Category Archives: SERMONS

Asleep on the Job 6/24/16

“Asleep On The Job”

Mark 4:35-41

Chilmark Community Church

June 26, 2012

Rev. Vicky Hanjian

We had a dear niece and her son visiting with us this week. At breakfast on Thursday morning, Cynthia asked Armen if he woke up crabby. He quickly replied, “No – I just let her sleep in.”

Jesus had been teaching from a boat on the shore of the Galilee.  At the end of the day he expressed a desire to go to the other side of the lake to expand his ministry to the towns on the opposite shore.  His disciples climbed into the boat with him and set sail with him.   

The Galilee is subject to sudden and swift storms that seem to come up out of nowhere because of shifts in the winds coming down from the Golan heights.  Years ago, we sailed with a tour group across the Galilee and the water was as smooth as glass.  There was hardly any rocking at all when the boat was anchored and we stopped for a time of prayer before proceeding to the shore.  A half hour later we were at the lakeside, exploring for shells and stones to take home.  The sky had turned slate grey.  The wind had come up and we were soaked by waves splashing around us.  Our return trip had to be delayed until the storm cleared – as quickly as it had come.

Without warning, the crew on Jesus’ boat is caught in a storm – – vigorous enough that the waves were filling the boat.  In the midst of their panic, the 12 men notice that Jesus is asleep on a pillow in the stern of the boat.  Over the crashing of the waves and the roar of the wind, they yell at him to wake up –

“Jesus – we’re going under!  don’t you care? – – wake up and do something!”

It isn’t immediately clear just what it is that they expect him to do unless we stop to notice that the cushion Jesus sleeps on is in the stern where the pilot of the boat sits – – and Jesus, the pilot – has fallen asleep on the job.  His hand has slipped off the tiller!  The disciples yell at him to wake up.

Without hesitation, Jesus gets up and exercises his authority – speaks to the wind and the sea -“Peace Be Still!”  and the storm is calmed.  A miracle?  Perhaps.  We don’t know and we can’t explain.  Indeed, if we try to figure it out rationally, we get bogged down in trying to prove or disprove  and then we are in danger of missing the point of the story.

And what we tend to miss is that Jesus woke up crabby!  After he calms the chaos of the storm, and the wind and the water become still, Jesus turns around to his disciples and scolds them for being cowards and having no faith!  He doesn’t comfort them -he doesn’t say “There, there, I’m here, no need to be afraid, I’ll take care of things.”  He asks them what on earth are they afraid of?  He asks them why they still don’t have any faith?

What was Jesus doing??  The story doesn’t fit our expectations of a savior who makes our lives right – who uses all his power to save us.  I wonder how the disciples felt.  After all, weren’t they showing their trust in Jesus?  They believed in his power to save them.  He acted in their behalf – kept them from sinking – but then he got all bent out of shape and called them cowards – faithless cowards!

So -maybe a closer look at the story is warranted.  Maybe this story is not so much about what the disciples expect of Jesus as it is about what Jesus expects of the disciples.  But it seems like turning to him in childlike dependency for relief in the midst of adversity and misfortune is not exactly considered an act of faith  for these disciples – at least as Mark tells it.

Mark’s gospel tells the story of Jesus’ entry into history in a time not unlike our own.  Mark’s account of Jesus’ ministry reveals a society and culture  in which the use of control of power by a ruling elite – in this case the over arching rule of Rome –  served to keep the ruling class in control.  The masses had no voice. Those who governed  had no concept that they were supposed to serve the people.  The ones with the power were more invested in protecting their privilege than in building mutuality in the structures that held society together.  The systems which governed life had no integrity.  Economic, political and social conditions caused greater and greater poverty among the people.  The gap between those who “had” and those who didn’t grew wider and wider.

In the midst of this social and political milieu, Jesus went up on a mountain, taking a few people with him.  He appointed 12 to be his apostles.  In the 3rd chapter of Mark, the story says that Jesus appointed the people to be with him – to be sent out to proclaim his message – – and to have the authority to cast out demons.

In this action we see something new and different in the person of Jesus.  As an authority figure, he creates a relationship with his disciples in which he shares his power and authority with them.  He does not call them to the mountaintop to tell them about his power so they can tell every one else so that lots of people will come and chase after him.  He takes them aside to teach them and to give them  authority to do the same work in the world that he does.  Jesus creates a mutual relationship between himself and his disciples.  His expectation is that they will exercise the authority that he has given to them.  This is so foreign to the ethos of the time in which Jesus lived that it is no wonder we read in the next few verses that his family thought he was crazy.

It is pretty radical thinking even today – – shared power???  That’s crazy.  Power from the top is the only way to keep things in order and under control.  The masses are not to be trusted with too much power.  Even in democratic structures, this kind of thinking still weaves itself in and out of our social, economic, political and even our religious structures.

But – -let’s get back into the boat.  What were Jesus’ expectations of his disciples

such that he turned to them and called them “faithless cowards?”

Look at these men.  They were strong muscular people.  They spent every day of their lives on the unpredictable waters of the Galilee – hauling heavy nets, repairing boats, rowing when there was no wind.  They knew the sea.  They were accustomed to dealing with storms.   Any one of them could have assumed responsibility for the boat – – grabbed the tiller – – and weathered the storm.

But they had not yet learned the critical lessons Jesus had been teaching them.  His work was to bring about a kind of re-ordering of power so that the disciples and all the people who embraced the teachings of Jesus would be able to participate in the building of a new age – the Kingdom of God, as Jesus called it.  The vision was one of a community built on the shared power of Jesus. (Drawn from A Re-Ordering of Power by Mark Waetjen)  The disciples’ lack of faith had to do with their inability or their unwillingness to take action by taking the tiller and guiding the boat through the storm.  Instead of acting on the teachings and the examples and the experiences they had had with Jesus, they lost it!  All the authority Jesus had given to them – – they turned it all back in a moment of panic.  “Jesus – -don’t you care if we are perishing?”

So, Jesus rescues them  – but he doesn’t seem thrilled by it.  And when he confronts them – their response is a bit curious. In their awe they ask “Who is this? – – even the wind and the sea obey him!”

These men have been Jesus’ friends pretty much from the beginning of his public ministry and yet they ask the question :  “Who is this?”

We could understand this question if it happened at the beginning of their time together  with Jesus – but when they have to ask this question of someone they have known intimately, someone with whom they have shared meals, someone with whom they have slept out under the stars – recognizing that they do not really know who he is – – their own identity is suddenly thrown into question.  If they don’t know who Jesus is, how can they possibly know who they are in relationship with Jesus?

Mark’s gospel was written somewhere around 70 CE, maybe 30 – 35 years after the crucifixion, for the early community of Jews who embraced the leadership of Jesus.  The thinking was prevalent at the time that Jesus would return immediately to bring in the kingdom of God.  As we know from earlier sermons, the Jewish world was in collapse with the destruction of the temple and Roman determination to eliminate the Jews. Life was as chaotic as any storm on the Galilee.  How tempting and comforting it must have been for the early church to faithfully await the return of Jesus to lead them out of the storm.

But the gospel writer seems to think otherwise.  He portrays Jesus as annoyed, perhaps frustrated, maybe even crabby, about the passive dependence on him displayed by the disciples in the boat.   The message of Mark for that early community of believers was that while they awaited the return of Jesus, they were not to let go of the tiller themselves.  They were, after all, authorized to preach and teach and heal and cast out demons.  Jesus had shared his authority with them.  They were not to simply sit around and wait for him to return before they began to use their authority.

So I wonder what we, as a small church community, might take from the story for our life together today?  Are we the ones in the bow of the boat who ask “Who is he – such that the wind and the sea obey him?”  Are we prone, at times, to forgetting that Jesus has shared his authority with us?  Do we realize that any one of us has the power to take up the tiller and help steer this tiny boat into clear, safe waters?  Is our sense of our identity as authorized followers of Jesus  as complete as it could be?

In his second letter to the church at Corinth, Paul wrote: The Christ you have to deal with is not a weak person outside you, but a tremendous power inside you. (Phillips translation)

It is this tremendous power, shared by God with us in the person of Jesus – – shared with us by Jesus through the person of the Holy Spirit dwelling within each of us and among us as a body of the faithful – it is this tremendous power which often lies asleep on the job. It is this power that Jesus wanted his disciples to trust.

Jesus could demonstrate it to them – – but he could not make them own it.  It takes all of us varying amounts of time before we are willing to own and exercise all the power and authority and love we embody as children of God.  It takes all of us different amounts of time to test out that power by reaching out to take hold of the tiller to pilot the boat of our lives – to pilot the boat of this lovely gathering of the faithful called the Chilmark Community Church.

We are at the end of our first year together as people and pastors.  It has been mostly a year for us to get to know each other better – to learn about trusting and caring for each other, to figure out ways to work together. We have another year to go.  We might view that year as a year on the threshold of something new – – a time when we will be guided into greater strength and confidence and well being  – – or as a year in a boat about to be sent to the bottom by a huge wave.  Wherever we are in our readiness to live into all the power and authority that resides in us by the grace of God, the image of the Pilot, ready to be awakened at a moment’s notice, continues to sustain us as we grow in faith and trust.

Jesus will keep providing the lessons and the scolding until we have fully learned to embrace his power and his loving authority as our own.  The challenge to take up the tiller is always before us in Mark’s gospel.  The grace of God is always there to assist and guide us as we assume greater and greater responsibility for exercising the tremendous power of Christ which resides dormant in us. As we continue on together to develop our piloting skills, may we each assume our share of the responsibility for working the tiller. May we always know that we can depend on that grace to bring us through the storms.  May we share our time together in this boat as people of faith and courage.

What are you doing here 6/19/16


1 Kings 19:1-15

June 19, 2016

Rev. Vicky Hanjian

Chilmark Community Church

It has been a horrifying and sad and difficult week.  During worship last Sunday the news of the massacre in Orlando was fresh.  We hardly knew what it meant or how severe it was.  As happens, almost routinely now, the initial reports and speculations were disseminated only to be revised and edited as the week unfolded and more information became available. More terrorism? A radical Islamic attack? An act of the most virulent homophobia? This process keeps us vigilant and engaged – perhaps with a hope that someone somewhere will be able to say the definitive thing that will help us make some sense of it all.  Adding insult to injury, inevitably, within hours, a horrible human tragedy became more grist for politicians to use against each other – – robbing us of the time and space that our souls need in order to absorb the shock, in order to mourn, in order to gather ourselves back together after a terrible shattering.  As I sat and processed  with some of our island clergy earlier this week, we were struck by the profound paradox that our national law now permits same sex marriage  while at the same time a crime against the humanity of the gay community can happen with unthinkable, sudden and extreme violence.  We mourn with the families and friends of those who were murdered and those who will struggle on a long, traumatic path to recovery.

