Category Archives: SERMONS

The Mind of Christ 7/24/16

THE MIND OF CHRIST

PHIL. 2:1-11

Chilmark Community Church

Rev. Armen Hanjian

July 24, 2016

Some once asked John Wesley, “Do you think God will save this world with your intelligence?”  Wesley sad, “ He won’t save it with your ignorance!”   Some put little effort toward it, but I believe it is imperative that we should have sharp minds.

We know United Methodists stress this aspect of Christianity for we have over 100 Church related colleges and universities in the U.S.A as well as 13 theological schools.  We believe our faith is a reasonable one, that is, that it rings true in our ears when it is brought to bear with the facts of life.  We do not fear truth in any area life; we only fear ignorance. 

Think of the gospel writers telling us how Jesus, at age 12,   sat in the Temple and astonished the teachers with his wisdom and understanding, how they described Jesus’ life between 12 and 30 with this one sentence: “And Jesus increased in wisdom, and in stature and in favor with God and man.”  We cannot escape the fact that Jesus commanded his disciple, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.”

It is important that the followers of Jesus have sharp minds – minds with a growing edge.  Most adults have little willingness to learn something new.  Oh, we like to learn this little fact or that side light, trivia, but deep down we have hardened opinions.  The waves of new knowledge and even old truths lap at our minds, but we allow them little or no inner hearing or testing.

Two Chinese  coolies on a street in Shanghai were shouting at each other, their noses but two inches apart.  They were surrounded by excited spectators.  “What is the matter?” asked an American bystander of a Chinese next to him.  “There is a Chinese fight going on,” answered the Oriental, smiling.  “But I’ve been here five minutes and nobody has hit anybody yet.”  “You don’t understand, in a Chinese fight, the man who strikes first shows he has run out of ideas.”  How often people strike when we should be contributing ideas gleaned from a searching mind.  We strike or go off in a huff.

The beloved Yale Prof. William Lyon Phelps once said, “ I thoroughly believe in a university education for both men and women, but I believe a knowledge of the Bible without a college course is more valuable than a college course without the Bible.”  I think this teacher was telling us that the Bible offers us a point where a person can set his or her life course, just as a navigator might set his course by some fixed point such as the North Star.  The essence of this sermon can now be seen as we read today’s text: “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus,…”

All of us set our minds on some fixed goals we work toward.  What I am suggesting is that we consciously, intentionally set our course, our mind by the same thinking of our Lord.  These days we feel we are in style by claiming to be open minded.  We have a distaste for setting our minds on just one course.  Our mental steering gear is all loose.  We are like ships that have no connections with the rudder.  And what happens?  We chart no course for our lives and find we go off in all directions.  We are blown about by the prevailing winds of opinion, but as Halford E. Luccock reminds us, “The purpose of an open mind is to close it on something.”  He goes on to say, “If we are to be saved from the big squeeze to mold us in the world’s image, the mind and the heart must be renewed – a fresh coming of the life God in the soul.  Specifically this demands nothing more mysterious than prayer, which is, of course, the most mysterious thing in the world.”  It means such things as Bible study, discussion groups and any other methods we can devise to saturate our thinking with the mind and thinking of Christ Jesus.

St. Paul tried to hammer this point home in several places.

In Rom. 8 he writes, “To set the mind on the flesh (i.e. to be oriented by the world) is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.”

In Rom. 12 he writes, “”Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your minds, so that you may prove (that you may surely know) what is the will of God, what is good, and acceptable and perfect.”

In Phil. 2 he writes, Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus,…”  In other words, reach for the point in our lives where we are so much a part of his way of thinking we need not turn to the Bible for most of our decisions and ask ourselves what would Jesus do in this situation.  We can’t follow his steps exactly, for our situation is different than his.  But we can, by having the mind of Christ, make intelligent and Christ-like decisions in our daily living.

This is especially pertinent when we must make quick decisions.

When I was serving rural church in NJ, similar to this one, a friend of mine flew me over it.  We came so low the pigeons flew out of the belfry.  And the thought came to me as I looked down on the setting, “We must get into the habit of seeing everything from God’s point of view.”  That is seen and known best in the person of Jesus Christ.

Thus far, I have said it is important that we have sharp mind, growing minds.  And, I have tried to show that all of us are directed by some guiding principles and as Christians our North Star is the mind of Christ.  Let me now suggest some inevitable responses of those who have the mind of Christ.

