Things Have Changed

Our world is always changing, and yet we hang on to our old traditions and ways of seeing things. This doesn’t always work well, and we often don’t realize it. We just muddle along, often somewhat aware of the changes going on around us, but perhaps not having thought through their full impact. It often takes a challenge to our views and memories for us to fully appreciate what has happened, and how those changes affect us and what we are called to do.

Sermon presented at Centre Congregational Church, UCC (Brattleboro, VT)
June 2, 2013
Scripture: Luke 7:1-10

The Synagogue in Ancient Capernaum
The Synagogue in Ancient Capernaum

As most of you know, my father, Allen Vander Meulen Jr., was once a Minister here.  It’s humbling and a bit surreal to stand here nearly 50 years after his first Sunday here; and I am happy to report that both he and my mother are here today!  Thank you, Rev. McFadden, and all of you, for inviting me to speak here this morning: it is a blessing and an honor.  I am deeply grateful.

My earliest memories are connected with this church.  One of the first, I think, is hearing my Dad’s voice boom out over the congregation during hymns.

You see, he’d stand here and sing as he’d always done in his previous churches.  But, in coming here something was different, something that he did not realize mattered.  Those previous churches had not had one of these [TAP ON MIKE].  So, singing in full volume with his powerful voice had never been an issue before, he’d never had to think about it – and didn’t think about it because the speakers pointed towards the congregation, not towards him – he didn’t hear what we heard.

And I was three years old – I didn’t know any different.  I had no idea that hearing the preacher sing so LOUDLY was not normal, not even at those times when I recalled it decades later.  It had been cemented in my mind as the way things were, life as normal.  My perspective on it was never challenged until a moment of revelation – in my forties, I think – when I finally heard the story of how “Pony” Felch, the church moderator at the time, took my Dad aside one day and said in that wonderful old Vermont accent of his “You know Allen, next time you sing a hymn from the pulpit, take a step back!”

Our world is always changing, and yet we hang on to our old traditions and ways of seeing things.  This doesn’t always work well, and we often don’t realize it.  We just muddle along, often somewhat aware of the changes going on around us, but perhaps not having thought through their full impact.  It often takes a challenge to our views and memories for us to fully appreciate what has happened, and how those changes affect us and what we are called to do.

Continue reading “Things Have Changed”

Affirmation

Affirmation requires embracing the other, and loving them, without judgment, for every aspect of who they are, and what they are. … It is an acknowledgement that we don’t have all of the answers, and that the other’s answers therefore deserve just as much respect and care as we expect them to show for ours. This is driven by our firm conviction that the Holy Spirit is available to all and that God is present in all of Creation, a conviction rooted in Peter’s quote from Joel to that crowd of many nations on Pentecost: “God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.” All Flesh. So, it is our role to discern God in the other, even if the presence of the Holy Spirit in their lives manifests itself in ways that we are neither familiar nor comfortable with.

Bugobi-29-960x540My “Farewell Sermon” at Sudbury Memorial Church, UCC
Presented 5/19/2013
Scriptures: John 15:12-17; Acts 2:1-21

My first Sunday here was as a pulpit supply preacher on August 7th, 2011. The Lay Leader that day was John, who was a tremendous help, the very first of many here who have reached out to support, encourage and guide me, every time I’ve been in this Sanctuary or ministered in any capacity on behalf of this congregation.

Just over eight months ago, I began serving as your Ministerial Intern. That day, I was leaping into the unknown. I was nervous about the year long experience we’d both committed ourselves to, worried about saying the wrong thing, doing something stupid, or offending someone inadvertently; hoping our time together would be a positive experience for all of us.

And every day since has been a great blessing, filled with experiences I will always treasure.  This has been a time of growth and of correction, a time of learning and of teaching, a time of deepening and broadening my faith and ministry (and – I hope – yours), a time where we have each given a piece of ourselves to the other, a time when we planted seeds for the future within each other, a time where we have been open to each other and shared in deeply moving, loving ways. We’ve bonded with each other in ways that will last forever.

Those most involved in mentoring and guiding me during my time here, the members of my Teaching Parish Committee, and Tom and Cathy, are all up here this morning, continuing their support through our joint ministry today, doing what you have all been so diligent in doing these past eight months – affirming and guiding me in hundreds of ways, small and large. But most importantly, and most memorably, you’ve all offered me your friendship, and your love, and I have been profoundly grateful and blessed by it.

