Category Archives: SERMONS

“Parting Words” February 12/17

Parting Words

Deuteronomy 30:11 – 20

Matthew 5:21-26

Chilmark Community Church

February 12, 2017

Rev. Vicky Hanjian

We are starting out in the Book of Deuteronomy this morning. It is the 5th and final book of Torah in the Jewish tradition. Biblical tradition considers the entire book to be written from Moses’ perspective as a farewell address to the Israelites. Moses is nearing the end of his life and he is doing what modern hospice work encourages people to do as they approach their death – he does a “life review” – – he goes back in time and looks again at all the events that have transpired since he led the people out of slavery in Egypt into a 40 year trek with God in the wilderness. His parting words to the people recapitulate all the events and struggles and encounters with God that the people experienced from the time they left Egypt until they reached the mountains overlooking the Jordan River – the last river to cross before entering the land of Canaan. Moses already knows that he will not cross the Jordan with them. In his final address he exhorts them, blesses them, encourages them, warns them, teaches them and reminds them. He reminds them of the overwhelming events at Mt. Sinai when the law that would govern them was given to them in the midst of fire and thunder. He reminds them of the first time they broke God’s law – – of their transgression and the lack of faith that led to the creating of a Golden Calf that they could worship in place of an invisible God. He reminds them of how God provided water and manna for them in the wilderness so they would not die of hunger and thirst. He reminds them of all the complaining they did – wishing to be back in Egypt where things were bad, but at least they were predictable. Over and over again Moses calls Israel to remember the system of law that sustained them and that would continue to sustain them and keep them functioning as a cohesive people as they faced the challenges of the future. Over and over again, his final words to the people are that they must keep the law ever before them – – that being mindful of what God commands will allow them to live full and abundant lives – and he warns of the dire consequences if they forget or abandon the law.

Close to the end point of the story in this 30th chapter of Deuteronomy we hear Moses saying to the people: Surely, all that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us that we may hear it and observe it? Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us that we may hear and observe it?” No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.” (Deuteronomy 30:11 – 14)

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks tells the following anecdote:

When I was a student at university in the late 1960s – the era of student protests, psychedelic drugs, and the Beatles meditating with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi – a story went the rounds. An American Jewish woman in her sixties travelled to north India to see a celebrated guru. There were huge crowds waiting to see the holy man, but she pushed through, saying that she needed to see him urgently. Eventually, after weaving through the swaying throng, she entered the tent and stood in the presence of the master himself. What she said that day has entered the realm of legend. She said, “Marvin, listen to your mother. Enough already. Come home.”1

We are living in a time when we are watching the mainline churches decline in membership. Even though there are large and thriving congregations spotted here and there around the country, the trend is toward smaller and aging congregations who wonder what their future will be. There are innumerable reasons for this. Some point to the overarching reality that we live in a secular culture and that secular values supercede religious values. Others point to the notion that the church is no longer relevant for the times in which we live. Still others find that religion as they have experienced it or as they have inherited it does not meet their spiritual yearnings. This last group may identify as “spiritual but not religious” – – a whole population searching for spiritual meaning and not finding it in the structures of “organized religion.”

I wonder if Moses was anticipating the same kinds of concerns and searching on the part of Israel as they sat at the borders of Canaan – not knowing what they would encounter as they crossed the Jordan River – – the challenges of coping with a culture that was strange to them – – figuring out how to maintain their sense of unity and identity in the midst of their own tribal factions – – encountering other attractive religious options that would lead away from the covenant they were called to fulfill. I wonder if Moses had concerns about relevancy and secularism and spiritual seeking that might lead the people away from the dynamic relationship they had known with the elusive and invisible Presence that accompanied them during their wilderness years.

Like Marvin’s mom, Moses seems to be challenging Israel to look close to home to maintain their integrity as the people of God – – reminding them that the strength they need is not in the heavens or across some enticing sea – but rather is already in their hearts and in their mouths – – ready to be appropriated for their life as they move forward. They have lived for 40 years with the guidance of this God through the commandments that have given shape and structure to their lives – – a holy law that morphed them from a rag tag group of escaping slaves into an organized society whose life in community was based not on revenge and violence and killing, but on the rule of law.

In his parting words, Moses reminds the people of the laws under which they have lived. Laws about honoring the elders – the mothers and fathers; keeping the sabbath; not creating idols to worship; not taking what does not belong to you; laws about not lying or being dishonest in business; not stripping a field or a vineyard bare and leaving part of the crop behind for the poor; laws about not withholding wages from the poor; about paying a person a living wage; laws about not going around as a slanderer among the people; not rendering unjust judgments; not being partial to either the poor or the rich when making a judgment; adhering to one law for all – whether a citizen or a stranger within your gates. These are just a sampling of the law from the scriptures for living in covenant with God and with one another. Surely, this commandment that has been given to us is not too hard for us, nor is it too far away – – nor is it irrelevant. In truth, the commands challenge us to live in the highest spiritual commitment possible.

Matthew’s Jesus reinforces the law – – drives it even deeper into our hearts. HIs words are not easy to embrace at every moment. He says , in effect “Never mind about murder – most of you would never do that- your challenge is to keep from being angry with one another. Your challenge is not to shame one another by diminishing one another in any way. For Jesus, these are as serious an infringement of the law as is murder. Jesus brings the law directly into our human relationships – – so much so that he teaches that the worship of God can only be authentic if we come to worship and prayer having done the work of reconciliation with our neighbors, our family and our friends.

Near the end of his long review of Israel’s history in the wilderness, Moses refers to all that he has reminded them about. And referring to all that history, all that journeying, all that commitment on the part of God to the people, Moses says: See! I have set before you today [the possibility] of life and prosperity [and the possibility of] death and adversity……If you choose to enter the land and to live by the commands I have given you – you shall live and become numerous – – I will bless you…..but if you turn away….don’t listen……follow other gods….you will perish. There are logical consequences to be endured when the choice is made to turn away from the gift of order that makes life worth living. Sometimes those consequences can feel like a death is happening.

I have set before you life and death, blessing and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live – loving God – living in harmony with the wisdom that is set before you.

Our ability to choose life and blessing is challenged in some way every day. But the commands for life are not far from us. We don’t have to go searching all over for what we need in order to live with care in this world. Whether we struggle with secularism, or irrelevance, or we search for meaning beyond what the organizational structure of a church can give, we can always listen to Marvin’s mom. We can always “come home” to the original blueprint for life in community and in covenant with each other and with God. It is not far from us – – it is in our mouths and in our hearts – we live with it everyday. To trust it or not – to own it or not – to live it or not – – that’s our choice. Moses parting words to Israel on the eve of his own death are poignant and powerful They come from the mouth of one who has made a choice for life at every bend in the road. We might hear him saying one last time to this difficult people with whom he has lived and traveled for 40 years: My dear children – – Choose life so that you and your children may truly live.

Jesus said: “I came that you may have life, and have it abundantly.” Elsewhere he says: I am the resurrection and the life…” From the very beginning of the great saga of God’s journeying with us, abundant Life in relationship with God is what matters. Both Moses and Jesus whisper to us down through the ages to stay grounded and centered in the law of God who makes the Divine Presence known through prophets like Moses and in the Person of Jesus – – Today – they may even be shouting to us across eternity: Dear children of God – – Choose Life! So that you and your children may live.

1 “Not in Heaven” teaching on Deuteronomy 30:11-14

An Acceptable Fast February 5/17

An Acceptable Fast

Isaiah 58: 5 – 9

Matthew 5:13 – 20

Chilmark Community Church

February 5, 2017

Have you ever fasted? For most of us, the closest we come to fasting is going without food after mid-night prior to having morning blood work done – or perhaps prior to surgery. Fasting is not something we normally or easily choose to do. Occasionally, fasting may be part of a spiritual discipline. Almost every religious tradition has a component that suggests or requires fasting for measured periods of time. Most traditions warn against fasting for the wrong reasons – – the most predominant warning being that a person should not fast in order to appear pious or holy. In both Christianity and Judaism, when fast days cycle around in the liturgical year, the wisdom is that no one else should know one is fasting – that one is to wash one’s face and groom one’s hair – dress well, smile, function normally – and not speak about the discomfort or the hunger that accompany fasting. Fasting can serve a spiritual purpose. When done with careful intention it may indeed open the mind and the heart to God in expansive and meaningful ways.

In antiquity, it was believed that fasting might open a fast track to God’s approval – perhaps make God more inclined to judge the people favorably. But the verses from Isaiah sound like the people weren’t satisfied with the results of their fast. They weren’t getting a payoff on their investment. We get the slightest hint of a dialog between God and Israel. The people’s voice asks of God “Why do we fast but you do not see? Why do we humble ourselves when you don’t even notice?” But the voice of God through the prophet responds: “Look, you serve your own interests when you fast, and you continue to oppress all your workers. Your fasting only makes you quarrelsome and you fight and strike out with a wicked fist. Fasting the way you do today will not make your voice heard by God.”

