Sermon: Scattered and Gathered

The story of the Tower of Babel and of Peter’s Sermon on the First Day of Pentecost are two sides of the same coin: Both stories demonstrate that God values us and speaks to us as individuals. Acts 2 also shows that our relationships with God and each other are both communal and individual in their nature; and that God intends both aspects to be present in our relationships with each other and with the Divine.

Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_-_The_Tower_of_Babel_(Vienna)_-_Google_Art_Project_-_edited
“The Tower of Babel” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1453.

This week we celebrate the beginning of the Christian Church, Pentecost.  Among other things, Pentecost is a declaration that Christ’s relationship with his disciples, including us, is a new thing: one that transforms us and our relationship with the Divine in fundamental and lasting ways.

Pentecost reflects a new level of openness, of sharing, of vulnerability. A deeper bond has been created: binding us together and with God through the Holy Spirit that indwells each and every one of us. It is an affirmation of who we are and who we are to become.

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Being “Family”

Alex, a UCC Minister (and onetime fellow student at Andover Newton Theological School), recently gave voice in his blog to some really excellent and cogent thoughts on the nature and ramifications of seeing our congregation(s) as “family.”  (That blog entry, entitled “The trouble with Being a ‘Church Family’ can be found here.)

And he is absolutely right: conceiving of our church as a family can exclude or intimidate many who are looking for (and need) acceptance and affirmation.  Acceptance into membership within a family can be difficult, it usually takes a long period of courtship or else birth (into the family) to achieve it.  Churches are no different, as we all know.  So, if Church is a family, says Alex, then it is a very different kind of family, one that is not insular, one that is not a closed system.

Now, I do envision church as a family, but a very different sort of family.  I see my congregation as being one local expression of the “Family of God” – which is a very large family, indeed!  …A family consisting of all of God’s people, and even of all creatures in God’s Creation- past, present and future.

In that light, the challenge in being a member of a “Church Family” is to recognize that anyone who walks through the door already is part of our family.  So, the challenge is not for the newcomer or outsider, but for us: one of how we are to affirm and embrace everyone as family from the moment we first encounter them. We certainly don’t want to overwhelm people the moment they walk through our doors, but we also don’t want to raise barriers that would frustrate them in their search for fellowship, or healing, or nourishment of their faith.

Ultimately, we are constantly always involved with one sort of family or another, usually more than one.  A Church can be one of those families.  As such, it is best to remember that in a healthy family, each member is celebrated and supported for who they are, not condemned for who they are not.  God loves each of us without exception or limitation;  and so we are called to love everyone else in turn, and without exception or limitation.

In the end, Alex and I both agree: we are all part of the same family, but it is a very different sort of family: one without boundaries or barriers to membership within it.

Amen.

Copyright (c) 2016, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as proper credit for my authorship is given. (e.g., via a credit that gives my full name and/or provides a link back to this site – or just email me and ask!)

Blaming The Victim

Claiming that our Christian faith is strong is a lie unless we put into action our belief that this nation must embody Christian principles in the governance of its people. Providing subsidies to help those who do not have the resources to begin building a good life for themselves on their own is a good place to start. Likewise, those who claim that this is a “Christian Nation” are deluding themselves if they allow our leaders to ignore and even demonize those in need.

21sun1-superjumboIn a recent Op-Ed piece entitled “The Crisis of Minority Employment,” the New York Times Editors make it clear that  Congress’s abandonment of subsidized work programs for minorities is not only a threat to the economic viability of our cities, but is also shortsighted – sacrificing the long term economic and social wellbeing of a large segments of our population with the excuse that we can’t afford it.  “…Getting jobless young people into the world of work is valuable in itself. Work reduces alienation, gives people a stake in society and allows children in poor communities to absorb the ethic they need to be successful.”

And they are correct: by shutting down such programs, Congress is abandoning its responsibility to provide for the common good – of all, not just for some.

The common complaint we hear from many – both in and out of Congress – who reject the idea of providing help to the poor in any form is that all “they” want is a handout.  The thinking is that somehow (because of the stereotype we have created in our own minds that they are uneducated druggies and street criminals) minority youth do not deserve our help.

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What is a “Respectful Dialog”?

I welcome and enjoy hearing out viewpoints different from my own – and almost always learn something valuable from such discussions. But, abusive speech is never acceptable, and won’t be tolerated. It’s how the views are being communicated that is the issue, not what is being communicated.

11027993_10153228240696773_4766521774461750123_nI spend much of my time writing or posting content on the internet that is intended to educate and inform, and to encourage discussion.  These discussions often manifest themselves in the form of comment-threads with a large number of participants.  (Sadly, most of the more interesting and productive discussions occur on my Facebook page, and so aren’t visible on my WordPress sites.  I wish there were a way to replicate comments between the two!)

