DID YOU MISS CHURCH?
Reverend Betsy Aldrich Garland
Moosup Valley Church UCC
Road to Freedom
September 17, 2017
In this chapter of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus has a lot to say about dealing with conflict and forgiveness, addressing wrongs, and working toward reconciliation. Wherever there are people, there is likely to be conflict – in families, communities, and nations. And Jesus tells us to forgive – a tall order for most of us!
One of the reasons is that we think we have to forgive and forget. That idea apparently originated with a man named Miguel de Cervantes in the late 1500s who said “Let us forget and forgive injuries.” But that’s not what Jesus asks of us. We discussed this at Bible Study on Tuesday and agreed that we need to remember so that we learn from our mistakes. Should we forget the Crusades? Slavery? The Holocaust? How can we? Spanish philosopher George Santayana argued, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” And President John Kennedy said, “Forgive your enemies, but never forget their names.” So let’s not talk about “forgetting,” as if the event, the hurt, the tragedy never happened.
Jesus only asks us to forgive, not forget. How many times? Depending on the translation: 77 times or 70 times 7 which means 490 times. In other words, over and over, as long as it takes. As long as what takes? In the Biblical Greek, “forgive” literally means “to let go.”
If you look up the definition of “forgive” in a dictionary, you find a number of meanings, including pardon, excuse, exonerate, absolve, make allowance for, which may be what we think is expected of us when we hear the word “forgive.” These definitions have more to do with the other person than with the one being asked to forgive. However, there also are other definitions that are closer to the Greek “to let go,” such as stop feeling angry or resentful toward someone for an offense that they have committed, or harbor no grudge, definitions which are about the emotional impact on the one forgiving rather than on the one forgiven.
Two years ago, Dylann Roof, a young man who hoped to ignite a race war, walked into Bible Study at Emanuel African Methodist Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and shot nine people, including the pastor. And within hours, family members of some of those killed said that they forgave him. Wait! I thought, you are still in shock. The country is still in shock! Are you forgiving Dylann Roof because you have been told to forgive? Because you think Christians are supposed to forgive?
A mother named Scarlett Lewis lost her 6-year-old son Jesse in the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, one of 20 children killed. Their parents were devastated, of course, and at first Scarlett’s anger at the shooter, sapped all of her energy and strength. Then she made the choice to forgive. And she said, “Forgiveness felt like I was given a big pair of scissors,” which helped her cut her tie to the shooter and regain her personal power. “It started with a choice,” she said, “and then became a process.” At her son’s funeral, she urged mourners to change their angry thoughts into loving ones. She saw this shift as a way to change the world. Forgiveness is good for us. That’s why Jesus recommends it!
Timothy Merrill, author of Learning to Fall: A Guide for the Spiritually Clumsy, writes
“Too often we think forgiveness is important, even critical, because of how it affects the
person being forgiven. No, it is not important for only that reason.
“Forgiveness is important because it primarily benefits the one offering the forgiveness.
Forgiveness only benefits the one being forgiven IF that person is repentant, wants to
reconcile, is willing to provide restitution and, has asked for absolution. Otherwise,
forgiveness is about YOU.
And Merrill goes on to say,
“ …Henry Ward Beecher said in his Life Thoughts that being able to forgive but not forget is
just another way of saying “I cannot forgive.” Beecher is wrong. Forgiveness is not saying
‘Forget it.’ Forgiveness is not saying ‘I forget.’ Forgiveness is not saying ‘It’s okay.’ Rather,
forgiveness is saying ‘I’m okay.’ And I am willing to let God deal with whether you are okay,
and I am also willing to let go of my need to be the tool of correction and rebuke in your life.
“Forgiveness is not saying ‘I no longer feel the pain.’ Rather, forgiveness is saying ‘I no
longer feel the need to hold on to your involvement in my pain.’”
Forgiving one who has caused us pain is our road to freedom. It can be, of course, a tall order, and forgiving one who has wronged us, who has caused us disappointment, who has made our lives difficult or caused us sorrow, may take time.
But not doing so, studies find, leaves us with a chemical reaction in the body known as “the stress response,” when adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine enter the body, limiting creativity and problem-solving, leading us to feel helpless and like a victim. Forgiving may not happen overnight; it may take time; it may even take professional help. But forgive we must for our own health.
