Friday, November 27, 2020

Hope - Sermon for Week Ending November 27, 2020


Luke 1: 47-55, Mary’s song.
My soul magnifies you, O God, and my spirit rejoices in you, my savior,
For you have looked with favor on the lowliness of your servant.
Surely, from now on, all generations will call me blessed,
For you have done great things for me, and holy is your name.
Your mercy is for those who love you from generation to generation.
You have shown strength in your arm and have
scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
You have brought down the powerful from their thrones
and lifted up the lowly.
You have filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty.
You have helped your servant, Israel, in remembrance of your mercy,
According to the promise you made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.
from “Here’s why you can’t lose hope,” by pastor and author John Pavlovitz.
I stay hopeful because people of every nationality, religious affiliation, and life circumstance who have preceded us, have experienced all manner of hell during their lifetimes: unspeakable suffering and unthinkable fear, would not relent.  They made the daily, sometimes hourly decision to speak and live and work and love when it proved difficult. We who inhabit this planet have inherited it from them:  people who would not allow themselves to become so despondent or so weary in their present circumstance that they stopped hoping. Now it’s our turn. This is our moment to spend our fragile and fleeting sliver of space and time here, and for the sake of our predecessors in humanity and for our descendants who will be here after we’re gone. We can’t allow our present troubles to overcome us. We cannot be overwhelmed by the pain in our path, to the point where we are no longer willing to feel it or respond to it. We can’t wilt in the face of hateful, fearful people who would make the world less diverse and less equitable. And we can’t become apathetic or stay silent or sidestep the turbulence, because the multitudes whose feet traversed this place previously refused to.


The theme for this first Sunday of Advent is hope, and lord knows, we need it. We have had some dark days.  Covid is surging.  Political transition is lagging. Hate is multiplying. Hope is difficult. Despair is easier. It was even worse for Mary, mother of Jesus. She and her people were living under occupation, as they had so many times in their history. Priorities were upside down. The rich got richer and the poor stayed poor. Since she was a woman, Mary was property, owned by her father until he sold her to a husband. And as an unwed mother, she was an object of shame. But in spite of this, when she thought about the child she was carrying, It gave her hope, hope that tomorrow would be better than today. We see hope throughout the Bible, hope for a chance to start over, hope for the world to right itself.  As Miriam said in Exodus, hope that it would be their turn for a change. Hope is what got the Israelites through the wilderness. Hope is what, earlier, gave Abraham and Sarah  the courage to take that first step.  Hope in the midst of despair is what brought Jacob and his family to Egypt, where they were saved from starvation, and got a chance to start over. Hope is what got the exiles in Babylon through all those lonely years, hope that they would one day be able to go home, home to their people and their god. Hope for the future is what the prophet Isaiah envisioned, a time when the people would be able to choose their own ruler from among them, one who would have “the spirit of wisdom and understanding, who would judge the poor with righteousness and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.” Hope is what gave the Jews led by the Maccabees the strength to throw off their bonds, hope that is symbolized in the light of the menorah. They never gave up hope. And here is Mary, as we heard in the reading, singing the same song as the prophets, and Miriam, and Hannah, the song of her ancestors.  A song of hope for her people struggling through yet another season of despair. Mary’s hope is bold. She speaks with confidence, as if what she is hoping for has already happened. She says, “Holy one, you have scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, toppled the ruthless leaders from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.” You have turned the world right-side up again. And when she says to God, “My soul magnifies you,” she is declaring herself a partner in the creation of this future, because she knows that in God’s eyes, she is so much more than what society says she is. Mary pinned her hopes on Jesus, who spent his  life trying to upright the world, to bring attention to unjust laws and systems that preyed on the poor and gave tax breaks to the rich.  He did everything to lift up the lowly and call out the powerful for their actions.  Hope gave him courage and determination, and his actions gave those around him hope. And that hope remained even after he was no longer physically with them. His apostles in the book of Acts set up a new order in the communities they served, where everyone was equal. Mary’s hope, Jesus’ hope, was for justice. Ours is too. And we have reasons for hope even in these dark times. There are real signs of positive change in our world today. The protests this summer changed attitudes and laws and impacted the election. Vice President- elect Kamala Harris, is not only the first woman vice president, she is a black woman, of Indian and Jamaican descent. She brings hope to all of us, especially to women and girls of color. As one 14—year-old said, “It just feels like black girls like me can go for the big things in life like she did.” For the first time in America, the majority accepts that racism is real and a reckoning is due. Ideas that once seemed too radical, like universal health care and universal child care, are being discussed and considered. Our young people are leading us. And they are not afraid. They are determined and committed. There is a momentum that I haven’t seen in my lifetime. Even the church is changing, as progressive voices are demanding to be heard. And people are listening. I am not saying that everything is good, because it’s not. We still have far to go.  But these changes we are seeing bring hope for more change. There is even hope for a covid vaccine coming soon. So that we can hug and sing and eat together. So that we can begin to rebuild and restore our communities. As we heard in the reading from John Pavlovitz, we must look to those who came before us, like Mary, who remained hopeful despite her circumstances, who could have given in to despair but didn’t. They must be our examples, so that we are not overwhelmed by our circumstances, so that we don’t give up when hate and injustice and inequality surround us. They have passed the torch to us. It’s our turn now, our responsibility to carry their hope, to keep it alive and then to pass it on to those who will come after us.