One attitude which is clearly dominant in Jesus’ mind is that each person is of tremendous worth.  Jesus called himself the Son of man as if it were infinitely significant to be a human being.  He saw in the sick, the sinner, the criminal, the hypocrite the capability of worthiness.  Jesus made his appeal to the best that was in them confident that the good in any person can be evoked by love.  Jesus would have us love each person as a child of God.  I know he knew that some will not immediately respond positively.  Yet, ultimately persons would be affected by it. (ideas from Social Institutions of the Bible by Soares)

A teacher named Dr. Arnold governed a difficult school of boys by trusting them.  It was commonly said by the boys, “It’s a shame to lie to Arnold because he believes you.  That is the attitude we must develop if we are to have the mind of Christ -to trust people we interact with and to love them.  In the short run,  it may seem impractical, but from God’s point of view , it is the essence of life.

We all have things which mean much to us – we cherish them dearly.  Jesus is modeling for us that we treat every person as one that is tremendously precious to God.

Another thing about the mind of Christ is described in Pierre van Passen’s book The Days of our Years.  He tells of a Protestant who, during the early days of the Reformation, was burned at the stake in his home town.  That night when the crowds had gone home, his wife brought their little son to the place where the husband and father had died that day for the right to worship God as his conscious dictated.  As she knelt beside the charred body of her husband, the wife gathered a few ashes from his breast, placed them in a little bag, and hung them around her little son’s neck.  As she did so, she said, “Son, whenever you see injustice, intolerance, ignorance prevailing, these ashes will burn your heart unless you speak out.”

Just as Jesus spoke out courageously when the money changers profited by the devotion of the poor peasants, so we should speak  out whenever we see exploitation, prejudice or any of the host of evils which surround us.  From the practical point of view it’s best to keep your mouth shut; but what about from God’s point of view?

One other attitude I would suggest to you: knowing we are children of god we should be different from the world about us.  Bertrand Russell offers us a good example of immaturity  of the mind in speaking of George Santayana.  “A few days before the battle of the Marne when the capture of Paris seemed imminent, he remarked to me ‘I think I must go to Paris because my winter underclothes are all there, and I should not like the Germans to get them. I have also left there the manuscript of a book on which I have been working for the last ten years, but I don’t mind so much about that’”(Luccock,  Vol.2:196)

The world about him was crashing to disaster and one sweet thought came crowding out all the others – winter underclothes!

It is tremendously important that we learn to weigh our values.

There is a Church in London called The King’s Weigh House.  The ones who devised the name saw that the church was a place where persons can weigh the things of life on the King’s scales and find their proper weight.  And when we weigh our values by the standard of the mind of Christ we will find we must be different from the world about us.  Jesus attracted people not because he conformed to the world, but because he was different.  Paul wrote to the Corinthians and asked a question which could well be asked of us: “Are you not behaving like ordinary men?”

There you have it;  Three ways we can reflect the mind of Christ in our lives:

to see each individual as of tremendous value to God, as a precious child of God

to speak out when right and truth are at stake

     3.  to be different from the world about us

A RECOLLECTION OF JESUS

Let us remember Jesus:

Who, although he was rich, became poor and dwelt among us;

Who was content to be subject to his parents, the child of a poor family’s home;

Who lived the common life for nearly thirty years doing humble work with his hands;

Whom the common people heard gladly, for he understood their ways.

MAY THE SAME MIND BE IN US THAT WAS IN JESUS.

Let us remember Jesus:

Who  healed the sick and the disordered, using for others the power he would not invoke for himself;

Who refused to force a person’s faithfulness;

Who was Master to his disciples, yet was among them as their companion and as one who served;

Whose meat was to do the will of God.

MAY THE SAME MIND BE IN US THAT WAS IN JESUS.

Let us remember Jesus:

Who loved people, yet retired from them to pray.  Who prayed for the forgiveness of those who rejected him, and for the perfecting of those who received him;

Who observed Jewish law, but defied conventions which did not serve the purposes of God;

Who hated sin because he knew the cost of pride and selfishness, of violence and cruelty, to both humanity and to God. 

MAY THE SAME MIND BE IN US THAT WAS IN JESUS.

Let us remember Jesus:

Who believed in human beings and never despaired of them;

Who through all disappointment never lost heart;

Who disregarded his own comfort, and thought of others first, who was always kind, even in the midst of suffering;

Who, when he was reviled, did not revile others;

Who emptied himself on the cross, and showed the way to life eternal.