And so I have three questions this morning. And I’ll give us a minute or so to think quietly after I’ve asked the questions. They are difficult, and this morning only starts the process.
The first: Whom do you need to forgive? What offense to you or those you love, do you need to forgive? What do you need to let go of to be free?
Question two: From whom do you need to seek forgiveness? To whom do you need to go and ask his or her forgiveness of your offense? What do you need to acknowledge that you have said or done in order for you to be free?
And the third: For what do you need to forgive yourself in order to be free?
“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” we say when we pray the Lord’s Prayer. How often? Until we are free, Jesus tells us.
May it be so! Amen.
 As reported in Homiletics magazine, September/October 2017.
Moosup Valley Church UCC
The Most Important Story of Your Life
September 10, 2017
We continue today in Paul’s letter to his little house church that he founded in Rome because it seems like a good scripture to study when a church is rethinking its mission – about who it is now and what it is called to be and do.
Two weeks ago we were in chapter 12 where Paul proposes that the church is like a body in which every part is needed for the body to be whole and the delegation of responsibility should be based on one’s gifts, not on roles and position in the larger society. And last week we continued in chapter 12 with core values and how we discern them together. These values can be found in our mission statement.
Today we move to chapter 13 for advice on how to make a life worth living. The first churches were synagogues, but as missionaries like Paul traveled across the Greek and Roman world, these little house churches attracted Gentiles as well, and so a big question was whether one had to follow Jewish laws in order to be Christian. How many laws? More than 600 – dietary laws, purity laws, Sabbath laws…. Paul simplifies the laws by proposing that there is one overarching law, love. Love your neighbor as yourself.
However, this also makes it harder because we have to think about what is loving in a given situation. We have to apply the standard of love. An offering for Texas? Of course? Food for DHS? No question! But what about DACA / Dreamers? What is loving in this situation? We say we welcome everyone, but how about people who don’t look like us?
So we may have a good mission statement, faithful to who we are and how we understand our calling, but living the mission is another matter. We may profess to believe a good many things, but in reality what we believe is the very substance and inspiration of our character, our actions in the world. Who we really are is less about what we say, the words we have on paper, and more about what we do – how we live as a congregation and as individuals.
Homiletics magazine tells the story about Tom Vartabedian who worked as a local newspaper reporter for 50 years in Haverhill, MA. One of his jobs was to write obituaries, and he wrote thousands over the years. He even taught a class for senior citizens about how to write their own obituary, and urged them include anything that is important to them as a person. And last year he wrote his own, about six months before he died.
As a minister, I write a fair number of obituaries. And I try to capture the character and qualities of the person. Who was she really? What was the core of his life? What did they love? What mattered most to her or him? What hardships were overcome? How would others capture the essence of someone? I listen to the stories that families tell, not only for the words spoken but for those that linger between the lines. These are the most important stories of our lives. Not the degrees earned, or the hours worked, or the salary earned, or the books written.
So what’s your story? The apostle Paul tells his congregation that their time to love is quickly running out. “Salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers,” he writes, so we’d better seize every opportunity to love our neighbors.
The first key is to make good choices every day in how we treat others. Lay aside works of darkness, Paul says. How have you turned your life around? How have you mentored others through life’s difficulties? We don’t have to be perfect. The challenge is to “put on Jesus,” which means to see the world through the eyes of Jesus, to be his hands and feet.
Each of us is writing our own obituary with the choices we make each day in how we interact with our families, our co-workers, our neighbors.
This week I’ve been writing the memorial service for my cousin. Barbara had been a professor of social work at UCONN, specializing in child welfare. She was concerned about migrant workers and the conditions in the fields. She was an advocate for immigrants’ rights, for women’s rights, for children’s rights.
Barbara was not a religious person in the conventional sense, not a member of a church or synagogue – although she was respectful of those who are people of faith. I don’t know what she believed. We never talked about faith.