Every so often (especially in response to my posts on more controversial topics), I will get a hoard of what I mentally label as “Whacko Conspiracy Theorists” making a rash of comments that have little to do with what is being said, and everything to do with how they feel about what they feel the topic should be: often hijacking what had (or could have) been a productive discussion.

Such comments are a quandary for me: Yes, I want to encourage discussion.  But it is clear that many of these “Whacko Conspiracy Theorists” have no interest whatsoever in learning anything, or in developing a common ground of understanding (and a possible basis for united action on the topic at hand).

So, how does one identify those who are really “Whacko” as opposed to those who merely hold views different from my own?  It is all too easy to label any who disagree with you as “Whacko” and move on – which is what many do on both sides of the fence.  But, this is not productive.  Responding to others’ nutty comments with your own favorite flavor of nuttiness does not help the situation: it does not encourage dialog, and does not do anything to develop a common understanding.  What’s more, when you dig under the covers, you often find significant areas of agreement in terms of identifying what the basic problem is.  The disagreement usually comes with ones’ preferred solution.  We cannot hear what those areas of agreement are if we stay focused only on our disagreements.

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The Besiegement Narrative

Original Article: Even After Hobby Lobby, the Religious Right is Still Terrified

The “besiegement narrative” that the Right Rev. V. Gene Robinson talks about in his recent article found on The Daily Beast is indeed a theme I frequently saw and heard during my sojourn through many of this country’s more [religiously] conservative Christian denominations.

Such an “us vs. them” theology has a long history in Christian thought, going back to at least the time of the persecutions and martyrdoms of the early church, and even further back into ancient Judaism.  And, in fact, in examining other faiths, you quickly find that it is a universal theme.  This is because such a narrative is  a good way to define the boundary between who is and who is not one of “us” (whoever “us” is).  It is a theme that can bind people together; generate and focus emotional and physical energy upon a (real, potential or imagined) threat; and define what it means to be “us” by making it crystal clear who and what we are not.

This is not necessarily a bad thing.  Being able to draw a line that separates “us” from “not us” seems to be necessary – because if a group cannot define that boundary, it has a very difficult time explaining who they are, what they stand for, why they should continue to exist, and why you might want to be one of “us.”

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Be Holy

Focal text: Leviticus 19

UnknownA close friend of mine once lived in a town that was rapidly becoming a mecca for the affluent in his part of the country, ignoring it’s heritage as a community that put significant effort into ministering to those in need.

One afternoon, my friend was crossing the street in a marked crosswalk at a stoplight, when a well-dressed man in his brand new white Cadillac SUV zoomed through the red light as he made a right hand turn.  As this driver did so, he hit my friend with his vehicle, knocking him to the ground and leaving him dazed.  At that point, the driver stopped, rolled down his window, cussed my friend out for getting in the way, then roared off.  (Unfortunately, the driver got away with it; as at that moment my friend was in no condition to read, let alone remember, a license plate number.)

We could say a lot about the injustice of this, highlighting how those with power and position are often arrogant and self-serving, thinking their position and wealth grants them special privileges and consideration; and then contrasting that with the situation of my friend, a man of great talent and a good heart, but who lives on the margins of our economy.

But let’s not go there today; there’s enough of that floating around.  Instead, we’ll focus on how this situation is illuminated by the text from Leviticus 19 that is part of the lectionary readings for this coming Sunday.

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The Value of Faith in Our Community

VT_2007_03_ 015The following was a “Letter to the Editor” written by Heidi Mario, a member of Centre Congregational Church in Brattleboro, VT and published in the August 17th Issue of the Brattleboro Daily Reformer.  I was so impressed with the letter that I asked Heidi for permission to republish it here in my blog, which she granted. The original article can be found here. – Allen

I am curious to know on what Dean Lynch bases his statement “More people have been killed over the history of religion than any other” (Letter Box, Aug. 8). While it is true that over the course of human history the worship of gods, or God, has been used as an excuse and justification for much evil, the vast majority of wars have been political, not religious. Most murders are committed for reasons of passion, anger, sex or drugs, and most of the horrific mass killings of recent years, such as Columbine, Aurora, Arizona and Newtown, were perpetrated by disturbed individuals with no axe of faith to grind.

To make a statement such as “Organized religion is a bad thing: a dogmatic system of conduct sold by clergy/true believers as the only path to the Divine,” is tarring progressive mainstream Protestants, Bible-thumping Southern Baptists, Evangelicals, Catholics, Buddhists, Islamic extremists, Islamic moderates, Hindus, ultra-Orthodox Jews, Reform and Conservative Jews, Taoists, Wiccans and a dizzingly vast array of other faith practices, all “organized” to one degree or another, with the same brush. That is as bigoted and ridiculous as declaring that all persons of a particular ethnic group or culture are inclined to violence, or are lazy, or stupid.

