Scripture - Mark 9:30-37; Proverbs 31:10-31
30They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” 32But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
33Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
Proverbs 31:10-31 (read from https://www.sefaria.org/Proverbs.31.10?ven=The_Rashi_Ketuvim_by_Rabbi_Shraga_Silverstein&lang=en&with=Translations&lang2=en)
Ok, folks- how many of those characteristics could you check off the list, either for you or your spouse?
Kind of daunting, isn’t it? I mean, what a laundry list of household management, economic investments, fashion designer, late-to-bed-and-early-to-rise, not to mention her personal characteristics of generosity and wisdom. Whew. I mean - there is no way that I can compare here and if I find a person who lives up to this standard, I’m going to sit them down and ask them to teach me how to balance it all.
While this is one way to read the passage, we’re invited to look at it a different way as well. Proverbs is part of Wisdom Literature in the (along with books like Job or Psalms or Ecclesiastes or the Song of Songs) and throughout the book, the author personifies wisdom as a woman. She is the force in this book of scripture that was present at creation, a partner with God in creating the order of things (read Proverbs 8 for a lovely poetic description). So in this poetic sense, perhaps the “she” that’s referred to here - the “woman of valor” mentioned in verse 10 - isn’t just an ideal individual - but a personification of something else. What if we looked at the church in this light? Certain strains of Christian tradition refer to the church as “the Bride of Christ” - with the thought being that within the relationship between God and the Church, communities are invited to embody values that work in partnership with God, mirroring God’s presence, desires for justice, readiness for action, and steadfast lovingkindness in the world.
Even if we took this as a laundry list of values for individual Christians, we’d all fall short - but if we look at it as virtues and characteristics for the Church as a whole - the body of Christ, of which we are all members - then the whole body can carry and embody these things together.
AnaYelsi, writing at enfleshed, draws these points out: “As the bride of Christ, how are we as a community of believers living out the virtues of Proverbs 31, and what does our community need to do to look more like a Helpmeet [a partner] of God?”
She starts out her reflection with some very interesting questions - for example, “how many of our churches are so noble in character that the members of our community are moved to respect and praise God at our city gates? Are they able to speak of the good we do, the harm we prevent, the portions we provide and the wisdom we speak? Are we recognized for our laughter and the strength of our communities, not just the charm of our buildings?”
These are important questions for us to ponder as we consider how we carry ourselves forward as the Chebeague Community Church.
We talk a lot about welcome and belonging and we spend a lot of time holding out our welcoming statement, and ensuring that folks know that there is a space for belonging here. These are words that I would wager many in our community are familiar with - that on the whole, people connected to our island know that we say that we want to embody that kind of welcoming culture - and we’ve put our money where our proverbial mouth is in that regard in a pretty big way.
This is where our Mark passage dovetails nicely with our reading from Proverbs, even if on the surface they seem like two very disconnected passages. In this story, the disciples are bickering - as they are wont to do - over who is the greatest. Who is the best. Who has got it going on over all the other disciples. Maybe they were ticking off some biblical qualities personified in the psalms about kingship or leadership and who exemplified them the best. Jesus, keen on what they were discussing, talks about greatness not as the best...but as service to others, taking a backseat. In some ways, much like our woman of valor’s service to her household...much like the Church’s service to God. And then Jesus takes a child, and says 37“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
And in this welcome - it’s not one of being nice or kind. It’s not a welcome to create a safe space of belonging or because it’s the right and polite thing to do. As Debie Thomas at Journey with Jesus writes, Jesus challenges: “Do you want to see what God looks like? Do you want to find God’s stand-in, hidden here among you? Are you curious about the truest nature of divine greatness? Then welcome the child. Welcome the child, and you welcome God.”
This isn’t the only time that Jesus makes welcome of children or the sick or the stranger or the imprisoned or the marginalized a direct comparison to experiencing God’s presence. Welcoming the Other - in this particular case, the child - is how you welcome God.
We welcome others not because we are loving or generous - we welcome others because we want to see what God looks like...and in that encounter, God shapes us into the community we are called and invited to be.
Both our Proverbs and Mark passages list these all these values and virtues - welcoming, intentionality of service, commitment to work and wisdom, not for self-acclaimed greatness or for making us strive for some unattainable goal - but to remind us that everything we are and everything we do is in service to God’s greater work and unfolding in the world.
Our work as the church isn’t to be great - it’s to be faithful. It isn’t to build up ourselves, but to be reflections of God - and lead others into that awareness of God’s presence. It isn’t to look out for ourselves, but to look out for the most vulnerable among us. Our work isn’t about self-preservation, but to partner with God for the work of the kin-dom among us.
If we keep these things in mind - that we do this work together for the sake of God’s greater work in the world, I think we’ll find the answers to the questions that we posed earlier...that we’ll be a community of radical welcome, of humble service, and great joy - that we will be “an inclusive, diverse and caring Christian community: worshipping, praying, witnessing, reaching out to all people on the Island and beyond, daring to grow and change as God calls us.”
May it be so for us as we grow together as the Chebeague Community Church. Amen.
Scripture - Selections from Isaiah 43
Readier 1: 43 But now thus says the Lord,
he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
Reader 2: 5 Do not fear, for I am with you;
I will bring your offspring from the east,
and from the west I will gather you;
6 I will say to the north, “Give them up,”
and to the south, “Do not withhold;
bring my sons from far away
and my daughters from the end of the earth--
7 everyone who is called by my name,
whom I created for my glory,
whom I formed and made.”