It has been a challenge to see how this morning’s text might speak to us. Elijah, the great prophet of God, the one for whom Jesus was mistaken, the one whose return will signal the coming of the Messiah,  is the main character of the story.  Elijah comes with  baggage. In the chapter just before the one we have heard, Elijah zealously challenged the priests and prophets of Ba’al ,beloved god of the Canaanite people.  He created a contest to see whose God had more power – whose God could make it rain -whose God would end the three year drought in Israel. The contest, described in much detail in Chapter 18 proved Israel’s God more powerful. At end of  the contest, the three year drought ended.  As the rain began to fall  Elijah oversaw the slaughter of 450 Ba’al prophets.

As I searched the internet to see how other preachers might have managed today’s text, almost universally, their sermons leaped to a diagnosis of depression in Elijah and God’s healing words in the cave on the mountain.  The episode of the slaughter of the 450 prophets in Chapter 18 was glossed over -almost as though it hadn’t happened or that someone else was responsible.   But  at the end of the great contest between the gods where the God of Israel emerges as the greater God,  Chapter 18:39 -40 reads this way: When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, “the Lord indeed is God; the Lord indeed is God.”  Elijah said to them, “Seize the prophets of B’aal;  do not let one of them escape.”  Then they seized them; and Elijah brought them down to the Wadi Kishon, and killed them there.”

It is hard for us to reconcile a story of what is essentially religious violence done in the name of God with the major thrust of the scriptures about a God of peace and compassion and justice. But the compilers of the scriptures left nothing out.  We get the darkness with the light – we are shown what human beings are capable of in the name of their strongly held  beliefs.  The paradoxes are there for us to struggle with time and time again.  Sometimes they can be resolved – -and sometimes not.  These are the stories we wrestle with in the same way that Jacob wrestled all night with an unknown figure.

When we pick up the Elijah story this morning, Elijah is slogging through wind and rain and mud, his robes pulled up around his knees, running for his life to escape the revenge of Queen Jezebel who has sworn to kill him for destroying her priests and prophets.  The chaos Elijah has unleashed in his zeal for God follows him.

With Jezebel’s threats ringing in his ears, Elijah runs for his life from Mt. Carmel, the place of the great contest, to Beersheva in the south – a distance of some 25 miles.  When he gets to Beersheva, he leaves his servant behind and travels alone another day’s journey into the wilderness of Judah.  He is exhausted and afraid – he is ready to give up.  He wants to die.   He says “It is enough;  now O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.”  In exhaustion he flops down under a bush and falls asleep.

What happens next is something we often see in the ancient stories.  When Elijah is at his most vulnerable, sound asleep, an angel visits him – feeds him- and commands him to eat so that he will have strength.  Elijah follows the instructions and gets up and walks another 40 days and 40 nights to reach Mt. Horeb – the mountain of God.

So -here is one thing we might draw from the story – – that when we are at our most vulnerable – when life hands us chaos -when we are most shaken or fearful  or confused or wounded – the presence of God can break through to both nurture and sustain us for the next part of the journey.

At the mountain, Elijah  hears the Divine Question: “What Are You Doing Here?”  Elijah recites a litany of reasons why he finds himself at the mountain of God.  He has been zealous (450 prophets dead, you will recall)!

Why? Because Israel had forsaken the covenant. Because altars built for worshipping God had been destroyed; because many of God’s own prophets had been killed in the process. in his zeal, Elijah took action.  But now Elijah cries out “I‘m the only one left, and they are going to kill me too.” 

As we sit here and worship and pray and seek the truth together in the invasive presence of the enormity of the slaughter at The Pulse in Orlando, we might hear God asking us the same question: “My beloved children in Chilmark -What Are You Doing Here?” 

For just a few moments, may we sit in silence with our own responses to that question: “What are we doing here, in this moment, in the light of pain and suffering and horror that has been unleashed in Orlando?”

Whatever our own inner answer to the Divine question might be, our rebuttal question might be “Is God listening?”

Is God listening?  It is hard to tell .  All Elijah gets back in the way of response is a pretty terse directive – – “go to the mountain – – stand before God – for the Lord is going to pass by.”  So another thing we might draw from the story is that at times, God isn’t into much drama.  We may be in a panic.  We may be looking in every direction for the answers. We may be carrying huge burdens of sorrow, sadness – fear – even guilt as it seems with Elijah.      But the divine word that comes may be simply a directive – dial back the fear and the drama – go to the mountain – make yourself vulnerable -stand before God.

Perhaps we can imagine ourselves there with Elijah – alone – exhausted, soaking wet, covered with mud, fearful for his life – – standing inside a cave on a mountainside .

What comes next are, perhaps some of the most fascinating verses in the bible –  verses  often quoted – often referred to in our hymns – “Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting the mountains and breaking the rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake, a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; 

The next few words have been translated and interpreted in so many ways as sages and scholars throughout the ages have tried to capture the essence of the meaning of the ancient language: after the fire came a whistling of gentle air; the sound of a low whisper; a hissing of the wind, as if softly breathing; a gentle breeze; a sound of gentle blowing; a sound.  Thin. Quiet; And as we read a little earlier, after the fire, a sound of sheer silence.

A holy pattern of God’s creating force emerges here – – the Divine movement from chaos to order. We see it in the earliest chapters of Genesis as the Holy One brings order out of the primeval turbulence – and does it by speaking all creation into existence. And here again out of the chaos of terrifying violence between Israel’s prophets and the Canaanite prophets, out of the chaotic forces of earthquake, wind and fire, God draws Elijah’s attention elsewhere – – away from the drama, as it were, and toward a deeply vulnerable and somewhat troubling solitude in a cave on a mountain.  And there – in the midst of his anguish and fear, Elijah hears – what?

….a gentle blowing of the wind; a thin, quiet sound, the sound of sheer silence.  The silence of Holy Presence.

Just for today, I want to suggest that this dramatic story of Elijah’s encounter with The Holy offers us a way to come to center again as we face into another assault on our humanity.  In a somewhat ironic sense, we can run as Elijah did, but we cannot hide.  Our instinctive need to pull away from the horror may lead us into a kind of wilderness where answers and comfort are elusive – – and yet – – in the midst of that wildness, there is another way – – God meets us in the wilderness.  Not in the constant noise of CNN or Fox News or MSNBC – – not in the unfolding drama in the newspapers – – not in the energetic and sometimes frightening conversations we have with friends and neighbors – – but rather God meets us in the wild, silent spaces.  Indeed, to be able to hear the voice and direction of God, we need deep silence – a silence so deep that we can hear the sheer sound of it. 

So how do we get there?  How do we get to that place where we can hear the sound of silence?  It may be easier than we think.  Actually the first move into the silence is right at our fingertips.  We can, and should, use our God given ability to grab the remote and turn down the volume on all the non-stop threatening and

frightening sound and imagery to which we are exposed daily in the 24 hour news cycle.

Just as with a sensible weight reduction diet, we can limit our portion size.  If staying abreast of the news is critical, we can take it in smaller doses.  Choose carefully what time of day to listen to the news – and never just before going to bed.   

We can choose carefully who and what we will listen to – – discerning what is actually news and what is sensationalism that is designed to keep us glued to the screen.

More significantly, we might consider developing a spiritual practice that allows us to enter brief periods of silence during each day.  We can train ourselves to listen for the sheer sound of silence in which God speaks.  Even during the height of the season here it is a lot easier to do this than in other parts of the world.  Taking five minutes of pure silence to stand in the light of the rising or setting sun, or to marvel at moonrise and starlight helps our minds and our bodies learn to savor silence. It can also open our inner ears in order to hear the voice of God.

Elijah heard the sheer silence, the thin, quiet – – and in that silence, God did what God most universally does when we listen to God in a crisis.  God gave Elijah new marching orders to go out and anoint a new king who would maintain Israel’s relationship with God.  We may not receive such grandiose orders, but I firmly trust that we will hear what we need to hear in order to find peace and balance in the midst of the earthquake wind and fire.  God asks “What are you doing here?”  Perhaps one answer is that as we sit and worship and pray and come to center with God and one another is that we are already answering the call of the Holy One.  Part of our responsibility as children of God  is that we offer ourselves to become centers of calm in a crazy world – – that we stop – -listen to the Holy silence – and re-orient ourselves to the promise Jesus gave us when he said:  “Peace I give to you—–not as the world gives – – My peace I give to you.” Part of our calling is to be peace in times of chaos and conflict.

We live in an era when it is unlikely that the world will become peaceful and benign in our lifetime.  We live in a time when hope for the reign of God ebbs and flows.  We live in a time when it is all too easy to throw up our hands and say “It is enough, God – we haven’t come very far and we are no better than our ancestors.”  But God stands at the entrance of our self imposed caves and asks “What are you doing here?” – –  and then there is the sheer sound of silence – waiting for us to listen to what God would have us do next. 

You are the Salt of the Earth..6-12-16


Matthew 5:1-13

June 12, 2016

Rev. Armen Hanjian

Chilmark Community Church

You are the salt of the earth.”  When Jesus said that, there were several obvious things to which he referred.  Today,  the implications of this vibrant sentence from the sermon on the mount are not quite so obvious.  Nevertheless, as Christians we must grapple with that statement which becomes a command:  you are to be the salt of the earth.

Salt was used in Palestine for many purposes.  Lamps would burn brighter when salt was sprinkled in with the oil.  Some salt will act as a fertilizer.  Too much salt will make the ground sterile.  In the book of Judges there is reference to towns being conquered and salt being spread on the land to insure bareness.

Those who live in Israel today must still deal with salt in a big way.  In order that the Sea of Galilee may be useful for drinking and irrigating, engineers had to tap the salt water springs on the sea bottom,  They run these waters along the coast in open concrete channels dumping the salty water back into the exit of the sea – the Jordan River.  The Jordan then winds 200 miles and empties into the lowest spot on earth – the Dead Sea.  Nothing lives in this salty sea – 25% of which is composed of solids.

