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.
31 “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. 32 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, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 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; 35 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, 36 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.’ 37 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? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 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,[a] you did it to me.’ 41 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; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 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.’ 44 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?’ 45 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.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Sermon Note: This sermon was delivered in a joint zoom worship service with Rangeley Congregational Church by Pastoral Intern Becky Walker.
In Matthew Chapter 25 there were three parables that preceded the one read this morning: The Talents, Bridesmaids, and the Unfaithful and Faithful Slaves. These all stress waiting for and preparing (or not) for the return of Christ. Jesus tells his disciples these parables so they will learn from these lessons: from the foolish bridesmaids to be wise, be watchful, be ready. And during that "meantime," don't just sit around waiting: use the gifts God has given you, like bold and enterprising stewards, so that they multiply for the sake of the reign of God. Don't just sit on what God has given you.
This gospel shares the perspective of Jesus, to embrace his vision, to see the world through the eyes of his love. This week’s parable poses the question: “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?” God’s conclusion and our instructions are contained in the answer: ‘Truly I tell you just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members in my family, you did it to me.’
Jesus is giving his disciples some farewell instructions in the last days of his life before giving himself up to the cross. He has been telling them to be prepared for his return, something they never will know when to expect. It is the climax of the ecclesiastical year. Jesus’ message is straightforward. Feed the hungry. Clothe the naked. Welcome the stranger. Nurse the sick. Visit the imprisoned. See Christ and love him in those in need. These are our marching orders in good times and bad.
I interpret this gospel reading as a reminder that all of God’s children are deserving of our kindness and generosity. This loving kindness is the kind that we extend to our family and friends, but also calls us to the more difficult concept and practice of extending hospitality - even to strangers. Hospitality, which was so important in Jesus’ time and culture, is still at the heart of how we practice our faith as Christians. As difficult as it can be, Jesus calls us to welcome and care for all – because no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey Christ welcomes you. And we are called to that same practice of extravagant hospitality. Think about that as I tell you this story:
As the worshipers arrived on a late November morning at the Lutheran Church in White Lake, North Dakota, they were met by a rather disturbing sight. An apparently homeless beggar sat on the front steps of the church, wearing tattered clothing, a wool cap pulled down over his eyes, and clutching a bottle in fingerless gloves. They had never seen anything quite like this in White Lake North Dakota.
Most worshipers simply walked around the man, or stepped over him, as he sat there. Some muttered words of disapproval, and others suggested that the man move to another doorway before the Sunday School children arrived. One member told the man, in no uncertain terms, that the Salvation Army in Minot was a more appropriate place to sleep it off. At one point, a kind woman brought the man a Styrofoam cup of hot coffee, but not one person asked the man to come in out of the cold, and certainly nobody invited him in to join them in worship.
Imagine, then, the people’s surprise during the entrance hymn, when their homeless friend made his way into the pulpit, took off his cap, and the people recognized that it was their pastor! The pastor began his remarks that morning in this way: “I didn’t do this to embarrass you or to poke you in the eye. I did it to remind us that this is a person that Jesus loves, and he has called us to love him, too.” And the King answered “When you failed to help the least of people, you failed to help me.”
This teaching of Jesus is so very different from all his other teaching in the Gospel of Matthew. For in the previous chapters, Jesus is telling parables. But in this text, Jesus is looking into the future, explaining in graphic detail, what sort of judgment day awaits every one of us. It’s not a parable. It’s not a fairy tale. It is truth, coming right out of the mouth of Jesus. Some people are troubled with this story about sheep and goats because I am sure most of you thought you were a sheep. But what if you are a goat?
God does watch the way we live our lives, and the way we live matters. And Jesus plainly says that one day, each of us will stand in line as the King points the way to eternity. Some will be directed to the right, and they will spend forever in the Kingdom of God. But others will be directed to the left, and eternity, for them, will be spent in hell.
God has expectations on how we live our lives. The expectation is not to be perfect, but to be generous, kind and compassionate, and to love our fellow man. We will recognize the sheep and the goats by the way they live their lives. Sheep graciously share what they have to those in need. Goats want to keep all that they have to themselves. Sheep see others in distress and they are compassionate. Goats see others in distress and they tend to ignore them. When goats see an apparently homeless man, sitting on the steps of a church, they see a homeless man. When sheep see an apparently homeless man, sitting on the steps of a church, they see Jesus. What do you see??
