Facing The Future Without Fear

Facing The Future Without Fear

Jeremiah 23:1-6

Ezekiel 34: 1-16

John 10:1-10

Chilmark Community Church

May 7, 2017

Rev. Vicky Hanjian

(Bold, italicized text indicates material excerpted from a talk and commentary given by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks as foot noted below)

“These are the times that try men’s souls, and they’re trying ours now.” Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks quoted Thomas Paine as he began a talk about how we can face the future without fear if we face it together.

There are so many layers of meaning in the scriptures that we have just heard.  As we so often discover with rich texts, we will probably miss a few.

I want to use three questions to get at some of the layers.  Actually, they are questions we could use for any bible study.  First : What does the text reveal about the relationship  between God and  humankind?    Second: If we understand that the scripture can reveal something about God, what kind of  Self is God revealing?  And third: What is the text either teaching or asking us about our own relationship with The Holy One?  And then perhaps one final question: “What  does the holy One have in mind for us to learn about moving into the future with confidence?”

The passages we have just heard are chock full of sheep and shepherd images.  I never realized how the metaphors  of flocks, and shepherds and sheep permeate so much of the Bible until I began thinking about today’s sermon.   One of the first things we notice in the words of  Ezekiel is that the prophet points to the reality that the flock –  the people of God – is scattered – wandering – at risk – in danger of becoming food for predators.  Their wounds are not being cared for.  When they stray off from the flock no one seeks them out to bring them back. They are separated from each other – – lost sheep.

The prophets used the metaphor of shepherding to talk about the health and well being of the people under their various leaders, their shepherds. They did not paint a pretty picture. On  April 24, 2017, Rabbi Sacks spoke in Vancouver, Canada. The theme of his talk was “The Future You”.  He spoke about facing the future without fear. I want to intersperse some of his remarks here.

Rabbi Sacks names our contemporary scene. “It’s a fateful moment in history. We’ve seen divisive elections, divided societies and a growth of extremism — all of it fueled by anxiety, uncertainty and fear. The world is changing faster than we can bear, and it’s looking like it’s going to continue changing faster still. Sacks asks: “Is there something we can do to face the future without fear?”

One answer to the question of what the Bible reveals about the relationship between God and God’s people is that God notices the state of disarray – – the scattered-ness – – the wounded-ness – – the disunity of the flock.   If we are to trust the words of  Ezekiel, then the text reveals  that the current state of the world  both wounds and angers God – – and  God lays responsibility on the shoulders of the shepherds –  who have failed to keep faith with the flock – to keep the flock safe and healthy and free from harm.  I think it is fair to say that  much of the flock of humanity feels insecure – – is scared and fears the future.  God notices – – and God is angered.  This is not what God intends for humankind.  Indeed, the disarray in which humanity finds itself in the 21st century offends the sacred unity and holiness    the Wholeness of God.   And God does not like it.   So there is an overarching revelation in the text that there is a profound Wholeness that is broken.  In our individual lives and in our small community, we may be able to maintain our connection with the Holy One. But on a larger scale humankind is scattered, disconnected and afraid.  Taken as a whole, there is a rupture in the harmony of the relationship between humanity and the Source of All Creation.  The passage Ezekiel reveals this much to us about the relationship between God and humankind.

The second question kind of piggy backs on the first one:  What might God want us to know about the Divine Self? What kind of Self does God reveal?  I think we can go right back into the words of the prophet.  In a very telling line we read: Thus says the Lord God, I am against the shepherds; and I will demand my sheep from their hands…no longer shall the shepherds feed themselves…  I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, so that my sheep may not be food for them. (Ezekiel 34:10)  This is an image of a passionately loving God of justice.  That passion takes the form of anger at the dereliction of the shepherds – a dereliction that God describes as the shepherds eating – consuming their own flocks. The God revealed in these verses is a God who seeks out the lost, the scattered, the abused, the  exploited, in order to feed, and heal and restore to full health and unity.  Whenever we read or hear the words “Thus said the Lord…” we need to be prepared for some revelation of the mind of God.   We also learn here that God doesn’t  choose to remain hidden in secret – leaving us to guess what is going on. Sometimes God says it outright as through the voice of Jeremiah: Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture, says the Lord.  Therefore thus says the Lord, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away and you have not attended to them.  So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the Lord (Jeremiah 23:1-6).  There is a price to be paid by the people who are irresponsible in their leading and governing – who do not carry the vision of God for the wholeness of the people.

Through Jeremiah, God is revealed as the movement toward justice for all people.  We know enough about life and social and political and economic  dynamics to know that the Divine vision for justice and peace and harmony and well being for humanity must happen through human beings who embody the vision that carries us forward.  When human beings lose sight of the vision – or ignore it –  the vision goes unfulfilled.  The poor get poorer.  Access to adequate health care becomes more difficult.  Fear and the threat of violence grow.  It becomes easier to take aim at the lives of strangers.   Nevertheless, the prophets hold before us a holy and passionate Urge that demands that we keep moving toward justice for the human community.  This is the God – Self revealed in the prophetic texts. This is what gets conveyed through the metaphors of shepherding and sheep.

The third question. What does the text  ask me to think about in my relationship with The Holy One? What does the scripture want me to understand more fully about who God and I are together?

This is where the metaphor of the sheep begins to fray a little.  There is always an “is and is not” component of metaphors.  While on one level I can own that I am one of many sheep in the flock of humankind that is held in the gaze of the Holy One, I also must own that I am not a sheep.  I am a distinct human individual. I have a brain that asks questions and tries to figure things out.  I am capable of  teasing out right from wrong. I am capable of making a conscious choice about whether to follow a particular shepherd or not. 

I’m thinking that this is where Jesus comes in to tell us about who we are and about what our relationship with Him might involve. 

I  read a bit of commentary on the nature of shepherding in the ancient MIddle East relative to today’s text.  In Jesus’ world of  shepherding, several flocks were sometimes allowed to mix. More than one flock might be kept in the same sheepfold.  Often, flocks were mixed while being watered at a well.  When it became necessary to separate several flocks of sheep, one shepherd after another would stand up and call out something like: “Tahhoo! Tahhoo!” or a similar call of his own choosing. The sheep would listen and after a general scramble, they would each find their own shepherd. The sheep were familiar with their own shepherd’s tone of voice. Strangers might try to use the same call, but their attempts to get the sheep to follow them would fail.