I wonder if Mr. Lynch is aware that if churches were taxed, as he proposes, all but the largest and wealthiest would most likely be forced to close their doors. Using my own church as an example, the free meal program that feeds hundreds each week in our building would shut down. The AA groups that meet several times a week would have to find somewhere else to go. The day care center, which serves many lower-income families, would close. The monthly non-sectarian Moment for Peace would be homeless. Community musical events, including the Messiah Sing, which raises money for the Brattleboro Area Drop In Center, would have to find another venue. The graceful, historic sanctuary, where countless weddings, baptisms and funerals have been held over the last two centuries would stand silent and empty. And the Baptist church across the street could no longer provide meals and shelter to the homeless.

And there are many elderly, disabled and just plain lonely, for whom their church family is their only family. To say that the government would use the increased tax revenue to “feed the hungry … help the sick … teach the children,” is laughably naive.

If Mr. Lynch chooses to tread his own spiritual path alone, that’s fine. More power to him. But others of us find our our faith journeys require, at least partly, the enrichment of a faith community. We find inspiration, joy, hope, courage and peace in the words of a sermon and in Scripture, in the guidance of a wise and compassionate pastor, the beauty of music and the love and support of sharing that journey with others.

Our pastor told us recently about a young woman from North Carolina who had come into the church, seeking help. A “friend” had convinced her to take an impromptu joy ride to Vermont, and then promptly abandoned her. She had no money. She knew no one here. She didn’t know her mother’s or father’s phone numbers, or street addresses. She was illiterate. But she saw a building that looked like a church, and knew that churches were supposed to help people. The pastor spent the rest of her day playing detective, eventually managing to contact her family and then getting her on a bus for home.

This was, sadly, not a particularly rare event. We frequently get requests from people in our community in desperate circumstances requesting help, who have never attended a service, never dropped a quarter in the collection plate, asking for gas money, to pay a utility bill, or for groceries. And we do what we can, because we are an organized religion, a church, and that is what churches are supposed to do.

I would like to invite Mr. Lynch to attend services at local churches, to see for himself if indeed, organized religion is such a bad thing as he has posited. Possibly he will feel himself justified. But then again, he may find his horizons broadened and meet some pretty nice people. As far as “what would Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, whoever, do?” I do know that for most major religions, meeting together, and sharing faith, is an intrinsic, indeed, required, part of practice. As Jesus said, “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them.”

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.

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Leaping the Gap

I was sitting at my soundboard one day, running sound checks and preparing for worship, when a young woman, perhaps 16 years old, came in with her friends and sat down right in front me, such that I could plainly see what was printed on the back of her shirt in large white block letters: “I WASN’T EDUCATED IN NO F***ING WHITE MAN’S SCHOOL.” I was a bit shocked, as you might guess…

I’ve always been a strong proponent of equal rights and justice for all, but how that has been expressed changed radically one day in the fall of 1995, as a result of an encounter in an all-black church I was a member of at the time, and where I was the chief sound technician for the church’s worship services. …It was (and still is) a transformative moment for me…

I was sitting at my soundboard that morning, running sound checks and preparing for worship, when a young woman, perhaps 16 years old, came in with her friends and sat down right in front of my position in the church’s sanctuary, such that I could plainly see what was printed on the back of her shirt in large white block letters: “I WASN’T EDUCATED IN NO F***ING WHITE MAN’S SCHOOL.”  (Well, OK – I added the asterisks!)

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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.”

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Love

I often ponder, why do I feel a call to Ministry?  Frankly, why would anyone?  Why become a Pastor in a society where Christianity is losing influence and is declining in the face of shrinking and aging congregations, often in buildings that are also aging and located in less than ideal locations?  Why be in a profession where many congregations struggle just to keep the doors open, let alone provide a livable salary for their pastor?  Why become a pastor in a society where many people have little (if any) knowledge of the Bible and what it contains, who have little or no idea of what Christianity really is about?  Why be a religious leader in a society where many (if not most) in the society we live in believe religion is obsolete and irrelevant?

The answer to all these questions is Love.

Love is an inescapable part of what makes us human.  Without love, we would loose that which makes life a journey of hope rather than of despair.  Without love, we would cease to be human.  Paul said it best (of course) in First Corinthians 13:2, “…and if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.” Love is an outgrowth of relationship: our relationships with each other, even our relationship with ourselves, and especially our relationship with Christ.

After many years of exploring many different varieties of Christianity and some other faiths, I have found that the place for me that best expresses and supports these three sets of relationships (with self, man and the Eternal) is Christianity, and especially my particular denomination, which emphasizes our individual relationship with God within the context of our relationship with our local Congregation.

