Sermon: Loving Creation

Our image of God needed to change. In fact, God needed to change. God’s love could not live in a perfect place that was inaccessible to us. For God’s love to be real and meaningful, … God had to become human. God had to become one of us.

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“The Family” by John D. Batten (1886)

The Gospels tell us a lot of things about what Mary must have gone through because of her pregnancy.  She left town and stayed with her Cousin Elizabeth for months, probably to escape public shaming for being an unwed mother. Matthew tells us that Joseph could have abandoned her, but didn’t.

And, shortly before Jesus’ birth, Mary and Joseph had to take a long trip. Mary, at full term, bounced up and down on that (d****d!) donkey all the way from Nazareth to Bethlehem.  They hoped their poverty would discourage robbers. And when they get there, there is no room at the Inn, so they have to stay in a stable.

Then, after the birth, Herod wants to kill them! They had to flee into exile.  They became refugees. Once it is safe to return, they settle in Nazareth. But, it is a hard life: many there believed Mary had been unfaithful. And, because of that “sin,” Mary and her son were not looked-on kindly or with compassion; and we see hints of that throughout the Gospels.

Joseph is said to have been a Carpenter, but a more correct term might be “Day Laborer.” He probably walked several miles every morning from Nazareth in the hills down to Sepphoris, a city being built as the new capitol of  Galilee at the time. Once there, he hung out at the local equivalent of Dunkin’ Donuts: hoping someone would hire him to haul rocks and lumber, or perhaps saw wood for the day. It was a hard life: exhausting, dangerous work; harsh overseers; long hours; terrible pay andno job security. …Not unlike the lives of many of our friends and neighbors here and now.

Joseph was a good man, and like so many people back then (and now) he did what he had to do to survive and provide for his family. His grim situation was common throughout Galilee at the time. Rich foreigners were moving in: confiscating farms; forcing families like the family of Joseph and Mary into poverty. Their fields became vineyards. The people were being taxed beyond reason. Huge villas were being built on those country estates, their absentee owners were living in luxury in cities like Sepphoris, which were built on the backs of men such as Joseph.

There was no hope for the future. Rome and its vassals controlled Judea and Galilee; and the Jews, especially the people in the countryside, starved and suffered. Life for the poor was short, and painful, and brutal.

What does this have to do with Christmas? The Bible teaches us that Christ’s birth marks the moment when God manifested among us; becoming Emmanuel, “God with us,” walking the earth alongside us. It began there in Galilee among the poor and dispossessed. God became fully human; but was still, and at the same time, fully divine.

What does this mean for us now, in this world where nothing seems to be going right? We too are constantly battling to survive, and grieving our losses. We fight for a good life. Yet, no matter what we do, we know it will end in death: the death of those dear to us, the death of everything that matters to us, and ultimately our own death. How can we possibly be joyful when the end of our story is already known, and inescapable, and depressing, and  futile? Why is it important that God became a human being?

The other day, while pondering this and sharing my thoughts with others, someone asked me “Why is it so important that God was not human [to begin with]?”  

Good question!

I’ll tell you.

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Sermon: Hope Amidst the Darkness

Christ calls us to see the unseen, and right now the unseen include many who are rejecting the wisdom that we hold dear. They reject it because they see nothing in it for them, and nothing in it that respects who they are or what they need. And, until that changes, nothing we do will have a lasting impact, no matter how well intentioned we are. …And that’s a hard truth to face.

I’m starting today’s message with a slideshow. Each and every quote and image you’ll be seeing in these slides was said or written by someone I know well, or by a friend of someone I know well; and many of the locations shown in these slides (except for the very last one) are probably places you know of and may well have been to, or at least near… So, these are all people and locations with a relatively close connection to me.

These quotes and images demonstrate how this election has caused fear to overwhelm so many people that we know. This is not a criticism of whoever ran. It is trying to help us understand that there are a lot of scared and hurting people out there. People close to us, living in places close to us. I’m hoping they help us see how these reports of terror, bullying, and oppression are not just something from a newscast about a distant place, but are happening to our neighbors and friends and relatives right here, and right now.

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Tradition

I am confident that no matter how this election turns out, God’s plan will not die. The world was created by God as an act of Love. That love is still here, in everything, in us, in our neighbor. All we are called to do is to let God’s Love work as it should, though us. Because, that is what is at the core of who we really are, deeper than any Tradition.

fiddler-on-the-roof1520NB: The sermon was preceded by this video clip of the opening song “Tradition” from the film “Fiddler on the Roof”.

