UNITED CHURCH OF NEWPORT

September


The Power of Two or Three

Matthew 18:15-20, Romans 13:8-14

September 4th, 2011

 

            How do you connect to God? Solitude offers silence and space to think and pray. Alone, we meet the Holy, and rest in divine grace. This is the power of one. And in our gathered community at worship, we experience the power of many. Joined together in song, our individual voices lose their hesitancy and blend into a swelling chorus. Surrounded by a mighty cloud of witnesses, we find the strength to engage in mission, and to maintain this sanctuary for more than 150 years as a holy, public space. This is the power of many. 

 

            But in-between the power of one and the power of many is the building block that really forms the foundation of faith. It is the power of two or three.

 

            Jesus said “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them.”   If I asked you to name two or three people who helped formed your faith, I believe most of you would immediately call to mind a couple of people for each stage of your life. For although we can and do have powerful encounters with God while by ourselves or in large groups of people, the most common way in which we work out our faith and trust in God, is in company with one or two other people.

 

            Over coffee, or juice, or a walk, we talk about our doubts and struggles. We ask “Who is God for you? How did you decide to be a Christian? What do you do when life is hard?  How can I help you?” Sometimes we talk and sometimes we just offer each other our presence. Sometimes we eat together and sometimes we play together and sometimes we work side by side. By twos and threes, we build our community life. We get to know each other—our strengths, our shortcomings, and our stories. And we live out this amazing experiment in hope and forgiveness which we call “church”.  This is the power of two and three.

 

            And while the power of two or three is potent all by itself, it is even more so when we invite Jesus to be among us. His presence gives us the courage to be honest, and the generosity of spirit to be kind.

 

            Mega-churches have learned the power of two or three. It doesn’t matter if you have the most razzle-dazzle worship with a world-famous preacher and graphics and a professional band and praise chorus.   People who come to church need to connect with at least two or three other people, or they will not feel part of what is going on.

 

            Visitors to our church are much more likely to return, if they are greeted by two or three people-- people who take the time to learn their names, and some of their story. Relationships, on the scale of two or three, transform our theological affirmations, from black and white words on a page into living color.  Friendship, caring, listening: these all come to life by the power of two or three.

 

            Of course, it is also true that whenever two or three of us are gathered in Jesus’ name…… we’ll experience conflict. Differences of outlook and opinion are woven into our human nature. We have been made by God, with a crazy range of perspectives and aptitudes and ways of constructing reality. Add sin to the mix--- our tendency to hurt one another, to be selfish, blind, and vindictive-- and we have to admit that whenever two or three are gathered together, sooner or later, there will be trouble.

 

             “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them”.  I always assumed that Jesus’ teaching here was about the blessing of Christian unity. What a surprise then, to realize that this line concludes a detailed plan for dealing with church conflict!  Since “the church” did not exist as such during Jesus’ ministry, it’s likely that these lines have been put in Jesus’ mouth by a later editor, to help Christians facing church fights.

 

            Yet even here, the working out of faith and forgiveness takes place at the level of two or three. If your brother or sister has hurt you, Jesus says, “Go and speak with them, one on one.”  Don’t gossip about it with everyone else, or feed the fire by taking your dispute to court. Go to the person and speak the truth with honesty and love. If you succeed, you will regain the relationship. If you fail, take two or three others with you, and try to solve the problem with their wise input. Only as a last resort, should you bring the issue to the whole church, and if all else fails, expel the person from your fellowship.

 

            Of course, Jesus’ advice does not address the possibility that there are usually two sides to a conflict. Very often when we bring a complaint against another, we ourselves are at least partly to blame. But still, the advice is sound—Deal with it first at the level of two or three. Deal with it humbly, always inviting Christ to be present as mediator and healer.  

 

            Never underestimate the power of two or three—for good or bad. Two or three people can block change, by raising their voices and exerting veto power over their more polite brothers and sisters. Two or three people can show others how to welcome someone who is strange or different. Two or three people can freeze out that “different” person, and make sure they never return. Two or three people can shift the tide of a debate by calmly and quietly arguing for justice. Two or three people can inspire the rest of us to see new possibilities for our church or ourselves.

 

            Next Sunday, we begin another season of Sunday School with the children of our community. In small groups, they’ll gather to learn Bible stories and to make crafts. The middle-schoolers this year will be inviting some of you to come into their classroom and tell them about your faith-- how you came to hold the beliefs and commitments that sustain you. In a few weeks, our teens will begin working one-on-one with their mentors in the “Making Disciples” confirmation program. The power of two or three will ripple once again through the generations and through our church.

