Category Archives: SERMONS

WHAT SHALL WE TELL THE CHILDREN? January 31, 2016

“What Shall We Tell The Children?”

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10

Luke 4:14-21

January 31, 2016

Chilmark Community Church

Rev. Vicky Hanjian

Bruce Feiler is a popular American writer.  He has recently published a best selling book entitled Secrets of Happy Families.  In the book he makes a rather interesting point.  He writes: “The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative.”  He cites a study from Emory University that shows that the more children know about their family’s story, “the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self esteem, and the more successfully they believe their family functions.”  Our family stories and narratives are important for our well-being.

On Wednesday, at the Oak Bluffs Library, I came across a quote from the late Alan Rickman also known as Professor Snape in the Harry Potter stories. He wrote: “,,,it’s a human need to be told stories.  The more we’re governed by idiots and have no control over our destinies, the more we need to tell stories to each other about who we are, why we are here, where we come from, and what might be possible”.

We read about some significant story telling from the prophet Nehemiah.  He tells the story of the people of God, Israel, returning from exile in captivity under the Babylonians, resettling in the towns they had left many years before.

This is a stunning story.  In the unfolding of the scriptures, it is the first time that such a public reading of scriptures happens.  The stunning part is that it happens at the request of the people – – not by the command of God.  A people governed by foreign forces not of their choosing – – a people who for a generation or more had experienced no control over their own destiny.  They need and want to hear their story.

It is not at all certain exactly which texts Ezra read, but tradition suggests that he may have been reading from Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Number and Deuteronomy – the Law of Moses – the stories of creation; the stories of the journeys of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob; the stories of Joseph and his brothers and the descent of Israel down into slavery in Egypt; the stories Israel’s liberation from slavery and the  story of the 40 – year sojourn in the wilderness where they gradually become a  cohesive people of God with a shared sense of identity. So perhaps we can imagine Ezra standing in front of the gathered multitude, answering their hunger for their story – recapitulating their family history – for hours on end.

But, as interesting as that image is, I think it is even more interesting to see how the people respond – keeping in mind that they are the ones who asked Ezra to read to them.  It was a highly emotional time.  We read that the people were in front of and below Ezra as he read from a special platform built for the occasion – perhaps with the rubble of the war ravaged city behind him.  When Ezra began to unroll the scroll, all the people stood up as Ezra blessed God and gave thanks.  They lifted up their hands and said “AMEN!” – -They bowed their heads, prostrated themselves, and worshipped God.  Some of them wept, whether with joy and relief at being home again  or with recognition of how far away from God they had drifted.  And Ezra tells them to eat good food and drink sweet wine – tells them not to grieve because the day is holy and “the joy of the Lord is their strength” – – and they ended the day rejoicing because they had understood the words that had been read to them.

This is the power of the “family” narrative.”  Through the hearing of their narrative, covering their faith history from the beginning, the returning exiles were being “reconstituted” as a people – finding again their joy and their strength as the people of God after a long time in exile –finding their identity as a people.

Some 500 years later, the story has been transmitted and received by Jesus.  He enters his Jewish life.  He is circumcised on the eighth day according to the ancient custom.  He grows to adulthood and enters the waters of Jordan along with his fellow Jews, claiming his identity as the beloved child God.  He heads out into the wilderness and wrestles with his demons. Each of these events in Jesus’ life symbolically reflects the story of his ancestors who entered the waters of the Reed Sea and sojourned in the wilderness and claimed their identity as people of God on the other side.  Jesus claims and lives out his family narrative – until we find him on the steps of the synagogue, unrolling a scroll, delivering yet another word of hope to a deeply troubled people – this time in exile in their own homeland.

The new word to these hungry people is that Jesus is living out his family story by identifying himself with the ancient promise.  His family narrative gives him his identity: ”The Spirit of the Lord is upon me – -I am anointed to bring good news to those of you who are poor – to proclaim a new kind of liberty and freedom to those of you who are in captivity, oppressed.”

In every generation, we human beings have needed to connect and re-connect ourselves to our faith narrative.  This is what the constant re-telling of the story is all about.  We are the children who need to hear the story. In a challenging and often chaotic world, we are the ones who need to hear it over and over again.  But we are also the ones who need to be telling our faith narrative to our children.  And just as we need to be telling our ancestral faith story, we need to be telling our children and grandchildren who their great-grandparents were – what our own personal family narratives are.

A few years ago I took the opportunity to ask my aunt, the only surviving member of that generation on my mother’s side of the family, what some of the family stories were. I learned that my grandmother, an Irish immigrant, saved her pennies, literally, until she had saved enough for a $5.00 sewing machine on which she then stitched clothes for my mom and her 5 siblings. She walked the mile or so into town to purchase the machine and carry it home.  Apparently, back in Ireland, my great- grandmother had done much the same. My mom, in turn, bought an ancient Singer sewing machine early in her marriage and made all my clothes when I was a kid. Early in our marriage, I, in turn, bought a second hand Borletti – New Home machine and sewed clothes for Armen and our sons.  Until I heard the story of my grandmothers, I had no idea how the deep satisfaction of owning a sewing machine and creating a garment was connected with my family roots.  Some subtle sense of my own identity fell into place with the hearing that part of my family narrative.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes: “A family narrative connects children to something larger than themselves.  It helps them make sense of how they fit into the world that existed before they were born.  It gives them a starting point of identity.  That in turn becomes a basis of confidence.  It enables children to say: This is who I am.  This is the story of which I am a part.  These are the people who came before me and whose descendant I am.  These are the roots of which I am the stem reaching upward toward the sun.”

Ezra read the “family” narrative that re-connected and reconstituted Israel after years of separation from her own sense of identity.  Eventually, the people lived out their dream of re-building the temple and reclaiming Jerusalem as their home. We hear Jesus claiming his family narrative and we witness how he re-connects the people of his generation to the hope and promises of God.  He passes the story telling on to us.  It is our job to tell and re-tell both our faith narrative and our family stories – to make the connections between them in a strong way so that our children grow up with a healthy sense of who they are.  There is no right way to do this –we are left to develop our own creative way of continuing the narrative.  As Alan Rickman reminds us “…we need to tell stories to each other about who we are, why we are here, where we come from – – and what might be possible.”  The seeds of our own future rest dormant in the stories we tell about our history –as a church and as families within the church.  This is where we draw our strength as we move forward as a community together.  Perhaps in this new year, we can commit to finding the time and the space to tell the important stories.  If we can do that, we will surely bless our children and grandchildren. May God bless us as we take up the task.  We do, indeed, belong to a God who loves a good story.

Home By Another Way 1/3/16

Home By Another Way

Matthew 2:1-12

Chilmark Community Church

January 3, 2016

Rev. Vicky Hanjian

All week long as I worked with today’s text, images of “Where’s Waldo” and images of the search for Luke Skywalker kept invading my imagination. If you are a grandparent or the parent of young children, you may have spent time searching for Waldo, the diminutive storybook guy in the red and white striped tee-shirt and horn rimmed glasses who blends in with the multitude on crowded beaches or city streets, or department stores. It takes good eyes and often a lot of patience to find him hidden in plain sight.

The engine that drives the latest Star Wars movie is the search for Luke Skywalker –the emblematic carrier of The Force –who has disappeared at some point in the long Star Wars saga. In this latest episode, Skywalker has become the stuff of legends. He has become the one who must be found if the evil power of The First Order that threatens to destroy the universe is to be defeated.