But now, our journey together draws to a close. Our future has arrived, a future where our paths diverge. A time when, once again, we must leap into the unknown; but this time of ministering together will live on, in our memories. Good memories, mostly – I hope! Certainly that will be the case for me. It’s been a good year, but as we often say when times such as this come to a close, our journey together has been all too short.

But is it the end?

In this morning’s reading from the Gospel of John, Jesus tells his disciples “I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father…”

I do not call you “Servants” any longer… but I have called you friends

We are embarking on a new stage in our relationship, which is also the message of Pentecost. The arrival of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost was a declaration that Christ’s relationship with his disciples, including us, is one that can never die, and one that has changed into something new. There is a new level of openness, of sharing, of affirming, of vulnerability. A deeper bond has been born, binding us together through the Holy Spirit that now indwells each and every one of us.

Continue reading “Affirmation”

Jesus’ Last Command

This week in Boston, we’ve seen so many people in our community coming together to minister in many ways to those who wounded, whether visibly or not, by this tragedy. This reflects how Jesus called upon his disciples to love one another and minister to each other, especially in times if crisis, as we see in this morning’s scripture. It is a story we know all too well – but the disciples didn’t know it, yet.

Sermon presented 4/28/2013, Sudbury Memorial Church, UCC
Scripture: Excerpts from John 13:4-35

This week in Boston, we’ve seen so many people in our community coming together to minister in many ways to those who have been wounded, whether visibly or not, by this tragedy. This reflects how Jesus called upon his disciples to love one another and minister to each other, especially in times if crisis, as we see in this morning’s scripture.  It is a story we know all too well – but the disciples didn’t know it, yet.

What the disciples knew was that Jesus had just washed all of their feet, and told them that if they truly love him they must follow his example by ministering to one another, as he had.  He then foretold his imminent betrayal by one of their own.  Finally, Judas accepted an offering of bread and vanished into the night on some unknown errand.  It was the evening of the “Last Supper.”  The disciples had taken shelter from the darkness outside in the cherished, annual celebration of their love and connection with each other, and with the people of God.

We remember and celebrate this even today, in the sacrament of communion.  The sharing of the bread is seen as the sharing of the Body of Christ that has been broken for us.  By eating of it, we are sharing in his life, in his death, and in the resurrection.  By eating of it together as a community, we are acknowledging that we are all part of the Body of Christ here on earth, working together to continue His ministry and to make manifest the Kingdom of God that is already all around us, even though we may not yet see it in all of its glory and perfection.

Judas took his piece of that bread as he left the light and warmth of his companions, and his Lord, as he retreated into the night.

Why did John think it so important to preserve the memory of this strange offering to the Betrayer?  Judas is someone to be shunned, damned and forgotten for all time – why remember anything about him at all?  Was that gift just for Judas?  I doubt it.  No passage in the scriptures has just one lesson for us – or I’d be out of a job!

Continue reading “Jesus’ Last Command”

Salvation Claimed

Presented at Sudbury Clergy Association’s Ecumenical Good Friday Service at the Martha Mary Chapel at the Historic Wayside Inn, Friday, March 29, 2013.
Scripture reading: John 19:31-42

Seeing this Cross laid out here behind me, I am reminded of my visit last year to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, the focal point of the events that take place in our reading from the Gospel of John, and the site of the central narrative of our faith, which we remember in this Good Friday service and on Easter: the story of Christ’s death and resurrection.

As you enter that Church, above and to your right, up a flight of stairs, is Calvary, the site of the Crucifixion.  To the left, what would be behind me and deeper into the church, is the tomb.  So, on one side is the place where our sin cost the life of our Savior; and on the other, the spot where he was resurrected by the Grace of God.  Man’s Sin sent him to his death, and God’s grace brought him back, but what ties the two together?  How do we bridge the gulf between man’s sin and God’s grace?

The Stone of Unction: the spot where Jesus' body was laid when first taken down from the Cross.  Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem.
The Stone of Unction: the spot where Jesus’ body was laid when first taken down from the Cross. Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem.

Continue reading “Salvation Claimed”

An Expository Reading of Pilate’s Questioning of Jesus

Presented at Sudbury Memorial UCC Church, November 25, 2012
Scripture: John 18:33-37

Prologue…

Today we celebrate “Christ the King” or “The Reign of Christ” Sunday, the last Sunday of the Liturgical year, a time when we ponder the meaning of Christ’s Lordship here on earth, and in our lives.