 

            None of us have all the answers, and we still experience failure and sin on a regular basis. But here we are, coming forward to the table of blessing, to receive the food that sustains us, and to hear the words that guide us ever forward: “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them.”   Good strong words. Amen.

 



God’s Greatest Work

Exodus 14:19-31, Isaiah 43:1-3, Matthew 18:21-22

September 11th, 2011

 

We live in confusing times. Our country is the world’s richest and most powerful, yet we feel personally vulnerable and economically fragile. Earth has become a global village, interconnected in a million ways-- by cell phones, and currency markets, by You-Tube videos, by hurricane tracking maps, and by household products which are made in factories halfway around the globe. But a few things have not changed-- from ancient times to now. We identify ourselves according to tribe and nation, drawing lines between “our people” and “the others”. And we devise strategies to help us live with our insecurities.

Religion is one of those strategies. Believing in God's benevolent power helps us cope when life is scary. When events spiral beyond our control, it helps to trust that God has a plan, that God will deliver us. Even in the aftermath of catastrophes like the 9/11 terror attacks, and the recent hurricane in Vermont, we find abundant evidence of God’s goodness. We marvel at the heroism of those who give their lives for others, and at the kindness of strangers, grieving together. Faith provides us with a road map for hope and rebuilding.

 

War is the other major way in which we deal with our insecurities. When we feel threatened as a tribe or nation, we seek to eliminate the threat. For most of human history, wars have been initiated and fought between nations.  One of the confusing aspects of our post-9/11 world is what has been called asymmetrical warfare, in which a small group of freelance terrorists, with no nation sanctioning them, can wreak havoc, and it is hard to know how to retaliate.

 

In the most idealistic of worlds, war and religion do not belong together. Much harm has been done in the name of God, from the Crusades onward. But going all the way back to the time of Moses, people of faith have looked for signs of God’s favor during times of national conflict.

 

In the story of the parting of the Red Sea waters, the Israelites were fleeing their Egyptians slave masters, with the Pharaoh’s armies in hot pursuit. The Egyptians had vastly superior military might, including chariots and horses. But the Israelites were supernaturally protected, first by the pillar of cloud and fire which separated the two camps at night, and then by the wall of water, which parted in front of the Israelite advance, and gushed back to drown the Egyptian army, chariots and all.

           

For the Hebrew people, this event was proof that God was on their side. The Interpreter’s Bible cites this victory as: 

the redemptive event which became the foundation of Israel’s existence as the people of God. It was for Israel not simply a source of objective meaning, but also of abiding wonder.  The event is for the Old Testament what Jesus the Christ is for the New Testament—the normative redeeming and revealing act of God.

For me this story raises questions. If God was on the side of the Israelites, does it then follow that God did not care about the Egyptians who perished?  How does God judge an evil empire, in which millions of ordinary good people happen to reside? Does God choose sides, on the basis of policies of governments and empires? 

 

            Every army in history has tended to believe that their cause is just, and that God is on their side. They can't all be right. Abraham Lincoln famously said during the Civil War, “I do not pray that God will be on my side, but that I will be on God's side.”

As I read again the story of the crossing of Red Sea, of God’s miraculous protection of the Israelites, and the mass drowning of the Egyptians, I hear echoes of Muslim holy war rhetoric, invoking God's name in the pursuit of violence. Try reading this story over again, and substitute Allah for God, and Mohammed for Moses, and America for the Egyptian army, and it becomes a text of terror….

 

            The point is that winners and losers, good guys and bad guys, God’s chosen and God’s defeated, look very different depending which side you are on.

 

The Israelites interpreted the parting of the Red Sea waters as God's greatest work, and they were, by any objective measure, not terrorists or suicide bombers. They were slaves, fighting for their freedom against a brutal regime.  During their forty years in the wilderness, as they experienced hardship along with God’s loving guidance, they came to see themselves as God's chosen people.

 

Were they wrong?  Is America wrong to believe that we are the chosen people of the modern world, uniquely blessed by God? On what basis have we come to believe in our manifest destiny? If God is on our side, what responsibilities does that confer upon us?

 

            These are big questions—too big to be answered fully in one sermon. But let it be said that in the Bible, Israel is chosen by God, not for a life of ease and privilege. God is on Israel’s side, so that Israel may be on God's side—working for justice, for shalom, for the good of the whole earth.

