Where Oil and Water Mix

“Where Oil and Water Mix”
Isaiah 43:16 – 21
John 12:1-8
Chilmark Community Church
March 13, 2016
Rev. Vicky Hanjian

When I first started contemplating the texts for today I thought there might be a way in which they are linked, although I couldn’t see the connection clearly. The Isaiah verses seemed to draw my attention more. So I decided to go with them and see where they would lead. What I realized is that, when these verses are inserted back into the context of the verses that immediately follow, they point to an extraordinary love story.

In the part that we read, God is identified as the Lord who presided at the parting of the Reed Sea so that Israel made a safe passage out of Egypt. The verses describe the chaotic drowning of Pharoah’s army. If you recall the Cecil B. DeMille images, the scene is one of watery chaos as chariots and horses and troops swirl around under the water as the sea closes in on them. For many generations, Israel was encouraged and prompted and exhorted to remember and be thankful for the way God had saved them.

Somewhat paradoxically, Isaiah is saying that this same God now calls to Israel not to get stuck in the past – – but rather to be alert and wakeful to perceive the new thing that God is about to do – – and some really lavish promises roll off the tongue of the prophet:

I am about to do a new thing…do you not perceive it?….I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. The wild animals will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches, for I give water in the wilderness and rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people…..the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.

The lectionary selection stops there. But I think it is only in reading a bit beyond this that we begin to see the Lenten and Easter message for us today. The verses that follow retell, in poetry, the rocky relationship between God and Israel. And the voice of God continues: Yet (even after all I have promised and done for you) you did not call upon me O Jacob; but you have been weary of me O Israel! You have not brought me your sheep for burnt offerings, or honored me with your sacrifices,…. but you have burdened me with your sins; you have wearied me with your iniquities (43:22-25)…….I have been just and gracious – you have ignored and offended.

This sounds to me like a broken hearted Lover pursuing the beloved….but the beloved doesn’t respond and perhaps even ignores the Lover. In seminary, I heard the term patri passionis for the very first time. It is a Latin term for the suffering of God. In the centuries after Jesus’ death, as the primitive church argued and hammered out its understanding of who Jesus was, there was a lot of in-fighting about whether God could suffer. People were insulted, excoriated, and excommunicated in these arguments about whether the Holy One of Being could possibly suffer.

Isaiah shows us a God who does indeed suffer when there is a breach – when God’s beloved people choose to either ignore or even outright reject the grace and love and yearning of the God who, as Isaiah says, “formed these people for myself, so that they might praise me.” It is as though the only reason human beings were brought into being was so that God could have a relationship with us.

But, in spite of ignorance and rejection, God continues to promise the abundant moisture of life – – Isaiah 44 begins this way: But now hear, O Jacob my servant, Israel whom I have chosen! Thus says the Lord who made you, who formed you in the womb and will help you: Do not fear. For I will pour out water on the thirsty land, and streams upon the dry ground. I will pour my spirit upon your descendants and my blessing on your offspring. Thirsty land – – dry ground – – images of our human lives when we lose touch with our Source.

Isaiah points us toward a God who suffers – – but also to a God who is always hopefully and extravagantly moving toward us even though a more pragmatic mind might say “Why waste your holy time and effort? These human beings are slippery and they just don’t get it!”

But we read a second story this morning too – – a story about a human being who just might get it. A woman who has been the recipient of the passionate love of the Lover. She co-hosts a dinner party to welcome Jesus into her home. She and her family serve the best food. They celebrate the presence of the Jesus in their midst. Mary even goes so far as to break open a vial of costly perfumed oil to anoint the Jesus’ feet. And then in an act of utter extravagance, she wipes his feet with her hair. Mary gets it. Even in the face of the pragmatic criticism of the resistant voice in the room – – – the voice of one who doesn’t get it – – Mary lavishly and extravagantly returns love to the Lover.