MAY THE SAME MIND BE IN US THAT WAS IN JESUS.

JESUS, SOURCE, GUIDE, AND GOAL OF OUR LIVES, COME TO DWELL IN US THAT WE MAY GO FORWARD AS YOU DID, WITH  HOPE AND FAITH AND LOVE IN OUR MINDS AND HEARTS.  AMEN

TWO SISTERS July 17,2017

Two Sisters

Luke 10:38-42

Chilmark Community Church

July 19, 2016

Rev. Vicky Hanjian

  

I wonder what is going on in the story of Martha and Mary and Jesus?  The two sisters are dearly beloved friends of Jesus.  Along with their brother, Lazarus, they live together about a half hour’s walk from Jerusalem in a little town called Bethany.  Except for the fact that today you would have to navigate a 4 lane highway,  you can still walk to Bethany from Jerusalem and find a small village that appears not to have changed all that much over the centuries.  A home built of Jerusalem stone that shines golden – white in the hot sun.  A packed dirt floor that is swept smooth every day.  Bedding for the household stacked against a wall to be pulled out into the main room or up to the roof when night falls. 

This home is familiar to Jesus.  It is a place where he could find peace and quiet and rest. It is a home of deeply profound spiritual friendship -a home where great crises have happened -where tragedy and anguish have been turned to joy.   John’s gospel tells of a time when Lazarus was sick.  The sisters sent for Jesus. He arrived too late.  By the time he got to Bethany, Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days.  In John’s story, Martha is the one who runs out to meet Jesus before he even gets to the house.  She is upset with him. She calls him to task.  “If you had been here, my brother would still be alive.”  A conversation about  resurrection ensues between them..  Martha acknowledges Jesus as the Anointed One – -the Son of God, coming into the world.  Martha runs back to the house to call for Mary who is sitting, being comforted by other mourners.  Deeply disturbed and moved by their grief, Jesus asks where they have laid their brother’s body.  In spite of warnings about the stench, Jesus goes to the tomb and calls Lazarus forth into life.

Two sisters.  So different.  In John’s story, Mary kneels at Jesus feet and weeps – touching him deeply with her grief.  Martha runs to meet him, challenges him, recognizes him as the Expected One.  In Luke’s story, Martha waits on the guests, offers hospitality, does the dishes.  Mary is again seated at the feet of Jesus – listening – devoted to him.

Volumes have been written about the two sisters.  Frequently, the roles of the sisters are somewhat polarized.  Mary is the passive sister who sits at the feet of Jesus.  Martha is the active sister who keeps moving to see that meals are ready on time and served properly.  During my growing up years in the Methodist Church in Franklin Lakes, NJ,  there were enough women in the congregation

to organize into circles of women, 10 or 12 in each circle.  There was the Ruth Circle, the Naomi Circle, the Esther Circle, and, of course there was  the Martha Circle and the Mary Circle.  As I recall, true to form, the Martha Circle ran church suppers while the Mary Circle was a Bible study group.  Mary and Martha have been used to teach about the relationship between good works and faith, about active social justice and the contemplative life, about the traditional role of women in the home versus women in the work place.  The story has lent itself well to a variety of interpretations over the generations – sometimes creating stereotypes of women – but just as often challenging them.  Luke’s treatment of women throughout his gospel invites us to look again at how life might have been for women who traveled in the company of Jesus.

Martha was, in all likelihood, a woman of means. Under both Jewish  law, women were permitted to have their own money and to own property. Martha owned the house in which she and her sister and brother lived.  She had independent resources.  Luke uses the Greek word diakon when he refers to Martha. The term was used to describe women who used their own financial resources to provide for the material needs of others.  We get the term “deacon” from that word and it is still used to describe a level of service in the church today.  In her essay titled “The Gospel of Luke” Turid Karlsen Seim writes By serving from their own resources in order to cover the needs of others, the women of Galilee are portrayed as prototypes of an ethos that is to be valid universally among the people of God.  Models like Martha are frequent in Paul’s writing as he addresses and commends women like Priscilla and Phoebe and Chloe and Junia and Syntyche and others – all women of means who provided hospitality, financial support and leadership in the earliest years of the Christian fellowship.

In her life, Martha models a kind of redistribution of wealth through using her property and her own money to meet the needs of others for food, clothing, and a place to sleep.  This is what she was doing when she hosted Jesus and his friends.   So – Martha is referred to as  deacon.

