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.
Psalm 150 (translation from The Inclusive Bible)
We praise you, God, in your sanctuary;
we praise you in your mighty skies!
We praise you for your powerful deeds;
we praise you for your overwhelming glory!
We praise you with the blast of the trumpet;
we praise you with lyre and harp!
We praise you with timbrel and dance;
we praise you with strings and flute!
We praise you with clashing cymbals;
we praise you with resounding cymbals!
Let everything that has breath
One of my three goals that I am focusing on during my time at this church is alternative approaches to music in a small congregation. Music is intrinsically linked to our life of faith. The book of Psalms is largely a book of songs of praise. Psalm 150 is the final psalm in that book and it encourages us to praise God in so many different ways. To praise God in so many different places.
We hear about praising God in God’s sanctuary. Sanctuary with a small “s”. But then the Psalmist goes on to say that we should praise God in God‘s mighty skies. Now that’s a bit different than a sanctuary. I know I am probably not alone when I say that I often feel the most connected to the creator of all things when I am out in nature. That does not have to be some exotic remote location. It could be walking my dog Buddy down the streets of Waterville. In fact, we did that exact thing yesterday. We went for about an hour-long walk around some of the streets that lead up towards Colby College and then back around to our house. I had been feeling a bit down earlier in the week, but I somehow always feel, when I am walking Buddy and the sun is shining and hitting my face, that I am so very lucky to be doing what I am doing. I am so very lucky to be on this earth at this particular moment in time.
On these walks something that helps to add to this sense of appreciation and wonder is that I almost always have music playing in my AirPods as I walk. I try to pick songs that either have a good pace for walking or that fit the mood that I am either currently in or wish to be in very soon. Often these songs may have been chosen just for that purpose, because they match the pace at which I walk or the emotion that I happen to be feeling at that point, but almost always on these hour-long walks there will come a song that strikes me in a way that it has never struck me before. Bear in mind that I mostly listen to my playlists on shuffle. I like being surprised by what might come next. And I almost always find myself surprised by a song that I might have heard five, 10, 20 times before. It is often while that sun is hitting my face and the music swells or a lyric lands at just the right moment that I am filled with that feeling of praise for God.
I feel so very lucky that I am in that moment when it happens. When the lyre and the harp, or maybe the electric guitar and the synth, and the lyricist’s chosen words have allowed my soul to join with the music in a moment of pure praise for God. It often makes me want to dance as Buddy and I are walking. Now, the streets that we are walking down are usually pretty densely-populated, suburban, house-lined streets, so my dance moves may be somewhat subdued. However! Sometimes I can’t quite help myself!
We praise you with clashing symbols;
We praise you with resounding symbols!
This praise that the Psalmist is entreating us to offer to God it’s not a quiet thing, it’s a thing that should make you want to dance down the street! Think back to Palm Sunday, to the people shouting “Hosanna!” as Jesus made his way into Jerusalem. That praise was shouted with all of the emotion and joy that it is possible to feel. No doubt those people in Jerusalem danced as Christ walked by, riding his double-donkey. The psalmist says, “Let everything that has breath praise God,” so maybe the donkey did a little jig as well!
The playlist project that I will be wrapping up and releasing today was about asking folks to think of songs that speak the language of their spirit. Songs that cry out to our souls and help us feel connected to God. Maybe they make us want to dance down the street, or maybe they move us to tears, or center ourselves in silent contemplation. That is the power of songs. That is the power of psalms. They can move us in ways that we often do not expect. They can hit us at exactly the moment when we need them! And in that moment, if we are very lucky, we might feel like we are in the presence of God; in God’s sanctuary. We might feel grateful for those powerful deeds, for all of God’s overwhelming glory, and it could all be because of how we connected to that song in that moment.
