnerable – – who cannot make their way in the world – – God’s fast is that they be covered, clothed, by a compassionate justice that sees them, cares for them and takes action to attend to to their needs.

Matthew’s Jesus reaffirms that his mission is to fulfill the flowing intention of God as it comes through in the great law given on Sinai and through the witness of prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah and Micah and Malachi. Jesus is pretty clear that there are consequences when the law and the prophets are set aside. He warns that those who ignore the issues of justice and righteousness and who draw others along with them will be “among the least in the kingdom of heaven” while those who are careful to pay attention and to teach others about the kind of fast that God requires will be great in the kingdom of heaven.

What we notice in Jesus’ words, however, is that no one is excluded from the Kingdom of Heaven. Those who live by the law of God and those who ignore it – – everyone enters. When Jesus says that those who have ignored the laws of God will be “Least in the kingdom” and those who have paid attention and acted in accordance with it will be “great” – – he is not setting up one more hierarchy that separates people. Jesus is talking about the great reversals that are a common thread throughout the bible that will be a reality in the kingdom of Heaven – – the kind of reversals we read in the beatitudes where those who mourn will be comforted – where the meek will inherit the earth – where the hungry will be filled – where those who weep now will laugh – – and conversely – – that those who are full now will be hungry and those who laugh now will mourn and weep.” The curious dynamic is that we will all be in it together in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Matthew’s Jesus is not the “gentle Jesus, meek an mild” of our childhood prayers when he stands in the line of succession from the great prophets who demanded of the people that they pay attention to the fast of justice and mercy and compassion that God requires. Matthew’s Jesus does two things in his insistence on attention to the law and the prophets. First – he affirms and validates the power of the scriptures to get us re-centered and rooted and grounded when we get off track. Hearing Jesus’ insistence on the centrality of the scriptures was critical at the time that Matthew was writing when the Jewish and early Christian era was in such turmoil. There was conflict within the Jewish community as they tried to chart a course for Judaism following the destruction of the temple. And there was conflict between those who would eventually break away to follow Jesus and those who would remain in the tradition. Matthew’s Jesus reminds the conflicted community of where their guidance and direction come from. The second thing that Matthew’s Jesus does by his insistence on attention to the law and the prophets, is that Jesus becomes for us the greatest of compassionate healers. He draws us into line with God’s vision for humanity. He shows us the way and he, indeed, becomes The Way. By aligning himself with the law and the prophets and by challenging us to follow him, Jesus invites us to become healers and reconcilers in a terribly broken and chaotic world. This is our most challenging calling. Jesus even warns about the challenge when he says to his followers “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you on my account.” He seems to indicate says we might actually be happy about that – – because it affirms that we are on the right track – – in good company with him and all the prophets who came before him. When we receive resistance or criticism for aligning ourselves with the teachings of Jesus, we might understand this as an indicator that we are doing the right thing.

We will celebrate communion together in a few minutes. I want to remind us once again of the circumstances of that early event. It happened on the eve of Jesus’ arrest. In modern language, he would be condemned for sedition and treason against Rome for daring to preach and teach the message of a God of justice, loving-kindness, liberation – a God of reversals who’s intent is to turn the world upside down by ushering in a realm where no one is left out. Jesus would die for the kind of preaching and teaching that called Rome to account. Jesus lived and died as an acceptable fast. He shared that last meal with his disciples to give them a constant reminder of the living fast they were to embody. He used simple foods that they would eat every day. And he said to them “every time you eat and drink bread and wine together remember what I am about.”

We stand in a great invisible lineage of human beings who have, indeed, remembered, who have embraced the acceptable fast that God desires and who have passed the memory on to us. Perhaps as we gather at the table, we might imagine that incredibly long line of witnesses here with us – filling the sanctuary with their presence as we share in communion and re-commit to taking our place in that line. May it be so.