So, I am seeking to become a Pastor because I am driven by love: love for others, love for my church, and love of God.  As a Pastor, I see one of my major tasks as being a conduit, or perhaps an advisor: helping others develop stronger, healthier, more vibrant relationships in all of these areas, to help them become surrounded, filled and even pouring out love. I feel this aspect of religion is very relevant in today’s world, where relationships are becoming fewer, shorter in duration, and more likely to be indirect and distant (such as through Facebook) than face to face.  Our faith in God and membership in a Community of Faith brings meaning and value to our lives; it enables us to love.  Too few people in today’s world know where to turn to fill this need we all have for relationship and love in our lives.  Too few have any idea that Faith is the answer.

In other words, being a Pastor is not about me: it’s about my faith, my congregation and my love for others.  It’s about walking together in the here and now, and in so doing, setting our feet onto the path God has set for our journey into the future; and helping others learn that this same path can be for them, too.

 

Copyright (c) 2011, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via mention of my name on your site, or a link back to this site).

What’s in a Name?

My hometown, Brattleboro, VT, has built a new bridge across Whetstone Brook to replace the historic but long outdated “Creamery Bridge” (which will be turned into a pedestrian bridge).

Although there seems to be a consensus that some person should be honored by naming the bridge after them, there is much controversy over exactly who to memorialize in such a manner.  I hear that a very vocal group wants to name the bridge after a local man who gave his life in service of our country.  — A similar effort a few years ago resulted in a bridge in the center of town being named after a young man who died in (I think) Iraq.

I applaud and agree with the motivation behind the campaign to name the bridge after him, and have no objection whatsoever to honoring those who have served our country, particularly those who have had to put their own lives on the line while doing so.  (If anything, I think they should get far more recognition, honor and support than many or most of them do. Without them, the USA would never have become the great nation that it is.)   Yet, I have two significant reservations with regards to naming a bridge after a single fallen soldier.

The first is that we don’t have enough bridges!  Brattleboro, VT has perhaps a couple of dozen significant bridges in town (though some are Interstate Highway, not local, bridges).  Hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of Brattleboro natives have served in the military over the years; and many of them made the ultimate sacrifice.  Should we name a bridge for each of them?  What do we do when we run out of bridges?

Second, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from working with those serving in the military, it’s all about your buddies. Going into a fight, you are betting your life that the men and women with you, and supporting you, will “have your back” when the going gets tough.  That sort of complete reliance on each other to survive in the midst of battle is at the root of a camaraderie and trust that I have often heard those in the service speak about, but which most of us civilians will never experience.

In the center of town, on the “Common”, are a number of monuments. They list the names of those from Brattleboro who served and died in every war since the Civil War. What’s important to me about these monuments is that there are many names listed. A fallen soldier’s name is listed along all of his (or her) comrades in arms who died in the same war. The companionship that sustained them, and which more than a few gave their lives in battle-for is echoed in these monuments.  They are remembered together in death, just as they served together in life.   By having all of these heros memorialized and honored in one place, it gives us who pass by a chance to reflect on the dedication of the men and women of this town to serving our country, and the magnitude of the losses we’ve experienced in the fight to keep this country free.

Therefore, while naming a bridge after a single fallen soldier will honor that individual’s memory, and provides closure and solace to those they leave behind, it in effect dishonors the very thing that they and their comrades risked their lives to preserve – the lives of their fellow comrades in arms.   From what I’ve heard WWI, WWII and younger veterans all say when lauded for their service, I also think that most of those who have died while serving this country would be unhappy to hear that their sacrifice is being honored above the sacrifices of so many of their fellow servicemen.  Therefore, listing the fallen on a monument that honors all fallen soldiers from the same war together, and in a place where soldiers from all other wars are similarly honored, is (to me) much more appropriate, and provides a fitting way for us as a people to remember and honor those who gave their lives that we might remain a free and democratic country.

So, I ask the Selectpersons of Brattleboro to consider carefully whether it is appropriate to honor a single servicemen when naming this bridge.  Also, we must consider that the person we will memorialize through having their name on this bridge says something about who we are as a town, and what we think is important to be remembered about our community in years to come.  While every life is important, and the loss of even a single soldier in battle is a disaster to those who knew and loved them, no soldier (at least in this era) achieves victory by fighting alone.  Every soldier that has fallen was part of a community, a community they were fighting to preserve.  Let’s honor what they felt was worth giving their life-for.

For me, a bridge is about connection and community, about bridging gaps and making paths were no path existed before.  Therefore, whomever we name this bridge after should be a person whose life impacted Brattleboro in a positive and significant way, someone whose life reflected deep concern for the community, someone who worked to bridge gaps, and/or someone who built paths were no path existed before.

Copyright (c) 2010, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via a credit that mentions my name or provides a link back to this site).