As I mentioned, there are times when a song hits me in a way that I did not expect... Times when the song that I have heard innumerable times in my life speaks to me in a way I never expected. I’m sure some of you have stories like this, but the one that comes most quickly to mind for me is when I was at a particularly low point a little while ago and I was talking with somebody about how I was feeling. I just did not have the words to explain to them what I needed at that particular point. I didn’t know how to express what I was feeling, and how grateful I was that they were there for me. And as I was telling them in a very roundabout way how I was feeling, the words of a song that I have heard easily over 100 times, probably over 500 times, “Help” by The Beatles, started playing in my head. I did not expect it and when it came forward for me, all I could think was that God had put that song on my heart at that particular point. I shared it with the person that I was speaking with. I told them, “I’m sorry, I have to stop. This song just came to me...”
Help me if you can I’m feeling down,
And I do appreciate you being around
Help me get my feet back on the ground
Won’t you please, please help me.
That song was not there five minutes earlier. It was not in my heart as I was feeling in the depths of a point of depression. But I believe that God put that song into my mind so that I could see a way forward. In that small moment where I was able to share how I was feeling and what I needed more clearly than I could have in any other way, I felt incredible gratitude for God. I wanted to praise God in that moment because I could not explain it. I cannot explain how I was feeling, but God plucked that song out of the shuffled playlist of my life and shoved it into my brain exactly when I needed it.
Now, I recognize that The Beatles may not be the band for everybody. They may not have a song that would soothe your soul at a point when you needed it, but I think that’s the beautiful thing about music. That’s the beautiful thing about all the different ways that the Psalmist tells us that we can and should praise God. We have a lot of options! The selections for the playlist that I will be releasing this evening from suggestions that people emailed to me shows just how varied the languages of each of our spirits are. And that is a beautiful thing! The song that I pulled the title of today's sermon from has a pretty simple name. It's “Sing”. This is a song by Joe Raposo, originally written for Sesame Street, but most popularly known by the version that The Carpenters recorded in 1973. It has a lyric that I think speaks so perfectly to just how lovely it is to have such a diversity of music represented on our congregation’s “spiritual playlist”.
Sing, sing a song,
Make it simple to last your whole life long.
Don't worry that it's not good enough for anyone else to hear
Just sing, sing a song.
God calls to us in so many different ways, and no one way is better or more “correct” than another. There is a song for everyone, we just have to sing it!
For me, music connects me to the world and my place within it. That might be why I almost always listen to music while I am out on a walk. Music serves as a backdrop to inspire me, to awaken my awareness to God’s glory in something as small as a gentle breeze or something as everyday as the warm sunshine on my face. As the music swells, my spirit soars. My spirits soars like the song of the meadowlark, the bird in the photo on our slides today. It calls out to me, inviting me to pay attention to all of the small things that I have, all the small things around me, and all of the big things that God has provided. And the song that does that for me does not have to be the song that will do it for you. God is truly great and has given us so many different ways to encounter the divine through the sound of symbols crashing, harps and lyres being plucked, electric guitars and synthesizers sounding out a thrumming beat. And in the end, most of the music that sticks with me is pretty simple. “Help me if you can, I'm feeling down.” That's pretty simple, but for some reason it didn't come to my mind until God put that song in my heart. That is worthy of praise! And I am sure that my spiritual connection with music will last my whole life long.
I would encourage all of you to spend some time, maybe while you listen to the playlist that I will share on our Facebook page or maybe when you next put your own music on shuffle when you’re out on a walk, and listen... really listen... and feel the ways that music helps us to praise all that God has given to us. Let everything that has breath praise God, let everything that has breath sing, sing a song.
Here's the link to the playlist on Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/playlist/6J7xdydiLiVjGgb3gke9ui?si=97909443fda34b8e
Here's the link to the playlist on Youtube: https://youtube.com/playlist?list=PLXas3ZoIykcEpb3ArePXTAUBBBvKDyi6N
Matthew 28:1-10 The Resurrection of Jesus
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 worshipped 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." Who hear has heard that before? Maybe you heard about that dream Joseph had where an angel said to him: “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit." Or maybe you’ve heard Jesus’ own teaching as he sent the 12 disciples on their mission of healing (Matthew 28:1-10): “Do not fear those who kill the body by cannot kill the soul.” Or, maybe you remember all those other times in the Bible when God or God's messenger told somebody "Do not be afraid." Like, when God said to Abram, "Do not be afraid, I will protect you from any army that seeks to harm you." Or, when God was saving Hagar and Ishmael after Abraham threw them out into the wilderness, God said, "do not fear" and saved the mother and child. Or, 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." The stories of the Bible tell us again and again, when things look bleak, do not be afraid. God is getting ready to do a new thing.