TRAVELING LIGHT 1/29/17

TRAVELING LIGHT

MARK 6:7-13

JANUARY 28, 2015

CHILMARK COMMUNITY CHURCH

REV. ARMEN HANJIAN

(Pastor pulls up a chair facing the cross and reads into mike with back to congregation.)

It’s about time you and I had a talk, Lord. Here I am at least 3/4 of the way thru life and it’s about time I paused to do some evaluation. I am talking to you and to these my friends hoping that this conversation might help all of us think thru where we are in this pilgrimage of life.

Yes, that’s what this life is – it’s traveling thru, How have I travelled in the past, Lord? What’s been happening? What things have I accumulated? And what do I need for days to come? Help me Lord. Help us all to see where we are and what’s occurring in our lives, lest things happen gradually to us and we become what we have not aimed to become, lest we get trapped by good things which keep us from the best things.

I think of the time Jesus sent his disciples, people who cared about him, people he entrusted with the mission of your love. I think of that time when he sent them out and cautioned them not to take too much with them. Yes, the directions were for a short-term mission, but in some ways there is a timeless sense to it. Elaborate equipment is not needed. What is needed is to get the mission accomplished. I guess that is how we should approach all of life.

Jesus told the disciples they didn’t need a bag to carry all sorts of provisions. He also indicated they should not waste precious time on any persons who would not receive their message; rather, they should go on to others who would receive their good news. As I think about Jesus’ directions to those early followers, I can’t help thinking that they are instructions for me as well, Lord. Have I taken too much on my journey? Have I taken enough – enough of the right things?

First, have I taken too much? Sometimes I think even the log cabin home we built from a kit is too much. I sure have to do some sorting out. I have to discover what has been crucial in forming me and has become part of me and what I need to take into the future. (thoughts from Richard L Cookson)

How easily we are bound by possessions; we become their slaves – I guess we become their slaves if they do not serve our purposes. Each thing we acquire must be carefully chosen. I suppose the best things are those which are multipurpose. The test seems to be, Lord, will this object or idea serve both you and us in the future? I remember when I was a kid, I spent large blocks of time playing games. But if that is what I do when I’m grown up, that would be inappropriate. Yet, as games can serve healthy relationships, there is a place for them. It seems that good balance means I’ve got to test regularly the situation – whether the things I am doing and the things I am acquiring serve both you and me. I must be sure the things I am acquiring are not weights which keep me from traveling my journey to the fullest.

How fitting here to find out that the word “impediment” once meant baggage. Going on a trip, just enough baggage is what is needed. Too much becomes a burden just as not enough becomes a burden. In our land of plenty, I’m pretty sure how I am most likely out of balance: too much baggage, too many impediments. Lord, help me to let go of more and more that I might more and more fulfill the purpose of a child of God in this life. As years go quickly by, it dawns on me how much we must leave behind. I see now the sooner we get rid of the excess and the unnecessary, the more fit we are for you to work thru us.

Lord, each week I take the garbage and recycling to the dump – the remains of yesterday’s life. What if I piled it up outside my house and I looked to see what of my purchases were needed and what was a side track – would I be ashamed? Have I made any progress with things?

The garbage people take our clutter of used things, but what of our clutter of hurts? Do we nurse them, keep them, or are we willing to also give them up to you as unnecessary burdens? It’s so hard to discard feelings and assumptions we learned as kids, but we know that in your sight there are many ideas which are inappropriate for a child of God. Surely. no child of God should believe that some people are inferior, that because of a common heritage all persons in a group cannot be trusted, that the way we were brought up is the right way and your best way.

Lord, help me see if I’ve been carrying too much, and what is appropriate to sell or discard or give away. And on this journey of life, secondly, I have to ask, “Have I taken enough of the right things?”

Even from you Lord, have I taken the right things? When I first really met you, you said, “Come unto me..” And I did that. I found strength. I found peace. I found hope and meaning in life. And you said “Go!” Surely, a fulfilled life needs both actions: to come to you and to go in your behalf. Have I just read your teachings or have I taken them as guidance and supply for my journey thru life?