What I do know was that there was no better follower of the Ancient Prophets who called for humility, for justice and mercy for all, for right relationships with others. Her husband Larry noted that friends said she was always thinking of the other person, their comfort, their needs. Once, years ago, at Thanksgiving dinner, I had to leave to go to work at my nursing job, and the weather had turned cold. I didn’t have a warm coat, and Barbara insisted I take hers. I wore it for years.
What I do know is that there was no better follower of the Way of Jesus, of the one who cared for the poor and the outcast, for women and children, for the least of these. When Barbara retired, she joined the board of A Better Chance House in Guilford mentoring minority students who were trying to get a good education to get into college.
So what’s your story, my story? What are our gifts that God has given us to use on behalf of others? What are our core values? What do we really believe about life and how it should be lived and cared for? What choices are you making each day – am I making each day – that will create the core of a live worth living and an obituary worth reading?
May it be so. Amen!
Moosup Valley Church UCC
Conscience and Core Values
September 3, 2017
Today’s text is a tall order! This letter is about love and harmony. What, do you suppose, prompted the Apostle Paul to write it to his little house church in Rome? What stories must have gotten back to him from the mission field?
These little churches, which were spread all across the empire, were very different from the world around them. They were made up of people from all walks of life and all stations in society – rich and poor, free and slave, men and women. They were full of diversity. And that makes getting along difficult. Imagine the chaos and conflict! Who is in charge? How to make decisions? As you can expect, there was considerable quarreling, and there were lots of church fights.
Somehow, they must have lost touch with – or never really understood and internalized – an essential teaching of Jesus, one at the core of the Gospel. What is the greatest commandment, according to Jesus? “Love the Lord your God.” And the second? “Love your neighbor as yourself.” How do we do that? What does it mean?
Paul takes steps to make neighbor-love more explicit, and he counsels his little house church on what it means to be Christian disciples, on the right way of being and acting in a faith community, on establishing life-giving values, attitudes and behaviors, on getting along, on what makes for peace. He urges them to love one another – not in the romantic sense but in the way that God loves – by caring for the poor, welcoming the stranger, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, caring for the least of these . . . .
Those early Christians must have been puzzled, confused, upset, resistant. Life was full of trouble enough. Now they are asked to give up their grudges, their prejudices, their places in the world’s pecking order, and their old hurts and to act as if they love each other! I imagine they weren’t always happy when the mail arrived from whatever city (or jail) Paul was writing from!
I suspect the list of qualities and behaviors that emerged in the early church, the values that made the church so different from the society around it, didn’t come from Paul alone. I suspect they were thought about and argued about and agreed to by the members of the little house churches who knew they were going to survive only if they treated each other the way Jesus had treated them.
I suspect that the values that guided the early church were developed in community, by the community, for the community. Very few people come to know something without collaborating with others, without talking it over, without watching what works and what doesn’t. Moral decisions, more often than not, are group decisions.
Which brings me to “conscience.” The word conscience, from the Latin conscientia, is formed from two words: con, meaning together, and science, meaning knowing. The true meaning of “conscience” is knowing together.
So “conscience” is not really the little imp on your shoulder who just whispered, “You’ll get into trouble if you steal it!” or “Don’t speak to your mother like that!” or “You’ll feel guilty if you take that piece of cake!” Conscience in the most original sense is not one’s own inner voice but the our ability to think and act with each other’s help about what is good and loving and true, about what is right and what is wrong. One of the benefits of coming to church is to reset our moral compass – to remind each other – of the life-giving values of Jesus, of the core values that make for community.
This love that Paul writes about has little to do with emotion. Instead, the love Paul writes about has to do with behavior rather than feelings. How do our families, the members of our churches, our neighbors, the clerk at the store, the kids in the classroom know they are loved? Not by how we feel about them! But by how we treat them! Loving, respecting, honoring each other – as Paul says – that is what transforms a community.
Genuine love is hard work. Being patient in suffering asks a lot of us. Living in harmony with one another can be challenging. Overcoming evil with good takes courage and perseverance. Extending hospitality to strangers takes us out of our comfort zone. But it is in these ways that the Apostle Paul encourages us “to outdo one another in showing honor.”
This is good news for our little churches in the country. When the “role is called up yonder” as the old hymn says, we will be judged not by the height of our steeples, the number of our members, the size of our budgets, the voice of our preachers, or the sophistication of our programs.