Last week we observed All Saints Day – a day to remember and honor all those who came before us, particularly those whom we have loved, and who loved us, during their journey here on earth. I know that Sharon also mentioned it was Reformation Sunday: the anniversary of that day 499 years ago, when Martin Luther nailed his list of 95 Theses to the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg, Germany.

And this morning, we heard the theme song from the Fiddler on the Roof, a musical that portrays the challenges of maintaining one’s faith, traditions and identity in the face of change and loss.

So you ask – how do all these tie-in with our scripture reading(s) this morning?

To begin with, our traditions are central to how we express who we are. They are an essential part of our identities as individuals and as a people. As Tevye said in the film clip: Tradition helps us know who we are and what God wants for us.

But, what he learns over the course of his story is that Tradition and Faith are not synonymous. Tradition expresses the truths of our Faith, but those expressions must change as the world changes, and as our understanding of God’s teachings and plans for us deepen and grow.

Tradition. A symbolic act that defines what it means to be us, or express what is an essential part of who we are, or what is important to us. Like: singing the Star Spangled Banner at a ballgame; or helping run the annual church fair; making cookies at Christmas, or celebrating the Holidays each year with our extended family. The rituals of Communion, Baptism, and Weddings are filled with all sorts of traditions – something borrowed, something blue, something old, something new.

Changing our traditions means changing our perceptions of who we really are, and what is important to us. This is a problem we constantly face as we change and grow. We are constantly having to ask ourselves how to remain true to who we are and what is important to us as the world around us changes.

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Sermon: Don’t Stop There!

The Bible is fundamentally a message of Hope. It acknowledges and warns us of pain and loss and evil and hate here in the present; but encourages us to look within ourselves to find the love and grace and hope that God planted there, and which will (eventually) bear fruit within our lives – if we give it a chance.

He Qi Good Samaritan
“The Good Samaritan” by He Qi (2001)

I thought we should begin with some backstory for this morning’s Old Testament reading.

The prophet Amos of Tekoa is the earliest of the so-called 12 minor prophets grouped together at the end of the “Old Testament”. He sets the model for prophetic ministry that is followed by all of his successors, including John the Baptist and Jesus.

Amos began his ministry around 750 BC: shortly after the first Olympics were held in Greece, and about when the legend says Rome was founded by Romulus and Remus. It was a time when the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah were both at the height of their power, wealth and influence. Things were good – the borders are secure; people are getting rich; the land is at peace.

But then there’s Amos: a really gloomy guy, not someone you’d invite to a party! He was the first to prophesy what at the time seemed unthinkable: that the Northern Kingdom would be conquered and laid waste by the Assyrians, the survivors forced into exile.

Amos-5
“They take a bribe and turn aside the poor at the Gate.” (Amos 5:12)

Tekoa, which is we where are told Amos is from, is a Hebrew word that means “trumpet.” “Amos” means “brave” or “strong;” and that is what he was, a brave trumpet: proclaiming the word of God for all to hear, particularly those in power. (Even though they were too busy with the good life to want to hear it!)

Now, the entire Book of Amos is basically two long series of prophesies, with almost no other dialog or prose. The first set of prophecies ends in chapter 7, verse 9 from today’s reading. Then we have this short vignette where the King’s High Priest, Amaziah, misrepresents Amos’s words to the King. Amaziah then demands Amos return home to Judah, which he refuses to do. Instead, Amos defends himself and then launches into his final two chapters of prophetic gloom and doom.

And yet… Amos’s prophecies do not end in despair, but with hope. At the end of his book we read…

I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel,
and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine,
and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit.
I will plant them upon their land,
and they shall never again be plucked up
out of the land that I have given them,
says the Lord your God.
(Amos 9:14-15)

Like Amos, all of the prophets end on a note of hope for the future, despite all of the catastrophic events and dire pronouncements that fill their prophecies. This pattern is also seen in the Book of Revelation and in the Gospels. The Bible never leaves us in the midst of loss, failure and pain. So, don’t stop there! …As Winston Churchill is reputed to have said: “If you’re going through Hell, keep going!”

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A Light in the Darkest of Times

We all go through dark times in our lives, times when our own prayers; and even the assurances, encouragements and prayers of others; seem futile and useless. If anything, such attempts are painful and bitter proof that human effort is always futile in the end. And yet, the darkness we see all around us is not really the issue. It is the darkness within us that we are really battling…

rays-of-light-shining-throug-dark-cloudsThese short and gloomy days and long dark nights of winter are a hard time, often made harder and darker by the challenges we face.

We all go through dark times in our lives, times when our own prayers; and even the assurances, encouragements and prayers of others; seem futile and useless. If anything, such attempts are painful and bitter proof that human effort is always futile in the end.