Do I hear you when you say “don’t set you heart on those riches where moth and rust corrode and thieves can steal?” Some things we treasure because they give us power or they help us shine in competition over another or because of the exclusiveness of the item – “Only I have it.” Some things we hang onto because they remind us of a relationship.

I see Lord, that all that you created is good, but the value for me is how I use things. I see, too, that my investments ought to be in things that are lasting – – the things that abide, such as faith and hope and love in these relationships. If we have a house, let us use it for what counts and not just for cleaning it and for storing store stuff.

I see you want us to travel light so we might give undivided mind and effort to our mission in life. Let me not wait for the perfect equipment to be on hand lest I lose my way dabbling in incidentals and acquiring a permanent preoccupation with secondary things keeping me from traveling swiftly to urgent tasks.

Lord, when I remember the early disciples, I truly have reason for hope and encouragement.. For them and for us, wherever our life journey takes us, we have the assurance that you are available to us. As with the early disciples so with us; you have given us a technique for defeat: We should move on if we seem defeated in any venture of faith, for we have not been required to be successful, only to be obedient to your call.

My mission is not a solitary journey. I travel with companions of compassion. Those early disciples didn’t need much because they could rely on the hospitality of others of the faith community for food and shelter and basic needs. Truly, this life is a journey of faith. Will I be there when others of the community need aid? Will the community of faith come thru when I need it? The disciples were willing to make those risks; help me to do so Lord. Isn’t that part of what faith means?

I really don’t know what to do next, but thinking these thoughts and with your aid, my forth-coming decisions will prod me away from accumulating things and away from accumulating hurt feelings. With your aid Lord, my forth-coming decisions will prod me towards living for right and warm relationships.

Maybe, I won’t travel light as did St. Paul the missionary or like the early preachers who went West with the pioneers, but as for me, I know I have to travel lighter than I am traveling now. So help me Lord. Help us Lord. Amen.

United Methodist Society of M.V.

METHODIST SOCIETY
Mission Statement:

  • To provide a coherent and shared witness for United Methodism on the Island
  • To strengthen existing ministries and develop new programs for outreach, evangelism and social justice for all ages.
  • To provide and foster fellowship and educational opportunities among United Methodists on Martha’s Vineyard.
  • Visit the website

RE-Membering January 22, 2017

RE-Membering”

Genesis 1:1- 9

Matthew 3:1-17

Chilmark Community Church

January 22, 2017

Rev. Vicky Hanjian

Rev. Mahlon H. Smith poured a little water on my head and baptized me in the Cedar Cliff Methodist Church in Haledon, NJ, on June 21, 1942. “Hazel Victoria Clark, child of Raymond Victor Clark and his wife, Helen Doris Holland” is the way it was recorded on my baptism certificate 35 days after my arrival on this planet. The story handed down to me is that I spit up on the minister’s robe before he handed me back to my mom! At this point in my life I am not sure whether that was an auspicious, or perhaps, a prophetic beginning. Be that as it may, by bringing me to the church to be baptized into the community of Christians called the Cedar Cliff Methodist Church, my mom and dad set my life on a path. In my behalf, the community promised, with my parents, to lead exemplary lives, to resist evil, to seek and pursue justice, to teach me the way of righteousness according to the scriptures and the life of Jesus.

The symbolic act of baptism opens the way for future relationship with the Holiness that pervades all of life – – and at crucial times in my life, remembering my baptism has had a life sustaining influence that has encouraged me on my journey.

It is a long way from the baptism that we often witness and experience in the church to the baptism of Jesus in a muddy river 2000 years ago.

A wild, rangy guy who dressed in camel skins and who ate bugs and honey came roaring out of the desert to the edge of civilization preaching a message of repentance and the coming of the kingdom of God. The story raises a few questions: “What was going on?” “What was so compelling about his message that people would flock to him to be dunked in that river?” “If John’s baptism was a baptism for the repentance of sins, what were the sins that people were repenting?” “Why did Jesus present himself for John’s baptism?” “Why or what was Jesus repenting?”

