Changing Patterns 2/21/16

“Changing Patterns”
Genesis 45:3-11, 15
Luke 6:27 – 38
February 21, 2016
Chilmark Community Church
Rev. Vicky Hanjian

Starting out, the working title for this sermon was “Sin, Repentance, Redemption, and Repair”. When I shared my thoughts with my rabbi friend, Lori Shaller, she said: “boy – that sounds heavy –are you trying to scare people off?!?” While I really liked the way the words roll of the tongue, I was inclined to agree with her. While sin and repentance and redemption and repair are central themes throughout the scriptures, the bible comes at them rather obliquely – – through stories – – rather than hitting us between the eyes, as it were. The stories show us the great patterns sin and repentance, redemption and repair in more palatable ways as the saga of God’s people unfolds.

And so it is with the story that we read to day. A lot of time has passed since the day that Joseph, perhaps 17 years old at the time, was thrown into an empty cistern by his brothers – left there to die because they just couldn’t tolerate his brazen, favorite son, tattle-tale behavior even one more day. A lot of time has passed since his older brother, Judah, said “What good is it if we kill him and try to conceal it – – Let’s sell him to the Ishmaelites and not lay our hands on him, for he is our brother after all – our own flesh.” An ironic afterthought.

The story of Joseph and his brothers follows closely on the heels of the stories of a number of other brothers in the Hebrew scripture – stories that seem to unfold in a pattern of dysfunctional families, parental favoritism, sibling rivalry, mistrust, mayhem and murder.

Starting with the story of Cain and Abel at the beginning of the biblical narrative of humankind – we find brother at enmity with brother.
Cain is the first born son – a farmer – a tiller of the ground. He is followed by Abel who is a sheep-herder. Cain brings an offering of grain to God. Abel brings an offering of one of the firstborn of his flocks. God likes Abel’s offering better. Cain gets angry and kills off Abel. And a pattern of enmity between brothers starts.

Often the pattern is aided and abetted by parents who favor one child over another. Abraham and Sarah wait a long time to have a child. Sarah is not able to have children so she provides her handmaid, Hagar to Abraham as the first surrogate mother. Hagar gives birth to Ishmael. In her old age, Sarah does indeed finally become pregnant as God has promised and gives birth to Isaac. Even though he is the younger son, Isaac will be the son who receives Father Abraham’s blessing. Isaac will carry the covenant of God forward into the future. An enmity arises between Sarah and Hagar. Sarah jealously drives Hagar and Ishmael out of the tribe. The seeds for the enmity between Isaac and Ishmael are planted. They go their separate ways and become the ancestors of two multitudes of people: Ishmael, the father of the Islamic peoples, Isaac, the progenitor of the Jewish people.

In the next generation, Isaac, now married to his beloved wife, Rebecca, becomes the father of twins. Esau, the firstborn, is the rightful heir to Isaac’s blessing. Jacob, the second born seizes his elder brother’s blessing from their aged and blind father. A life long enmity rises up between the twins. With murderous threats hanging between them, they go their separate ways as well.

Jacob marries first Leah and then his beloved Rachel, Leah’s younger sister. Jacob fathers 12 sons by these two women and also by two of their handmaids. Joseph, the 11th son is the first son born to Rachel, the beloved wife. He is Jacob’s favorite – resented by his 10 elder brothers as a whining, tale bearing upstart. The brothers plot his murder, change their minds, and sell him into slavery in Egypt.

A lot happens to Joseph in Egypt in this longest story in the book of Genesis. When Joseph’s brothers encounter Joseph in Pharoah’s court after so many years of separation, they do not even recognize him – – although Joseph know exactly who they are.

It is here in this emotionally charged reunion of the brothers that we see the patterns of the past beginning to be reversed. In one of the most poignant scenes in the scriptures, Joseph, threatened with the loss of his life, thrown into a pit, and sold into slavery by his own brothers so many years ago, forgives them and sows the seeds of a new pattern of possibilities.

Patterns of harm and hurtfulness, no matter how deeply seated, can be reversed and changed. This is the word of hope that runs throughout our sacred texts. Buried in each of the stories of the hurt and pain between brothers there is a tiny glimmer of hope. God cares for Cain and places a mark on him so that he can move through life unharmed in spite of the shameful crime he committed against Abel. Long after the banishment of Hagar and Ishmael, Ishmael and Isaac return to stand next to each other at their father’s funeral. After years of separation Jacob and Esau embrace in generosity – seeing God’s face in one another. Joseph sees the graceful and guiding hand of God working through his brothers’ actions and through his suffering.

The long Joseph story is a story of sin and repentance and redemption and repair –a story of brothers finding their way through their alienation from one another to healing and reconciliation. It is a story of repaired relationships. With the Joseph story, the pattern of sibling rivalry in Genesis ends. The pattern is broken – – and it is broken by Joseph’s ability to forgive the past, to heal it and to permit both himself and his brothers to move forward into the future free of the burdens of sorrow and guilt and fear that they carried for so many years. With this willingness to forgive and reconcile, the narrative is infused with energy to continue on.