God continues: Do you think this is the fast that I choose – – a day to humble oneself? Do you think I want you to bow down your heads head like the bulrushes, or that I want you to lie down in sack cloth and ashes? Is this what you call a fast, a day acceptable to me? Perhaps we can use our imaginations a little here – – and see bull rushes – – or perhaps the tall invasive grasses – the fragmites – that edge some of our ponds – bending low in a high wind – humbled by a storm – and yet they bounce back as soon as the wind stops – – their humility is a temporary state. Sack cloth and ashes were literally that – rough garments – scratchy on the skin – – picture wearing the coarsest burlap you have ever seen on a steamy day in August. Then imagine drawing a bucket of ashes from a cold fire pit and dumping them over your head and body until you are completely covered. With these practices the idea was to assume a posture of total abnegation and humility – – extremely uncomfortable and dirty – – in order to appropriately fast. For some individuals, fasting and praying in this manner may have resulted in the desired state of communion with God. But for others, it was pretty much an outward show of false piety.

God’s idea of a fast is different. It has nothing to do with people starving themselves or abasing themselves with harsh self-humiliation. God’s fast has to do with addressing the injustices in society – – with addressing the social systems that oppress people and weigh them down like a heavy yoke – things like chronic unemployment, unaffordable child care, the loss of the dignity of being able to provide for one’s family. God’s fast doesn’t require starving oneself but rather requires the sharing of one’s bread with someone who is hungry. God’s fast does not require creating barriers, but rather bringing the homeless and the refugee into a safe circle of care – – God’s fast requires that the naked – – all human beings who are desperately vulnerable – – who cannot make their way in the world – – God’s fast is that they be covered, clothed, by a compassionate justice that sees them, cares for them and takes action to attend to to their needs.

Matthew’s Jesus reaffirms that his mission is to fulfill the flowing intention of God as it comes through in the great law given on Sinai and through the witness of prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah and Micah and Malachi. Jesus is pretty clear that there are consequences when the law and the prophets are set aside. He warns that those who ignore the issues of justice and righteousness and who draw others along with them will be “among the least in the kingdom of heaven” while those who are careful to pay attention and to teach others about the kind of fast that God requires will be great in the kingdom of heaven.

What we notice in Jesus’ words, however, is that no one is excluded from the Kingdom of Heaven. Those who live by the law of God and those who ignore it – – everyone enters. When Jesus says that those who have ignored the laws of God will be “Least in the kingdom” and those who have paid attention and acted in accordance with it will be “great” – – he is not setting up one more hierarchy that separates people. Jesus is talking about the great reversals that are a common thread throughout the bible that will be a reality in the kingdom of Heaven – – the kind of reversals we read in the beatitudes where those who mourn will be comforted – where the meek will inherit the earth – where the hungry will be filled – where those who weep now will laugh – – and conversely – – that those who are full now will be hungry and those who laugh now will mourn and weep.” The curious dynamic is that we will all be in it together in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Matthew’s Jesus is not the “gentle Jesus, meek an mild” of our childhood prayers when he stands in the line of succession from the great prophets who demanded of the people that they pay attention to the fast of justice and mercy and compassion that God requires. Matthew’s Jesus does two things in his insistence on attention to the law and the prophets. First – he affirms and validates the power of the scriptures to get us re-centered and rooted and grounded when we get off track. Hearing Jesus’ insistence on the centrality of the scriptures was critical at the time that Matthew was writing when the Jewish and early Christian era was in such turmoil. There was conflict within the Jewish community as they tried to chart a course for Judaism following the destruction of the temple. And there was conflict between those who would eventually break away to follow Jesus and those who would remain in the tradition. Matthew’s Jesus reminds the conflicted community of where their guidance and direction come from. The second thing that Matthew’s Jesus does by his insistence on attention to the law and the prophets, is that Jesus becomes for us the greatest of compassionate healers. He draws us into line with God’s vision for humanity. He shows us the way and he, indeed, becomes The Way. By aligning himself with the law and the prophets and by challenging us to follow him, Jesus invites us to become healers and reconcilers in a terribly broken and chaotic world. This is our most challenging calling. Jesus even warns about the challenge when he says to his followers “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you on my account.” He seems to indicate says we might actually be happy about that – – because it affirms that we are on the right track – – in good company with him and all the prophets who came before him. When we receive resistance or criticism for aligning ourselves with the teachings of Jesus, we might understand this as an indicator that we are doing the right thing.

We will celebrate communion together in a few minutes. I want to remind us once again of the circumstances of that early event. It happened on the eve of Jesus’ arrest. In modern language, he would be condemned for sedition and treason against Rome for daring to preach and teach the message of a God of justice, loving-kindness, liberation – a God of reversals who’s intent is to turn the world upside down by ushering in a realm where no one is left out. Jesus would die for the kind of preaching and teaching that called Rome to account. Jesus lived and died as an acceptable fast. He shared that last meal with his disciples to give them a constant reminder of the living fast they were to embody. He used simple foods that they would eat every day. And he said to them “every time you eat and drink bread and wine together remember what I am about.”

We stand in a great invisible lineage of human beings who have, indeed, remembered, who have embraced the acceptable fast that God desires and who have passed the memory on to us. Perhaps as we gather at the table, we might imagine that incredibly long line of witnesses here with us – filling the sanctuary with their presence as we share in communion and re-commit to taking our place in that line. May it be so.

TRAVELING LIGHT 1/29/17

TRAVELING LIGHT

MARK 6:7-13

JANUARY 28, 2015

CHILMARK COMMUNITY CHURCH

REV. ARMEN HANJIAN

(Pastor pulls up a chair facing the cross and reads into mike with back to congregation.)

It’s about time you and I had a talk, Lord. Here I am at least 3/4 of the way thru life and it’s about time I paused to do some evaluation. I am talking to you and to these my friends hoping that this conversation might help all of us think thru where we are in this pilgrimage of life.

Yes, that’s what this life is – it’s traveling thru, How have I travelled in the past, Lord? What’s been happening? What things have I accumulated? And what do I need for days to come? Help me Lord. Help us all to see where we are and what’s occurring in our lives, lest things happen gradually to us and we become what we have not aimed to become, lest we get trapped by good things which keep us from the best things.

I think of the time Jesus sent his disciples, people who cared about him, people he entrusted with the mission of your love. I think of that time when he sent them out and cautioned them not to take too much with them. Yes, the directions were for a short-term mission, but in some ways there is a timeless sense to it. Elaborate equipment is not needed. What is needed is to get the mission accomplished. I guess that is how we should approach all of life.

Jesus told the disciples they didn’t need a bag to carry all sorts of provisions. He also indicated they should not waste precious time on any persons who would not receive their message; rather, they should go on to others who would receive their good news. As I think about Jesus’ directions to those early followers, I can’t help thinking that they are instructions for me as well, Lord. Have I taken too much on my journey? Have I taken enough – enough of the right things?

First, have I taken too much? Sometimes I think even the log cabin home we built from a kit is too much. I sure have to do some sorting out. I have to discover what has been crucial in forming me and has become part of me and what I need to take into the future. (thoughts from Richard L Cookson)

How easily we are bound by possessions; we become their slaves – I guess we become their slaves if they do not serve our purposes. Each thing we acquire must be carefully chosen. I suppose the best things are those which are multipurpose. The test seems to be, Lord, will this object or idea serve both you and us in the future? I remember when I was a kid, I spent large blocks of time playing games. But if that is what I do when I’m grown up, that would be inappropriate. Yet, as games can serve healthy relationships, there is a place for them. It seems that good balance means I’ve got to test regularly the situation – whether the things I am doing and the things I am acquiring serve both you and me. I must be sure the things I am acquiring are not weights which keep me from traveling my journey to the fullest.

How fitting here to find out that the word “impediment” once meant baggage. Going on a trip, just enough baggage is what is needed. Too much becomes a burden just as not enough becomes a burden. In our land of plenty, I’m pretty sure how I am most likely out of balance: too much baggage, too many impediments. Lord, help me to let go of more and more that I might more and more fulfill the purpose of a child of God in this life. As years go quickly by, it dawns on me how much we must leave behind. I see now the sooner we get rid of the excess and the unnecessary, the more fit we are for you to work thru us.

Lord, each week I take the garbage and recycling to the dump – the remains of yesterday’s life. What if I piled it up outside my house and I looked to see what of my purchases were needed and what was a side track – would I be ashamed? Have I made any progress with things?