The baptism we know about is Christian baptism. We do it indoors, mostly. The water is clear and clean. Some traditions practice complete immersion under the water, others pour or sprinkle water on the top of the head. It is usually an occasion for happiness and celebration as a person is welcomed into the community of believers. But that is Christian baptism and John was a Jew. He preached and called out to other Jews. Jesus was a Jew and he came to John along with the rest of the crowds.

Jews had no concept of baptism as we know it. What they DID know was ritual bathing in running water before entering the marriage covenant, or before going to the synagogue for prayer, or following child-birth, or a critical juncture or change of direction in one’s life. Jews bathe in a mikveh, a ritual pool with free flowing water in which Jews can completely immerse themselves in preparation for spiritual rituals of the faith. A “mikveh” can be any body of “living” or moving water – like the ocean – – or a spring – – or a river like the Jordan.

The Hebrew word “mikveh” means “gathering of waters” – – we find it in the Genesis text that we heard earlier when God said “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” The Hebrew language is filled with plays on words – and with a little different emphasis on the Hebrew letters, the word “mikveh” also can be translated to mean “Hope.”

So – we meet John on the banks of the Jordan River – and what is he doing? He is immersing people in a mikveh, in living water, according to Jewish tradition, as he calls them to repentance and hope.

But the questions remain. What was going on? The Jews were an oppressed people – – and their adherence to their religious tradition of being a people in covenant with God made life dangerous for them under Roman rule. As the anti-Jewish pressure on the people increased, there was a temptation for some to simply submit – to knuckle under to the heavy influence of Rome – perhaps to become closet Jews – perhaps to just quietly assimilate and live out life in relative peace. For others, the pressure created a desire for violent rebellion and as futile as it was, armed resistance against Rome seemed the way to go. Still others chose a life of asceticism – of withdrawing into the wilderness to live in as much purity as they could – – trying to maintain Jewish life by avoiding as much contact with Rome as possible – trying to hold on and wait out the Roman occupation.

Each option, though, meant loss of identity. Assimilation – violent response – withdrawing – all represent a relinquishment of the high calling to the Jews to be “a kingdom of priests and holy nation” – – a people called to bear witness to the power and love and creativity and righteousness of the One True God.

Into this complex and painful milieu comes John – – preaching repentance. In Hebrew, the word is T’shuva. It means “return” or “turn toward” John’s message to the Jews of his time was the call to do t’shuva – – a call to the people remember who they are and to turn toward God – to return to their identity as a covenant people.

So – the people flock to hear John – to be immersed in the river – – to make an outward and visible sign of their intention to return to their most essential identity as God’s people. In his book “Jews In The Time Of Jesus”, Stephen Wylen reminds us that “John’s immersions were not baptisms into faith in Christ, but Jewish immersions. John might better be called John The Mikveh-Man rather than John The Baptist.” Ritual immersion in a mikveh re-capitulated the entire Jewish saga from the gathering of the waters at the moment of creation, to the cleansing flood and the rainbow, to the midnight wrestling of Jacob at the River Jabbok, to the waters of the Nile and the rise of Moses, to the waters of the Red Sea, to the water that flowed from the rock in the wilderness. Water shaped the life of Israel at every critical juncture. Immersion in the waters of Jordan became a re-membering – a re-calling – – a re-collecting – – of all that identity shaping history.

So from this little bit of biblical history, we get a glimpse of why people might have been drawn to the banks of Jordan. John struck a chord in the very heart of Jewish spirituality – the call to return to all that identified a Jew as a person in covenant with God.

And then there is Jesus. Why did he come to John? As a Jew, what was his t’shuva? We can’t know for sure – but we might speculate. Matthew’s gospel gives us a vivid story of Jesus’ baptism. Matthew draws us in to witness the identifying moment in Jesus life – the moment that indeed sets his face forever toward God. Jesus joins his fellow Jews in responding to John’s call to turn – – to return – – to the Source of his identity – – to say “Yes” to living out his divinity in human form. He receives the ritual immersion of John and rises out of the water to hear his identity proclaimed “You are my beloved Son. I am well pleased with you.”