I bet each of us can remember where and when we have been on the receiving end of kindness. Maybe somebody changed our flat tire, or fixed our computer problem, or made a meal when we were sick. These can be acts of the mercy that Jesus will honor on the last day, and for which we can be grateful for right now. Stay humble and grateful for the mercy shown to us, so we can extend mercy to others. Jesus thought this was important enough to talk about as his final week of life drew to a close. Because Jesus is living on the streets. Jesus is in soup kitchen lines. Jesus is waiting at the Salvation Army to get a coat. Jesus is in the hospital, or more likely, suffering and sitting, because He cannot afford to go to the hospital. Jesus is in prison. He wants us out there in the world looking to find him in the heartache and pain that surrounds us.
Julia Carney wrote these words in the mid-19th Century. They still ring true today:
“Little drops of water, little grains of sand,
make the mighty ocean and the beauteous land.
And the little moments, humble though they may be,
make the mighty ages of eternity.
Little deeds of kindness, little words of love,
make our earth an Eden, like the heaven above.”
I like to think it’s the little acts of kindness that often go unnoticed that have the best chance of transforming the world around us into the kingdom of God.
Preaching in front of the congregation he loved so much at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. told his congregation--just two months before his untimely funeral--how he would like to be remembered, and in doing so, he zeroed in on that ultimate question: If Christ is King, what does that mean? If Christ is ruler over our lives, Dr. King told them, then my Nobel Peace Prize is less important than my trying to feed the hungry. If Christ is King, then my invitations to the White House are less important than that I visited those in prison. If Christ is Lord, then my being TIME magazine's "Man of the Year" Is less important than that I tried to love extravagantly, dangerously, with all my being. (I Have a Dream, 191)
What better time to put this lesson to work? From Thanksgiving to Christmas is the traditional season of giving. Our love and little acts of kindness are needed now more than ever from within the church (even by Zoom), our communities, and our country. We all need to see Jesus in the world and respond to the needs of Jesus in the world. Remember to give all that you have, in every way you can, every day, so that Jesus’ work can be done by the church as well as by her members.
Jesus has told us where to look for him and how to find him. Let’s not keep him waiting. AMEN.
Resources consulted when writing this sermon:
‘For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, “Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.” His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, “Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.” His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” But his master replied, “You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
To Whom Much is Given: Matthew 25:14-30
A couple weeks ago, a post by the musician Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson began making the rounds on social media. You may be acquainted with his work from his band The Roots or from the Jimmy Fallon show, where The Roots are the house band. The story he shared was accompanied by a paper napkin with the name of some bands scribbled on it and the words “Portland, Maine.” He wrote in his post, “The start of my record collection starts with this note.” The note, in blue ink that fades in some places, as pens will do with writing on fragile paper, says “Ahmir likes Jackson 5 and Neil Sadacka records.” It also says “Jackie, I am picking up a gift for Ahmir- ok.- Ellie.” Ellie wasn’t a close friend of Questlove’s family. She was simply a stranger who want to do something kind for a little boy.
Questlove’s parents were working musicians. For his family, this meant that he was often at their shows while they worked. One night, in 1976, when he was five years old, he ended up in a nightclub in Portland, Maine, with the stern instruction: “Ahmir Do NOT talk to strangers when we are onstage!!!” It turns out, though, that some kids are just extroverts and want to talk to the people around them. Quest started talking to a woman named Ellie. He doesn’t explain how they got to talking about turntables and records, but, some how they did. He said that somehow, plucky kid that he was, talked her into buying him some music! He said that he didn’t expect her to follow through at all. But, she asked him what music he liked and he gave her some examples: the Jackson 5 (because who didn’t like the Jackson 5 in 1976), a Neil Sadaka song (mostly because the logo on the record looked neat when it spun on the player), and “Dance with Me” by Rufus. She wrote everything down on the paper that was closest at hand... a bar napkin.