In exploring this today, we will focus on the topic of Fact vs. Faith.  For us to allow the Son of God to have Lordship over our lives, then Christ must be real and tangible truth to us in some way.  But, what does that mean?  How do faith, fact and truth intersect?  How does the truth of Christ become reality in our lives?

In 1975, James Cone, a well known African American Theologian, got right to the heart of this issue when he wrote that “Jesus is Black.”  People were shocked by this, as you might imagine.  Many rejected the idea, others tried to understand it as a metaphor.  But Cone insisted, saying that his critics didn’t understand, the TRUTH is that for African Americans, Jesus is Black.  He must be, otherwise, Jesus is not talking to those of us who are African Americans, but only to those who are White.  In order for Jesus to speak to us, to really be what he says he is – God with Us – then, for Cone and many others, Jesus must be Black.  Otherwise, Jesus is not someone that Cone can relate to as a member of a race that has been oppressed and marginalized for centuries because of the color of their skin.

In hearing this, our reaction may be “But, that’s not the truth!”

Really?  How can we be sure?  …Does it matter?

Continue reading “An Expository Reading of Pilate’s Questioning of Jesus”

A Mite in The Emptiness

Presented at Sudbury Memorial Church, UCC, Nov 11, 2012
Scripture: Mark 12:38-13:2

There’s a tiny island about halfway up the western coast of Scotland.  It’s a small, desolate place: bare of trees, covered mostly with scrub and sand.  Ancient rises of eroded granite make up much of the island; covered with a few patches of grass, some flowers and one or two small streams.  Many years ago, I journeyed there, taking a ferry to the Island of Mull, then a long meandering bus ride along a single lane road, passing by empty hills and the occasional farm; and then – finally – a short boat ride to the Island of Iona.

I wandered there for a few hours, strolling out of the village, past the monastery and its ancient graveyard: broken and fallen stones marking the anonymous graves of ancient heroes, kings and saints.  I passed sheep grazing under the bright blue sky, then crossed the narrow island, arriving at an ancient stony hill overlooking a small beach that faced the vastness of the Ocean.

There I sat, meditating for a long while, remembering the monks who came there nearly 1500 years ago, and their long labor to bring the Gospel back to much of Europe.  Their labors ended what we now know as the “Dark Ages” that followed the collapse of the Roman Empire.  I thought of the many Scottish luminaries that history tells us are buried in the graveyard I’d passed, including Duncan and Macbeth.  I remembered reading about the monastery’s destruction by the Vikings; then it’s re-establishment in the 12th century, only to be abandoned again during the Reformation, and finally reborn in the 20th Century as a community dedicated to working for Peace and Justice.

I sat on that windswept hill, enveloped by the sound of the waves breaking on the shore, the smell of sea and flowers, the seabirds calling, the wind whispering among the sand and grass.  A sense of awe and majesty surrounded and filled me as I sat there, alone in that empty place, pondering my own uncertain future.

Continue reading “A Mite in The Emptiness”

The Great Escape

Presented at Sudbury (MA) Memorial Church, UCC on October 14, 2012.
Scriptures: Job 23:1-9, 16-17; Mark 10:17-31

A youtube video of the sermon…

The most painful day of my life was Friday, May 4th, 1991.  In the week leading up to that dark day, everything in my life had exploded – marriage, job, finances – a perfect storm.  I felt the only way out was to escape from it all, I needed peace, I needed help.

So, I bundled myself and my then two year old daughter into my car, to escape for a time to safety in Chicago and figure out what to do. As I drove along, the darkness and turmoil within me was echoed by the magnificent, terrible thunderhead I saw ahead of us as we descended down Minnesota’s bluffs to cross the Mississippi River. It was huge: threatening, dark, turbulent; yet before it was the most beautiful, intense, double rainbow I’d ever seen: brilliant against the angry blackness ahead as the late afternoon sun sank behind us.

We caught up with that storm just after the sun set, and it was the worst storm I’ve ever experienced. Rain was coming down so hard that my windshield wipers were bending under the force of the water. I crept along the highway, my headlights struggling to pierce the stormy darkness, hoping to find refuge, somewhere.  But we were alone: no one else was challenging the storm that night.

Continue reading “The Great Escape”

Unexpected Faith

Presented at First Baptist Church, Belmont, MA; June 17, 2012.

Scriptures:
2nd Corinthians 5:6-17 (We walk by faith, not by sight…)
Mark 4:26-34 (The Parable of the Seed that Grows of Itself and the Parable of the Mustard Seed)

How many of you are familiar with the Garlic Mustard plant?