The garbage people take our clutter of used things, but what of our clutter of hurts? Do we nurse them, keep them, or are we willing to also give them up to you as unnecessary burdens? It’s so hard to discard feelings and assumptions we learned as kids, but we know that in your sight there are many ideas which are inappropriate for a child of God. Surely. no child of God should believe that some people are inferior, that because of a common heritage all persons in a group cannot be trusted, that the way we were brought up is the right way and your best way.

Lord, help me see if I’ve been carrying too much, and what is appropriate to sell or discard or give away. And on this journey of life, secondly, I have to ask, “Have I taken enough of the right things?”

Even from you Lord, have I taken the right things? When I first really met you, you said, “Come unto me..” And I did that. I found strength. I found peace. I found hope and meaning in life. And you said “Go!” Surely, a fulfilled life needs both actions: to come to you and to go in your behalf. Have I just read your teachings or have I taken them as guidance and supply for my journey thru life?

Do I hear you when you say “don’t set you heart on those riches where moth and rust corrode and thieves can steal?” Some things we treasure because they give us power or they help us shine in competition over another or because of the exclusiveness of the item – “Only I have it.” Some things we hang onto because they remind us of a relationship.

I see Lord, that all that you created is good, but the value for me is how I use things. I see, too, that my investments ought to be in things that are lasting – – the things that abide, such as faith and hope and love in these relationships. If we have a house, let us use it for what counts and not just for cleaning it and for storing store stuff.

I see you want us to travel light so we might give undivided mind and effort to our mission in life. Let me not wait for the perfect equipment to be on hand lest I lose my way dabbling in incidentals and acquiring a permanent preoccupation with secondary things keeping me from traveling swiftly to urgent tasks.

Lord, when I remember the early disciples, I truly have reason for hope and encouragement.. For them and for us, wherever our life journey takes us, we have the assurance that you are available to us. As with the early disciples so with us; you have given us a technique for defeat: We should move on if we seem defeated in any venture of faith, for we have not been required to be successful, only to be obedient to your call.

My mission is not a solitary journey. I travel with companions of compassion. Those early disciples didn’t need much because they could rely on the hospitality of others of the faith community for food and shelter and basic needs. Truly, this life is a journey of faith. Will I be there when others of the community need aid? Will the community of faith come thru when I need it? The disciples were willing to make those risks; help me to do so Lord. Isn’t that part of what faith means?

I really don’t know what to do next, but thinking these thoughts and with your aid, my forth-coming decisions will prod me away from accumulating things and away from accumulating hurt feelings. With your aid Lord, my forth-coming decisions will prod me towards living for right and warm relationships.

Maybe, I won’t travel light as did St. Paul the missionary or like the early preachers who went West with the pioneers, but as for me, I know I have to travel lighter than I am traveling now. So help me Lord. Help us Lord. Amen.

RE-Membering January 22, 2017

RE-Membering”

Genesis 1:1- 9

Matthew 3:1-17

Chilmark Community Church

January 22, 2017

Rev. Vicky Hanjian

Rev. Mahlon H. Smith poured a little water on my head and baptized me in the Cedar Cliff Methodist Church in Haledon, NJ, on June 21, 1942. “Hazel Victoria Clark, child of Raymond Victor Clark and his wife, Helen Doris Holland” is the way it was recorded on my baptism certificate 35 days after my arrival on this planet. The story handed down to me is that I spit up on the minister’s robe before he handed me back to my mom! At this point in my life I am not sure whether that was an auspicious, or perhaps, a prophetic beginning. Be that as it may, by bringing me to the church to be baptized into the community of Christians called the Cedar Cliff Methodist Church, my mom and dad set my life on a path. In my behalf, the community promised, with my parents, to lead exemplary lives, to resist evil, to seek and pursue justice, to teach me the way of righteousness according to the scriptures and the life of Jesus.

The symbolic act of baptism opens the way for future relationship with the Holiness that pervades all of life – – and at crucial times in my life, remembering my baptism has had a life sustaining influence that has encouraged me on my journey.

It is a long way from the baptism that we often witness and experience in the church to the baptism of Jesus in a muddy river 2000 years ago.

A wild, rangy guy who dressed in camel skins and who ate bugs and honey came roaring out of the desert to the edge of civilization preaching a message of repentance and the coming of the kingdom of God. The story raises a few questions: “What was going on?” “What was so compelling about his message that people would flock to him to be dunked in that river?” “If John’s baptism was a baptism for the repentance of sins, what were the sins that people were repenting?” “Why did Jesus present himself for John’s baptism?” “Why or what was Jesus repenting?”

The baptism we know about is Christian baptism. We do it indoors, mostly. The water is clear and clean. Some traditions practice complete immersion under the water, others pour or sprinkle water on the top of the head. It is usually an occasion for happiness and celebration as a person is welcomed into the community of believers. But that is Christian baptism and John was a Jew. He preached and called out to other Jews. Jesus was a Jew and he came to John along with the rest of the crowds.

Jews had no concept of baptism as we know it. What they DID know was ritual bathing in running water before entering the marriage covenant, or before going to the synagogue for prayer, or following child-birth, or a critical juncture or change of direction in one’s life. Jews bathe in a mikveh, a ritual pool with free flowing water in which Jews can completely immerse themselves in preparation for spiritual rituals of the faith. A “mikveh” can be any body of “living” or moving water – like the ocean – – or a spring – – or a river like the Jordan.

The Hebrew word “mikveh” means “gathering of waters” – – we find it in the Genesis text that we heard earlier when God said “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” The Hebrew language is filled with plays on words – and with a little different emphasis on the Hebrew letters, the word “mikveh” also can be translated to mean “Hope.”

So – we meet John on the banks of the Jordan River – and what is he doing? He is immersing people in a mikveh, in living water, according to Jewish tradition, as he calls them to repentance and hope.

But the questions remain. What was going on? The Jews were an oppressed people – – and their adherence to their religious tradition of being a people in covenant with God made life dangerous for them under Roman rule. As the anti-Jewish pressure on the people increased, there was a temptation for some to simply submit – to knuckle under to the heavy influence of Rome – perhaps to become closet Jews – perhaps to just quietly assimilate and live out life in relative peace. For others, the pressure created a desire for violent rebellion and as futile as it was, armed resistance against Rome seemed the way to go. Still others chose a life of asceticism – of withdrawing into the wilderness to live in as much purity as they could – – trying to maintain Jewish life by avoiding as much contact with Rome as possible – trying to hold on and wait out the Roman occupation.

Each option, though, meant loss of identity. Assimilation – violent response – withdrawing – all represent a relinquishment of the high calling to the Jews to be “a kingdom of priests and holy nation” – – a people called to bear witness to the power and love and creativity and righteousness of the One True God.

Into this complex and painful milieu comes John – – preaching repentance. In Hebrew, the word is T’shuva. It means “return” or “turn toward” John’s message to the Jews of his time was the call to do t’shuva – – a call to the people remember who they are and to turn toward God – to return to their identity as a covenant people.

So – the people flock to hear John – to be immersed in the river – – to make an outward and visible sign of their intention to return to their most essential identity as God’s people. In his book “Jews In The Time Of Jesus”, Stephen Wylen reminds us that “John’s immersions were not baptisms into faith in Christ, but Jewish immersions. John might better be called John The Mikveh-Man rather than John The Baptist.” Ritual immersion in a mikveh re-capitulated the entire Jewish saga from the gathering of the waters at the moment of creation, to the cleansing flood and the rainbow, to the midnight wrestling of Jacob at the River Jabbok, to the waters of the Nile and the rise of Moses, to the waters of the Red Sea, to the water that flowed from the rock in the wilderness. Water shaped the life of Israel at every critical juncture. Immersion in the waters of Jordan became a re-membering – a re-calling – – a re-collecting – – of all that identity shaping history.

So from this little bit of biblical history, we get a glimpse of why people might have been drawn to the banks of Jordan. John struck a chord in the very heart of Jewish spirituality – the call to return to all that identified a Jew as a person in covenant with God.

And then there is Jesus. Why did he come to John? As a Jew, what was his t’shuva? We can’t know for sure – but we might speculate. Matthew’s gospel gives us a vivid story of Jesus’ baptism. Matthew draws us in to witness the identifying moment in Jesus life – the moment that indeed sets his face forever toward God. Jesus joins his fellow Jews in responding to John’s call to turn – – to return – – to the Source of his identity – – to say “Yes” to living out his divinity in human form. He receives the ritual immersion of John and rises out of the water to hear his identity proclaimed “You are my beloved Son. I am well pleased with you.”