His parents’ gig went through the next night. So, the next night, he was there while they worked. And, the next night, Ellie showed up with a small record player and three records. Initially, his parents were so mad. You probably would be to if you told your kid not to talk to strangers and in walks a lady you don’t know carrying gifts for the kid who wasn’t even supposed to be talking to her. But, Ellie was very kind and was very much on his side. Quest said she said “please don’t have him get in trouble on my behalf!! He’s so cute, of course I wanted to start his record collection!!!” His parents relented and allowed him to keep the gifts, starting what would be the collection that has been the soundtrack and foundation to his very successful career in music. He finished his post with these words: “But on the off chance someone in Portland, Maine knows of a kind woman who, in 1976 randomly purchased a turntable & 3 records for this lil’ black kid with an afro the size of Texas, named Ellie.... I’d like to know.”
Matthew 25:14-30 is not always an easy text to interpret and it is certainly not as light-hearted as the story I just told. In fact, very little of this part of Matthew is light-hearted. This set of parables is from near the very end of Jesus’ life. It appears that he realizes that the consequence of his righteous teaching will likely be death at the hands of Rome and he is trying to prepare them for life without him. His first bit of advice in this chapter is to stay awake so you do not miss the opportunity to do what you are called to in this world. That is what we talked about last week. This week, Jesus has a lesson about what to do with the gifts you’ve been given. He’s telling his followers not to waste them.
A barrier I have to this story is that it posits that the Master, a person who owns other humans and is thought to be, at least by one of them, a harsh man, is somehow the figure that we are to identify with Jesus. Owning other people is a sin. I wish this story said that clearly. How much of human history would be more just if those words were clear in passages like this one? And, yet, despite my discomfort with this kind of relationship, it was a relationship that people in his community would have understood. When crafting parables, Jesus used imagery the people would understand. They knew the power imbalance inherent in the relationship between the slaver and the enslaved. So, he chose to use that familiarity as a tool in this story.
Jesus knew that slavers weren’t often kind or generous to the people they enslaved. So, it would have been a shock to the people to hear that this slaver entrusted his treasures to the people he kept captive. He was going somewhere and gave them no time frame in which to expect his return. He just gave them a lot of money. And, according to the scholar Susan Bond, the Greek words used here for “giving over possessions” to the enslaved isn’t just about handing things to people. It is bigger than simply possessions. It is language that can mean handing over one’s very substance and life. I mean, some of this language is used to describe how Jesus would be handed over to the authorities of the state who would eventually crucify him. We who are reading this story now should pay attention to this enormity of this gift the way the first people to hear this story would have. This is a big thing that the enslaver has done. And, he just goes away, leaving the enslaved people to do something with what he has given him.
The two to whom he was most generous make good use of their windfall, earning his praise and greater responsibility when he finally, surprisingly, returns. The message here is clear. If you have a gift and use it wisely, you will be welcomed in joy and live in abundance. But, there was one enslaved person who was afraid and hid his gift away, afraid to risk angering the enslaver if he did something wrong with. He returned to the gift, in full, to the enslaver, hoping his tactic of hiding away the money, hoarding it in fear, would keep him in the harsh man’s good graces. You probably heard from our reader that it did not. In fact, the enslaver’s response was mostly rage.
When reading this section of the parable, the scholar David Schnasa Jacobsen in his commentary on this passage, reminds us that of all the Gospels, Matthew is one that most clearly believes that there are consequences to disregarding God’s commands. Matthew believes that the threat of the consequences are a powerful force for getting people to do what they are supposed to do. The author of Matthew probably would have agreed with Questlove’s parents had they not let him keep his gifts because he disobeyed them. According to Jacobsen, Matthew wants the potential consequences in the future, the weeping and gnashing of teeth, to guide people’s actions in the present. If, because of fear, you waste the gift given to you, you will miss out on the joy that lies in the future return of the gift-giver.
Sometime we preachers tell one story to help explain another. This morning, I share Ellie’s story about what she did with some of the money and time and energy entrusted to her. She was kind to a little boy. She listened to what he was interested in. She kept a promise to him. She gave him a gift, not exactly a giant gift, but a gift that became the foundation for his life’s work. Now, with musicians for parents, Questlove would likely have ended up with his first records and record player sooner or later. But, isn’t it powerful and surprising to hear this story about a generous stranger who got him some music first? This is a story about someone who got something good and shared it and affected his life, and our lives, through it. She did not waste an opportunity. She did not hoard her gifts away. She shared them and helped bring much beauty into this world.
