Category Archives: SERMONS


“Harmonizing With Hannah”

Chilmark Community Church

United Methodist Church

November 15, 2015

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

Rev. Vicky Hanjian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Grandmother’s Story November 8,2015

A Grandmother’s Story

Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17

Chilmark Community Church United Methodist

November 8, 2015

Rev. Vicky Hanjian

I have come to love the story of Ruth as a story about one of my grandmothers. Indeed, I have met her in the lives of my actual grandmothers. So I wonder if we can imagine that kind of relationship with her as we look at the story today.

There are so many ways to enter the story of Ruth – – -so many story lines to develop and consider.  Hers is a story of exile and return – one of the major movements throughout the Hebrew Bible;  it is a story of welcoming strangers and of the call to be compassionate and kind to others who are not like us.

Her story is a story of emptiness and fullness as Ruth and Naomi experience incredible losses and sorrow and then gradually move toward lives that are full and rich.

This is also a story of loyalty and love between family members and how they deal with issues of justice and poverty. The possibilities for meaning in the story of Ruth are almost without limit.

The ancient sages pondered the question of the meaning of Ruth.  Since the scroll says nothing about the Biblical laws of ritual cleanness and uncleanness and it doesn’t have any information about what religious law prohibits or permits, they wondered why it was written and saved in the first place. The scroll doesn’t even say very much about the nature of God. So we well might ask along with the ancient rabbis: What is the purpose of the Story of Ruth?  As followers of Jesus we might also ask “Where is the gospel of God – -where is the good news for us in this ancient folktale?”

As the 1st century sages turned the scroll again and again, they concluded that the story was written to teach about lovingkindness – – and not only about lovingkindness, but about how great the reward is for those who do deeds of kindness. (Midrash Ruth Rabbah 2.13).

The Hebrew word chesed is indeed one of the key words controlling the text. The word occurs three times: at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end of the story (Ruth 1.8, 2.20, 3.10). The scroll begins with the chesed or kindness Ruth does for Naomi – from gleaning in the fields to bringing home food. Then there is the kindness she does in honoring the memory of the dead in Naomi’s family (which becomes, by marriage, her own).

Later in the story, Boaz acts in Ruth and Naomi’s behalf to insure that they are able to have enough food and safety in their rather extreme situation.  He gives permission for Ruth to glean in his fields and instructs his people not to harass her.

Every character acting in this brief story–from Naomi to Ruth to Boaz to the minor characters–behaves in a manner that demonstrates this heroic concept of some form of kindness. The main actors of the story all act in the spirit of chesed; some perform ordinary kindness, and some–especially Ruth– perform  extraordinary chesed.  Ruth is a story of a super abundance of lovingkindness – – there is more than enough to go around.

As Maimonides puts it, the concept of hesed: “Includes two notions, one of them consisting in the exercise of beneficence toward one who deserves it, but in a greater measure than he deserves it. In most cases, the prophetic books use the word hesed in the sense of practicing beneficence toward one who has no right at all to claim this from you” [Guide for the Perplexed].

Ruth’s mode is the second. She practices kindness toward people who have no claim on her for it.  Herein lies the good news.

Way back in the book of Exodus, at the time of the sin of the making of the Golden Calf and Moses’ destruction of the first set of tablets given on Sinai, God commands Moses to cut two more stone tablets – and then carves the law on them again.  This time, God also reveals God’s self in the form of 13 attributes – a sort of self description: God is compassionate, gracious, slow to anger, abundant in kindness and truth, the preserver of kindness and the forgiver of sin for thousands of generations.

The words “abundant in kindness and truth, preserver of lovingkindness…” jump out of the passage.  In the tradition of Jewish biblical interpretation, every word has meaning – the placement of words in a sentence – the space between the words – the repetition of words all has meaning.  When the same word appears more than once in close repetition it kind of means “dig here for buried treasure” when it comes to understanding the meaning of a text.

So let’s look again at where this chesed appears in the story:

We see it in Naomi’s concern for Ruth and Orpah as she encourages them to go back to their mother’s homes and start over again. Naomi does not bind them to her even though she is within her rights to do so.  She releases them in the service of their best interests.

We see kindness in Ruth’s refusal to abandon her aging mother-in-law, choosing rather to accompany her back to her home in Bethlehem –even though it means living among people who may not accept her because she is a Moabite. 

We see lovingkindness in Boaz’s actions toward Ruth – providing for her safety, assuring her that she will have enough grain for her and Naomi’s daily needs.  Midway through the story, Boaz negotiates with an unnamed kinsman in Ruth and Naomi’s behalf to be sure they are entitled to inherit Elimelech’s land holdings. Boaz extends radical kindness especially to Ruth, who as a hated Moabite has no right to claim anything from Boaz.

  We see kindness near the end of the story as the women of Bethlehem celebrate Naomi’s return and rejoice with her at the birth of her grandson, Obed. In an extravagant act of lovingkindness, the village women “own” the child and give him his name – – thus offering the ultimate welcome to Ruth, the foreign woman, into the bosom of their community.

The story of Ruth invites us to consider the nature of Divine grace – – especially if we go back to Maimonides’ thought that chesed includes two aspects: one – doing acts of lovingkindness in a greater measure than is deserved – – and two – practicing lovingkindness toward one who has no right at all to claim this from you.

In the Exodus story, God reaches out to the Israelites after the sin of the Golden Calf.  God offers them wholeness and a cohesive way of life again through a second set of laws.  But even more, God reveals the Divine attribute of chesed – – lovingkindness – – more than the people deserve – – and far more than the people have any right to claim.   Kindness is a wispy trace of God that weaves its way throughout so many of the stories in the scriptures.

There is one more thread to follow in this quest for the good news in Ruth.  In the final verses there is this brief witness at the time of the birth of Naomi’s grandson, Obed:”They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David. (Ruth 4:17b).  When we riffle through the pages of our Bible and fast- forward some 42 generations, we find that Matthew’s gospel traces the lineage from Ruth through the generations to King David and from there to the generation of Joseph who is the earthly father of the earthly Jesus – – who is God’s gift of grace – of lovingkindness. 

I wondered a little at the placement of Ruth in the lectionary readings for today – – and then began to realize that we are encountering the deep back ground in the scriptures that helps to get us ready for the season of Advent.  If we are not connected with the witness to Divine abounding grace that flows through the narrative of our faith history through the stories of people like Ruth, we are impoverished when it comes to receiving it as fully as we might.   

The weeks are flying fast.  In the blink of an eye we will be at the first Sunday in Advent – – waiting and anticipating the celebration of God’s great gift.  We owe a great “thank-you” to our Grandmother Ruth for the role she plays in the story as she teaches us about the way of kindness and the way of the grace of God.  In the coming weeks, may we softly and gradually open to the meaning of the gift of abundant lovingkindness that is always flowing toward us – – and may each act of kindness we do reveal God’s trace through us as we approach the holiday season.