The gospel writer’s interpretation invited us to think about the story of Mary anointing Jesus as a metaphorical preparation for Jesus’ death. And this may well be. But when the story is juxtaposed with the extravagant nature of the Lover in Isaiah, the story might also be telling us something about what our role is in the Divine – Human Love story.

From the beginning of our faith saga, God is a creative, extravagantly gracious, long-suffering source of Love and Justice and Grace in the pursuit of the Beloved – humankind. The words in Isaiah might help us to know that when we ignore or neglect, or take the Lover for granted, we wound the heart of God – in much the same way that a child is capable of wounding a parent when the child rejects the love that the parent offers. But Isaiah also assures us that the Lover doesn’t ever give up.

Mary becomes not only the gracious receiver of the overwhelming love of Jesus for her and her family, she also becomes an extravagant lover in return – – her expensive, perfumed oil and her beautiful hair are her love gifts – – and in a quick and subtle turnabout, Mary puts a very human face on the nature of the passionate love of the Holy One of Being – – She makes something of the nature of God visible as she offers back to Jesus her love and devotion. When we love and serve extravagantly, we may indeed become the face of God. When we love and serve extravagantly, we bless God and bring joy and fulfillment into the relationship between us and the Lover.

The story will continue to unfold beyond the loving encounter between Mary and Jesus. We will see that while loving so extravagantly will bring great joy – it will also bring great suffering. Jesus’ death is on the horizon. Loving him costs a lot. Mary will suffer because she loves him. But she will also rejoice when she discovers that this is one love affair that will never end.

As we draw closer to Good Friday and then to Easter morning, we are challenged to hold in creative tension the idea of a God who loves passionately and extravagantly on the one hand, and the idea of a God who suffers when the relationship with the Beloved is distant or fractured on the other.

The interface between Mary and Jesus is a visual image of the point where God does a new thing! It is where the Lover’s ancient promise of life giving waters in the wilderness and rivers of water in the desert meet the perfumed oil of the beloved’s devotion and gratitude. When we are able to love God just as passionately as God has loved us – – when our hearts over flow with gratitude and with service to the Beloved, then we are in the place where, indeed, oil and water do mix – the place where the Lover and the Beloved meet and there is celebration and rejoicing – – giving and receiving – – blessing and blessed – – even though the world doesn’t always get it. This is what the Holy One desires – – simply that we turn toward God with our heart and soul and mind and strength and love God back as much as we have been loved. Mary gets it. Loving Jesus and loving the God that Jesus reveals is costly. – – but as Mary will discover, her passionate devotion will carry her through the devastation of death to a clearer understanding of what it means to live on the other side of crucifixion.

Isaiah and Mary confront us with the question: are we willing to become the place where God will do a new thing? Are we willing to be the people who will serve as the point where the water of God’s great promises mix with the perfumed oil of our willingness to love as extravagantly as God has loved us? If we can say “yes” – then God’s new thing is already happening – can you see it? It is ready to break forth from the bud.

What’s a Father to do?

“What’s a Father To Do?”
Luke 15:1-3, 11b – 32
Joshua 5:9-12
Chilmark Community Church
Rev. Vicky Hanjian
March 6, 2016

This is probably one of the most familiar of Jesus’ parables. Indeed, we may be so familiar with it that we are content with what we have drawn from it. For today’s reflection I will be drawing heavily on the work of Amy-Jill Levine to take us just a little further along in our thinking about the meaning of this parable. Amy-Jill is the author of Short Stories By Jesus-The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi.

The characters in the parable are complex individuals. We have a father who loves his two sons very differently. We have an older son who seems to be the responsible one. He takes his role as the eldest seriously. We have a younger son who appears to be the epitome of irresponsibility. He takes his share of the family resources – and he leaves for part unknown.

Traditional interpretation almost universally accepts the parable as an
allegory of repentance and forgiveness. This represents a quick and easy resolution of the story – – – the wandering son who was thought to be dead has an awakening while he is munching on carob pods in a pig-sty. He gets up, dusts himself off, rehearses a speech to give to his father – and off he goes to be welcomed back with open and loving arms. The parable ends with the Father saying “….it is necessary to rejoice because your brother who was dead is alive –he was lost and now he is found.”