Our Christian tradition of baptism is drawn out of the River Jordan with Jesus. Many of us were brought to baptism as infants by our parents. Some of us were a little older when we were able to make a choice for ourselves. Others of us entered into the sacrament as adults – – and still others of us may still be thinking about whether to be baptized or not. Wherever we are on the spectrum relative to Christian baptism, one thing remains certain. Baptism, even in Christian tradition, invites turning and returning. Both infant and adult baptism bestows identity. And not just any identity. Our baptism marks us as beloved of God. It marks us as members of a community that affirms the righteousness of God, a community that supports and assists us to do the continual work of t’shuva – of turning and returning over and over again to the highest expressions of our God given identity.

Baptism comes with responsibilities attached. Jesus is the model for a life lived forward from baptism. When we rise, wringing wet, from the waters with Jesus, we are called to life characterized by nonviolent resistance to the powers and principalities and systems that dehumanize the children of God. We rise, called to life characterized by healing attention given to the sick, the elderly, the disabled; we rise called to life characterized by doing our part to subvert the political and economic systems that lead to hunger and poverty and disenfranchisement; we rise from the baptismal waters called to resist the forces that lead us into forgetting who we are. A simple thing like remembering our baptism, our essential identity as beloved of God will be critical as the new year unfolds and we come to terms with the politics of fear and suspicion and disrespect that have been foreshadowed by the 2016 electoral campaign.

John’s immersion of the Jews in the Jordan has been called a form of passive, subversive resistance to the tyranny of Rome. At its best, perhaps our own baptism, regardless of when it happens, is one of the most subversive acts of our lives if it leads us into giving expression to the life of Jesus as we live in the world today. We are called to remember our baptism – – but perhaps even more, we are called to allow our baptism to RE-member us – to let our baptism pull us back together – – to re-join and re-collect us from the forces of fragmentation that threaten our claim on our highest identity.

When we remember – – and allow ourselves to be Re-membered, we then participate in the hope implied in the mikveh – – and we rise from the waters of blessing to live into our identity as beloved children of God.

Immediately following his baptism, Jesus heads out into the wilderness to battle his own demons. Baptism did not make him immune, nor does it make us immune, to the spiritual and moral and ethical challenges and struggles that life presents us – – but it does give us a fundamental sense of who we are and how we are to live as we navigate our own wilderness. In his baptism Jesus aligned himself with the purposes of God and with the holy community God had designated to be God’s people.

In church language, the sacrament of baptism is referred to as “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” I like that language. To me it implies that the grace is already there within us – – it is a given – – with or without the application of water and words. But when a baptism does occur, a certain public statement is made either by an adult individual or by parents in an infant’s behalf, that the inward and spiritual grace is claimed and owned, that a particular identity is embraced. Whatever is disconnected or fractured or broken is made whole and life moves on in powerful and unpredictable ways.

So – today, as we remember the baptism of Jesus, we celebrate our connections with each other, with our history as the people of God, with the ancient ritual itself. But even more, we allow our baptism to re-member us – to pull us back into wholeness. And even more than that, our baptism is always a call to remember who we are – – Beloved sons and daughters with whom God is pleased – – with all the privilege and responsibility that comes with owning our baptismal identity.

Re-membering – – it has never been more critical than it is today. May God grant us strong and vibrant memories that will both sustain us and draw us into the future. AMEN

“Packing for the Journey” 1/1/17

Packing For The Journey”

Ecclesiastes 3:1-13

Matthew 2: 13-15; 19-23

Chilmark Community Church

January 1, 2017

Rev. Vicky Hanjian

Over the last couple of months, I have been reading Scott Peck’s book IN SEARCH OF STONES. The theme of the book is built around his travels in Scotland with his wife, Lily, searching out pre-historic stone structures and monuments that dot the landscape of Scotland. A man after my own heart! While I was reading his chapter on Pilgrimage I happened to also listen in on one of Rick Steves’ travel programs where he was talking about pilgrims on the Santiago de Campostela – a popular pilgrimage route that crosses northwestern Spain. In the same program, Rick shifted his focus to how to pack wisely for traveling in Europe. Travel, pilgrimage, journey, packing – – images for thinking about a year ending and a new year beginning.