Our Christian tradition of baptism is drawn out of the River Jordan with Jesus. Many of us were brought to baptism as infants by our parents. Some of us were a little older when we were able to make a choice for ourselves. Others of us entered into the sacrament as adults – – and still others of us may still be thinking about whether to be baptized or not. Wherever we are on the spectrum relative to Christian baptism, one thing remains certain. Baptism, even in Christian tradition, invites turning and returning. Both infant and adult baptism bestows identity. And not just any identity. Our baptism marks us as beloved of God. It marks us as members of a community that affirms the righteousness of God, a community that supports and assists us to do the continual work of t’shuva – of turning and returning over and over again to the highest expressions of our God given identity.

Baptism comes with responsibilities attached. Jesus is the model for a life lived forward from baptism. When we rise, wringing wet, from the waters with Jesus, we are called to life characterized by nonviolent resistance to the powers and principalities and systems that dehumanize the children of God. We rise, called to life characterized by healing attention given to the sick, the elderly, the disabled; we rise called to life characterized by doing our part to subvert the political and economic systems that lead to hunger and poverty and disenfranchisement; we rise from the baptismal waters called to resist the forces that lead us into forgetting who we are. A simple thing like remembering our baptism, our essential identity as beloved of God will be critical as the new year unfolds and we come to terms with the politics of fear and suspicion and disrespect that have been foreshadowed by the 2016 electoral campaign.

John’s immersion of the Jews in the Jordan has been called a form of passive, subversive resistance to the tyranny of Rome. At its best, perhaps our own baptism, regardless of when it happens, is one of the most subversive acts of our lives if it leads us into giving expression to the life of Jesus as we live in the world today. We are called to remember our baptism – – but perhaps even more, we are called to allow our baptism to RE-member us – to let our baptism pull us back together – – to re-join and re-collect us from the forces of fragmentation that threaten our claim on our highest identity.

When we remember – – and allow ourselves to be Re-membered, we then participate in the hope implied in the mikveh – – and we rise from the waters of blessing to live into our identity as beloved children of God.

Immediately following his baptism, Jesus heads out into the wilderness to battle his own demons. Baptism did not make him immune, nor does it make us immune, to the spiritual and moral and ethical challenges and struggles that life presents us – – but it does give us a fundamental sense of who we are and how we are to live as we navigate our own wilderness. In his baptism Jesus aligned himself with the purposes of God and with the holy community God had designated to be God’s people.

In church language, the sacrament of baptism is referred to as “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” I like that language. To me it implies that the grace is already there within us – – it is a given – – with or without the application of water and words. But when a baptism does occur, a certain public statement is made either by an adult individual or by parents in an infant’s behalf, that the inward and spiritual grace is claimed and owned, that a particular identity is embraced. Whatever is disconnected or fractured or broken is made whole and life moves on in powerful and unpredictable ways.

So – today, as we remember the baptism of Jesus, we celebrate our connections with each other, with our history as the people of God, with the ancient ritual itself. But even more, we allow our baptism to re-member us – to pull us back into wholeness. And even more than that, our baptism is always a call to remember who we are – – Beloved sons and daughters with whom God is pleased – – with all the privilege and responsibility that comes with owning our baptismal identity.

Re-membering – – it has never been more critical than it is today. May God grant us strong and vibrant memories that will both sustain us and draw us into the future. AMEN

“Packing for the Journey” 1/1/17

Packing For The Journey”

Ecclesiastes 3:1-13

Matthew 2: 13-15; 19-23

Chilmark Community Church

January 1, 2017

Rev. Vicky Hanjian

Over the last couple of months, I have been reading Scott Peck’s book IN SEARCH OF STONES. The theme of the book is built around his travels in Scotland with his wife, Lily, searching out pre-historic stone structures and monuments that dot the landscape of Scotland. A man after my own heart! While I was reading his chapter on Pilgrimage I happened to also listen in on one of Rick Steves’ travel programs where he was talking about pilgrims on the Santiago de Campostela – a popular pilgrimage route that crosses northwestern Spain. In the same program, Rick shifted his focus to how to pack wisely for traveling in Europe. Travel, pilgrimage, journey, packing – – images for thinking about a year ending and a new year beginning.

Given the state of massive and disruptive movements of whole populations, particularly in Syria, as a result of the unceasing war and violence there, it is easy to make the emotional connections with the story of Joseph and Mary fleeing with their newborn son to escape the terrorist reign of Herod – a king who was threatening a house to house search in order to kill every male child under the age of two.

I can’t help asking (as I do when I see the multitudes of refugees in transit) – what did they pack? If they had to move quickly, what belongings did they choose for the journey? When we see artistic renderings of what has come to be called “The Flight Into Egypt” – Mary is seated on a donkey holding the infant Jesus close while Joseph walks alongside the donkey carrying nothing but a staff in his hand. What did they pack? What did they leave behind?

Spending a few moments with the story of the journey into Egypt seems appropriate as we enter a new year. For Mary and Joseph, leaving everything that was familiar behind them in order to keep their small family safe represented the beginning of a new epic.

As 2017 begins, we too, necessarily begin a new chapter in our own lives – as individuals – – as a community – – and as a nation. Another year is stretching out in front of us. In some ways it is like a fresh canvas waiting for the brush strokes that will create the image of life in the next 12 months before another transition to another new year begins again a year from now. In other ways it carries the anxiety producing threat of the unpredictability. We are at the metaphorical beginning of a journey into 2017 – into an unknown country.

Embarking on a journey inevitably means making choices about what we will take with us and what we will leave behind. Rick Steves showed some amusing footage of travelers juggling huge, unwieldy suitcases on and off trains and buses. No matter how cleverly engineered the roller bags are, when they are large and over stuffed, they are cumbersome and can make traveling strenuous at best.

Rick‘s advice is to “travel light!” And that means making choices about what to pack and what to leave behind. The images of Mary and Joseph on the journey into Egypt show them traveling with nothing in their possession except the clothes on their backs. Pretty radical!!

When we went to Scotland, we made some choices. The first one was that we would only take as much as would fit in two carry-on bags and one day pack so that we wouldn’t have to contend with checking luggage, waiting at baggage carousels, risking loss in transit, not having what we needed when we needed it. The choice of the size of our bags forced us to make other choices – how many pairs of shoes??? What kind of outer wear??? How many changes of clothing and underwear??? And – of course -how many books could I take???

Making choices about what to take for a journey also means making choices about what to leave behind. In reality these were not serious existential choices for us as we prepared for Scotland. We would only be gone for 10 days and we were traveling in comfort and there were plenty of places to do laundry and to purchase what we needed if an emergency arose.

These were options not available to that little family on their way out of town.

The journey into 2017, confronts us with similar choices. There is much that we will want to take with us – – and there is much that will be cumbersome – that will weigh us down as we explore the unknown land that stretches out before us.

The passage we heard from Ecclesiastes invites us to consider the possibility of life as a process of continual emptying – – continual impermanence – – constant change. What has most frequently been translated as “vanity, vanity, all is vanity”…or “futility – all is futility” – – takes on a whole new meaning when the Hebrew word hevel is more accurately translated as “emptying”. The book begins with the lines : “Emptying upon emptying! Everything is emptying.”

(Ecclesiastes.1:2). Life is not in vain – – and life is not an exercise in futility.

It is far more accurate to affirm that life is a continual process of emptying – of impermanence and change. Our day to day discomfort with life comes with expecting things to be fixed, secure and permanent. We experience anxiety, frustration, anger and fear when this turns out not to be the case. The wisdom of Ecclesiastes escapes us.

Mary and Joseph’s middle of the night departure at the behest of an angelic messenger epitomizes the impermanence that keeps us on edge as life unfolds.

Their journey into Egypt – into the unknown – is what the nature of life is all about. Maybe the story it can help us set a course as we anticipate the coming year.

Setting out, it is a given that we cannot take everything with us. There is much that we must leave behind. Scott Peck suggests some of what we must leave out of our figurative luggage – things that have to be emptied if we want to be able to move on in a less encumbered way: things like fixed agendas and rigid expectations; things like prejudices or simplistic and instant likes and dislikes ; things like quick answers to difficult dilemmas -arrived at without careful listening; needs for certainty and control; the need to convert or “fix” others; the desire for peace at any price.

Imagine Mary and Joseph carrying any of these into Egypt with them. Imagine them having fixed ideas about where they were going to stay or what they were going to eat. Imagine them needing to have certainty and control over their days on the road. Imagine them seeking easy answers to all the questions they must have had as they followed the commands of an angelic dream; Imagine them saying they didn’t like the food that was offered to them because they didn’t like the way it was seasoned.

Mary and Joseph are our guides for what the process of emptying is all about. Mary certainly becomes a figure of emptying when she says “Here I am” in response to the angel’s announcement that she will bear a child. Imagine her choosing safety and predictability and saying to the angel “no -I don’t think so –not at this time!” Joseph is in the process of continual emptying when he says “Yes” to marrying Mary – to becoming the father and protector of the much anticipated infant – – to being the guarantor of the child’s safety as the terrorist king breathes down his neck.