Whether by design or uncanny coincidence, the story of the search for a mythic savior emerged on the big screen just as we immersed ourselves in the stories of our own search for the Holy Child.

We pick up the biblical story this morning with the quest of three wise men, scientists of their day – astronomers and astrologers – who observed signs in the heavens that eventually draw them into the search for a royal child.

We have strong images imbedded in our imaginations – – elegant and colorful robes of rich silks and brocades, dignified beards, scholarly faces, haughty looking camels, and, of course, extravagant gifts. It is a beautiful story of human beings searching for truth and light and hope.

Their quest and their eventual coming to the place where the great Light of God has come into the world – their finding of the infant Jesus after many years of observing the heavens and reading the signs in the stars, all of this has been named in our tradition as The Feast of the Epiphany. Epiphany – – the celebration of a manifestation – – a striking appearance – – a sudden and striking realization – – a new and different perspective – according the Wickipedia definition of epiphany. How better to describe God’s bursting into human life in human form?

But as with any good drama, there is also a dark side to the unfolding events – King Herod hovering just off stage – – caught up in his dreams of power and his fear of losing it.

He seems just a little too eager to know where this longed for child has been born. Herod does not have a good track record when it comes to any threat to his seat on the throne. He has killed off at least 4 possible candidates, in addition to two of his own children and his wife. He clearly wants to maintain his grip on his kingly power and on his control of Jerusalem no matter what the cost. As a puppet king under the thumb of Rome, Herod always lives with a measure of anxiety and fear.

The story tells us that when King Herod heard the news of the birth of this child, born to be King of the Jews, “he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.” Herod fears the threat to his rule – – and all Jerusalem is afraid of what Herod will do when his rule is threatened. If we were to read on a few more verses we would see exactly what Herod’s fear would accomplish as he orders the annihilation of all the toddlers in the vicinity of Bethlehem of age two years old or younger. No wonder Jerusalem was afraid.

Fear is a powerful motivator. In the most primitive of scenarios, fear provokes the “flight or fight” response in all of us – – we either want to run from the threat, or we allow the fear to become anger and we fight the threat in some way.

Herod was afraid –but he was not about to relinquish his power – so he fought the threat instead – and in a fit of fury, he issued the order to eliminate the innocent children who threatened him.

But – – as the scriptures assure us, perfect love casts out fear. Love nourishes wisdom. The wise men pay attention to their dreams and refuse to cooperate with the politics of fear. They refuse to cooperate with the forces of violence and destruction. They find another way home.

The story is instructive for us as we enter a new year. As followers of The Way, we will be called upon this year to be wise and discerning as we pursue our own individual and collective search for the light and truth of the Newborn King.

We will be called upon to listen carefully – – to read with wisdom the currents of threat and fear that swirl around us as political rhetoric ramps up even further. But even more, we are called upon not to participate in the fear mongering around us by lending our own energy to it. Mahatma Gandhi’s name for this was “nonviolent non-cooperation” – a simple refusal to buy into and cooperate with the voices and the forces that would snare us in the web of fear and uncertainty.

The admonition to “fear not” appears many, many times across the scriptures, beginning with God’s word to Abraham way back near the beginning of our faith story: “Do not be afraid Abraham, I am your shield; and your reward shall be very great”1 and near the end of Matthew’s story of Jesus’ life when Jesus tells his disciples “Remember I am with you always, to the end of the age.”2

God speaks through Isaiah to Israel’s fears in exile: “do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you.”3 The Psalmist reminds us “God is our refuge and strength –a very present help in time of trouble…”4

These are not just pious platitudes designed to offer a false comfort that would blind us to the difficult issues that confront us in the world today. They are reminders that help to ground us and keep us focused and oriented in the right direction –not unlike the star that guided the Wise Men.

When fear is the predominant force that motivates action, it removes the possibility of creative problem solving and solutions. When we are afraid, clear thinking goes out the window. Love and awe of God leads us toward a richer imagination for what a possible future might look like. Our faith tradition leads us away from fear and the violence it spawns toward a more confident and creative future – – characterized by compassion for others and nonviolent solutions to intractable problems. This is a long slow journey without quick fixes; a journey that requires clear thinking and patience, resilience and strength – – and it is a journey that is meant to be shared with one another in community.

One of the things that struck me about the Star Wars search for Luke Skywalker was the way that the stories and memories of his life and adventures kept him with the searchers even though he was absent – – still way out ahead of them somewhere –still to be found and encountered again as a force for good in a very dark world.

So it is with our faith tradition. We affirm Emmanuel – God with us – present and yet inviting us onward – – a force still to be encountered in all its fullness.

It is not by accident that this small community of three wise seekers traveled together to seek the truth. Our own wise Jesus said “wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I am there in the midst of them.”

The journey is not meant to be taken in isolation. So, as we enter a new year, let us enter it together – perhaps to discover our own epiphanies, our own new perspectives, our own new and striking realizations, knowing always that The One for Whom we search is already in our midst, hidden – – kind of like Waldo – – in plain sight – – while all the while beckoning us onward. Let us commit to finding another way home – – a way that will not lead us to the terrible harvest of fear and the hatred and violence it breeds, but to a bright and shining vista of a future filled with hope.

As we move toward the Epiphany feast of bread and cup, may we move together with the intention of drawing closer to one another and to the One who both beckons and feeds. May our communion be the first step on another way to be in the world as the new year begins.

1 Genesis 15:1

2 Matthew

3 Isaiah 41:10

4 Psalm 46:1

Bishop’s New Year Message

Image

Dec. 31, 2015

My Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

Greetings in the precious name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

As we celebrate the arrival of 2016, I recall with gratitude that I began 2015 with a group of teenagers from the Northeastern United States, fellow bishops, and other lay and clergy leaders in the city of Bangalore, India.

Some members of the team preached and others participated in the Holy Communion services as we greeted 2015 in churches from both the Methodist tradition and the Church of South India, a united church consisting of Anglicans, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and British Methodists.

Everyone on the team, especially the youth, was impressed, not only for the opportunity to partake in the Holy Communion Service, but also to see sanctuaries filled to capacity on New Year’s Eve. Some of the youth wondered why it was important for families to be in prayer, reflection, and taking part in the Holy Communion Service instead of being at parties and New Year’s celebrations.

The answer is simple: Like making resolutions, it is also important for people to be at the altar, thanking God for the blessings of the past year, asking for forgiveness for our shortcomings, and making peace with our Creator and one another.

It is also a time for discernment and taking stock of our own earthly lives as Christian pilgrims and asking God to lead us as we join in the extension work of the Reign of God in our world as disciples of Christ, seeking to be led by the Holy Spirit and not by our own mental and physical devices and drives.

Though all of us will probably spend time this month looking both backward and forward, may I encourage us to reflect on one more thing? I want us to concentrate on and pray to God to show us the gifts placed in each and every one of us. May we not only ask how we can use them for the Glory of God, but also for the extension of the Reign of God in our communities, nation, and world.