Do you know what is the greatest use world-wide of cowhide? It is to hold cows together.  Whether 2000 years ago or today, the greatest use of salt fulfills two functions.  One to preserve things from spoiling and the other is to add zest and stimulate appetite.  Palestine, now Israel, is about the same parallel as the state of Georgia; the weather is quite warm most of the time.  Food spoiled quickly if left unsalted.  My parents came from that area of the world and I recall as a child seeing my mom and dad gathering young grape leaves each spring and storing them for food use in earthen crocks having salted them.  In Jesus’ day, a bag of salt was as precious as a person’s life.  So when Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth,” he was proclaiming that our world will go rancid without the lowly few who mediate his spirit.

Today, you who are the fellowship of those committed to Christ are called to be the salt of the earth for today.  Our primary influence is our unconscious influence.  Yes, once in a while we consciously say to ourselves, “Now, I am going to be Christ-like”, and our conscious decisions go a long way in setting the habits for our unconscious influence.  But 99% of the time we are either Christ-like because we have become good salt or we pass for salt and are worse than useless – we are harmful.    How many times I have heard thru the years,

“If Christians are like those people, I don’t want to be a Christian. 

Would anyone who visits our homes, our worship services, our meetings be so impressed as to say, “How these Christians love and trust and respect one another?”

What do you do when the basses are loaded?  Well, you sober them up or replace them with baritones.  “You are the salt of the earth.”  What do you do if the salt has lost it’s taste?  How shall its saltiness be restored?

Actually, pure sodium chloride does not deteriorate; salt cannot lose its saltiness.  But when it is mingled with other ingredients,  then this is possible.  That is, salt can be adulterated.  Because it was so essential for preserving food, it was valuable.  Conquers taxed it and no doubt much diluted salt came on the market. Perhaps Jesus was echoing the remarks many a homemaker must have made when she discovered she had bought adulterated salt, “This is of no use at all!” One translation of the verse has Jesus saying, “It is neither fit for seasoning or manure.”

A modern playwright has one of his characters crying out his discovery, “The very word majority is offensive to me.  It is always the minority that preserves for us whatever good there is in human life.”  You know, that must have been quite a scene in history.  There stands Jesus telling his disciples, very average people, the incredible words: “You are the salt of the earth. “ “You are to be the light for the world.”  To these few Jesus committed the ministry upon which the democratic movements across the centuries have depended.

There is no despair because the group is small or because the task is gigantic.  There is no call by Jesus to remain in one place, rather the disciples are to go into the world touching even what seems unworthy to redeem it.  George Buttrick  put it crisply: “The Christian either redeems the world, or the world robs him of his Christianity.”

Int. Bible 7:289  (repeat with her)  Jesus makes his point undebatable by using such a universal item as salt for his comparison.  He was talking to fishermen who used it to preserve their catch, and everyone who put food into their mouths.

Moffatt translates this verse: If salt becomes insipid, what can make it salt again?”  The greatest danger the Church ever confronts is not that it will die.  It don’t believe it will ever die.  The greatest danger is that it can become insipid, absent of tang and vitality, standing for nothing in particular.  The Church began with a sharp cutting edge.  It confronted the Roman life with sharp contrasts to the day’s standards.  It literally turned the world upside down.  Then the Church got more reasonable, more sane, in a word, more insipid.  And today we can see monstrous wrongs and seeing them not feel compelled to struggle against the them.  When we love in word and not in deed our saltiness is gone.  If we have nothing to offer but a weak 7-fold amen of blessing on the standards of the world, if we do not trumpet the alarm against the forces which deteriorate and adulterate human life, then we are bankrupt.

You and I know it’s impossible to be 100% sure about the meaning Jesus intended in offering any of his teachings.  Some were pretty evident – he took a story about a good Samaritan man helping another man in need to show the neighbor we are  called to love is the one in need.   Now, when he said, “You are the salt of the earth,”  the meaning and implications are not quite so obvious.  When he said, “You are…”, he addressing the disciples.  The Greek words for you singular and you plural are two different words.  Here, “you is plural. indicating “You all are the salt of the earth.”

C.H. Dodd, in his book, Parables of the Kingdom (p.111) comes at it this way, “Here is a picture of a commodity valuable to men(people), and indeed necessary to their life; but it has lost the one and only property which gives it value….  Now in the situation in which Jesus taught, what was the most outstanding example, in His eyes, of such a tragic loss of value?  There is abundant evidence that He saw the state of Judaism in His time just such a tragedy….  The comparison is simply the lamentable fact of a good and necessary thing irrevocably spoiled and wasted.  Applied in this way, the parable falls into line with other sayings of Jesus.”

In any case the question is,  “How can I as a person today and how can we as a church today best become the salt for the world we live in?”   No simple answers.  How do we make love the order of the day.  I can easily offer general answers – “Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God.”  But love is a very specific thing and each case requires a specific response.  Unless we as individuals and we as a church come forward with specific acts of love for our neighbors in these days,  we become salt that has lost it’s saltiness and are good for nothing.

We see pretty clearly the ideal Christian way, but tragic human situations seldom give us the choice of the ideal Christian way.  We are instead pressed to chose between courses which are more Christ-like or less Christ-like.  It  is in making these choices where Christ’s authority over us becomes evident.  We are always under pressure to take the more excellent way.  (from Joy in Believing,p.189)

You know,  Jesus never told his disciples to copy him; rather he asked them to follow him.  In other words, his disciples have had to keep working out for themselves the best way to express their convictions.

When I started my ministry the 1960 Webster’s dictionary described a space ship as an imaginary space vehicle.  The word laser was not even mentioned- it was discovered in 1963.  New breakthroughs have been coming in communication – a major task for Jesus’ followers.  If we send smoke signals when everyone else is communicating with more attention-getting means the message of love can get lost. Our challenge is to use the blessings of technology while not losing the personal connection.

The final sentence of Herbert Butterfield’s book Christianity and History

(Was prof. of Modern History at Univ. of Cambridge) , the summary sentence points to what is needed:  “hold to Christ, and for the rest be totally uncommitted.”  – An inflexible commitment to Jesus Christ and a flexible expression of that commitment in the world God loves will give us an ever new ministry.  It will mean there are no simple prescriptions.  It will mean Christians must continually communicate among themselves as to what courses should be followed for this new day.  But it is only in so doing that future generations will be able to so of us as persons, of us as a church, “They were for their day the salt of the earth.”

“City Gates and Thin Spaces” June 5, 2016

“City Gates and Thin Spaces”

1 KIngs 17:8-24      Luke 7:11-17

Chilmark Community Church   June 5, 2015

Rev. Vicky Hanjian

It doesn’t take a degree in Biblical Studies to see how freely the author of the gospel of Luke  has drawn upon the story of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath.  The similarities are striking.  When this happens so obviously in scripture, we need  to ask what is the common underlying truth to which the stories draw our attention?

Some of the commonalities are fairly obvious. Both stories are stories of widows.  Both of them lose their sons. Both have their sons restored to them.  Both widows encounter the power of God in unexpected ways.  A pastor, Rev. Andrew Prior commented: I can imagine one of my friends saying “but this story of the widow of Nain is ridiculous. These things don’t happen.  People don’t get raised from the dead.  Neither did the son of the widow of Zarephath.  These things are superstitious.  How can you claim the presence of the reality of God in the gates of the city with tall tales like these?

Suzanne Guthrie experienced the death of two grandchildren, twins who died at birth. She writes from her perspective about how we are caught in life’s struggles, and she says stories like this one about Jesus raising the widow’s son “offers scant comfort to the parents of the children Jesus doesn’t bring back from the dead.” She’s not even sure resurrection faith gives her comfort, believing her grandbabies are in heaven just waiting for some big family reunion. (Edge of Enclosure She is brutally honest with her questions and doubts.    Stories of miracle healings and resurrections sometimes leave us with more questions than answers when we are trying to understand how God works.

But maybe if we look a little closer at these two stories we can find something that works for us.   The stories begin with encounters at the gates of the cities.  The starving widow of Zarephath meets Elijah just outside the city gates as she gathers fuel for a fire.  The widow of Nain meets Jesus at the city gates as she follows her only son’s body being carried to his burial.

The cities of Zarephath and Nain are walled cities.  The walls were built for protection.  The gates of the city were places where, during the day, people came and went – doing business, seeking healing, seeking resolutions for their problems.   Beggars would seek a space at the  gate to beg for alms from travelers.  Often people who were very ill would be brought to the gate of the city on the chance that a healer would bring the relief they needed.  Judges often sat at the city gates to adjudicate complaints brought to them by the townspeople. Farmers would tend their crops or their flocks outside of the gates and return to the town at the end of the day. The gates were closed at night to keep out predators and enemies.   

Kenneth Locke points out that the city gate was a place where one might move from danger to safety. . . or conversely from safety to danger.  The gate is the place where you move from being in control to having no control.  Both widows encounter the mystery of God, not behind closed walls in a place of safety but rather in a place of passage and transition and threat and loss in their lives.

The widow of Zarephath is in desperate straits.  There has been a three year drought in the land.  In that part of the world there was no naturally flowing water supply like the Nile or  the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.  There was total dependence on enough rain and no rainfall had come for three years.  The widow left the safety within the walls of the city to find a few sticks to build a fire. She and her son are preparing to die.

  The widow of Nain has already lost her son.  A young man, not a child, he was his mother’s sole source of well being. To be a widow with no husband and no son to protect and care for her meant that she was about to plummet into the worst kind of poverty.  There were no safety nets for widows beyond the charity of  neighbors and that could be dicey at best.  With her only son’s death she was doomed to something akin to being a homeless person without an ID card on the streets of Boston.

Both women encounter the power of the Holy One at the city gates – – the place of passage between safety and danger, known and  unknown – – between being in control of one’s life and losing control.

In ancient Celtic spirituality, there is the notion of “thin places” – those places and times  where the veil between the invisible and unknown realm of God and the physical world is the thinnest and the Holy is most immediately accessible.  In the biblical stories, occasionally we find the “thin places” at the gates of the city – at the boundary between life as it has been and life as it may become.