The story of Jesus and the sheepfold lets us know that we are a mixed and diverse people sharing space on the planet – – and there are many, many voices of would be shepherds calling out for our loyalty.  But we are attuned to the voice of Jesus because that is the voice we have been taught to listen for. Hearing requires a focused listening. There are lot of other voices also calling for our attention – voices that threaten – – voices that lie – – voices that play on our fears and anxieties.  The truth that the sheep recognize their shepherd’s voice puts the spotlight on our relationship with God.  Whose voice do we listen for?  Whose voice do we trust and follow?  Do we listen carefully enough?  Do we recognize the particular sound of the voice of Jesus over the din of all the other competing voices?

From the same commentary I learned that the Eastern shepherd does not drive his sheep as  Western shepherds do. The Eastern shepherd leads the sheep, often going out ahead of them. “And when he has brought out all of his own, he goes ahead of them and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.”(John 10:4). This does not mean that the shepherd is always in front of his sheep, although he would usually be in that position when traveling.  The shepherd might also walk alongside, and sometimes  even follow behind, especially if the flock was headed for the fold in the evening. The shepherd positioned him or herself wherever the sheep might be the  most vulnerable in the given conditions. This reminds me of a verse from Psalm 139 describing God’s all encompassing presence: ‘You are present before me, and behind me, and you hold me in the palm of your hand.  Such knowledge is too awesome to grasp; so deep I cannot fathom it.” 

Scripture guides us into thinking about where we stand in relationship to The Shepherd. It asks us to look at ourselves.  Are we listening for the voice?  When we hear it are we able to get up and follow?  Do we know and acknowledge that we are continually in the attentive embrace of a Shepherd at all times.  Is this what we are meant to understand about our relationship with God  from Jesus’ about the shepherd and the sheep?   

Then there is the fourth question.  What might the God want us to understand  as we face into the future?  Is there something we can do to face into the future without fear?

Back to Rabbi Sacks: Future anthropologists, Sacks says, will take a look at the books we read on self-help, at how we talk about politics as a matter of individual rights, and at “our newest religious ritual: the selfie” — and conclude that we worship the self.

This worship of the self conflicts directly with our social nature, and with our need for friendship, trust, loyalty and love. As he says: “When we have too much of the ‘I’ and not enough of the ‘we,’ we find ourselves vulnerable, fearful and alone.”

To solve the most pressing issues of our time, Sacks says, we need to strengthen the future US in three dimensions: the “us of relationship,” the “us of responsibility” and the “us of identity.”

Starting with the “us of relationship,” Sacks challenges us with the idea that it’s the people who are not like us who make us grow.  “We need to renew [and engage in] face-to-face encounters with the people not like us in order to realize that we can disagree strongly and still stay friends.  We need to recognize that we are a mix of flocks in the same sheepfold.  Our sense of “me” needs to be replaced by a sense of “we” and “us” as humankind under the care of the Shepherd with Many Names if we are to find our way to a safe and secure future.    Sacks notes that “In [encounters with the stranger], we discover that the people not like us are just people, like us.”  We need to strengthen a sense of “Us” in relationship. 

In considering the “us of identity,” Sacks invites us to the memorials in Washington, DC, for American luminaries like Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. They all feature panels of text and quotes enshrined in stone and metal. In London, memorials are different, with very little text. Why the difference? Because America is largely a nation of settlers from elsewhere.  We created our identity by telling a story. The trouble is now that we’ve stopped telling the story of who we are and why. “When you tell the story and your identity is strong, you can welcome the strangers. But when you stop telling the story, your identity gets weak and you feel threatened by the stranger,” Sacks says. “We’ve got to get back to telling our story — who we are, where we came from, what are the ideals by which we live.”  Our story, in part, is a story of sheep and a Good Shepherd.  We confirm and affirm our “us of identity” when we continue to tell the story.  It helps us to keep from being consumed by fear and anxiety.

Finally, the “us of responsibility.” Sacks finds that we’ve fallen into “magical thinking” when we believe that electing a particular strong leader will solve all of our problems. When this kind of thinking dominates, we fall for extremism — on the far right or far left, in the extreme religious or extreme anti-religious.

“The only people that will save us from ourselves is we, the people — all of us together,” Sacks says. “When we move from the politics of ‘me’ to the politics of ‘all of us together,’ we rediscover those beautiful, counter-intuitive truths: that a nation is strong when it cares for the weak, that it becomes rich when it cares for the poor, it becomes invulnerable when it cares about the vulnerable. That is what makes great nations.” This is the strength that we have available to us when we recognize and pay attention to the voice of the Shepherd who knows us by name.

This is the message of the prophets and of Jesus.  When we have a sense of ourselves belonging to a larger flock – a sense of being in the world together with every other human being – – and when we have a sense of working together under the careful attention of a Shepherd who gathers us, whose voice we recognize, who calls us by name, who leads from before and behind and along side of – – we really do have the possibility of facing  the future together without fear. 

As we come to the communion table, may the sacrament be a reminder for us that we are known by name and that we are called together by a voice we can recognize.  And may we know that the closer we draw to one another, the closer we come to the Shepherd.  AMEN

A Spaceship

A SPACESHIP                                                               CHILMARK COMMUNITY CHURCH                                     REV. ARMEN HANJIAN  ISAIAH 24:1-6                                                           APRIL 30, 2017

Would you like to take a trip in a spaceship?  I’ll bet it would be exciting.  They say when you move away from something you can see it better.  That’s true of a mountain; it’s probably true of our earth as well.

So, how about it?  Let’s blast off.  Wait.  Let’s make sure we have enough of what we need for our trip: food, water, fuel, oxygen.  Ok. 10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1,0.  Blast off! Wow, we are up here already.  Sure is beautiful.  A thousand questions go thru the mind.  Whose earth is it?  Why is it there? Will it go on spinning for ever and ever?