Attending to The Margins”

Mark 9:30 – 37

Chilmark Community Church

October 18, 2015

Rev. Vicky Hanjian

When I was a kid, I used to hate getting book reports and tests back from my teacher. There were always those annoying and sometimes downright upsetting little comments in the margins – – written in red ink so that I would be sure to see them – – or worse, so that my parents would be sure to see them. It was not until I was completing my undergraduate work and then working my way through seminary that those comments in the margins began to take on a much different meaning. Frequently there would be bits of editing information in the margins that helped me see nuances I had missed. If I paid attention and incorporated the suggestions into my paper, my writing actually became stronger and clearer. As I continued on in my academic career, paying attention to what appeared in the margins became an important part of my growth as a student and a pastor.

Jesus was a teacher who attended to the margins. In the story we just read, Jesus and his disciples are on their way on the road through Galilee. Jesus has just disclosed to them that he will be betrayed and killed and will rise again. They don’t understand what he is talking about. Indeed, in Mark’s Gospel the disciples never quite seem to catch on to what Jesus means or who Jesus is. So their conversations drift to other concerns. When they finally get to the house where they will be spending the night, Jesus asks them – – maybe in an offhand kind of way – – “So, what were you arguing about on the way?” It seems pretty evident that he had a good idea of what they had been discussing or he probably wouldn’t have asked them in the first place – – and Jesus seizes a teachable moment. They had been jockeying for power – – wanting to know who would be most favored – – who would be at the top of their little hierarchy.

Jesus asks – but he doesn’t wait for their answer. Maybe he just didn’t want to hear their inept arguments or deal with their embarrassed responses yet one more time.

Instead, he gives a teaching: “Whoever wants to be first must be the last and the servant of all.” This was a pretty paradoxical and even radical teaching for that time in history. Power and abuse of power was the way of life. The Romans exercised massive military power over Israel. Males exercised power over females. Heads of families exercised the power of life and death over their wives and children and slaves.

Some time ago, archaeologists in the middle east discovered a letter written at about the same time that Mark’s gospel was written. It was written by a man named Hyperion, an Egyptian laborer who was separated from his family because of his work assignment. He wrote to his wife who was expecting their second child. The letter is written in tenderness and concern. Even so, Hyperion advises his wife that if the newborn child is male, she should embrace it, but if it is female, she should “put the child away” – that is she should let the child die of exposure. Hyperion exercised his judgment about what was best for his family. His power over the life and death of his wife and children was a part of the way society was structured under Roman culture. The poor, the weak, the sick, the female, the slave, the child –

All were powerless and all were vulnerable – – all lived in the margins of the mainstream of life.

Then he took a little child and placed the child in the midst of them; and taking the child in his arms, Jesus gave them a teaching: ”Whoever welcomes one such child in my name, welcomes me, and not only me, but the One who sent me.”

Jesus paid attention to the margins. His greatest concern was for the little ones who lived at the margins of life. By his words and actions he directed the attention of his disciples toward the margins – – telling them that it was no longer appropriate for them to be arguing about who would be greatest among them. Indeed, the commentary from the margins was that their greatness was dependent upon their willingness to be servants of all.

This teaching is an example of the ministry which eventually led Jesus to the cross. It was a dangerous and revolutionary teaching. It reversed the accepted order of things – and in the end, could not be tolerated by the regime in power. Staying in power meant exercising control over every aspect of human life. When Jesus brought a little child into their midst and taught that the disciples must give up their power and become servants of the ones who were powerless, His revolutionary message reverberated. Jesus was dangerous. People who attend to the margins tend to be dangerous to the status quo – – but, in the end, that is what discipleship is all about.

Martin Luther King Jr. attended to the margins. The Mahatma Ghandi attended to the margins. Doctors Without Borders attend to the margins. Iconic figures like Mother Theresa attend to the margins. Their unrelenting commitment to listen to the voices from the margins brought them to servanthood. Servanthood is not glamorous and in the case of King and Ghandi, and more recently in the case of Doctors Without Borders, servanthood can be dangerous and fatal. Jesus called his friends to be servants, nonetheless.

Jesus brought a child from the margins of the disciples’ awareness right into the center of their attention. It is an image that challenges us today. Our own desire for stability and security and predictability often narrows our peripheral vision. When we are trying to keep our own lives together, just keeping up with daily concerns is enough to occupy all our attention. We aren’t very different from the disciples in that way. They all had their day to day concerns and hopes and fears, their issues of survival……and yet, Jesus directed their attention to the margins.

But his teaching was even more than a teaching about our responsibility to care for and attend to those who live precariously at the outer edges of the fullness of life.

Imbedded in the story this morning is also a lesson about our relationship to God. Jesus points out that in welcoming the child, we welcome him – – but not only him. When we welcome the child –that is when we attend to those most in need – – we find ourselves welcoming God – – the living God of all creation, the Holy One who breathes life into every living thing.

So, underneath a teaching about attending to life in the margins is Jesus desire for us to be in intimate relationship with the One who sent him. It is the work of Jesus to draw us into close communion with God. It was his greatest desire for his friends – -and for us. And so he gave a double barreled teaching: If you would be great, place yourself in the role of servant to all whom you meet – – live from the center of an attitude of servant hood. And then he adds the part that leads us into closer knowledge of God: Whoever welcomes one such child in my name, welcomes me and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the One who sent me.”

A number of years ago, I spent a long weekend at a retreat center in the Catskills. There was a large arched, wrought iron gate in front of the entrance to the main building. Welded into the design of the archway overhead were the words “See God In Each Other.” It is the spiritual principle by which Mother Theresa lived her life. As she bathed and cared for the most destitute people on the streets of Calcutta, she was caring for her Beloved Jesus. Thereby, she spent all her waking moments in the company of God. Even as she acknowledged her spiritual struggles later in life, it was this servant ministry that kept her aware of the presence of God in her daily life.

I am often amused and perplexed by the way we humans are so easily drawn to take literally the words of judgment and harshness and condemnation we often encounter in the scriptures – – yet we are unable or unwilling to take literally a principle of Jesus that we ought to understand very clearly – – when we welcome any human being into our presence – – whatever their place in life – – we are welcoming not only Jesus – – we are welcoming God.

As followers of the way of Jesus, we do not come up short on good works. What we consistently fail to do is to cultivate a vital, consistent, conscious awareness of the Living Presence of God being offered to us in our encounters with other human beings, with each other – indeed in our encounters with ourselves.

Imagine, just for a moment, what would life in our communities be like if we consistently saw the face of Christ in every resident on this island…….not just the nice ones, but the difficult ones, the ones we don’t want to be around.

The supreme gift of God to humanity is the gift of Jesus. In the human face of Jesus, we see God – – we feel the love of God. Jesus’ gift to us is even more profound. In his visible human form, he becomes our guide – – he points us toward a state of being – – a state of conscious awareness in which every human interaction is full of God.

So here is the challenge of discipleship that Jesus offers to us – -to discipline ourselves to cultivate a conscious awareness of God in each human being we encounter. Jesus invites us to attend to the human beings at the margins of our lives who are showing us the Divine Presence waiting to be welcomed – – and then to watch what happens.

Graceful Boundaries 10/11/15


2 Kings 5:1-14

Luke 17:1-19

October 11, 2015

Chilmark Community Church

Rev. Vicky Hanjian

A few years ago, our son had the experience of a sudden and frightening plummet from robust health into being in a hospital bed while literally dozens of practitioners teamed up to try to figure out what was wrong. Multiple tests, several different diagnoses over the period of several days, surgery, vague answers to dozens of questions – – – he had crossed the boundary from health to disease – – the boundary between wholeness and brokenness.