Gates -city gates – gateways nearly always symbolize a passage way from one way of being to another.  Our sacred texts tell us that Jesus suffered crucifixion “outside the gates of the city” .  He carried his cross from the familiar precincts of Jerusalem out through the city gates to Golgotha – a passage from one way of being into another as he moved from life through death to life in the resurrection.

So we might know that these stories of endangered and threatened widows are stories of transition and transformation – of life and death and resurrection.  When we begin to understand that, then we might be able to let the stories work for us in a way that is not magical, but rather in a way that strengthens our faith.   The stories may guide us toward understanding that indeed, the gateways of stress and transition and pain and suffering may , indeed, be “thin places” – – places where we may encounter The Holy in a way that we have not known before.

  In the Elijah story,  the widow is at the end of her rope, so to speak.  And just when she thinks she is stretched to her uttermost, along comes this stranger, Elijah, who asks her to stretch even more.  It is safe to say that we have all reached this place of stretching somewhere in our lives.  My own response might have been – “ look – I can’t even take care of myself – I am so depleted – so tired – so over-taxed –  and you expect me to take care of you?”  The widow points out:  “We’re dying of starvation and you want me to feed you?”

The word of hope that Elijah speaks is “Do not be afraid.  First give  me something to eat and then go and feed your son – – your jar of meal and your jug of oil will not run out until God sends rain again.”  The story says the widow and her household ate for many days and their grain and oil did not run out.

So the message to the widow of Zarephath at the city gate seems to be a challenge to trust in the power of God when there is absolutely no reason to trust – – no reason to hope.   This is a primary characteristic of the city gates – those places where we are not in control – where the line may be very thin between safety and control and danger and no control.  Encountering God in the city gates  is never comfortable – often  frightening – always unpredictable.  But the possibility of those times of greatest discomfort is that they may be the boundary of a “thin space” – – a point in time when God is more accessible and present than we ever thought.   

The stories became real for me this week.  For some time I have been dealing with a very cranky shoulder as the result of an old fracture from a fall about 15 years ago. A more recent fall has resulted in a lot of pain and loss of joint mobility. Basically, I am a coward and It took me a good two months to get up the courage to seek medical attention.  Making that first call to get an appointment with the doctor always represents, for me, moving through a city gate from safety and control into a scary and largely unknown realm.  Long story short, after an x-ray and a diagnosis of arthritis I ended up in  physical therapy on Friday.  As the  therapist worked on my shoulder she began to discover that the joint is “frozen” – a major contributing facto to the pain of the arthritis in my shoulder. She began to work in the joint  to loosen the tissue.  I could barely stay on the table the pain was so intense.  And the “thin place?”  The place where I encountered the Holy?  The place where God finally seemed accessible?  The place where God was most present???

Right in the midst of the pain – – in Armen’s steady presence right next to me – – In the gallows humor about “Oh this is what it must be like to be tortured on the rack!”  – – In the presence of  the therapist. Fortunately, perhaps like God, she is accustomed to people screaming and yelling at her – and she did not lose her sense of humor -and she did not give up on me.    While I couldn’t wait to get home to the safety and comfort of my sofa and a heating pad, I left the hospital with greater hope for a more functional shoulder in the future – even though there are still many passages through the gates to be endured.  God and hope are there in the “thin places” in the midst of the discomfort of the city gates.

I’d like  go back to Barbara Guthrie’s faith reflections during her profound grief as she came to terms with the loss of her twin grandchildren.   Sitting in the city gates – in the thin space, as it were, she wrote : “I do believe that something is happening now: the reign of righteousness, of peace, healing, justice, transcendence – is at hand.  Something undermines the hopelessness of the human condition, and here are signs that something new lies just beneath the surface of what appears to be reality.”  She says, “Here’s my favorite line in the story of the widow of Nain:  and the bearers stood still” (vs 14) My heart stands still.  In the great darkness I make room for the Holy to pass through…This is where I perceive a new thing, here , in this empty space.  And the bearers stood still.  In prayer, I stand still.  I give myself to that secret newly emerging from the darkness.” ( Edge of Enclosure

Realistically speaking, this kind of encounter doesn’t necessarily mean that everything will be rosy.  Indeed, the widow of Zarephath shared all that she had with Elijah – and her son died anyway.  She  held Elijah accountable.

If we are truthful,  I think we would share in common the fact that we spend a lot of time in the city gates – – our lives are always in process.  All is well one day and the news of the death of a dear one death comes. We hear the cool voice of the doctor’s receptionist calling to tell us we need to make an appointment to talk about the results of diagnostic tests. A dissatisfied partner wants to end the relationship.  A grandchild is caught in addiction.   We are momentarily plunged into drought and hunger and loss of hope.  We find ourselves at the city gates. 

Here we are confronted with challenging choices.  Rev. John Moses puts it “The poor widow, that poor misguided widow, took a chance on the prophet’s promise that if she shared her last crumbs with him her jar of meal would never be empty, maybe she even came to believe it. She took the risk.  But her son died anyway – -maybe  not from hunger, admittedly, but he died.”

He continues: “Again, an old man’s shadow falls across her doorway.  He does not come this time to beg for food.  He comes to plead with God whom he serves for the boy’s life ; “O Lord my God, let this child’s life come into him again.”  (1 Kings 17:21).  John Moses calls this second story more dangerous than the first.  If it is true, then all bets are off.  We do not know what we thought we knew.” 

An encounter in the thin place happens. 

Young man, I say to you arise,”  (Luke 7:14)  The bearer’s stand still. Life is restored.  The widow’s hope is renewed.  Another encounter in the thin place.

The stories are unbelievable – – but the stories are true.  They persist and nurture us precisely because they are true – not in any way that we can measure or define, but in a way that reaches into the tender places where we sit at the city gates – on the way from what has been to what will be.

As Rev. Moses concludes, “these stories proclaim the tradition of ‘life – giving,’ old as time, new as the present moment, God’s power and God’s love – undiscouraged and undiminished” (sometimes even made known in the pain of physical therapy!).

In the hard times, the dry times, the famine times, the times of loss and fear – – at all times – – the city gates are the place of meeting the Holy. Life in the resurrection comes in all shapes and sizes.  It is our spiritual work to remember the stories. It is our job to let the stories work for us.  Sometimes the stories themselves become the “thin place” where we encounter the life-giving power of God.  As we join in the celebration of communion, may it be a time of remembering the story – may it be, perhaps, even a very simple and mundane “thin place” where we meet God as we feast together.

“Thunder, Lightning, Wind and Fire” May 15

“Thunder, Lightning, Wind and Fire”

Exodus 19:9-25

Acts 2:1-21

Chilmark Community Church

May 15, 2016

Rev. Vicky Hanjian

There is a lot of cosmic drama going on in the scriptures this morning. A  mountain rumbles, wrapped in smoke, fire descends, the smoke rises like the smoke from a furnace – the mountain shakes.   A  crowded room is filled with roaring, rushing wind – violent – according to the story – and flames of fire –  blazing tongues resting on each person. High drama.   When the Sovereign of the Universe wishes to communicate with human beings, the first thing to do is to get our attention! The thing that both of these stories have in common is that God indulges in self-revelation and this happens in very different ways at different times.

This morning we celebrate that second revelation as the Day of Pentecost – the culmination of the 50 days between Easter and today – the revelation or the gift or the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the primitive church. 

Interestingly enough, Jewish tradition also celebrates a 50 day culmination – post Passover –  known as Shavuot – the Revelation at Sinai. This year Shavuot will happen on June 12. Although this year we celebrate Pentecost and Shavuot about a month apart because of the lunar calendar, quite often Shavuot and Pentecost occur quite close to each other. Sometimes the two events of God’s revelation share the same day.  This is how it was on the first Christian Pentecost.  Our scriptures tell us “When the day of Pentecost had come….” The 1st Christian Pentecost happened on the Jewish Pentecost  – the anniversary celebration of God’s giving of the Law to Israel on Mt. Sinai.

The giving of the Torah was a far-reaching spiritual event—one that touched the essence of the Jewish soul for all times. Jewish sages have compared it to a wedding between Gd and the Jewish people. At Sinai Gd swore eternal devotion to God’s people, and the people in turn pledged everlasting loyalty to


There is a tradition around the revelation at Sinai that every Jewish soul that ever was or ever would be was present when the Torah of God was given.  Tradition also holds that every person heard the Torah that they were supposed to hear in a way that they could hear and understand. And so the Torah, the teaching of God, has been transmitted from generation to generation – with each generation being responsible for how to live out the commands of God.  It came in a condensed form – traditionally 10 utterances that we have come to call the 10 Commandments.  They were and are a blueprint – or a kind of constitution, if you will – for the Israelites – designed to help them become a cohesive people with a set of guidelines to live by.  Gradually these early 10 utterances were interpreted and re-interpreted to provide guidance and law as Israel became a people – – no longer slaves – – a people who were free and needed to learn how to live together in that freedom.

So it was this festival of Pentecost that the Jews in Jerusalem were celebrating when the story from the Book of Acts comes into play.  There are echoes of Sinai in the Christian Pentecost.  Frightening winds – rushing in out of nowhere – flames appearing and hovering over the heads of the people gathered in the room.  The writer tells us that there were devout Jews from every nation under the sun – – and they heard those who had been in the room speaking in their own languages – another echo of that great day at Sinai when each person heard the revelation in their own way.

Today we celebrate the outpouring of gift of the Holy Spirit in the life of the church – that invisible, empowering presence that will lead us into the truth.

But – 2000 years later, there seem to be no rushing winds. The fire we kindle comes from symbolic and rather tame candles.  It has been a long, long time since the thunder and the quaking mountain at Sinai and the room full of wind and fire.  Those dramatic events have never been repeated. In the 21st century we are challenged to know and understand and interpret and re-interpret these events for our own time in the absence of the dramatic,  external, cosmic events.  We are challenged with the work of understanding how the ancient revelation and gifts are relevant for us in the here and now.

There are some difficult questions to be considered.  First and foremost, perhaps, is the question of whether God actually does indulge in revelation any more?  Is there anything that helps us to know that this is what God is doing? How do we know when God is revealing something holy – some kind of guidance – something that will change our lives, something to which we need to pay attention.   How do we say “Yes, I ‘hear’ the voice of God” and not make ourselves a candidate for some serious therapy? 