I am not sure how much comfort those promises brought Jesus’ disciples as they witnessed his trial, death, and burial in a tomb. I imagine that, at this point in the story, they’ve been very afraid, perhaps for days now. In less than a week, those closest to Jesus watched 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. They were so fearful, that most abandon him. But, two of them, Mary from Magdala and another woman named Mary, as Judith Jones points out in her commentary, the same two who stayed with Jesus when he died, also went to see his tomb in the early one morning.
Remember when I said, last Sunday, that the ground would shake once again? After the earth-moving triumphal entry into the city, and then the earth-shattering arrest and the trial, when Jesus took his last breath, the earth shook once again and the curtain covering the most sacred part of the Temple tore in two, from top to bottom. It would shake one more time as the two women named Mary arrived at the tomb. As Elizabeth Johnson notes in her commentary on this text, Matthew’s resurrection account is the only one that includes this detail. She says, “The shaking of the earth is an appropriate parallel for the way that the events of Good Friday and Easter morning shake the very foundations of everything once thought to be secure.” Thankfully, the angel showed up just in time to explain what was happening. The angel said, “Do not be afraid.”
The angel told them, "He is no longer here. He has been raised. You can look in the tomb for yourselves.” Then, the angel appointed the two women as the first preachers of the Resurrection, telling them to tell the rest of the disciples what they have learned. The angel also tells them that Jesus has gone back out into the land where he preached and taught and healed people. The Marys, and everyone else, will be able to meet him out there.
Matthew tells us that the Marys left the tomb with fear but also great joy. Scripture also tells us that Jesus meets them on the road, in the midst of their joy and their fear, and repeats this same divine message “Do not be afraid.” All of this is so weird and so hard and so miraculous. But it is not the end. Go and tell the others. The others will meet Jesus again, too, in the midst of their fear. And, he will promise to be with them until the end of the age. I pray that you, too, will meet Jesus out there... out in the world where he healed and helped and connected with people. He is still with us, through the end of the age. Remember his words and take heart: Do not be afraid. More life can happen. And, when it does, we must leave the tomb and tell everyone about it.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
That'll Preach podcast: 08 // What? He Lives in You! [Luke 24:1-12] // Jacqui Lewis: https://soundcloud.com/thatllpreach/he-lives-in-you Judith Jones: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3228 Melinda Quivick: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1990 Elizabeth Johnson: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/easter-matthew-2/commentary-on-matthew-281-10-4 Wil Gafney, "Easter - The Great Vigil," A Women's Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year W (New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 2022)
Out the cave view: Photo by Luca Bravo on Unsplash
Mt 21:1-11 Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem
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.’
He rode into town with two borrowed donkeys. Neither a hero of battle nor Roman nobility, and yet, the people gathered and greeted him as though he were one... as though he was really able to save them. That’s what Hosanna means: “Save me.” They took their cloaks and branches hastily cut from trees and they made him a clear path into the city. Hosannas rang across the city, hosannas usually reserved for the rich and powerful. In that moment, the crowds believed Jesus could help them. 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. The stories vary as you would expect from four storytellers. One donkey or two, an unknown crowd or disciples, there is always a ruckus. Jesus is always greeted with joy. Matthew's version of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem says that the city shook with the intensity of crowd. In her translation of the text, Dr. Wil Gafney prefers to use the definition “shake” rather than “turmoil.” Jesus’ entry into the city is intended to have the power of an earthquake. Or, perhaps we are to read this as a convulsion of need by the people witness this strange parade. Either way, the people and city are shaken. And, the ground will shake again, later that same week. This tumult might be a warning, too.
Jesus wasn't the only one who marched into the city during this festival. In his commentary on this text, Stanley Sanders talks about Jesus’ entry in the city is intended to be a contrast to that of the Roman elite. Pilate would have ridden into town and he wouldn’t have had to borrow a donkey, though, it should be noted, that he didn’t pay for the chariot he likely rode in on. That was the people’s money, taken by Rome. 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.