Some of us may wonder if we have made any difference in our communities or world. We may worry that we have wasted our gifts and graces or even doubt we have any gifts at all. To encourage you, may I share with you a testimony of one of the great evangelists of the last century, Dr. E. Stanley Jones, who wrote:

“I thought my book Mahatma Gandhi An Interpretation was a failure. It did not seem to dent the Western world with its emphasis on armaments. But when I saw Dr. Martin Luther King, he said: ‘It was your book on Gandhi that gave me my first inkling of nonviolent non-cooperation. Here, I said to myself, is the way for the Negro to achieve his freedom. We will turn this whole movement from violence to nonviolence. We will match our capacity to suffer against the other’s capacity to inflict the suffering, our soul force against his physical force; and we will wear our opponents down with goodwill.’ ‘Then my book was not a failure,’ I replied. ‘No, if we can keep the movement nonviolent,’ he answered.” (E. Stanley Jones, Song of Ascents, Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, pp. 259-60).

I share this quote because we often second guess our gifts and graces with questions such as, “Am I making a difference?” or “Am I effective?”

In moments like these, may we turn to God in the precious name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ for reassurance and encouragement. May we be inspired by the words of Jesus, as paraphrased by Eugene Peterson, “Walk with me and work with me – watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace.” (Matthew 11:29)

As Pentecost people, may we each constantly pray to God for the Holy Spirit to lead us, and not rely on our own self-centered mental GPS. May this be our resolution – on New Year’s Eve and always.

Prema joins me in wishing you and your loved ones a happy, blessed and joyful New Year.

In Christ’s love,

Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar


 

 

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Transformed by the Holy Spirit, united in trust,
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So-Now What do we do?

So – Now What?”

Isaiah 60:1-3

Luke 2:41-52

Chilmark Community Church

December 27, 2015

Re. Vicky Hanjian

Quite few years ago now, Armen and I spent a wondrous Christmas in Toronto when our grandchildren were 2 and 4 years old. Most of the activity around the holiday centered on their church’s celebration of Christmas.

On the Sunday morning before Christmas, we walked the 12 or so blocks on the downtown city streets of Toronto and went to Trinity-St.Pauls UCC with Ellie holding our hands and swinging between us. On that particular Sunday morning, the church’s large gymnasium was converted into the market square in Bethlehem. There were stalls and booths around the perimeter of the square offering homemade breads and hand sculpted oil lamps. In the center of the square several women were weaving on portable looms. In a back corner young girls were having their hands painted by a henna artist. There were street dancers with drums and tambourines and a beggar lay on a mat near the entrance of the square. The air was fragrant with the aroma of a spicy lentil stew and freshly baked afghanistani bread from the church kitchen.

At some point, some shepherds drifted in – asking if anyone knew where a special baby was to be born. A flustered midwife ran through the square looking for clean cloths and hot water. There were strangely dressed foreigners also inquiring about the whereabouts of a newborn baby. The crowd of Christmas shoppers milled around the square, largely ignoring the drama that was being played out in their midst. Then a young girl – maybe 10 or 11 years old – came running into the room shouting A BABY IS BEING BORN! A BABY IS BEING BORN! COME AND SEE!! People finally began to pay attention and we followed the girl through the winding hallways of the church into the sanctuary where Mary and Joseph and the newborn child were in place in front of the altar. We sang the familiar carols and prayed prayers of thanksgiving for this most wonderful birth. Our journey to Bethlehem had been made more real by the drama.

My granddaughter’s eyes were wide with wonder at the unfolding story and she was quite disappointed when the service was over. As we walked out into the grayness of a Toronto December afternoon, Ellie looked up at me and asked “Grandma, now what are we going to do?”

Her question lent itself well to a sermon title for the Sunday after Christmas – – although I have to confess her question probably had more to do with whether or not we could stop at Tim Horton’s on the way home for hot chocolate and a doughnut than it did with any lofty theology about the meaning of the birth of the Christ child. Still, the timing of her question was uncanny as we walked out into the downtown buzz of traffic on Bloor Street on the Sunday before Christmas.

We have celebrated the magnificent birth. So – now what?

On Tuesday evening of that week, we again made our way back to the big stone church on Bloor Street, this time with our daughter-in-law, Mary – to help wash dishes and clean up after the weekly dinner offered to people who live on the streets of Toronto. I was humbled by the range of conditions I observed as people came in for a hot meal, perhaps a night on a foam mattress in the same room that had only a few days earlier been a market square in Bethlehem. I was deeply moved by the difference in the crowd this time – the vacant faces of many who should have been in sheltered, assisted living situations; the gaunt faces of others who clearly did not have enough to eat, the adult woman who clutched a teddy bear under her arm and wandered around talking to herself, the tentative politeness of the heavily bearded man who asked if he could have seconds on the pea soup.

This too is Bethlehem.

Once again, we walked out of the church into the cold Canadian night and Ellie’s question echoed in my ears: “Grandma – now what are we going to do?”

Inevitably, Christmas Eve arrived right on time. Mary and I took Ellie to worship at the 7PM service. We listened to the sounds of Christmas….the wind, the rain, the chirp of the cricket that kept Joseph awake, the groaning of a camel who refused to travel any further, the braying of a donkey settling in for the night. We sang again the familiar carols and celebrated communion – hearing the sound of the bread being broken – -the sound of wine being poured –and then – once again we were back out on the darkened city streets, walking home – – this time Ellie asking “Why is that man sleeping on the street?”

Her innocent 4-year old voice haunts the adults around her. Her questions force us to pay attention to the disconnect between the warmth and joy and light of the sanctuary and the dark, unrelenting reality of the city streets.

Luke’s gospel moves us in an amazingly quick way from the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem to an event that happens when Jesus is 12 years old. The scene is Jerusalem – different city – different time – but people are still searching for Jesus. This time it is his parents – frantic because they have lost track of him in the holiday crowds at Passover. When they find him he is sitting calmly in the midst of the elders – – asking them questions. His parents scold him for making them worry. Jesus has pesky questions for them too. “Why were you searching for me? Didn’t you know that I must be in my father’s house? – – being about my father’s business?” I can imagine his parents asking “Now what do we do?”

Ahhh! The questions of children! How they haunt us! How they challenge us to come up with answers that will satisfy their longing to know why the world doesn’t always make sense. For 2000 years, Christians have celebrated the birth of Loving Compassion into the world, and still we are confronted by the innocent question of a child – -“Why is that man sleeping on the street?”

I wonder some times with Mary and Joseph, “Where is Jesus?” ‘How did we get separated from him?” “Why is he stressing us this way?” And then, all of a sudden, there he is in the midst of the crowd challenging those around him with pertinent questions….. and they wonder – as parents so often do – – “Now what?”

Jesus questions still come to us – but now they are often in the form of a bearded man asking for more pea soup, or a woman clutching a teddy bear and talking to herself, or an anonymous soul curled up in a dirty sleeping bag on the sidewalk on Bloor Street.

City streets are amazing places. The gospel springs to life there. We cannot avoid the Living Christ amidst the sounds of traffic and the smells of exhaust fumes and the sight of so much human diversity.

Isaiah was a man of great hope and the city of Jerusalem was on his mind. His words are both a prophecy and a challenge for the city – – a call to greatness: “Arise! Shine! For your light has come and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the face of the earth, and thick darkness (will cover) the peoples; BUT, the Lord will rise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light, kings to the brightness of your dawn.”

Isaiah challenged Jerusalem with a grand vision for her future. His words are a call and a challenge and a vision of hope for us too on this 1st Sunday after Christmas. There is great possibility for great goodness to emerge out of the all the confusion, out of political mis-adventures and war, out of economic and social injustice. And that greater good will happen because it is the Divine Intention that it should – – that we will move toward the light of a future filled with compassion and justice.