These are questions I entertain from time to time. I think it is a good thing to ask these questions in 2016 when God seems absent – – or at the very least seems not to be paying attention to what happens on this planet.

I firmly believe that the sacred texts hold clues to the answers if we are willing open ourselves up to the challenge that reside within them.

When we recall the circumstances that led up to Sinai – we remember that the people who left the narrow strictures of life in slavery in Egypt did not know how to live in freedom.  They had never had control over their own lives.  They did not know how to manage resources since they had never had any to manage.  They did not know how to live together in community since life in slavery did not permit responsible life in community.  They did not know how to use their own time since they had never had “their own time”.  Moving out into the freedom of the wilderness as a company of slaves presented a traumatic crisis.  They put a lot of trust in Moses, but they didn’t really know much about the Holy One who guided their leader.

Into this chaotic crisis, the Holy One set down a revelation of order that would help them to become a people – a basic structure within which to live in freedom: Worship the One God only – – no idol worship – – remember to keep and guard the Sabbath each seventh day and keep it holy – – don’t murder – – don’t steal – – don’t lie or gossip about your neighbor – – don’t envy one another – – honor and respect your elders – and of course – – no adultery!!

In the chaos that seems to rule in so many places and events in the present, these straightforward words still make consummate sense.  But humankind being what it is, we forget – we fail to pay attention to these very direct and helpful words for living. Life is complex. 

So – – in the first revelation – God gets the attention of the people and reveals to them an order for a civilized life in community as God’s people.  Does God still reveal the will of God in 2016?  Perhaps one answer might lie in the fact that the original revelation still works.   It is said in Jewish tradition that if humankind were to fully keep just one Sabbath – the Messiah would come.  So – perhaps that earlier revelation not only presents an order for life, but a vision for a possible world if, indeed, we were able to keep our end of the bargain.

When we revisit the story of the second revelation in Jerusalem, it, too, comes to a people trapped in the narrow strictures of the kind of spiritual and economic and political slavery that existed under Rome at the time.  People had the original covenant to guide them and to help them make meaning of life.  And into that mixture came a second revelation – – one that brought with it the gifts the people would need to survive and transcend their life circumstances and indeed to begin to flourish and grow. The second revelation in no way replaces the first one – rather it compliments and energizes.

Christian tradition tells us that with the flames and the wind came the Presence of the Holy Spirit bringing precious spiritual gifts that give energy for living out the orderly life that God commanded in the first revelation.  These gifts are drawn from  Isaiah 11:1-2: 

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.

WISDOM – the capacity to discern spiritual truth in the midst of the material world; the yearning to understand God;

UNDERSTANDING – the comprehension we need to live as God’s people in the world –

the gift we need in order to be able to be in the world – but not of the world COUNSEL/RIGHT JUDGMENT With the gift of counsel/right judgment, we know the difference between right and wrong, and we choose to do what is right.

MIGHT/COURAGE With the gift of fortitude/courage, we overcome our fear and are willing to take risks as a follower of Jesus. A person with courage is willing to stand up for what is right in the sight of God, even if it means accepting rejection, verbal abuse, or physical harm.

KNOWLEDGE of God – – direct experience of the Holy that give us a sense of the meaning of God.

PIETY/REVERENCE With the gift of piety/reverence, we have a deep sense of respect for God – a yearning for closeness with God.

FEAR OF GOD – A sense of awe and wonder that leads us into the an awareness of the glory and majesty of God  – A yearning never to be separated from God.

Wisdom – Understanding -Right Judgment – Courage -Knowledge -Reverence – Awe and Wonder – Spiritual gifts for living out the days of our lives.  We have all received them in some measure.  Combined with the powerful words of guidance in the first revelation, these gifts are what empower us to live in community, to follow the beat of a different drummer when necessary, to be God’s people in the world.

Birthdays are for celebrating.  On this celebration of the Great Day of Pentecost and its sister celebration of Shavuot, we celebrate the birth of a people and the birth of the church.  May we pray to be open to receiving all the gifts of God that are offered to us throughout all time – each day – in each moment – always flowing – always renewable.  May we open these gifts, cherish them, use them and share them.  May God-Who-Continually-Creates through the love of Jesus and the blowing winds of the Holy Spirit, catch us by surprise with a breath of renewal and a grand spark of energy as we move into another year in ministry together.  AMEN

Released From Fears May 8, 2016


MICAH 4:1-4            1 JOHN 4:3-21



MAY 8, 2016


Recently someone said,   “Almost everyone I know is either lonely or afraid.”  “Fear,” said Gilbert J. Chesterton, “is the greatest plague of mankind.”  Medical dictionaries list more than 3,000 fears or phobias.  Common fears in our day include the fear of pain, sickness, failure, poverty, being dependent in old age, losing status, the fear of being unloved and the fear of death.  And probably all of us are controlled somewhat by fears of which we are not conscious.  Wherever we hesitate, hold back, get shy and often behind anger we find fear.

The American Medical Association concluded about half of our illnesses are rooted in wrong attitudes of mind and spirit.  One doctor said that 85% of the patients that come to see him don’t need medicine – they need to change their mental and spiritual attitudes.

Throughout life, fear is one of our chief enemies.  The writers of our Bible were aware of this and had good news to speak to our situation.  Recall Adam’s first excuse for hiding from God after he disobeyed?  “I was afraid,” said Adam.  The great prophet of the 8th century BCE, Micah, dreamed of a world ruled by God and dedicated to God’s will.  It shall be a time when “everyone shall sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree and none shall make them afraid.”

And it is significant that, according to Matthew, the first words the resurrected Christ spoke to the women were, “Do not be afraid.”  In fact the words “fear not” are one of the most common in the classical Christian documents.

I would like, now, to help make vivid what fears can do for us and to us.  Then, for your benefit and for those to whom you minister,  I shall suggest some specific steps to overcome your fears. 

Most people appreciate some of the values of fear.  Fear, like pain is a sentinel which warns of danger.  Starbuck, in Moby Dick said it well, “I will have no man on my boat who is not afraid of a whale.”  We need caution in the face of real dangers.

The truth is most of our fears are not based on real dangers, but on imaginary dangers.  There are only two fears we are born with: the fear of falling and the fear of loud noises. (not a good time to slam the pulpit.)   Awhile back some psychologists studied 500 people and who named 7,000 various fears; all but two were acquired.  500 people loaded down with 6,998 unnatural, useless fears.

We might do well to do what one woman did when she realized her fears were ruining her life.  She made a ‘worry table”.  Here is what she discovered:

40% – will never happen

30% – were worries about old decisions she could not   alter

  12% – were other’s criticism of me,  most untrue, made by               people  who feel inferior

10% – were worries about my health, which gets worse as I worry

  8% – “legitimate” fears since life has some real problems to meet

Remember Jesus spoke about the man buried the one talent entrusted to him and gave it back to its owner saying, “I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the earth.”  His life work turned out to be a hole in the ground.  Fear of failure did that.  Fear robbed him of any adventure in life.  Safety meant stay at home and don’t budge.

Joseph of Arimathea  was described as a “secret disciple for fear of the Jews.”  Fear has a way of driving people under ground.  You know people who are afraid —- Fear saps their strength.  It paralizes their initiative.

People are not only afraid of life and it’s demands; they also fear death.  Emma Carleton writes:

The road winds up the hill to meet the height,

Beyond the locust hedge it curves from sight-

And yet no man would foolishly contend

That where he sees it not, it makes an end.

So much points to life beyond death, yet countless numbers go through life with the single aim to avert death.  Why?  Are they afraid of the unknown, or that they have not lived a life they are proud to present to their Maker, or do they see death as equivalent to extinction?  If you keep your eye pealed for that day, you will miss life in its fullness in the here and the now.

Let us turn now to ways means to achieve victory over our fears.  It seems to me there are two techniques which we can practice in order to be released from our fears.  One is substitution.  I mean by that the process of deliberately thinking positive and loving thoughts and in so doing crowding out the negative and fearful thoughts.

There are two ways of getting rid of weeds in your lawn short of poisons I’m told.  One way is to get down on your hands and knees and pull out each weed one by one.  The other way is to keep planting an abundance of good grass seed and letting the grass crowd out the weeds.  That’s substitution.  That is not the same as saying forget your worries; the more you do that, the deeper you will drive them into your awareness.  Crowd out your fears.  As St. Paul writes, “whatever is true, honest, pure, lovely, and of good report, think on these things.”

A striking woodcut by M.C. Escher, a Dutch artist, is called “Day and Night.”  It seems to be a flock of white birds, flying in formation in the same direction.  A second look, however, shows that the spaces between the birds in formation are shaped like birds also.  These phantom birds are all black and are all flying in the opposite direction.  The two sets of birds are so cleverly blended that it is impossible to keep the eye focused on both flocks at the same time.  That is, we can see white birds flying of black birds flying.  It all depends on the way we look at it.

Fear is the most self-centered of all emotions.  Fear is the heightened awareness of the self occasioned by what is thought to be threats to the self.  “The cure for fear lies partly in eliminating external threats to the security of the self; but it lies more in eliminating excessive consciousness of the self.  Love supremely does this.” Interpreter’s Bible 12:286  Our scripture lesson today reads “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” “Love casts out fear because it casts out unhealthy self-consciousness….Indeed, the principle may be laid down that  the presence of fear in human personality denotes ethical and religious maladjustment somewhere”  in John’s words, “he who fears is not perfected in love.”

Plan substitutions for those fears; with such a plan you will be on the offensive.  I first learned this works in the dentist chair; in focusing on Christ’s pain on the Cross, mine diminished.

Briefly, the other technique to deal with our fears may be called the way of appropriation. (terms suggested by Harold Ruopp)  Let me illustrate.  Two women are engaged in prayer.  One says, “O Lord, help me. Take away my fears.  Give me peace, trust and hope.”  The other prays: “O Lord, I rest in you.  I take peace. I belong to you.  You are my dwelling place and underneath are the everlasting arms.  I give myself to you.  I open myself to your strength.” I hope you see what I mean by appropriation.  Learn the art of prayer for fears dissolve in the atmosphere of prayer.