The problem is that when the father proclaims this resurrection speech, he and the older son are still standing out in the field – the older son refusing to come in to the celebration. There is an the unspoken question – “Now what?” sort of hanging in the air. That question leaves us without an easy resolution to the story.

Levine invites us to ask ourselves the difficult questions: What would we do if we were the elder son? Would we join the party? What might happen if the father died and the elder son was left to collect his inheritance? Keep the younger brother around? Send him off to the stables to work as a servant to the family?

What if we are the parent and one or more of our own children is lost? Is repeated pleading enough? What does a parent do to show a love to the child who cannot feel it? What happens when we learn that indulging our kids is not an effective form of love – – even if it keeps the lines of relationship and communication open?

And how are we to understand the younger son? Levine suggests that the 1st century people who heard this story would not have bought into the neat and tidy image of seeing the younger son “shattered by grace and fully repentant.” She writes “I neither like nor trust the younger son. I do not see him doing anything other than what he has always done – take advantage of his father’s love.”

So – we have a complex picture of a family. The elder brother would be within his legal rights to discount his younger brother – send him off to be a day laborer in the service of the estate. But as Levine points out “this may be a legally acceptable move, but it is one without honor, mercy or concern for the father’s wishes. When personal resentment overrides familial and cultural values, we all lose.”

The younger brother is beloved. As lazy and as indulged as he is, he is a member of the family. He cannot be ignored. To dismiss him would be to dismiss the father as well.

The father loves both sons. He reaches out to them both because the family is not whole.

This parable resists the easy interpretation of repentance and forgiveness: “In this household, no one has expressed sorrow at hurting another, and no one has expressed forgiveness.” When it comes to families, there factors other than repentance and forgiveness that hold us together.”

Levine directs our attention to the two parables that precede this one – the parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin. These two clearly are not stories about repentance and forgiveness. Neither lost sheep nor lost coins have the ability to repent. The rejoicing in these two parables comes because of happiness at finding something that was lost. The shepherd rejoices at finding and restoring the lost sheep to the flock. The woman celebrates because her broken coin collection has been restored to wholeness.

Levine suggests that if we can just pause a little before reading repentance and forgiveness into this parable, it may give us something more profound than the familiar and often repeated messages. “The parable provokes us with simple exhortations: Recognize that the one you have lost may be right in your own household. Do whatever it takes to find the lost and then celebrate with others, both so that you can share the joy and so that the others will help prevent the recovered from ever being lost again. Don’t wait until you receive an apology; you may never get one. Don’t wait until you can muster the ability to forgive; you may never find it. Don’t stew in your sense of being ignored, for there is nothing that can be done to retrieve the past. Instead, go have lunch. Go celebrate and invite others to join you. If the repenting and the forgiving come later, so much the better. And if not, you will have done what is necessary. You have begun a process that might lead to reconciliation. You will have opened a second chance for wholeness.”

The word “prodigal” can mean “recklessly extravagant” or “extravagance characterized by wasteful expenditure.” “Prodigal” describes the father in the story as much as it does the son – the father who gives away half the family estate – the father who welcomes back the errant son – the father who leaves his guests to go into the field to plead with the son who is estranged – – a prodigal, recklessly extravagant father who just wants his family to be whole again – who wants all his children around the table. Sounds like a description of God to me.

Finding the lost takes work. It is the work of God – it is our work. Wherever we are on our various life journeys, the seeking out, the repair, the reconciliation, all are the work we are continually prompted by the Spirit to do. We may never be able to complete the task successfully, but that does not mean we are excused from trying.

Sharing in communion together draws us closer to one another and closer to the loving power that energizes and supports and encourages us to be lovers and seekers of the lost. Through the grace of the story telling of Jesus we can learn here at the table what it takes to be forgivers and reconcilers. For just a few moments in time, we glimpse what it is like to be completely at peace in the presence of God’s hospitality – – back home as it were, for the feasting and celebration.