Reader 3: 8 Bring forth the people who are blind, yet have eyes,
who are deaf, yet have ears!
9 Let all the nations gather together,
and let the peoples assemble.
Who among them declared this,
and foretold to us the former things?
Let them bring their witnesses to justify them,
and let them hear and say, “It is true.”
10 You are my witnesses, says the Lord,
and my servant whom I have chosen,
so that you may know and believe me
and understand that I am he.
Reader 4: 16 Thus says the Lord,
who makes a way in the sea,
a path in the mighty waters,
17 who brings out chariot and horse,
army and warrior;
they lie down, they cannot rise,
they are extinguished, quenched like a wick:
18 Do not remember the former things,
or consider the things of old.
19 I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.
20 The wild animals will honor me,
the jackals and the ostriches;
for I give water in the wilderness,
rivers in the desert,
to give drink to my chosen people,
21 the people whom I formed for myself
so that they might declare my praise.
In the early part of the 19th century, Methodist missionaries visited Casco Bay. The story goes that the island matriarch was removed - “excommunicated” - from the Congregational church when she joined the Methodists. They held class meetings and built a small meetinghouse. There were 19 members in 1814 - members of the Hamiltons, Bennets, Curits, Hutchinsons, and other families. Most of those 19 members were connected to the Hamiltons. I bet that some of you in this room can trace your family back to some of those people who started something new over 200 years ago.
God is about to do a new thing - it springs forth - do you perceive it?
Things change and evolve. Families move on and off island, children are born and grow old, elders pass from this world to live on in memory and story. Legacies are forged, a heritage is fashioned, and roots deepen to nurture and feed the growth that buds on the tips of leaves and that pushes out the bark of the widening trunk. It is doubtful that any one of those people part of that first Methodist class meeting 200 years ago envisioned where we’d be today - but the seeds of this beginning have been nurtured from generation to generation - always blossoming, growing, changing, and dying - passed down in songs and story and ritual, some forgotten, some adapted, some fresh and new.
God is about to do a new thing - it springs forth - do you perceive it?
The community that first heard our passage from Isaiah was a community in transition - they were the descendents of those who had been taken away from Jerusalem when the Babylonians conquered Judah. They were a people who had grown up in a foreign land, but who had heard the stories of how God had brought the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt - a people that had passed through the waters and experienced the challenges of settling in a new land. The people hearing these words would have most likely understood the reason for their exile as God’s judgment upon their ancestors and struggled with what faithfulness as God’s people meant.
God is about to do a new thing - it springs forth - do you perceive it?
God led the Hebrew people out from slavery and formed them into a new kind of community before entering the Promised Land - in this way, God did a new thing among them. That was part of the Israelites’ story. And now, in our text, we see God’s desire to gather the exiles back to Jerusalem and yet again fashion them into a new kind of community - and that all the trials and struggles they endured through their time of captivity - the waters and the fire, the uncertainties and anxieties, the disorientation and wonderings - God was yet present with them...and was making a way for the next phase of their life together.
God is about to do a new thing - it springs forth - do you perceive it?
I think about that with our own journey - about how God’s new thing worked in an island matriarch to start a class meeting here over 200 years ago...about how we are the heirs of the love and labor of the various incarnations of church here on this island throughout the generations - about how the church is never about individual people or pastors but is always about A People, living and breathing and working and loving together - A People bound and journeying together, open to being made and remade in God’s own image - A People claimed in the waters of baptism and who covenant together for the work of God’s unfolding kin-dom in this time and in this place.
And that’s where we stand - at the threshold of something new -- even as we inherit the legacy of the church past -- knowing that we have been entrusted to partner with Christ in the work of peace and justice -- knowing that we do so to pass the seeds of hope and love to those who will receive it 200 years from now.
God is about to do a new thing - it springs forth - do you perceive it?
Part of being able to perceive God’s action in the world is through remembering - remembering that we are baptized - that we are God’s people, that God has fashioned us, claimed us, that God has redeemed us, called us by name, that we belong to God...and because we belong to God, we belong to each other. We have gone through the waters of baptism, we have been sealed with the flame of the Holy Spirit. We are not held back by obligation to the past even as we give thanks and acknowledge our history - but we are not bound by it, proclaims our God.
And so as we are here as a people - even though we’re not in the same space, ready for God’s new thing - even though we may not know fully where that leads yet - to remember that we are baptized, to reaffirm our commitment to God and to each other,
Today we come to the waters,
to renew our commitments in each other's presence
to Christ who has raised us,
the Spirit who has birthed us,
and the Creator who is making all things new.
Scripture James 1:17-27, Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
James 1:17-27 (New Revised Standard Version)
17 Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. 18 In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.
19 You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20 for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. 21 Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.
22 But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. 23 For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; 24 for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. 25 But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.
26 If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 (New Revised Standard Version)
Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, 2they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. 3(For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) 5So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” 6He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
7in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’
8You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”
14Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”
21For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
I’m sure that many of you have heard the phrase, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” I know it’s a mantra that I learned as a child, and one that I’m sure a well meaning adult taught me to help insulate myself from the boys who would tease me on the playground and call me names or the other kids who would make fun of my clothes. Yes, I was one of those kids that was mercilessly picked on in late elementary and early middle school, and I always wished I had that superpower that I know some of you have that can dismiss someone’s hurtful or mean comments as not affecting you and I have to say that I deeply admire the good boundaries those of you who can do this demonstrate.