All of us will experience life in the borderlands between wellbeing and sickness at some point in our lives. That’s what happened to Naaman – a strong military leader in the service of the King of Aram – – a valiant soldier. The story doesn’t tell us how long he may have suffered with symptoms – perhaps he was too busy – – too engaged to pay attention. There are just the terse words “…he had leprosy.” It is a slave girl who starts the referral process when she says to Naaman’s wife “If only he would go see the prophet in Samaria – he would cure him!” To do this Naaman has to take a leave of absence from work so he goes to his boss, the King of Aram, and gets a letter of introduction to the king of Israel. As occasionally happens, the referral isn’t quite the right one. The king of Israel can’t do anything to help Naaman – and, indeed, feels like someone is trying to trap him by referring the leprous man to him. Enter Elisha, the prophet, who is willing to take on the case. Elisha gives Naaman a prescription: “Go and wash seven times in the Jordan and you will be cleansed” – -you will be OK.

And – again, as sometimes happens, Naaman is skeptical about the prescription – – even angry. What? No extensive treatment? No soothing ointments? No rituals? – – -Naaman wants a lot more drama from Elisha the Prophet – – not just a bath in a river far from home.

Curiously, it is the servants, again, who bring a bit of wisdom. “My father, if the prophet asked you to do some great thing to be healed – – maybe an expensive sacrifice or a huge donation to the king’s treasury – – wouldn’t you do it? All Elisha is asking is that you go bathe in the river seven times. Naaman follows the prescription and is healed of his skin disorder.

The story is a story of moving about in the borderlands between illness and health – – and it is about the grace that may inhabit those moments in life that constitute the boundaries that we cross when we get a diagnosis that requires life changing and life affecting treatment.

Long ago, in another life, I was a nursing student at a small community college in NJ. In an introductory course on how to interface with a patient in a hospital the class was asked to imagine what it would be like to cross the boundary into a foreign country. The first thing that would happen as we passed the boundary into this strange new world would be having our identity taken away and being given an impossible- to- remove -bracelet with a number on it. From then on, whenever we needed anything, that number would be our ID. Next –all our clothing would be taken and we would be given ill-fitting garments that would not keep us warm and indeed would not protect us from indignity. After a long uncomfortable wait, we would be prodded and poked by strangers who spoke in a language we would be expected to understand- – even though we had never heard it before. Terms like BP, and OR, and CBC and URI and UTI and MRI would fly rapidly around the room. Strangers would enter our rooms at any time demanding more information, extracting our blood, bringing us unpalatable food, asking us questions we had already answered for the fifth time. Getting our bodily needs met would depend on someone else’s schedule. Our nights would be punctuated by strange sounds and frequent unscheduled visits by another group of strangers. We had crossed the boundary from health to sickness.

Crossing the border, crossing some boundaries, can be a terrifying thing. One wonders how Naaman felt, having to go to a strange land, to obtain the services of a strange king only to be referred elsewhere to an equally strange prophet who told him to go take a bath!

Samaria and Galilee were traditional enemies. Jesus moved along the border between the two domains. Ten people with leprosy saw him and asked him for help. They were outside the boundaries of participation in family life, in social interaction, in meaningful employment. Their skin condition marked them as outcasts. It seems Jesus will see people without a referral. All the men ask for is compassion. Jesus ignores the social borders between himself and the 10 men. He flows into the space marked by the social boundaries and extends his loving and healing grace toward them. There is no account of any ritual, any sacrifice, any special incantations – – just “go and show yourselves to the priests” The difference between these 10 and Naaman, is that they go without question – — except for one – – the double outcast – -the leprous Samaritan who turns around to say “thank you.”

We might wonder why Jesus asks the one who turns “Where are the other nine?” –After all, aren’t they doing exactly what Jesus instructed? – – heading off to find a priest who will declare them cleansed and ready to be back in society again? We might imagine the 9 to be running toward the temple, overjoyed at the prospect of returning to normalcy again.

What is different about #10? What is different about the one who is outcast on many levels – – a mistrusted stranger in foreign territory, a traditional enemy on the wrong side of the border, a person with leprosy, a person without an identity grouped with others by their disease?

It may be that through the experience of living in the borderlands between health and illness, between enemy territories, between trust and mistrust,

#10 has learned to see the world differently. When we have to move back and forth in those strange border lands, we sometimes learn to experience life from a new perspective – perhaps at last seeing the gifts that may be encountered – – the gracefulness that might appear in the little things: The admissions clerk who calls us by name. The housekeeping person who asks after our comfort. The nurse who tracks down information for us. The physician who sits down and takes time to answer our questions in a language we can understand. When we are on the receiving end of these ever so mundane courtesies, we are also on the receiving end of compassion. We may feel more seen and heard and understood – our humanity is returned to us – – the boundaries begin to soften – – grace happens – we begin to heal. Most often, our healing and our return to wholeness is due as much to the graceful caring that emerges in unexpected places as it is to the drama of complicated tests and treatments implied by all those cryptic initials.

The borderland between two enemy territories is an unlikely place for healing and grace to happen. In real time, we witness daily the horrors, the risks, the fear, the pain and suffering that so many human beings endure in their attempts to make it through the boundaries from the brokenness of their lives to something more whole. Boundaries can be frightening, dangerous and difficult places.

Yet, that is where the story tells us that Jesus does his work of healing. Jesus meets us on the boundaries. Indeed, the powerful grace of God may do its best work in those uncomfortably ambiguous spaces in our lives where our future wellbeing is uncertain – – but like #10, we may have to learn how be able to feel and see that grace in action – to see what the Holy One is doing. And when we do, we are able to come back and say thank-you. We begin to heal – to become whole – in spite of the time we have spent in the borderlands of illness and pain and suffering.

We may not ever go back to who we were before crossing the boundary into illness, but we may return and be renewed in ways we could not have imagined. A kind of death and resurrection happens. It can be amazing – – but this is the way grace works. May we have the eyes and ears and the heart to see it and give thanks.

OPATCO sermon October 4,2015

Exodus 3: 1-7
Luke 16:19-31
Chilmark Community Church
October 4, 2015
Rev. Vicky Hanjian
One of the more memorable courses that I took in seminary was titled “Church and Community”. It was taught by an equally memorable professor named David Graybeal. Dave was “mensch”. He was wise and he definitely practiced what he taught. He served as pastor, mentor and, often, confidant, for us struggling seminarians and fledgling pastors. He kept an eye on us.

He gave us an acronym that he said he hoped we would remember because it could help to shape our ministries in meaningful ways. That acronym is “OPATCO” – – and it stands for “On Paying Attention To The Community.” By the end of the semester, he had pretty passionately and effectively convinced many of us that our future ministries would be well served by doing just that – -paying attention to the communities in which we were called to serve.

I think, in the images and metaphors suited to his own time, this thing of paying attention was on the mind of Jesus too.

There are a lot of possible directions to follow in today’s story. It might lead us into thinking about life after death. It might take us to a discussion of income inequality and economics. It might lead us to thinking about the “evils of wealth”. It might even take us in the direction of good news for the poor. It all depends on where we put our focus.