I hold this story alongside a second. Yesterday, about 11,000 people, a significant portion of whom are avowed white supremacists, marched on Washington, DC. The ones who weren’t openly white supremacists were happy to march alongside the ones who were. Can you think of a greater waste of the gift of protest than to use it to prop up white supremacy? Can you think of an action more rooted in fear and hoarding than standing alongside white supremacists, wasting the opportunity to work with God to bring the reign of love and justice into the world. There was so much weeping and gnashing of teeth yesterday and they don’t even know, or care to know, that there is a different world possible, one of joy and abundance, one that they are missing by squandering their gifts in fear and hate.
Jesus wanted to make sure his followers knew what do to if he wasn’t physically there with them. That’s what this parable his for: to prepare them to make choices, guided by his teaching and by the Spirit that would remain with them. For Jesus, the choice was clear: risky generosity and joyful justice were marks of the Reign of God. Fear and hoarding were the marks of the Reign of Rome. May we, the modern-day followers of Christ, waiting his return, always choose the risk of generosity over the certainty of fear.
Resources consulted when writing this sermon:
Scripture Reading: Matthew 25:1-13: The Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids
‘Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” But the wise replied, “No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.” And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.” But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
I just want to warn you all. Matthew 25 is full of such good stuff that Becky and I are gonna preach on part of it for three weeks in a row. This chapter has everything: lamps, a wedding, coins, a hole in the ground, sheep, goats. Everything. I’m preaching this week and next. Becky is preaching on the 22nd. We are all going to know so much about Matthew 25. It’s going to be great. We’re starting with my favorite of the three stories Jesus tells in this chapter: The story of the Bridesmaids Who Should Have Stayed Awake. You may have heard it called something else. But, this is how I think of it. Because the Bridesmaids problems could have been solved had they stayed awake and talked to each other.
A lot of people don’t love this parable. It certainly has a hard ending, with the bad planners getting locked out of the party when they go get more oil. People feel bad for the women who ran out of oil. Who here has ever run out of something they needed for an important project? A lot of us have. I think it’s easy for us to identify with the ones who mess up in the story because we mess up sometimes. We don’t want to think Jesus might lock us out for a mistake. Most of the time when we thing of Jesus, we remember that he welcomed a lot of people to follow him. That’s why I think people have a hard time with this part of Matthew 25. You can’t follow him if you’re locked out!
I think we make a mistake in reading this by imagining that Jesus is the groom and we are either the bridesmaids who are good at planning or bad at planning. For one thing, this groom is kind of the worst. He is really late to his own wedding. He doesn’t even seem to warn them that he’s going to be late! Who here has ever had to wait on someone for a long time? Who here had to wait on something this week? Was it fun to wait? No. It was really hard. Has anybody ever fallen asleep while you waited?
Also, nobody in this story shares anything. Jesus wanted people to share. I don’t think Jesus wants us to be people who don’t share, even if the other people we are with have messed up. Also, Jesus usually forgives people when they say that they are sorry. He gives them a chance to fix their mistakes. The groom in this story doesn’t. So, that makes me think that we’re not supposed to think that Jesus is the groom or even that Jesus is the bridesmaids who don’t share. Here’s what I think we can learn about Jesus and how to be the church from this story.
Notice that Jesus tells the disciples that the point of this story is "Stay Awake therefore for you know neither the day nor the hour." Notice, too, that everybody in this story fell asleep. All ten of the bridesmaids, the five who are called foolish and the five who are called wise, fall asleep. The five who have too much oil still get into the party even though they fell asleep. If I read this story, minus the Jesus explanation at the end, I would think he was telling people to prepare better... to store up more than you think you would need, and, don't share with the people who don't plan as well as you. That’s what gets you into the party. But, when he explains the story to the disciples, he doesn’t say, “be prepared.” He says, “Keep awake.”
Some might argue that preparedness and wakefulness are usually pretty closely linked. Usually, the people who are most prepared are the ones paying the most attention to what is going ok. In this story, Jesus makes them seem more different. And, he asks everyone to stay awake, not be prepared. Now, both sets of bridesmaids do a terribly poor job at wakefulness. Everybody falls asleep. And, since they fall asleep, they all almost miss what they are supposed to be doing: welcoming the groom with joy and celebration. Only some of them have enough saved that they can still scramble around and do what they are supposed to. But the party isn't as big as it could have been had everybody been able to do their job. I can’t help but wonder how the story would be different if they all would have done what Jesus said and stayed awake.
