Category Archives: SERMONS

Easter Sunrise meditation

“What do we do with an unfinished story?”

Mark 16:1-8

Easter Dawn

Squibnocket Beach

April 16, 2017

Rev. Vicky Hanjian

Mark’s gospel is the earliest one written. It ends abruptly – the two Marys visit the tomb where Jesus crucified body was hastily laid in order to conform to Jewish law that a body must be buried within 24 hours – and that the task needed to be completed before sundown and the beginning of the Sabbath.

The women encounter a messenger who tells them that Jesus isn’t there. The same messenger directs them to tell the disciples to head north for Galilee – that Jesus has gone on ahead of them and the are to meet him there.

The women run out of the tomb in a mixture of wonder and fear – – and Mark tells us “they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. “ And this is where the original gospel of Mark ends.

If this were the only gospel we were to receive it would leave us hanging – – sort of like leaving off the final chapter of a good mystery novel.

There are no post resurrection appearances. No one sees Jesus. Jesus gives his disciples no directions or commands other than that they are to go to Galilee – – that he has gone on ahead and will meet them there. The women say nothing to anyone. End of story.

The other gospel writers find this abrupt ending intolerable. Matthew has the disciples meeting up with Jesus and worshipping him. Jesus commissions them to go into all the world to baptize and to make disciples. Luke has two of the disciples walking along the road to Emmaus -conferring with a stranger -who later turns out to be Jesus. John has Jesus serving breakfast to the disciples on the lakeshore – and forgiving Peter for his great denial.

So – I wonder – what would we do if Mark’s was the only gospel – – and all that we had was the direction move forward with the promise that Jesus has gone on ahead.

Is the rest of the story up to the point of the crucifixion compelling enough that we might commit our lives to following the way of Jesus? Would the message of Jesus be enough to change our lives – – powerful enough to call us to something higher? Would we need one more encounter with him just to reassure us that he was all that we thought he was?

This is where Mark’s story leaves us – standing together in the early dawn – – astounded that the tomb is empty – – perhaps questioning what does it all mean. But the direction is clear – Jesus has gone on ahead of us. We do not meet him in the past. He has gone on ahead and waits for us in our future – beginning now. We’re called to take those critical steps toward whatever Galilee represents for us at this moment.

With its abrupt ending, Mark’s story is a call to faith. We don’t always get the vivid and clear signs we need along our life path. Mark’s story challenges us to move anyway!

So here we are. The tomb is empty. Galilee awaits. Alleluia!

“Knowing the Risen Christ” 4/16/17

KNOWING THE RISEN CHRIST

JOHN 20:1-18 APRIL 16, 2017

CHILMARK COMMUNITY CHURCH REV. ARMEN HANJIAN

To know him is to love him.” That truth applies not only to some of our dearest friends. It applies to Jesus Christ.

To know someone is quite an interesting process. You have heard statements such as these: “After 18 years I’m just getting to know my wife. We have been together for 30 years and I still don’t know him.” As soon as I met him I knew him.”

To know someone has to do with:

-being able to predict what she will do in a given situation.

-being aware what that person’s priorities are.

-being aware of his attitude towards himself, life and his place in it, towards others and towards God.

To know someone has to do with being aware of relationship – am I close to him or distant.

The Bible abounds with illustrations related to knowing – be it knowing a truth or knowing a person. In John 20:9 we read, “As yet they did not know the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.” Now Jesus had said this to the disciples, but to hear words is not necessarily to know them. Jesus spoke to the woman at the well; then she ran back to her community saying, “Come see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?”

When Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do men say I am?” That is, “How do people know me?” Peter responded: some say you are Moses, some say John the Baptist or a prophet. But to him none of these fit. Peter said, “You are the Christ.” In each case, and it seems in most cases, knowing something or someone is not as simple as 1,2,3.

A curious common thread runs thru the narratives describing the appearances of the risen Christ. In each case, no one was expecting a resurrection – no one initially recognized the risen Christ. Even when the tomb was found empty, they did not assume he had risen – only that someone took his body. When Jesus spoke to Mary Magdalene, she didn’t know him. She assumed he was the gardener. When Jesus called her by name – then she knew him.

When the two disciples were walking on the road to Emmaus and the Lord drew near to them they did not recognize him. It was only later when he broke bread with them in their home that they recognized him, knew him.

On another occasion, Jesus stood on the beach and disciples who were fishing did not know him. Jesus asked if they had caught anything and they answered no. Jesus said try on the right side of the boat. They did and caught a big catch. Then the disciple whom Jesus loved concluded, “It is the Lord.”

I assume your experience is similar to mine; namely, each day I know the people around me a little bit better. To know someone is not the end of a process. I can say “I know that my redeemer liveth,” because I know I have had parts of my life redeemed, but I’m sure there is more redeeming to do, thus there is more for me to know about my Lord. “I have been redeemed, I am being redeemed and I shall be redeemed”, all can be said. Likewise, I can say, I knew him, I know him now, and I shall know more of him.

