Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
An Introduction to the series from our Spring Newsletter...
Beloveds in Christ,
In recent weeks, I have been reminded of these words found in Ecclesiastes, chapter 3, verses 1-8:
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.
The author of Ecclesiastes would rarely be regarded as an optimist. So much of the book is a meditation on feeling like one's work is futile. And, yet, here is this little snippet of scripture, speaking to the shifting seasons of life, noting that even though there is a time to break down, there will also be a time to build up. The author, often know as Qoheleth, reminds us that weeping and laughing, mourning and dancing, all have a part in creating a rich, full life.
As we move into the season of Lent, these words from Ecclesiastes will guide us through this rich season of our faith. We will read these words together on Ash Wednesday (March 1st). Each week during Lent, we will consider the shifts in Jesus' own life, from temptation, to discernment, to forgiveness, mourning, death and, ultimately, a time to rejoice together on Easter (April 16th).
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven. I hope that you will join us this Lenten season. Come, consider what season of life you are in, and consider how we are called to serve as church during this present moment.
May we gather together like stones for building,
March 5th- Lent 1: A Time to Be Tempted
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’ But he answered, ‘It is written,
“One does not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” ’
Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,
“He will command his angels concerning you”,
and “On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” ’
Jesus said to him, ‘Again it is written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” ’
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour; and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
“Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.” ’
Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the lake, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
‘Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
the people who sat in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death
light has dawned.’
From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’
As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
Thanks to Danielle Keller for preaching this week while Pastor Chrissy was away.
Lent 2: March 12th- A Time to Keep Silent and a Time to Speak
Seeking and Listening
Father Thomas Keating, in his book Invitation to Love wrote, "Silence is God's first language; everything else is a poor translation." You may have also heard, from our denomination, the statement, "God is still speaking," based on that Gracie Allen quote about not putting periods where God puts commas. Sometimes, it feels like our faith life is lived out between those two statements, in between the Divine silence and Divine speaking. Faith is somewhere between our learning to listen and knowing when to speak ourselves, and then live out what we have heard. Scripture has a lot of stories about speaking, listening, and acting. I think they can be models for how we navigate this listening space. Today's first reading is all about listening in a time of God's silence.
Samuel began his work as a prophet in a time when scripture says that the word of the Lord was rare and visions were not widespread. His own path towards prophecy was not first set before him by God's command. He ended up in a position to listen for God because of a promise his mother made on his behalf. He stayed in that place because he was willing to wait in order to figure out what he needed to be doing there. Samuel's mother, Hannah, is one of the women in Scripture who longed to have a child but could not. Not only did she genuinely want to have a child, but she was also judged harshly for not having any. Hannah prayed to God for a child, a quiet kind of prayer, only moving her lips, and trusting God would hear her even in her silence. We are never told that God speaks to her, but we are told that she becomes pregnant and gives birth to a healthy baby boy, whom she names Samuel. She takes her pregnancy as proof of God's response. As a sign of her response to God, she makes a promise to set her child aside for God, leaving him to be raised with the priest Eli. She would have more children, but this, her first child, would have a particular calling in their nation. But, he would have to wait for it.
While not everyone might appreciate being placed into religious service as a child, Samuel seemed to have prospered in his role. Samuel is described as being well-respected and beloved by the people. Importantly, scripture notes that he is favored by God. I should point out, though, that doesn't mean he doesn't go around hearing God everywhere. This description of his favored status is more about making sure the reader knows he's favored. He may not know of his favored status at all. But, it is important to note: he does have the promise made on his behalf and grace that existed in his religious tradition. That is enough to inspire him to follow the course set before him. We aren't told what his prayers look like in this time. We are just told that he grows in wisdom and stature. And, it will soon become clear, he keeps listening.
When he first hears God's voice, he thinks it's the voice of Eli. Samuel jumps up and runs to Eli when he hears his name called. It's nighttime and Eli tells him that he didn't call him and to go back to bed. This happened two more times before Eli realized what was happening. Even though Eli hadn't heard from God in a while, he had heard God enough that he knew the signs. He knew he needed to help Samuel. You see, sometimes you need someone else's help to realize your calling. Eli taught Samuel how to respond, and the next time God called his name, Samuel said, "Speak, for your servant is listening!" God spoke. And, Samuel listened.
Samuel's future was changed because he was willing to listen, and also because he was will to speak to God to let God know that he was paying attention. He would go on to become the very mouthpiece of God for Israel. But he could only do so by waiting and listening for direction, even when he had no idea where that direction was going to come from. As it turns out, this kind of listening and seeking would continue to be very important to God's followers, so important that Jesus included it in his directions to his first disciples. Seeking and listening would become vital aspects of how he understood the life of discipleship.
When Jesus taught his first disciples how to follow him, he didn't tell them that he wanted them to memorize a list of ideas of behaviors just so they could recite them back to unsuspecting strangers. He told them he wanted them to reorient their whole lives towards listening for God's call. It sounds to me like he was asking them to make for themselves the promise that Hannah once made for Samuel. Set aside yourself for God. Shift all your priorities to God so that it changes the way you move through this world. Don't value wealth and privilege. Value wisdom and mercy. Be trustworthy towards your neighbors. Creatively subvert abusive systems. Prioritize reconciliation over violent revenge. Live differently so that you may be ready to hear God when God speaks. You won't know when God will speak to you, but our scripture says that it can happen. But, you have to listen.
In some ways Jesus is functioning like Eli. He's teaching them how to respond to a call in their lives. Like Eli, Jesus instructs them to speak up. He said that they will have needs- food, clothing, hospitality, inspiration- while they minister. They should not be afraid to ask for help in meeting those needs. Be like Samuel and let it be known that you are listening: Ask the questions that burn your heart. Knock on all the doors that have been closed before you. You may have to wait, but God will guide you, maybe even in surprising ways, like voices calling out in the night or, like, a voice calling over the intercom in an airport.
Yes, I said, a voice calling over the intercom in an airport. What? Can you think of any place further from God that the waiting area in an airport? Purgatory, maybe, but close to God? Well, I'd like to share a story by the poet Naomi Shihab Nye that might change your mind...