Had they stayed awake, maybe these two groups of women would have started talking to each other. Someone would brew some tea and offer it to someone else. Maybe one of them would suggest playing a game to pass the time. Maybe someone else would share stories about how they know the bride and groom. I don’t know if you know this but you don’t usually get to be in a wedding if you don’t know at least one of the people getting married. This is wedding between a man and a woman and maybe one of the bridesmaids knows the groom. She’s his cousin or something. She tells the other women that he is late for everything. That's why she brought extra oil. She knew he couldn't be on time. Maybe four other bridesmaids, all family of groom, nod their heads in agreement. They brought extra because they knew he’d be late, too.
If all the women are awake and talking to each other, the five bridesmaids who don’t have extra oil learn that they’ll probably need some, because the groom is late for everything. Now, having learned they’ll need more oil, the five who didn’t know the groom have time to run down to the corner store and get some before he arrives. In this version of the story, because they have stayed awake and helped each other, everyone has enough and they all get to do the thing they have gathered to do, to welcome the groom with joy and celebration. One of the most difficult things about waiting is feeling like you are doing it alone. If we tell a story about them where they do what Jesus asks, stay awake, we can tell a story about people who had the option to make the waiting easier for each other. And, who might be able to help each other actually do what they were called to do: welcome someone in joy.
When I read articles and books about this story in the Bible, several of the writers pointed out that Jesus in this story seems to be telling the people who follow him that there is going to be lots of waiting. I feel like most of what I’ve been doing for the last 8 months and definitely for the last 4 days is waiting. I think some of you feel like that, too. We may dedicate our time to worship, prayer, and service and naps and party games and probably some arguments. But, we have really spent a lot of time waiting. Waiting for a vaccine for a serious illness. Waiting for school to get back to normal. Waiting to see if the Covid numbers go up. Waiting to see if they go down. Waiting to hear how the election will turn out. It turns out that from the time of the first followers of Christ, we have been waiting.
We could spend our time preparing, storing up things to make sure that we get into the party. We could show up with just what we have and hope that we won't be locked out. The thing is, regardless of how prepared we are, we're probably going to be waiting longer than we expected. We don't know how or when the empire of heaven will arise. Even as we work to build it up with God, we do not know when it could be complete. We may grow weary as we wait. We're probably going to fall asleep. But, if we pay attention to the people around us, we may find some partners who can help us to stay awake to new encounters with the Divine. We can find friends who will elbow us if we fall asleep. Maybe today we can make a promise that I help you stay awake if you help me stay awake. Then, none of us will get locked out of the party. Does that sound like a good plan to you?
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
O sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things. His right hand and his holy arm have gained him victory. The Lord has made known his victory; he has revealed his vindication in the sight of the nations. He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness to the house of Israel. All the ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God.
Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises. Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre, with the lyre and the sound of melody. With trumpets and the sound of the horn make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord.
Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; the world and those who live in it.
Let the floods clap their hands; let the hills sing together for joy at the presence of the Lord, for he is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity.
On October 12th, we asked the question on Facebook: What object in your home (think furniture, appliance, tool, art piece, etc) are you most thankful for? When I say we, I mean the church asked people who follow us on Facebook this question. Kate, who has made it to her winter home in Mexico safely, said her sewing machine, which is no big surprise. Her TV, recliner, and space heater were all honorable mentions. Gwen is thankful for her center island in the kitchen, where her family so readily gathers together. Penny is thankful for a picture she has of her late husband Bruce, her children, Matt and Meredith and her taken for Matt’s graduation. Jen is thankful for her stove and her microwave. Cindy, who worships with us occasionally and is a member of another church, is grateful for her furnace. It must have been a cold one the night before.
October 9th, we asked, “What in nature are you most grateful for?” Dina gave thanks for trees and Rev. Holly Morrison, a colleague is a preacher and a farmer, said, “The way the earth reminds us that everything needs a rest before the next season of striving...says the tired farmer in the middle of harvest season!” Lee W. said all the wildlife and beauty of fall. Others answered, too. You should go back and read them. In fact, I’d recommend going and looking at all the questions we asked about joy and gratefulness over the month of October. I learned about people’s favorite books and favorite Bible stories and that most people can’t name only one person they are grateful for. On that question, most everyone wanted to name at least two. Isn’t it a wonderful bit of grace to see this church’s members and friends be unable to limit the gratitude they express?