How do we know people? That can give us a few clues to knowing the risen Christ. We know them as we love them, as we are open to them, as we take in their love. We know them as we work with them – not just sharing the fellowship, but as we yoke together there are times when our power is needed and there times when the other’s power is more needed.

We know people and we know the risen Christ as we share pain, concerns and joys.

When you get down to it, how do I know anything? Recall the line of the song, “How do I know? The Bible tells me so.” One way of knowing is by what others tell us. It is an avenue of truth but we have also received some misinformation from others too. A second avenue of knowing is thru our reasoning minds. Occasionally we come to some wrong conclusions because of mistaken or partial information coming into our brain.

So take the resurrection of Christ. Certainly the Bible and others have said it is so. Our reason gives us mix signals regarding it. On the one hand we have not seen or experienced anyone come back to life – how does a heart stop and start again? On the other hand, how could a church last for 20 centuries on only a wish that there might be a resurrection?

-How come the Sabbath day was changed to Sunday?

-How come so many have and still do commit their time and money and energy, their lives to that affirmation?

-How come the New Testament was written?

-How come all of Jesus teachings ring true to life?

All we can do with reason is what St. Paul did with it. He made plain to himself and others (slowly), “now we know in part.”

History and reason can only confirm and point us in this direction or that. The real knowing of a person or a truth comes from our own experience. You and I can only affirm Christ is risen in a way that is full of power when Christ is alive and operative in us. “Christmas is God in Christ. Easter is Christ in us.” (repeat)

As St. Paul said, If Christ is not risen then our faith is in vain. Both history and reason invite us to test the hypothesis that God is, that God cares about us, that God has given us the freedom to choose closeness with God and that closeness comes as we surrender and let the risen Christ come alive in us.

Those who have basically surrendered to Christ, and I count myself among them, have found:

-peace with the universe – not a false escape from life but a harmony of faith and work.

-an inner guidance system that is reliable.

-energy sufficient for life’s loads.

-love as the operative principle of life.

The only way you can more fully know the risen Christ is to surrender your heart to him. Say with John Wesley:

I am no longer my own but thine. Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt; put me to doing, put me to suffering; let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee, exalted for thee or brought low for thee; let me be full, let me be empty; let me have all things, let me have nothing; I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal…Thou art mine and I am thine.”

As the days go by we can know for our selves better and we can affirm with his disciples thru the centuries: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” We can affirm: “Because he lives I too shall live.”

Resurrection will not be merely a symbol of activity. Years ago I saw a sign in the offices of the Board of Global Ministries. It said, “Resurrection. Anyone who does not believe in the dead coming to life should be here at quitting time.”

Instead, resurrection can mean for us: initially a bold assurance. We can follow in the same tradition of Jesus. Virgil Kraft noted his incredible audacity:

He addressed the Creator of the universe

Father!

He nicknamed a flabby fisherman

Rock!

He called the rabble in the streets

Brethren!

He called the hated Samaritans

Good!

The incredible audacity of this man!”

We too can have such boldness.. Initially a bold assurance and eventually a growing relationship with God and God’s children in a love that knows no limitation in this life or the life to come.

To know him is to love him. To love him is to serve him.”

Christ the Lord is risen! He is risen indeed!

“I Am Not One of Them” 4/9/17

I Am Not One of Them”

Matthew 21:1-11

John 15:15-27

Chilmark Community Church

April 9, 2017

Rev. Vicky Hanjian

Preaching and worship on Palm Sunday is something of a spiritual juggling act. The task is to worship with integrity and to move from the joyful celebration of Palm Sunday to the persecution and passion of Jesus in the space of a few short days. It would be all too easy to celebrate with the crowds at Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem today and then greet the triumphal Easter dawn of resurrection next week and slide over what happens on the days in between. But the drama of the few days ahead between now and next Sunday is what gives Easter morning its meaning.

We start with Jesus telling his disciples to find a colt on which he can ride. From the prophet, Zechariah, Matthew finds the model for Jesus’ entry into the city of Jerusalem and sets the scene for the celebration: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O Jerusalem! Lo, Your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” (Zech. 9:9) The image of a king riding into the city on a donkey is a curious juxtaposition of power and humility. The colt is found and Jesus begins his ride through Bethany and Bethpage. The paradox of a long awaited king and messiah making a triumphal entrance into the city under the eyes of imperial Rome – – on a donkey – – is street drama at its best. As the word got out, people lined the roadsides – people like you and me – looking for hope – – looking for one who would save them – – who would bring order to life – – looking for a messiah who would liberate them from the heavy weight of Roman imperial power.

And so they celebrated. They spread their own cloaks and garments in the road in front of Jesus – – they laid down palm branches to make his way smooth – – they sang “Hosanna!” Their expectation was so great.