 

            If the crossing of the Red Sea is the redemptive event for the Hebrew Bible, the Christian Bible’s redemptive event moves in a very different direction. Here the redemptive event is the life and summary execution of Jesus Christ, and his subsequent victory over the grave. In this event, God takes the side of humankind, by sharing our suffering, by sharing the pain of unjust punishment, and by offering the unfathomable gift of forgiveness in the face of injury.

 

            In Jesus of Nazareth, God's great work is not retaliation, nor supernatural intervention in battle. Here, God's great work is the work of love, of forgiveness, of power manifest in apparent weakness and defeat.

 

            We might be tempted to think that Jesus is the only one who was asked to put his life on the line for these values, if it were not for his teachings: “Whoever wants to be my disciple, must take up their cross and follow me.”   How often should you forgive a brother? “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy times seven.”

 

This New Testament narrative of redemption raises almost as many questions as the crossing of the Red Sea. How do we balance our legitimate needs for personal and national security with the model Jesus presents? How do we draw upon the power of God to strengthen us, to meet attack with reconciliation, to meet injustice with forgiveness? Is the imperative of forgiveness applicable just within the fellowship of the church and family (with our “brothers and sisters)? Or does it also apply to conflicts between nations?

 

The longer I go on my Christian journey, and the deeper I probe into the essence of faith, the more convinced I am that forgiveness is the heart of the gospel.

           

On this September 11th, ten years after the terrorist attacks that made us aware of our national vulnerability, ten years into two wars which may or may not have brought either justice or increased safety, we confess that we still bring many questions to our reading of the Bible. We celebrate all the moments when we have felt the protection and blessing of God--  moments particularly vivid in times of extreme distress. We realize that often we feel God's presence most strongly when we are at our most vulnerable. And we grope towards the promise and vision of Jesus. We commit ourselves, in our own halting ways to the hard work of reconciliation, to the blessed work of building a beloved community.

 

            We read the Bible, asking, What is God’s greatest work?  It is the demonstration of supernatural power, bringing deliverance from enemies? Or is it the demonstration of supernatural love-- the even greater power of forgiveness, seventy times seven, bringing deliverance from endless cycles of hatred and bloodshed?

 

            Let us continue to tell our stories, to ask our questions, and to submit ourselves humbly, to the God who delivers us from evil, to the Christ who bids us follow him.  Amen.

 

Trapped

Jonah 3:10-4:11, Matthew 20:1-16

September 18th 2011

 

 

            He suspected it was a trap, right from the beginning. That's why Jonah ran in the other direction, when God asked him to be a prophet. He hopped on a ship going away from Nineveh, and he kept his head down, not even revealing to the other seamen that he was a Hebrew. But when the storm came up and the winds threatened to capsize them, the sailors guessed that Jonah’s God was behind the storm. So they tossed him overboard, to save themselves. Jonah ended up in the belly of a great fish, where he had a few days to reconsider God's job offer. After the fish vomited him up on the shore, he thanked God sincerely for his deliverance, and decided to head, after all, towards Nineveh. He thought, maybe it isn’t a trap after all. Maybe God has picked me to be successful, to be honored, to be the hero who brings this evil city down to ash and rubble. So he went to Nineveh, and he let fly the judgment of God, telling the Ninevites that unless they repented, God was going to wipe them off the face of the earth.

 

            Then he sat back to watch it happen. He expected it to be like one of those action-adventure, science fiction movies, with lots of fire and explosions and buildings collapsing. But God changed his mind.

 

            Jonah knew it was a trap right from the beginning! God changed his mind! God chose mercy over judgment, generosity over justice. Jonah couldn’t decide which burned him up more: God's ridiculous inconsistency?  Or God's pathetic soft-heartedness?  Why would God send Jonah to proclaim judgment, if in the end, God was prepared to offer forgiveness? Isn’t God the one who is supposed to know everything—to see the future? Was it all a foregone conclusion?  Then why bother sending Jonah in the first place? And the people of Nineveh were not even Hebrews. They were foreigners. What business did God have caring for them? Weren’t the Hebrews God's chosen people?

 

            Jonah felt he deserved, at least, a pat on the back for his service--- and for all the danger he had undergone. After all, he had almost died, in that storm at sea. Being in the body of the fish was the most unpleasant experience of his life. And now, after being rescued by God, after obeying God’s commands in the end, (to the best of his grudging ability) God changed his mind!!!!

 

            From a hillside just outside Nineveh, Jonah fumed and ranted for two days, and wished he could die. What was the point, if God would not be consistent?  …If God refused to carry out the threats Jonah had made?  It was a goddamned trap, and Jonah burned with indignation, as a scouring east wind blew sand into his face all through the heat of the day.