We will be judged only on how well we love each other and on how well we serve the One whom we call the Christ.
May it be so!
OUR SERMON POSTINGS WILL CONTINUE !!
Moosup Valley Church
Our Mission Is Reflecting the Light
August 20, 2017
On the Island of Crete, next to the mass graves of Germans and Cretans, who fought each other so bitterly in World War II, there is an Institute for Peace which has become a source of bridge-building between the two countries. It was founded by Alexander Papaderos, a teacher of Greek culture, politician, doctor of philosophy and a remarkably complete human being. What kind of vision motivates a man like Papaderos to transcend the focus on the individual self and dedicate his life to compassion and peace?
“When I was a small child,” he said, “during the war we were poor and lived in a remote village. One day, on the road, I found the broken pieces of a mirror. A German motorcycle had been wrecked in that place. I kept one, the largest piece. … By scratching it on a stone, I made it round. I began to play with it as a toy and became fascinated by the fact that I could reflect light into dark places where the sun would never shine – in deep holes and crevices and dark closets. It became a game for me to get light into the most inaccessible places I could find.
“I kept the little mirror, and as I went about my growing up, I would take it out in idle moments and continue the challenge of the game. As I became [mature], I grew to understand that this was a metaphor for what I might do with my life. I came to understand that I am not the light or the source of light. But light, truth, understanding, knowledge – is there, and it will shine in many dark places only if I reflect it.”
Jesus said, “I am the Light of the Word.” Our role, as disciples, is to reflect that Light into all the dark places – in our families, in our community, in the larger world. Essentially that is the mission of every church. And if we change some things in some people, perhaps others may see and do likewise.
May it be so!
 The Papaderos quotes were taken from an online article from Homiletics published on August 16.
Moosup Valley Church UCC
Wheat and Weeds
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
August 6, 2017
This week’s parable about wheat and weeds appears only in Matthew, probably remembered because the writer of Matthew was reflecting on what his church was experiencing toward the end of the first century. As the early church spread beyond Jerusalem into the wider world and became more diverse, welcoming Gentiles as well as Jews, it was hard to tell which missionaries had the best interests of the churches at heart, which theologies were in line with Jesus’ teaching, which leaders to trust and which to ignore. In the parable, the field represents the world, in which two kinds of seeds have been sown: good seed and bad seed, wheat and weeds, or “tares,” to use the King James translation.
Wheat and weeds. Several years ago, Kim bought a bag of wild flowers from Amazon and scattered them at our house in Oakland Beach – outside the picket fence and along the stone wall. In the beginning, the flowers have attracted finches and butterflies and honey bees, but now it has become something of a tangled mess. On my evening walk, I stop to observe the garden and think I should weed. But which is the flower and which is the weed? Should I pull this one? Our neighbor, a master gardener, offers advice. “That’s a weed,” she will point out. “Yes, but it has pretty blue flowers,” I’ll say!
Who decides what is a flower and what is a nuisance needing to be plucked? What is wheat? And what is weed? What’s the difference? Homiletics magazine suggests that “Wheat is always in the row where you planted it, whereas weeds will be scattered all over, especially between the rows. Wheat follows the rules, obeys the farmer’s commands, grows where the farmer has planted it.
Weeds on the other hand, according to Homiletics, are renegades, exist all over, obey no ‘rules’ and grow wherever they want” – which prompts me to say, “Good for those weeds!” If nobody questioned authority, pushed the boundaries, stepped out of line, where would we be? Back in the Dark Ages? And sometimes weeds turn into valuable sources of cancer-fighting drugs, or high protein food sources that can feed the world. Problem children turn into successful entrepreneurs because they see the world differently from those who toe the proverbial line. So, let’s be careful about whom we call a weed!
The field of psychology tells us that every person contains good seed and bad seed, good impulses and evil impulses. The Apostle Paul certainly knew that when he wrote to the Romans, “I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (7:15). In the ancient world, one was either good or bad – wheat or weed – but today we recognize that we’re all a mixed bag of both good seed and bad seed. Shakespeare knew evil was always mixed with good when he wrote in Act IV of “Henry V” – “There is some soul of goodness in things evil, Would men observingly distil it out.”