And Matthew says that Jerusalem was in turmoil with people wondering who this Jesus was – and what was all the fuss about. But Jesus does not stop to enjoy the accolades. In the next scene, he becomes quite solitary as he enters the temple and makes his challenges there. And he keeps moving – – healing people who are blind and disabled. And then, just as quickly, he withdraws and returns to Bethany, just outside of the city for the night.

The next day Jesus engages in theological discussions about where his authority comes from. He argues on matters of justice and the meaning of the kingdom of God. He manages to offend a more than a few people. But not the poor and the sick and the hungry – – the powerless ones. If we wander over in to John’s gospel we learn quickly that one of Jesus’ disciples will sell him out for 30 pieces of silver. We join Jesus and his friends for the final meal that he will share with them. We witness him establishing a new covenant with them – to be with them always. We stand in the shadows of the garden where he is arrested and we hear Peter deny him three times in the early hours of the morning. We wrestle with knowing that Jesus is tortured and humiliated by the Roman soldiers who arrested him.

All of this and more happens between Palm Sunday and Easter morning. The parts that are most difficult for me are the parts where the friends, the adoring crowds, the followers – – the disciples – – just seem to fade out of the picture. Jesus is left alone to endure what he must endure.

In John’s gospel Peter becomes the center of the story for awhile. With the best of intentions Peter has made his dramatic promise to Jesus that he will never desert him. But now we find Peter in the courtyard outside the house of the High Priest – sitting near the fire to keep warm. He just has to know what is about to unfold. Roman practice with seditious Jews was consistent and well known. Three times, Peter defensively denies his relationship with Jesus. “I am not his disciple.” In those few words, uttered in fear and anger, the humanity that we share with Peter is played out in all its sadness and confusion.

Peter denies being with Jesus. Peter – – the first one to acknowledge Jesus as Messiah a few chapters earlier. How could this have happened? How could one so close to Jesus not even acknowledge that he knew Jesus.

Denial is a strange thing. It clouds our ability to see the reality of a situation or set of circumstances. It is a defense mechanism which often gets set in motion when life offers us situations that are too big or too painful or too shocking to deal with all at once. Denial serves a purpose. Often, it cushions reality until we are ready to deal with it. It allows us to work through a crisis a little bit at a time when the crisis might completely overwhelm us .

It is ancient history for me now, but there was a day 27 years ago when my mom and dad boarded a plane in Orlando, Florida to fly north to the little town of Bainbridge, New York. My mother had bone cancer and was deteriorating rapidly. My brother had taken decisive action, bought the plane tickets, and told them what time to be at the airport. He brought my mother home. Less than three weeks later, my mother was admitted to the hospital for the first and only time during her illness. We all took turns sitting at her bedside with my dad who waited each day for the word that things had turned around and that my mom was well enough to go home. He was certain that he would be able to care for her and nurse her back to health and strength.

On reflection, it is still a wonder to me that my 4 siblings and my dad and I could look at the same set of circumstances and see very different things. Two of us knew we were walking with my mom toward her death. Four of us were sure this was just a setback from which she would recover. Two of us heard her saying good-bye. Four of us held out for healing and restoration.

There was no way to communicate through those two separate realities without causing each other incredible pain. Denial is like that. Denial creates a different reality to cushion the pain of what is happening or is about to happen. It is an alternate reality – – it is not questioned. Sometimes, denial helps us get through the crisis.

Peter sat by the fire, confronted three times by the reality of what was happening. Three times he argues that he is not connected with Jesus. We might guess that fear beyond anything he has ever known has taken over. Anguish of a depth we can only imagine pervades his mind and his reasoning.

There are times in all our lives when we sit near the fire with Peter. We wrap ourselves in the cloak of our ability to deny the truth of what is happening to us or around us – – a serious illness or problems with addiction, overwhelming financial distress. As a society, denial functions very efficiently to cloud our thinking and our responses to the social injustices that exist right in our own communities – terrified immigrants, children fearing going to school because their parents might not be there when they get home; homeless people who sort of fade into the background; elderly folks who live in isolation surrounded by what they have hoarded around them.

Peter’s words “I’m not one of them” may not fit exactly – but we are just as vulnerable as he was to not seeing the enormity of what we deny because sometimes the problems just seem so big and unmanageable.

But as we learn when we follow Peter’s story to it’s hopeful conclusion, where denial goes unchallenged, there can be no healing, no growth, no resolution to problems, no wholeness. But the power and love of the Christ are such that we are not permitted to live with our denial indefinitely. Sooner or later, the clarity of the love of God breaks through. We gradually confront the reality we have been avoiding. We struggle with the scary and painful and stressful parts of our lives – we find our way through and we come to know healing and wholeness in a new way.

The instrument of Peter’s awakening was the crowing of a rooster. With that noisy and unpleasant early morning sound, Peter heard Jesus’ words again – “you will deny me” – and Peter broke down and wept. Jesus – the one who knew Peter better than Peter knew himself.