We know from a lot of biblical analysis that when a story begins with the words “There was a rich man……” that this phrase is a literary convention – – and it lets us know that that the rich person in the story will serve as a poor example. When a poor person appears in contrast, we know that the story is headed toward teaching us something about the moral and ethical relationship between the rich and the poor.

The contrast is stark in this story. The rich man dresses opulently – he wears purple garments colored with the most expensive dyes. He wears linen – – the most expensive fabric. By contrast, the poor man reclines in the dust at the city gates, too poor and too weak to even beg – he waits for crumbs. The rich man ends up in the eternal fires and the poor man is welcomed into the peaceful, nurturing comfort of the bosom of Father Abraham.

The story might lead us to “rich is bad and gets punished – – poor is good and is rewarded” and it all balances out in the end. But, as Amy Jill Levine points out, we need to think carefully about that. If we are not affected, do not feel any sense of compassion for the rich man’s suffering in the story, then we are not much better off than he is. If we identify with Lazarus’ reward in heaven, then we also have to be able to imagine ourselves enduring his abject poverty in this life. So we have to proceed cautiously with this story.
As I kept wrestling with the details, and with David Graybeal’s acronym rattling around in my brain, I began to wonder if the rich man’s sin wasn’t so much that he was rich as it was that he wasn’t paying attention – – he was able to walk by Lazarus without even seeing him. Lazarus received more comfort and attention from the dogs who licked his sores than he did from another human being.

What was Jesus saying to his audience when he told this story?
Both Roman and Jewish cultures had imbedded in them the expectation that people of means had a responsibility to care for people without means. Justice was enacted when those could afford to attend to the needs of the poor did just that. It was a cultural and also a religious expectation. So, the rich man was going against the norm. He did not pay attention and therefore he did not act.

Paying attention is an attribute of God. When God called Moses from the flaming bush, this attribute of paying attention was the first thing that God revealed to Moses: “I have seen (witnessed, observed) the misery of my people….I have heard their cry…..I know of their suffering……God was paying attention to the suffering of God’s people.

God really had to prod Moses to pay attention, to witness the suffering of his people, to hear their cries, to know and understand their suffering –to act in their behalf. Moses was being called to reveal God’s face to the Hebrews in the midst of their captivity and suffering. Jesus’ story is a way of prodding us too. Because we too are responsible for revealing God’s face in the world. When we neglect this business of paying attention, in a sense, we hide the face of God. We neglect our responsibility to reveal God’s face when we fail to pay attention to what is going on around us. Not paying attention has consequences. God doesn’t speak from burning bushes so much anymore. But I think the Holy One fairly screams at us from the headlines – – vulnerable children suffering abuse, young black men being persecuted and killed because the are black, elders suffering from neglect at the hands of people who are supposed to protect them.
The great chasm that divided the rich man in the fire and Lazarus in the bosom of Abraham was not put in place by God. It occurred through human frailty and neglect – through a failure to pay attention to what was happening at the city gates.

So –what does the story demand of us as we encounter the human family around the communion table this morning?

I wonder if there is a clue in the name of the poor man. Lazarus is the Greek form of the Hebrew name “Eliezer”. Eliezer is made up of two Hebrew words: Eli – meaning God and Ezer – meaning help.
Lazarus’ name means “God helps”. So I wonder if Lazarus – the epitome of human suffering – is our teacher – our helper. Does his name imply that through his suffering presence at the city gates, God is helping us, calling us to awaken? To pay more attention? To Respond? Does God work through the constant reminders of poverty and economic inequity and human suffering to prod us into action that will help to bring the kingdom closer?

Maybe it doesn’t have to be very complicated. The acronym might just work. OPATCO – paying attention to the community – – whether it is the community within these walls, or within the boundaries of Chilmark, or the world community bounded by the ever moving sea –paying attention is the first step in building a more just and humane world. When we pay attention we begin to reveal the face of God – we make real the attributes of a God who pays attention, who listens, who hears and knows – – A God who responds. Paying attention is the first step. May our time around the table strengthen us in the work of attending to the community around us.

CRAVING by Armen Hanjian September 28,2015

Craving Num. 11:1-2,4-5,18-20,31-34 Matt.5:1-12 92715

When Jesus shared the Beatitudes, he wasn’t addressing children or youth; he was talking to adults who had sharpened their focus regarding life and its meaning. This is particularly true with the beatitude that stated: “Blessed (that is, “happy”) are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.”

A person has to let go a lot of his or her agenda items in a day if he or she is going to focus on doing what is right – righteousness, to focus on doing what is just – justice. Part of Jesus learning in his younger years of Jewish training was the truth that Micah proclaimed: “….what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

THAT CALL IS JUST AS TRUE FOR THE MATURE JEW AS FOR THE MATURE CHRISTIAN; just as true centuries ago as for today; just as directly a call to me as to you.

How can I right what is wrong in my life, my church’s life, my community’s life? How can one person right what’s wrong in the world? How can I address someone or some group that has been unjustly treated?

I don’t have a single easy answer this morning. Rather, I am trying to help me and you to include it in our daily agenda – the truth that there is deep happiness when we make space in our hearts and minds whereby we hunger and thirst for righteousness.

When the Hebrews were in Egypt, they complained, “We want freedom; we want out of here.” When they were out of Egypt, they wanted the good old days when they had meat to eat. What is it I complain about, or better put, what is it I crave?

I mean more than biting into sweet corn. I mean other than our gradual growth toward hungering and thirsting after righteousness. Through my years, I thought what I really craved were women, sex, that sort of satisfaction. I have concluded what I crave is intimacy. It’s a hot potato; I can’t hold onto it very long. A helpful way of understanding is: into-me-I-see.

Intimacy involves me in various forms, various ways:

1. Eye contact that is sustained.

2. Touching.

3. Hugging with my whole self and being hugged back by another’s offering their whole self.

4.Hearing and/or saying just the right words.

5. Music.

6. Beauty

7. Reminders that connect me with past intimacy, e.g. someone who looks like an early loved one.

A reason we can’t hold onto the feeling of intimacy very long is that it is a powerful charge of energy to be used to move me and you into appropriate action. The pattern is this: ENERGY moves us to ACTION which moves us to INTERACTION with a persons or persons or thing. And those three things (energy, action, interaction) yields: MEANING.

If we are not in touch with the energy of our feelings, no energy emerges and gets named. If that step is missing there is little or no action.

If we are short on feelings/energy, action or interaction beyond our world, our self, we are short changed on something else we crave: meaning.

Be in touch with your feelings. Act on them and discover how God’s blessings will abundantly flow.

I invite you to take a moment, then share your thoughts or feelings on this perspective.

What if it’s all about forgiveness? Sept. 20, 2015



Rev. Vicky Hanjian

September 20, 2015

JOHN 20:19 – 31

What if it’s all about forgiveness? We can’t escape the theme of forgiveness in the JESUS story. As he was dying, Jesus forgave his tormentors on the cross. In his second post resurrection appearance, he greeted his friends behind locked doors and commissioned them to exercise forgiveness in the world. At the end of John’s gospel Jesus forgave Peter for his denial and commissioned Peter to “feed my sheep.”

Forgiveness has been a central place of spiritual challenge and struggle for all who have followed since then. What if it’s all about forgiveness?