When we hear Jesus’ teachings about loving our enemies, doing good to those who curse us, praying for those who abuse us – -turning the other cheek, what we are hearing is an invitation to reverse the pattern of withholding forgiveness. Most often this is an inner work that may have to happen long before the actual rebuilding of broken relationships can begin to happen. Many years passed between the departing murderous threats that Esau made against his brother Jacob and their eventual reunion. Many years passed between the day Joseph’s brothers threw him into the pit and the day when they were so emotionally reunited in Pharoah’s court. The process of coming to a place of being able to forgive can take a very long time.

The work of Lent is about recognizing where we need to be about the work of breaking old patterns that limit our lives in unproductive ways. The work begins with simply recognizing where we feel alienated – separated, whether from others, from ourselves, or from God. I am never quite sure whether this is the hardest part or not – – because it means saying “yes –this is where my sin is.” I say that, because the next part of the process may be even harder – and that is the work of returning – turning – toward the other, turning toward our innermost selves, turning toward God – the work of repentance – of seeking or of giving forgiveness. Once we have made the choice to face toward the work of forgiveness then the energy of forgiveness has a chance to begin its flow.

I think we see the redemption part when we see Jacob and Esau embrace after years of alienation – – when we see how Joseph forgives and releases his brothers from all the years of guilt about what they had done. Their lives are indeed redeemed, brought back from the terrible exile of separation. This doesn’t necessarily mean they are going to be best buddies, but through the work of turning toward one another, they get their lives back. A kind of repair work happens and the story is allowed to move forward. If a refusal to forgive had happened at any point, the story would founder and stagnate – unable to reach a satisfying conclusion.
Repentance, turning toward the highest and best for ourselves and the other, redeeming and repairing the fractured places and relationships in our lives – – these are the movements of the spiritual life. They are the movements of the life to which Jesus invites us. They are not easy movements. They inevitably cost us something. We don’t do any of them without at least a bit of struggle and sometimes with a lot of soul wrenching anguish. But this is the work we are called to do.

Still, as Joseph recognizes–there seems to be a deep grace, a hidden involvement of the Holy One, governing the process when we decide to undertake the work of breaking the old patterns of separation and brokenness. A little later in Luke’s gospel Jesus is heard to say “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous people who do not need to repent.”

It seems that God takes great pleasure in our willingness to do the work of repairing the world through our willingness to do the work of forgiveness – both in the giving and the receiving. Martin Luther King Jr. said: “Forgiveness is not an occasional act but a permanent attitude.” Even the smallest increment makes a huge difference.

FINDING THE LEVEL PLACE 2/14/16

Finding The Level Place”

Jeremiah 17: 5-10

Luke 6:17 – 26

Rev. Vicky Hanjian

Chilmark Community Church

February 14, 2016

Sometimes a word or phrase in a text seems to “shimmer” or take on a life of its own. It stands out from the rest of the text and it keeps calling attention to itself. So it is with the phrase “He came down with them and stood on a level place…” over the years, I have learned to pay attention when the text gives the prompt.

On the surface, of course, it makes sense for Jesus to seek out a level space from which to minister to the people around him. He has just been on the mountaintop – has spent a long night in prayer in the Divine Presence. From that experience, he reaches out and draws twelve men closer to him – – individuals with whom he will share the wisdom of his teachings. Both of these experiences are
“heady” to say the least. To spend a night with God is transformative all by itself. To come away from that experience knowing that you are to be the master teacher for a select handful of disciples is even more expansive. Figuratively speaking, it might be enough to throw one off balance. Finding a bit of level ground on which to stand before taking the next step might be a very necessary thing to do if one is to keep a good head on one’s shoulders.

But the scriptures rarely ever leave us on the surface of things. There is always something else going on – – and we are invited to stand on a level place with Jesus and look again at what is happening.

First, it is interesting to note that by the time Jesus finds the spot from which he will speak, there are not only the twelve men who will form his intimate inner circle of students, there is a “great crowd of disciples” – – and along with them there is an even greater multitude from all over the country side. It is clear that Jesus already has a reputation for being a teacher and a healer. Not only are the crowds open to hearing what he has to say, they follow him around in a state of hunger. But rather than giving a teaching first, Jesus attends to their various bodily needs – – power goes out of him – – and all are healed. We might think that the healing alone was enough for one day’s work – but the people have come to HEAR Jesus as well. So we learn from the outset that the power of this teacher works in different ways for different people – each according to their need.

I wondered what the phrase “then he looked up at his disciples and said…” might mean. It seems as though the intensity of focus on the healing drew all his attention and then, when he was finished, he looked up and there were his hand-picked few – – waiting for his attention. It seems the words that follow are particularly for them – – while the rest of the multitude gets to listen in.

So –for a few minutes, maybe we can find our way to that spot of level ground and take our place in the crowd – – – or perhaps we might find ourselves as one of that inner circle of intimacy gathered around Jesus to receive the essence of his teaching for the day.