For us, it all begins in Bethlehem. Somehow each year we find our way there through all the milling around and confusion and doubt that life offers us. In the midst of war and terrorist threat, economic pressures, ambiguity about laws that would protect us while at the same time infringing on our privacy, political mis-adventures at the highest levels – – somehow, in the midst of all that, we find our way to Bethlehem and we find rest and peace and hope.

But Jesus does not stay in Bethlehem and neither can we. Being a Follower of the Way means being on the move. The road away from Bethlehem eventually leads to Jerusalem – to a more challenging Jesus and to our response to what we have witnessed at the manger. The road away from Bethlehem carries us into the work of becoming the peace and hope and light for the world that Isaiah talks about. We walk the road out of Bethlehem holding the hand of a child who asks “Didn’t you know I must be in my Father’s house –attending to my Father’s business?” or, perhaps, holding the hand of a child who asks “Why is that man sleeping on the sidewalk?”

In a few more minutes, we will leave this sanctuary of warmth and peace and light – – this Bethlehem of sorts – – and head out for whatever new Jerusalem awaits us. Perhaps it would be well if we paused on the steps before heading out to our cars – just long enough to ask the question “So – – now what?”

And if there is enough silence within us, we may hear the ancient challenge resonate within us to find whatever ways we can to do justice, love mercy, and walk hand in hand with the One who lives and walks among us right here in Chilmark and in our island community. Every new birth challenges us by disrupting and changing our lives. May we join hands and walk together into whatever newness awaits as this year ends and a new year begins. Perhaps we will find that a questioning child is leading the way. AMEN

GETTING DOWN TO EARTH 12/20/15

Getting Down To Earth“

Micah 5:2-5

Luke 1: 39-45

Chilmark Community Church

December 20, 2015

Rev. Vicky Hanjian

I love the story of Mary and Elizabeth. In my memory banks there is a painting of the two women, one slightly stooped, older, with somewhat wispy, scraggly graying hair, visibly pregnant, reaching out to embrace a much younger

woman – – a girl actually, who looks relieved to be in the company of what turns out to be her older cousin.

As we move through the wonderful texts from the prophets – – the beautiful language of Handel’s “Messiah”, the great stories of expectation and yearning for the Great One of God who will save the people, the story and the image of Mary and Elizabeth embracing each other is one that brings it all down to earth.

Elizabeth takes her place in a long lineage of women reaching back to Sarah and and Hannah – – an elderly woman, barren, becoming pregnant by God’s grace for the first time late in life. It turns out that Elizabeth’s child, already 6 months in the womb by the time of the encounter with Mary will be the disturbing John the Baptist who will come charging out of the desert calling the people to repentance. He is the child who will grow up to be a messenger who prepares the way – – to make a straight path for another who is to come.

But, we don’t know this just yet – – all the story tells us is that Elizabeth’s baby “leaps” in her womb when Elizabeth hears Mary’s greeting – – and Elizabeth has an incredible moment of recognition – – a transcendent moment – – the story says she was filled with the Holy Spirit. She blesses Mary and the baby Mary is carrying.

But there is an even more powerful and telling exclamation that comes with Elizabeth’s illuminating awareness – – (Lk.1:45) Elizabeth says “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

As the celebration of Jesus’ birth approaches, we are called upon to suspend rational thinking for awhile. The stories we love and cherish are ones that defy logic and reality. A pregnant virgin, a barren old woman expecting her first child, angels appearing out of nowhere, babies leaping in wombs, shepherds receiving revelation from heaven, stars guiding visitors from foreign lands – – the birth of a much longed for infant who will save the world.

We are invited and challenged to stop thinking rationally – to stop trying to figure it all out – – to stop saying “well maybe this could be a logical explanation”. Indeed the stories invite us into an alternate reality – – they have the ability to throw us off balance while at the same time giving us great joy and comfort.

At the end of the day, the stories are faith stories – – not historical documentaries. Mary’s willingness to carry and give birth to the Living Word of God – – Elizabeth’s openness to recognizing another human being as a bearer of The Word – – John’s eventual willingness to “clear the way” for the Word – to open peoples’ ears – – all powerful stories that push and pull and prod us to examine our own willingness to receive the in-flowing presence of God in our own lives.

When Elizabeth says “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord” she encapsulates the challenge of faith for us in these times.

We are immersed, especially at this time of year, in sacred texts that span at least 2500 years – – texts that repeat over and over again the story of a God who continually seeks out humankind – a God who yearns for relationship with us.

It starts with the story of the creation of human beings at the very beginning as

God yearns for companionship that will partner with God in the ongoing work of creation. The story continues with God seeking out Abraham and Sarah to carry the notion of One God forward into the future. Then God seeks out Moses to bring God’s people liberation. Later, God seeks out prophets who call the people back into relationship with God when they have gotten seriously off track. And then, as our Christian tradition teaches, it seems as though God’s seeking for us comes down to earth – – two pregnant women greeting each other – – it doesn’t get more real than that. And Elizabeth blesses Mary’s firm belief in the promises of God – that God will fulfill all that God has promised.

Our tradition calls to us over the eons and over many generations to be bearers of God – – to bring the reality of God’s passionate love for us to each other and to the world. How we go about bringing this passionate love into the world is unique to each one of us and that is a sermon for another day – – but it is what we are called to do nonetheless. I think that what Elizabeth recognizes in Mary is what we are called to recognize in one another – that we each bear the presence of God, the very image and likeness of God, into the world wherever we go. In the metaphors of pregnancy and birth, Mary accepted that responsibility. The story tells us she absolutely trusted what the angel had told her would come to pass. Elizabeth saw Mary’s trust and responded to it – – and in a fraction of a moment, a little more of God came into being in their relationship.

As the story unfolds, Mary literally gives birth to God – With – Us – – – Emmanuel, the one for whom we yearn and wait. When we set aside all the rational inquiry – all the scientific discussion about virgin birth – all our resistance to mystery – – we are left with the most basic and fundamental truth – – we belong to a God who yearns and desires to be with us. We belong to a God who promises from the beginning that “I will be your God – if you will be my people.”

Elizabeth recognizes and blesses Mary as one who has said “yes” – – one who is willing to be wholeheartedly aligned with the fulfillment of God’s promise to be with God’s people. Elizabeth brings the challenge of a life of faith down to earth.

As the day of celebration draws near, may we be among those whom Elizabeth would recognize and bless as bearers of God’s Living Word of hope and light and peace in the world. May we be among the ones who bring it all down to earth.

It’s Hard to Stay in Exile 12/13/15

It’s Hard To Stay In Exile”

Zephaniah 3: 14-20

Isaiah 12:2-6

Chilmark Community Church

Rev. Vicky Hanjian

December 13, 2015

Across the past week, as I have immersed myself in the rhythms of Advent, I have been impressed by how closely this time of year in the Christian tradition resembles the dynamic time that leads up to Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur in the Jewish tradition. The Jewish month of Elul (that begins somewhere between the middle of August and the middle of September, depending on the cycle of the moon) signals the beginning of 60 days of self examination, repentance, repair of relationships – – all movements of the spirit that find their grounding in the prophetic texts that describe the terrible pain and isolation of the exile of Israel in foreign lands. About halfway through this period, the weekly readings shift from sorrow, and sadness to comfort and peace and reconciliation.