Because the truth of it is - words can hurt us. Words can wound and demean and make us feel worthless. Words can also build us up and empower us and affirm us. What we say - and how we say it - comes out of who we are at our core. Out of the heart.
The other phrase that came to mind for me was the one “actions speak louder than words.” The Christian version of this is attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, “preach the gospel at all times, and when necessary use words” - we won’t unpack the nuances of that particular statement for this morning. Suffice to say that the power of words - and the power of actions play key roles in both our passages from Scripture this morning.
To start with Jesus, here he is having yet another conversation with the Pharisees, who have been critiquing his followers for not following the purity code. They weren’t following the prescriptions for ritual washing as observant Jews were expected to do. These codes and laws were meant to help preserve identity and tradition in the midst of a secular landscape - in this case, occupied Roman territory. The performance of these rituals helped define who was “in” and who was “out” - who is clean or unclean, who is part of “God’s people” and who is a Gentile or pagan. The Pharisees taught adherence to these codes, thinking that it is these practices and rituals, passed down from their elders and their elders’ elders and their elders’ elders’ elders as sacred tradition. Jesus laments that the Pharisees are missing the point - that they emphasize, in the words of Debie Thomas at Journey with Jesus, rite over mercy, heritage over hospitality, ritual over compassion….that these actions take priority over the freedom of loving God and neighbor fully.
Even in this, Jesus doesn’t condemn them in their rule-following or in their desire for cleanliness before God - but notes that it isn’t what is on our hands or on our food or dishes that can defile - that can make us unclean or impure - but what comes out of us - the evil intentions that arise within our hearts are the problem.
James also takes the time to talk about what comes out of us - words and actions - and using the language that Jesus used, noted that the actions that are undefiled before God are care for others - the orphans and widows, and to let our actions be sourced in God’s generous love - every generous act of giving with every perfect gift, coming from above, coming as its source, from God’s heart.
In addition, James focuses specifically on words - knowing that words reveal something important about who we are - our beliefs, our motivations, our emotions - and expose us primarily to others, but also lead us to a greater awareness of ourselves. (For example, the more words you know that describe emotions, the greater capacity you have to understand and differentiate your emotional state of being).
Words have so much power - they describe, name, blame, label, convict, lecture, explain, persuade, condole, console, counsel, eviscerate, heal - words can alarm, harm, uplift, inspire, degrade, or silence someone. In the language of James and Jesus - words can defile if they come out of that place of evil intention...words can also lead to healing and wholeness. Words can delineate - who is in and who is out….or words can liberate - setting all of us free.
Where words have power, for James, actions give those words weight and meaning - they give our words life, they are the framework that underpins what we say, they are the means by which we are measured - there needs to be consistency between what we say and what we do...and for both James and Jesus, as we are drawn more deeply into the life of the kingdom, God becomes more fully the source of our words and actions, that we, in the language of John Wesley, are made more perfect in love.
I think we know how hard that can be - even as we tend to look down upon the Pharisees and think that we wouldn’t make the same mistakes - that we wouldn’t mistake religiosity for true authentic worship (that we would never say the “right” words and perform the “right” actions but live lives out of alignment with God’s love and purposes).
But we do - all the time. We cling to old traditions, we set up religious litmus-tests. We draw lines in the sand. We use words to hurt and injure. This is why we confess our sin each week in worship (and hopefully more often personally) to be honest with ourselves and with each other and with God so that our words and actions - so that our lives can be more in tune with God’s kingdom...and so that our words and actions can be truly life giving for others… and for ourselves.
All we need to do is pay attention - the advice Jesus - and James - give is to notice what comes out of you. Notice your words. Notice your actions. Are they in alignment? Do they lead to hospitality and inclusion? Greater compassion and freedom? Do they, as Debie Thomas writes, “lead other people to feel loved and welcomed at God’s table? Make you brave, creative, and joyful? Prepare your mind and body for a God who is always doing something fresh and new? Facilitate another step forward in your spiritual evolution?
Or do they make you small, stingy, and bored? Fearful, suspicious, withholding, and judgmental?”
Moreover, we can ask these questions of ourselves as a faith community - we have words of welcome - do our actions and decisions as a church, especially as we soon move into a new phase of being as the Chebeague Community Church, lead us to make accommodations so that all are welcome? Do our times of worship, prayer, and study equip us to practice what James calls “pure religion” - radical love for those on the edges and a deep trust in a God who is always creating all things new?
These are questions that invite us into a life of reflection - of paying attention, of discernment, of noting God’s movement in our life and in our church as we seek to become the people God created us to be. In that journey, we will be drawn ever more fully into the Source of all that is, the heart of God’s love, and we will find ourselves in that place where we are, as James puts it, “doers of the word” “practicers of pure religion” or as Jesus might name it, a place where our hearts are close to his. My prayer for us as we move forward today is that we find ways, with God’s help, to continually place our words and our actions before God - that they may be used to build a community of compassion and peace, forgiveness and hope, healing and justice. That we may move beyond our purity politics and religious litmus tests and to offer welcome at the Table for all who are hungry. That we may notice the kin-dom of God inbreaking among us and among this community...and in our world, and so be part of God’s redeeming work in this world. May it be so on this day and as we move forward together. Amen.