They had to empty – – everything – – and depart from all that they knew to journey to an unknown country.

The story is an apt metaphor for the threshold of a new year. A story that challenges us to think about what we need to carry with us and what we need to leave behind as we begin our own the journey into an unknown country.

Perhaps we can imagine an open suitcase lying on the bed waiting to be packed for the trip into 2017. To one side, awaiting a decision about whether to take or leave may be a significant pile of things that need to be forgiven. There may be a neatly folded stack of resentments – take them along or leave them behind? There may be outgrown commitments that have lost their vitality in our lives -that keep us from living with joy – maybe they make the discard pile. Perhaps there is a small pile of fear and uncertainty begging to be packed in a side pocket – does it make the cut? And what about the nagging need to judge the motives and behaviors of the annoying people in our lives. Judgment weighs a lot and isn’t particularly useful. Maybe it can be left behind.

When Rick Steves makes his packing suggestions, he does not intend for people to travel in the discomfort and frustration that come with not having what is necessary for a pleasant trip – he simply recommends emptying the bag of things we don’t need.

Every journey requires making choices. Entering the foreign terrain of a new year is no different. By emptying ourselves of what is no longer useful, of the things that needlessly weigh us down, we create space for what is needed – what is necessary for a safe and happy – perhaps even joyful journey – – we can tuck greater measures of patience into those side pockets. Perhaps the main section of the bag will hold a lot more creativity and expectation when we are able to leave behind rigidity and predictability. And Oh – – all those lovely extra zippered spaces on the outside of the bag can carry far more compassion and joy and excitement when we leave behind the stacks of resentment and fear – – allowing us the freedom to easily reach the positive gifts we can offer to those we meet along the way – – making their journey easier and our own journey more meaningful.

When we read the words of Ecclesiastes from the perspective of life as a continual process of emptying, we realize that, indeed, every moment is a beginning – and every moment empties into the next moment of beginning. Nothing is fixed. Nothing is permanent. We are always on the threshold of something new. Like Mary and Joseph – our spiritual task is to be about the work of emptying ourselves enough so that the flow of Grace can flood in where we have cleared the inner space to receive it.

This means always working at the idea of packing our traveling bags with care – keeping them small enough to carry easily – – choosing what we will take with us carefully – – leaving behind whatever it is that would weigh us down as we travel together. Today, January 1st, 2017, we embark. Before we leave this place, we’ll share a simple meal together – – bread for the journey. May God grant us the grace we need as the way of the journey unfolds before us.

Bishop’s New Year Message

Together in Christ

Image

Dec. 31, 2016

My Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

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

As we start our journey as Christians in the new year, I want to reflect on one thing that always fascinates me – the journey of the Magi as they travelled to find their anticipated newborn king. This trip was initiated in response to a star they had observed. It was a response perhaps stimulated by their astrological curiosity.

Though I have preached many sermons on this great biblical story in Matthew 2: 1-12, it was only last year when someone challenged me to look at the works of biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann that I learned something new and fascinating.

My sister in Christ was correct! Looking at it again, I was reminded of the new light on this passage he offered in his sermon “Missing by Nine Miles.” I shared his analysis of the familiar story of the Magi during my General Conference sermon last May. Brueggemann determined that the Magi were off course by nine miles, and would have missed their visit with the Messiah altogether had they not heeded the advice of Herod’s biblical scholars.

As I discussed in my 2016 sermon, Matthew describes the visit of the Magi, replete with gifts and their question, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” (Matthew 2:2).

Herod, disturbed by the arrival of a new king, asks his scholars to explain the prophecy. Their view is that this new ruler will not be a typical ruler, but someone who will rule like a shepherd over his sheep. Instead of referring to Isaiah 60 as many scholars had done, they referenced Micah 5, which says the Messiah will be born in the village of Bethlehem – nine miles to the south of Jerusalem.

Herod shares this with the wise men from the East; they make the journey to Bethlehem and find their king. Then, having been warned in a dream, they change their plans and route, and do not return to Jerusalem.

The wise men needed to listen to scholars to find the baby Jesus, but they also needed to listen to the voice of God to avoid returning to Herod. Because of this wisdom, they were able to share the Good News of a Savior with the world.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, as we start our journey in this new year, the world is in a state of confusion, pain, and uncertainty. Yet, as baptized Christians and followers of Jesus Christ, we are called to bring Epiphany movements to the world around us! These are very challenging times for the Church, but it is also a time to be God’s hopeful messengers.

We cannot do it on our own; we need the grace of God, the love of Christ, and our constant dependence on the power of the Holy Spirit.
When we depend upon the grace, wisdom, and knowledge of God, we, like the Magi, become open to the Word of God, even if the source of our knowledge is a place or person we may think is unworthy of consideration.

Perhaps God constantly challenges us to go the extra nine miles to the south or the north or the east or the west. In these moments, we have to set aside our personal GPSs and depend only on God’s GPS.

It is my prayer that in 2017 and beyond that we will all take a second look at our own Christian pilgrimages and learn from the Magi to listen to what God has to tell us, so we may become a powerful movement of God, filled with the compassionate love of Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit.

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

In Christ’s love,


Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar


 

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Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar

Erica Robinson-Johnson Assistant to the Bishop/DCM Phone: (978) 682-7555 ext. 251
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Transformed by the Holy Spirit, united in trust,
we will boldly proclaim Christ to the world.

“Open Sesame” December 18/16

OPEN SESAME

ISAIAH 9:1-7; MATT. 4:12-17 CHILMARK COMMUNITY CHURCH DEC. 18, 2016 Armen Hanjian, Pastor

The passage from Isaiah 9 has become for Christians one of the major Hebrew scripture references picturing Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah. I see two reasons for this. Matthew quotes the first two verses of Isaiah 9 and suggests that Jesus is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophesy. Secondly, Handel’s Messiah has solidified that connection: “Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulders….”

Scholars are not in agreement as to whether Isaiah had in mind a king who would rule in Isaiah’s time, that is, that Isaiah wrote this to celebrate an actual Judean king or whether Isaiah had a far-off divine event in mind.

The government shall be upon his shoulders “ -that is Isaiah’s image of just what Israel needed. The one to fulfill that hope the people called the messiah. “Messiah” comes from the Hebrew word mashiach. “Christ” comes from the Greek word christos. Both titles mean “the anointed.” Jewish expectations looked for a divinely sent ruler to recue the Israelites from their troubles and lead them in serving God. Christians called Jesus the Christ or the Messiah because they believed,

they saw that God had anointed him, set him apart, to fulfill this hope of God’s people.

The fact of the matter is that Isaiah didn’t have to know in advance, he didn’t have to prophesy his coming in order to make Jesus who he was.

Isaiah doesn’t prove Jesus to be the Christ. Those who come to know Jesus, who are open to him, who let his mind and teachings saturate and yes, take charge – those are the ones who know Jesus is the Christ, know him to be the “Wonderful Counselor”, the “Mighty God” with us, A father that will never die- “everlasting” , the best source of peace, “The Prince of Peace.”

The government shall be upon his shoulder.” Governing or ruling does not come from outside authority in the final analysis. We have a 45 mile an hour speed limit on the island. Is our speed limit governed by the sign that declares the law to us? Not for most people. How fast can I drive without being caught? What will my car be able to do safely? What is the best fuel economy? How late am I? The decision as to our speed comes from within us.

The governing of the Messiah, the Christ is also an internal matter. We may call him Lord and Master, King, Ruler of my Life, etc. ; we may make a public declaration of our commitment to his lordship, but it’s what we believe in our hearts rather than what we’ve accepted in our minds that is operative.

If I believe with all my heart Christ is the best direction setter for my life, I will really work at listening for his direction thru scripture, prayer, worship and study. If in my heart of hearts, I have not yet surrendered to Him and I am wanting to keep control, then I will avoid listening, avoid study groups, avoid applying the lessons to me and apply them to others.

When the Messiah comes, the government shall be upon his shoulders.

The Messiah has come,” proclaims the Christian community. To the extent I let him rule over my life, to that extent the Kingdom of God has come to me. To the extent our systems of laws and caring reflect justice and compassion, to that extent the Kingdom of God has come to our community.

The type of kingdom is determined by the character of the king. Isaiah, you will note, makes no mention of enlarged borders, increased trade or invincible armies. The glory of the Messiah’s reign will reflect justice and righteousness according to Isaiah.

Two topics dominated Jesus teachings: money and the kingdom of God.

No wonder – both have to do with that to which we are most committed.