And so it is with Advent. We are at the midway point. We have heard the warnings and admonitions of John the Baptist –calling for us to return from the narrow and sorrowful and conflicted places in our lives – – to turn around and face ourselves toward God. We have encountered, quite literally, the jarring, disorienting nature of exile as we have lived through the emotional and spiritual impact of the events of the last several weeks – – and now – -midway through – -the Advent scriptures abruptly call us to rejoice – to let go of sorrow and entertain joy. The great rhythms of our tradition keep us moving.

It is not comfortable to stay with the 1st half of this 4 weeks of holy time. Yet somehow, we have to confront the discomfort, the sense of unfamiliarity, the dire warnings of the prophets and the gospels, the calls for repentance – – even though we might want to leap over that and find the comfort of the familiarity of Christmas. Early Advent gives us the chance to do the self-examination we need to do in preparation for receiving the gift that awaits.

Our texts for today were written for the encouragement of Israel as they lived out their time as deportees, first at the hands of the Assyrians and then at the hands of Babylon. The brightest and best of Israel’s people had been removed from the land of Judah, uprooted from their homes, their culture, their religious center….

Their homes were destroyed – – and they did not know what the future would hold for them. The Psalms attest to their distress as they mourned…”How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” The writings of Isaiah and Jeremiah and Amos and Micah and Malachi are full of the dire warnings about what will happen to Israel because of her failure to live up to her high calling as God’s people. The warnings proved to be true – – and the exile happened.

Exile is a powerful metaphor because exile comes in all shapes and sizes. Exile is happening at every moment – from the massive movements of refugee populations in Europe and the Middle East to the personal exiles we all experience from time to time. Exile might describe the feelings of disorientation that come with a difficult diagnosis. It can come as the anger and sadness that accompany a breach in the family or in a friendship. Sometimes exile is the state of grief when a loved one dies. Exile can be the disjointedness that comes with the loss of our health or with the loss of a job. Exile is, perhaps, most profound when it comes as a dark night of the soul when we feel separated from ourselves and from God. Exile comes in all shapes and sizes – and it is hard to be there.

This is why the ever – rolling seasons of the church year are so valuable and necessary. As Advent cycles around again, we are reminded of our various exiles – those things that often make the Christmas holiday challenging and uncomfortable for us. And we are once again presented with the challenge and the opportunity to make the return trip back to where we sense the greatest peace and well being and wholeness – – represented by the Holy Birth that we begin anticipating in November.

So – here we are – midway through. The 3rd Sunday in Advent is traditionally called Gaudete Sunday – – Gaudete – Latin for Rejoice – the day of rejoicing. We light a different color candle – rose pink – a color for joy – contrasted with the purple of repentance. In our liturgy, unfamiliar and sometimes uncomfortable hymns of early Advent shift ever so slightly away from the themes of warning and repentance and yearning toward the fulfillment of Christmas as the time of our waiting moves into the final days.

This Sunday is also known as Mary’s Sunday. In some lectionary cycles, Mary’s song of rejoicing is the scripture for today. In Luke’s gospel, Mary sings out: My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God, my savior, for he has looked with favor upon his lowly servant. Surely from now on all generations will call me blessed. (Luke 1:46-48) So, joy and rejoicing are the theme as our anticipation increases – – even thought we aren’t quite there yet.

God’s time is funny that way. It does not move forward in a straight line. It is continually folding back in on itself and seems not to have the orderly predictability of calendar time. This is everywhere evident in the Christian year, but, perhaps most obvious in this season when the pull is toward The Big Day, even while we still have our feet somewhere in the exiles that hold us back. It seems as though only young children get to know a Christmas that is purely joy and excitement. The rest of us keep moving back and forth in God’s time – exile and return, exile and return.

But the inexorable movement is toward reconciliation and peace and wholeness. We are not created to live in exile indefinitely – – and the word for today is that wherever we find ourselves, there is the potential for returning and rejoicing. Zephaniah calls to us: Sing aloud! Rejoice with all your heart! The Lord your God is in your midst….God will rejoice over you with gladness…God will renew you in God’s love…..God will exult over you with loud singing! Imagine! – – a singing God!! Isaiah promises that we will draw water from the wells of healing with joy! This is the promise of the birth we celebrate –made real in the love that is continually bursting into our lives in the person of Jesus.

Even as we anticipate the celebration of the birth, God’s time moves us toward the Holy presence available to us right now in the sacrament of communion – something that happens totally out of synch with this time of year. A celebration instituted at the very end of the life of the One whose birth we celebrate. It almost seems like an Einsteinian moment – when all time is in the present moment – past, present and future. Not so strange really as we celebrate belonging to a God who is, was, and will be both now and forevermore. So wherever we are on the journey between exile and home, let us take a little time in the present moment to rejoice together as we join one another at the table that has been prepared in love for us. May God bless us with moments of peaceful gratitude and glimpses of rejoicing as we break bread together. AMEN

What are we waiting for? 12-6-15

What Are We Waiting For?
Luke 21:25-36
Chilmark Community Church
December 6, 2015
Rev. Vicky Hanjian

What are we to do with the dire warnings of the end times that appear in the 21st chapter of Luke? Why do we read these warnings and admonitions right before Christmas? I have never like these apocalyptic scenarios and have managed to avoid preaching on them for a lot of years. But this year the text wouldn’t leave me alone – so here goes!

Luke wrote his story of Jesus for a tumultuous and ugly time in the history of the Jews and of the early community of “Jesus people”. Indeed, their world was falling apart. By the time Luke wrote the Romans had already destroyed the great Jerusalem temple that stood at the center of Jewish life. Judea was utterly occupied by Rome with the intent of obliterating both Jews and Judaism including the relatively new Jewish sect that embraced the teachings of Jesus. So these warnings have their ground in the terrible disruptions happening 2000 years ago.

As I wrestled with how to find meaning in them questions about what we expect in the way of a messiah kept rumbling around. The notion of a coming messiah was around long before Jesus as the Jews suffered through one devastating occupation after another. There was always the hope that there would be the one strong military leader who would arise from the ranks and deliver the Jews into a “golden age” of order and justice and peace and well-being and wholeness. The historical reign of Kind David epitomized this longing. The loss and devastation was so thorough and the hope for a messiah was so profound and seemed so distant that a certain kind of thinking arose around it – – that, indeed, everything had to end so that a new beginning could happen. This is the thinking that pervades the 21st chapter of Luke. There will be wars and devastation and destruction – and this all has to happen so that a new thing can take place. In a nutshell, this is what apocalypse means. So why is this text chosen for us to read in the run up to Christmas? Where is the hope and light and peace and joy in a text that warns of destruction and desolation?
Quite some time ago I came across a scientific metaphor that has helped me to find a way to appropriate this text for today. I found it in Ilya Prigogines’ Theory of Dissipative structures. – How is that for a tongue twister? Prigogine was a physical chemist. He thought about the critical role that stress plays in transformation. He used the language of open systems and closed systems. A closed system might be a cold cup of coffee or a piece of granite. In a closed system there is not much energy being exchanged with the environment around it. Nothing much happening. Open systems, on the other hand, take in energy from their environment and transform it and give it back into the environment again, frequently changing the environment around the system in the process.. Prigogine described an open system as a flowing wholeness. Open systems are complex. There are often many interconnections in an open system – we can see this in the human networking that happens on the island. The global human community is an open system – – incredibly complex, with billions of points of connection. One of the main characteristics of an open system is that it is not stable – – it is subject to perturbations or disruptions as the energy of interconnection moves. If a disruption is large enough, the whole system is shaken up. The elements of the old patterns of relating come into contact with each other in new ways and make new connections. The parts reorganize into a new whole – – and the whole system “escapes” to a higher order.