Scripture Ruth 1:1-22
Ruth 1:1-22 (New Revised Standard Version)
1 In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and two sons. 2 The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion; they were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. 3 But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. 4 These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. When they had lived there about ten years, 5 both Mahlon and Chilion also died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.
6 Then she started to return with her daughters-in-law from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab that the Lord had considered his people and given them food. 7 So she set out from the place where she had been living, she and her two daughters-in-law, and they went on their way to go back to the land of Judah. 8 But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back each of you to your mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. 9 The Lord grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.” Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud. 10 They said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.” 11 But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? 12 Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons, 13 would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me.” 14 Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.
15 So she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” 16 But Ruth said,
“Do not press me to leave you
or to turn back from following you!
Where you go, I will go;
where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
and your God my God.
Where you die, I will die--
there will I be buried.
May the Lord do thus and so to me,
and more as well,
if even death parts me from you!”
18 When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.
19 So the two of them went on until they came to Bethlehem. When they came to Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them; and the women said, “Is this Naomi?” 20 She said to them,
“Call me no longer Naomi,
call me Mara,
for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me.
I went away full,
but the Lord has brought me back empty;
why call me Naomi
when the Lord has dealt harshly with me,
and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?”
22 So Naomi returned together with Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, who came back with her from the country of Moab. They came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest.
To get us started exploring this last question - the “where do we go from here?” question, let’s take a look at what Rev. Aisha Brooks-Johnson has to say - she’s the Executive Presbyter for the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta that serves more than 80 congregations and more than 20 new worshipping communities. We’ll hear what she has to share around what it means to journey together.
“Where do we go from here?”
It was early 2015. The church we had come to Haverhill to plant had ended. Ben and I were both feeling burnt out from giving our lives over to the ministry we had cultivated in that city, and were grieving the loss of a dream, the loss of vocation, the loss of a job that we had trained years for, had gone to school for. That question, “where do we go from here?” was heavily on our minds as we weighed options. We wrestled and struggled and prayed over that question so many times. So many future possibilities fanned out in front of us - from Ben getting a PhD from Boston University and building a life in Boston or other United Methodist seminary to remaining in Haverhill and finding jobs to make enough to live -- except staying in the place where our vision for a new way of being faith community had died really wasn’t a viable option - the wounds were still too fresh to imagine living and thriving there. I really struggled living in that ambiguous time when the next steps were so unclear. There seemed to be no clear path forward except for selling our dream house and moving back north to Maine and applying for any job in the Portland area that would take us.
You all know how that story ends.
Or I think back February of this year - when we all knew that our values as a church and the commitment to the full life and participation of our LGBT siblings were in conflict with the stance of the wider United Methodist Church. We had been in a discernment process about our relationship with the denomination for months - and the time had come to answer the question - “where do we go from here?” - a question that involved hours of conversations and questions and prayer that led us to take steps toward disaffiliation - a process that will come to an end in the near future.
“Where do we go from here?”
Though this might be the last question in our summer series, it certainly isn’t the last question meant to wrap up conversation, or the question that places a period on an on-going dialogue. The question “where do we go from here?” implies a journey - a commitment to continue to explore together what might come next as we seek the invitation God has for us. It is a question of discernment, that challenges us to take stock of all that we have heard and shared and consider the promptings of the Holy Spirit nudging us forward into something new -- and I think it must be something new, because we wouldn’t be asking the question “where do we go from here” if we didn’t have an inkling that God might have something different for us on the horizon….whether that’s going to something completely new...or going into something familiar with a fresh perspective based on transformative conversations.
“Where do we go from here?” is also a question of orientation - you have to fully know the here you’re in - at least well enough to take the steps toward whatever is next - and it’s also a question of movement...of purpose and intention...even if the answer to that question is to get a better sense of where “here” is!
I think the story of Ruth and Naomi from our reading this morning is a beautiful example of what can happen when we take the time to ponder that question with one another.
The catalyzing event in this tale is that the two sons of the late Elimelech - Mahlon and Chilion - died. Naomi, her husband Elimelech, and sons, came to Moab due to a famine in Bethlehem, and while living there, her sons married women native to Moab. After the death of her sons, Naomi, Elimelech’s widow, is left in a foreign land with her two daughters-in-law. Hearing that there was food once again in Bethlehem, she decides to return home. Both of her daughter-in-laws decide to join her in her journey home, but she manages to persuade one of them to stay in Moab, in her native land. Ruth, on the other hand, will not acquiesce to Naomi’s pleas.
It sounds like they are at an impasse. “Where do we go from here?” Naomi clearly wants her daughter in law Ruth to have a life and a future back where Ruth originally came from - and Ruth is determined to follow and bind herself to Naomi as Naomi travels back to her native land. I have to wonder if in some way if there weren’t some points of tension and frustration that arose in that dialogue as they navigated their differing perspectives. In the midst of Naomi’s grief and pain, Ruth remains steadfastly grounded, committing herself to being present with Naomi into an unknown future, binding herself to live, work, and worship alongside her mother-in-law from that moment until death. She not only takes on this deep relationship with Naomi, she commits to a new people, a new faith, a new identity.
The two women don’t know what the future will hold. Naomi is so steeped in her grief she wishes to be known as “Mara” - “bitter” upon returning to her homeland. But even in that place, Ruth is steadfast.