Talk over your fears with another person, bring them to the surface and then leave them with God.  Surrender them and yourself to God.  Keep fears on the margins of life and God central.  The God we see in Jesus Christ is one who takes us as we are,  with our misplaced loyalties and senseless fears, God takes us and makes us like God is.  God takes us as we are and we do not fear exposure, for exposure means judgment, but judgment is the very thing a Christian has learned to accept as a gateway to new life.  Christianity does not promise your life will always be safe and rosy, but that if the worst comes, there is nothing to be afraid of.  I end with these words of Jesus: “In the world, you shall have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”

Holy One, these fears of mine I have held within my heart and now I am turning them over to you.  I will keep open to your inner guidance as I walk Christ’s way.  Amen

Promises, Promises Take II, May 1, 2016

Promises, Promises – Take 2”

John 14:15 – 29

Chilmark Community Church

May 1, 2016

Rev. Vicky Hanjian

This has been an emotionally strenuous week. On Thursday morning, my email contained a message from Rev. Amy Edwards. She is the pastor of the Federated Church in Edgartown. The email went to all the island clergy to let us know that she has discontinued treatment for the cancer that is sapping her life and that she is going home to Little Compton to be with her family as she prepares to die. As she is coming to terms with her impending death, she extended the call to the rest of us to be available for her congregation to walk with them as they grieve.

Later in the same morning, I met with the small clergy group support that I have belonged to for several years. We sat and processed our grief together. We came up with a tentative plan for how to share our own lives with members of Federated Church as we walk this valley with them. As we sat close to each other, we marveled at how we could feel such profound grief and such sustaining gratitude and joy all at the same time. We marveled at how, when we spoke about our sadness – – acknowledged it to each other – – there was an immediate inrushing of assurance and loving-kindness and comfort that pervaded the room.

We marveled at how this was possible between and among a Methodist, a Congregationalist, a Baptist, a Unitarian and a Jew. And we laughingly wondered if this could happen anywhere but on Martha’s Vineyard. It seemed uncanny to me that we should be entering this process together with Amy and her congregation during the week when Christians read the story of Jesus saying farewell to his disciples – – the story of how he was preparing them to move on into the future without him in their midst. It seemed as though the ancient story was being recapitulated in our own personal experience – played out in real time

Such is the ironic wit and wisdom of the Holy One.

In John’s Gospel the section we just heard is part of what are called “the farewell discourses” in chapters 12 through17 as Jesus concludes his public ministry. John has Jesus giving these teachings in the context of sharing his final meal with the disciples. Jesus has washed the feet of the disciples. He has commanded them to love and serve one another. He has announced that one of them will betray him. He has warned of Peter’s coming denial in the dark hours just before dawn. The chapters are rich with the wise and loving preparation Jesus imparts to his followers as he prepares to die and as he seeks to prepare them for what his death will mean.

The part that we just read is chock full of promises. Jesus promises that in his absence, another Presence will be given to the disciples – – one that will be with them forever – – a Presence that will abide with them – – and abide in them.

He promises that he will not leave his little band orphaned – – that even though others may not “see” him with their eyes, the disciples will still “see” him….He promises a beautiful mystical knowledge of Holy Oneness – where the disciples will know that Jesus is in God – – they will know that they themselves are in Jesus – – and that Jesus is in them – – They will know that in this promise is implied that the disciples, too, are in God and God is in the disciples. And then in verse 23, the age old ancient promise that we looked at last week is revealed again: “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” And thus the New Covenant is built upon the promises of God to God’s people almost from the beginning of time. “We will love them and make our home among them.”

Jesus goes on to say that he is telling the disciples all these things while he is still with them and that the new Presence – the Advocate – the Holy Spirit will continue to teach them all that they need to know and will remind them of everything that Jesus has taught them. He promises them his peace.

As we sat together in our small clergy group on Thursday morning, it was as though that Presence, that Comforting Advocate, were there in the room with us.

We spent periods of time in silence. When it was time to speak, I was literally reminded again and again of Jesus words and teachings as I found the assurances and the promises becoming real in our midst. I found myself affirming the truth of the promises and the wisdom of Jesus over and over again. As he promised – – the words are in us. The Spirit reminds us. And in a very profound way, comfort does , indeed, come.

Amy Edwards’ journey toward the end of her life here is having a transformative effect on me and my clergy friends in much the same way that Jesus’ movement toward his own death had on his closest friends. As we grieved the impending loss, the palpable Presence of the Spirit met us where we were most distressed and comforted us with wisdom and truth and clear seeing about what our role would be as we move forward as friends and as caregivers for a grieving congregation in Edgartown. I realized that this is, indeed, a literal way of being the comforting Presence our sacred texts promise – – that as we share our oneness, we become an expression – – a manifestation if you will – – of all that has been promised.

In a few minutes we will share in communion together. This ritual is the continual reminder of the promises of Jesus – – of his desire for the wholeness and well-being of the beloved community he left behind in this physical world, only to rejoin them again in his eternal nature.

The experience of joining in Amy’s forward movement has been, for me, a profound re-awakening to the notion that we are one body in Christ. When one member hurts or grieves, we all hurt and grieve at some level. I don’t know all

the members of Federated Church. I know Amy Edwards only slightly. But we are all one body. We are all one in Christ. We share in the same bread and the same cup. Jesus said “I am going away, and I am coming to you.” What a paradox. It is only in his going away that we get to have him with us always and everywhere – – eternally. He says “I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe.”

As we prepare to move to the communion table, perhaps this morning our movement may be a time of drawing close to our collective memory of the life of Jesus in our midst – – in his Risen and Eternal form – – waiting at the table to greet us once again in the symbols of bread and cup – – reminding us of our own true nature as his people – – giving us his blessing as we seek to live out our oneness with one another and with his people everywhere. May this be so. AMEN

Promises, Promises April 25,2016

“Promises, Promises”

Genesis 17:1-8

Revelation 21:1-7

Chilmark Community Church

April 24, 2016

Rev. Vicky Hanjian

There are lots of ways to name and classify the many books of the Bible.  One that I use increasingly is the fact that the scriptures are a witness to a people’s relationship with God.  From beginning to end – Genesis to Revelation in our Bible – we encounter many witnesses to  the relationship between God and God’s people.  From the moment of creation God wants to be in relationship with humankind.  The formula for that desire pops up again and again throughout the long drama of our sacred texts.  The conversation with Abraham is the first place in which the Holy One’s desire for the future is made known: I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be a God to you and to your offspring after you. (Genesis 17:7,8)  Abraham and God walk together.

Generations later, In keeping with the covenant God made with Abraham to be God to Abraham’s progeny, God tells Moses that, indeed, the Divine ears have heard the suffering of Israel in Egypt.  God remembers the covenant.  Moses hears God reiterate: “I will redeem (my people) with an outstretched arm and with mighty judgments.  I will take you as my people, and I will be your God.” (Exodus 6:7) Under God’s power, Moses begins the work of leading Israel out of slavery in Egypt.

A little more that halfway through the book of Exodus, God commands Moses: “have the people build me a sanctuary, so that I may dwell among them.”

After a lengthy set of elaborate instructions about how to construct the tabernacle, the tent of meeting that would travel with Israel during its 40 year sojourn in the wilderness, God again renews the promise: “I will meet with you at the tent of meeting, to speak to you there….I will consecrate the tent of meeting and the altar….I will dwell among the Israelites, and I will be their God.” (Exodus 29:45) 

Fast forward to the prophet Jeremiah as God prepares to bring Israel home from all the lands where they have been in exile: “I will bring them back to this place, and I will settle them in safety.  They shall be my people and I will be their God….I will make an everlasting covenant with them, never to draw back from doing good to them…” (Jeremiah 32:36-41)

Ezekiel tells the story of the valley of the dry bones, where God promises to give new life to Israel and once again promises: “ I will make a covenant of peace with them….it will be an everlasting covenant….I  will set my sanctuary among them forevermore. My dwelling place shall be with them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” (Ezekiel 37:16-27)

The powerful witness through out the Hebrew scriptures is that God wishes to dwell among and in the midst of God’s people.

So – – if we were to use the metaphor of the “bookend”, God’s often repeated desire to our ancestors in the Hebrew texts would constitute one bookend.

Then we read the same promise again in Revelation at the end of our Bible. Revelation repeats the theme: “See, the home of God is among mortals.  He will dwell with them and they will be his people…..I will be their God and they will be my children.” (Rev.21:3,7b)

Between these two bookends, the event of Jesus happens – – another promise – but this time a visible person becomes the divine side of the covenant – of God’s desire to “dwell in their midst.” 

One of the things I noticed about the times in the scriptures where this desire of God to be with us, to be our God, for us to be God’s people, is that they often appear in time of great stress, turmoil, transition and transformation.

A midrash:  According to Genesis Rabbah 38.13 R. Hiyya, a first generation Jewish sage, tells the following story:

Terah, Abraham’s father, was an idol manufacturer who once went away and left Abraham in charge of the store. A man walked in and wished to buy an idol. Abraham asked him how old he was and the man responded “fifty years old.” Abraham then said, “You are fifty years old and would worship a day old statue!” At this point the man left ashamed.

Later, a woman walked in to the store and wanted to make an offering to the idols. So Abraham took a stick, smashed the idols and placed the stick in the hand of the largest idol. When Terah returned he asked Abraham what happened to all the idols. Abraham told him that a woman came in to make an offering to the idols. Then the idols argued about which one should eat the offering first. Then the largest idol took the stick and smashed the other idols.

Terah responded by saying that they are only statues and have no knowledge. Whereupon Abraham responded by saying to his father “you deny their knowledge, yet you worship them!”

Abraham receives the experience the Holy One reaching out to him and his progeny at the beginning of a transformative movement away from polytheism toward monotheism. Abraham, indeed, represents the shift to the belief in one God.  A massive movement in the development of religious process – a time of great transformation in human consciousness.

The Israelites are still in slavery when God reiterates the promise to Moses as Moses struggles with his own doubts about being able to do what God has given to him to do. Moses carries the promise to Israel even though they do not want to listen or believe him – – “I will take you as my people, and I will be your God.” A great transition is set in motion

But the promise of God is not easy to receive or accept.  Israel constantly needs reminding. In the wilderness, fresh from slavery, they are challenged in their awareness and understanding of what a covenant relationship with God means. In Holy wisdom, God commands that they build a sanctuary – a physical, sacred space – where God will dwell in their midst to guide them through the transformation from slavery to freedom.