Friday, November 20, 2020

Compassion & Gratitude - Sermon for Week ending November 20, 2020


Mark 5: 25-34 (The Message translation)

A woman who had suffered a condition of hemorrhaging for twelve years—a long succession of physicians had treated her, and treated her badly, taking all her money and leaving her worse off than before—had heard about Jesus. She came up from behind him in a crowd and touched his robe. She was thinking to herself, “If I can put a finger on his robe, I can get well.” The moment she did it, the flow of blood dried up. She could feel the change and knew her plague was over and done with.  At the same moment, he turned around to the crowd and asked, “Who touched my robe?”  His disciples said, “What are you talking about? With this crowd pushing and jostling you, you’re asking, ‘Who touched me?’ Dozens have touched you!” But he went on asking, looking around to see who had done it. The woman, knowing what had happened, knowing she was the one, stepped up in fear and trembling, knelt before him, and gave him the whole story. Jesus said to her, “Daughter, you took a risk of faith, and now you’re healed and whole. Live well, live blessed! Be healed of your plague.”


Since Thanksgiving is almost here, this week, I’m continuing the theme of gratitude and adding her partner, compassion. Thanksgiving this year will most likely be different than it has been before. We won’t be traveling to our family home to gather at a table of abundance for food and fellowship and fun. It might be lonely, but by not gathering this year, our families are giving us the gifts of health and life. And that’s something to be thankful for. We actually have much to be thankful for. We might just have to try a little harder to find it. This year has been filled with so many disappointments, that it would be easy to sink into bitterness and cynicism, and some folks have. But we know from experience that negative mindsets are bad for us, psychologically and even physically. Gratitude though, gives us a positive mindset. Whenever we can find authentic reasons to give thanks, for something that is going right in our personal lives or our world, and put our attention there, scientific studies show us that we are healthier, happier, and more fulfilled. Knowing what we appreciate reminds us what matters most to us, what makes our days worthwhile. One thing I am very thankful for during this pandemic is the Nassau County Health Department, which does free drive-through Covid testing every Thursday and Saturday, making it possible for Cathy and I to occasionally expand our quarantine bubble to include our children and grandchildren, because they are what matter most to us. There was study conducted with adults who have neuromuscular disorders, like parkinsons. One group was instructed to jot down what they were thankful for each night, and the other group wasn’t.  The participants in gratitude group reported more hours of sleep, feeling more refreshed when they awakened, more satisfaction with their lives as a whole, and feeling more connected with others than those in the control group did. It made me think of my nightly prayers as a child, where I thanked God for everyone in my family by name. That might be a practice to get back to. Gratitude changes our perspective. Being grateful for what we have empowers compassion in us. It makes us feel less lonely and isolated, and more connected to and concerned for our neighbor. There’s a song that we will hear in a bit, “Thankful,” by Josh Groban performed by Jane, Clint Weinberg, and Natalie, Pegge, and Earnie Elam, which expresses the  interaction of gratitude and compassion. Here are some of the lyrics: “Sometimes, we forget to look around us. Some days we can’t see the joy that surrounds us So caught up inside ourselves, We take when we should give, So tonight we pray for what we know can be. It’s up to us to be the change. Even with our differences, there’s a place we are all connected. Each of us can find each other’s light. Even though