We must remember that 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. Sanders says that people would be required to show up to welcome Pilate and pledge obedience to 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 don't know if many people would have should Hosanna at Pilate. Maybe they would have, but, I bet most of them didn’t think he had come in the name of the Lord.
If we are paying attention to Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, we can see how deeply his mission is connected to the hopes of his people. He is so connected to their prophecies of salvation that he reenacts one, albeit strangely, from the book of Zechariah. That’s what the whole business about the two donkeys is about. They are trying to follow a prophecy from Zechariah. It also shows us how deeply other people responded to his mission of wholeness and liberation. In the middle of a huge religious celebration, with dangerous soldiers all around, enough people gathered around him to move the earth with their adulation and excitement. I think we are also to see that 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. You don't claim the space of a king, even a humble one on a donkey, without courting conflict.
We should make sure to take note that, even in the midst of an empire ready to harm you at the least provocation, 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. So, they shouted so loudly that the city had to pay attention and they shifted the earth beneath their feet.
The world is so complex. It has always been, but I am most attentive to the complexities of right now. It is possible to create an entire litany of terrible things happening: It is now a felony for parents to give their children life-saving gender-affirming care in the state of Alabama, the war in Ukraine is looking more and more genocidal, the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Pleasant Point Reservation doesn’t have consistent access to clean water. We are still in the midst of a pandemic that has changed so many people’s lives forever. I imagine that the somberness of this coming week’s Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services will feel familiar because it is easy to feel somber these days. And, part of the gift of Holy Week is the space to feel that grief. Grief is not separate from our faith. It is a part of it. Palm Sunday reminds us that joy and shouting are, too.
Rev. Jayne Davis, in her work on spiritual practices, talks about the value of setting aside time for acknowledging the holy in your life. She calls this making room for Sabbath. She’s not telling Christians to take up Jewish religious practices. She suggesting that we take time to rest in God’s presence, even if it’s only for a few minutes. I invite you, in this hectic world with many demands on your time and your care, to treat Holy Week as this set-aside space, where you can draw nearer to Christ, as these crowds did, and feel whatever is on your heart in that moment. Christ is with you in the silence, the shouting and the earth-shaking. May you find your Hosanna and welcome Christ, once again, into this place.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Stanley Saunders: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2404
Wil Gafney, "Palm Sunday- Liturgy of the Palms," A Women's Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year W (New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 2022)
Jayne Davis: https://www.churchleadership.com/leading-ideas/7-spiritual-practices-for-the-new-year/
Art credit: Swanson, John August. Entry into the City, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56544. Original source: www.JohnAugustSwanson.com - copyright 1990 by John August.
Luke 13:18-21 The Parable of the Mustard Seed
He said therefore, ‘What is the kingdom of God like? And to what should I compare it? It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.’
The Parable of the Yeast
And again he said, ‘To what should I compare the kingdom of God? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.’
There is a beautiful and heartbreaking novel by Mary Doria Russell called The Sparrow. It is a book about humanity and science and religious faith and, also, aliens. If you aren’t inclined to enjoy books about sentient, singing aliens or people building a spaceship out of an asteroid, I would encourage you to read it for what it says about humanity, and, particularly, how it talks about intuition. When I think about intuition, as I have learned what it means, people usually use it in a context that makes it sound almost like a magical gift. If you have good intuition, your brain or heart or stomach has a keen ability to sense the truth about something. And, it often seems to me that intuition is something you either have or not. At least it did before I read The Sparrow.
In the book, there is an astronomer named Jimmy. One of his jobs is to pay attention to signals a large satellite in Puerto Rico picked up. He is one of the people who decides if a signal is from something in space or from something on earth. There is another character in the book, Sofia Mendes, who has been hired by a company to see if she can write a computer program that can do what Jimmy does. Think of it like someone figuring out how to mechanize weaving, so that a machine does most of the work instead of a person... except, in this case, the work is astronomy and analyzing sound waves. Most of the time, the signals Jimmy is interpreting are easily recognized to be from earth. Any astronomer, with enough experience with the equipment, could figure it out. But, then this one signal came in and it was different.