What does it look like for us to live out that same depth of relationship as we consider our community...our country...our world? What would it look like to be that committed to others in the face of grief...of pain...of oppression...of marginalization...of suffering?
I love the oaths that Rev. Aisha Brooks-Johnson shares in the study guide. She invites us to imagine a member of the human family, and speak the words:
By the mercy of God and because of God’s grace, we are bound to one another. Your pain is not your own but is now my pain. The plight of your people is held in my hands and my heart as if they were my own. Where you journey and work, I too, will journey and work alongside you, with God’s help. Where your bones are buried, may I too, find a resting place and declare every earthly resting place sacred in the eyes of God.
I can envision a whole host of people to be in solidarity with - people whose livelihoods will be impacted by climate devastation - I am sure there are people in our own community who will feel the weight of that, indigenous people whose voices have been silenced for generations, Black people who continue to struggle in the midst of racial injustice, people who are mourning in the wake of COVID-19, our youth and children those who are lonely and isolated - take a look, for a moment, at our prayer list - and all that we lift up in prayer to God each week together.
“Where do we go from here” is a question that fosters hope and imagination. It leads us to look beyond ourselves and to commit to deep relationships and solidarity. It leads us to bear witness to pain and grief and suffering - and joy and celebration and triumph - of those around us. It honors the journey of what has gone before - and honors the journey that is yet to come.
My prayer is that as we in the next few weeks encounter our own “where do we go from here” moment - that day we separate from the UMC and officially become the Chebeague Community Church - that it might be an opportunity for us to bind ourselves together in this radical new way of journeying (as we see lifted up in our story about Ruth and Naomi) - and an opportunity for us to radically commit ourselves in deep ways to sharing the love of God in our community - to encountering Jesus in the most unlikely of places - to sensing the movement of the Holy Spirit out and about in our neighborhoods and our world - to be a courageous people willing to engage directly with compassionate hearts, with brave vulnerability, with generous spirits - so that as we work and live and talk together, we can glimpse hope and joy and beauty - and become more fully the people of faith -- the community of faith -- the community church -- God created us to be. Amen.
Scriptures 1 Samuel 1:1-18, Mark 5:21-43
*Melissa: Make note about Samuel reading - Our first text for this morning addresses a pain that many women and many couples experience - that of infertility. I know that this journey, as well as that of miscarriage and child loss, is not one that is talked about openly in many spaces - including the church, and so I want to honor and acknowledge that this story may touch a tender place for some of you. Likewise, the story of the woman who touched Jesus’s robe in our gospel text also deals with reproductive health, again, an area that can bring up painful feelings. If this is something you or a loved one have suffered or are suffering right now, please reach out to me if you need someone to sit or connect with. Know that I see you and that you are not alone in this.
1 Samuel 1:1-18 (New Revised Standard Version) - EmilyThere was a certain man of Ramathaim, a Zuphite from the hill country of Ephraim, whose name was Elkanah son of Jeroham son of Elihu son of Tohu son of Zuph, an Ephraimite. 2 He had two wives; the name of the one was Hannah, and the name of the other Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children.
3 Now this man used to go up year by year from his town to worship and to sacrifice to the Lord of hosts at Shiloh, where the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were priests of the Lord. 4 On the day when Elkanah sacrificed, he would give portions to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters; 5 but to Hannah he gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the Lord had closed her womb. 6 Her rival used to provoke her severely, to irritate her, because the Lord had closed her womb. 7 So it went on year by year; as often as she went up to the house of the Lord, she used to provoke her. Therefore Hannah wept and would not eat. 8 Her husband Elkanah said to her, “Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?”
9 After they had eaten and drunk at Shiloh, Hannah rose and presented herself before the Lord. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the Lord. 10 She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly. 11 She made this vow: “O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head.”
12 As she continued praying before the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. 13 Hannah was praying silently; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard; therefore Eli thought she was drunk. 14 So Eli said to her, “How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine.” 15 But Hannah answered, “No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. 16 Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.” 17 Then Eli answered, “Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.” 18 And she said, “Let your servant find favor in your sight.” Then the woman went to her quarters, ate and drank with her husband, and her countenance was sad no longer.
Mark 5:21-43 (The Message) - Ed21-24 After Jesus crossed over by boat, a large crowd met him at the seaside. One of the meeting-place leaders named Jairus came. When he saw Jesus, he fell to his knees, beside himself as he begged, “My dear daughter is at death’s door. Come and lay hands on her so she will get well and live.” Jesus went with him, the whole crowd tagging along, pushing and jostling him.
25-29 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 slipped in from behind 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.
30 At the same moment, Jesus felt energy discharging from him. He turned around to the crowd and asked, “Who touched my robe?”
31 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!”
32-33 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.
34 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.”
* * *
35 While he was still talking, some people came from the leader’s house and told him, “Your daughter is dead. Why bother the Teacher any more?”
36 Jesus overheard what they were talking about and said to the leader, “Don’t listen to them; just trust me.”
37-40 He permitted no one to go in with him except Peter, James, and John. They entered the leader’s house and pushed their way through the gossips looking for a story and neighbors bringing in casseroles. Jesus was abrupt: “Why all this busybody grief and gossip? This child isn’t dead; she’s sleeping.” Provoked to sarcasm, they told him he didn’t know what he was talking about.
