Category Archives: SERMONS

“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

Promises, Promises Take II, May 1, 2016

Promises, Promises – Take 2”

John 14:15 – 29

Chilmark Community Church

May 1, 2016

Rev. Vicky Hanjian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Promises, Promises April 25,2016

“Promises, Promises”

Genesis 17:1-8

Revelation 21:1-7

Chilmark Community Church

April 24, 2016

Rev. Vicky Hanjian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Behind Locked Doors

“WHAT’S GOING ON HERE?”
John 20:19 – 23
April 3, 2016
Chilmark Community Church
Rev. Vicky Hanjian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Transformed Life Easter, 2016

The Transformed Life

Ecclesiastes  3:1-8; 12:7

(From Ecclesiastes Annotated and Explained by Rabbi Rami Shapiro)

John 20:1-18

Easter March 27, 2016

Rev. Vicky Hanjian

Chilmark Community Church

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus Leading the Way, March 20, 2016

JESUS LEADING THE WAY

March 20, 2016

Chilmark Community Church

Rev. Armen Hanjian

MARK 10:32-34; 11:1-11(NEB)                                         PALM SUNDAY

In Mark we are told, “They were on the way, going up to Jerusalem. Jesus was going ahead of them….” What a picture.  Having visited Israel 7 times, I can easily imagine Jesus walking along a dry dusty road near the Dead Sea, the lowest spot on earth, 1300’ below sea level, passing thru the treed oasis of Jericho and then trudging the uphill way on a 22  and ½ mile journey to the city of Jerusalem – 2400’ above sea level.  Jerusalem – a walled city built on a hill for protection.  Jerusalem – the place where people lived out their lives – the rich their way, the poor their way.

They were on the road going up to Jerusalem, Jesus leading the way; and the disciples were filled with awe; while those who followed behind were afraid.  That description of followers – some filled with awe and some filled with fear – tells me there is more than one image of what was happening.

For years the Hebrew people were in subjection to foreign rule – at that time it was Roman rule.  The people of the land had various hopes and expectations as to how God would eventually free them.  Some believed it would be on the last day – The Day of the Lord – filled with dreadful

conflict and with a general resurrection.  Others, like the zealots, wanted to achieve national liberation by force and believed that such action would reveal (bring to the forefront) the hoped for Messiah.  Then there were the Pharisees who didn’t approve of a revolution; they believed God’s Messiah would appear in God’s good time – in the line of David and thru him the Law would be fulfilled.

Who knows all the thoughts and camps represented in the train that followed Jesus to Jerusalem?  In the popular mind, on that Palm Sunday, people assumed the Messiah would be a political hero.  We don’t know the number in the crowd when Jesus arrived at the city; evidently it was large since the officials of the province felt threatened.  Likely, never before had the time been so ripe for a political uprising.  It’s no wonder that some looked at Jesus with awe and some, knowing the power of principalities, looked with fear.

In the Robe, Lloyd C. Douglas tells of a slave called Demetrius who on Palm Sunday pushed his way through the rejoicing crowd surrounding Jesus to get a good look at him who was being proclaimed.  Later he was discussing his experience with another slave who asked, “See him close up?”  Demetrius nodded. “Crazy?”  “No.”  “”King?” “No,” muttered Demetrius, “not a king.”  “What is he, then?”  “I don’t know, mumbled Demetrius in a puzzled  voice, “but – he is something more important than a king.”

When a king directs, you follow.  Your only a subject, a pawn, a near nothing.  Jesus, on the other hand, leads.  We follow and we become and we become like him.

Jesus didn’t succumb to being crowned a king.  He entered the city in a well-planned manner.  Which included riding on the colt of a donkey – symbolic not of a conquering king, but of a messiah.  Isaiah described the messiah as a suffering servant.

“They were on the road going up to Jerusalem, Jesus leading the way….”

That was a perfect, a natural way for Mark to state it, for right from the start of his ministry as all four Gospel writers testify, Jesus calls persons to follow him.  “If anyone would come after me,” he said, “let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.”

Let us consider, this Palm Sunday morning where he led his disciples,

Where he leads us, and how we may follow him.

Where did he lead his disciples?

Whenever some one leads, he or she comes close to misleading.  Surely, there were those who read Jesus to be leading a bloody revolution.  I believe his intent was not that – that was not his way.  When Jesus overturned the tables of the money changers and sellers of pigeons, it was likely a protest that the temple was being misused.  Jesus was not intent on being a troublemaker, but he was troublesome, just as prophets usually are.