There are periods in life when it is appropriate to withdraw – to withdraw and not feel guilty about it – to say I just can’t be available to almost everyone the way I have been. Having said that, I say that by and large, Martin Luther was correct when he said, “So this is now the mark by which we all shall certainly know whether the birth of our Lord Christ is effective in us: if we take upon ourselves the need of our neighbor.”

George Bowen, a brilliant man, a missionary to India a century ago knew something of meeting the needs of his neighbors and how that interfaced with what he believed in his heart of hearts. In a letter to his sister he confessed: “I told the Lord that I was content to be everlastingly insignificant.” This admission to the Lord was in stark contrast to earlier entries in his diary in which he aims to become a second Paul or to move about the bazaars of Bombay as “Christ himself.” While he was to himself a failure, his devotional writings circulated with marked effect on several continents. (The Interpreter’s Bible 5:421)

The kingdom of God in you means the government, the direction setting, shall be upon his shoulders.

LeComte du Nouy has written in Human Destiny some words that indicate the nature and affect of His government: “The Roman patricians of the year 33, the philosophers and the intellectuals would have been highly amused if they had been told that the unknown Jew, tried by the procurator of a distant colony…would play an infinitely greater role than Caesar, would dominate the history of the Occident, and become the purest symbol of all humanity.”

Hall Luccock reminded me of a movie I saw in my childhood – the fascinating story of “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” – one of the tales of the Arabian Nights and how we see a truth about Christ there.

The forty thieves lived in a vast cave, the door of which opened and shut at the words, “Open sesame!” and “Close sesame!” Ali Baba tried saying, “Open wheat!” and “Open Barley!” but there was no movement of the door. Then one day he accidently discovered the magic words, “Open sesame!” And the door swung wide open. The word which opens to us life’s treasures is – Jesus Christ.

As I share with you how Christ has opened life’s treasures for me, be aware of how he has done that for you.

The affect of Christ on us can work strikingly, but in my experience he has been working quietly and effectively.

Because of Him:

I work with joy. My burdens are manageable. I am energized.

Because of Him:

I met my wife. My marriage has continued to be enriched.

Because of Him:

-My parents and myself and my children have been loved.

-I have come to know you, value you, care about you and be cared for by you.

-I have overcome distance between myself and others.

-I have been healed of much of my past pain which blocked me and misdirected me.

-Jesus Christ has connected me with the best friends I have and they are many.

Because of Him: I have a life to which I can look forward.

Because of Him: My world has meaning.

Unto me and unto you a child is born, a son is given and the government shall be upon his shoulders.

Sing for Joy December 11, 2016

Sing For Joy!”

Luke 1:57-80; Luke 1:26-56

Luke 2:8-15; Luke 2:25-36

December 11, 2016

3rd Sunday in Advent

Chilmark Community Church

Rev. Vicky Hanjian

A lot of the focus of Advent has to do with anticipation of the coming of a messiah -an anointed one – who will liberate God’s people from whatever it is that binds them. Historically, the Messiah was anticipated as a great military leader who would help Israel throw off the yoke of oppression. That expectation grew out of anguish and suffering over the many centuries of Israel’s difficult history. Throughout the readings for Advent we read about and acknowledge the darkness in the world – – we hear the prophetic voice of Isaiah calling the children of God to turn around – to repent, to reclaim their rightful identity as the children of God. We hear the prophets speaking truth to power, warning of the dire consequences that will come to leaders and to the people if they neglect the works of justice and mercy and compassion. The prophetic message is heavy today because there is a lot of heaviness in the world, differing only in degree from what the great prophets witnessed. But we need to be confronted with the darkness of the world – we need to acknowledge how pervasive it is and how helpless we feel at times when we realize the enormity of it. If we are to have minds and hearts that are fully open to the great light of the coming of Jesus we must first come to terms with the weight of the world. If we want to be able to fully enjoy all the goodness of God that enters life with the birth of this beautiful Anticipated One, we need first to recognize all the ways in which we need this birth to happen. That is the spiritual work of Advent.

But today is the day we light the candle of Joy. We shift our attention to the stories of those most intimately associated with the Holy Birth – – faith stories imbedded with powerful metaphors that point the way to understanding the truth of the Incarnation; stories of the birth that signifies that The Holy One draws near, and indeed, decides to pitch a tent among us – to dwell with us – becoming as we are – – Human – – A Fleshy, Happy, Sad, Rejoicing, Suffering, Living and Dying Human Being.

Joy is the theme of the day. In the order of worship, we first encountered the joy of Zechariah – – father of John the Baptizer – – who became quite mute after the terrifying encounter with an angel who announced to him that his aging wife Elizabeth would have a child. At the beginning of Luke’s gospel (Luke 1:3 – 23) there is an account of the event. Zechariah questions the truth of the angel’s promise that the couple will have a son in their old age. The angel causes a muteness to fall upon Zechariah until the events come to pass. It is at the circumcision and naming of his son, John, that Zechariah’s voice returns – and in a state of ecstatic joy, he sings the song we used for our call to worship this morning. Imagine, if you can, what it would be like to be the parent of the child would be the one who would prepare the way for the Expected One! It is customary to bestow a blessing on a child at the time of circumcision. Zechariah’s song contains a blessing (Luke 1:68-79) for his son, John:

And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break in upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet in the way of peace.

There is no greater joy than to know what the direction and purpose of our life might be in the service of Highest One and to be able to live it out. The story tells us that from the moment of his conception, it was clear what the service of John would be. A forerunner – – an opener of the way – a preparer of the path – – a bringer of knowledge to the people who waited. The blessing of being the forerunner of the Expected One illuminated his whole family – – and Zechariah sang for joy.

Zechariah’s beloved wife, Elizabeth, comes into the foreground of the story not long after Mary discovers she is pregnant. Elizabeth is Mary’s cousin – perhaps the wise elder woman in Mary’s life. She is 6 months pregnant when she and Mary greet each other – – and the infant in her womb leaps for joy as Elizabeth greets Mary – the two unborn infants are connected not just by bloodlines – they will carry out a holy mission together – and their initial meeting is one of great joy and recognition. Elizabeth gives Mary a blessing (Luke 1:41-45):

Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me – that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

When the recognition and the validation of Elizabeth’s joy and blessing reach Mary’s ears, she too bursts into song (Luke 1:46-56) :

My soul Magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God, my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me and holy is his name.”

With each recognition of the truth of what is about to happen, the joy in the story takes another leap. The anticipation goes on for the rest of Elizabeth’s pregnancy – – continues through the circumcision of her son and gets amplified exponentially in the story of the angelic visitation to the shepherds in the fields at the time of the birth of Jesus. With the announcement of the birth of Jesus, the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven burst into joyous song:

Glory to God in the highest heaven,

and on earth peace among those whom God favors.

We don’t talk a whole lot about angels in our very staid Protestant traditions – who they might be – – what they might mean as we encounter them in the scriptures – – but here in this story, they seem to signify a great opening between the invisible realm of the Holy and the concrete and fleshy realm of humanity – – and they sing their “glorias” throughout the heavens and on the earth. And, indeed, is that not who Jesus is? – – the great opening between humankind and the Holy realms that exist beyond our sight? Isn’t that what the story of the birth and life and death of Jesus eventually come to mean? Does he not become for us “the bridge over troubled waters” that helps us make the connecting link between our human lives and the Divine Life? The angels in scripture are almost universally messengers – -beings who traffic between heaven and earth – making glimpses of the Holy real in the midst of our lives. And here they break through with joy to a group of shepherds on a hillside – possibly scaring them silly – – Ecstatic joy sometimes really terrifies people. But those hearty souls recover and run “to Bethlehem to see this thing that has happened.”

The last song that we find in the story is sung on the 8th day after the birth of Jesus when he is brought to the temple by his parents to be circumcised in keeping with Jewish tradition. We will use it as our closing hymn today. Simeon, a faithful Jew, who spends every spare moment in the temple praying, has been waiting for a long time for the promise of God’s Anointed One to be fulfilled. God had promised

Simeon that he would not die until he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Simeon takes the infant Jesus into his arms and sings for joy (Luke 2:29-32):

Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a Light for revelation to the Gentiles and for the glory of your people Israel.

Simeon then gives a blessing to the parents and to their infant son.

Our faith stories are filled with songs of joy – – joy at promises given and received; joy at promises kept; joy at the revelations of Divine Glory that occasionally break through to our worldly lives – illuminating us with truth that far surpasses the words on the written page. In each instance of joy a blessing is either given or received – – and lives unfold in a dramatically new way.

When we spend time with the stories and let the metaphors point us toward the truth they contain, we may find that even in the midst of the mundane and sometimes even tragic and hopeless events of our lives, there is reason for joy beyond our human understanding. It breaks through in unexpected places at unanticipated times – challenging us – surprising us – bringing lightness and well being with it. And with all that comes an unexpected opening where the Life of a New Born King enters in and makes its home with us.