Now, maybe it's just because I've been traveling this week, but I can think of few stories that sound more like the reign of God than this one. Fearful strangers being comforted. Children sharing juice. Everyone being covered in joy and powdered sugar? Imagine how her day, her life, might have been different had she not listening for a divine calling of mercy and come forth to say that she was ready to serve? She might as well have said, "Speak, for your servant is listening!" I pray that we all can be so prepared to listen, to speak up, and to act on what we can here. As Nye said, this joy can still happen anywhere. May we work with God to make it happen here.
Resources Pastor Chrissy consulted to write this sermon:
Roger Nam: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2305
Father Thomas Keating: http://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/explorations/teachers/thomas-keating/quotes
Naomi Shihab Nye: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HwDXJ50U22o
March 19th: Lent 3- A Time to Forgive
Matthew 18: 21-35
Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
‘For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow-slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, “Pay what you owe.” Then his fellow-slave fell down and pleaded with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow-slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken
place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?” And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he should pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.’
What Do You Mean By Forgiveness? Matthew 18:21-35
Being in relationship can be challenging. As it turns out though, being in relationship is pretty necessary, too. All the evidence points to us needing other people to survive. We have learned that children who are denied significant attention and affection while they are young have trouble growing into healthy adults. We have also come to know that isolated adults without sufficient interaction from other people are often sicker and live shorter, less fulfilling lives. Even the earliest stories of creation in the Bible show people in relationship. In Genesis 1, the first two people are made simultaneously, as a reflection of God. In Genesis 2, God makes one person, realizes this person is lonesome, and makes are the rest of animals, and, finally, a second person to help the first person live a fuller life. Even God Godself is relational. We who believe in a Trinitarian sense of God, in believing that God is not quite one and not quite three, and always more than we can describe, believe that at God's core is a relationship. It seems clear from both our religious stories of creation as well as scientific exploration of our lived experience that we are built to be in relationship with one another, with the world around us, and, when we choose a life of faith, with God. Relationality is at the core of being alive.
With the exception of the occasional hermit who chooses to live isolated in the woods out by Belgrade Lakes, most of us live our lives building and navigating relationships with other people. Sometimes that means finding and creating great joy with one another. Sometimes that also means hurting and frustrating the people we are building our lives with. Just because we are in the church, doesn't mean we escape the cycles of joy and pain that are part of being alive. It just means that we have committed ourselves to working on our relationships with a model that Jesus has offered to us. Central to this model of relationship building is Jesus' idea of a generous forgiveness. You see, when Jesus wanted to help his followers figure out how to be in relationship, he told them that they needed to practice forgiveness.
Let's look at today's scripture. After explaining that the people who assume the status of children, some of the least powerful people in their community, are the greatest in God's kindom (as are the people who take care of such vulnerable people), Jesus goes on to explain to his followers how to maintain the kind of relationships he thinks best mirror God's expectations. Specifically, he talks about what to do when people in the church get mad at one another. More specifically, he teaches people how to argue and how to forgive. It seems like arguing well helps you be a little greater in God's kindom, too.
In the section just before today's reading, Jesus explains how to confront someone who has wronged you. I think he tells everybody this so they know the way to respond if they are the ones being wronged as well as if they are ones who are doing the wronging. Jesus tells his followers that they need to be willing to listen when someone comes to them one-on-one about an issue. If they find that they can't work through towards forgiveness just between the two of them, they are invited to have other people present to be a part of the conversation. If the one who has wronged still will not apologize, the whole church may be invited into the discussion. If the one who has done wrong still will not apologize, a clear violation of their relationship principles, only then would Jesus permit them to exclude this person from fellowship.
Now, I'm sure that many people here may find such a process daunting at best and invasive at worst. And, you likely have heard examples of ways this has gone horribly wrong, where people's private business has been inappropriately shared or congregations have been downright abusive to people in the name of holding them accountable for some supposed sin against another member. I don't think Jesus is telling us to humiliate our siblings in Christ on his behalf. Remember, humility and hospitality are greatness in his mind. Manipulation is not. I think this is more of a recommendation to keep an argument rooted in a trusting relationship, and only widening the circle when it becomes clear that the two parties need a little more help to hold them accountable.
Jesus goes on to say that whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Now, this language is a little obscure. What I thinking he's saying is that it is important to remember that the actions that you commit right now will reverberate beyond your current circumstances. The things you hold close now ripple out ahead of you, laying your path before you. So, bind yourself to your siblings in Christ. Let loose your pride and apologize when you do wrong. When you practice this, your reshape the world around you. In fact, when you commit to living this way with just a few more people, your commitment ripples so far out around you that it creates a space for Jesus to be in your relationship, too.
My favorite part of this story is the next part, the first part of today's reading. Peter says, ok. Forgiveness sounds all well and good. Being straightforward about the ways we have been hurt by others actions sounds great. But, how many times are we supposed to do this? Like, you probably mean more than once. How about seven times? Should I forgive someone seven times? That seems pretty generous to me. Nope, Jesus says. More than that. Not just seven, but seventy-seven times. Now, I don't know about you, but that sounds like an awful lot of forgiveness to me. Seventy-seven times? Jesus, do means seventy-seven times for the same thing or seventy-seven times total? What if the thing they did is really bad? Do we have to reach that total? Wouldn't it be more reasonable to stop at like 17 or 27? Maybe even 42 if I'm feeling generous. Seventy-seven seems like alot.
Said like this, forgiveness can almost seem like a burden. We all know, and maybe some of us are, those folks whose forgiveness lists are creeping well up past the 7 mark, much closer to 77. We've heard the stories of the families of people who struggle with addiction who keep forgiving them when they keep stealing or using or abusing as a symptom of that addiction. It might even be our own family's story. We've also heard the stories of abused spouses and children encouraged to maintain relationship with abusers out of this burdensome sense of forgiveness. The abusers keep hurting them. Forgiveness doesn't make them change.