40-43 But when he had sent them all out, he took the child’s father and mother, along with his companions, and entered the child’s room. He clasped the girl’s hand and said, “Talitha koum,” which means, “Little girl, get up.” At that, she was up and walking around! This girl was twelve years of age. They, of course, were all beside themselves with joy. He gave them strict orders that no one was to know what had taken place in that room. Then he said, “Give her something to eat.”
Where does it hurt?
Being a parent of two small children, I ask this question a lot. I joke that at Genevieve’s age, she has all of the mobility and none of the discretion, which, of course, leads to countless numbers of scrapes, bumps, and falls. Sometimes the source of the pain is obvious; sometimes it isn’t.
Sometimes, the pain isn’t physical - it’s anger as I won’t let her do everything she wants to do, frustration as she can’t always figure out how to do the things she wants to do, sadness as she can’t snuggle with me or Ben or her brother.
As we grow, so do the places of pain. Michael, of course, still gets plenty of owies (some of which a kiss will still solve) - but also those places of hurt on the inside grow. I’m so thankful that right now, I have a kid who will answer the question “where does it hurt” when that hurt is on the inside, and who feels safe with Ben and I when talking about his feelings - even when it’s Mom or Dad who hurt them.
Where does it hurt?
I think sometimes, we don’t like to acknowledge that we carry pain inside of us. Or maybe we do acknowledge it, but we minimize our own suffering because it’s not as bad as what someone else is carrying. Or we try to put it in perspective by counting our blessings and by keeping our minds on all the good things in our life to cover up the parts we’d rather not look at - we oftentimes distract and deny our suffering - discounting it as not worth our attention.
Perhaps we hide our suffering and pain for other reasons - maybe we believe deep down that our pain is shameful, that other people really don’t want to hear about it (I mean, how many times has someone asked - even genuinely - “how are you?” and your response was “fine!” or “ok” - we all know that we do that, even with those we care about).
But we all experience pain - job loss, the medical diagnosis - or lack thereof - miscarriages or abortions or the death of a child, coming to terms with our sexual idenity and wondering if others will embrace us, being betrayed by friends or family, the loss of loved ones, the lingering experience of trauma - the list can go on and on. No one pain is more or less valid than another - all pain is legitimate and real - and as we bear witness to the pain of another, it helps us cultivate compassionate hearts that allow us both to be compassionate about the pain we experience ourselves and that allow us to be compassionate to others.
I see this dynamic played out in both of our stories for this morning - both of our stories center women with struggles related to reproductive health. Hannah’s pain is continually dismissed and mocked by Penninah. Elknah, Hannah’s husband, cannot understand why Hannah is upset, thinking that his love - the double portion of the sacrifice to God in the Temple - his affection and care and attention - should be the balm to soothe her pain. Even Eli the priest dismisses her prayers as drunkenness. Her pain is rooted in not being seen - she is whole just as she is - but those around her blame, mislabel, and misunderstand her.
Instead of turning away in dejection, she bravely addresses Eli, sharing that she has been naming her pain before God. And to Eli’s credit, he doesn’t try to fix or solve Hannah’s problem - because he can’t - but he is able to bear witness to her pain - to be present with her….and to be present with her before God. Hannah is able to trust God with her wounds - and from that, she is able to trust Eli with her suffering as well. Her pain has been noticed; she is not alone in her suffering. She finds peace in knowing that her pain has been noticed and she has not gone by the wayside.
Likewise with the woman that comes to Jesus for healing, after suffering for 12 years from doctors who wouldn’t take her seriously, who took advantage of her situation and left her destitute, who left her worse off than before - talk about dismissing and belittling someone else’s pain. (As a side note - as a whole, when men and women express the same amount of pain to a doctor, women’s pain is considered less intense based on gender stereotypes that study came out in April of this year in the Journal of Pain.)
Jesus doesn’t dismiss or deny her as she reaches out to claim healing. Jesus stops, is present to her, acknowledges her suffering and her story - even as the disciples try to dismiss the power of what has happened with the press of bodies in the crowd. Jesus listens to the outpouring from this woman - and even as her physical body was healed, her restoration also comes from being fully seen and known by Jesus, who in acknowledging her pain, also acknowledged her humanity.
Where does it hurt?
Friends, everyone carries hurt. We all have wounds and scars - some fresh and some faint with the passage of time. We’ve all experienced seasons when it felt like no one else understood what we were going through - perhaps even seasons when we’ve raged and shouted at God in the midst of our suffering. We’ve also journeyed through times of trial with people who have acknowledged and witnessed our pain - and we’ve known what a difference that can make. We all have that capacity within us to bear witness - to show up and be present - not to fix or to solve, but merely to hold space - for others in their sorrow.
As part of our faith, we believe God is present to us in those moments as well, that God draws close to us in our times of suffering - even when we’re feeling so hurt and abandoned that we rage at the divine. God sees us and knows us and loves us - so much so that God became one of us to experience our life - to know our joys and know our sorrows as an enfleshed and embodied being. We can be honest about where it hurts before God because God knows what that pain is like - not in a distant, far off knowing or in an empathetic show of solidarity - but because God physically experienced pain and suffering - hurt and betrayal, grief and shame, being misunderstood and denied, even the journey with death. With God as witness to our pain -- so too can we bear witness to the pain of others. In this we can know that we are not alone.