Wherever we are on our faith journey – whether as individuals or as part of the faith community, we are assured that there is One who knows us better than we know ourselves. Jesus is offered to us in the scriptures to help us see who we are. The Light that he embodied illuminates the darkest corners of confusion and doubt. That Light draws us toward itself – – and resurrection happens – – life begins anew and we are drawn toward wholeness.

It is for this reason that we can joyfully celebrate Palm Sunday even knowing that the reality of Jesus’ passion and death are hidden within the celebration. And we will celebrate joyfully next week, following the darkest hours of denial and betrayal that happened on the days we call Holy Thursday and Good Friday. We will rejoice following the sorrow and uncertainty that marks the time in the tomb on Saturday.

It is tempting to say we can and will celebrate because we know how the story ends. But it is more accurate to say that we celebrate because we know how the rest of the story begins. With today’s worship we enter Holy Week. May we enter the week mindfully aware of all that we fear and struggle with. May the next several days be filled with awareness of the truth that out of denial, suffering, pain and even out of death comes the possibility of rich, abundant and joyful life. May you have a rich Holy Week.

“The Bread of Presence” 4/2/17

The Bread of Presence

1 Samuel 21:1-6

Mark 2:23-28

April 2, 2017

Chilmark Community Church

Rev. Vicky Hanjian

A number of years ago, my beloved niece, Molly, whom some of you have met, came down to the island for a visit.  Molly is the youngest daughter of my sister who died back in 1999.  We asked her what she wanted to be sure to do while she was here on the Vineyard.  She listed a few things: she wanted to be sure to walk on the beaches – especially Cedar Tree Neck; she wanted to shop at Beadniks (it was still open back then); get coffee at Mocha Mott’s and sleep a lot.  She ended her list with her desire to make bread before it was time for her to go back to school at the end of her break.

The bread she wanted to make was a recipe that my sister and I had shared over the years.  It was a light, yeasty raisin bread called Ephraim’s Bread and it had a lot of meaning for Molly and me to bake it together in my kitchen.  As we went through the process of measuring and mixing  and kneading and raising and baking, my sister’s spirit became a very real presence in the house that day.  Molly and I felt our own relationship deepening through the shared experience of baking together.  Sharing a cup of hot tea and warm bread with lots of butter had all the elements of a ritual meal. That particular bread has power.  It brought me to a kind of boundary between my history with my sister and my history with Molly on the one hand and the experience of the mystery of so many things still to be known and experienced – – so much life still to unfold in the aftermath of my sister’s death.

Bread is at the center of the dynamics of both of today’s scriptures.  In the story of David from Samuel, David is in the temple with Ahimelech, the high priest.  David and his men have been out on maneuvers and have returned to the sacred space near starvation.  David asks for bread to feed himself and his men.  The priest reminds David that the bread on the altar is the only bread available and it is sacred bread.  It was bread laid out on the altar on each Sabbath to remind the people of their connection with God.  Only the priests, who were ritually clean, were  permitted to eat the bread.  But David’s hunger prevails.  He assures the priest that his men have not been near women – – they meet the necessary standards for ritual purity – and they consume the show bread – The Bread of Presence.

When Jesus and the teachers of the Law meet, the teachers question Jesus about why his disciples are plucking grain on the Sabbath.  It is a form of work forbidden on the Sabbath by ritual law.   Jesus reminds the teachers of the story of David as a legal precedent – – his disciples are hungry – – and their hunger is what determines their right to pick up the grain on the Sabbath.  In accordance with Jewish law, Jesus reminds the teachers that the Sabbath is created for human beings.  Human welfare and well being supersedes the strict interpretation of the law.

Part of these stories is about what is OK and what is not OK to do on the Sabbath, but they also have to do with who gets to eat and who gets to go hungry.  Jesus noticed that while people who are well fed and affluent are easily able to observe the prescribed Sabbath rituals and laws with relatively little stress, the poor, who go hungry most of the time – involuntarily – are actually oppressed by religious rituals surrounding the getting and the consumption of bread on the Sabbath.  In good Jewish tradition, Jesus was more concerned about the welfare of human beings – about human relationships – and about the relationship between human beings and their God.

Bread is so fundamental to human relationships at many levels of life.  It symbolizes well being, generosity, hospitality – in all the many forms it takes – muffins, bagels, biales, foccacia, crackers, whole wheat, rye, multi-grain, French, Italian, leavened, unleavened – – bread is the stuff of life that attends human relationships at meal times, at weddings and baptisms, at funerals, at pot-luck suppers – – at the sacrament of communion.

Not too long before we moved to the island, Armen and I were in the midst of moving into another parsonage.  It got to be lunch time and in the chaos of moving, we had no food to offer the movers except a loaf of Pepperidge Farm Toasting White bread and some peanut butter and jelly.  We told the guys what we had  and invited them to eat.  They broke out in big grins and one of the guys said it had been ages since he had actually had a “choke and slide” sandwich.  I had never heard that term for PB&J!   So – we feasted at the dining room table surrounded by mountains of moving boxes with two strangers we never saw again.  Those shared PB&J sandwiches stand out in my mind as the experience of a boundary –  a place between what was remembered and known and familiar on the one hand and the future that was in the process of being formed on the other.  It was the first time I had ever shared a meal with strangers who were African American.  Remarkably, just a few short months later, I found myself serving as the assistant pastor of an African American congregation on the other side of town.