Where do we get our answers from?  Some I can figure out.  I know the earth doesn’t belong to any one person or nation.  Some answers, like why is the earth here, I’ll have to take the word of those who studied that question, at least until I have had the chance to think it thru again and again.  And I guess some questions, like when will it stop spinning, I may never get answered.

Just look at that turning earth.  My parents, my minister and the Bible all have said, “The earth is the Lord’s…” It belongs to God.  So I guess the first earth day was God’s idea.  I wonder how God did it?  God probably said, I’ll make me an earth and I’ll put people there to make me a family.  I’ll love them and provide for their needs and I’ll wait and see if they will love me and if they will love the others who are part of my great family. If this earth thing is an experiment, it sure is a tremendous one.  Do you suppose God is waiting to see if the people down there will be thankful or forgetful, good caretakers or thoughtless?

Hey, we have been flying thru space for a while now just lost in  thought about that round ball in space we call earth.  We better check our gauges. We have to get back to earth before our supply of food and water, fuel and oxygen run out.  Back in  1970, the Apollo 13 spaceship almost didn’t make it back safely.

It may be hard for some of you youngsters to understand, but try.  Take a look out thru your window at that other spaceship  out there; you say you don’t see another spaceship?  The other spaceship I’m talking about is the earth.  You see when you leave the earth and pass thru the clouds and the layers of air around the earth, there is no more water, no more oxygen, no more food.  Just as our imaginary spaceship has a limited supply of life supporting items, the same is true with spaceship earth.

The problems our earth faces are many.  Unless we take care of these two I am going to mention, we will have the same problem as the Apollo 13 astronauts: no place to go to find breathable air and no place to go to find food and drinkable water.

Problem #1, the number of people on earth is growing and of the 7 1/2 billion people here more the 1 billion will being going to bed hungry tonight.  Problem #2, the air, water and even the food is slowly being poisoned.  No one is doing it on purpose, but a lot of us are doing it – with chemicals and car exhausts for example.

It seems like there is an endless supply of land on which to grow food.  What good is good soil in the desserts of the world if there is no rain there?  What good in moisture at the North and South poles if the temperature is too cold? The many mountains are too up and down.  Only about 7or 8% of the 100% of land surface of the earth is useable for food.  As you can see there on the upper half of planet earth, our country has many great resources.  We  only make up 5 1/2% of all the people of the world, but we use over 33% of the world’s resources that are used each year.  I just can’t help thinking about what Jesus said, to whom much has been given, much shall be required.

The idea of people being put in charge of God’s world and all that is on it, was most important to Jesus – we see that in so many of Jesus lessons.  When we use the word stewardship we mean taking care of something for someone else.

Another word we hear about is the word ecology – it is used to describe our relationship with everything about us: the seas, the sky, the wildlife, everything. The word ecology comes from the Greek word, “oikos,” which means house..  So you see, the earth is God’s house and we are God’s guests.

No human pain or problem can be ignored by the followers of Jesus.  That is why we are so concerned with what is happening with our earth, ugh, God’s earth.  We care not because things might look more and more messy, but because people can be hurt.

The church, that is, you and I, acts just like the religious leaders in the parable of the good Samaritan that passed by the man in need if we go our merry way without acting to help with these fast-growing problem.  We must interrupt our fun sometimes if we are to be followers of Jesus.

Well, it’s time to change our orbit to prepare for our reentry.  Before we get back down to earth, let us be certain we have in mind some things we can do to make sure we don’t hide from fulfilling the needs of God’s earth and caring for God’s children.

Number 1, let us keep in mind that both church leaders and scientific leaders have told us have we have a growing problem, a crisis.  I do believe God is supporting those who care about our problems, but nowhere do I read that we can do as we please because God’s “got the whole world in his hands.”

Number 2, By your own action you can make a difference, you can help.  Don’t do anything that would spoil God’s good creation.  As the comic strip character Pogo says, “we have met the enemy and they are us.”  Act by yourself and with others, clean up where you can.  Set the example.  I would say, most people have become Christians not from hearing about it so much as from seeing in people, by their Christ-like lives, caring and meeting needs by their actions.

Number 3,  work in cooperation with others, because if we depend on individuals by themselves to solve the earth’s problems, we are lost.  We have tried that way and today people are hurting and in pain and hunger more than ever.  If caring people don’t band together to meet the earth’s needs, selfishness of the non-caring people will overwhelm us!  That is the drama that is going on now on this planet.

Did you feel that?  We are beginning our reentry.  As we float down to earth I can’t help thinking God has provided enough for the people down there, but the problem we face is something like this.  There are 2 cupcakes which are enough to feed 5 people, but who wants to share, not to mention how are you going to cut them so everyone will be happy?

You know something, I think God planned it that way.  We need to care and think about others in order to get along, to survive.

The only way we can care enough to do our very best, anything else will not solve our problems, is by giving our lives to Jesus Christ.  He can do more with them than we can.

Splashdown – in the ocean.  We have been picked up by those who have worked with us.  Now let us see just how Jesus Christ will use us to help keep spaceship earth in good condition for people, for all the years to come.

Breakfast on the Beach 4/23/17

Breakfast On The Beach

John 21:1-17

Acts 3:1- 10

Chilmark Community Church

April 23, 2017     2nd Sunday in Easter

Rev. Vicky Hanjian

Two weeks ago, we were with Peter, sitting next to the fire in a darkened courtyard  in the run up to Good Friday and the crucifixion of Jesus.  We witnessed his denial of Jesus and also his anguish when he realized what he had done.   Three times – when questioned and accused about his relationship with Jesus, he backed off – – I do not know this man – –  I am not one of his disciples.  Crucifixion happened and there was no chance to make things right.  Peter wept, of course.  I can imagine him in body wrenching sobbing as he heard that cock crow and realized the enormity of what he had done – or had actually failed to do.  I imagine his shame and his sorrow – – and his overwhelming sense of guilt – – having turned his back on Jesus.

I know Peter all too well.  Too many times in my own life I have not been able to say or do the courageous thing – have remained silent when I should have spoken – and ended up essentially doing the same thing Peter did – – denying that I do indeed have a relationship  with Jesus that demands more of me.  I suspect we all have joined Peter at one time or another – hiding in some dark corner of our own souls because we did not have the courage or commitment or integrity to  act or speak out when we should have.