Swiss psychologist Carl Jung, writing a century ago, wrote about our unconscious, an interest he shared with Freud. We all have a shadow side, a dark side. So, part of our life journey, our human development, is mining the shadow. There is understanding to be found there.
What is wheat and what is weed?
Of course, good and evil are not that simple. People and issues are complex. Today, we recognize that we are shaped by our genes, our childhoods, our experiences. Some of us grew up in a stable family, were wanted and loved and supported, and guided by nurturing adults. Some of us were abused as children, were shamed in the classroom, and got in with a bad crowd in the neighborhood.
But regardless of how we grew up, life is hard for all of us at one time or another. Just getting up in the morning and going to work can be a challenge. Keeping our temper in check can take a lot of self-control. Dispelling the demons can be all-consuming – and not just for one who battles mental illness.
Jesus knew this. And he called forth everyone’s goodness, built on their strengths. He ate with tax collectors. Healed those with infirmities. Forgave the woman caught in adultery.
Wheat and weeds. The slaves saw the weeds mixed in with the wheat and responded by asking the householder: Master, shall we gather them up? They were told to let them grow together until the harvest when it would be easier to separate them. Why did they need to wait? The weeds in this parable referred to darnel, a semi-poisonous weed that closely resembles wheat in the early development stages. Because the wheat and darnel plants resemble each other so closely, hand weeding is next to impossible. Further complicating the problem is the fact that, as the wheat and darnel plants mature, their roots intertwine.” And so it is with us.
“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” we pray. Each of us is some mixture of wheat and weed, of holy and unholy, of loving and unloving actions, of potentially fruitful and potentially destructive behaviors.
Sometimes it’s hard to tell one from the other in our complex world. In today’s story, Jesus cautions against rushing to judgment. And yet sometimes we must.
Now, a sermon needs to be relevant – not just a little Bible study or a few thoughts for the week. What does this text mean to us today? How might we apply it to today’s issues?
A news story this week makes my point about the complexity of our lives and the difficulty in judging each other. Michelle Carter, 17, urges/goads her boyfriend to kill himself. Conrad Roy, 18, gets back in the truck and dies of CO poisoning. The judge sentences Michelle to 15 months in prison for involuntary manslaughter.
What would you have done if you were the judge? Does this parable shed any light? Open discussion …. [No one right answer, but is there a better answer based on today’s parable?]
 Homiletics, July – August 2011, page 34.
Moosup Valley Church UCC
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
July 23, 2017
Jesus says the Kingdom of Heaven – that is, what God is like – is like five ordinary things used in ordinary ways – a tiny mustard seed sown in a field, a batch of yeast in a woman’s kitchen, a treasure hidden in a field, a fine pearl in a merchants wares, a net full of fish – common things to those he taught.
Common to those who lived two thousand years ago. Most of us don’t make our living by farming or fishing or baking. So we have to stretch our imaginations to understand what Jesus is preaching; we have to “think outside the boxes” we live in.
It’s interesting to note that Jesus is not talking about a God who is up there in a seventh-story heaven, or out there in the universe somewhere, but about a God who is right here, in our midst. Jesus is not talking about God as “Lord” and “King,” but about God-the-farmer working the heavenly field or a woman baking bread for her community. Jesus is not talking about a God who is beyond our reach but about a God who lives in our midst when we are working in the garden, baking a blueberry pie for our friends, making financial decisions for our family.
The Gospel of Matthew paints a picture of a down-to-earth God, a God who identifies with ordinary people doing ordinary things – a tenant farmer, a housewife, a fisherman – going about their business. In these ordinary treasures, we find the kingdom of heaven. What a revelation!
We have been taught to imagine heaven as pearly gates and golden streets, fluffy white clouds, angels singing glorias, and not a spec of the ordinary to be found. But no, the kingdom of heaven that Jesus teaches has to do with getting our hands dirty bringing forth ordinary treasures – like working in the garden to feed not only our family but also needy people in Foster, or kneading three measures of flour into dough, enough to bring communion to everyone in the Larger Parish.