Forgiveness made the front page headlines of the Globe several weeks ago when members of a Charleston, South Carolina Church appeared in court at the arraignment of the man who had opened fire in their congregation and killed their pastor and several members. Within just a few days of the event, they offered him forgiveness. A few years ago members of an Amish community in Pennsylvania immediately forgave the man who had killed five young school girls in their community. A little farther back than that, a five-year-old Boston girl, paralyzed by a stray bullet at the age of three made the headlines when she offered the perpetrator forgiveness. In her victim impact statement, she was quoted as saying “What you done to me was wrong” and then she said “But I still forgive him.” Stories like these put forgiveness on the front page and they are met with mixed response. Finding our way in the radical world of forgiveness is not always easy.

Psychologist Stephanie Dowrick has written: Forgiveness deeply offends the rational mind. When someone has hurt us, wounded us, abused us; when someone has stolen peace of mind or safety from us; when someone has harmed or taken the life of someone we love; or when someone has simply misunderstood us or offended us, there is no reason why we should let the offense go. No reason why we should understand it. No reason why we should hope for enlightenment for that person. No reason why, from our own pain and darkness we should summon compassion and insight for that person as well as for ourselves.1

As familiar as the gospel story is to us, it still confounds us – – it confounds rationality. Forgiveness is not a reasonable, rational process. There was no rational reason for Jesus to forgive the Roman soldiers even as they crucified him. There was no reason for Jesus to forgive the friend who denied him. But this is what Jesus did – – And the first thing he commissioned his followers to do was to forgive the sins of others.

Perhaps forgiveness is difficult for us at times because we do not fully understand what forgiveness is and is not. Actually, it is probably the things that forgiveness is NOT that cause us the most difficulty in knowing when and what we can forgive. Forgiveness is NOT condoning the wrong that was done. Forgiveness does NOT justify the actions that caused harm. Forgiveness does NOT always happen in an instant. It takes time – often years – for forgiveness to happen. Forgiveness does NOT mean forgetting what has happened. Forgiveness does NOT necessarily lead to forced reunions between the wounded person and the one who has done the wounding.2 Forgiveness may never lead to the comfort of real and authentic reconciliation.

If forgiveness is none of these things, then what are we left with? William Countryman in his book FORGIVEN AND FORGIVING points out that the Greek word that we translate as forgive (aphiemi) means, basically, “to let go.” “When we pray ‘forgive us our debts or trespasses’ the words means “let our debts go; turn them loose.” Forgiveness involves a letting go – a letting go of our investment in the past so that we can turn toward the future; it means letting go of our need to control the other; it even means letting go of our own self righteousness so that something new can happen in the world.”3 In addition to all the other things that forgiveness is not – – it is NOT about the past, but about the future. There is no way of erasing the past, and we always carry our past with us into the future – which gives the lie to the conventional wisdom of “forgive and forget.” Countryman suggests it is not whether we carry the past into the future, but how we carry it. Do we drag the past with us like a dead weight, something that holds us back? Do we carry it as a weapon to use against ourselves or someone else?4 When we are able to reach a point where we no longer need the past to be any different than it was, we are well on the way to knowing how to forgive.

The command to forgive is central to what Jesus envisioned for the world. He breathed the power of the Holy Spirit into his followers. “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” By His Spirit, He breathes in us today and the challenge of his words remains – we are empowered with both the ability to forgive and the ability to refuse to forgive.

At times it appears that we live in a world motivated more by revenge than by forgiveness. Jesus’ vision of a kingdom where forgiveness and compassion and justice reigns is pretty tarnished. Street gangs kill each other off and wound innocent people because of their need for revenge against one another. Family units dissolve when marriage partners cannot forgive each other or themselves. Nations carry out genocide against one another because historical grievances have been dragged into the present to stoke the fires of revenge. Children carry childhood wounds into their own adulthood because they cannot forgive their parents.

We know what forgiveness is not. But what then does real forgiveness look like? Linda Barker Revell writes: “Forgiveness is a state of grace. It cannot be applied as a concept. It must not be muddled up with who is right and who is not right. That muddling separates us off from the healing power of love and I think that forgiveness is the greatest of the healing powers of love.” 5

Real forgiveness often comes to life not so much through our ability to see the failings in others and to judge them, but through our willingness to own up to our own failings, to know what we have done, and to acknowledge without self pity what we are capable of doing. Forgiveness demands that we take responsibility for ourselves, with all the discomfort that may imply. Forgiveness asks us to think about what kind of society we are creating through our actions – through our ability to forgive….or through our propensity to withhold forgiveness. Forgiveness demands that we ask of ourselves “What kind of a future do I want to create in this situation, in this relationship?” The mother of the young Boston girl expressed it very succinctly: “We live in a world today that seems to want people to be bitter, angry. But I don’t want bitterness and anger in my life and I don’t want it for my daughter.” Imagine the kind of radical process of forgiveness that might activate reconciliation instead of enmity if we asked the question “What kind of future do we want to create?

One sermon will not address the vast possibilities of a future based on forgiveness. The best we can hope for, perhaps, is to open the door to more thinking about it forgiveness – about what it is and is not. We know all too well what a world built on revenge and retribution looks like. Perhaps the best and clearest way to welcome the power of Jesus’ teachings into our lives is to wrestle with the responsibility that has been entrusted to us –“ If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

Bill Countryman reminds us that “in the power of God’s Spirit, no good thing is impossible. As people who trust in the good news, we live by hope in what we, with God, can build in the future. The failure or unwillingness of others will not prevent us from living richly and faithfully as we grow toward the vision of the kingdom. We can forgive others without their asking (us for) forgiveness – if we have to. We can repent and build anew without the forgiveness we seek from others – if we have to.”

Real forgiveness begins with admitting the truth of the wounding. 5 year old Kai Lee said it very clearly: “What you done to me was wrong.” Real forgiveness begins by recognizing and naming the wrong doing and bringing it to a halt. Where there is ongoing wrongdoing, the only truly loving and forgiving thing to do is to demand change. This is true of situations involving abuse, racism, genocide, poverty, discrimination, war- – of any situation where the wrongdoing is pervasive and ongoing. The first step toward any real forgiveness is to name the wrong-doing and demand that it stop.

Real forgiveness is what opens the possibility of reconciliation between wrongdoer and victim. Real forgiveness will say “If there is to be a future relationship between us, it has to be a non-abusive one; a non-racist one; a non-class-ist one, a non-warring one. No other kind of relationship is appropriate for those who are citizens of the age to come. No other relationship can endure in that age where harm ceases to be a possibility.”6

Through Jesus, we have been authorized to forgive one another. That’s where it all begins. At any moment we can embark on the life long process. We simply start where we are and we begin to forgive what we can forgive. With practice we begin to let go of the self-righteousness that slows us down. We realize that we have been forgiven – and that, all by itself, is what authorizes us to be about the work of forgiving others. Forgiveness is not for sissies. Jesus shows us that. But forgiveness is also not exclusively reserved for saints. We might very well be the ones hiding out of fear in a locked room – feeling the breath of the Spirit, hearing the commission Jesus speaks, feeling ourselves propelled into a future that God envisions for all God’s people. May it be so. Amen.