It is not always easy to know clearly, in the midst of growing militaristic rhetoric, triumphal posturing and ever present fear propaganda, how we are to, indeed, demonstrate that we know and love a Jesus who taught nonviolence and truth and compassion as a way of life.  Sometimes it is easier and safer to be quiet, to pull back into the shadows, let things run their course and hope for the best.

But there is this nagging question whispering across the ages…”Do you love me?”   It is hard to stand in the darkened courtyard being accused of being one of Jesus’ people – – – easier to back off and blend into the shadows – – simpler to keep our calling to ourselves.  But then – – crucifixion happens.   All 4 gospels clearly spell it out.  Jesus dies alone while those who love and know him best run for safety.

Only John records this epilogue that we read this morning.  A frustrating fishing expedition – – all night long, time after time casting their nets, moving on – hoping for a better spot – nets coming up empty every time.  I wonder if those of you who are or have ever been fishermen would really appreciate a suggestion from someone on the shore that you should try throwing your nets off the other side of the boat!   Frankly, I think that took a bit of courage on Jesus’ part! 

Be that as it may, the fishermen toss the net over the right side of the boat and the net fills with fish.  One of the men recognizes Jesus as the Lord, standing on the shoreline.  In a flash, Peter is over the side and swimming toward the shore.

There is a bit of comic relief here.  During the night of fishing, Peter had stripped down to a loincloth to be able to work more easily, but before he jumped in the water, he put on all his clothes and slogged his way to shore fully dressed!

Breakfast is on the grill.  Bread and fish.  An awkward moment.  No one asks who invites them.  They already know.  Even so, the living Presence of Jesus defies credulity.  He died.  They heard the accounts.  John, the Beloved Disciple, was at the foot of the cross.  But Jesus is a Living Presence – and they witness this as well.

The crux of the encounter unfolds after breakfast.  Try to imagine being confronted by the Living Christ.  “Do you love me?”  Maybe the answer would erupt out of us as it does with Peter – “Yes, Lord, You know I love you!”

In a forceful formula, Jesus asks Peter three times and each time Peter affirms his love for Jesus and we watch an incredible drama of forgiveness and restoration happen – – Peter , if you love me, feed my sheep.  A triple formula that wipes away the terrible shame and guilt and sadness that Peter suffered in refusing to be identified with Jesus.  Three times of denial – three days in the tomb – three chances to say “yes – Jesus – you know I love you” – and three challenges to Peter to live out his love for the Risen Christ.

No condemnation – no confession of guilt – no recriminations.  Only Jesus’ offer of restoration to right relationship.  It all happens in Jesus’ spacious willingness to entrust to Peter the work that Jesus started.

It is no secret that we stand in Peter’s shoes a lot of the time.  We live in a time when ugliness toward immigrants, toward people of color, toward Jews and Muslims, toward  human beings with a variety of gender orientations, toward strangers, toward women, is given license.  We stand in Peter’s shoes when we fail to acknowledge our connection to those on the outside as beloved children of God – when we are unable to confess and affirm and embrace our relatedness to suffering human beings  created in the image of God.

That courtyard where Peter denied knowing Jesus is everywhere.  If we allow ourselves to think about it, our ability to deny the Christ Presence in other human beings is just as well developed as Peter’s ability to deny Jesus.  We often stand in dark courtyard.

What we don’t often realize, however, is that when we find ourselves standing in Peter’s shoes, we are also standing in the presence of Jesus.  This is inescapable.   We might be kind of naked in our brokenness – in our inability to live up to even our own high expectations – – or maybe we are bogged down with the burden of soggy, wet clothing – – things like broken relationships that need healing; inability to speak with the courage of our convictions; failure to take a stand when it is required of us.  Sometimes it is hard for us to forgive other people.  For some of us it might be even harder to receive forgiveness.  The scenarios play themselves out over and over again: individuals can’t forgive;  nations can’t forgive.  Conditions must be met – offenders must be identified – punishment and sanctions must be meted out – – and then, perhaps, the work of restoration can begin in a process that may take generations to unfold.  Even faith communities struggle with forgiveness – pride is wounded – – barriers go up – – and  – -well – -the sheep just have to wait to be fed.  Almost universally, the critical work of attending to well being of the souls and bodies who wait suffers while we expend our energy in being uncertain, prideful and afraid.  Consequently, our metaphorical nets may come up feeling quite empty.  Our constantly shifting human condition might be compared to a long night of fishing and a sunrise with empty nets.  Not much to show for all our efforts.

But – – the irresistible aroma of grilled fish and bread reaches our nostrils and we are invited to breakfast.  When we respond to the invitation to be in the Presence of the Christ, we are responding to be fully in the present.  This is the mystery of life in the resurrection – – life in the present moment – life in the presence of Christ.

The physical form of Jesus died – as all human beings eventually die – one way or another.  His death was a physical event, a cruel and finite event that happened at a point in history.  But the Christ – the eternal manifestation of God in all things at all times appears at every  moment to issue the invitation to any who will listen….if you love me, then be about the business of being Christ in the world.

In his encounter with Jesus, Peter becomes a metaphor for a fully awakened consciousness – – he  awakens to his own true nature – – his own Christ nature – -as his story unfolds in the book of Acts.  We read descriptions of him that make us think of Jesus.  Peter speaks the truth with courage.  Peter heals the sick.  Peter suffers for his actions – – but he can do nothing else.  He lives the truth that the Christ awakens in him.  He becomes another unique manifestation of the same holy consciousness that enlivened Jesus.

We stand in Peter’s shoes.  Maybe we stand cold and shivering.  Jesus asks the same question of us: “Do you love me?”   It is a code question.  In those simple words, the Christ asks us “Are you willing to wake up to your own true nature?”  “Are you willing to live as offspring of God?”   “Are you willing to live in my Presence with every breath?”  “Are you willing to be a Christ for others?”