In the story, Mary’s role is passive. In contrast to her sister, she listens in silence. But Mary also defies the stereotype of women of the time.  She sits at the feet of Jesus and listens – absorbing what he has to teach.  Women did not do this.  To sit at the feet of a master was to assume the role of a disciple – – a role traditionally reserved for males. To listen – to hear – the words of a rabbi – was a privilege reserved for males in Jewish tradition. Traditionally, Jewish women unless they were in the company of the husbands their husbands. Yet Mary,  unmarried, appears in the company of Jesus and in the company of the disciples as an equal. 

So – two sisters.  One who assumes a leadership role as a deacon in the community by providing housing and food and rest for a traveling teacher – who happens to be Jesus – – one who assumes the role of a disciple and sits at the feet of the teacher and listens.

Together, they represent a wholeness that is a model for the life of the people of God.  Too often the interpretation of the story leaves us with a polarization of the active life versus the contemplative life, righteousness by works versus righteousness by faith. The story has even been used to demonstrate a  polarization between Judaism and Christianity where the fulfillment of the mitzvot or commandments is contrasted with the necessity of right belief and faith.

What would it be like, I wonder, to see these two sisters locked in a loving embrace where each sister nourishes and completes the other?

We are living in an era when we are called upon more and more to demonstrate by our lives and by what we do and by where we send our money that we are fulfilling the commands of the scriptures to love our neighbors – with all that this entails.  We are called to be Martha in the world.   I receive at least a half dozen requests for funds everyday in the email.  Some of them can just be consigned to junk mail and ignored, but many are legitimate requests.  There are so many places where we might direct our energy toward making the world a more hospitable place for humanity.  Sometimes it is so hard to choose that we do nothing.  We can’t be Martha to everyone everywhere.

We need Mary.  We need to be able to sit at the feet of the master to be able to hear clearly what the direction is – even if it is only for today. 

Jesus did not criticize the actual work that Martha was doing. She was doing all the right stuff – attending to the needs of her guests. He cautioned her about her distractedness – her irritability.  It is as though Jesus knew that this is what happens to the over-committed.  We do get irritable.  There are not enough hours in the day – – there are not enough people to help with the work of healing and repairing the world – sometimes we might be tempted to think we are the only ones with the world’s needs on our agenda.  This is the point at which Jesus chides us about our distractibility – – and says “come and sit awhile with me – – listen to what I have to say – – get your bearings – – don’t worry so much about  so many things.”   The truth of the matter is that when we step back from the work we are called to do -whatever it is – and spend time in quiet reflection, listening, praying, reading something that nourishes us, even singing a few hymns in the shower, the Mary side of our nature nourishes the Martha -helps to ease the irritability – makes it possible to re-engage in our tasks with renewed energy.

   

On the other hand, when we would rather simply immerse ourselves in peace and prayer and study and learning, the Martha side of our nature may well prompt us to take our prayer and contemplation, and insight and revelation into the streets, in one form or another, to participate in the Holy work of healing the world wherever we encounter its brokenness.

It is a delicate balance – the business of keeping the two sisters in close relationship.  Jesus’ disciples wrestled with it.  In Matthew’s story of Jesus and Peter and James and John on the Mount of the Transfiguration -that glorious time when Jesus’ is in conversation with Moses and Elijah -where all is in transcendent light and holiness – the epitome of spiritual experience for  the three disciples,  Peter’s first inclination is to build a permanent dwelling in the heights of spiritual awareness and connectedness – to stay there and enjoy the bliss.  But Jesus, in perfect harmony, takes his friends back into the valley where there is work to do. (Matthew 17:1-10)

The early church wrestled with the balance as well as we read in the Letter of James where he writes: “Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith apart from works is barren? Was not our ancestor Abraham made right by his works when he offered his son Isaac, [in faith,] on the altar?  You see that faith was active with his works and faith was brought to completion by his works.” (James 2:20-22).  There was genuine disagreement in the early church as to which was the effective path – faith or good works. 

As we are impacted by current events – by movements that demand that we discern how we are going to respond to tragedy and violence here and abroad, the pull between social activism and quiet contemplation increases.  The reality is that in times of social upheaval and stress, times of political unrest and protest, the movements for social change that are fueled only by righteous anger and a sense of injustice cannot sustain themselves.  The rate of burnout is high among social activists  who are not deeply grounded in a sustaining faith tradition.