The rose candle, the third one lighted on the wreath today, reminds us to stop and take time to recognize and acknowledge and celebrate and even sing for the joy in our lives. May joy abound. AMEN

THE FORESTER Dec.3,2016

THE FORESTER

Isaiah 11:1-10

Matthew 3:1-12

Chilmark Community Church

December 4, 2016

Rev. Vicky Hanjian

Our sacred texts are full of physical metaphors for our use during Advent. This week, Isaiah offers us the image of the tree as a figure through which to understand God’s work in bringing about new life out of what seems to be utter hopelessness. Just before the verses we heard from today’s text Isaiah wrote these words about the destruction of the Assyrian army that was advancing on Israel:

Look, the Sovereign, the Lord of hosts, will lop the boughs with terrifying power; the tallest trees will be cut down, and the lofty will be brought low. He will hack down the thickets of the forest with an axe, and Lebanon with its majestic cedars will fall.” This is an image of forestry management writ large.

As the Assyrian army advanced with their spears erect, they, indeed, looked like a forest, like the cedars of Lebanon. But, in one night they were decimated. According to Isaiah, God acted in Israel’s be half, much as a forester might act when managing the woodland resources – God removed the advancing overgrowth that threatened what was left of Israel.

With barely a breath between the lines, we read next “a shoot shall come forth from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”

Armen and I have had many occasions to house sit for friends in Chilmark over the last 10 years or so. There are a lot of plants in the house and it has been my responsibility to keep them watered. Near one window in the living room there is a bare branch in a large flowerpot. It is strung with little white lights and is quite lovely when it is turned on after dark. That bare branch has been there for a long time. For a number of years I thought the branch was just an interesting foil for little white lights in the winter time. There was never any sign of life on it. Nevertheless, I dutifully watered it along with the other plants surrounding it – – just in case.

Then, one year, for the first time, I noticed tiny green buds at the ends of the branches. Over the two months that we were house sitting that year, the buds grew into large dramatic and beautiful, healthy green leaves. It was such a living image for the possibility of something new and alive growing out of something that seemed to be dead. I later learned that the branch is, indeed, a fig tree. But that will lend itself to another sermon at another time.

Last year, we decided a couple of the oaks in our back yard had to come down. They had been attacked by borer wasps and there was almost no foliage on them. A sure sign that they were dying – or dead already. All around our neighborhood oaks were dying and needing to be removed. So Armen took down the dead trees. This summer, barely year later, there is lush green growth coming out of the stumps.

Isaiah prophesied that a shoot would grow out of the stump of Jesse. Out of the humble beginnings of Jesse, the grandson of Ruth and Boaz and the father of the shepherd boy who would become King David would come yet another king who would rule a kingdom of peace and wisdom and justice. Isaiah prophesied that new life would emerge out of an Israel that was almost dead, decimated by war and violence, deceit and corruption.

Isaiah preached a message of profound hope to Israel for a new way of life under a new kind of king – a king who would be filled with the spirit of God – the Ruach Hakodesh – the spirit of holiness. This new king would be full of wisdom and understanding – he would be strong and wise. He would know God and would lead the people to know God.

Our faith ancestors envisioned the growth of the human family as “treelike” – hence the term “family tree.” These familial “trees of life” provided safe shelter as well as life-sustaining nourishment for all creatures, great and small dwelling in and under their protective branches. But the family tree of Israel had been seriously damaged by war and exile. Loyalty to God was fraying at the edges. Ineffective leadership was the frosting on the proverbial cake. Israel had been cut down to nothing more than a stump.

Into this time of near death, Isaiah brings a word of hope. “A shoot will spring up from the root of Jesse……” A few chapters later, God says “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing: now it springs forth. It shall spring up as the grass does from the earth; or it shall bud forth like the opening leaves and flowers – beautiful images that hint at the way in which God’s purposes come to pass.

As we know, at the time of the writing of Matthew’s Gospel, Israel is struggling again under the heel of the foreign domination – this time it is Rome. And again, the people are faltering in their faithfulness. The religious community is fractured. Fear abounds.

Into that mix, Matthew gives us a vivid image of John The Baptizer calling Israel to repentance. Camel hair and leather, locusts and wild honey – – kind of a wild man – – but people were listening. John was the “awakener” – – calling Israel to prepare for the new thing that God would do next to save and to heal God’s people –to bring new life out of oppression and tyranny, out of fear and sorrow. Calling the people to watch for that shoot that was promised.

The imagery of God, the forester, laying an axe to the root of the tree was a powerful one because it carried with it the memory of God’s decimation of the Assyrian armies in Israel’s behalf centuries before. But this time, the tree to be destroyed was the tree of internal corruption among religious and political leaders who collaborated with Rome.

John’s rant was aimed at people who should know better – – at people who ought to have been responsible for the bearing of good fruit – for leading Israel in the ways of God. John’s call to repentance brought with it dire warnings that reflect the violence of the time. “The axe is at the foot of the tree – – every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

The time was ripe for the appearance of a messiah and it is no wonder, then, that the early church embraced Jesus as the shoot that would spring from the stump of Jesse.

The hope for a messiah has been part of Jewish and Christian thought for centuries as people of faith have yearned for the kind of leadership that would take us to a place of wholeness and well-being – – to a time when the earth would be in such harmony that the unthinkable could happen – – that wolves and lambs and leopards and young goats, and cows and bears could all lay down together and the goats and the lambs and the cows would live to tell about it!

As our celebration of the Incarnation draws near, we, too, look with hope for the One who will satisfy our yearning for wholeness and peace and well being.

The real world is a messy and complicated place, and getting messier every day. There are many hard questions and no easy answers. The gap between rich and poor grows wider daily. Like lambs and wolves, we have a very uneasy dynamic between the “haves” and the “have-nots”. Migrant workers who harvest the food we find at the Stop and Shop cannot put healthy meals on the table for their own families. Violence in the streets and our current prison system attest to the venal racism that continues to infect our society. No matter how hard we try we cannot seem to create an economy and a health care system that will care well for human beings in every walk of life Fear and anxiety and mistrust threaten the fabric of life as we try to anticipate what lies ahead in 2017. It would be so easy to join our ancestors in their drift away from the center of all Life.

But it is Advent. The great promise of the coming of Jesus is that through his willingness to be fully human, he shows us we all have the capacity to live up to the potential given to us as human beings created in God’s image. The hope for a messiah stays alive because inside each one of us is the desire for the healing of the world. We deeply want to be made whole – to throw off all that seduces us into being cruel or indifferent or uncaring – – we deeply want a world made whole.

With the birth of Jesus comes the hope that we can be liberated from whatever it is that binds us to the dubious comfort of the status quo. When the power of his life and teachings reaches into the inner places in our deepest being, our energy becomes infectious. Little by little we find the power and the direction to do and be the large and small things that make the world a better place. We find in Jesus’ life and teachings what we need to become healers for the world. And this is how the messiah comes – – through all the large and small ways that Jesus inspires us to be in the world – – through our willingness to be vulnerable to his life and teaching – to do justice – – to love mercy – – to walk humbly and courageously with God. Indeed, the messiah is always coming into being – – a new thing springing forth – rich, newly green, alive – – emerging into this time and this place out of what might appear to be frustratingly dangerous, ineffective, lifeless and dead. We are challenged and invited to have eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts to welcome a messiah who is always coming into being.

This morning, we are given a symbolic meal to remind us of where our center of gravity is – where our promise of abundant life resides. Now, more than ever, we need to keep returning to that center for guidance, for comfort and for strength for the days ahead.

Last week we lighted the candle of hope. The reality of Jesus is our hope. This week we have lighted the candle of peace. Peace comes when we live out the reality of Jesus in our lives. Peace is knowing that God is at work everywhere at all times and in all places and in each one of us – – May we be a rich, green, dense, grove of trees in which God can take great pleasure from the good fruit we produce – – may we be the new thing that God is bringing forth in this Advent season. May we be living proof that, indeed, the messiah we yearn for is already at work in the world.

“Walking the Psalms with Walter” Nov. 20, 2016

Walking The Psalms With Walter”

Chilmark Community Church

November 20, 2016

Rev. Vicky Hanjian

Well – – we are at Thanksgiving Sunday – – preparing to celebrate a national day of gratitude. More than at any other time of the year, the Psalms give us the words that fit the occasion. We don’t often turn to them outside of their occasional use in the liturgy and aside from the best known ones, we may not really know what is in this beautiful prayer book that is almost always right at our finger tips. I have been especially drawn to these ancient poems over the past week.