There are no blueprints in the story for what it means to “feed my sheep.”   We have most often interpreted Jesus’ words to mean that we need to feed the hungry. clothe the naked, visit the prisoner, heal the sick. Feeding the sheep  means all this and more.  Most fundamentally, the command to feed my sheep follows on the answer to the question “Do you love me?”  The answer we give to that question shapes our identity.  A “Yes” answer rattles us out of the limitations of our belief systems about the world and about ourselves.  When we answer unequivocally “Yes, Lord, you know that I Iove you,”  we take the first step toward allowing our selves  to be shaped and molded by the power of the Risen One.  This is an act of surrender, of submission – – not to some external demand upon our energies, but to an inner and powerful  force that will guide us into all that we are to become.

The specific feeding, the work with the sheep?  That unfolds as each moment arises – -and we respond in each moment out of an awakened Christ consciousness dwelling deep within each one of us.  We are in the 2nd week of Easter.  The resurrection is still fresh in our minds.  The Presence of the Risen One is real.  It calls to us from darkened courtyards, from an empty cross, from a vacant tomb, from a distant lake shore.  It comes to our nostrils in the fragrant aroma of grilled fish and fresh bread.  The Jesus calls out to us: Do you love me?   Our answer determines everything.

Easter Sunrise meditation

“What do we do with an unfinished story?”

Mark 16:1-8

Easter Dawn

Squibnocket Beach

April 16, 2017

Rev. Vicky Hanjian

Mark’s gospel is the earliest one written. It ends abruptly – the two Marys visit the tomb where Jesus crucified body was hastily laid in order to conform to Jewish law that a body must be buried within 24 hours – and that the task needed to be completed before sundown and the beginning of the Sabbath.

The women encounter a messenger who tells them that Jesus isn’t there. The same messenger directs them to tell the disciples to head north for Galilee – that Jesus has gone on ahead of them and the are to meet him there.

The women run out of the tomb in a mixture of wonder and fear – – and Mark tells us “they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. “ And this is where the original gospel of Mark ends.

If this were the only gospel we were to receive it would leave us hanging – – sort of like leaving off the final chapter of a good mystery novel.

There are no post resurrection appearances. No one sees Jesus. Jesus gives his disciples no directions or commands other than that they are to go to Galilee – – that he has gone on ahead and will meet them there. The women say nothing to anyone. End of story.

The other gospel writers find this abrupt ending intolerable. Matthew has the disciples meeting up with Jesus and worshipping him. Jesus commissions them to go into all the world to baptize and to make disciples. Luke has two of the disciples walking along the road to Emmaus -conferring with a stranger -who later turns out to be Jesus. John has Jesus serving breakfast to the disciples on the lakeshore – and forgiving Peter for his great denial.

So – I wonder – what would we do if Mark’s was the only gospel – – and all that we had was the direction move forward with the promise that Jesus has gone on ahead.

Is the rest of the story up to the point of the crucifixion compelling enough that we might commit our lives to following the way of Jesus? Would the message of Jesus be enough to change our lives – – powerful enough to call us to something higher? Would we need one more encounter with him just to reassure us that he was all that we thought he was?

This is where Mark’s story leaves us – standing together in the early dawn – – astounded that the tomb is empty – – perhaps questioning what does it all mean. But the direction is clear – Jesus has gone on ahead of us. We do not meet him in the past. He has gone on ahead and waits for us in our future – beginning now. We’re called to take those critical steps toward whatever Galilee represents for us at this moment.

With its abrupt ending, Mark’s story is a call to faith. We don’t always get the vivid and clear signs we need along our life path. Mark’s story challenges us to move anyway!

So here we are. The tomb is empty. Galilee awaits. Alleluia!

“Knowing the Risen Christ” 4/16/17

KNOWING THE RISEN CHRIST

JOHN 20:1-18 APRIL 16, 2017

CHILMARK COMMUNITY CHURCH REV. ARMEN HANJIAN

To know him is to love him.” That truth applies not only to some of our dearest friends. It applies to Jesus Christ.

To know someone is quite an interesting process. You have heard statements such as these: “After 18 years I’m just getting to know my wife. We have been together for 30 years and I still don’t know him.” As soon as I met him I knew him.”

To know someone has to do with:

-being able to predict what she will do in a given situation.

-being aware what that person’s priorities are.

-being aware of his attitude towards himself, life and his place in it, towards others and towards God.

To know someone has to do with being aware of relationship – am I close to him or distant.

The Bible abounds with illustrations related to knowing – be it knowing a truth or knowing a person. In John 20:9 we read, “As yet they did not know the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.” Now Jesus had said this to the disciples, but to hear words is not necessarily to know them. Jesus spoke to the woman at the well; then she ran back to her community saying, “Come see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?”

When Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do men say I am?” That is, “How do people know me?” Peter responded: some say you are Moses, some say John the Baptist or a prophet. But to him none of these fit. Peter said, “You are the Christ.” In each case, and it seems in most cases, knowing something or someone is not as simple as 1,2,3.

A curious common thread runs thru the narratives describing the appearances of the risen Christ. In each case, no one was expecting a resurrection – no one initially recognized the risen Christ. Even when the tomb was found empty, they did not assume he had risen – only that someone took his body. When Jesus spoke to Mary Magdalene, she didn’t know him. She assumed he was the gardener. When Jesus called her by name – then she knew him.

When the two disciples were walking on the road to Emmaus and the Lord drew near to them they did not recognize him. It was only later when he broke bread with them in their home that they recognized him, knew him.

On another occasion, Jesus stood on the beach and disciples who were fishing did not know him. Jesus asked if they had caught anything and they answered no. Jesus said try on the right side of the boat. They did and caught a big catch. Then the disciple whom Jesus loved concluded, “It is the Lord.”

I assume your experience is similar to mine; namely, each day I know the people around me a little bit better. To know someone is not the end of a process. I can say “I know that my redeemer liveth,” because I know I have had parts of my life redeemed, but I’m sure there is more redeeming to do, thus there is more for me to know about my Lord. “I have been redeemed, I am being redeemed and I shall be redeemed”, all can be said. Likewise, I can say, I knew him, I know him now, and I shall know more of him.

How do we know people? That can give us a few clues to knowing the risen Christ. We know them as we love them, as we are open to them, as we take in their love. We know them as we work with them – not just sharing the fellowship, but as we yoke together there are times when our power is needed and there times when the other’s power is more needed.