It is hard to imagine Jesus telling people they are blessed if they are poor and hungry. There is nothing inherently redemptive in poverty – in being so poor that you can’t provide food for your family or a roof over their heads – or adequate medical care if they are sick –or warm clothing when the winds blow cold off the ocean. Indeed, it would really seem callous and out of character for Jesus to speak to a crowd this way about the blessing hidden in poverty and starvation.

So we are called draw in a little closer. The disciples were not poor or physically hungry. At the very least they were from the lower middle class – remember they were professional fishermen and tradesmen. There was even a tax collector among them who did pretty well for himself. We see Jesus reaching inside them with a series of wise sayings that are not meant to be taken literally. Each saying shows a contrast – – a choice perhaps – – to be acknowledged and embraced by his followers: You guys are blessed if you are poor – – in a state of spiritual emptiness – – a state of inward receptivity – – because if you are, then there is plenty of room in you for the seeds of the kingdom to grow. On the other hand, if you feel as though you are already rich – – that you already know what you need to know – – there isn’t much I can give you – you will be satisfied with what you have already. If you are hungry – even starving for what I have to give you, I can promise you that you will be filled up. If you are crying and yearning for what I have to teach you, you will receive so much that you will laugh with joy.

In a simple reading of the story, it seems as though pretty much everyone can receive the benefits of the healing that Jesus offers to those who crowd around him. He gives freely without any demands. Luke tells us that “power came out from him and he healed all of them.” But when it comes to the teaching and the wisdom he imparts, there needs to be an emptiness waiting to be filled, a great hunger and yearning wanting to be satisfied or else the wise holiness that Jesus is able to impart finds no home in his listeners.

In the companion text from Jeremiah, the language is a little different, but the message is the same: Blessed are those who trust in the Lord – -they will be like trees planted by the water – – they will send out their roots into the moist soil – – even when drought and trouble come they will still bear fruit and they won’t be anxious.

Jeremiah preached to a very different crowd – Israelites who had been and continued to be in exile in strange lands with foreign gods in cultures where often the king was regarded as a divine being. The monarch’s divinity was reinforced and his worship was assured with weapons and troops. So Jeremiah begins this part of his preaching not with blessing but with curses and warnings about what happens when Israel puts her trust in fallible human beings, in the attractiveness of foreign gods. Eventually “they shall be like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see when relief comes…..they will live in an uninhabited salt land.”

We are now in the period of Lent in the Christian liturgical year. Unlike the anticipation of the birth of Jesus at the end of Advent, during Lent we anticipate the renewal of life that follows on the heals of a crucifixion that ends the life that we welcomed into the world on Christmas. In American culture it is so easy to stay on the surface of the deep rhythms signified by the holy days we celebrate at intervals during the calendar year. There are incredible distractions. Secular culture calls us away from the strenuous task of paying attention to our inner lives – – to the call of the Holy that invites and cajoles and even demands our attention. Even the work of just getting through the week’s schedule is enough to keep us so distracted that fleeting moments of quiet and solitude are very hard to come by.

It is no wonder that sometimes we feel parched – – like a shrub in the desert – – living in an uninhabited salt land.

But Lent cycles around every year with renewed opportunities to put our roots down by a living stream of water. God does not leave us floundering around in the dry places. God just keeps calling us to return to where the water is.

I think this is at the center of what Jesus was saying to his followers as he invites them to be empty and hungry and yearning for what he has to offer.

Lent is a gift of time given to us to find our way to a level place again. It is an invitation to allow ourselves to become empty – perhaps even to recognize our spiritual impoverishment that is so often the outcome of our over-full calendars. These next few weeks are given to us to help us stop and reflect on what we count on to fill us so that we can keep on going. We are challenged to examine what it is that we are yearning and hungering for. We are invited to allow the grace and the teachings of Jesus to permeate us – – to re-create us – – to nourish and to heal us. Lent is rigorous time if we use it well. Curiously, it ends with Good Friday – – with a visible, dramatic and painful death quickly followed by a resurrection and the promise of new life.

The older I get, the more I come to understand that when Jesus calls us to recognize that we need to be empty, poverty stricken, utterly poor in order to be able to receive what he will give – – he is saying that some part of us needs to die – – to become that empty in order to be filled. Paul talks about dying to himself so that Christ can live in him.

So that is what Lent is about……finding the level ground where we meet the wisdom of Jesus face to face – – where we learn about how to be poor and empty and hungry and yearning for what he has to offer. How do we do it? – – Maybe by taking five minutes during the day to sit and allow ourselves to be in a state of relaxation – taking time to disconnect ourselves from whatever causes us anxiety. Maybe by choosing to read a brief page of something that nurtures our spirits in the midst of so much that drags us down. Maybe it would be taking the time each day to just acknowledge the Divine Presence in whatever is happening –good or bad – in that moment. It takes time – – it takes a bit of solitude – – it takes a bit of silence – – and it takes a whole lot of intention. If Easter is to have any meaning for us, it will be because we have taken Lent seriously.

We don’t need to do this alone. We have the scriptures. We have times of worship together. We have the companionship of the Spirit and we have each other. For a few moments in silence, let us covenant with ourselves and with one another to find the level place in the presence of Jesus – and begin the journey through Lent together.

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