It is the movements that arise out of the fundamental teachings about lovingkindness, patience, forbearance, respect and mutual caring – the lessons of Jesus – – the lessons of our sacred texts – – these are the movements that have a chance to heal and repair the world.

The witness of the scriptures is that the two sisters must never be polarized or parted.  The beautiful, active, concerned nature of Martha must never be divorced from the quiet contemplative nature of Mary.  As in all loving relationships, the sisters feed and nurture each other in the service of The Living One to the benefit of all who come into their sphere of caring.

This has always been the call to the church over the centuries – to stay deeply connected with Jesus – both on the mountain top of clear seeing and holiness and in the valley where the work of healing and reconciling the world needs to happen. May we all rest more easily as we walk in harmony and balance with Jesus and the two sisters into a world that needs all the goodness we have to offer.  AMEN

A Prophet, A Priest, and a King… July 10,2016

“A  Prophet, A Priest, and a King….”

Amos 7: 7-15

Chilmark Community Church

July 10, 2016

Rev. Vicky Hanjian

  On this past Tuesday morning I made a delightful acquaintance  with a clergy blogger who writes under the name of “Preaching in Pumps.”   Her logo is a black, stiletto heeled shoe.  She is a 4th generation preacher in her family.  She, too, was struggling with the prophet Amos this week  when she recalled her mother preacher’s advice: “Tell a joke, make a point, sit down!”

She noted that a sermon that starts off with “A prophet, a priest and a king,,,,” only needs the addition of a bar and a good punch line and she would be on her way to sitting down.  But, alas, try as I might, I could not find a punch line – – so all you get is the sermon.

The prophet, of course is Amos – – “a shepherd and a dresser of sycamore trees”

He lived in the southern kingdom of Judah  but he preached in the Northern Kingdom of Israel.  This fact, all by itself, was enough to make him unpopular with the people in the north.  Imagine a prophet from the deep south of this country presuming to tell New Englanders what is wrong with the way we live! 

The king  is Jeroboam.  Nissan Mindel, in an article called THE PROPHET AMOS (PUBLISHED AND COPYRIGHTED BY KEHOT PUBLICATION SOCIETY)NOTES THAT: By all accounts, Jereboam was a pretty good king. He managed to establish a working relationship of mutual help and friendship between the two Jewish kingdoms and repaired the damage his father had done to the relationship between the north and the south.  Under Jeroboam there was a reasonably good political situation and with that came economic prosperity.  Many  people in the Northern Kingdom became very wealthy and were able to lead a luxurious life.  The problem was that along with the wealth and security came a decline of morality and justice in the society.  The high social ideals of the Sinai Covenant, the great commandments, were ignored.  Notions of the practice of justice and loving kindness fell by the wayside. The wealthy oppressed the poor – – might was right – -corruption was on the rise – and with all of this – – idolatry increased.  The Golden Calves that caused so much trouble way back in the book of Exodus were pulled out of mothballs and the people began to adopt again the religious practices reserved for the Canaanite gods.

King Jeroboam had his hands full.  Good king or not, the covenantal relationship between God and the people was slipping away from him.

The priest is Amaziah.  Amaziah has the king’s ear. He warns Jereboam about this prophet Amos and then tells Amos to get out of town and go back to the south with his prophecies.  Amaziah may well represent the religious status quo – not wanting things to be shaken up too much or his job will be at stake.

Not surprisingly, Amos gets a little defensive.  He reminds Amaziah that he isn’t a run-of -the-mill prophet like those who were active at the time.  Rather, God had singled him out, pulled him away from his quiet peaceful life, to speak in God’s behalf to the king and to the people of the Northern Kingdom.   Real prophets, the genuine thing, are always reluctant to answer the call.

Dennis Bratcher is the driving force behind Christian Resources Institute.  He writes: ….. the prophets’ primary task was to call the people as a community to accountability and responsibility in their relationship with God……. This was the work of Amos.   His prophetic ministry was directly related to the need to keep the king and the ruling elite in line with God’s covenantal relationship with Israel – to call the people into responsible relationship with God.  We do not hear the same strident prophetic voices again after Israel goes into political exile.   There is a haunting question for our time.  Are there any prophets today?  Is there anyone out there fulfilling the role of the biblical prophets to speak the truth of God to the complex economic, religious and political structures we confront every day?