We know people and we know the risen Christ as we share pain, concerns and joys.

When you get down to it, how do I know anything? Recall the line of the song, “How do I know? The Bible tells me so.” One way of knowing is by what others tell us. It is an avenue of truth but we have also received some misinformation from others too. A second avenue of knowing is thru our reasoning minds. Occasionally we come to some wrong conclusions because of mistaken or partial information coming into our brain.

So take the resurrection of Christ. Certainly the Bible and others have said it is so. Our reason gives us mix signals regarding it. On the one hand we have not seen or experienced anyone come back to life – how does a heart stop and start again? On the other hand, how could a church last for 20 centuries on only a wish that there might be a resurrection?

-How come the Sabbath day was changed to Sunday?

-How come so many have and still do commit their time and money and energy, their lives to that affirmation?

-How come the New Testament was written?

-How come all of Jesus teachings ring true to life?

All we can do with reason is what St. Paul did with it. He made plain to himself and others (slowly), “now we know in part.”

History and reason can only confirm and point us in this direction or that. The real knowing of a person or a truth comes from our own experience. You and I can only affirm Christ is risen in a way that is full of power when Christ is alive and operative in us. “Christmas is God in Christ. Easter is Christ in us.” (repeat)

As St. Paul said, If Christ is not risen then our faith is in vain. Both history and reason invite us to test the hypothesis that God is, that God cares about us, that God has given us the freedom to choose closeness with God and that closeness comes as we surrender and let the risen Christ come alive in us.

Those who have basically surrendered to Christ, and I count myself among them, have found:

-peace with the universe – not a false escape from life but a harmony of faith and work.

-an inner guidance system that is reliable.

-energy sufficient for life’s loads.

-love as the operative principle of life.

The only way you can more fully know the risen Christ is to surrender your heart to him. Say with John Wesley:

I am no longer my own but thine. Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt; put me to doing, put me to suffering; let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee, exalted for thee or brought low for thee; let me be full, let me be empty; let me have all things, let me have nothing; I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal…Thou art mine and I am thine.”

As the days go by we can know for our selves better and we can affirm with his disciples thru the centuries: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” We can affirm: “Because he lives I too shall live.”

Resurrection will not be merely a symbol of activity. Years ago I saw a sign in the offices of the Board of Global Ministries. It said, “Resurrection. Anyone who does not believe in the dead coming to life should be here at quitting time.”

Instead, resurrection can mean for us: initially a bold assurance. We can follow in the same tradition of Jesus. Virgil Kraft noted his incredible audacity:

He addressed the Creator of the universe

Father!

He nicknamed a flabby fisherman

Rock!

He called the rabble in the streets

Brethren!

He called the hated Samaritans

Good!

The incredible audacity of this man!”

We too can have such boldness.. Initially a bold assurance and eventually a growing relationship with God and God’s children in a love that knows no limitation in this life or the life to come.

To know him is to love him. To love him is to serve him.”

Christ the Lord is risen! He is risen indeed!

“I Am Not One of Them” 4/9/17

I Am Not One of Them”

Matthew 21:1-11

John 15:15-27

Chilmark Community Church

April 9, 2017

Rev. Vicky Hanjian

Preaching and worship on Palm Sunday is something of a spiritual juggling act. The task is to worship with integrity and to move from the joyful celebration of Palm Sunday to the persecution and passion of Jesus in the space of a few short days. It would be all too easy to celebrate with the crowds at Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem today and then greet the triumphal Easter dawn of resurrection next week and slide over what happens on the days in between. But the drama of the few days ahead between now and next Sunday is what gives Easter morning its meaning.

We start with Jesus telling his disciples to find a colt on which he can ride. From the prophet, Zechariah, Matthew finds the model for Jesus’ entry into the city of Jerusalem and sets the scene for the celebration: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O Jerusalem! Lo, Your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” (Zech. 9:9) The image of a king riding into the city on a donkey is a curious juxtaposition of power and humility. The colt is found and Jesus begins his ride through Bethany and Bethpage. The paradox of a long awaited king and messiah making a triumphal entrance into the city under the eyes of imperial Rome – – on a donkey – – is street drama at its best. As the word got out, people lined the roadsides – people like you and me – looking for hope – – looking for one who would save them – – who would bring order to life – – looking for a messiah who would liberate them from the heavy weight of Roman imperial power.

And so they celebrated. They spread their own cloaks and garments in the road in front of Jesus – – they laid down palm branches to make his way smooth – – they sang “Hosanna!” Their expectation was so great.

And Matthew says that Jerusalem was in turmoil with people wondering who this Jesus was – and what was all the fuss about. But Jesus does not stop to enjoy the accolades. In the next scene, he becomes quite solitary as he enters the temple and makes his challenges there. And he keeps moving – – healing people who are blind and disabled. And then, just as quickly, he withdraws and returns to Bethany, just outside of the city for the night.

The next day Jesus engages in theological discussions about where his authority comes from. He argues on matters of justice and the meaning of the kingdom of God. He manages to offend a more than a few people. But not the poor and the sick and the hungry – – the powerless ones. If we wander over in to John’s gospel we learn quickly that one of Jesus’ disciples will sell him out for 30 pieces of silver. We join Jesus and his friends for the final meal that he will share with them. We witness him establishing a new covenant with them – to be with them always. We stand in the shadows of the garden where he is arrested and we hear Peter deny him three times in the early hours of the morning. We wrestle with knowing that Jesus is tortured and humiliated by the Roman soldiers who arrested him.

All of this and more happens between Palm Sunday and Easter morning. The parts that are most difficult for me are the parts where the friends, the adoring crowds, the followers – – the disciples – – just seem to fade out of the picture. Jesus is left alone to endure what he must endure.

In John’s gospel Peter becomes the center of the story for awhile. With the best of intentions Peter has made his dramatic promise to Jesus that he will never desert him. But now we find Peter in the courtyard outside the house of the High Priest – sitting near the fire to keep warm. He just has to know what is about to unfold. Roman practice with seditious Jews was consistent and well known. Three times, Peter defensively denies his relationship with Jesus. “I am not his disciple.” In those few words, uttered in fear and anger, the humanity that we share with Peter is played out in all its sadness and confusion.