In such times all we see is darkness ahead of us, behind us, and all around us. We are convinced the end is near and inescapable. We know that all we are, all we do, and all we aspire to be, is nothing in the face of the insurmountable challenges confronting us. We have no hope. No one can change the darkness that is inexorably consuming us.

And yet, the darkness we see all around us is not really the issue. It is the darkness within us that we are really battling: it feeds on the loss of hope within our spirits; and on our endless self-castigation for missed opportunities, for past sins, and for our separation from those whom we love.

One of the lectionary readings for this coming Sunday is from Psalm 62, which repeats the following sentence twice: “[God] alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall never be shaken.” It is a Psalm written by someone just like us. All they had left was God, and their faith. And yet in such times of darkness, even our faith seems insufficient to dispel the darkness we see all around us.

Darkness blinds us to our God who, in the first chapter of Genesis, CREATED the light – a point emphasized in the first few verses of the Gospel of John as well: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

We cannot overcome the darkness on our own; but no matter how dark it is around us, God is there. No matter how dark it is within us, God is there. The Holy Spirit is the “light of all people” – a light within us. It shines no matter how dark things may seem, and the darkness cannot overcome it.

So, in these darkest of times, be certain that God is there, because God is Lord of Darkness, not just the Lord of Light; and God is the Creator of Light. God is the source of all light, light that is there even in the midst of the greatest darkness of all.

God is always with us, a light that shines no matter how hopeless, empty, and futile our personal darkness may seem. God’s Hope for us lies within God, it is not something that we can lose or forsake on our own; because it is under God’s control, and scripture assures us that God will never forget us or forsake us.

We can trust in God at all times, because God is with us for ALL time. God is our Rock and our Salvation: a refuge that will never fail.

Amen.

Copyright (c) 2015, 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!)

Hoping for a Future

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Some thoughts on the tension between Certainty and Hope, inspired by’s book “The Prophetic Imagination”…  

“I have a dream!” said the Preacher.

A dream implies hope: hope for a better life, for redemption, or justification, or perhaps vindication.  Hope is the conviction that the future holds the promise of better things to come, that the future is a better place than the present.

And the Preacher, representing a people who had endured centuries of oppression, terror, bondage, and worse, gave voice to their hopes that hot afternoon, more than 50 years ago.

“I have a dream!” he said.  And yet, the hundreds of thousands who first heard those words had little else but those words.

Hope flourishes in the forgotten corners of human existence, in those places where certainty either does not exist, or where the only certainty to be had is dark and painful.  Hope flourishes where human voices are not given the chance to speak, where human hands are not allowed to build a future for themselves, and quite often where those with power and wealth have done all within their power to eliminate the future.

Stop! …Say that again?  Eliminate the future?

Yes.

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An Advent Prayer of Hope

Slightly modified version of a prayer presented at Centre Congregational Church, UCC in Brattleboro, VT, December 15, 2013

11207_13320_5The Advent Season and Christmas are a dark time for many, a time when the pain of past and present injuries and losses become almost unbearable.  A time when we’d rather run than have to face it all once again.

God knows this because God has walked among us, as one of us, as a human being.  Jesus experienced birth, the love of a devoted mother, the pain of losing those dear to him.  He knew rejection, hunger, despair and fear.  He was betrayed by those he loved, and he experienced a painful and humiliating death.  God knows what it means to be human.  God knows our deepest, greatest, most deeply hidden fears, failures and weaknesses.

And so, our faith tells us, God walks with us.  God knows our pain, God feels it, God and the Kingdom of Heaven are near us at the hardest of moments, just like every other moment of our lives, including now.

Know that you are loved.  Know that God has, and will, do anything and everything to free us from the troubles and trials of life in this world.  And, in fact, has already freed us, for the certainty of that freedom and healing is what is in our future.  We cannot escape healing, for God is with us on every step of our journey; and, no matter how dark our valley may be, we are pursued by our Creator’s fierce, relentless love until we are finally embraced in God’s strong, loving arms and so come to dwell in the House of the Lord, forever.

Amen.

Copyright (c) 2013, 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 gives my full name and/or provides a link back to this site). 

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?

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A Prayer for the Second Sunday of Advent

Lord God, like our predecessors who sought out John the Baptist so long ago, we are seeking you because we are in a wilderness of loneliness, pain and desperation.  We see only walls and closed doors when we look for your presence.  We feel cut off, isolated and forgotten: unseen in a dark and uncaring world.

Yet, You are our God: the One who calls us out of that darkness, the One who sees and heals our pain, the One who never forgets us, and never looses faith in us.  Paul prays that You will sanctify us entirely, keeping our spirit, soul and body sound and blameless for the return of Your Son, Jesus Christ.