As Christians, we are taught to believe in the incarnation, God with us, the mystery of the divine and human coming together in the person of Jesus Christ, God’s son, literally, God embodied in Jesus.
In his parables, Jesus provides a different understanding from that of the orthodox theologians: Jesus points to the divine beyond himself and onto the world around him – and onto ordinary people like us who find treasures in the ordinary stuff of life, and in fact, who are the ordinary treasure.
In other words, let’s not wait to get to heaven; let’s make our heaven, find our treasure, be the treasure right here where we are, in the midst of our ordinary lives. “The kingdom of heaven is like” the most common things in human life. Like Jesus himself, in our ordinary, everyday world we find the sacred connection of the divine and the human, if only we have “eyes to see and ears to hear.”
This is not a new theme in Matthew. Remember when Jesus came out of the wilderness, after his 40 days apart, he proclaimed, “The kingdom of heaven has come near” (3:2), and he demonstrates that nearness every time he heals someone, reaches out to outcasts like tax collectors, respects the personhood of women, and cares for the poor.
The kingdom of heaven that Jesus preaches is one in which God is also incarnate in us, you and me, in our ordinary lives. If God can turn a mustard seed into a tree of life for the birds, and yeast into food for the neighborhood, just think what God can do with you and me!
After the parables about the mustard seed and the leaven in the flour, Jesus tells two more “the-kingdom-of-heaven-is-like” parables about a treasure in a field and a pearl of great value that the seekers desired so much that they were willing to give up everything else to have these.
We might wonder, then, how our churches are like small treasures in our communities. And what would you and I be willing to give up to have us be fully-realized as the kingdom of heaven on earth?
And he tells a parable about bringing in the nets full of all kinds of fish and separating the good fish from the bad fish, the life-giving behaviors from the unloving behaviors. And Jesus ends with a reminder that, a truly wise person recognizes that there is good to be found in the old treasure, but also good to be found in the new treasure.
This is a reminder of John Robinson’s Farewell Sermon to the Pilgrims – our church forefathers and mothers – as they were about to set sail from Plymouth, England: “. . . [God] has more truth and light yet to break forth out of his holy word.”
Two weeks ago, I quoted a theologian who observed that the purpose of parables is “to tease the mind into active thought.” We could say the same of poets.
UCC minister and poet Maren Tirabassi writes,
Come to me bulldozing God,
and treasure my field,
full of artifacts and potatoes.
Dig the hidden
in the ordinary soil.
Come to me bird-watching God,
you will find the branches
A mustard seed of faith
grows to a place
of many wings.
Come to me fish-netting God,
cast your wide love which
draws in without judgment.
All fish written
in the dirt
are a sign for Christ.
Come to me bread-baking God,
give yeast for my rising.
knead the warm dough.
Bake the sweet smell
that always sings
the end of hunger.
Come to me pearl-hunting God,
dive my depths,
open my shell.
Find the place of past intrusion
where translucent beauty forms layers
around sharp pain.
Come to me parable-telling God,
with images to say you love me,
until your word-palette
paints new meaning
into my life.
May it be so.
 Maren Tirabassi, An Improbable Gift of Blessing (Cleveland, Ohio: United Church Press, 1998), page 161.
Moosup Valley Church, UCC
Sowing the Seeds of Abundance
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
July 16, 2014
This beloved story about the sower gives a preacher a lot to think about: Who is the sower? Is it Jesus, and by extension, God? Or is the sower one of Jesus’ disciples? Could the sower be you – or me? And what kinds of seeds are being thrown? Are they seeds of the gospel of love? Or are they the seeds of discord and strife? And what do we make of the four kinds of soils – hardened, shallow, thorny and good – and the difference in the yields?
Jesus taught in parables, the purpose of which, as theologian C.H. Dodd observed, is to “tease the mind into active thought.” So, how is Jesus “teasing the mind” of his hearers beside the lake then, and how is he teasing our minds now?
This parable – which also appears in the gospels of mark and Luke – is known by different names: the parable of the Four Soils, and the parable of the Miraculous Yields. Matthew sandwiches it in between stories of opposition and misunderstanding of Jesus’ ministry. Is that a clue? On the surface, this parable is about the free-handedness of the sower and the fate of the seeds, depending on where they fall. Jesus notes that, the kind of soil determines the success of the farmer’s crop.