What’s Going on Down at the Temple?

What’s Going On Down At the Temple?
February 28, 2016
Chilmark Community Church
Exodus 21:1-17
John 2:13-22
Rev. Vicky Hanjian

Jesus – – angry in the Temple. So much has been done with this story. It has been used to justify anger as a faith response – after all – Jesus demonstrated anger. It has been used to justify violence as a means to an end – Jesus used a whip of cords to drive merchants from the temple. It has been used as an argument against fund-raising in the church – Jesus said don’t turn my Father’s house into a market place. It has been read as a protest against the exploitation of the poor, of the traveler, of the worshipper – and in this reading, the Temple does not come out looking so well. Historically, the text has often been used in Christian preaching and teaching to denigrate the Temple religious sacrificial system and from there it was a very short step to denigrating Jews and Judaism.

Jesus came to the temple in Jerusalem and he looked around.
But what was he seeing? What angered him so much that he committed what is perceived as an act of violence against the vendors gathered there?

New Testament scholars of every stripe have puzzled and struggled to draw conclusions about Jesus’ activities in this story and to understand what meaning the story may have for the church today. New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan argued that the Temple was itself a “domination system” in the midst of the Roman domination of the Jewish people – that the Temple and the institutions it represented exploited the people – marketing at a profit the necessary animals for the many sacrifices that were made each day.

In her book THE MISUNDERSTOOD JEW, New Testament scholar, Amy Jill Levine argues that this is a faulty and, perhaps, even dangerous reading of the text.
As she leads us through the New Testament texts, we find that, indeed, the Jewish population in general did NOT consider the temple to be an exploitive “domination system”, but rather the “house of God.” The Gospels and The Book of Acts depict Jesus and his family and his followers worshipping in the Temple and making their sacrifices to God. Apparently they did not feel either dominated or exploited by the temple practices. Zechariah, the Father of John the Baptist served as a priest in the temple. Simeon and Anna who greeted the infant Jesus on the 8th day after his birth prayed devoutly and worshipped in the Temple – Anna, a prophet, according to the story, spent all her days there. Jesus’ followers continued to gather in the Temple after his death and indeed, the Temple became the setting for several miracles.

The problem Jesus addresses in all 4 gospels is not exploitation or domination, plundering or robbing; it is the act of “doing business” itself. As we heard earlier, John’s version of the story accentuates the point; in it Jesus rages, “Stop making my Father’s house a market place.”

Whatever Jesus did or did not do, the Gospel evidence does not suggest that he was about the dismantling of an exploitive system. Something else was going on at the temple. Commentator Bruce Chilton reminds us that the vendors located in the temple at the time of the story had previously marketed their wares on the Mount of Olives at some slight distance from the Temple. It was customary for pilgrims and worshippers to visit the market on their way to the Temple to purchase their sacrificial animals. By order of Caiaphas, the Roman approved High Priest at the time, the vendors were moved from the Mount of Olives into the Court of the Gentiles, one of the outer courts of the Temple. This indirectly represented one more Roman incursion into the religious life of the Jews. Many Jews, including Jesus, objected.

The issue was not one of economic exploitation – but a serious insult to the way the Jewish people conducted their religious life. The market was not exploiting worshippers who were already accustomed to making their purchase prior to worship. It The issue was the fact that the market place was set up in the temple grounds itself – – that buying and selling was happening on the Sabbath in direct contradiction of Jewish religious religious practice.

So –what does all that have to do with us, with our worship, with our movement through the Lenten season? Our lesson from the Hebrew scriptures holds the key. Earlier, we heard the reading of the 10 Commandments. Almost at the center of these life shaping words is the command: “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days shall you labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work.” The Temple is the physical representation – the physical space – of Shabbat holiness.