I remember reading a powerful post by the author Luvvie Ajayi after the terrible shooting at Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. While she appreciated the grace with which the families of the people who were murdered approached the man who killed their family members, she was quite clear that she would not have that same level of grace, especially not three days after the shooting. As a black woman, she had seen the burden of forgiveness on her people for too long. For her, too often forgiveness means never holding the racist system accountable. She said if something terrible like that ever happened to her, "Do Not Forgive Them. Hold that grudge. Be petty." At least, don't forgive them until you've had time to be angry, to hold them accountable, and to heal.
Surely this can't be what Jesus intended by forgiveness? Cheap grace and no accountability for the powerful and abusive. I mean, he just said that God especially cares for the vulnerable and has instructed his followers to do likewise. If he doesn't mean cheap grace, what exactly does he mean by forgiveness? Here's a couple things I read this week that have helped me parse that out. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said forgiveness does not mean ignoring what has been done or claiming that an act that is evil is anything but evil. Instead, he said it was like catalyst for a fresh start to continue to the work of building together. I also read the fine work of a ministerial colleague, the Rev. Kaji Douša, who once said that forgiveness may be the best way for the one who has been wronged to release their righteous anger before it breaks them. She explains that we can feel our anger, but we can't let it be the only thing that guides us. Forgiveness gives us a way to ask God to help us release that anger.
I think there may be one more thing we can do to help keep this whole forgiveness business from devolving into manipulation and abuse. I think all our willingness to forgive must be tempored with a willingness to hear that we have done wrong and need to apologize. We must practice being humble enough to be held accountable. I heard an interview with the scholar Melissa Harris-Perry this week. She studied under Maya Angelou. She said that one of the most important things Dr. Angelou taught her was an old saying, "I am Human and therefore nothing human can be alien to me." Dr. Angelou, who had been abused as a child, said that all people are capable of great good and great evil. The thing that keeps us from doing the evil is choosing to nurture the good. I think you nurture the good, at least in part, by being willing to admit when you are wrong, and by changing your behavior to realign yourself with the good. Forgiveness and humility will always go together. We must practice both in order to keep either from being abused. Even if we have to do it 77 times. We can let forgiveness loose in this word, but only by binding ourselves together first. May we be willing to take this Holy risk.
Resources Pastor Chrissy consulted while writing this sermon:
March 26th: Lent 4- A Time to Care
‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’
For The Least of These: Matthew 25:31-46
We have come again to one of Jesus' metaphors where goats are looked down upon... Those poor goats. In teaching his followers how to truly follow God's commands, he shared an image with them of a great shepherd king, looking over his furry flock of followers. This king, a figure who is a symbol that God's reign is very close at hand, will look over herds before him and separate out the sheep, Jesus' preferred animal metaphor for his followers, from the goats. Trust me... nobody wants to be a goat. The goats are bound for eternal punishment. That doesn't sound like any fun at all. It doesn't matter that goats have cute little flippy tails or that baby ones jump around adorably. Nope. You don't want to be a goat. Jesus doesn't want you to be a goat. Jesus tells you how not be a goat.
Jesus said that the sheep, that is, the people who most fully live out divine blessedness, will do a couple things. They may not realize that the things they have done are important, but they most definitely are. Jesus said that the shepherd king, who most believe is a stand-in for Jesus in this story, will look over all the nations and thank the people who have helped him. He said that when they saw him hungry, they fed him. When they saw him thirsty, they gave him a drink. When he encountered them as a stranger, rather than run him off or lock him out, they welcomed him. When he had nothing, not even clothes, they made sure he had enough. They cared for him when he was sick and visited him in prison.
Now, the sheepish folks were shocked. They had no idea that they had been helping out the shepherd king. I mean, wouldn't you remember if you found a hungry king and gave him a burger or a naked king and made sure he had a pair of pants. Kings don't just come around every day. They usually made an impression. In Jesus' story, the sheep were pretty sure that they hadn't done anything so generous for the shepherd king. They didn't remember it if they did. So they ask him, at the risk of sounding foolish, "um, king... thank you for the kind words. But, uh, we're at a bit of a loss here. Life has been so busy lately, with the farming and the running from centurions and all. Would you mind reminding us when, precisely, we were able to do such kind things for you? I mean, of course we'd feed the king. It's just... we really don't remember doing it."
The shepherd king seems happy to explain. I bet the explanation surprised the first people to hear it. You see, this king was not the kind of king they were used to. They were accustomed to king... emperors... who put themselves above all of their subjects, who often understood themselves to be nearly gods. They were accustomed to kings who made themselves invulnerable, using their wealth and influence to shield themselves from any inconvenience, also often shielding themselves from the pain of their subjects. This king, the stand-in for Jesus, would be very different. This king is not separate from his subjects. He is radically connected to them.
Jesus said that the shepherd king looked at the work of the sheepish followers, the times they welcomed strangers and visited the imprisoned, fed the hungry, clothed the naked, and he remembered them. He said what many of us know, that helping others meet their most basic needs does more than just help the one person. This kind of service ripples out, and has a greater effect than the helper initially imagined. This king said that their service had rippled out until it touched him. The shepherd king then called all people his family, an incredible statement for a king to make. Remember, Jesus first followers would have been most familiar with royalty who held themselves far above their subjects. It would have been shocking to hear a king call people, especially poor people, family. This shepherd king so readily identified with his people that he called them family. And, he said that any good that the sheepish folks did for someone is great need was actually done for him. He said the sheep met him everyday, in the face of their neighbors whom they served. They were working with God when they did so.
Now, back to the goats. I'm sure you've all been worried about the goats. How does one end up being the goat? It turns out that Jesus thinks the goats weren't to good at the whole "love your neighbor" thing. He said the shepherd king looked to his left, to the goatish folks, and said that they never helped him when he needed it. They, too, were shocked. When on earth had they seen the king and not helped him? Only a fool would have ignored a hungry or sick king! No. There must be some kind of mistake. If they had known, they would have helped. These goats, they didn't understand. They thought their king was separate from the people. They thought he used his power to insulate and isolate himself. They didn't pay attention to the ways their kindness and mercy rippled out. The king said that there would be consequences for their short-sidedness. "Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me." Jesus said that generosity brings you closer to God. Greed will push you further away.