Since I’ve already told you that there are aliens, I don’t feel like I’m spoiling anything by tell you that Jimmy figured out that this signal was from a sentient life-form on another planet. More importantly, Jimmy figured out that it was a song sent all the way here, across four lightyears, from a solar system called Alpha Centauri. As Jimmy explained how he figured out that it was an actual transmission from other beings and specifically music, Sofia began to realize that what led Jimmy to this correct revelation wasn’t simply his training in astronomy.
When explaining himself, he said “The signal just looked like music to me.” Jimmy’s academic training plus his experience with the quirks of his scientific equipment plus musical training he’d had as a kid plus some work he done as a high schooler on old musical recordings combined with an experience of hearing two other characters sing together the night before to give him this epiphany. Sofia asked if another astronomer could have come to the same conclusion. He said, maybe? What he did wasn’t magic. Somebody else might have figured it out eventually. But, he also admitted that if someone else realized it was music, they might think it was from earth and not keep working on it long enough to realize that it wasn’t. That moment confirmed for Sofia that she couldn’t create a program that would have made this discovery. This discovery was possible because of Jimmy’s intuition. And, she couldn’t program intuition.
In The Sparrow, intuition is a skill, not a gift. Jimmy has intuition because he has learned how to connect all the pieces of his training and his life experience into knowledge that he knows is sound enough to trust. And at this vital moment, each little part of who he is... a pianist, a scientist, a man who is falling for a woman with a lovely voice... combined into this little voice in his brain that said “this transmission is a song.” His world, maybe the whole world, would never be the same after that. Sofia, for all her competence and hard work, could not download all of the pieces of his life into a computer. She could not repeat digitally what his mind had done organically. His intuition was honed and tended to in a way that computers can’t reproduce.
I remembered this story about Jimmy’s intuition as I read today’s scripture from Luke and this description of the kindom of God as being like a tiny mustard seed and the even smaller yeast that causes dough to rise. You never know what the small thing, be it the weird high school job or the moments of shared song, will give rise to in your life. The portion of Luke that today’s reading is taken from is from the part of the story leading up Jesus entering into Jerusalem. Dr. Fred Craddock, in his commentary on this text, says that these stories from the time on the way to the city are experiences meant to prepare the disciples, and we, the readers, for what will happen in Jerusalem and what will happen at the tomb. Every little bit of this story, every experience, no matter how small, will become part of the intuition that allows the disciples, and us, to interpret Jesus’ trial, death, and, eventually, the resurrection.
Dr. Craddock describes the parables this way: “Both (the planter and the baker) perform small acts that have expansive consequences.” Planting and baking are skills, honed over time and experience. Not every seed planted grows and not every bread mixed rises. But, the more you train... the more you practice... the more you observe... the more likely you are to trust yourself to take the right action, at the right moment, to help something grow. Craddock thinks this is how Jesus was training his followers to take heart that, even in terrible days that were ahead, “God was still at work.” And, that they were working with the Holy Spirit in ways that they might not even see, in acts so small they might miss them, but nevertheless, whose impact will ripple out and affect life and creation far beyond their present time and place.
Think about the things that are mustard seeds and yeast in your own life... the experiences that have grown into the life of faith that you are cultivating at this moment. Remember them and take heart. In times of confusion and fear, all these little parts of you, can come together with the Holy Spirt and guide you to great insight and right action. You might not discover aliens but you might be surprised by some other kind of new life growing forth in your midst. You are the only one who can take what you carry inside of you and use it for good. As Rev. Jayne Davis says, “And the world needs to see how God is reflected through you, the real you.” What is the kindom of God like? The very littlest bit being put to good use.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Wil Gafney, "Lent V," A Women's Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year W (New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 2022)
Fred. B. Craddock, Luke (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009).
Mary Doria Rusell, The Sparrow (New York: Ballentine Books, 1996)
Images used: Mustard seed image: Photo by Wolfgang Hasselmann on Unsplash; Mustard plant: Photo by ross tek on Unsplash; Dry yeast: Photo by Karyna Panchenko on Unsplash; Dough: Photo by Claudia Stucki on Unsplash.
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.