But, there is also, as Abraham Joshua Heschel describes it, a temple in time – a sacred space in time – called the Sabbath – a time set apart – and made holy. He writes “In the tempestuous ocean of time and toil there are islands of stillness where man may enter a harbor and reclaim his dignity. The island is the seventh day, the Sabbath day, a day of detachment from things, instruments and practical affairs as well as (a day of) attachment to the spirit.”
Heschel further writes: The holiness of the chosen day is not something at which to stare and from which we must humbly stay away. It is not holy away from us. It is holy unto us. Exodus 31:14 reads “You shall keep the Sabbath therefore , for it is holy unto you. The Sabbath gives holiness to Israel.
So, what was going on down at the temple? The very presence of the market place, the place of doing business on the other 6 days of the week, posed a threat to the holiness of the day of Shabbat and to the holiness that Shabbat offered to the Jewish people. A few years ago, in Jerusalem, we were in one of the most vibrant suks or market places on Friday afternoon a few hours before the beginning of Shabbat. The buying and selling was vigorous and noisy and colorful and exhilarating. People buying their last minute Shabbos dinner ingredients – beautiful loaves of challah being snapped up – kosher slaughtered chickens disappearing from open air butcher – shops a sense of excitement and anticipation – Shabbat anticipated as a beautiful bride approaching the gates of the city. In a few hours, though, all the booths and stores would be shuttered and quiet throughout Jerusalem. Cars would begin disappearing from the streets. Work would cease. And a spirit of calm peacefulness would settle over the city. Regardless of all the stresses that Israel endures on a daily basis, on Shabbat, a sense of holiness pervades the land and there is peace. A very energetically secular environment simply shuts down – closes its doors –and a space for holiness is created in the calm of Shabbat.

In our culture we have pretty much lost our sense of Shabbat. We do not know how to rest as God rests. Modern technology has made it possible for us to be constantly available to the work place. We don’t now how to stop – and even when we try, the resulting anxiety can be intolerable. The holiness of our lives has been invaded by the marketplace. Jesus’ irate call to us is to get the marketplace out of the temple of our lives for at least 24 hours each week – to stop getting and spending, creating and destroying, producing and consuming, scheduling and managing.

Abraham Heschel sums it up this way: To set apart one day a week for freedom, a day on which we do not use the instruments which have so easily been turned into weapons of destruction, a day for being ourselves, a day of detachment from the vulgar, of independence of external obligations, a day on which we stop worshipping the idols of technical civilization, a day on which we use no money, a day of armistice in the economic struggle with our fellow human beings and with the forces of nature – is there any institution that holds out greater hope for human progress than the Sabbath?

God instructs: Remember the Sabbath – keep it holy. But the greater issue is that in remembering the Sabbath, we are made holy. Our holiness, the holiness of the people of God – – this is what Jesus was protecting. The sanctity of human life is restored and preserved when Shabbat is at the center of our lives. Sabbath is a temple in time. When we make a Sabbath time central in our lives, we may have the experience of being liberated from the tyranny of the things that govern our lives – if only for 24 hours each week. Indeed, when we can find the way to observe Shabbat, we can become attuned to what Heschel calls “holiness in time.”
It takes some discipline to begin to observe Shabbat. But once it is established in our lives it has the power to make all our days holy. This too is the work of Jesus – to point us in the direction of all that would make our lives holy – – and all it takes is our willingness to rest for 24 hours out of each week. Something to think about as we journey through Lent.

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


 

 

Forward this email             View in browser

You are receiving this email from New England Conference UMC because you have an existing relationship with us. To ensure that you continue to receive emails from us, add bishopsoffice@neumc.org to your address book or safe sender list.

To unsubscribe or manage mailings, click here

Our Website

Facebook

Bishop’s Office

Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar

Erica Robinson-Johnson Assistant to the Bishop/DCM Phone: (978) 682-7555 ext. 251
erica@neumc.org

Brenda Borchers
Administrative Assistant
Phone: (978) 682-7555 ext. 250
Fax: (978) 682-9555
BishopsOffice@neumc.org

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