As a pastor, I often hear stories about people wanting to grow closer to God, to see Jesus in their everyday life. In this metaphor for the God's reign, Jesus is telling us how to do that: by serving other people. As one scholar I read this week pointed out, there's a good chance we've heard this story many times, so many that we've lost a sense of wonder about it. We need to be reminded that it really is incredible to hear Jesus so completely identifying with humanity that to serve other people is to serve God. And, what's more, it is to say that God is not just found in any old person, but in those who are most vulnerable and most in need. When Jesus' followers so often heard royalty and divinity connected with power and wealth, it would have been world altering to hear Jesus assert that his own spirit is found more fully among the oppressed than among the oppressors. Jesus, who had been born among the poor and colonized, knew what it was to suffer under a tyrant. He would demand of his followers to do better than the leaders who currently lorded their power over them. While the empire would not tend to the least of these, Jesus would. And, he would make sure his followers did.
This church has been working for a while to tend to the least of these with Jesus. From some of the earliest roots of our congregation, we have worked to serve our neighbors here and abroad. Every year, members of this church give hundreds of hours of service to our local food pantry, a ministry that was once housed on our property. At our monthly fish chowder lunches, we have worked hard to make sure that the meal people receive is both delicious and affordable to most anyone who walks in the door. Last year, we joined interfaith efforts to make sure that people in Augusta and the surrounding areas, many of whom are immigrants, have access to basic essentials like soap, diapers, and toothpaste. We open this space to our siblings in Alcoholic Anonymous, making sure they have a different kind of sanctuary as they support one another in recovery.
We also support ecumenical efforts like One Great Hour of Sharing, helping people around the world recover from disasters and displacement, and find a way out of poverty. The money we donate builds toilets and treat tuberculosis in Indonesia, supports resilient communities in Sri Lanka, educates refugees in Egypt, and rebuilds flood-ravaged homes in North Carolina. We work with God by working with partner denominations all over the world to serve the Jesus we meet in the most vulnerable. We don't insulate ourselves from their suffering because it is far away. We see it, and we work to help feed the hungry, heal the sick, and tend to the broken-hearted. We try to be the sheep that Jesus is calling us to be. On our best days, we meet Jesus in all-kinds of broken-hearted places.
We shouldn't be complacent though. Until the reign of God is finally constructed, there will always be more need. Jesus will continue to show up in every more vulnerable places. We have to be vigilant, watching for more ways to serve him and alongside him. Do you see a place where our sheepy presence is needed? Can you think of some folks who's Jesus hasn't been identified yet and could use a visit from some neighborly sheep? Maybe we could even gets some goats to join us in our work. I bet they can see Jesus, too. We just need to show them where to look.
Works Pastor Chrissy consulted while writing this sermon:
Carla Works: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1019
David Lose: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1605
Want to know more about One Great Hour of Sharing? http://onegreathourofsharing.org/
April 2nd: Lent 5- A Time to Mourn
When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away,and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’
When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, ‘The Teacher is here and is calling for you.’ And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him.The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’
See How He Loved Him: John 11:17-37
Today's scripture is right in the middle of the book of John. I don't mean kinda in the middle. I mean right in the middle of the book. Twenty chapters before it. Twenty chapters after it. It is the centerpiece of this entire work... a culmination of the description of what it means to have Jesus' live as God's word in the world and the beginning of Jesus' return to God. One scholar I read this week called it the hinge for the whole Gospel... the axis on which the Gospel opens up, revealing what this author thought was most important about Jesus' story. This story, of illness, friendship, mourning, and, ultimately, new life is important enough that it might actually tell us something about how to read the whole rest of this Gospel. Let's see what is going on.
First, a little background. Of the four Gospels, John was probably the last written, and the person who wrote is probably the least familiar, of all the Gospels, with Jewish tradition. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus resisted any requests to perform miracles to prove his divine nature. In John, Jesus is different. Jesus proved his divinity all of the time. In fact, the author of John has Jesus being very clear about his identity throughout his public ministry. Lazarus' resurrection is the final of seven major miracles that the author describes as signs so that the reader "may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of God" (John 20:30). While the other miracles are important (turning water into wine, healing the sick and blind, feeding the 5,000, walking on water), Lazarus' resurrection is our hinge. It is the final, and most important, public demonstration of who Jesus is, at least until we get to his own resurrection.
What, exactly, does this sign show us? For one, it shows us Jesus deeply invested in his closest relationships. Like many people who had heard of Jesus and his signs, Mary and Martha were confident that Jesus could heal their brother, Lazarus. Lazarus had grown very ill. It seems like Jesus was his last hope. His sisters sent for Jesus, asking him to come. Strangely, Jesus said that Lazarus' illness would not lead to death. Even more surprisingly, Jesus did not rush to Lazarus' side. But, despite his slow return, the author assures of that Jesus loved Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. They would find healing in that love. But, not in a way that they expected.
Secondly, this story shows us that Jesus doesn't fear death. He is confident that there is a power within him that can overcome even death. So, he goes right towards death, first the death of his friend, and later, his own death, confident that something bigger is at play. Jesus lived in the face of death everyday that he lived under Rome. He was not afraid. When he arrived at Mary and Martha's home, he did not shy away from the death he found there. And he did not shy away from the grief. He stood in the midst of the mourning and felt it all.
This story also shows us that deeply felt relationships include accountability and honesty. Martha is very clear with Jesus about how she is feeling. She says, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." How did you hear that line when our reader read it aloud today in worship? With anger? With sadness? With resignation? I think each one of those feelings is a valid interpretation of this text. Jesus would have been well acquainted with those feelings, would have had them himself. I don't think he would have expected his friends and followers to not have feelings like this after someone they loved died. He is not surprised by their anger and sadness. He doesn't shy away from her pain, either. He listens. He is present. She goes on: "But even now, I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him." How did you hear that last part? With desperation? With hope? As a demand for Jesus to do what Martha knows he is capable of doing? Maybe all three?