Peter denies being with Jesus. Peter – – the first one to acknowledge Jesus as Messiah a few chapters earlier. How could this have happened? How could one so close to Jesus not even acknowledge that he knew Jesus.

Denial is a strange thing. It clouds our ability to see the reality of a situation or set of circumstances. It is a defense mechanism which often gets set in motion when life offers us situations that are too big or too painful or too shocking to deal with all at once. Denial serves a purpose. Often, it cushions reality until we are ready to deal with it. It allows us to work through a crisis a little bit at a time when the crisis might completely overwhelm us .

It is ancient history for me now, but there was a day 27 years ago when my mom and dad boarded a plane in Orlando, Florida to fly north to the little town of Bainbridge, New York. My mother had bone cancer and was deteriorating rapidly. My brother had taken decisive action, bought the plane tickets, and told them what time to be at the airport. He brought my mother home. Less than three weeks later, my mother was admitted to the hospital for the first and only time during her illness. We all took turns sitting at her bedside with my dad who waited each day for the word that things had turned around and that my mom was well enough to go home. He was certain that he would be able to care for her and nurse her back to health and strength.

On reflection, it is still a wonder to me that my 4 siblings and my dad and I could look at the same set of circumstances and see very different things. Two of us knew we were walking with my mom toward her death. Four of us were sure this was just a setback from which she would recover. Two of us heard her saying good-bye. Four of us held out for healing and restoration.

There was no way to communicate through those two separate realities without causing each other incredible pain. Denial is like that. Denial creates a different reality to cushion the pain of what is happening or is about to happen. It is an alternate reality – – it is not questioned. Sometimes, denial helps us get through the crisis.

Peter sat by the fire, confronted three times by the reality of what was happening. Three times he argues that he is not connected with Jesus. We might guess that fear beyond anything he has ever known has taken over. Anguish of a depth we can only imagine pervades his mind and his reasoning.

There are times in all our lives when we sit near the fire with Peter. We wrap ourselves in the cloak of our ability to deny the truth of what is happening to us or around us – – a serious illness or problems with addiction, overwhelming financial distress. As a society, denial functions very efficiently to cloud our thinking and our responses to the social injustices that exist right in our own communities – terrified immigrants, children fearing going to school because their parents might not be there when they get home; homeless people who sort of fade into the background; elderly folks who live in isolation surrounded by what they have hoarded around them.

Peter’s words “I’m not one of them” may not fit exactly – but we are just as vulnerable as he was to not seeing the enormity of what we deny because sometimes the problems just seem so big and unmanageable.

But as we learn when we follow Peter’s story to it’s hopeful conclusion, where denial goes unchallenged, there can be no healing, no growth, no resolution to problems, no wholeness. But the power and love of the Christ are such that we are not permitted to live with our denial indefinitely. Sooner or later, the clarity of the love of God breaks through. We gradually confront the reality we have been avoiding. We struggle with the scary and painful and stressful parts of our lives – we find our way through and we come to know healing and wholeness in a new way.

The instrument of Peter’s awakening was the crowing of a rooster. With that noisy and unpleasant early morning sound, Peter heard Jesus’ words again – “you will deny me” – and Peter broke down and wept. Jesus – the one who knew Peter better than Peter knew himself.

Wherever we are on our faith journey – whether as individuals or as part of the faith community, we are assured that there is One who knows us better than we know ourselves. Jesus is offered to us in the scriptures to help us see who we are. The Light that he embodied illuminates the darkest corners of confusion and doubt. That Light draws us toward itself – – and resurrection happens – – life begins anew and we are drawn toward wholeness.

It is for this reason that we can joyfully celebrate Palm Sunday even knowing that the reality of Jesus’ passion and death are hidden within the celebration. And we will celebrate joyfully next week, following the darkest hours of denial and betrayal that happened on the days we call Holy Thursday and Good Friday. We will rejoice following the sorrow and uncertainty that marks the time in the tomb on Saturday.

It is tempting to say we can and will celebrate because we know how the story ends. But it is more accurate to say that we celebrate because we know how the rest of the story begins. With today’s worship we enter Holy Week. May we enter the week mindfully aware of all that we fear and struggle with. May the next several days be filled with awareness of the truth that out of denial, suffering, pain and even out of death comes the possibility of rich, abundant and joyful life. May you have a rich Holy Week.

“The Bread of Presence” 4/2/17

The Bread of Presence

1 Samuel 21:1-6

Mark 2:23-28

April 2, 2017

Chilmark Community Church

Rev. Vicky Hanjian

A number of years ago, my beloved niece, Molly, whom some of you have met, came down to the island for a visit.  Molly is the youngest daughter of my sister who died back in 1999.  We asked her what she wanted to be sure to do while she was here on the Vineyard.  She listed a few things: she wanted to be sure to walk on the beaches – especially Cedar Tree Neck; she wanted to shop at Beadniks (it was still open back then); get coffee at Mocha Mott’s and sleep a lot.  She ended her list with her desire to make bread before it was time for her to go back to school at the end of her break.

The bread she wanted to make was a recipe that my sister and I had shared over the years.  It was a light, yeasty raisin bread called Ephraim’s Bread and it had a lot of meaning for Molly and me to bake it together in my kitchen.  As we went through the process of measuring and mixing  and kneading and raising and baking, my sister’s spirit became a very real presence in the house that day.  Molly and I felt our own relationship deepening through the shared experience of baking together.  Sharing a cup of hot tea and warm bread with lots of butter had all the elements of a ritual meal. That particular bread has power.  It brought me to a kind of boundary between my history with my sister and my history with Molly on the one hand and the experience of the mystery of so many things still to be known and experienced – – so much life still to unfold in the aftermath of my sister’s death.