1 FORGIVENESS AND OTHER ACTS OF LOVE by Stephanie Dowrick W.W. Norton & Co. New York, 1997. p. 291

2 Dowrick p. 290

3 FORGIVEN AND FORGIVING by L. William Countryman, Morehouse Publishing, Harrisburg, PA 1998 p.57

4 Countryman Page 57

5 Dowrick page 300

6 Countryman p.84

You Shall Be Holy September 13,2015

You Shall Be Holy….”

Leviticus 19:1-3, 9 –19, 33

Chilmark Community Church

September 13, 2015

Rev. Vicky Hanjian

Imagine being a somewhat cantankerous collection of tribal peoples newly freed from generations of slavery, trying to find the way through a hostile wilderness, following a leader they aren’t sure that they can trust.

Imagine being Moses, having to lead this motley crew into a kind of freedom they had never known. Imagine being commanded to be the mouthpiece for a hidden God that your people have not learned to trust yet either. It seems to be an impossible task – and yet this somewhat chaotic and disorganized beginning is the foundation of the people who will carry forward the reality that there is only one God – and there will be no other gods for them to consider.

At some point in the wilderness sojourn, God commands Moses to speak to this resistant and doubtful people: Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy. We notice quickly that Moses is to address, not just pious folks, not just the men, not just the tribal leaders, not just the elders – God commands that Moses to speak to the whole community with a rather astounding command: Tell them they are to be holy!! So – maybe we need to unpack what it means to be holy – – because we are the spiritual descendants of those early wanderers and the command is directed at us too.

If we continue on a bit in the text we read this morning, we find out pretty quickly that being holy is not a matter of praying regularly and correctly. It is not being saintly. It is not a matter of living a pious life above reproach. It is not even a matter of getting to church every week. Holiness has to do with respecting and caring for and honoring one another – especially our elders as represented by our fathers and mothers.

Being holy means not harvesting every last squash or head of cabbage or grain of wheat from your fields. It means leaving some of the harvest at the corners and edges of the field for the poor and the stranger. Our island farms practice this holiness by welcoming gleaners to harvest what is left in the fields after produce for market is gathered in. The gleaners supply the schools and senior centers and the Island Food Pantry with the crops left in the corners and margins of the fields. Bounty for those who might not be able to afford fresh vegetables otherwise.

So many of the commands at the heart of the teachings in Leviticus are practical laws aimed at creating a just and compassionate society. They are as contemporary now as they were when they were first recorded.

The 33rd verse in Leviticus 19 is particularly in the foreground today as we watch the drama of refugees fleeing from Syria and other parts of the middle east into European Union countries: When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love the stranger as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. While Hungary moves toward creating walls and barriers to the strangers at their doors, Germany and France and Austria and England and others are opening their doors and their arms and their hearts to receive strangers into their midst. We have no idea of what the future will look like for these countries or for the thousands of souls who are finding rest and respite from war and wandering. It isn’t possible at the moment to see how graceful the receiving countries will be able to be in the face of such challenges. But for the moment, we are catching a glimpse of the face of holiness –the face of God’s holiness in the faces and hearts and arms of those who welcome the stranger. It is possible that we are also witnessing a process of hope and redemption for the world as this drama unfolds.

Armen and I receive a weekly letter from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks who is the former chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth. He wrote this last week:

A strong humanitarian response on the part of Europe and the international community could achieve what military intervention and political negotiation have thus far failed to achieve. The response would constitute the clearest possible evidence that the European experience of two world wars and the Holocaust have taught that free societies, where people of all faiths and ethnicities make space for one another, are the only way to honor our shared humanity.

I use to think that the most important line in the bible was, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Then I realized that it is easy to love your neighbor because he or she is usually quite like yourself. What is hard is to love the stranger, one whose colour, culture or creed is different from yours. That is why the command, “Love the stranger because you were once strangers,” resonates so often throughout the Bible.

[That command] is summoning us now. A bold act of collective generosity will show that the world, particularly Europe, really has learned the lesson of its own dark past and is willing to take the global lead in building a more hopeful future. Wars that cannot be won

by weapons can sometimes be won by the sheer power of acts of human generosity to inspire the young to choose the way of peace instead of holy war.

This morning’s text began with God’s command to God’s people that we are to be holy because God is holy. It ends with the command to love the stranger as ourselves because we were once strangers in Egypt. The Hebrew word for Egypt is mitzrayim. It means “narrow”.

We do not have personal history of being in slavery in Egypt, but we do know what it means to be in a narrow, confining space that does not permit us to be joyfully and fully and generously human. We all know something about grief, and pain and uncertainty. We know what it is to be fearful at times. We know what it is like not to be able to reach our goals and dreams. We know what it is to agonize over the lives of loved ones. We know what it is like to feel estranged. These are our mitzrayim – our Egypt – our narrow places – – these are our places of being strangers in the world. It is from these narrow places that we learn what it is like to be a stranger. God calls us to remember what it is like and out of that memory, to extend love and compassion to others who are also strangers – because they suffer as we have suffered.

To be holy as God is holy means learning how to welcome and love and make space for the stranger. It isn’t always easy or comfortable, but it is what we are called to do and be. Strangers are everywhere.

The new kid in the classroom, the first time visitor to a church, the new Brazilian family in the neighborhood, the unfamiliar face in the crowd. Sometimes the stranger is close by, dwelling inside us as the frightened or angry part of ourselves that we don’t know very well or want to deny. Strangers, external or internal, are everywhere, waiting to be welcomed and loved.

Rachel Naomi Remen interviewed a Holocaust survivor, Yitzak, at a retreat for people with cancer, for her book Kitchen Table Wisdom. Initially, Yitzak was very uncomfortable being vulnerable with a group of strangers. Yitzak tells Rachel at their final meeting that he took up the matter with God and asked God what this retreat was about. Rachel wanted to know what God said in response to Yitzak. Yitzak answered: “…I say to Him, ‘God is it okay to luff strangers?’ And God says to me, ‘Yitzak, vat is dis strangers? You make strangers. I don’t make strangers.’” To Yitzak, his fellow cancer sufferers were strangers. To God, no one is a stranger. (Kitchen Table Wisdom by Rachel Naomi Remen)

The drama that is being played out in Europe is the human drama. Every human being on the planet has a role to play if we are to create a more just and loving world. God did not speak just to a select few when Moses called the people together. God commanded the whole people to be holy. To God, who is holy, there are no strangers. God calls us to be holy. The healing of the world depends on it.

What’s Going on Here? September 6,2015

What’s Going On Here?”

1 Samuel 16:1-13

Chilmark Community Church –UMC

September 6, 2015

From time to time, Armen and I have the pleasure of house sitting for friends who live above Squibnocket Pond.

From the living room window I can see the glittering water, the hills and stone walls, the movement of the sun across the sky, the dunes in the distance, Noman’s Island – – and I can revel in the silence there. Paradoxically, the view everyday is both unchanging and continually changing across the hours from sun up to sun down

All that nature serves as a perfect foil for the themes in the reading from 1st Samuel because a lot of the stories and traditions in the 1st and 2nd books of Samuel pose the theological problem of the unchanging changeability of God. The stories raise questions about the character of a God who does not change and yet changes all the time – – a God who resists any fixed notions that humans may have about the predictability of divine movement and influence.