Jesus and his followers were among the Jews who believed that in that the faithful would be resurrected once God's kindom had come to fruition. They were well acquainted with a hopeful orientation to the future. They knew what it was to confident in an eventual reunion with God. When Jesus says to Martha that her dead brother will live again, she presumes he means eventually, someday when humanity has finally built the future with God. She thinks Jesus is reminding of the hope already present in their shared faith. Here, right here, is where we learn that Jesus means something more. He looks at his mourning, angry, sad, hopeful friend and says, "I am the resurrection and the life." He says that his insight in how to follow God will be the key to new life. The ones who can follow him on this path will see a life that they couldn't imagine without him. He looks her right in the eye and says, "Do you believe that?" In the midst of her pain and anger and fear and love she says yes. She knows that Jesus has been appointed to this work. He is the one coming into the world.
I am fascinated by this turn of phrase "the one coming into the world." It doesn't say that Jesus came into the world, like it happened once and is over now. It doesn't say will come in the world, putting the hope, once again in the future. It says, "coming into the world," happening right now, still on-going, not yet complete. "You are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world." We have learned yet one more thing about Jesus. His work is not yet done. It is on-going. It is right now. It is not yet complete. Jesus then encounters Mary. She, too, calls out his tardiness and weeps at his feet. He is deeply moved by her weeping and wants to see where Lazarus is buried. He is taken to his tomb. Remember, he is not afraid of death. He loves his friends. He weeps. His work in not yet done. This weeping is part of it. Others observe him. They know that Jesus loved Lazarus. They also wonder why he didn't save him.
This is where our reading for today stopped. With Jesus showing his love and mourning his friend. With people asking legitimate questions about how he uses his power. With Jesus not yet finished, with healing still just out of sight. There is more to this story. Jesus will ask for the stone to be rolled away from Lazarus' tomb. Jesus will assure his friends that God can still be at work in the midst of their grief. And, Jesus will thank God for hearing him, and will trust that long dead Lazarus will hear him, too. Jesus will tell a dead man to get up, and that dead man will. Jesus will tell his friends to unbind the man, and the man will be set free. Some people will come to trust Jesus and some will grow very, very afraid. And, Jesus will no longer teach publicly. He will stay among those who already believe, and he will walk once again towards death. He will once again be unafraid. He is not yet done. His work is on-going. And, I think, his work is right now.
I read a scholar this week who thinks that's what Jesus meant when he said he was the resurrection and the life. He's not just a future hope of divine reconciliation. He is a promise of life right now. He is right in the middle of the joy and the grief, the pain and the hope of right now. He is still coming into the world, not to push us away from the depths of our humanity, but to settle right down in it with us. To hear our mourning, to face our pain, and to hear the lament when we cry out, "if you had been here, none of this ever would have happened." The life he promises is lived, with him, right now, in the face of all that would wound us. The life he promises stares death in the face, unafraid, and knows that there is the possibility of something greater. That doesn't mean that there will be no pain. It just means that the pain doesn't have to be the end of the story. It can instead be the hinge, opening us to great life beyond what now seems possible. Jesus will call to you, too, asking you to come out into new life. Will you be able to rise to greet it? More importantly, your siblings in Christ will be asked the same question. Will you be able to unbind them, freeing them into new life, too?
Resources Pastor Chrissy consulted when writing this sermon:
Osvaldo Vena: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3192
Karoline Lewis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4847
Meda Stamper: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=904
Karoline Lewis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=42
Bart. D. Ehrman's The New Testament: A Historical Introduction of The Early Christian Writings, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).
April 9th: Palm Sunday- A Time to Move
When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, “The Lord needs them.” And he will send them immediately.’ This took place to fulfil what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,
‘Tell the daughter of Zion,
Look, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’
The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,
‘Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!’
When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?’ The crowds were saying, ‘This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.’
Between the Turmoil and the Cross: Matthew 21:1-11
He rode into town with two borrowed donkeys. He was neither a hero of battle nor Roman nobility, nevertheless, the people gathered and greeted him as though he were one, as though he was really able to save them, as though he was really deserving of such a grand entry as he made his way towards the temple. They took their cloaks (maybe the only cloaks they owned) and branches hastily cut from trees and they made him a clear path into the city. They shouted and sang with joy, clearing space with sound. Hosannas rang across the city, hosannas usually reserved for the rich and powerful. Blessings rained down on him. In that moment, the crowds believed something. They believed he could help them. They believed that he was coming in God's name. They believed that he could save them. So, they shouted and sang and made a fuss. And, into the city he rode, on two borrowed donkeys.
Some version of this story is in each of the four Gospels, though with variations you'd expect from four different storytellers. John has the palms branches and the hosannas, but Jesus finds his own donkey, instead of sending his disciples looking for one. Mark only has one donkey, like John, but never specifies palms, only branches. Also, I think the crowd sounds a little smaller. Luke has a big, loud crowd, like Matthew, but says that they were already Jesus' disciples, an identity that Matthew never claims for them. Luke also includes a tense encounter with some Pharisees in the crowd. With Roman soldiers ever on the lookout for seditious activity, they did not want to garner any extra attention. Shouting disciples would surely garner attention. They told Jesus to quiet his followers down. He said, "I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out." As you heard at the beginning of worship, Matthew had a bit of a tumult, too.
One day this week, Thursday, I think, somebody pulled up to the stop sign outside of church and the bass was so loud on their car stereo that I could hear it vibrate the windows of their car. I think if I had been outside, I might have even been able to feel the vibrations. Matthew's version of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem says that the city shook with that kind of intensity. That's one way to translate that word we heard as "turmoil," shook, trembling as though in the midst of an earthquake. Can you imagine how loud that would have to be? I'm trying to remember the loudest, crowd I've ever been in that might have been loud enough to make the earth shake. I won't count concerts because they have electronic amplification. So, maybe a college football game? Me and 100,000 other folks rooting for our team... that kinda felt like an earthquake. Or, sitting along the wall during a crowded contra dance... a couple hundred people moving, stomping, and clapping in time. I always loved the jolt I felt when the caller yelled "balance and swing," and we'd all stomp and spin with our partners. During the best dances, our stomping felt at least like an aftershock.