the world needs so much more, there’s so much to be thankful for.” Compassionate acts, science tell us, make us healthier, more alive and alert, more joyful and optimistic. Of course, there is no one with a more grateful and compassionate heart than Jesus was. He healed people’s physical ailments, and he restored them to their rightful place in the community. He gave them their life back. The woman with the hemorrhage that Debbie read about lived at the very margins of society. Her physical and ritual uncleanness made her an untouchable. She risked her life to touch Jesus. She was that desperate. And she was healed and made whole through his compassion. There are so many stories of compassion during the pandemic. Just reading them is an exercise in gratitude. One of my favorites is about nurse practitioner Chandra Matteson, who tends to the homeless in Chicago. Every night since the pandemic began, She dons an N95 mask, safety goggles, and gloves, and travels the city in a medical outreach bus, stopping for an hour or two at a time. She hands out food, checks for coughs and fever, and cleans cuts and scrapes. She said, “These are my patients, and I will take care of them. I didn’t sign up to be part of a pandemic, but I did sign up to help people.” My other favorite is about Ellie Schoader, a traveling nurse from Lexington, who spent 5 weeks at a hospital in Toledo, treating Covid patients. One of them was Bob Green, age 95, who contracted Covid in his assisted living facility. Since contact with family was not allowed, his son David didn’t think he would ever see or speak to his father again. On what turned out to be Bob’s final night, Ellie noticed that he was awake and alert. So she called Bob and asked if he would like to Facetime with him. After they had talked, David asked Ellie if she could set up a Facetime call with his brothers, one in Minnesota, and one in Seattle. And although she was busy with other patients, she did. They all got to see and talk to their father before he died. David called Ellie an angel posing as an ICU nurse, saying, “We didn’t have any kind of agreement with her to call us. She just felt it was a good time to do so.” Gratitude and compassion are the remedy for all the negativity in our lives right now. Being truly grateful for all that we have naturally leads us to want to help, support, and alleviate the suffering of our neighbors. In these dark times, may our light be a light for others. May we do all we can to help change the world for the better. And may we realize that we have so much to be thankful for.


Friday, November 13, 2020

Transitions - Sermon for Week Ending November 13, 2020


The Gift of Years by Joan Chittister.

We are at a crossroads now. We are at the point in life where we must make the kind of decisions that will determine the quality of our remaining years. When we count age as nothing but a series of losses, fear invades our soul. It warns of the time when we will not be as lithe, as steady, as we have always known ourselves to be. It tells me that the self I was is changing, deteriorating. The questions never end: How much longer will I be able to take care of myself? Who will take care of me when I can’t do it anymore? And the major one: Is my life over now? Is there nothing left of the ‘me’ I have always been? Is life now only to be endured rather than lived? Instead of seeing a long life as a gateway to the flowering of the spirit and the growing of the soul, we are far more likely to see it as the coming of a wasteland.

Ecclesiastes 3: 1-8   

To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven:

 a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;

 a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;

 a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

 a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

 a time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;

 a time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

 a time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.