 

            Still he prayed, a kind of prayer. “I knew it” he said, “I knew you were a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing!”  Now after all my effort, after I delivered your message of judgment with all the fire and brimstone I could summon, they repent, and you change your mind?  I had the right idea from the start. I should have kept going in the other direction.”

 

            This was the sound track that circled endlessly in Jonah’s head, all through the punishing heat of the day, as he looked down at Nineveh and watched the people praying, wrapped in sackcloth and ashes. Bitterness burned in his gut, and turned his face red, as the sun beat down on him. And the final insult was that the bush that had sheltered him from the sun---that bush that had grown right where he needed it, the day before, ---had unaccountably withered in the night. “God's hates me,” Jonah whined. “I knew it was a trap.”

 

            It was not until the second evening, as the sun was setting, and the air began to cool, that Jonah looked down and saw the golden light falling slant against the buildings of the city. He watched the boys herding their goats in for the night, and the girls drawing water from the wells, walking homeward with their jugs balanced gracefully on their heads.  He saw elderly folks raising their arms to God in thanksgiving for their deliverance, and families embracing at the doors of their homes. He watched Nineveh relax and give thanks for God's mercy.

 

            And he thought back to his long and eventful journey, and to all the ways in which God had cause to judge him, and to cast him aside….  Instead, God had saved Jonah from the shipwreck; God kept him alive in the belly of the fish; God guided him to Nineveh and told him what to say when he got there. The Lord made his speech effective and persuasive. And even when Jonah withdrew in a fit of anger, God provided a shade tree to make him comfortable while he waited and fumed.

 

            Now it is true that, occasionally, along the way, Jonah thanked God for all these mercies, but mostly he took them for granted. If God chose him to be a prophet, Jonah naturally expected to receive divine protection, ready forgiveness along the way, and. supernatural assistance from time to time.

 

It never occurred to Jonah that God's special treatment, God's irrational and abundant mercy might flow in other directions—to the pagan people of Nineveh, for instance.

 

Do we require God to be consistent, or do we allow God to be more merciful than we could ever be? Matthew’s gospel tells the story of workers in the vineyard who all received the same daily wage, even though some worked all day and some just a few hours. Most of the time, we can accept the generosity of God towards us. Can we accept the generosity of God towards others, or do we insist on meting out grace according to purely human measurements of effort and achievement?

 

The United Church of Christ has, for the past few years, used a slogan, one that is currently on our outdoor sign. It says “No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.”  A few days ago, as I placed those letters on the board and closed the door, I wondered if we really mean it. Like Jonah, we set boundaries around God's loving kindness. We feel more comfortable judging others, rather than welcoming them with God's extravagant kindness. But I put the words up anyway, because I figure, even if we aren’t quite there yet, this is who we want to be as a church: A place where repentance is followed by celebration, where foreigners become friends, and where even the most close-minded among us have our eyes open to God's wider vision.

 

Jonah, Nineveh, workers in the vineyard, people with tattoos, those on social security and those on welfare, respectable folks and those battling addictions: No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here. Jonah was right. It is a trap. It’s a trap that knocks us off our moorings and exposes the meanness of our narrow thinking. It’s a trap that reveals the wideness of God's mercy, and shows us endless horizons of divine grace. It’s a trap that enlists us in God’s vineyard for as many hours as God is pleased to have us there. It’s a trap that, day by day, sets us free. Amen.

 

 


Baptism and the Bible

Mtw 19:13-15, Ephesians 6:1-4, John 3: 1-7

September 25th, 2011

 

 

True or false: Jesus baptized babies. True or false: Some Jews at the time of Jesus practiced baptism. True or false: Baptism has always had multiple meanings in the history of Christianity.

 

This week I pondered baptism as I prepared for this morning’s sacrament. I researched the Biblical foundation for what we do here. I wondered about the layers of meaning and significance we assign, to the sprinkling of babies with water in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

 

The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church states:

“Although from the first, baptism was the universal means of entry into the Christian community, the New Testament contains no specific authority for its administration to infants. But by a tradition at least as old as the third century, and virtually universal until the Reformation, children born to Christian parents have been baptized.

 

Why do you think that the sacrament of baptism remains meaningful in our secular era, even to families who do not attend church every Sunday? Even more curious, why do we practice infant baptism, if it is not spelled out in the Bible? Each of the three scripture readings chosen for today gives a partial answer. Taken together, they suggest why infant baptism still matters, and why we consider it one of the most joyous and solemn celebrations of our faith.