Bread is at the center of the dynamics of both of today’s scriptures.  In the story of David from Samuel, David is in the temple with Ahimelech, the high priest.  David and his men have been out on maneuvers and have returned to the sacred space near starvation.  David asks for bread to feed himself and his men.  The priest reminds David that the bread on the altar is the only bread available and it is sacred bread.  It was bread laid out on the altar on each Sabbath to remind the people of their connection with God.  Only the priests, who were ritually clean, were  permitted to eat the bread.  But David’s hunger prevails.  He assures the priest that his men have not been near women – – they meet the necessary standards for ritual purity – and they consume the show bread – The Bread of Presence.

When Jesus and the teachers of the Law meet, the teachers question Jesus about why his disciples are plucking grain on the Sabbath.  It is a form of work forbidden on the Sabbath by ritual law.   Jesus reminds the teachers of the story of David as a legal precedent – – his disciples are hungry – – and their hunger is what determines their right to pick up the grain on the Sabbath.  In accordance with Jewish law, Jesus reminds the teachers that the Sabbath is created for human beings.  Human welfare and well being supersedes the strict interpretation of the law.

Part of these stories is about what is OK and what is not OK to do on the Sabbath, but they also have to do with who gets to eat and who gets to go hungry.  Jesus noticed that while people who are well fed and affluent are easily able to observe the prescribed Sabbath rituals and laws with relatively little stress, the poor, who go hungry most of the time – involuntarily – are actually oppressed by religious rituals surrounding the getting and the consumption of bread on the Sabbath.  In good Jewish tradition, Jesus was more concerned about the welfare of human beings – about human relationships – and about the relationship between human beings and their God.

Bread is so fundamental to human relationships at many levels of life.  It symbolizes well being, generosity, hospitality – in all the many forms it takes – muffins, bagels, biales, foccacia, crackers, whole wheat, rye, multi-grain, French, Italian, leavened, unleavened – – bread is the stuff of life that attends human relationships at meal times, at weddings and baptisms, at funerals, at pot-luck suppers – – at the sacrament of communion.

Not too long before we moved to the island, Armen and I were in the midst of moving into another parsonage.  It got to be lunch time and in the chaos of moving, we had no food to offer the movers except a loaf of Pepperidge Farm Toasting White bread and some peanut butter and jelly.  We told the guys what we had  and invited them to eat.  They broke out in big grins and one of the guys said it had been ages since he had actually had a “choke and slide” sandwich.  I had never heard that term for PB&J!   So – we feasted at the dining room table surrounded by mountains of moving boxes with two strangers we never saw again.  Those shared PB&J sandwiches stand out in my mind as the experience of a boundary –  a place between what was remembered and known and familiar on the one hand and the future that was in the process of being formed on the other.  It was the first time I had ever shared a meal with strangers who were African American.  Remarkably, just a few short months later, I found myself serving as the assistant pastor of an African American congregation on the other side of town.

A few years ago, Armen and I saw the film “The Pianist” starring Adrian Brody.  If you haven’t seen it, it is the story of a Polish pianist during the Nazi occupation of Poland – – a story of the almost unrelieved nightmare of one man’s survival of the holocaust during WW II.   There was scene after scene of brutality – the utter de-humanization of men, women and children by Nazi soldiers – and the utter dehumanization of the soldiers themselves in the process.

As the film unfolded, I became aware of a thread – -a very slender thread – of a humanizing factor that appeared at various places along the way – – a thread that kept the pianist alive and human and perhaps even hopeful.

Bread – was the humanizing factor.  It represented the unity of the Pianist’s family in the deepening persecution – – as they shared meager meals together in the ghetto.  Scarce bread appeared in the markets and was occasionally available to the Jews who were doing the forced labor perpetrated by the Nazis.  Bread became  a form of subversive interaction when  it was shared between prisoners who had literally nothing but the clothes on their backs.  Bread was the first thing offered to assuage starvation.

As the agonizing story of the Pianist plays out, he finally finds refuge with Gentile friends he had met before the horror began.  He is starving.  They take him into their home at great risk to themselves.  As they determine how to help him, he weakly asks, “May I have some bread?”  During all his weeks in hiding, someone or other from the underground provides the Pianist with bread from time to time.  In his utmost isolation, bread conveys to him the power of human presence in the most extreme circumstances.

In his final hiding place, he is discovered by a Nazi soldier who commands him to play something on the piano.  In the tension of those scenes, the Pianist’s life hangs in the balance.  Will the officer betray him? Will his refuge be revealed? Is this where his life will end? The Nazi officer returns one last time to the hiding place with a package for the Pianist – a loaf of bread – – the humanizing factor.  In that scene in the movie, it is bread that restores humanity to both the oppressor and the oppressed.  The sharing of bread puts both men at the boundary of what has been and what is about to unfold and come into being.

The sacrament of communion has a seductive power.  It has the potential to take us to the boundary between all that our history has been, all that we have known together on the one hand, and all that is present here – now – waiting to unfold and become.  Jesus’ invitation to us is one that takes us right to the altar of the show bread – The Bread of Presence – and offers us the possibility of seeing not only what we are already aware of in our lives, but what is also already in the process of formation – – we get to see the possibility of what God is bringing into being in us before it actually happens.  This is such a profound time for us as we contemplate a future for our congregation – already in the process of unfolding.

The sacrament is a time of remembering how God has acted in a holy history ever since the breath of God hovered over the waters at the dawn of creation. It is a time to recall the movement of God that draws God’s people out of whatever  whatever sorrow, whatever pain, whatever uncertainty they endure.  It is a time of remembering that The Holy One is always present in the breaking of bread – whether it is bread taken from the altar by the High Priest to feed a hungry David, or bread collected in the desert by a wandering people, or bread shared by a man with his friends on the night before he dies.  The Holy One is even present in the breaking of bread in a small, rural congregation in Chilmark.

The Bread of Presence – – it contains the possibility of bringing us to a boundary – a place of awareness and vision – – a place of meeting a God who says “Behold!  I am doing a new thing!  Can you see it – – ready to break forth from the bud?”

We are invited to dine together – to break bread and to eat together.  And in the breaking and the eating we are invited to see what kind of future is held in store for us as we remember what has been and follow the One who will lead us into what we are to become.

“Ancestry.com” 3/19/17

Ancestry.com

1 Samuel 16:1-13

Matthew 1:1-17

March 19, 2016

Chilmark Community Church

Rev. Vicky Hanjian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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