This story says that they people were shouting and calling out so loudly and so much that it felt like the earth was shifting beneath their feet. Imagine how loud that must have been. Imagine how much energy was moving through that crowd. Imagine watching slightly dusty man ride two donkeys into town and be greeted like a king. Feel the vibrations move through the soles of your feet. Feel the vibrations in your ears, and the pushing and pulling of the crowd on your arms, shoulders, and backs. Maybe it feels like the whole world is shifting around you. Maybe the world is actually shifting. Because something, something is about to upset all of the order you are used to in life. Something big and strange is happening right in front of you. You find yourself shouting along with the crowd. Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! You add your sound to the tumult shifting earth beneath your feet.
Jesus wasn't the only one who marched into the city during this festival. Pilate would have ridden into town, too, from a different gate, with a different agenda. He would not have had to borrow a donkey, though the chariot he likely rode in on would have definitely been paid for by somebody else, usually the colonized people in the Empire. He and the soldiers he commanded would have made their own way into the city, displaying all their power and might in order to intimidate the people into good behavior during their religious celebration. Passover was a holiday where the people celebrated their delivery from oppression in Egypt. Pilate needed to make sure they didn't get so overcome with all the talk of liberation that they became foolish enough to try to rebel against Rome. Scholars say that people would be required to show up to welcome Pilate and to sing his praises. They would be required to pledge obedience and celebrate the conqueror. To appear to be anything less than celebratory at his return to the city would be to court destruction at the hands of his garrison. I bet there was a tumult along his parade route, too, but this tumult was the sound of subjugation, not joy. I don't know if many people would have should Hosanna at Pilate. I bet most of them didn’t think he had come in the name of the Lord.
Last week, when preaching on Jesus raising Lazarus in the book of John, I talked about how that story was important because it showed that Jesus was unafraid of death. He could face even this most difficult of human ordeals, and not look away. He would walk towards it, towards the death of a dear friend, conquer it, then walk further, towards his own death mere days later. In Matthew, Jesus' entry into Jerusalem shows us something important, too. It shows us how deeply his mission is connected to the hopes of his people. He is so connected to their prophecies of salvation that he reenacts ones, albeit strangely, from the book of Zechariah. It also show us how deeply other people connected with his mission of wholeness and liberation. In the middle of a huge religious celebration, enough people gathered around him to move the earth with their adulation and excitement. Their excitement, and Jesus' dedication to his mission, probably also made some powerful people nervous. When the people already have liberation on their minds, and are shouting "save me" at a man they call a prophet, you can bet some powerful people would pay attention. That attention was rarely good attention. There will be conflict. You don't claim the space of a king, even a humble one on a donkey, without courting conflict.
Earlier this week, in my newsy note, I wrote about how the world is feeling tumultuous to me these days... and often not the excited-football-stadium or crowded-dance-floor kind of tumultuous. More like earthquake, landslide, stampede tumultuous. Life-changing tumultuous and maybe in a way that doesn't seem so life-giving. As I read this story of Jesus entering the city, I'm struck by the forthrightness of the description of the earth-shakingness of this time period. To me, it reads of both potential excitement for liberation and potential dread for death and persecution. This is also the kind of tumult we are witnessing in our daily lives. Each day, each moment, carries with it the potential for joy and for destruction. And, Jesus is right here, right in the middle of the tumult, moving through it towards a future that no one in this crowd could have predicted, any more than anyone in this room can predict our own future.
We should make sure to take note that, even in the midst of an oppressive empire, the crowd saw an opportunity for hope and liberation, and they rushed forward to be a part of it. They were willing to grasp at any bit of freedom they could manage, even if was simply the freedom to celebrate this prophet more sincerely and graciously than any emissary that Rome could send their way. They shouted so loudly that the city had to pay attention. They shifted the earth beneath their feet. Maybe, in the end, this is just one more small place that they could work with Jesus... they could help him bend that arc of the future just a little closer towards God's ultimate justice just by showing up and celebrating their eternal hope that God could restore them once again. I pray that we can learn to show up and work with Jesus like they did. Our own earth still needs some shifting.
Resources Pastor Chrissy consulted when writing this sermon:
Stanley Saunders: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2404
I Love To Tell The Story podcast: https://www.workingpreacher.org/narrative_podcast.aspx?podcast_id=603
Pulpit Fiction podcast: https://www.pulpitfiction.com/notes/palmsundaya
April 16th: Easter- A Time to Rejoice
After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, “He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.” This is my message for you.’ So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.Suddenly Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’ And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.’
Do Not Be Afraid- Matthew 28:1-10
"Do not be afraid." That's how this whole things starts again, with this phrase "Do not be afraid." If you've spent any time at all around Jesus, you've probably heard it before. "Do not be afraid" comes up all the time. Remember the stories about when he was born? It was kind of scandalous. His dad almost left his mom, but he heard in a dream, "Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. The child she carries will change the world." That dream changed their lives. Not that nothing bad ever happened to them (I mean, they did end up having to hide in Egypt from King Herod), but their fear doesn't rule them. Their loves does. They save their boy so he can save the world.
Or, maybe you don't know anything about the circumstances around Jesus' birth but you have heard him preach. Maybe you've heard his words to his first twelve followers as he sent them out to preach the Good News. He knew that what he was sending them out to do was difficult and frightening work. He knew that they would face, at the very least, people who would ignore them, and, at most, people who would be so challenged by their words that they would attempt to do them harm. He made no bones about it... he said he knew that he was sending them out like sheep in the midst of wolves. But, he said, do not be afraid. He said do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. He assured them that God tends even to the needs of the tiniest sparrow. God will tend to them, too.
Or, maybe you don't know much about Jesus' preaching, but you do know something about the history of his people. Maybe you remember all those other times in the Bible when God or God's messenger told somebody "Do not be afraid." Like, when Abram was traveling and trying to get to his promised land, God said, "Do not be afraid, I will protect you from any army that seeks to harm you." Or, when Hagar and Ishmael, having been thrown out by Sarah and Abraham, were starving and dying of thirst in the wilderness, and God said, "do not fear" and saved the mother and child. Or, maybe you remember that when Moses and Joshua were facing daunting enemies, they both hear from God, "Do not be afraid... you will survive and thrive well beyond the evil they intend for you." Maybe you remember that the history of God that we know from the Bible has always been, at least in part, a story of heroes of the faith, of kings and midwives and prophets sharing God's most important words with the people, "Do not be afraid... I know things look bad. I know God's intervention might even look worse. But, do not be afraid. God is getting ready to do a new thing. You need to get ready to be a part of it."