His disciples who followed him found themselves led to places of power like the Temple, led to challenge practices that burdened God’ s children, led to conflict with civil authorities and led to speak up for the truth at times and at times silently affirm the truth.

Throughout the Gospels people looked to Jesus for answers and for leadership.    But what they found was often surprising and different from the ways of the world.  Anton Jacobs writes: “When they want answers, he speaks in parables.  When they want it easy, he makes it hard. When they want it hard, he makes it easy.  When a rich man comes to Jesus, Jesus tells him to sell everything he has and give it to the poor.  When a woman starts bathing his feet in an expensive perfume and Judas argues that it could sold and the money could be given to the poor, Jesus tells him the poor will always be with you.  And the one time Jesus seems to conform to their messianic expectations is on his final triumphal entry into Jerusalem, which is then followed not by his coronation but by his crucifixion.”

The disciples didn’t have it easy nor do we.  Just where does Jesus lead you and me?  Like the disciples of old, he has much to overcome in us

Not to lead into temptation but into paths of righteousness.  The truth is we are already very much following others: patterns set by our parents, older brothers or sisters or teachers who became our heroes and not all their leadership was in healthy directions.  In addition, we have the tendency to follow the herd, to do what everyone else is doing rather than doing the right.  Jesus gave us clear warning: “If the blind leads the blind, both shall fall into the ditch.”

Where does he lead us? Certainly to peace, but not the peace that is “peace and quiet”, with no controversy, no stimulus, not the peace of a boat harbored, rather, the peace of a vessel moving through rough waters towards its destination.

For Paul, peace turned out to be sleepless nights, beatings, imprisonment at the end; For Father Damien, a lingering horrible death from leprosy in a leper colony.  Joy tuned out for Peter to be a crucifixion and for Dietrich Bonhoeffer, execution by the Nazis.

(ideas from Edmund Steimle)

And if we follow his leadership we may well get into conflict, sacrifice and death- perhaps not by execution, but by the strain and stress of our ministry.  He calls us to redeem the world and we know so little about doing it.  He demonstrated the only force that will work and what do we do?  We spend our time meeting budgets, oiling church machinery, coddling saints and compiling statistics.  We seek persons to join our church because it brings financial and social prestige, but the one dominating force  which should compel us to seek people is the force that drove Jesus to Jerusalem – love.

How do we follow Jesus?  By loving him, by loving him above self and above others.  “Going to Jerusalem in the sense that Jesus faced it, means going from the place of comparative security to the place of danger, from the place of comparatively little cost to the place of tremendous cost.” – Interpreter’s Bible 7:810

Does he lead you? Does he lead me?  Does he affect my budget in major ways, in every column?  Does he affect my use of my time?  Would those about me be surprised about my being a Christian?  What is my embarrassment level?  Would I speak up for the right in any situation?

What risks would I take to be a faithful follower? One measure to tell whether Jesus is leading you is do you wait to be asked or do you follow by offering yourself, by doing in his behalf, by loving God in each human being?

In a small country church where scriptures passages were written on the walls, a passage from John was written in an unusual, but most insightful way: “I am the way, the truth and the life if you love me.”

Unless we love him he will not be for us the way.  Unless we love others,

We will not be following him.

In John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, when Christian and his friend Hopeful are within the site of the Celestial City, just one last obstacle remained.  Picture it.  It is a deep, threatening river over which there is no bridge.  The prospect of having to swim across stuns them both.  Christian, especially, is filled with fear and seeks another way.  But when assured there is none, that, if they are to get to their destination, they must cross it, they commit themselves and enter the water.

Soon, Christian begins to sink and in panic cries to Hopeful: “I sink in the deep waters; the billows go over my head; all  the waves go over me.”

Then it is that Hopeful calls back: “Be of good cheer, my brother; I feel the bottom and it is good.”

You and I follow One who has gone ahead of us into the future, who has faced everything in life and death we will ever face – and who calls back as Hopeful called to Christian,  “Be of good cheer,  I have gone ahead and feel the bottom, even God, and have found God to be good.”

On the landscape of human existence, there was never a person quite like this Jesus.  So, like the disciples of old, I follow him with awe, and I invite you to deny yourself, take up your cross and follow him.

Where Oil and Water Mix

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s a Father to do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s Going on Down at the Temple?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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