And so, we are assured, and are certain – through the witness of the Holy Spirit within us – that this is true. You are faithful, and You are calling to us, even now, calling us out of your love for us, a love that overcomes all the pain, imperfection and injustice in this world, a love that transcends and conquers even death.  We are awed and restored through this love that you have so freely given us through the gift of your son, Jesus Christ.

Lord, we bring our prayers to You in faith, certain that nothing is impossible for You, not even the impossibly deep love you have for each of us and for all of humanity.

Hear now our prayers: for those of your Body who are suffering illness, job loss or other challenges, and for those who are grieving any loss, many of whom are known only to you.  Grant them healing, comfort and peace.  We pray for those who wrestle with addictions, for those caught in the trap of domestic violence, and for those who love and suffer alongside them.

Lord, in this Winter Season, we pray that all who seek warmth and shelter find it.  That all who need healing and peace are granted it.  That all who hunger for sustenance and companionship are satisfied.  May all of us be touched by your grace and power.  May all who serve our community and country be kept safe from harm, especially those in the military, and may and their families enjoy Holiday Seasons that are safe, warm and happy.

Finally Lord, we ask that we be granted the courage and grace we need to follow you faithfully, and with integrity.  Let our actions bear witness to the words we speak, and our worship and love for you overflow into every corner of our being, bringing light and hope into the lives of all we meet through our love for you and your son, Jesus Christ.

Amen.

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).

Faith

Sermon presented at the Congregational Church of Grafton, MA, July 1, 2012.

Texts:

Mark 4:30-32 (Parable of the Mustard Seed)

Hebrews 11:1-7 & 11:32-12:2

What is Faith?  That’s not a small question.  In Christianity, the answer to that question begins with Genesis … and never really ends.  Faith defines how we see ourselves, who and what we choose to have relationships with, and what we envision our end and the end of Creation, to be.  Faith helps us make sense of the events and circumstances that shape us and our world.  It lays out a path for us to follow into the future.  Faith enables us to gaze into the infinite and the unknowable and find a place there for ourselves.  It helps us make sense of the mystery of God and the vastness of Creation.  Faith enables us to exist in a world of uncertainty and change.

Faith.  A great deal is expressed in that one tiny little word.  So, it’s kind of audacious to think we can have any sort of meaningful exploration of this topic and yet still have time to get to the Sox and Mariners game this afternoon.

A lot has been written on the topic of Faith.  Not just the Bible, but everything from Hamlet or Pilgrim’s Progress to Harry Potter and Star Trek.

We talk a lot about Faith too, saying things like “I have faith in Evolution” or “This (or that) strengthened my faith” or, “I lost (or I found) my Faith.”  But, we never define what Faith is, even though we talk a lot about how much of it we have, or need, or how to find it, or how to use it.

We also talk a lot about how important faith is to us.  We admire those who have strong faith, and we honor those who die for their faith.  We seek to encourage faith in others, and we minister to those in need as a product of what our own faith impels us to do.  Faith is a powerful thing, and central to our existence.

Yet, even though we talk a lot about what to have faith in; or, how to find faith; or, how to use our faith, we never define what it is.  It’s assumed we already know.  I’m not sure that’s a good assumption.

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A Prayer Inspired by Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”

Pastoral Prayer Delivered at First Parish, Lincoln, MA on January 16, 2011.

From his jail cell in Birmingham in 1963, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote that “whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly” and that we all have to repent not merely for the hateful words and actions of some, but for our own silence.

He said that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; but comes through the tireless efforts of those of us willing to be co-workers with God, and that without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of stagnation.

So, we dedicate ourselves to walking with those who find themselves in the abyss of despair, our brothers and sisters who have found that the trials of this world and the sorrows created by the choices of others can no longer be endured, alone.  In particular this morning, we remember:

  • The vast numbers of people in many lands who have recently lost homes and loved ones due to natural and manmade disasters;
  • Those experiencing the effects of illness, injury or disease in themselves or in those they love;
  • Those who have lost jobs and homes; and perhaps their own sense of hope and self-respect, in these difficult times;
  • Those mourning the loss of loved ones or are themselves recovering from the violence of those who have forgotten their humanity;
  • Those suffering from oppression and injustice, and are unable to speak for themselves.

Today, tomorrow and in the weeks and months ahead help us rekindle the light of faith and hope in those we meet and minister-to.  By helping them to walk, they are helping us to run.  By helping us to run, they themselves are becoming agents of change and hope.

God, we honor your presence here today, and rejoice in the many ways you walk with us, and are a constant companion in our journey through life.  We ask for your grace, inspiration and strength as we seek to do the same for our fellow human beings, and so enable them to see you working through us.

Amen

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).