His listeners, of course, would have understood this story. They were an agricultural people, like some of you; they, too, went out to sow. But how do we interpret it? Why is Jesus telling this story? Moreover, why does the gospel find hospitable space – good soil – to grow among some people but not among others? And the flip side? What are the necessary conditions for fruitful discipleship? How do we grow God’s love in the world? With what understanding and perseverance? With what soil?
In first century Palestine, farmers would throw the seed first and then plow it in. Farmers today would see that as wasteful. We plow first and then drop the seed into the prepared ground where it has a good chance of sprouting. Then we water and fertilize and weed to ensure success, and in the next year or two, we rotate crops so as not to deplete the soil. Today’s farmers often are business men and women; they plan for the plentiful outcomes. They choose the best seed carefully, and they don’t waste it on poor soil.
Not so in ancient Palestine – nor, I realize, in our lives in the 21st century: Jesus knew the hard soil of his hometown as the people of Nazareth reject him. We see the hopelessness of the homeless who can’t find a decent place to live, and the fear of parents with a sick child and no health insurance, and the frustration of those who want to work and can’t find a decent job with living wages, because their cries for help have fallen on the path of hard soil at the legislature.
Just so, every business owner who produces a quality product and pays employees a living wage knows the shallow ground of customers who go where things are cheaper. We all know the heartbreak of raising teenagers who get pregnant, or experiment with drugs, or drive too fast and kill someone, and our words of warning have been choked by the weeds of cockiness, or fallen on the rocky soil of peer pressure.
And every preacher casts the seeds of her sermon, with no guarantee of what kind of soil they will find, and where they will take root and where they will wither. We know that our odds are no better than the sower’s. And surely you and I know that, even in the best of soils in our collective lives, there are disappointment and heartbreak and tragedy.
So perhaps we might entertain the possibility that this story is bigger than just good business practices, or the nature of the various soils, or the quality of the discipleship. These are important, yes! But perhaps we can learn something this morning from watching the sower: He throws the seed “willy nilly,” on rocky, barren soil and good soil alike. Might this suggest that anywhere and everywhere is within the arena of God’s care and redemptive activity – yes, even in our broken lives and estranged families?
One commentator that I read in preparation for this morning told about his experience visiting a detention center for wayward youth with a group of civic leaders – lawyers, politicians, journalists – as they were learning about the criminal justice system. He writes of the landscape marked by wire-mesh gates and padlocks, and razor wire and electrified fences, of the door which clanged shut behind them, the same door that would shut with finality behind adolescents – children – when they were escorted there! He notes that they were led through the facility, floor by floor, to see classrooms where teaching was attempted, holding cells where new inmates were processed, courtrooms where trials were held.
At the end of the tour, late in the afternoon, they were shown down one bleak hall where young offenders lived in cells with steel doors and narrow slots about two-third of the way up. Behind each of the doors eyes were watching. Some of these children had been accused of major crimes; some of them were repeat offenders. Most of them had had no nurture in their young lives, no family who cared about them, no adult, no neighborhood, no church to offer guidance. It was hard not to notice the eyes. He lingered at one door and whispered, “God loves you.” What happened next, he would never know. Did the news fall on the path to get eaten by birds? Did it get choked by thorns?
Finally, toward the end of the tour, the brokenness got to one member of the group who stopped in the hall and began to cry. When the young judge who was leading the tour noticed, she stopped her commentary and went back and put her arms around that person, and with tears in her own eyes, said, “I know. I understand.” It was then that the religious leader thought to himself, “If I am ever to be judged, I want a judge like that.” And then it dawned on him, that, like a seed thrown onto his path, he has a judge like that, and he caught a glimpse of God’s mercy.
The Holy One, the Sower, is like the judge in today’s text. The parable of the Sower is a riddle that tells us as much about God as it hides from us. This parable is not so much about good soil as it is about a good Sower. The Sower whom we seek this morning is not so cautious and strategic as to throw the seed only in those places where the chances for growth are best. No, this Sower is a high-risk sower, relentless in throwing seed everywhere, as if it were potentially all good soil.