Bearing witness to the suffering of another means that we aren’t there to offer trite platitudes - the “it will all be OK” or “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.” It implies that God is the cause of our suffering, or that our suffering isn’t truly valid at this moment because the end goal is this future without whatever is causing us pain right now. It means that we aren’t there to fix it either - unless that person wants us to help them problem-solve. When we move too quickly to the questions of “helping” or “fixing” which are good intentioned things to ask because we don’t like to see other people hurting...but if we skip to that point without allowing the other person to be seen or heard, what we inadvertently do is place ourselves at the center of the other person’s pain - it becomes about what we can do and not about what the other person is experiencing.
When we ask here does it hurt...and when we listen for their response...when we see and hear their pain...we do so with an open heart, with no agenda other than to be present. We can express our sorrow that whatever is happening is causing the other person pain and grief. We can express gratitude for the other person bravely sharing their story with us. Depending on the relationship, we can ask questions about where their experience of God has been in the midst of it all. We can say, “I can hear how difficult and painful this is for you - what of this might I be able to bring before God in prayer?”
Where does it hurt?
I invite us this week to carry that question with us - and to consider both that question for yourself and for others around you. Where does the world hurt? Where does our community hurt? What pain has been ignored, silenced, or unacknowledged - and what does it look like to acknowledge that pain - for individuals or for the collective - without trying to fix or solve - but simply to see and hold space for that suffering?
May each of us this week be challenged by God to go deeper with those questions us - listening to the hurt and pain of those around us...sharing and being heard and carried in kind...and may our courageous conversations lead us to glimpse hope, joy, and beauty -- and may our courageous conversations lead us to become the community God created us to be. Amen.
Scriptures Genesis 2:4b-15, John 1:35-51
Genesis 2:4b-15 (New Revised Standard Version)4 This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, when the Lord God made the earth and the heavens.
5 Now no shrub had yet appeared on the earth and no plant had yet sprung up, for the Lord God had not sent rain on the earth and there was no one to work the ground, 6 but streams came up from the earth and watered the whole surface of the ground. 7 Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.
8 Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. 9 The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
10 A river watering the garden flowed from Eden; from there it was separated into four headwaters. 11 The name of the first is the Pishon; it winds through the entire land of Havilah, where there is gold. 12 (The gold of that land is good; aromatic resin and onyx are also there.) 13 The name of the second river is the Gihon; it winds through the entire land of Cush. 14 The name of the third river is the Tigris; it runs along the east side of Ashur. And the fourth river is the Euphrates.
15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.
John 1:35-51 (Common English Bible)35 The next day John was standing again with two of his disciples. 36 When he saw Jesus walking along he said, “Look! The Lamb of God!” 37 The two disciples heard what he said, and they followed Jesus.
38 When Jesus turned and saw them following, he asked, “What are you looking for?”
They said, “Rabbi (which is translated Teacher), where are you staying?”
39 He replied, “Come and see.” So they went and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon.
40 One of the two disciples who heard what John said and followed Jesus was Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter. 41 He first found his own brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah”. 42 He led him to Jesus.
Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon, son of John. You will be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).
43 The next day Jesus wanted to go into Galilee, and he found Philip. Jesus said to him, “Follow me.” 44 Philip was from Bethsaida, the hometown of Andrew and Peter.
45 Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law and the Prophets: Jesus, Joseph’s son, from Nazareth.”
46 Nathanael responded, “Can anything from Nazareth be good?”
Philip said, “Come and see.”
47 Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said about him, “Here is a genuine Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”
48 Nathanael asked him, “How do you know me?”
Jesus answered, “Before Philip called you, I saw you under the fig tree.”
49 Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are God’s Son. You are the king of Israel.”
50 Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these! 51 I assure you that you will see heaven open and God’s angels going up to heaven and down to earth on the Human One.”
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from watching the Facebook conversation about street signs on Chebeague unfold over the past couple of weeks, it’s this - even people who are from Chebeague have different understandings of what it means to be from Chebeague...and who have different points of reference - whether you had your formative years here in the 1930s… or the 1960s... or the 1980s.
For those not on social media - or who have had these conversations in other areas of their life instead of online - the presence of street signs on the major Chebeague roads has been one of great debate - and have surfaced fears around the changing demographics of this community, fears around suburbanization, as well as surfacing other values, like street signs don’t change how we care about each other. There’s been points made about people who are “from away” not understanding how things used to be or about how everyone should embrace the necessity to adapt with the times. It’s been messy and and polarizing in some aspects and highlighted to me just how much our perspectives are shaped by experiences and our particular locations in life - and so the question “where are you from” isn’t just about place or geography, but, like Dr. Nadella references, also about stories and values that made us who we are today.
Likewise, we all carry assumptions and judgments about others that can surface as we hear about where someone is from. When we take the time to hear the stories and experiences that accompany this question, we can acknowledge, disrupt, and release these automatic assumptions we make of others.
The goal is to build connection and trust - and to do that, we need to listen to each other’s stories to learn who and what has shaped us - and we also need to feel seen and known for who we are. Curiosity is a two-way street, as was mentioned in the video. And in this, we can acknowledge both the particularity of our identities - for example, my story as a white girl from Maine who has a Masters Degree - and the common ground we share - like that all of us here have some connection to Chebeague and common love of this place.