There was only one question that didn’t get at least a couple answers. The only one that didn’t get any responses was “What new ways of being "together for joy" have you learned this year?” Maybe it was just because it was on Wednesday and everybody was busy on Wednesday or maybe it just didn’t inspire people the way some of the other questions. Or, maybe a lot of this year has been harder because we can’t get together in the ways we really love. It hasn’t been safe to gather for the church fairs or fellowship hour inside the building, two of our favorite ways of being together. We haven’t been able to sing in person either, one of our other favorite ways of being together. Surely, though, there has been joy in the new ways.
Wasn’t outdoor worship this summer a gift, even when we had some tech issues? And, each week, I watch you pray and cheer with joy for each during our online church services. And, when I’ve asked for video snippets to stitch together for worship on Palm Sunday and Pentecost, you happily obliged. We piece together so much joy in those videos, even if it wasn’t quite the same way it would have been had we been worshiping in the sanctuary together. Sometime this summer, in a sermon about Joseph, I talked about remembering as re-membering, that is, putting things together in new and different ways, for a redemptive purpose. I learned that phrase from a scholar named Christopher Davis. This year has been a year for re-membering church, learning how to be a body of Christ in this day, according to the needs of this time. I think this probably means we need to be re-membering joy, too.
Let’s return to the beginning of the Psalm. “O sing to the Lord a new song, for God has done marvelous things.” The scholar Rolph Jacobson, in his commentary on this Psalm, said that it is best to understand this “new song” as not simply a new composition. This isn’t about quickly writing a song about the stuff gone has done in the past. A new song is inspired by a new, particular act of God. Dr. Jacobson puts it this way. He says, “The new song means to write and sing a song that has to be ‘new’ because God has just done something new -- such as a new act of deliverance, a new act of grace, a new act of forgiveness, or a new act of blessing.” In an era where everything seems so precarious, what does it mean to be attentive to God’s new actions in this world? God is mysterious and moves in all kinds of ways. But, mystery is kind of a pain right now. We could do with a little certainty right about now, thank you very much.
Frankly, I’m not feeling much like I’m at a Psalm 98 level right now. It’s not that I don’t believe deliverance is possible, it’s just that deliverance from what is weighing on me hasn’t happened yet. Psalm 98 is my future. I’m sure of it. I’m just back in another Psalm, maybe 42 or 43. Maybe you’re not to 98 yet, but I know that we can get there. We’re just in the re-membering stage... the putting the pieces of deliverance and grace together for a redemptive purpose. And, while we’re waiting for a sign of God’s action in the world, we’ll continue to act as we are inspired by God in this world. I shared with you a prayer in the Newsy Note on Tuesday. It seems worth repeating. My colleague the Rev. Thea Racelis shared it with me first. It is by Rabbi Jack Riemer and has been adapted to make the language more inclusive.
We cannot merely pray to You, O God, to end war;
For we know that You have made the world in a way
That we must find our own path to peace
Within ourselves and with our neighbors.
We cannot merely pray to You, O God, to end starvation;
For you have already given us the resources
With which to feed the entire world
If we would only use them wisely.
We cannot merely pray to You, O God, to root out prejudice,
For You have already given us eyes
With which to see the good in all people
If we would only use them rightly.
We cannot merely pray to You, O God, to end despair,
For You have already given us the power
To clear away oppression and to give hope
If we would only use our power justly.
We cannot merely pray to You, O God, to end disease,
For you have already given us great minds with which
To search out cures and healing,
If we would only use them constructively.
Therefore we pray to You instead, O God,
For strength, determination, and willpower,
To do instead of just to pray,
To become instead of merely to wish.
For Your sake and for ours, speedily and soon,
That our land and world may be safe,
And that our lives may be blessed.
May the words that we pray, and the deeds that we do,
Be acceptable before You, O Lord,
Our Rock and Our Redeemer.
And, today, I will add my prayer to this one: O God, may we soon write our new song. Amen.
Resources consulted when writing this sermon:
Rolf Jacobson: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4326
Christopher Davis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4588
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.