Given the state of massive and disruptive movements of whole populations, particularly in Syria, as a result of the unceasing war and violence there, it is easy to make the emotional connections with the story of Joseph and Mary fleeing with their newborn son to escape the terrorist reign of Herod – a king who was threatening a house to house search in order to kill every male child under the age of two.

I can’t help asking (as I do when I see the multitudes of refugees in transit) – what did they pack? If they had to move quickly, what belongings did they choose for the journey? When we see artistic renderings of what has come to be called “The Flight Into Egypt” – Mary is seated on a donkey holding the infant Jesus close while Joseph walks alongside the donkey carrying nothing but a staff in his hand. What did they pack? What did they leave behind?

Spending a few moments with the story of the journey into Egypt seems appropriate as we enter a new year. For Mary and Joseph, leaving everything that was familiar behind them in order to keep their small family safe represented the beginning of a new epic.

As 2017 begins, we too, necessarily begin a new chapter in our own lives – as individuals – – as a community – – and as a nation. Another year is stretching out in front of us. In some ways it is like a fresh canvas waiting for the brush strokes that will create the image of life in the next 12 months before another transition to another new year begins again a year from now. In other ways it carries the anxiety producing threat of the unpredictability. We are at the metaphorical beginning of a journey into 2017 – into an unknown country.

Embarking on a journey inevitably means making choices about what we will take with us and what we will leave behind. Rick Steves showed some amusing footage of travelers juggling huge, unwieldy suitcases on and off trains and buses. No matter how cleverly engineered the roller bags are, when they are large and over stuffed, they are cumbersome and can make traveling strenuous at best.

Rick‘s advice is to “travel light!” And that means making choices about what to pack and what to leave behind. The images of Mary and Joseph on the journey into Egypt show them traveling with nothing in their possession except the clothes on their backs. Pretty radical!!

When we went to Scotland, we made some choices. The first one was that we would only take as much as would fit in two carry-on bags and one day pack so that we wouldn’t have to contend with checking luggage, waiting at baggage carousels, risking loss in transit, not having what we needed when we needed it. The choice of the size of our bags forced us to make other choices – how many pairs of shoes??? What kind of outer wear??? How many changes of clothing and underwear??? And – of course -how many books could I take???

Making choices about what to take for a journey also means making choices about what to leave behind. In reality these were not serious existential choices for us as we prepared for Scotland. We would only be gone for 10 days and we were traveling in comfort and there were plenty of places to do laundry and to purchase what we needed if an emergency arose.

These were options not available to that little family on their way out of town.

The journey into 2017, confronts us with similar choices. There is much that we will want to take with us – – and there is much that will be cumbersome – that will weigh us down as we explore the unknown land that stretches out before us.

The passage we heard from Ecclesiastes invites us to consider the possibility of life as a process of continual emptying – – continual impermanence – – constant change. What has most frequently been translated as “vanity, vanity, all is vanity”…or “futility – all is futility” – – takes on a whole new meaning when the Hebrew word hevel is more accurately translated as “emptying”. The book begins with the lines : “Emptying upon emptying! Everything is emptying.”

(Ecclesiastes.1:2). Life is not in vain – – and life is not an exercise in futility.

It is far more accurate to affirm that life is a continual process of emptying – of impermanence and change. Our day to day discomfort with life comes with expecting things to be fixed, secure and permanent. We experience anxiety, frustration, anger and fear when this turns out not to be the case. The wisdom of Ecclesiastes escapes us.

Mary and Joseph’s middle of the night departure at the behest of an angelic messenger epitomizes the impermanence that keeps us on edge as life unfolds.