I want to thank my friend Ruth for suggesting the topic of today’s sermon, Transitions, as we are currently in the thralls of so many. It was the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, known for his paradoxical expressions, who said, “The only constant in life is change.” which is so true, but can be so hard on us. In the book of Exodus, the Israelites faced the greatest transition of their lives, when they were liberated from slavery in Egypt and began journeying away from there to what they had been told was a better place. While they were grateful to be free, life in Egypt was all they had ever known. They left everything behind, including their identity. They had no idea where they were going or how long it would take to get there, or how they would survive in the meantime. They were gripped by anxiety and fear, and many times, they wanted to turn back to what they knew. Almost immediately after the journey began, they started to panic, shouting to Moses, “Why didn’t God let us die in comfort in Egypt where we had lamb stew and all the bread we could eat? You’ve brought us out into this wilderness to starve us to death! Later, when Moses appeared to have abandoned them to climb a mountain to get instructions about how to worship a God that they knew nothing about,  they reverted to what they did know, to what brought them comfort. They built an altar to their Egyptian God, El, and started worshipping him. Even when they finally got to their destination, the land of Canaan, they were afraid to go in. There were already people living there.  Would they become slaves again? Would they have to fight for this land they were told was promised to them? It was too much.

They couldn’t do it. Almost all change is fraught with anxiety and fear, especially if we feel like  it was forced on us too quickly, that we weren’t given enough time to process it. The older we get, the more change we experience. divorce; the death of someone we love; a cancer diagnosis;  dementia;  moving to assisted living or a nursing home;  becoming disabled. It’s hard, as we heard in our reading from Sister Joan Chittister, about the transition to old age, where we can’t help but ask, How much longer will I be able to take care of myself? Then what? Is life now only to be endured rather than lived? Our most recent unexpected transition, courtesy of Covid, has been difficult to bear. So much of what we knew changed in an instant.

People lost their jobs, their businesses, their childcare, their homes. The most vulnerable among us live in isolation and die alone. There is almost no human contact, and we humans need contact. We are overwrought, wondering if our lives will ever be what they were before.

We’ve lost the sense of where we fit. What our role is. What the future holds. For some people, it was too much. They wanted so desperately to get back to the lives they had, to something that was familiar, that they risked their lives and other people’s lives and made the whole situation worse. Change is inevitable. Most of it we have no control over. But we can control how we respond. That is our choice. We can grieve for what we have lost until the day we die.

Or stomp through life filled with anger and resentment. Or we can choose to continue to live our lives. We can use our imagination and our creativity to make our days meaningful and joyous. We can explore interests we haven’t had time for before, figure out how to do things differently, rediscover what is most important to us. We can cultivate gratitude, which is easy to have when things are going as planned, but not so easy when they aren’t. But being grateful is a choice we can make. I don’t mean putting on a happy face and pretending that we aren’t suffering. But finding a way to see our experience through a lens of gratitude, to remind ourselves of al that we have been through, all that we have survived, and that we can survive this. The actor Michael J. Fox, who was stricken with Parkinson at age 29, has a new book coming out about the difficulty, physically and emotionally, of living with the disease for almost 30 years. Two years ago, he had surgery for a benign tumor on his spinal cord and had to learn to walk all over again. Four months later he fell, and fractured his arm so badly that it had to be stabilized with 19 pins and a plate. This book came out of those two grueling back to back recoveries. He doesn’t pretend that he is not suffering. At one point he writes, “Absent a chemical intervention, Parkinsons will render me frozen, immobile, stonefaced, and mute.” Yet he still expresses gratitude, for his life, his career, his wife and children and friends, saying that, no matter what happens to him, “with gratitude, his optimism becomes sustainable.” We are suffering, but we are alive. We have food and shelter and people who love us. There is kindness and goodness and Godness all around. As we heard in the verses from Ecclesiastes, change will come. The earth will turn. Day will be followed by night and then by day again.  Everything happens in its own time. May we face it with as much strength, and as much grace and as much gratitude as we can.

Friday, November 6, 2020

A Bigger Table - Sermon for Week ending November 7, 2020


Our first reading is from The Bigger Table, by John Pavlovitz, about the difficult but necessary work of letting go of false beliefs we learned from our childhood religion. 