Bratcher answers: Well, no. And yes.  If you mean, “Are there prophets like Israel had in the Old Testament?”, then no. If you mean, “Do people speak with prophetic voices today?”, yes. …… the prophets stood as a counter voice to those who would allow the allure of power, ambition, and self-serving self-righteousness to blind them to the things of God: doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God. They were, in the best sense of the term, “counter-culture” Israelites.

Abraham Heschel wrote: “the prophets always sang one octave too high”. They were empowered by a vision of how things could be, a future in which the people and their leaders would live out their calling to be the people of God as a channel of blessing to the world. And the prophets had the courage to call into question any preoccupation with the status quo on any level that interfered with that [god-envisioned] future. As a result, they were often in trouble with those who stood to lose the most if the status quo were changed….. .

If these are the marks of a prophetic voice, then where do we hear it today?  Certainly not in the halls of power.  It is almost as though the words of the prophet Nahum have come true: the voice of your messengers shall be heard no more. (Nahum 3:13) Perhaps the last publically recognizable prophetic voice for our time was silenced with the death of Martin Luther King Jr.

So, in the sense of the classical biblical prophets it is safe to say that no, there are no prophets in our time.  BUT – – and this is a big BUT – – there are prophetic voices whispering and shouting for our attention.  Indeed – some of our own voices may be among them.

Bratcher describes a truly prophetic voice as one who has the courage, perhaps even, in some sense, the calling of God, to look around at the community of faith in its status quo and say, “Not everyone who says ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven.” A prophetic voice is one who calls God’s people to return to their calling as God’s people. A prophetic voice is one that will not settle for the status quo, not for the sake of stability, or security, or comfort, or even for the sake of conserving the tradition. A truly prophetic voice is a radical voice, a liberal voice that calls for change…

This voice is in danger of being silenced – or ignored – or resisted in the larger church in the service of avoiding conflict or schism.  The resistance and fear of the prophetic voice is nowhere more apparent in the United Methodist Church than in its slowness to recognize that its official policies regarding the full humanity and the full inclusion of the LGBTU community need to change in order for the church to truly reflect its calling as the people of God.

The prophetic voice is surely silenced and mocked and ridiculed and demeaned in the halls of power when that voice speaks out against  policies that contribute to what is an epidemic of gun violence in this country.  Again, the country is reeling in shock and grief as we mourn the deaths of seven more precious souls. The prophetic voices that decry excessive and deadly force by police fall on ears deaf to the  immensity of need for systemic change – even as the country mourns the loss of two more black citizens this week.  The cycle of violence escalated again with the sniper shooting of 5 police officers in Dallas – – a city that has been working to respond to the voices that call for change.  The prophetic voice cries “How Long, O Lord?”

Bratcher continues: A prophetic voice will not gloss over injustice or oppression, will not be silent in the face of bigotry or prejudice or false pride, and will not compromise faithfulness for practical ends no matter how noble those ends may be in themselves.

A truly prophetic voice is one that will sweep away all the trappings of religion [and politics] and simply ask, “What does God require?”, and answer simply, “do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God.”…..” A prophetic voice is one that will settle for nothing less than holiness of heart and life as the result of faithful obedience to the voice of God.

Jesus has been placed in the company of the classical prophets – nowhere more clearly than when he reads from the portion of Isaiah that says  “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to bring good news to the poor.  He sent me to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:16-21) Luke’s gospel says he then rolled up the scroll and sat down in the midst of a stunned group of listeners and stated unequivocally that the scriptures were indeed being fulfilled right in front of them.

We are surrounded with a cacophony of  “prophetic” voices promising that if we will just adhere to this diet, or buy this miracle vitamin to lose weight, or follow this or that financial guru that life will indeed be transformed for us if we do what they say. We will be slimmer, have more vitality, live longer, be wealthier.  I suspect the ancient kings of Israel had to sort out the same kinds of claims they were hearing from the “rubber-stamp” court prophets around them – flatterers who would tell the king what he wanted to hear.  Royal courts did not like it when a true prophet emerged and told them that deep spiritual and political and economic change was required in order for life to be in harmony with the Divine will.

In Jesus’ time Herod feared the new voice enough to try to search him out and kill him before he was even old enough to walk. Rome hated his voice enough to crucify him.  A truly prophetic voice is not popular – it makes us uncomfortable -it is risky – a truly prophetic voice may pay a huge sacrifice.  Jesus as prophet should make us all uncomfortable if we are comfortable with the status quo – whether in our church community or in the community beyond these walls or in the way we come to terms with national politics. 