A few years ago, Armen and I saw the film “The Pianist” starring Adrian Brody.  If you haven’t seen it, it is the story of a Polish pianist during the Nazi occupation of Poland – – a story of the almost unrelieved nightmare of one man’s survival of the holocaust during WW II.   There was scene after scene of brutality – the utter de-humanization of men, women and children by Nazi soldiers – and the utter dehumanization of the soldiers themselves in the process.

As the film unfolded, I became aware of a thread – -a very slender thread – of a humanizing factor that appeared at various places along the way – – a thread that kept the pianist alive and human and perhaps even hopeful.

Bread – was the humanizing factor.  It represented the unity of the Pianist’s family in the deepening persecution – – as they shared meager meals together in the ghetto.  Scarce bread appeared in the markets and was occasionally available to the Jews who were doing the forced labor perpetrated by the Nazis.  Bread became  a form of subversive interaction when  it was shared between prisoners who had literally nothing but the clothes on their backs.  Bread was the first thing offered to assuage starvation.

As the agonizing story of the Pianist plays out, he finally finds refuge with Gentile friends he had met before the horror began.  He is starving.  They take him into their home at great risk to themselves.  As they determine how to help him, he weakly asks, “May I have some bread?”  During all his weeks in hiding, someone or other from the underground provides the Pianist with bread from time to time.  In his utmost isolation, bread conveys to him the power of human presence in the most extreme circumstances.

In his final hiding place, he is discovered by a Nazi soldier who commands him to play something on the piano.  In the tension of those scenes, the Pianist’s life hangs in the balance.  Will the officer betray him? Will his refuge be revealed? Is this where his life will end? The Nazi officer returns one last time to the hiding place with a package for the Pianist – a loaf of bread – – the humanizing factor.  In that scene in the movie, it is bread that restores humanity to both the oppressor and the oppressed.  The sharing of bread puts both men at the boundary of what has been and what is about to unfold and come into being.

The sacrament of communion has a seductive power.  It has the potential to take us to the boundary between all that our history has been, all that we have known together on the one hand, and all that is present here – now – waiting to unfold and become.  Jesus’ invitation to us is one that takes us right to the altar of the show bread – The Bread of Presence – and offers us the possibility of seeing not only what we are already aware of in our lives, but what is also already in the process of formation – – we get to see the possibility of what God is bringing into being in us before it actually happens.  This is such a profound time for us as we contemplate a future for our congregation – already in the process of unfolding.

The sacrament is a time of remembering how God has acted in a holy history ever since the breath of God hovered over the waters at the dawn of creation. It is a time to recall the movement of God that draws God’s people out of whatever  whatever sorrow, whatever pain, whatever uncertainty they endure.  It is a time of remembering that The Holy One is always present in the breaking of bread – whether it is bread taken from the altar by the High Priest to feed a hungry David, or bread collected in the desert by a wandering people, or bread shared by a man with his friends on the night before he dies.  The Holy One is even present in the breaking of bread in a small, rural congregation in Chilmark.

The Bread of Presence – – it contains the possibility of bringing us to a boundary – a place of awareness and vision – – a place of meeting a God who says “Behold!  I am doing a new thing!  Can you see it – – ready to break forth from the bud?”

We are invited to dine together – to break bread and to eat together.  And in the breaking and the eating we are invited to see what kind of future is held in store for us as we remember what has been and follow the One who will lead us into what we are to become.

Between Two Gardens 3/5/17

Between Two Gardens

Genesis 2:15-17 and 5:1-7

Matthew 4:1-11

Chilmark Community Church

March 5, 2017

Rev. Vicky Hanjian

It would seem that whether one finds oneself in a lush and primal garden or in the middle of the wilderness, there is danger and temptation in the Bible.  There be serpents and devils abroad!  I love that we begin Lent in the Garden of Eden and that we will end Lent in another garden – -Gethsemane this time – – and how different the two gardens are in terms of what they mean to us. And in between the gardens there is time in the desert wilderness.

Let’s begin in the first garden.  Depending upon how we read the story, this is a tale either of our descent into a failed experiment on the part of God – – or it is a story of our immediate elevation to a status just a little lower than the angels.

We begin with a gift and a command.  The gift is a glorious place to live with meaningful work to do.  “God took the human and placed him in the garden” and gave him responsibility for caring for it as God’s steward.  There are all kinds of good fruit bearing trees and full permission to eat from any of them  EXCEPT… and here comes the command: There will be no eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil on pain of death. 