We see examples of God’s abundant life all around us: Dandelions push up through cracks in the sidewalk and a tree sprouts in a crevice and spreads its roots over the boulder. Seed thrown on the rocks, amid the thorns, on the well-worn path, even in a jail.
“Which [might] leads us [this morning] to wonder if there is any place or any circumstance in which God’s seed cannot sprout and take root,” yes, even in our midst!
May it be so! Amen.
 As told in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary by Theodore J. Wardlaw (Year A, Volume 3), page 240-241.
Moosup Valley Church UCC
A Cup of Cold Water
July 2, 2017
Our scripture for today is about compassionate welcome – hospitality – as a form of service to Christ. Matthew, the writer of this gospel, is remembering how Jesus taught the importance of welcoming the stranger. It sounds familiar to us because we remember the passage in Matthew 25 about feeding the hungry, bringing water to the thirsty, clothing the naked, and, when we have done so, we have tended to Jesus. Remember, “When did we see you hungry and thirsty and give you food and drink?” And Jesus’ answer was, “When you did it unto the least of these, you did it to me.”
This story would have been important to the early church as it spread out across the empire. Missionaries were traveling from city to city and from one little house church to another. Providing hospitality was essential, whether they were a prophet, or a righteous missionary, or even a simple person, a “little one,” who comes in the name of Christ.
Hospitality in the ancient world meant more than what we commonly think of when we talk about hospitality today. When we have a visitor to our church, we assume we are offering a “holy welcome” if we greet him or her with “Good Morning” and a handshake. But hospitality in Jesus time, meant taking someone in, washing his feet, putting a robe across his shoulders, and sharing a meal. And he probably was going to stay for a few weeks or months at a time. Hospitality was a commitment – a sign of discipleship.
Notice, further, that Jesus asks us to offer a “cup of cold water,” not just a cup of water. Not a cup of water from the earthenware jar that had been sitting gathering dust from the road all day, warming up as the sun grows higher in the sky. No, Jesus wants the water to be cold. That means the woman has to walk to the well, perhaps a mile down the road, let down the bucket for the second time that day, and walk back to the house with it balanced on her head. In other words, Jesus knows that hospitality may mean going out of our way, doing extra work,
So what does this text mean for us here at Moosup Valley? A century ago, this Meeting House was the center of the community, a place for people to gather, to learn, and to socialize. According to Churches of Foster: A History of Religious Life in Rural Rhode Island, the building “reflected the desire of the community to erect a suitable place ‘as we need [it] for divine services, Lectures, Sabbath schools, Singing schools, [to be] near the Vestry [school].” “Sixty-five subscribers pledged contributions of money, materials, and labor.”
The history continues, “Although the Meeting House was separate from any organized church, the Moosup Valley Association specified in its constitution that the Christian denomination ‘Shall have the use of the House two Sabbaths in each month . . . the remaining Sabbaths in each month shall be open for worship, or lectures, to any denomination.’” So this Meeting House has always been more than a church and always more than a church for just the Christians. It was a place of hospitality for everyone. It was a neighborhood center.
Times change. People no longer need a community center they can walk to. Cars race down Moosup Valley Road at speeds unimaginable in days when people travelled by buggy. And instead of one central meeting place, neighbors far and near meet on the internet. Yet we know that people are hungry for community, for connection, for meaning in our fast-paced world. How might Moosup Valley Church offer “a cup of cold water” to that world?
Jesus insists that “holy welcome” – hospitality – is what makes us disciples. Sometimes that holy welcome is provided to people that we like and who also like us. And sometimes that holy welcome needs to be provided to people who are needy, or who are very different from us, or alienated from us, people whom we might not even like – or who don’t like us. And sometimes to people who think church is irrelevant. We all like to play it safe, to spend time with people who are like us, to stay in our comfort zone.
And then Jesus arrives and says, “Take that love for family, that love for your closest community, and extend it, extend it further and further still. Welcome in the stranger. Welcome in the one whose life you hardly understand. Not to change them, but simply because they, too, are God’s.”
Our work is to reach out and to welcome, to give a cup of cool water on a hot summer day. Our reward, Jesus says, will be full indeed!
May it be so.