Gail Godwin has written a novel called “Finishing School”. Near the beginning of the book she describes a penetrating and telling conversation between two characters, Justin, the narrator, and Ursula. Ursula is speaking to Justin:

There are two kinds of people,” she once decreed to me emphatically. “One kind you can tell just by looking at them at what point they congealed into their final selves. It might be a very nice self, but you know you can expect no more surprises from it. Whereas, the other kind keeps moving and changing. With these people you can never say, ‘X stops here,’ or ‘Now I know all there is to know about Y.’ That doesn’t mean they are unstable. Ah, no, far from it. They are fluid. They keep moving forward and making new trysts with life, and the motion keeps them young. In my opinion, they are the only people who are still alive. You must be constantly on your guard, Justin, against congealing.”

And so it is with coming to terms with how we understand any biblical text and ultimately, how we come to know God and ourselves. For the most part we have learned to read the Bible in bits and pieces. Parts of the Bible are so familiar to us that we think we know all there is to know about what those parts mean. The stories and the message have become congealed. So for a few minutes this morning, perhaps we can approach the ancient witness fluidly, assuming nothing. We will probably not gain a true and accurate, complete and final reading, but perhaps just some elusive insight just for today. Next week or next year, the same text might raise very different questions and understandings.

It almost seems like we are jumping on a moving train in the first verse where God says to Samuel: “How long will you grieve over Saul??? I have rejected him from being king over Israel.” Generations of Israel’s colorful and complex history have led to this point. In a nutshell, after many generations in the wilderness under the leadership of Moses, followed by many more generations of struggle to gain a foothold in the promised land under first Joshua and then under a variety of other tribal leaders, Israel begged God to provide them with a king. God chooses Samuel, a priest and a prophet, to find and anoint this king – who turns out to be Saul. The arrangement works for a very brief while, but at some point, Saul loses his ability to lead. His charisma begins to disappear – -and God decides a new king is needed. It will, again be Samuel’s responsibility to find and anoint the one whom God has chosen. In the process, Samuel grieves over Saul. And I wonder what this means? Is Samuel grieved by his own failure as a leader? – – He was the one who anointed Saul in the first place. Is Samuel grieved because he has failed God in some way? Or is his grief personal? Perhaps he has sympathy for Saul who is about to be relieved of his kingship? We don’t know for sure. What we do know is that God directs Saul to get over it and move on. This might be a point where we could ask “What’s going on here?”

Do we have here an instance of an unchanging God having a change of mind and heart? We are not even out of the 1st verse and God says to Samuel: “Go to Jesse, the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king from among his sons. The Hebrew word ra’ah which is translated as “I have provided” may also be translated as “I have seen”. So we might ask “Does God see a kingly possibility that is already there?” or “ Does God actively work to provide the king that God needs?” Which way is the truth about God? The questions keep the text and us from congealing. The answer has to remain fluid.

Whichever translation we choose, it is clear that the anointing of David is not a happenstance event. As Samuel follows the commands of the fluid God, the anointing of David will not be a historical accident or a political stratagem.

It turns out that this is a dangerous adventure for Samuel. One simply does not anoint a new king while the old one is still on the throne. Even though God has withdrawn divine favor, Saul is still the king. Anointing a new king makes Samuel a traitor and Samuel is not too thrilled about carrying out the plan. But God isn’t interested Samuel’s resistance and fear – – and God is not prepared to reason with Samuel.

BUT, God does come up with a way to get around some of the risk and instructs Samuel: “Tell the people you have come to make a sacrifice. This will relieve their suspicion about why you are there. God authorizes a deception that provides protection for Samuel. The Divine goal is to get to Jesse’s family. Maybe this is another place to ask “What’s going on here?”

As only happens in stories, the Bethlehemites naively believe the ruse that Samuel has come merely to make a sacrifice and the deception buys him the entrance he needs.

The story tells us a few things about how our ancestors understood God.

1st – The story tells us that God could act and then decide that the act was a mistake – – it is a glimpse of a God whose mind could change. God commanded the anointing of Saul and immediately regretted it because Saul messed up on his first assignment. God dis-invited Saul from his kingship.

Our ancestors conceived of a God who is fallible.

2nd – The story tells us that being a servant of God is risky. Samuel is put at great risk for his life by the order to anoint a new king. God is not terribly reasonable. God wants something done and expects Samuel to do it. God doesn’t want to hear about Samuel’s fears and orders Samuel to get on with it. Our ancestors conceived of a God with an irresistible will.

3rd – The story tells us that God is not above a little artifice in order to accomplish the Divine will. God gives Samuel a plausible story to tell the elders of Bethlehem in order to get to his real purpose which is to anoint a new king. Our ancestors conceived of a God who was the source, the guide and eventually the goal of the outcome.

As the drama unfolds, Jesse brings out all his sons for Samuel’s blessing and anointing. Eliab – – the oldest – -attractive – – tall – – all the signs of leadership potential. But God says “no – not him.” “Do not look upon his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have (already) rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals; they look on outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

A second and then a third son come forward, but, as in the Cinderella story, Samuel persists. “Are there any other sons?” Reluctantly, Jesse sends for his youngest son who is tending the flocks. The young boy comes forward and Samuel anoints him to become heir to Saul’s throne – and so the great King David of Israel enters the stream of our ancestral story.

On a communion Sunday at the beginning of September and at the beginning of a relatively unanticipated future together, what are we to take from this story that will not allow us to become congealed?

Maybe first and foremost is the notion that God does not wish any of us to congeal prematurely! We can get too fixed and comfortable with the status quo. A congregation can get stuck in an identity that may need to change and grow. A quirky God can shift things around. A clergy couple can get too content in the routines of retirement – and may need to become uncongealed. Maybe we are to learn not to depend so much on external, human forces – on the frailty of human seeing – – but rather draw strength from trusting that God sees more accurately and acts to carry us forward like Samuel – – even though we are uncertain about where we are going. The Divine Influence that sustains and guides us is a radically free and adventuring God. The entire body of scripture that we have inherited attests to this God who is not satisfied with a congealed people. The dynamic activity of God doesn’t end in the ancient story. It continues right here in our midst. We gather at the table to enact an ancient ritual. Some days it has meaning for us – -other days it doesn’t. But we gather anyway because this radically free God works in us through simple things like bread and wine – -drawing us closer to one another – strengthening our connections so that we have the spiritual resources we need to stay in realtionship with this ever-moving God.

God seeks an uncongealed people who are willing to be on the move and to be fully open to the eternally changing Unchanging One.

Perhaps, just for today, to paraphrase the character of Ursula, we can experiment with being fluid – – with moving forward – -with making new trysts with the Holy One. Being in motion with the Christ who offers us living bread will keep us ever young. Indeed, the deeper fellowship around the table is what keeps us alive and uncongealed. Perhaps that is all that is going on here.

“HELPING, FIXING, SERVING” August 23, 2015

“Helping, Fixing, Serving”

John 12:1-8

Chilmark Community Church

August 23, 2015

Rev. Vicky Hanjian

Many years ago my Sunday School teaching partner and I were preparing for our 4th grade class. That year we were blessed with 8 boys between the ages of 8 and 10. The lesson that morning had to do with the story of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. So we decided to invite the kids to have the experience of having their feet washed and then of washing each others’ feet. As the lesson progressed, we got to the point of filling a large basin with water and my partner asked who would like to be first?