This is the stuff of a good story.  Any of us who have had any dealings with toddlers, or even teenagers, for that matter, know the fundamental truth that if you set down the rule that under no circumstances are they to pull at that shiny ornament just within reach on the Christmas tree or sample that pot that seems so enticing when all the other kids are doing it – – before you know it,  that  ornament – and maybe even the tree will come crashing down – and the teenager is going to experiment.   But – God tries anyway – – do not eat of this particular tree or you will be punished – you will die.

There are ALWAYS reasons why human beings skirt or break the rules.  And there is always someone else to blame for the transgression.   The serpent says “come on – try it. “ The Woman says “no – If I do I will die.”  The Serpent says “Naaahhh! -You won’t die.  God only said that because God knows that if you eat it you will become like God – you will know the difference between good and evil.”

She bites the fruit – – she shares it with her human buddy – – he blames her – – she  blames the serpent – – and the rest is history.

For centuries, this story has been used to help us understand how sin and suffering came into the world.  It has also given us someone to blame for it all.   If we give weight to 4th century Christian thinker and eventual saint, Augustine, we understand that it is through woman that sin came into the world – that woman is the devil’s gateway.  Augustine and others of the early church fathers were very committed to this line of reasoning and interpretation.   At different  times across the 2000 year history of the church  women have suffered stigmatization, abuse and discrimination because of the  of the early church fathers exclusive interpretation of the story.

But they do not have the last word and theirs is not the only line of meaning that might come out of this ancient story of humankind’s beginnings.  Other interpreter’s find a different way of looking at it.  A place to start might be with the serpent – that much maligned creature so often equated with fear, poison, slipperiness, death.   The serpent is  described as  cunning – crafty – having skill.  It seems that the serpent knows a little more about God than the humans do at this point – – and the serpent knows that the woman will not literally die if she chooses to do what is necessary to know the difference between good and evil.  So the serpent says “go ahead -try it!”

The woman makes a choice.  She eats the fruit of the forbidden tree.  Does she instantly know the difference between good and bad?  The story doesn’t say.  But it tastes so good that she offers it to her partner – and immediately they see the world with different eyes. …their eyes are opened.

Actually, a kind of death does, indeed, happen.   They become fully conscious human beings – –  responsible for their own actions – – they suffer consequences from every choice they make from then on.  Like the serpent that appears to die as it sheds its skin when it no longer fits, the first humans “die” to a kind of innocent unconsciousness in order to become fully functioning adults in relationship with God.  This may be our earliest story of death and resurrection.  Rather than pointing to the sin and depravity of humankind, the story embraces curiosity and a hunger for something more. The story embraces life. And it tells the truth.  When human beings are ready and willing to strive for  a higher levels of conscious awareness, there will be consequences.  A certain naivete needs to die – and with increased knowledge and wisdom about both the goodness and the evil that pervade all of life  comes increased responsibility for that knowledge.

The fundamental principle of the story is so contemporary as we daily have to come to terms with what technology and social media have unleashed in our lives.  We are at a Garden of Eden moment as we figure out how to be responsible for all the increased awareness of good and evil, for what it means for our lives and for how we take responsibility for what we can know and do.  We have tasted the fruit – and it is really good – – but now we have to learn how to live with the consequences.

Serpents gradually came to be equated with the devil – with Satan.  But in the Hebrew scriptures, the word Satan only means “adversary”.  Biblical thought has no conception of a devil personified with horns, tail and pitchfork. That imagery came much later in the church’s development.   Indeed, in the scriptures, the adversary occasionally works in realtionship with God to bring about God’s purposes.  We meet just such an adversary in the Book of Job. If we follow the more ancient meaning of the word, Satan – Adversary –  we might find that the serpent in the story accomplishes God’s yearning for human partnership in the work of sustaining creation.  God needs partners who know the difference between good and evil.  I just happen to think it is really cool that the woman is the one who takes the first step! And here is a curious note.  The woman is not given a name until the 20th verse of Chapter 3 when Adam names her Chavah or Eve, and she is identified as The Mother of All Living.  Her name means  “Life.”  She receives her life bestowing name after she has broken the rule and after God has meted out the consequences for her choice to taste the fruit.   

Perhaps 500-1000 years after this story of our human origins was circulating around the campfires, another amazing human being emerges on the scene.  He begins his life journey in total innocence as a long awaited infant.

We catch up with him as he leaves his baptismal waters and begins a 40 day sojourn in the wilderness.   As a young adult, he is already fully conscious of what his moral and ethical and spiritual responsibilities are all about.  He already has the gift of being fully and intelligently human – passed on to him through the centuries of the evolution of God’s people.   But even he wrestles – just as his ancestors did.  His temptations are even greater – because his heightened degree of consciousness and sense of responsibility are greater. 

He must turn down the temptation to supersede  the laws of God by turning stones into bread.   He must turn down the invitation to test God by throwing himself off the highest  point of the temple to see if God will really save him.  He must turn down the offer of wealth and power in order to be faithful to serving God.  In a very short time, his conscious refusal to knuckle under to the enticements set before him will lead him to the second garden.