Their journey into Egypt – into the unknown – is what the nature of life is all about. Maybe the story it can help us set a course as we anticipate the coming year.

Setting out, it is a given that we cannot take everything with us. There is much that we must leave behind. Scott Peck suggests some of what we must leave out of our figurative luggage – things that have to be emptied if we want to be able to move on in a less encumbered way: things like fixed agendas and rigid expectations; things like prejudices or simplistic and instant likes and dislikes ; things like quick answers to difficult dilemmas -arrived at without careful listening; needs for certainty and control; the need to convert or “fix” others; the desire for peace at any price.

Imagine Mary and Joseph carrying any of these into Egypt with them. Imagine them having fixed ideas about where they were going to stay or what they were going to eat. Imagine them needing to have certainty and control over their days on the road. Imagine them seeking easy answers to all the questions they must have had as they followed the commands of an angelic dream; Imagine them saying they didn’t like the food that was offered to them because they didn’t like the way it was seasoned.

Mary and Joseph are our guides for what the process of emptying is all about. Mary certainly becomes a figure of emptying when she says “Here I am” in response to the angel’s announcement that she will bear a child. Imagine her choosing safety and predictability and saying to the angel “no -I don’t think so –not at this time!” Joseph is in the process of continual emptying when he says “Yes” to marrying Mary – to becoming the father and protector of the much anticipated infant – – to being the guarantor of the child’s safety as the terrorist king breathes down his neck.

They had to empty – – everything – – and depart from all that they knew to journey to an unknown country.

The story is an apt metaphor for the threshold of a new year. A story that challenges us to think about what we need to carry with us and what we need to leave behind as we begin our own the journey into an unknown country.

Perhaps we can imagine an open suitcase lying on the bed waiting to be packed for the trip into 2017. To one side, awaiting a decision about whether to take or leave may be a significant pile of things that need to be forgiven. There may be a neatly folded stack of resentments – take them along or leave them behind? There may be outgrown commitments that have lost their vitality in our lives -that keep us from living with joy – maybe they make the discard pile. Perhaps there is a small pile of fear and uncertainty begging to be packed in a side pocket – does it make the cut? And what about the nagging need to judge the motives and behaviors of the annoying people in our lives. Judgment weighs a lot and isn’t particularly useful. Maybe it can be left behind.

When Rick Steves makes his packing suggestions, he does not intend for people to travel in the discomfort and frustration that come with not having what is necessary for a pleasant trip – he simply recommends emptying the bag of things we don’t need.

Every journey requires making choices. Entering the foreign terrain of a new year is no different. By emptying ourselves of what is no longer useful, of the things that needlessly weigh us down, we create space for what is needed – what is necessary for a safe and happy – perhaps even joyful journey – – we can tuck greater measures of patience into those side pockets. Perhaps the main section of the bag will hold a lot more creativity and expectation when we are able to leave behind rigidity and predictability. And Oh – – all those lovely extra zippered spaces on the outside of the bag can carry far more compassion and joy and excitement when we leave behind the stacks of resentment and fear – – allowing us the freedom to easily reach the positive gifts we can offer to those we meet along the way – – making their journey easier and our own journey more meaningful.

When we read the words of Ecclesiastes from the perspective of life as a continual process of emptying, we realize that, indeed, every moment is a beginning – and every moment empties into the next moment of beginning. Nothing is fixed. Nothing is permanent. We are always on the threshold of something new. Like Mary and Joseph – our spiritual task is to be about the work of emptying ourselves enough so that the flow of Grace can flood in where we have cleared the inner space to receive it.

This means always working at the idea of packing our traveling bags with care – keeping them small enough to carry easily – – choosing what we will take with us carefully – – leaving behind whatever it is that would weigh us down as we travel together. Today, January 1st, 2017, we embark. Before we leave this place, we’ll share a simple meal together – – bread for the journey. May God grant us the grace we need as the way of the journey unfolds before us.