Now, here we are at the tomb, where Jesus' followers have been nothing but afraid for days now. In less than a week, those closest to Jesus have watching him go from being lauded by the common people who saw him as a beacon of hope to being crucified by the powerful people who saw him as a challenge to their authority. Even though Jesus had once warned them that they were like sheep surrounded like wolves, I don't think they expected to lose their shepherd. Not like this any, not so shamefully and violently, like a common criminal. As Mary from Magdala and Mary, Jesus' mom, went to see his tomb in the early morning light, I wonder if they thought the new day would help them make sense of what had happened. I imagine that what happened next was not at all what they expected. All of a sudden, the earth shook. Remember, the earth shaking is a sign of God's presence. Sure enough, a terrifying and beautiful angel showed up, just in time, too. Because these women needed some help. They needed to be reminded that they are a people of "Do not be afraid."
Like Abram who faced war and Hagar who face starvation... like Joseph who suffered at the hands of his family and like Moses who had to convince a tired people that freedom was actually within reach, Mary Magdalene and Mary, Jesus' mother, needed to hear, "Do not be afraid." They needed to hear that the death that they were expecting had been overcome... That the destruction that has been surrounding them would not be their legacy. They needed to hear, "Do not be afraid" because even death couldn't hold Jesus for very long. The angel told them, "He is no longer here. He has gone back out into the land where he preached and taught and healed people." They will be able to meet him there. Now, with this good news, they also have a job to do. Go tell everyone else. The other disciples can see him again, too.
Now, I bet there are some people in this room today who are afraid, maybe almost as afraid as the two Marys. Maybe you're afraid because some US naval ships have been deployed to areas near the Korean peninsula. Maybe you're afraid because you don't know how you'll pay for your health care come this time next year. Maybe you're afraid because all you hear is a constant barrage of violence coming across your radio, phone, computer, and television. Maybe you're afraid because the winter was long and snowy and cost more money than usual and you're not sure if you're going to be able to pay all your bills this month. Maybe you're afraid because you're no longer sure that your children will have the stable and safe future that you worked so hard to build for them. Maybe you're just afraid, and, you're not sure what to do about it.
I have a hunch that it wasn't just the two Marys who needed to hear the words "Do not be afraid." I think we modern followers of Jesus near to hear it, too. Our ancient siblings in Christ are not the only ones who needed to hear a word of new life and renewed life. We need to hear, and more importantly, experience a little resurrection, just as much as they did. That is the only way we can move forward to the work we're called to in building a peaceful kindom with God. So, I hope that we all can hear the angel's good word today, "do not be afraid. More life is already here, right now. You just have to get out of this tomb to see it."
And, just as importantly, I hope that we can all follow the example of the two Marys. I hope that we don't keep this resurrection news to ourselves. While the Marys might have been the first two preachers of Resurrection, they cannot be the last. Their work has become our work. Thankfully, we don't have to get rid of all our fear to do it. They sure didn't. Matthew tells us that they left the tomb with fear but also great joy. It's like they ran through the fear, to get to the joy on the other side. I think we can do that, too. We can get to the joy, because we've been told that we, too, can see Jesus again, we just have to look out among the sick and the hungry, the frightened and hopeless, you know all the places he used to hang out. Other folks can see him, too. But, we have to tell them the good news we've learned. We have to be willing to say, "Be not afraid. Christ is Risen. We can rise again, too. Let's figure out how to do this together." Amen.
Resources Pastor Chrissy consulted when writing this sermon:
That'll preach podcast: 08 // What? He Lives in You! [Luke 24:1-12] // Jacqui Lewis:
Judith Jones: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3228
Melinda Quivick: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1990
‘No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.
‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
‘So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.
This painting depicts the first troupe of the Fisk University Jubilee Singers. This portrait commemorates their performance before Queen Victoria. Painted in 1873 by Edmund Havel, Queen Victoria's court painter, it depicts, left to right (men): Benjamin Holmes, Isaac Dickerson, Thomas Rutling, Edmund Watkins; Left to right (women): Mabel Lewis, Minnie Tate, Ella Sheppard, Jennie Jackson, Julia Jackson, Maggie Porter, Georgia Gordon. George L. White was the director of this group. Image credit: http://digital.mtsu.edu/cdm/ref/collection/shades/id/172
A Bird's Life- Matthew 6:24-34
In 1854, a desperate mother named Sarah Sheppard stood on the edge of the a river in Tennessee and considered doing the unthinkable. Her daughter, Ella, was only three and the woman who owned them both was already using the child as an informant, encouraging her to spy on the adults around her. The woman had come to Sarah, sharing some terrible and false report of unsavory activity that Ella supposedly told her, and threatened Sarah's safety. Sarah, knowing full well the horror of a life of slavery, anticipating a lifetime of manipulation and cruelty for both her and her daughter, grew despondent. She decided to end both her and her daughter's lives by jumping in a river. At the last moment, an elderly woman called out and stopped her. Three versions of what happened in their encounter have survived history.
In one version, a woman named Mammy Viney called to her and said, "Don't you do it, Honey. Don't you take that that you cannot give back. Look, Honey, don’t you see the clouds of the Lord as they pass by? The Lord has got need of this child." Another version of the story credits a woman called Aunt Cherry with the intervention. It also describes her as a prophet, speaking clearly of child's mission in life. She said, "God's got great work for this baby to do. She's going to stand before kings and queens." There is yet a third version of the story, Aunt Cherry, calling upon images from the familiar spiritual "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," says, "Wait! Let the chariot of the Lord sing low and let me take one of the Lord's scrolls and read it too you." She then held out her hands as though she was rolling open a scroll, and commenced to convince Sarah not to proceed with her plan. She told Sarah that God had a great future in store for Ella. Given that we have three versions of what happened, we probably won't ever know exactly what transpired between these two women. What we do know is that Sarah was changed. She walked away from the river and back to her life. We know that she saved her daughter for God's mission.