Isis and Paris and, now, San Bernadino have become metaphors for things falling apart – for chaos and destruction – for the disruption of so many patterns relationships that humans depend on for order and a sense of well being. They are the perturbation in the open system of global human realtionships.

And yet – even as we worship here in Chilmark, a large group of men and women from 150 countries have gathered in Paris to attend to the issues of global climate change – – San Bernadino’s holiday parade went forward as scheduled – – human beings once again have rallied around each other to offer comfort and compassion in the midst of another unthinkable crisis –fightng fear with joy as the newscasters reported. The human system begins reordering itself right in the epicenter of a major disruption.

Do we dare to understand Luke’s Jesus to be teaching about a way of looking at the world through the eyes of a physical chemist? Do Jesus’ words about the coming disruption carry a far more hopeful purpose? What are we waiting for? What are we watching for? Is it possible that the things that Jesus tells us to be alert for – to be on the watch for are already happening? Is it possible that the idea of “messiah” – the hoped for bringer of order and justice and wholeness is a metaphor for the kind of creativity and regeneration that is already happening in the midst of chaos and fear and destruction? Is the “messiah” hidden and working in the midst of the turmoil? Are we to be watchful and awake to what this “messiah process” is doing right now?

The apocalyptic scenarios in the scriptures are there for a reason.
I am inclined to think that Jesus’ words want to wake us up to how the Holy One is working all the time in the midst of the terrible things we fear the most to bring to birth a new creation. Birthing is painful. It is frightening – sometimes it is life threatening. We are tempted to lose hope – – and then Advent rolls around again with its promise of a great new act of generativity and love and peace and hope coming into the world – – in the midst of the chaos.
The prophet Isaiah said it well when he preached the word of God to Israel at the end of her exile: Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth from the bud, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. And so we light our candles. We share our light with one another. We find ways to meet the needs of the world around us. In the midst of all the chaos that goes on in the world, we watch, we wait, we see, and we celebrate a birth – – new life ever emerging. This is our Advent hope.

Prepare the Way of the Lord by Armen Hanjian

Prepare The Way of The Lord

Perhaps some of you watched the coronation of Queen Elizabeth in the early fifties on TV. You may have missed this aspect of it – just before the service in Westminster Abbey, right after the congregation was seated, there suddenly appeared a whole squad of workers with brushes and vacuum cleaners who proceeded to clean the carpets so that they would be immaculate for the coming of the queen. Any trace of dirt carried in by the congregation would be removed. It sounds a little too much for us, but for the British, it was quite natural. The way of royalty must be prepared carefully.

In ancient times, when kings traveled, their servants would precede them filling holes in and smoothing the road. For the Christian, the 4 weeks before Christmas is the season of Advent – a time of preparation. We are called to prepare for the coming of Christ. Surely, this is more important than the coming of any earthly ruler.

Obviously, Christ is not born physically each Christmas. There is a permanent mark in history when his physical birth occurred. It happened about 2000 years ago, about 63 generations ago. However, the Christian faith affirms his coming again and again. Advent calls us not only to recall his coming in the flesh, but also his coming in the spirit. This sort of birth requires a special preparation.

Let us think together how we should be preparing for his coming. First, we should center, focus, concentrate our attention on Him. We are such creatures of habit, that if we do not set our mind on a particular course,

It will be set for us. The affect on us is for the benefit of others, not necessarily for our own benefit.

We are affected by advertising whether we think it’s stupid or not; if we were not, companies would not spend millions on it. Now if we do not have a course of action, a center of attention, what do you think a magazine for example, during the Christmas season would aim us toward? This one from Time Magazine years ago, in just one issue (roll out display) had over 50 liquor ads. You have a mind; use it during advent to keep your thoughts and actions Christ centered.

If you ever lived on a farm, then you know more about hens and eggs than I do; but as I understand it, before they developed artificial incubation, they depended on hens to sit on the eggs in order that they might hatch. If there were too many eggs in a nest, and they were not all covered by the hen, the uncovered ones would not hatch. In fact, it took a special kind of hen, a persistent one, one that would stay with the eggs and not run off or be easily scared off the nest.

You know we need the same sort of persistence. Christ’s spirit can never be brought to birth in our lives as long as we keep him at the periphery of our living. We must brood long enough and regularly enough over the meaning of his life and death and triumph until we have the mind of Christ, until his character and disposition come alive in us.

So first, we must focus our attention On Jesus. Second, in our advent preparation we must heed the call of John the Baptist. John prepared the way of the Lord by calling his followers to repentance for the forgiveness of sin. John said, “His sandals I am not worthy to untie.”

John realized that this need for repentance and forgiveness was part of preparing for the coming of the Lord. Malachi asks, “who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire…”

Samuel Miller, once Dean of Harvard Divinity School, makes a clear comparison when we are placed along side of Christ. “He was courageous, we are cautious. He trusted the untrustworthy, we trust those who have good collateral. He forgave the unforgiveable, we forgive those who do not truly hurt us. He was righteous and laughed at respectability, we are respectable and smile at righteousness. He was meek, we are ambitious. He saved others, we save ourselves as much as we can. He had no place to lay his head, and did not worry about it, while we fret because we do not have the last convenience manufactured by clever science. He did what he believed to be right regardless of the consequences, while we determine what is right by how it will affect us. He feared God, but not the world. We fear public opinion more than we fear the judgment of God. He risked everything for God, we make religion a refuge from every risk. He took up the cross, we neither take it up nor lay it down, but merely let it stand.”

Yes, when Jesus confronts us, it is an embarrassment. Yet, he comes with love and forgiveness. We dare not presume on his goodness and grace. This Advent, let us be busy with reexamining our lives, with mending our relationships – both human and divine. John the Baptist’s call to repentance and forgiveness is still valid.

There is one more essential if Advent is to thoroughly prepare us for Christ’s coming. We must have a sense of anticipation, a sense of expectancy during these weeks. How often Jesus made this point. The one who seeks finds, the one who knocks will find doors unsealed. He told of servants which were prepared, for they remained watchful for their master on his return journey. The rule seems to be that if nothing ever happens in our spiritual lives it is because we never expect anything to happen.

Yes, those who seek Him, find Him. And the good news is that those who find Him find themselves, they become a somebody instead of a nobody.

Don’t we all long for communication with others be it verbal or letters or e-mail? We do, for without it we have no relationships with others, and without others we are lost; we are nothing; we hardly exist. Without others we don’t know who we are, for we have no identity except in reference to our fellows. I identify myself as the son of these persons, the father of these persons, the husband of this women, the pastor of these people and so on. And you can identify yourself in a similar way. Even the hermit identifies himself by the people from whom he has fled. You heard about the hermit who lived outside a city and woke up one morning and found the city missing. He had to find another city to live outside of.

Yes, we yearn for relationships so that we can be established as persons. If wholesome personal relationships are hard with persons we see, how much harder it must be for a relationship with God we do not see. So we long for some word from God that says “God is” – A word that tells us we are not alone in this universe. It is just at this point that the Gospel, the Good News is relevant to us. The Word has been and is being spoken to us in Christ. No longer need we see the world as an impersonal accident of moving atoms. The Ultimate One we now can call Abba, Father. For in Christ, The word became flesh and dwelt among us. In him was life, and that life was the light of men and women and children. And it was not to those who merely learned about him, but it was to those who received him and still receive him that he gave power to become children of God. There we have it; that is our true identity. We are children of God and that makes us the most real persons in the world.