The stories provide a curious balance for each other.  On the one hand, the humans are given a direct limitation by God – do not eat the fruit of that particular tree.  Because the woman is curious  (what is she doing exploring the garden all by herself?) she interacts with a stranger in the form of a serpent.  In that moment, what the serpent says makes sense to her.  She risks her very life in the service of learning more.  She tastes the fruit.  She and her partner eat together.  It is only after this sharing of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil that  she becomes “the mother of all living.” 

On the other hand, Jesus resists the enticing temptations set before him in the wilderness – – he refuses to be led off course back into a lesser state of consciousness that would make magic and power and money his way of life.  He chooses the much harder way of being fully conscious and aware of his truest nature as  the offspring of God.   The woman was threatened with death as a result of her choice – – and she lived.

Jesus  made a choice that would lead to his death.  The paradox is that by his refusing what the world had to offer in the way of power and wealth and the kind of security that  might have come with them, he shows us the Way to eternal life. 

Our choices are not always as clear or dramatic – but we have to make them every day.  In the world we live in, we are constantly bombarded with the choice to live fully in richness and integrity because we seek greater knowledge and awareness of what is going on around us.  The Mother of All Living  bequeathed us this ability when she chose to eat that forbidden fruit.

With the presence of Jesus in front of us,  we have a greater awareness that our choices for the right and the good and the just may be very costly – – – those choices may lead to persecution, imprisonment – perhaps even death. 

As we set our faces toward Jerusalem with Jesus in these next 40 days, it is well to keep both gardens in our line of vision.  In our thinking, in our spiritual lives, in our actual physical interactions, we are continually faced with the choice for ignorance and bliss on the one hand – – and the knowledge of good and evil on the other. Jesus and the Mother of All Living chose knowledge, wisdom, clear vision and resistance to whatever might cloud a bright and alert human consciousness to the reality of life that God places before us. 

Both made choices that led to a kind of death – for the woman it was the death of ignorance and bliss.  For Jesus it was the death of his body on the cross.  Both made the paradoxical choices that led to the fullness of life that is possible in partnership with the  presence of God.  Between the Garden of Eden and the Garden of Gethsemane  there is life – the everyday challenges that we face as we try to live consciously in the way that Jesus did.  We are challenged to make the same kinds of choices that faced Jesus.  We are given the gift of a simple meal to both remind us and to sustain us along the way.  May God grant us the curiosity of the Mother of All Living and the faithful wisdom of Jesus as we find our way to the table.

HOW DOES GOD GUIDE? Feb. 26, 2017

HOW DOES GOD GUIDE?

MATT. 7:21-28 REV. ARMEN HANJIAN FEB. 26, 2017

A man moved out West and joined a Lutheran Church; a drought came and ruined his crops. He concluded God didn’t want him in that Church. So he joined the Baptist Church; lightning struck his barn and it burned down. So he joined the Methodist Church and that year his wife ran off with another. He fell down on his knees and thanked God for leading him to the right Church.

Most people don’t expect to be guided by God. I believe there is a rightful place to seek and find guidance from the Creator of the Universe – the God of our Lord Jesus Christ. To honestly seek God’s direction is a great act of faith, for it means you believe God is a living God – a God who can respond.

Most of us would acknowledge that over the years there is some guidance from God by way of evolution. The question for today is, “Can God be counted on to give concrete guidance in the affairs of individuals and nations? I am convinced the answer is yes. Allow me to share some of the ways God guides those who seek God’s guidance.

I say “those who seek God’s guidance because this matter of freedom seems to be tied up with how God deals with us. God will guide , but will not over ride. A minister once stood by a coffin of a young man whose life was cut off untimely by human measurements. After the young widow poured out her grief and asked the unanswerable questions, the minister said, “God will give you strength and faith, and out of this good will come. “ “No”, she answered, “good will not come out of it!” And no matter how much God wills it, good will not come out of it for her unless she also wills it. God will guide, but God will not over ride.

With that as background let us turn to the channels most used in discovering God’s will for given situations. Perhaps it’s too obvious but we must say that God would have us discover God’s will by using our minds. An instance of intelligence of being a useful test of God’s will is given in Dr. Heiser’s book, “An American Doctor’s Odyssey”. He was the health officer in Manila when cholera broke out in various parts of the city. Simultaneously, a fisherman reported a miracle in the bay. He had observed on the surface of the water a black streak in the form of a cross and the water was sweet not salty. He called the priest who confirmed the miracle. The people then paddled out carrying bottles and drank the holy liquid. Immediate investigation revealed a break in the sewer, whereupon Dr. Heiser appealed to the police to suppress the miracle. He was told that the people would riot against interference with what they believed to be the will of God. The doctor said he would rather deal with a riot than an epidemic. So the people were held back until the sewer was repaired. What God wants us to do should meet the test of intelligence.

St. Paul counseled whatsoever things are honorable, just, pure, lovely, gracious, worthy of praise, think on these things. Fix your mind on them, dwell on them. Don’t let your mind go where the wind blows, where the advertisers want it to go.