Almost a though a secret signal had been given, 8 pairs of feet were withdrawn, pulled back under the chair rungs – – no willing volunteers. So my friend Ila and I were left with no alternative but to wash each other’s feet and demonstrate what the lesson was about.

We took a few minutes to do this and as we looked around the room, those little guys were paying attention! So we offered the invitation again. This time one or two feet were very tentatively extended beyond the rungs of the chairs. Then one pair of sneakers came off followed by a pair of socks – – and then another and another. One by one, the kids extended their feet to see what it would feel like to have their feet washed. Gradually, they experimented with washing each other’s feet with a lot of giggling and “oooooh phew!” By the end of the class we all had clean feet and we had all learned something about what it feels like to have someone kneel in front of us and serve us in a profoundly simple and symbolic act.

We have two very brief images of service in today’s text. Jesus has returned to Bethany for a visit at the home of his dear friends, Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus. They have prepared a dinner party for him. The words of the story are sparse: “Martha served”………Mary took a pound of expensive perfumed ointment, cleansed Jesus’ feet and wiped them, not with a towel, but with her hair.

The images of the meal and the foot washing are repeated again in the later story of Jesus sharing his final meal with his friends – and washing their feet. In the later story it is Jesus who serves and washes.

Today’s story reaches the senses: the smell of lamb and grains roasting on the fire; the scent of perfume filling the house; the intimacy of Mary’s physical touch; the feel of soft hair. It’s a sensual story. It is also a story of contrasts. Death and life are present. Lazarus is newly restored, alive, from his tomb where Jesus was warned of the terrible stench he would encounter there. Jesus is on his way to his own tomb – fragrantly perfumed. Mary and Martha are extravagant in their meal preparations and the bathing of Jesus feet. Judas kind of sulks in the corner worrying about the expense.

There is a two-word sentence in the story that catches the eye: “Martha served.” Serving is what the sisters knew how to do.

A number of years ago, Naomi Remen authored an article in the Noetic Sciences Review titled “In The Service of Life”. She wrote: “In recent years, the question ‘how can I help?’ has become meaningful for many people. But perhaps there is a deeper question we might consider. Perhaps the real question is not ‘How can I help’ but rather ‘How can I serve?’ There is a difference between helping and fixing and serving.

Richard Rohr, in his book “What the Mystics Know” writes: After decades of counseling, pastoring, and clumsy attempts at helping other people, I am coming to a not so obvious but compelling conclusion: Much of our helping is like hoping for first class accommodations on the Titanic. It feels good at the moment, but it is going nowhere. The big tear in the hull is not addressed, and we are surprised when people drown, complain, or resort to life boats. Most of the people I have tried to fix still need fixing. The situation changed, but the core was never touched.

Serving is different than helping. Remen suggests that people tend to feel a sense of inequality when they are helped. The helper may feel good, but the one who is helped may feel diminished in some way. We heard this message clearly a number of years ago when we spent some time on the Lakota Reservations in South Dakota. The tribes told stories about how they had been “helped” by the US government in the form of surplus food. They had been “helped” by missionaries who wanted to convert them to Christianity. They had been “helped” by well meaning groups who sent them boxes of used clothing. But through all this helping, their health, their spiritual traditions and their strength and dignity as a tribal people were all seriously diminished. The integrity and wholeness of tribal life was eroded by the help that was extended to them. To paraphrase Rohr, all that helping and fixing never reached the core. Life on the reservations changed, but the deepest core of life was never touched in a way that would have lead to wholeness in the relationship between the Lakota people the white population.

Service, on the other hand, is a relationship between equals. Helping incurs a subtle kind of indebtedness. Serving has a mutuality about it. There is no indebtedness. In a serving relationship, I am served just as much as the person I am serving. When I help, I have a feeling satisfaction that I have done something good. When I serve, I feel gratitude. These are two very different things.

Serving is also different from fixing. Fixing arises out of seeing the world or other persons as broken. Naomi Remen writes: “When I fix another person, I see them as broken and their brokenness requires me to act. When I fix, I do not see the wholeness in the other person or trust the integrity of the life in them. Fixing is a form of judgment about the brokenness of the other person.

When I think of images of serving, one that comes to mind is hospice work. When a hospice worker receives an assignment, it is an assignment to serve. In the work of attending to the needs of the dying and to the needs of the family, a hospice worker cannot fix anything –nor can he or she really help. In hospice work there is no fixing or helping – – only service – – the service of wise and compassionate presence – – a service that addresses and acknowledges the strength and integrity of the family and the one who is dying. Hospice seeks to serve the wholeness in the life of the client and the family as death draws near.

The images of Jesus and his friends in the gospel are images of service. Mary breaks a flask of perfumed ointment to sooth and cleanse Jesus’ feet. She can fix nothing. Her act of service doesn’t help anything. Jesus already knows his end is imminent. Nothing can fix or help the outcome. There is a mystery in Mary’s service that recognizes the integrity and wholeness of Jesus, of work, of his purpose.

Judas, on the other hand, is a helper and a fixer – – sell the ointment – -help the poor. He has a somewhat self righteous tone about him and the little editorial comment suggests that his motives aren’t really all that pure.

Later on in John’s gospel Jesus is again in the company of friends. This time he is the one with the basin and towel. He extends to his friends the hospitality of serving them by preparing to wash their feet. He comes first to Peter – and Peter resists. He is incredulous at the idea of Jesus washing his feet and he refuses. Jesus responds to him: “unless I wash you, you have no part in me.” And Peter submits to being served by Jesus. Jesus doesn’t fix anything about Peter. We know this because of the way the story unfolds after Jesus is arrested. But Jesus sees something of the inherent worth – indeed the holiness – in Peter. Unless Peter allowed himself to be served by Jesus, Peter would not be able to live out a life of service.

Jesus aligned himself with the wholeness that he saw in each life he touched. He saw that wholeness in each human being waiting to be restored and he acted in service to that wholeness.

When we see this about Jesus, we can understand a little bit more about his willing attitude when Mary anointed his feet and Martha served him a meal. In the face of the unfixable that lay ahead of them all, it was incredibly important that Mary and Martha be able to serve by their devotion and their friendship and their presence in Jesus’ life. When this story is juxtaposed with the later story of Jesus washing his friends’ feet, we see that life in Christ is not so much a life of fixing and helping – – or of being fixed or helped. Rather life in Christ is a life of serving and being served.

Through his life and death and resurrection, Jesus serves us by recognizing the wholeness and the holiness that resides in each one of us. He does not relate to us as needy, or broken or weak. Rather he serves us by honoring our strength and calling forth the best from us. If his purpose were to help us or fix us, he would only make us weaker. But Jesus calls us from weakness to strength. His loving service to us empowers us – – makes us strong.

Martha served. Mary served. Jesus serves. After Jesus had washed his friends’ feet he said to them “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me teacher and Lord –and you are right for that is what I am. So – if I your Lord have washed your feet, you ought also to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”

So – the subtle call seems clear. We are called to lives of serving and lives of being served. We all know something about what this means because we live in a community that does this as part of its way of being in the world. The story just helps us do the fine tuning so that we can be more effective. May we enter the coming week with our eyes and ears and hearts wide open to whatever our servant ministry calls us to do and be in the name of God. AMEN.