In a play, “The Desperate Hours,” by Joseph Hayes, the story is told of an escaped bandit who keeps a family prisoners in their home. He holds a 10-year old boy in front of him as a shield. Unknown to anyone else, the father of the family has managed to get at the bandit’s two guns several hours prior to this moment. He had unloaded one and had taken the other one for himself. The father now stands across the room from the bandit. The bandit holds the son as a shield. Only the father knows the convict’s gun is unloaded, and that everything will be alright if the boy pulls away from his captor. The father shouts, “Pull away son; he can’t hut you.” The convict challenges him: “Try it and see.” The father responds: It has no bullets in it; run.” The boy does so, and the bandit’s gun clicks helplessly without power to enslave any longer.

It is just that kind of setting-one-free” that God does for us in the gift of Christ. In the experience of a new Christmas we find the gift and the giver are one. His coming anew to us identifies us as persons, persons now set free from all that enslaves and dehumanizes. We know who we are because we know whose we are.

Do you really want a meaningful Christmas? Then focus yourself on Jesus Christ, be busy with some of the about faces that repentance demands – mending those strained and broken relationships, and finally anticipate that Jesus will actually come into your life and be born anew in you – setting you free to minister in his name.

And Why Do you Worry?

And why do you worry…….?

Matthew 6:24-34

Chilmark Community Church

United Methodist

Rev. Vicky Hanjian

November 22, 2015

Way back in 1988, a simple song flooded the airways for a period of time – Bobby McFarrin’s – – “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”. Some days, just listening to it would lift my spirits. But on other days, I would want to turn it off and throw something at the radio because life really can be very heavy and there is a lot to worry about. A simple “Don’t worry – be happy” can sound pretty callous and unfeeling in the face of the enormity of what life throws at us sometimes – and especially in the light of the trauma of the daily news of terrorist attacks in Paris and Mali – – and the continued threat in different places around the world.

Jesus’ message about “don’t worry” doesn’t seem quite realistic in the complexity of our lives. His words seem out of step with our society and the world we live in. On the surface they lack coherence with the lived experience in the 21st century. As Ulrich Luz has put it, “when [Jesus’ words are] interpreted in a superficial manner, this statement could only have been written by a single guy living a carefree life on the beach in sunny Galilee.”

But there they are – – impertinent questions and teachings, really: “Why do you worry about your clothing?” “Don’t worry about what you will wear or eat or drink….don’t worry about your life……

Worry is another word for anxiety – – and anxiety is always directed toward the future – – what will happen if…….. What will happen if I lose my job…..what will happen if my social security is not enough to sustain me? What will happen if I get really sick and my health insurance won’t cover expenses? What will happen if I can no longer take care of myself? What will happen if I can’t meet the rent or the mortgage…..Who will take care of my family if something happens to me?…. What will happen if the terror afoot in the world cannot be contained?……..anxiety is with us a lot.

In our culture and our time and location, for the most part, our food and clothing needs are pretty well met. On this island if we are up against it, there are organizations and systems in place to help us. Food Pantries, free clothing ministries, Meals On Wheels, community dinners, food assistance programs and so on. In a small community like ours, there is no need for anyone ever to go hungry or without adequate clothing. It was not so for Jesus’ listeners who might only own one garment and who might face starvation if a family was not able to trade for food in the local markets, if a father thrown in prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his hungry children.

So how are we to hear these words for us today? Part of the answer is in verse 34 at the end of what we just read – but I think it needs a little unpacking. Jesus teaches “Don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

Ram Dass, a meditation teacher in the Eastern religious tradition, sums it up this way when he says “Be here now.”

Many spiritual teachers across the ages have taught that God can only be experienced in the present moment – – we cannot reach back into the past and feel God’s presence – although we man be able to see where God has been at work in our lives. We can’t reach into the future to find God because the future does not yet exist. When Jesus challenges us with the words “Do not worry…” he is inviting us to stay very much in the present where we can indeed feel and know the presence of God working in our lives and in the world right here and now – from moment to moment.

The more we are able to focus on that holy energetic presence working with us, the more our anxiety quotient goes down. When, through worry and anxiety, we move ourselves into some imagined and frightening future, we have lost touch with the companionship of God in this moment. How often do we manage to create tension and worry about something that is going to happen and then we get on the other side of it and realize that all that anxiety simply wasn’t necessary at all?

I think it is important to know that there is no moral judgment in Jesus words here. Jesus simply recognizes that his followers do indeed worry – this does not make them sinful or bad – it is just a state of being human. What Jesus is saying is that we don’t have to worry so much – – that by focusing on the truth that the Holy One dwells in every moment of our lives – and does indeed know exactly what we need in any given moment, we can relax into that truth and give ourselves some breathing space when we are feeling challenged by what life is presenting.

Now – I have to tell you – – I have to listen to my own sermon, because I can generate anxiety with the best of them. I need a little help along the way. So – I listen to teachers who suggest practices, spiritual disciplines, if you will, to keep me focused and present to the Holy. One practice is to notice when I am feeling worried or anxious about something – especially about things over which I have no control. That is the first step – – simply noticing my anxious state of mind – to say to myself – Hmmmm – -getting a little uptight about this aren’t you?” A second practice is to acknowledge that when I am anxious, I have in that moment separated myself from the Presence of God. As soon as I realize that, I have taken a step away from the worry or anxiety and a step closer to feeling myself back in God’s Presence. A third practice is to ask “What is God unfolding for me in this moment?” Now, a direct answer to that question may not come right in the moment, but the question has the effect of bringing me back into the awareness that God is indeed working with me even in the midst of my worry and I can begin to relax. I also have to tell you that this is not a magic formula. It is a discipline and I have to practice it over and over again – – sometimes a dozen times a day. Anxiety is a slippery thing – – but – – here’s the reward – – – the more I practice, the more aware I become of the active, energetic presence of the Holy in every moment – – and that leads to gratitude and thanksgiving. Gratitude and anxiety cannot share the same space for very long.

As we approach our national day of Thanksgiving, in a world fraught with danger and suffering, with violence and uncertainty about what it all means, it is good for us to take the teachings of Jesus to heart, to affirm that God does indeed, know what we need, and to give extravagant thanks for God’s continual involvement with our lives for our benefit.

Some of you might remember the old Ma and Pa Kettle television series? In a classic scene that was to be found in many of the episodes, Ma Kettle would bang the triangle on the porch, and from every corner and crevice around the yard hordes of screaming, yelling children would pour into the house fighting for a place at the table. Then Ma, in her best stentorian tones would holler, “Hold it!” and everyone would freeze in silence. Pa Kettle would roll his eyes heavenward, tip his hat, and say, “Much obliged.” And immediately the melee began again as abruptly as it had stopped. Maybe those simple words are enough, but it would be good for us, wherever we are on this Thanksgiving Day, if we stop for longer than a breath and bless God for all the ways the Holy Presence clothes and feeds and sustains us throughout the moments of our days, through all the years of our lives. Have a blessed and happy Thanksgiving.