I read this story in a book called On The Heels of Freedom, written by Bates College graduate and UCC minister, Joyce Hollyday. The book is about the mission of the American Missionary Society, known as the AMA, to provide education and uplift to formerly enslaved people and their descendants in the South. Ella Sheppards's own life would be deeply entwined with the work of the AMA due to her connection to Fisk University, a university that had been founded by the AMA in 1866. Ms. Sheppard attended Fisk during a period when the school was in dire financial straits (the AMA was having financial trouble, too).
Ella Sheppard was one of the students who had been meeting in the apartment of the school treasurer, George L. White, to sing. Mr. White was an experienced choir director and taught them all kinds of songs. Some of these same students also gathered to sing spirituals from their own cultural and religious heritage. Hollyday writes, according to Sheppard, the students mostly did not share these songs in public. They were understood to be sacred but private testimonies of how to survive horrific oppression, testimonies you didn't necessarily share with white folks who had participated in your oppression. Sheppard once called them crystallized tears. Eventually, though, Mr. White would hear and learn these songs. His students, including Ms. Sheppard, would help him record them. To his credit, Mr. White, who was white, understood these song as great gifts from the culture of his students and treated them with respect. He soon incorporated them in the choir's repertoire.
The choir became strong enough that Mr. White wondered if they could tour and help raise money to save the University. When he made this proposal to the officials from the AMA, they were not at all convinced that it would work. In fact, they called the tour a "wild goose chase" and refused to officially sanction the trip. Hollyday reports that Mr. White wrote them back and said, "I'm depending on God, not you," and, with the support of Fisk's trustees, went about planning the tour anyway. After much convincing, he was able to get permission from parents for twelve singers to travel. The choir set out in 1871, with Mr. White leading and Ms. Sheppard serving as his assistant and the group's pianist. The choir face racist rioters and non-sympathetic audiences from the very beginning of their tour. Even supposedly supportive communities with abolitionist history seemed reluctant to support the choir, and, in turn, their university. At a National Congregationalist Council meeting in Oberlin, Ohio, the people gathered initially completely ignored the choir as they began to sing during a recess. People only stopped to pay attention when they heard the choir sing, "Steal Away to Jesus," the song that our choir sang today as their anthem. The beautiful music filled the sanctuary and drew in the reluctant crowd. It was in Ohio that the choir became known as the Jubilee Singers. And, it was in Ohio that they finally got a break.
Tom Beecher, brother to famed Congregationalist preacher Henry Ward Beecher, as well as writer Harriet Beecher Stowe, was present in Ohio to hear the Jubilee Singers and he was deeply moved. Tom spoke with his brother, who immediately found a way to bring the choir to his church in New York. At this point, Ella Sheppard had worn out her shoes and was wearing only cloth slippers on her feet. She developed bronchitis. In fact, few of the choir members had any appropriate clothes for winter travel and they surely didn't have the money to purchase more. But, as Joyce Hollyday wrote, they did have faith, so they traveled on. The AMA still wouldn't officially endorse the tour, but some officials did bring warm clothes to students and welcomed them into their homes once they arrived in New York.
Just like in Ohio, the choir began their performance with "Steal Away to Jesus." Descriptions of the event detail weeping audience members and people waving their handkerchiefs to express appreciation. After days and days of traveling and singing, days when they could barely raise $50, on this night, they raised $1300. Beecher helped organize another concert and they raised more money. Upon seeing such success in New York, the AMA finally endorsed their tour and work in earnest with them to save Fisk. By the end of their first tour, they had raised the $20,000 they needed for a new site and building for their school, and they had also raised awareness about the inequality of racial segregation in the venues where they sang. For example, in a city in New Jersey where a hotel had refused to house them, influential citizens helped pass a resolution to condemn the owner of the hotel. A neighboring city, inspired by their work, soon voted to integrate their schools. According to Hollyday, they also insisted at many of their venues that African American cooks, maids, waiters, launderers, and bellboys get front row seats.
The Jubilee Singers, a choir that continues to be active at Fisk University to this day, went on to sing for American presidents and European royalty. In seven years, they would raise $150,000 for the university and helped teach the world the power of music that had risen from African American culture. Unfortunately, though, none of the original singers graduated due to their intensive touring schedule. And, money would continue to be an issue at Fisk, as it would for many institutions dedicated to serving the needs of African-American students. And, in a what seems a great breach of trust, sometimes the AMA would use money intended to help Fisk to fill their own coffers. However, despite these issues, the school would still managed to develop world renown social science programs, and would count many leading American academics and activists among it's graduates.
Ella Sheppard is credited as a primary organizing force for the original Jubilee singers. Her tenacious faith helped carry them through the most difficult times of their first several tours. She and her husband would go on the cultivate a loving environment in Howard Congregational United Church of Christ, where he served as pastor. She would also serve as president of the Tennessee Women's Missionary Union, speaking up as a strong advocate for African American women. Her unexpected death in 1914 from an infection was quite a blow to her whole community. At Fisk, there still hangs an oil painting commissioned by Queen Victoria of Great Britain of the first class of the choir, of which Ms. Sheppard was a part. The Queen had been deeply moved by the choir's rendition of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." According to Hollyday, when the Queen asked where the song had originated, representatives of the choir told her a story of a desperate mother and a prophetic older woman who helped her. They told her how the woman spoke of God's chariots sweeping down to save a child for a great mission and they told her about the mother's recovery of hope. They stood before the Queen as living testimonies of that mission. And they sang. And, they helped change their world.
"Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?" Strive first for the God's kindom and you, too, may have all that you need.
Resources Pastor Chrissy consulted when writing this sermon:
Joyce Hollyday, On The Heels of Freedom: The American Missionary Association's Bold Campaign to Educate Minds, Open Hearts, and Heal the Soul of a Divided Nation (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 2005).
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.