 

First, Jesus loved children. In his time and place, children were the property of their parents. They were at the bottom of a rigidly hierarchical society. Yet Jesus clearly broke with tradition by noticing and valuing children. Furthermore, he made the startling suggestion that if you want to know the mind of God, listen to a child. And if you want to please God, become like a child.

 

In the gospel of Matthew, we find Jesus engaged in learned discourse with the serious and intellectual Pharisees on the complexities of the Law. We can imagine them all speaking in measured tones, using sophisticated and subtle arguments. Jesus’ disciples are on the sidelines, feeling proud of the way their teacher is holding his own in such distinguished company. And then along come a group of children: noisy, sticky, laughing, causing the chaos that children often do. And the disciples try to shoo them away, but it’s too late. The little ones have seen their friend Jesus, the one who remembers their names, and always receives them with delight. Like a tumble of puppies, they run up to Jesus and climb up on his lap.

 

The disciples are mortified at the interruption, at the informality, at the potential for their teacher to look less than dignified. But Jesus smiles at the children, and at the anxious disciples and the dignified Pharisees, and continues as if there had been no interruption: “Let the little children come to me, for the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to them.” Their claim on it precedes even that of the theologians and the writers of the Law books. Heaven is their natural country. “And he laid his hands on them and blessed them.

 

In the innocence of a baby’s gaze, life is stripped down to its essentials. In the vulnerability of young children, we discover what it means to take care of one another. To live as a child is to live with simple pleasures and eager curiosity, before habits have dulled us, and hurts have wounded us. In the freedom of young children at play, we reawaken to the wonder of the world and the gifts of song, play, laughter, and discovery. To the extent any of us can return to this state of mind, (and it happens once in a while-- often in the presence of children) we experience the Kingdom of Heaven.

 

Another Biblical perspective on baptism comes from advice to the early church. The passage in the letter to the Ephesians is not explicitly about baptism, but has to do with family life. Paul tells children and parents to honor and love one another. When a household stays rooted in the teachings and values of Jesus, Paul says, harmony and well-being will bless every member of that household, even down to the slaves. Without challenging the social norms of his day, Paul suggests that family life works best when it is grounded in Christ.

 

This, then, is the second reason why baptism still conveys powerful meaning for us. For we realize, no matter how imperfectly we achieve it, that we are our children’s primary faith teachers. Our habits of prayer, sharing, justice and kindness are the textbooks our children study to find out what we really value. Children learn about life, and they learn about God from the people closest to them: from parents and grandparents --and if they are brought to church regularly, from their church family. Baptism affirms that God blesses and loves every child, but Ephesians reminds us that children come to know God deeply and joyfully, mostly through the faith and example of their parents.

 

The third passage that reveals a key layer of meaning for baptism is Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus in the gospel of John. Again, there is a contrast between the legalistic, rationalist mindset of the Pharisees, and Jesus’ freer attitude. When Jesus speaks about being born again, Nicodemus is baffled: “Can a grown man go back into the womb and come out a second time? The new birth to which Jesus is referring has to do with life in the Spirit. But Nicodemus has spent his whole life studying the intricacies of the Law. He understands religion, and probably serves on the governing committee of the synagogue. He is such an important person, that he comes to visit Jesus at night, to avoid be being seen and recognized. Spirit is unfamiliar territory for him.. Life in the spirit scares him, with its connotations of the freedom of God to wash over his life and change it, from the inside out.

 

Nicodemus’ questions, and his spiritual hunger despite his fear, are also part of what we proclaim today in our ritual of baptism. We affirm that there is a life of the spirit, and that it is an essential reality for each human being. We are physical beings, but we have within us, a yearning to connect with God’s spirit, as it moves deep within us, and far beyond us, beyond our control. Like Nicodemus, many of us spend most of our time in the world of facts and necessity, and we are puzzled about what spiritual growth really means. But like him also, we are drawn to Jesus, and intrigued by the promise that there is another dimension to life, the world of the Spirit.

 

Baptism invites all of us, not just the child baptized today, to explore life on this other plane, to grow in knowledge and love of God, and to draw on the strength of the Gospel as we face the joys and challenges of our lives.

 

Baptism continues, as a central ritual of our faith, because its many layers resonate with our human experience. Children teach us about heaven, and often open the doors to show us a glimpse of its shining joys. Faith takes shape in the daily life of family and church, built upon habits of years, constructed through relationships of trust, respect and forgiveness. And we all live in two worlds—the world of water and bodies and physical existence, and the world of spirit and mystery, ebbing and flowing around us, washing over us. Jesus knows your name. Remember your baptism and be glad. Amen.