A prophet, a priest and a king walk into a bar……..the prophet takes a big risk.   She asks the priest and the king “What does the Lord require of you?”

The anticipated answer is “to do justice -to love mercy and kindness – to walk humbly with God – or it may be even simpler – love God and your neighbor.  Or it may be a lot more complex.  The real life response to the prophetic call is to shout for the release of those imprisoned unjustly;  work with the community to see to it that those without homes are housed;  agitate to dismantle the violence that pervades our society; Influence policies to insure that all people have access to adequate health care;  make good education available to everyone who wants it and on and on.  These and more are the things that modern day prophetic voices harp on.  When we begin to find our voices – when we begin to join with others who seek to align themselves with the prophetic relationship with God – – when we live from a center of justice, mercy and kindness – – then we too may become the much resisted prophetic voice.  Solitary prophetic voices are few and far between – – too easily silenced.  But the voice of the people of God  can make a mighty and irresistible sound for the good of the children of God.  When we cry for  justice and mercy and lovingkindness together – things can and will change.

I guess the big question is, do the prophet and the priest and the king listen to each other and leave the bar with a common commitment to a world aligned with the law of God? A world where clear seeing and compassion and justice reign?  Or does a bar brawl ensue between them and effectively silence the prophetic voice once again?

It’s really hard to come up with a funny punch line.  But I hope somewhere in this you will find the point.

QUIRKY STORIES , July 3, 2016

Quirky Stories”

2 Kings 5:1-15

Luke 4:14-30

Chilmark Community Church

July 3, 2016

Rev. Vicky Hanjian

Jesus loved a good story. And he didn’t hesitate to use a good story to make a point. It is curious that he used the story of Namaan the Leper as a reference point in one of his first public encounters after he came out of the wilderness following his immersion in the Jordan. One has to wonder why. Perhaps Jesus had an affinity for quirky stories.

Namaan was a chief commander in the Aramean army. Aram was one of the ancient names for Syria – mortal enemy of Israel. Namaan was the Syian general responsible for the death of the Israelite king, Ahab, whom we met briefly as one of the antagonists in the story of Elijah and his muddy run for the mountains a couple of weeks ago. Once that bit of tribal warfare was over, Namaan came home with military honors and a lot of booty, including “a young girl captive from the land of Israel” (5:2 NRSV). He also came home with leprosy. The first of the quirks – – a powerful general, honored and respected, brought low by, perhaps, the most stigmatizing disease of all – a very visible skin affliction called leprosy.

The second quirk – – a nameless, young, female slave, essentially invisible and voiceless in her slave status, an Israelite, puts forth the possibility of healing for her master – maybe he could go to see Elisha, the great prophet of the Israelite God – the prophet who inherited a double portion of divine power from Elijah, his predecessor.

Quirk number 3 – Namaan actually listens to her! – and acts on her recommendation! He goes to the king of Aram and gets a letter of introduction to the king of Israel – the sworn enemy of Aram. A letter asking a personal favor -please see to the healing of my general, Namaan. How quirky is that?

The request causes a bit of a freak-out for the king of Israel because he is sure he is being set up for another battle with Aram because he has no way of personally healing Namaan. But Elisha emerges from the background and says he will attend to Namaan’s search for healing

It is rather fun to imagine this mighty general, Namaan, riding up to the hut of a rather wild and wooly prophet – – dressed in his military might and finery – -carrying all kinds of gold and silver, expecting a dramatic healing ritual – lots of hand waving and incense and prayers etcetera, etcetera – – and all Elisha says is “go wash yourself in the Jordan river 7 times -and you’ll be healed.” Bathing in the Jordan to be cleansed is a quirk all by itself. For all its significance in the biblical narrative, the Jordan is a frequently shallow, very muddy, often slow moving river. I once heard an Israeli tour director say that people would never ask to be baptized in it if they knew how many water-borne parasites made their home in the river. – Perhaps another quirk in the story. The rivers back home in Syria were much cleaner and made more sense.

At any rate – Namaan overcomes his indignity at the behest – again – of his servants – who point out that this is such a simple solution. If Elisha had asked him to do something very difficult to be healed he surely would have acquiesced.

All he is asked to do is to immerse himself in the river 7 times in order to be healed of the leprosy.