Biblical deconstruction begins with an uneasy feeling, a nagging question, or a single verse. And once it begins, it’s terrifying, which is why so many Christians are content never looking at the bible too closely or challenging a theological precept too forcefully, not because we don’t feel such things are needed, but because we are afraid of the path they might lead us down. It’s just easier to take a pastor’s word for it and act as though we are fine with that, operating on a sort of existential autopilot that stays safely in the superficial. Finding deeper promptings, even though they might lead us to a truer truth, becomes something we resist with everything we have because we realize just how much work we might have to do, how much dead weight we might have to discard. Most of us default to the position of enjoying the spiritual journey of least resistance.


This week, I’m talking about some of the ideas in this book, A Bigger Table: Building Messy, authentic, and hopeful spiritual community, by Pastor John Pavlovitz. I know some of you read his daily blog.  I have used it for readings. Like many of us, Pavlovitz grew up in a conservative religion, Catholicism, where he says, “God was always hovering overhead, like a stern parent,” making sure he followed the rules and kept away from those who were not as favored by God as he was. The first part of the book is about his journey from there to Progressive Christianity, where he finally realized that much of what he had been taught just wasn’t true. He was helped by moving away from his sheltered life and people who looked and thought like he did to Philadelphia, where he lived alongside people he had once kept at a safe distance, and learned from them that no one is more or less deserving of God’s love. He says, “I had a front row seat to life beyond the edges of the small table of my youth and childhood religion.

That change of environment gave me new eyes to view the world through, and I was seeing like never before.” Once his eyes were opened, he had to leave behind a lot of what he had believed. And that led him to what all of us who have taken that journey have had to do, deconstruct those beliefs and the Bible, which, as we heard in the reading, is never an easy task, but a necessary one if our actual experience no longer matches what we were taught. It’s the only way to live authentically. But many pastors choose not to. They continue to preach what they no longer believe because it is what is expected of them; it is safer. As the title of chapter 5 of this book says, The truth shall get you fired. There aren’t a lot of places like New Vision, where we encourage questioning and acknowledge that our beliefs have changed. It is getting God out of the box that our former religion put God in that frees us to turn our hearts toward people we had been taught have less value than us, and instead embrace all of humanity, to permanently  expand our table to include all God’s people. The table metaphor that Pavlovitz uses, comes, of course, from Jesus’ table ministry, where he used the act of sharing a meal to let people know that they were seen and heard and known and respected, which is what our gospel lesson reflects. Jesus was almost always eating and drinking with someone; the more diverse his table mates, the better. And each time, everyone left with their dignity and worth intact, from the woman with the oil to the tax collector to a Pharisee host.

In the parable Jesus tells, he warns against self-serving hospitality, inviting only those who could return the favor. Instead, he says, extend the invitation to those who can’t.  Give without thought of receiving anything in return. And don’t just look for a few token marginalized or lower caste persons to share your table with. Make sure everyone who is hungry gets enough to eat. That is Jesus’ vision of what the world could be: creating shalom, “giving everyone the same access to wholeness, sustenance, justice, and joy, especially those whose value has been discarded by society.” Jesus was more than anything, relational. He loved being with people.

He gave them unconditional love and radical welcome, a safe space to break bread and share their stories, and experience healing. At that is what we do at New Vision. I saw on my Facebook memories this week that Thursday was my 4th anniversary of becoming a member of the Florida Conference of the United Church of Christ.  And I thought about the first time that Cathy and I walked through the door of New Vision. The radical welcome and unconditional love you all gave us, how you opened your arms and your church and said, “Come on in. Our table is big!” And you have been doing it ever since, to everyone. While so many churches do everything they can to remain insular, because the club they presently have is predictable and safe, you do the opposite. I was watching Brenda reading the parable so beautifully, and I thought, those words are exactly what she does with the homeless ministry that we support.

She gives until everyone has enough. Then she gives them extra in case they meet someone along their way. That is who we are. In these difficult times, when we can’t physically be together and hug one another and enjoy our amazing table fellowship, may we remember who we are together, and  continue to find ways to let all of God’s people know that they are worthy and loved.


New Vision and Progressive Christianity

 New Vision is a Progressive church. That doesn’t mean that you must be progressive to be a member here. It mainly means that your pastor an...