HARMONIZING WITH HANNAH 11/15/15

“Harmonizing With Hannah”

Chilmark Community Church

United Methodist Church

November 15, 2015

1 Samuel 1:4-20; 2:1-10

Rev. Vicky Hanjian

Rev. Dawn Chesser, Director of Preaching Ministries for the United Methodist Church reminds us that there are many things to admire about Hannah.  What she finds most compelling is Hannah’s audacity before God. “Hannah is frustrated with her situation. She expects God to hear her and to respond. She’s not going to sit back and try to be sweet and patient and wait for others to come around to see her point of view. She going to get in there and pour it all out before God — all of her years of pain, all of her sadness, all of her anger, all of her frustration over the oppressive position in which she is caught. She’s even willing to try bargaining with God if it will help.”

In her sorrow and distress and bitterness, Hannah goes to God and prays for a child.  Her prayer is ecstatic. She stands and moves her lips without making a sound.  Eli, the priest, is quite sure she is under the influence of wine.  She sets him straight and Eli hears the passion of her desire for God’s attention.  Eli reassures her of the possibility that God will grant her prayer.  In time, the child, Samuel, is born.  Hannah dedicates the child to the service of God – – and the grand saga of Israel takes a quantum leap as Samuel, priest and prophet, grows up to become a kingmaker for Israel.

In this brief part of a much larger story, God brings about a great reversal – bringing life where it did not exist – bringing justice for Hannah where it was absent – bringing joy where there had been bitterness and sorrow.

I want to pay attention to the song that Hannah sings in response to what God has done in answering her prayer and giving her a child.  First and foremost, Hannah sings a song of gratitude: “My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted (made even greater) in my God….there is no Holy One like the Lord….there is no Rock like our God….

Hannah prays…..God answers… By God’s grace, Hannah becomes pregnant.  When her long awaited son is born Hannah sings to God in joy and gratitude.  She is no longer at the bottom of the pecking order.  She will no longer have to endure the insults leveled at her by Peninah – her heart leaps with joy – – she is the barren woman who has conceived and born a child.  It is a deeply personal and moving song of gratitude for God’s gracious reversal of her barrenness and suffering.

But the song moves quickly from the personal to a decidedly universal and political note.  Hannah sings: Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil…..God raises up the poor from the dust; God lifts the needy from the ash heap….the barren woman bears seven children – but the one who has many children is forlorn.

Hannah sings about a God who works in great reversals – – a God who makes the rich poor, who gives children to the barren women.   She sings of a God who is powerful and who works in all of creation to bring justice to the world God has created.  Hannah sings about a God who turns things upside down in order to make things right.  Her song celebrates and gives witness to the power of God to create possibilities for the future that seem impossible through human resources alone.

I couldn’t help thinking about this God while reading the headlines of The New York Times and The Boston Globe this week.  Both papers featured the story of a democratically elected government in Myanmar – a country that has been abusively dominated by a powerful military regime for many years. It seems as though that small land so ridden by corruption and violence for so long may be going through a great reversal.  Might we see the hand of God in their history? 

There are moral implications that flow from Hannah’s song.  The God of reversals is a God who notices the difference between the faithful who attempt to cooperate with the Divine vision for humankind and those who do not. (v.9)  While this idea of God as judge is often an uncomfortable notion for us to grapple with, for Hannah, it was a sign of hope.  She lived in a time when the power of violence and corruption and oppression determined the direction of life for Israel. Hannah’s song is a song of trust in God’s power to transform the life and the social and political realities in which she lived.

In many ways, the world we live in today is not so very different from Hannah’s world.  A short paragraph from the Interpreters’ Bible sums up the similarities:

“We live in a world that constantly evidences a belief in human might.  Militarism, in its modern technological guise, made the 20th century the bloodiest century in human history; and still it is easier to raise budgets for weapons than for diplomacy.  Consumer driven market realities determine our cultural preferences and appetites. Elections are influenced more by financial resources than by political ideas.  Even in the church, energy often seems directed to issues of membership growth, institutional maintenance and popularity of programs than to the discernment of what God is doing in the world.” (from the NRSV New Interpreters Bible).

Hannah sings a song of hope for ancient Israel. Her song offers us hope us too.  We need an assurance that a different reality is at work in the world from what we customarily acknowledge.  We need to know that the language of  “the 99%”  and the “1%”,  the ongoing violence in the Middle East, immigration issues around the world,  and the battle for the welfare of the middle class are not divorced from the gracious concern and oversight of God.

  At the beginning of Hannah’s story, she seems powerless.  She is sad and depressed. Her husband doesn’t understand her.  Her “sister-wife” taunts and abuses her.  She prays passionately to God and her priest accuses her of drunkenness.  Wherever she turns she is cut off from the fullness of life. 

But still, she prays and then she sings with passion.  Her song reminds us that power is not irrevocably tilted in favor of those the world defines as powerful.  Those worldly definitions of power leave far too many human beings feeling powerless and without hope. 

Hannah sings of a God whose transforming power can reverse the patterns of power and wealth. She sings of a God who does not accept the world’s power arrangements.  She sings of a God whose might is not wielded in a disinterested fashion.  God is heavily invested in the welfare of the weak, the powerless, the poor, the hungry, the dispossessed, the barren.”

Hannah’s song is the beginning of the lead up to the story of David finally being anointed as King of Israel – the king who will unite all the 12 fractious tribes of Israel  – who will bring justice and peace to the land.  Any king whom God will anoint and empower must serve the reversals of power that Hannah sings about. 

In our own time, the people of God are called to identify and minister with  those who wait for the great reversals – people who yearn for adequate housing, for a living wage, for safety for their children, for affordable education, for adequate health care, for freedom from fear.  We are called to attend to the most powerless among us.  But even more, we are called upon to trust in an invisible power that often seems to be absent or not strong enough to do the job of reversing the order of things.

For followers of Jesus, the melody of Hannah’s song is echoed in the song of Mary – known as the Magnificat (Lk. 1:45-55).  On hearing that she is to bear a son, Mary sings about God: He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. Both songs see the power of God as transforming the world in behalf of the powerless.

Mary becomes a part of long tradition of singing women. She has an ancestry that includes Hannah who sings at the birth of Samuel.  But there are other singers too.  On the shores of the Reed Sea, Miriam, the sister of Moses, calls out the women to sing about God ‘s deliverance of Israel out of slavery in Egypt.

The great judge, Devorah, sings of God’s victory when God shifts the balance of power against the Canaanites in the Book of Judges.  (5:1)  These women in our faith tradition were singers of new possibilities.  They were singers of new communities and new power arrangements.  The songs of the mothers remind us that our story as the church is part of the song God has been singing since the beginning of time.

  We are rapidly approaching the season of Advent when we will be focused on the coming of Jesus for the healing of the world.  Hannah’s song reminds us that the history of God’s healing and restoration and salvation did not just begin with Jesus – rather it was part of the history into which Jesus was born – – a history that Jesus inherited and brought forward, profoundly enriched by his life and teaching.   Jesus in turn becomes part of the history into which we are born.  As his followers, it is our sacred task to share in God’s great work of bringing into being a more sane and just and compassionate world. 

It is our turn to take up the song – to give thanks to God for all that God has done since the beginning of time – – and to harmonize our voices with Hannah and MIriam and Devorah and Mary to sing of a God of justice who will continue working to transform this world until we become the kingdom God has had in mind since the beginning.

May God give us the strength and the wisdom, the courage and the faith, and the creativity to see our role and to take up the song.