I’d like to introduce you to another of my “walking buddies” – Walter Brueggemann – – not an actual, physical walking buddy – I met him only once, years ago, but he’s a dear friend and spiritual mentor and companion, nonetheless. He is about my height, and a bit on the stocky side. When I last saw him he was graying and sporting a full beard that did nothing to hide his piercing, energetic black eyes. I have been walking all week with Walter as my guide in my exploration of the Psalms – – these amazing poetic glimpses of human life and anguish and celebration.

In his little book THE MESSAGE OF THE PSALMS Walter identifies three major themes in the Psalms. He calls them poems of orientation, poems of disorientation, and poems of new orientation. He invites us to recognize that The Psalms are a beautiful witness to the fact that “human life consists in satisfied seasons of well being that evoke gratitude for the constancy of blessing… the “Psalms of Orientation” give us words for affirming God’s goodness and reliability and consistency – they bubble with joy, and happiness and delight in well-being.1 Listen to a few verses from Psalm 93:

God acts within every moment

and creates the world with each breath.

God speaks from the center of the universe,

in the silence beyond all thought.

Mightier than the crash of a thunderstorm,

mightier than the roar of the sea,

is God’s voice silently speaking

in the depths of the listening heart.2

Psalms of “orientation” celebrate the daily order of life – the regularities that we experience as reliable and dependable. They often celebrate the created order. These Psalms give thanks to God for ordering and sustaining creation and indeed our very lives. They remind us to give prayers and songs of thanksgiving to God out of sheer gratitude for creation and for everything in life that we enjoy. Listen to these lovely words of gratitude for creation from Psalm 104:

The mountains shelter the wild goats;

rock squirrels dwell in the cliffs.

You created the moon to count the months;

the sun knows when it must set.

You make darkness, it is night,

the forest animals emerge.

The young lions roar for their prey,

seeking their food from God.

The sun rises, they withdraw

and lie down together in their dens.

Humans go out to their labor

and work until it is evening.

How manifold are your creatures, Lord!

With wisdom you made them all;

The whole earth is filled with your riches.

I will sing to you every moment;

I will praise you with every breath.

May all selfishness disappear from me,

and may you always shine from my heart. 3

We sing songs of praise when life is good, ordered, balanced, whole. Our orientation is toward the goodness of God. Joy, well-being, dependability, security, the connections of healthy relationships, enough food on the table, shelter over our heads, the safety of our kids and grandkids, our health….

all of this brings the words “Thank God!” up out of our hearts and to our lips just as they did for the Psalmist.

But, as Walter reminds us: “life also has its seasons of confusion and anguish and hurt and alienation – – suffering and death. These times can evoke feelings of sorrow, fear, rage, self pity, resentment – and for these times the psalmist gives us the psalms of “disorientation” – – poems that match the “ragged disarray”. Psalms of “disorientation” are full of extravagant lament, and abrasiveness – – poetry that helps us to give expression to the sorrow and suffering and anxiety and pain that we endure from time to time….Life is not all equilibrium, coherence and symmetry. Life is also sometimes savagely marked by disequilibrium, incoherence, and asymmetry.4 Life is marked by unwanted surprises like serious illness, the loss of a friend’s child to drug overdose, a costly, leaky roof, the unanticipated pain that follows surgery, the devastation of a nation after a hurricane, the disorienting confusion and anxiety following a national election.

The Psalms give us words to pray when life falls apart. From Psalm 13:

How long will this pain go on, Lord,

this grief I can hardly bear?

How long will anguish grip me

and agony wring my mind?

Light up my eyes with your presence;

let me feel your love in my bones.

Keep me from losing myself

in ignorance and despair.

Teach me to be patient ,Lord;

teach me to be endlessly patient.

Let me trust that your love enfolds me

when my heart feels desolate and dry.

I will sing to the Lord at all times,

even from the depths of pain.5

Walter observes that our hymns most often focus on equilibrium, coherence and symmetry – – all the positive things we attribute to God’s grace and creative goodness. But he also reminds us that “our dependence on the hymns of orientation may deceive and cover over or, worse, ignore, that life in our time is tumultuous, out of balance, and sometimes crazily incoherent.” 6 Psalm 13 that we just heard is a personal lament, but the Psalms also include the lament of the people as they mourn public events of loss. When Israel was in exile, there was tremendous grief. I expect it was not unlike what millions of refugees and immigrants are feeling today as they are uprooted from their homes and their countries by forces far beyond their abilities to change.

Psalm 137 is a lament of an entire people as they mourn a catastrophic public event – their exile in a foreign land:

By the rivers of Babylon –

there we sat down and wept

when we remembered Zion.

On the willows there

we hung up our harps.

For there our captors

asked us for songs

and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,

Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How could we sing the Lord’s song

in a foreign land?

If I forget you O Jerusalem,

let my right hand wither!

Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,

if I do not remember you.

Perhaps the most familiar personal lament Psalm of disorientation is the one we hear from the lips of Jesus on the cross – the opening words of Psalm 22:

My God, my God, why have you

forsaken me?

Why are you so far from helping me, from the

words of my groaning?

O my God, I cry by day but

you do not answer;

by night, but find no rest.

Walter finds it odd “that the church has continued to sing songs of orientation in a world increasingly experienced as disorienting.” He writes:” I think the serious religious use of the lament Psalms has been minimal because we have believed that faith does not mean to acknowledge and embrace negativity. We have thought that acknowledgement of negativity is an act of unfaith, as though the very speech about it conceded too much about God’s “loss of control.” 7 But if we are going to live authentic lives, there are times when we absolutely need to name our sorrows, our fears, our disabling events – -and we need safe places in which to do that – – and we need compassionate and receptive ears to receive our complaint. Healers of every stripe affirm that healing begins with naming what hurts. The lament Psalms of disorientation help us to do that – sometimes with dramatic words and images that aren’t even in our prayer vocabularies. Consider these words, also from Psalm 22:

I am poured out like water,

and all of my bones are out of

joint;

my heart is like wax;

it is melted within my breast;

my mouth is dried up like a

potsherd,

and my tongue sticks to my jaws;

you lay me in the dust of death.8

But, as Walter reminds us, the Psalms also attest to the reality that “we don’t take up permanent residence in anguish and alienation. Human life consists in turns of surprise when we are overwhelmed with the new gifts of God, when joy breaks through the despair. Where there has only been darkness, there is light.”9

And so the Psalmist gives us the songs of a new orientation – the songs that we sing when we realize that, indeed, God has heard our cries from the depths of our disorientation. Psalm 30 is perhaps the best example of a song of the new orientation. It tells the narrative of the passage into and out of a time of disorientation – of going into the trouble and coming out of the trouble – whatever it may be:

I thank you and praise you, Lord,

for saving me from disaster.

I cried out, “Help me, dear God;

I’m frightened and have lost my way.”

You came to me in the darkness;

You breathed life into my bones,

You plucked me from the abyss;

You made me whole.

You rescued me from despair;

you turned my lament into dancing.

You lifted me up; you took off

my mourning, and you clothed me with joy.10

We need Psalms with all three themes to help us experience all of life as cut from a whole piece of cloth. We need to affirm the goodness of the order of our lives in the midst of the good times. We need to be able to give a clear loud voice to all the range of negative emotions we feel when life spins out of control; and we need to recognize the new and greater gifts that come from God when we emerge from wherever the stress of disorientation takes us – we need to recognize and give thanks that God does not leave us there. Indeed, we may find ourselves praising God for the gifts that began to take shape even in the midst of the darkest times. Only then do our songs of thanksgiving rise with authenticity and integrity.

I want to close with words from Psalm 149:

Sing to the Lord a new song;

praise him with words and silence.

Praise god through all your actions;

Praise him in sorrow and joy.

Praise God with music and dancing,

with bodies moving in delight.

Let the wise sing out in their freedom;

let the whole earth echo their song.

Let all creatures be peaceful

and walk in the path of true life.

Thanks for letting me share a little of my walk with Walter this week and may you come to the day of Thanksgiving with full hearts wherever you find yourself in the continuum of orientation -disorientation and new orientation. If the truth were known, we occupy these multiple worlds simultaneously most of the time – and God dwells with us wherever we are. Thanks be to God.

1Walter Brueggemann THE MESSAGE OF THE PSALMS A Theological Commentary Augsburg Press, Minneapolis 1984 p. 19

2 Stephen Mitchell A BOOK OF PSALMS Selected and Adapted From the Hebrew; First Harper Perennial Edition, New York, 1994. p.42.

3 Stephen Mitchell, A BOOK OF PSALMS Selected and Adapted from the Hebrew First Harper Perennial Edition, New York, 1994 p. 54

4 Brueggemann p.19

5 Mitchell p. 6

6 Brueggemann p.

7 Brueggemann p.52

8 Psalm 22:14-15 NRSV

9 Brueggemann p. 19

10 Mitchell p.16