Another channel which should be obvious, but is seldom appropriately used is reading the Bible. If you really want to fix your mind on things worthy of praise, let biblical thoughts soak your thinking. This is exactly what Jesus did – how often he quoted from the Psalms and Isaiah and other writing in the Hebrew scriptures – some call the Old Testament.

I’m sure he didn’t seek God’s direction like the man who opened the Bible and pointed and it read: “Judus went out and hung himself. He didn’t like that guidance so he pointed again and it read “Go thou and do likewise.” Didn’t like that. Pointed again and it read ”What thou hast to do, do quickly.”

No, Jesus let the collected wisdom and insight given to others be one of his guides. He knew well the saying, “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.” The Bible may not be as specific as we would like it to be – it doesn’t tell us simplistically how to deal with marriage problems or environmental problems for today, but it does provide us with the norms to deal with these and other problems – that is what keeps it from being out dated. The Bible speaks to us and then we are better able to speak to the situation that confronts us. The norms of love, forgiveness, obedience and Christlikeness are but a few of the graces God would have grow in us. We can be sure of this, that God will never guide you in a way that cuts across the Christ we know in the Bible.

In addition to our minds and the Bible, the conscience can be used by God to direct us. Yet, it is not sufficient to say, “Let your conscience be your guide.” A Hindu was once asked what would happen if he should break caste and no one else knew about it. He replied that his conscience would trouble him. Now my conscience would trouble if I kept a caste system. Two consciences trained to approve opposite things. For a conscience to be a safe guide, it must be trained at the feet of Christ.

So often we make our decisions by our immediate desires, but Christians should be guided by long-term purposes. The training of our consciences is a long-term matter which will stand us in good stead in our specific decisions.

One of the most rewarding and joyous channels to discover God’s will is the channel of prayer. Too often prayer can degrade from communion and communication to requests for God’s blessing on decisions we have already made. We make the same error that the Disciples made: we offer God two propositions and then wait for God to give us an inkling as to which we should follow. The Disciples you recall put up two men to take the place of Judus, and asked God which of the two men God approved; they cast lots. And the lot fell on Matthias. But apparently God didn’t choose either. He chose Paul. I like the way George Buttrick put it: Prayer is “exposing oneself to the promptings of God.” Prayer can put things in proper perspective such that we see God’s will and receive from God determination and power to do it.

God also guides us by bringing to our door opportunities and needs. Dick Sheppard, the great preacher, said, “Christianity does not consist in abstaining from doing things no gentleman would think of doing, but doing things that are unlikely to occur to anyone who is not in touch with the Spirit of Christ.”

The story is told about a widow of a preacher who cared for all the orphans and illegitimate children and poor in the neighborhood. A man in town so much appreciated her work that he had built for her a snug little home on his property and equipped it with new furniture. The first person she invited into it was the most disreputable woman in town. Horrified, he asked how she could have invited such a creature into her pretty new home. The old lady’s quiet reply was, “Jesus would.”

None of us should dare to seek directions for the intricacies of life if we do not follow God’s guidance in the simplicities of life.

There are other ways God can guide us. Let me share one more: certainly God can guide us through other persons. How many of you owe your spiritual heritage and life to some great or unknown saint that passed your way? “Yes there are many channels to discover God’s directives,” you say, “but I want to be absolutely certain I’m doing God’s will.” E. Stanley Jones, the Methodist missionary wrote, “Do not expect guidance to be as explicit as two plus two makes four. There will always be a degree of probability in any of his guidance, for that degree of probability puts adventure and daring into life, and it is at the point of adventure and daring that we grow. Guidance must be sufficiently clear to act upon but never so clear that an act of adventurous faith is not required.” In another place he wrote, “If you do make mistakes in guidance, don’t be discouraged. I have mentioned the Disciples did 31 things which were wrong and yet were guided into changing the world. You may slip up on the marginal things and yet be centrally right.”(The Way, p282; Growing Spiritually p277)

In so many things, it is later on that we see how God has guided us. No one would assume there was no point to a plot in the middle of a novel. Even at this point in my life I am more and more sure that God has guided me. God guided me into the ministry through an ordinary person; although the ground of my life had been nurtured before and after that one invitation. Biblical standards I see have become some of my many daily standards. I almost went to the church in Clinton N.J. – there was a nice-looking red head on their pastoral relations committee, and besides I never heard of that odd-named Church of Mt. Horeb. But I thank continually God for guiding me there and for guiding me here.

How has God guided you? Tell others about it. It is a witness you alone can make and if you don’t make it we are cheated of spiritual encouragement and you may lose your faith that God guided you at all.

An African patient once asked Dr. Albert Schweitzer, “Why did you come?’ The doctor replied, “Jesus sent me.” My friends God guided that man and he can guide you into avenues of service and love.

Only those who want direction and seek after it with heart and mind, with patience and honesty, who devote blocks of time to the quest can ever hope to find direction.

The promise remains: those who seek will find.

“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