Jeremiah and Ezekiel both speak to Israel in the sorrowful and disorienting time exile.  In the familiar story of the valley of the dry bones Ezekiel addressed Israel as a dried out and desiccated people –like skeletons – lifeless.  In the pain of exile, God reaches out in the worst of circumstances to remind Israel “I am your God – – you are my people.”  Stressed, almost to the point of death, Israel is sustained by God’s desire to be among them – to be their God – – and they are transformed once again into a living people.

We encounter the other bookend in Revelation. When our 1st century ancestors were beginning to form into what would become the Christian community, when the stress of Roman persecution was at its most vicious and terrifying, when violent destruction rained down on Israel every day, the word of Revelation brought God’s covenant with God’s people into the foreground again:  “See, the home of God is among mortals. God will dwell with them; they will be his people, and God himself will be with them….

The times of stress and turmoil and chaos in the sacred texts mirror our own contemporary struggles and fears and concerns.  There are ever growing populations in exile –unable to live safely and at peace in their own homelands.  In parts of the world, Christian communities with ancient histories are being persecuted in efforts at ethnic cleansing. Terrorist threats have become a part of our daily vocabulary.  We carry unspoken fears and anxieties about strangers. We wonder how to protect our children from living with a dark cloud of threat invading their dreams. 

Last week, Krista Tippet interviewed Craig Minowa, a musician, environmentalist, philosopher and theologian. He commented on how human beings are genetically programmed to be attracted to negativity.  In our early evolution it was absolutely necessary to be aware of the negative dangers around us in order to survive – we had to be aware in order to protect ourselves.  He speculated that we are in that mode now – – a time of ongoing and chronic vigilance – – anticipating what crises may come – – but also living in a great unknown: how to prepare and protect ourselves and our families and communities against the threat of fear?

But as I read the texts –and particularly observe the circumstances where  the promise is renewed in the context of the 3000 year long drama, it seems to be the habit of God to renew the promise in the midst of the chaos – – I will dwell among them – I will be in their midst – I will be their God and they will be my people.  God draws close in times of fear and struggle and anxiety.  God is revealed in exile.  This is the ancient and living witness.  In the midst of the worst, God is struggling to help us become aware that God is in our midst.

For the Christian community, this is abundantly apparent in the person of Jesus – coming into fleshly human experience – to reassure us that God is indeed present in our midst and working in all things for good.  Our job is to keep up our side of the promise – God is our God – will we be God’s people? – – will we stay awake and alert to the vital living presence of God in our midst?

Mixed in with a lot of symbolic language that is very hard to understand, the Book of Revelation carries a message of great hope for a new age. The voice of God says “See, I am making all things new….I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end….I will be their God and they will be my children.”

Craig Minowa’s parting words in the interview were simple and profound: “To be a seeker, you have to be open to something scary that you don’t know.”    The future is always unknown – and often scary.  A New Age doesn’t happen without a lot of disruption and chaos and confusion – even turmoil and violence.  On the receiving end of the promise, it is our job to trust that God is always keeping the promise to be with us.  What we need to do is to promise to be God’s people in return. As our hymn affirms, we live and move and have our being in God.  The scriptural promise is that God has movement and life and being in and among us. The covenant goes both ways.  What a promise!

Behind Locked Doors

John 20:19 – 23
April 3, 2016
Chilmark Community Church
Rev. Vicky Hanjian

Last week’s Easter celebration ended on a note of joy and triumph. We read the story of Mary and Peter and another disciple discovering the empty tomb. We rejoiced with Mary as she realized that Jesus was still with her. We heard that the disciples went to their homes and they believed.

This morning we have another picture. It is the evening of the same day – – and here, instead of finding joyful excitement and a determination to spread the word about their morning encounter, we find the disciples behind locked doors “for fear of the Jews.”

I think we have to ask “What’s going on here?”

The joyful force of the resurrection day seems truncated. The expansiveness of the bright and beautiful morning has constricted down to a tight, fearful place behind locked doors. Whatever liberation the resurrection implied in the morning has become elusive by evening. “When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week…the doors of the house were locked for fear of the Jews….” The disciples are in hiding for fear of the Jews???? – – – it demands that we pause.

We have to ask what John meant because short phrases like this are dangerous, interspersed as they are – without explanation – – here and there in all four of the gospels. Unexamined, phrases like this have been used to support, and perpetuate anti-Jewish and anti – semitic sentiment on the part of Christians and others for 2000 years. So a little historical context is in order.

The Gospel of John was written somewhere around 90 CE approximately 60 years after the death of Jesus. This would have been long after the end of the lives of people who witnessed the events first hand. A lot happened in those 60 years. In 90 CE when John was writing, there were no Christians – only a religiously diverse Jewish community with differing beliefs and expectations about a messiah that had been part of their history for generations. There were inevitable tensions as Jewish family members, priests, teachers and religious leaders wrestled with their beliefs and understandings of who this Jewish Jesus was near the end of the 1st century. There was no common agreement – – but the tension was between Jews who accepted Jesus and the Jews who continued to look for a messiah. There were numerous expressions of Jewishness. They didn’t all get along well together. When John writes about Jewish disciples of the Jewish Jesus being in a locked house “for fear of the Jews” he is reflecting a state of alienation within the Jewish community itself.

For centuries the church has not been careful about paying attention to this historical context of our own scriptures – we have been taught to believe what is written here – but we have not been taught to question what we read. The unquestioned negative portrayals of “the Jews” in the gospels have contributed to unimaginable Jewish suffering at the hands of the church and of others right into the 21st century. With this historical context in mind, let’s go back to that house and the locked doors and see what we meaning we might take from these verses for life today.

The principle player in the story is Jesus. He finds his friends, his disciples and students, behind locked doors. As the Resurrected One, returned from the other side of death, he appears as a loving presence to the disciples in their spiritual and emotional disarray – – he stands among them – -in their midst – – he encounters their fear – perhaps their alienation and marginalization from their own community – -they are in pain – -they are grieving – and they are afraid. … And what does he say?
“Peace be with you.” This is the one who endured torture, humiliation, pain, and the death of his most precious self under Roman crucifixion – – and his first words to his friends are “Peace be with you.”

It seems as though his greeting is enough to open the disciples’ eyes and they rejoice when they recognize him. Perhaps one locked door is opened. When their grief and panic and fear subside just enough, the Loving Presence takes command and repeats the greeting: – – “Peace be with you – – – As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” A holy commission to be in the world as Jesus was – – as compassionate healers and teachers, as seekers of justice, as bearers of the Divine Presence into the world. Jesus’ command has the power to unlock another door.

And then there is the gift of breath. “He breathed on them and said to them “Receive the Holy Spirit” – – These words are reminiscent of all the earlier accounts of the breath of the Holy One that both gives and restores life: – in Genesis – the breathing spirit of God hovered over the waters; and then again when God breathed the first human beings into existence and called them good. Later in the ancient story, Elijah, at God’s behest, breathed the breath of life into the widow’s dead son – and then there is the glorious account of the Divine Breath blowing through the valley of the dry bones – bringing Israel back to life. With the receiving of the Breath, another door is unlocked. As the Holy One sent me – – so now I am sending you – – Breathe deeply and receive the breath of life I give you to strengthen you for the work I call you to do.

And then comes what seems to be the crux of these verses, especially given the historical setting we have just looked at , – – then comes the specific challenge – – – “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, the are retained.” Wow! If all that those words meant was that the disciples should get out of the locked house and find ways to share their experience with their families and friends – begin to reconcile their relationships, imagine what the world would be like if we had stories that showed the disciples moving about Jerusalem and Galilee – finding ways to heal the fissures that had developed between them and their other Jewish friends and relatives – stories of creating space for diversity of belief and practice – – stories of manifesting the multitudinous ways in which God reveals the Divine Presence in humankind. But as the saga of the early Jesus community unfolds over time, it gives evidence of conflict and disunity, of power struggles and distrust as the issues of right belief supplanted the teachings of Jesus about right living. The tragic history of enmity and suspicion between Christians and Jews played itself out over the centuries. It is only in the last 50 years or so that the Christian Churches have begun to recognize and apologize for the sins perpetrated against the Jews in the name of Christianity.

The ancient story challenges the church – – and it challenges us personally as well. We all have days in our lives – perhaps even weeks and months and years, when we live in small, locked places – confined by sadness, sometimes by suspicion and resentment, sometimes by fear. An unskilled comment, a half-heard sentence, an eyebrow lifted in a sensitive moment – – a misunderstood intention – – all simple things that are enough to cause us to withdraw from relationship – to turn the key and lock the door of our hearts. We often suffer alone behind locked doors because of pride or misunderstanding. Life gets narrow and tight – we do not breathe as fully as we might. How often are families and communities broken by a failure to understand one another, by a failure to seek one another’s well-being – – by a failure to give and receive forgiveness – – – and isn’t it a curious thing that the first post resurrection command to the disciples is to be about the work of forgiveness!

The house with the locked doors is a familiar place. But the story refuses to leave us there. Rather it challenges us – – it actually commands us: Be at peace! Breathe! Forgive! The words come from a teacher who has done it all.

The death and resurrection of Jesus are primary metaphors in our tradition. The very act of dying is a metaphor for losing self. Through the crucifixion, the precious human self of Jesus is relinquished on the cross. On the cross, Jesus becomes self-less. This model of self-relinquishment is to become the model for any disciples who would follow Jesus. In modern terms, we might talk about letting go of the needs of our personal ego in the service of a higher good. Clearly – we don’t always get it right – – we don’t follow Jesus perfectly – – and that is where the command to forgive comes in. When we unlock the doors of our hearts enough to let go of the need to be right all the time and to extend forgiveness to those who wound us, we are on our way to fulfilling the command. Forgiveness will happen! On the other hand, if we are not able to turn the key and the heart door stays locked – – forgiveness is blocked – the life giving energy of the Holy One will not flow – – and life becomes very narrow and tight – – locked up, if you will. It happened to the disciples – it happens to us.

Sometime ago, I clipped out a paragraph on “resurrection” from PARABOLA magazine – – the writer* was wondering what it is that survives when the “self-oriented or self – centered life” is over. He/she wrote this: “The resurrection depicts what comes after the destiny of one’s personal story is lived out, yet there is still a life to be lived. The resurrection provides a mirror that something does come back; something survives the death of the self. What comes back to life out of the ashes of the death of the self is something that is really quite simple, but quite poignant. Returning from that place, the only thing left to do is to be a benevolent presence in the world.