Namaan bathes in the Jordan, and his skin is restored to wholeness “like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.” (5:14)

The climax of the story happens when Namaan comes and stands before Elisha, the man of God, and declares that “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel.” (5:15).

So we have a quirky story of a powerful Syrian general struck with a humiliating skin condition that separates him from the rest of society, advised by a slave girl, sent to an enemy king for healing, passed along to the quintessential man of God, encouraged by his servants, healed by immersing in a muddy river, returning to exclaim his awareness of the God of Israel.

In an article in The Christian Century (June 20-27, 2001, p. 12) Peter Hawkins wrote: Why do I love this story? Servants telling their master what to do. Enemy kings doing one another’s bidding. Elisha’s moxie. Namaan’s injured pride overcome by his desire to be made whole. The backstairs conversations between servant and mistress, the official missive from one king to another, the “dis-ing” of the River Jordan.

It is full of quirkiness – – It’s the stuff of TV drama! But beyond that it is a rich and useful story about the quirky places where we find God at work in the world. A voiceless, anonymous slave affects the direction of the story. Enemies collaborate in the movement toward healing. Pride of place is subverted in the service of healing. A grudging trust replaces skepticism. The least likely place becomes a place of healing. The uniqueness of God is affirmed. Perhaps, as quirky as anything, is the story teller’s skillful play with the politics involved in the whole situation – – somehow, the thing that transcends is the power of God to heal -in spite of the political enmity between Israelites and gentiles, in spite of the low status of the servant actors -in spite of the resistance of kings and generals. God hides in the quirky details.

Peter Hawkins writes further: In his first sermon in Nazareth, Jesus caught some of this extraordinary richness. In fact, he used Namaan’s healing by Elisha as the ancient Hebrew warrant for his own ministry to the gentiles – the outsiders: “There were many lepers in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet, and none of them was cleansed except Namaan the Syrian” (Luke 4:27) Jesus plays with the politics implicit in the story, making good use of the perennial tensions between Jew and gentile, us and them. He exploits the essential edginess of the tale, and as a result, pays a price in that Nazareth congregation: “when they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so they might hurl him off the cliff.” (4:28-29).

Quirky stories can get you into trouble. Funny that these stories are ones that often reveal the movement of the Holy One. The divine message that gets transmitted is that God will be what God will be – – and our human resistance to the great unfolding of the Holy cannot thwart it. Jesus trusted all the power that was poured out on him when he went through his own immersion in the muddy Jordan. He heard and trusted and internalized and lived out the words he heard when he came up out of the water: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:22)

As I was sorting through some files this week, I came across a quote from the late Alan Rickman, perhaps best known for his portrayal of Professor Snape in the Harry Potter movies. I have cited him before, but his words seem quite appropriate again this morning: “It is a human need to be told stories. The more we are governed by idiots and have no control over our destinies, the more we need to tell stories to each other about who we are, why we are, where we come from, and what might be possible.”

Our stories connect us with where we come from, for sure. Jesus seemed to know that. He drew upon one of the most intriguing stories from his own past to make a point to his audience in Nazareth. He wanted to remind them of their own heritage – – of how God works in, not only mysterious, but occasionally in mischievous ways, to keep the great story of God’s people moving. Lepers and kings and slaves and prophets and muddy waters are the stuff of God’s story. Jesus used stories to create newness and hope and transformation. Sometimes his stories were subversive – – they undermined the status quo and made people uncomfortable. Jesus’ stories almost got him thrown off a cliff and eventually got him crucified. But his story goes on.

As we come together once again to share in communion, we are called to remember the stories – – all of them – – stories about the way the Holy One flows and weaves throughout our holy history – sometimes hidden -sometimes revealed – but always in motion. We are called to remember that the love and power of God is a love that seeks wholeness, a love that embraces and celebrates diversity, a love that transcends ancient enmities, a love that reverses social classes, a love that permeates all the quirkiness of our lives. All of that is present as we share in the bread and the cup. May we feel our connectedness with our deep roots in the story of God as we break bread together. AMEN

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

“WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE….?”

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

YOU ARE THE SALT OF THE EARTH

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  edgeofenclosure.org) 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 edgeofenclosure.org)

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

G-d.

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

RELEASED FROM FEARS

MICAH 4:1-4            1 JOHN 4:3-21

CHILMARK COMMUNITY CHURCH

UNITED METHODIST

MAY 8, 2016

REV. ARMEN HANJIAN

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