It’s a common weed in this area.  If you crush its leaves, it smells like garlic; and it has a taste similar to that of mustard, hence it’s name.  In colonial times it was a common herb, since the colonists had no money to buy spices from overseas, such as pepper, even if they had access to them.  It was also very easy to grow.   …Perhaps a bit too easy.

Continue reading “Unexpected Faith”

Those Whom I Love

Presented at First Congregational Church, UCC West Boylston, MA May 13, 2012.
Scriptures: 
Acts 10:44-48
John 15:9-17

Jesus says something very interesting in this morning’s reading from the Gospel of John.  He tells his disciples “I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father…”

Let’s think about that: I do not call you “Servants” any longer…  but I have called you friends…

This is from the last great discourse Jesus gave to his disciples before his death in the Gospel of John.  He is telling his disciples that something has changed.  They are no longer like anonymous servants or slaves, lost in the shadow of the Messiah.  They are no longer nameless or faceless figures in the gospels.  They are now “friends” – and more than that in fact, because the Greek word we read as “friends” in this passage is perhaps better translated as “Those Whom I Love.”

Continue reading “Those Whom I Love”

The Stone of Unction: What are You Going to Do?

The Stone of Unction: the spot where Jesus' body was laid when first taken down from the Cross.  Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem.
The Stone of Unction: the spot where Jesus’ body was laid when first taken down from the Cross. Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem.

Presented at a joint Ecumenical Service at Christ Lutheran Church, West Boylston, MA; April 6, 2012 (Good Friday).

Gospel Reading: John 19:31-42.

Seeing this beautiful Cross laid out here before us this evening, I am reminded of my recent visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, the focal point of the events that take place in this evening’s reading from the Gospel of John, the central narrative of our faith, which we remember in this Good Friday service, as well as on Easter, the story of Christ’s death and resurrection.

What made the biggest impression on me in that place was not the elaborate shrines of Calvary and the Tomb. It was a humbler shrine near the main entrance to the Church, “The Stone of Unction.”

This stone marks where Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the High Council in Jerusalem, and the Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews; laid Jesus’ body after taking it down from the Cross. It was there that they washed Jesus’ body, anointed it with oil, and prepared it for burial.

Why is the Stone of Unction important? Why did the builders of that Church orient the building such that this spot is so close to the main entrance? Why is the building laid out such that you must pass by the Stone of Unction as you go from the Cross to the Tomb? In other words, why does it matter?

Let’s start by thinking about what would have happened if Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus had not taken the body of Jesus down from the Cross.

Continue reading “The Stone of Unction: What are You Going to Do?”

Reflections on the Passion (Palm Sunday, 2012)

Presented at West Boylston First Congregational Church, UCC, April 1, 2012 (Palm Sunday).

(NB: This message was preceded by a dramatic reading of the arrest, trial and crucifixion of Jesus from Mark 14 & 15, which included the Congregation participating as the mob that shouted out [to Pilate] “Crucify Him!.”  The reading is available as a Pamphlet from St. Gregory’s Church of Muskegon, MI.)

How does it feel?

How does it feel to be here this morning, to be one of those shouting “Crucify Him” during our dramatic reading from Mark?

How does it feel to be one of them, one of the mob, one of those calling for His death?  To turn on him in his hour of need?  How does it feel?

Continue reading “Reflections on the Passion (Palm Sunday, 2012)”

An Ash Wednesday Meditation: Why Bother?

Sermon presented at First Congregational Church, UCC, of West Boylston, February 22, 2012

Scriptures:
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
Psalm 51:1-17
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

In our reading from Joel, we are told “Blow the Trumpet … for the day of the Lord is coming, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness!”

Sounds depressing. Scary.  … And, it is.

Ash Wednesday is a time when we remember how ephemeral life is; that all good things in our lives, including our own existence, will eventually come to an end. Matthew warns us that all of our treasures will eventually be consumed by moths and rust, stolen from us, nothing will remain.

Thick darkness.  Moths and rust.  Nothing will remain.

As if that isn’t enough, David lays it on even more heavily in Psalm 51, saying “Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.

So, not only will everything end, but sin and corruption are in our lives from the very beginning.  We’re in a game that was fixed from the start.  We can’t win.  We cannot escape the trap of life.

It seems so hopeless.

Continue reading “An Ash Wednesday Meditation: Why Bother?”