I’d like to suggest that this is what is going on in the locked house. Jesus modeled the death of the self for the disciples. He modeled what he meant when he said “whoever seeks to save his own life will lose it. The one who is willing to lose her own life will save it.” Jesus asked this of the disciples – – and he asks it of us.
*sadly the author’s name is long missing
He asks us to let go of fear – to be willing to let go of being at the center of our own lives – -to die to self – – so that he can live in us. This means accepting the peace that he offers us. It means drawing in the breath of life that he gives us. It means moving out of the locked room into life bringing a benevolent presence into the world. This is the challenge of a resurrected life. In these days between Easter and the celebration of Pentecost may we receive the gifts of the Risen One. May Peace be with you. May you breathe deeply! May you forgive generously! May you be a benevolent Presence in the world. In this spirit, may we greet each other at the table to which Jesus invites us.

The Transformed Life Easter, 2016

The Transformed Life

Ecclesiastes  3:1-8; 12:7

(From Ecclesiastes Annotated and Explained by Rabbi Rami Shapiro)

John 20:1-18

Easter March 27, 2016

Rev. Vicky Hanjian

Chilmark Community Church

Why are we here?  Why do we celebrate?  Why do we sing more energetically on this Sunday than on any other Sunday with the possible exception of Christmas?    Well – – It is Resurrection Day!  Of course!  We celebrate that Christ is risen indeed!   We are a people of the resurrection.  When all the Christmas carols have been sung, and the stories have been told and crèches have been safely packed away for another year, when we have listened to and studied the life and teachings of Jesus, when we have walked the Lenten path of self-examination and repentance, when we have stood at the foot of the cross – – or even if we have turned our back on it – – when all is said and done, through the grace of the Holy One, we are invited to become resurrection people.

Resurrection people – – people who witness and experience the worst that life has to offer and come out on the other side of it transformed – ready to move on. On today of all days, and especially following the news of the terrorist attack in Brussels earlier this week, we affirm to ourselves and to one another and to the world that we are a people who celebrate life in the midst of death. We celebrate that in the story of the mystery of the death and resurrection of Jesus we are somehow transformed.  Each year, and this year is not different than any in the past, we are confronted again by the challenge to live into an uncertain future with all its fears and anxieties – – all the while celebrating that we share in the resurrection with Jesus who is always doing something new. Somehow the notion of resurrection gets to be incorporated into the very core of our being – into the most internal part of our identity, both as individuals and as a community.  The idea of resurrection – of a new and transformed life following the inevitable changes that come with uncertainty and death and great loss – resurrection – becomes a key element in how we identify and understand ourselves – – a key element   in how we live our lives in an unruly, chaotic and difficult world.

As the ancient story is told, in the dark dampness just before sunrise, a lone woman makes her way to the burial place.  Taken all by itself, this is an act of great courage and devotion, given the political dangers surrounding the crucifixion.  When she arrives she finds that the tomb has been disturbed.  The heavy protective stone at its entrance has been moved.  She peers into the tomb and even in the half-light of the early morning she can see that the tomb is empty.  The first meaning she gives to what she sees – -and does not see – – is that the body of her beloved friend has been stolen or removed to another place.  With this additional layer of traumatic grief, she runs to tell her friends.  “They have taken his body!  I don’t know where he is.”

Mary’s grief mirrors our own.  We have all known the profound grief that comes with the death of someone we love.  We have known the shock and disbelief that comes with the news of a friend who has died suddenly.  We are thrown off balance in the absence of any sure details.  Something in us wants to cry with Mary in disbelief.  Why?….How can this happen?….How can one more grief be piled on top of the sadness and suffering we are already enduring?  Our souls cry out for answers with Mary – – “They have taken him away and I don’t know where he is – – I don’t know where they have laid him!”   We all know something of the profound grief of Mary.

Peter and another disciple hear Mary’s disturbing discovery and they literally race each other to the tomb.  The unidentified disciple takes a quick look inside and draws back, seeing that Mary has spoken accurately.  Peter actually enters the tomb.  “…he saw and he believed even though they did not yet understand.” Peter and the other disciple have an experience of faith.  One look at the empty tomb seems to be all they need in order to know that something beyond their understanding has happened and they return to their homes.

For some of us, faith comes just that quickly.  We require no further evidence.  The tomb is empty – – we believe – – even though we do not understand.

But Mary’s experience is different.  She stays outside the tomb.  She mourns.  She weeps.  She is extremely distressed in her profound loss.  She is rather more like us, I think, when we are in the grip of loss and mourning.  In her sadness, she bends over and takes another peek inside the tomb – – just to be sure.  But this time the tomb is not empty.  There are two figures in white sitting in the place where Jesus’ body had lain.  A brief dialogue happens: “Why are you weeping?”   “They have taken away my Lord and I don’t know where they have laid him.”   The drama takes a profound twist as Mary turns around and sees yet another figure standing there.  “Woman, why are you weeping?  Who are you looking for?”   “Sir, if YOU have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him and I will take him away.”

And then she hears the word that jars her into recognition: “Mary!”  And in that instant, resurrection becomes part of Mary’s identity.  Jesus calls her by name – and she recognizes him – – alive!  The scene embodies the hope of everyone who has ever lost someone they love – – the beloved appears again – – alive!  In the normal course of events, this does not happen in our lives.  With the exception of rare resuscitations, when our beloved family members and friends pass from our midst, they do not return. Our lives are irrevocably changed.  We feel the terrible pain of loss.  We go through a time of disorientation when it all seems unreal. We mourn. We grieve. We eventually come to terms with their absence.  We take hold of life in a new way.

So what is the story telling us?  On a close reading, we find that all the emotions we humans go through as we respond to a great loss in our lives are encapsulated in Mary’s resurrection encounter.  Shock, sorrow, disbelief, disorientation.

Like us, she yearns for the lost physical presence of her dearest friend – seeking – seeing – – but not recognizing what she sees.  Grief does indeed blind the one who grieves.  But Jesus, hardly missing a beat, begins the work of a new and transformed relationship with Mary.  And he does it by entrusting her with his clear instructions to his first resurrection student as it were:   “Do not hold on to me….., because I have not yet ascended to my father.  Go to my brothers and tell them that I am ascending to my Father and to your Father, to my God and to your God.”

Then we see Mary’s experience of faith.  She runs to announce to the other disciples that she has seen Jesus.  While Peter and the other disciple only needed what their eyes had witnessed at the empty tomb, Mary needed her broken heart to be repaired and reassured – – she needed the personal encounter with the Risen One – – and then she ran with the good news and the story of the Risen One began its journey into the annals of time – – so that more than 2000 years later we can affirm on a bright Easter morning that life does not end at the tomb.

Jack Kornfield, in his book A Path With Heart , tells the story of one of his meditation students, Jean, a Massachusetts woman who lived with her family just outside of Amherst.  One day, after a number of years, Jean returned to Jack as a meditation student.  She was greatly disturbed because her husband, in a deep depression, had committed suicide.  The couple had been involved in a variety of spiritual communities on their spiritual quest together.  Following the husband’s death, each community lent its comfort and support to Jean as she mourned.  A member of the Tibetan meditation group told her he had seen Jean’s husband in meditation and that he was fine –dwelling in the light of the western realm with the Buddha. Jean took comfort in this. A little later, a Christian friend said she, too, had seen the husband in her meditation, surrounded by white light in the company of a great cloud of witnesses.  He was well and happy.  Yet another friend, a Sufi meditation master assured her that her husband was already well on his way into his next incarnation and that he was fine.

By the time Jean got back to Jack Kornfield, she was thoroughly confused, trying to sort out what was true.  He asked her to consider carefully what she actually knew for herself after she set aside all the other input she had had.  Finally, out of her own inner silence she answered “I know that everything changes and not much more than that.  Everything that is born dies, everything in life is in the process of change.”  Kornfield then writes: “I then asked her if perhaps that wasn’t enough – – could she live her life from that simple truth fully and honestly – – not holding on to what must inevitably be let go.”   Letting go.  It is the first instruction Jesus gives to Mary.  Do not hold on to me – I haven’t yet fully ascended.

Mary comes to faith through these few words from the Risen One – – and from then onward, it is by this word that she will be strengthened and sustained.  She cannot resume her old relationship with her beloved teacher.  The life and ministry of that historical flesh and blood Jesus is over.  A new ministry is beginning.  The Risen One needs Mary’s witness.  Part of the power of this story is that the Risen Christ joyfully and willingly works with those who will meet him on the other side of the tomb – those who are willing to let go of what has been in favor of the new thing that is about to happen.

Indeed, if Mary and the rest of the disciples are to be of any use to the Risen One, they have to let go of the way things were. They cannot be with Jesus in the past. They have to be ready to be in a dynamic, lively – living process with him in a brand new way – – they have to be ready to join him in the resurrection.

We live constantly on the threshold of death and renewal every moment.   Life is continually in flux.  One moment ends and another begins. We make choices, life changes, we rejoice and we regret, we celebrate and we mourn.  Events beyond our control come out of the blue – – and life as we knew it changes again.  We get blown out of center – lose our balance – – sometimes we wring our hands and say “If only I could turn back the clock!”  But even if we could do that, we might find only an empty tomb to greet us.  The reality is that death and resurrection happen from moment to moment –every day of our lives.  Resurrection is now.  When we chose to follow the life and teachings of Jesus, we make the choice to be with him in his resurrection – – regardless of what our life circumstances are. We have made the choice to be here this morning.

We join Mary and the disciples in their confused excitement.  We celebrate resurrection this morning.  Whatever the painful and sorrowful and frightening events we have had to endure, this morning, the tomb is, indeed, empty.

Jesus’ lively and loving message is “Do not cling” to whatever limits the joy and exhilaration that awaits us in the next episode with him.  Jesus commands Mary:

“Go and tell….”.  Through the ages the Risen One has always offered a transformed life when we say “yes” to what he will create with us if we are willing to take the leap of faith with Mary and follow him on the road into the future. The tomb is empty – – there is only life in the resurrection ahead.   May God grant that we find ways to live in the resurrection together.  AMEN