The two stories we heard this morning from scripture point to our shared creation and call - and how sometimes we need to disrupt our assumptions (how can anything good come from Nazareth?) to remind ourselves of that fact. Genesis paints this picture of mutuality - the creation story we claim as ours in the Christian tradition depicts a God with hands in the dirt, fashioning the human beings out of the mud, out of the soil, out of the very earth. There’s a charge to care for the land that Adam was made out of - and the story is very specific around the geographic bounds of that land. There’s a symbiosis here between the waters and the land and the human being made from the mixture of the two - and God breathing life into the midst of it all. Where are you from? All of us are of the earth...of the stars...beloved of God.
If the first story reminds us to reflect on our common humanity, our second story invites us to embrace our differences, noticing how our assumptions about people may need to be disrupted - particularly our assumptions about those who are from different places, who may dress or look differently, who may hold different values or think differently than we do.
Suspending our assumptions is a hard thing to do - especially when our culture reinforces stereotypes and unconscious biases go unchallenged in our news media and our television and movies. In our polarized country, narratives about “the other side” prevent us from being curious and actually engaging in conversation with those who hold different values. How did they come to hold such a position? What experience did they have that shaped them into the person they are?
That’s why Jesus’s invitation of “come and see” - an invitation that Phlip later offers to the skeptical Nathanael - gives an opportunity to stop and engage - that two-way street curiosity.
So in some ways, I feel like this street sign saga that has unfolded on Facebook and in conversations here and there around the island, is a perfect lens for us to practice staying curious - to not jump to conclusions because of where someone is from or not from - and to genuinely listen one another’s perspective, giving rise to a deeper understanding of one another - and giving an opportunity for healing and wholeness through being seen and heard and valued.
It reminds me of the poem that Rev. Sarah Are wrote for this week, entitled “We Are Not Strangers” - where in conversation around our particularities and our identities we can discover the common ground that sustains us and ties us together - that binds us together it ways that are deeper than street signs or being from away or growing up here or there or your political allegiances or your country of origin. Her poem goes like this:
If you ask me where I’m from,
I’ll tell you about the South--
about sweet tea, church pews,
slow drawls, sultry summers.
And if you pause,
then I may go on to tell you
how I’m from a family of preachers,
how I stand on the shoulders of generations
who believed that love could be the answer.
And if you’re still listening even then,
I’ll tell you that I’m from strong women
with tall spines who have carried the weight
of inequality on their backs with children on their laps.
And then I’ll tell you about
the kitchens that I’m from,
which have always cooked enough
food for unexpected guests—just in case.
Or I could tell you about the car
that carried us into the mountains, summer after summer
so that we could breathe again.
That’s part of where I’m from.
And if you haven’t given up yet,
then I may even mention the dirt--
the earth that catches me,
the earth that holds me.
The earth that reminds me of growth.
The earth that will eventually welcome me home.
You and I aren’t really strangers after all.
May each of us this week be challenged by God to go deeper with those around us - listening to the stories that have made each other who we are...sharing and being heard and carried in kind...may our courageous conversations lead us to glimpse hope, joy, and beauty -- and to become the community God created us to be. Amen.
Ezekiel 17:22-24; Mark 4:26-34
Ezekiel 17:22-2422Thus says the Lord God: I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of a cedar; I will set it out. I will break off a tender one from the topmost of its young twigs; I myself will plant it on a high and lofty mountain. 23On the mountain height of Israel I will plant it, in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit, and become a noble cedar. Under it every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind. 24All the trees of the field shall know that I am the Lord. I bring low the high tree, I make high the low tree; I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish. I the Lord have spoken; I will accomplish it.
Mark 4:26-3426He also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, 27and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. 28The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. 29But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”
30He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 31It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
33With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; 34he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.
I started my garden a couple weeks ago. At the time I had hoped to soon finish the second bed and plant the seeds that have been lovingly saved and passed on to me by some farmer friends of mine - seeds that we all took the time to bless a few weeks ago in worship...but as you can see, nothing to that affect as yet been accomplished. A few seeds that I hope still to plant are favorites - wax beans and kale, and a few are new attempts - cucumbers and cauliflower and delicata squash. I know at school, Michael took some time with his class to plant beans on the side of a clear cup so they could watch the seed break open and sprout - he probably knows the parts of a plant better than I do!
The passages of scripture this week talk about God’s action and initiative, the unfolding of the kingdom, and our place in the midst of it all.
I have to be honest and say I wish I was a bit more like our sleepy gardener in our Mark passage - throwing seed on the ground and reveling in the mystery of sprouts unfurling toward the sun. I am someone who would make my plants grow by force, if I could (not, of course, that I have the time to put in all the proper effort and research that such an undertaking would entail). I like results - to see the fruits of my labors, to know - for certain - that if I put in the proper inputs, I would receive the proper outputs. I can control the outcome.
What our passages show, however, is that the outcome is anything but under our control. Of course we know that for a plant to grow, it has to be in the proper environment and have opportunity to thrive. Of course we know that a tiny mustard seed doesn’t produce a ginormous tree. The hearers of these parables would have known that as well - and have been perplexed by Jesus’s assertions that the kingdom is like this careless farmer or that the kingdom is like this miracle tree. The point is that the growth - the kingdom - isn’t dependent upon us and our efforts of forcing it to be. God’s kingdom happens even when people would expect nothing to grow out of what has been sown. God’s kingdom happens when we expect one thing - a barren field from slipshod planting or a mustard plant - and get another - a bountiful harvest or a tree that provides shelter for all. (Nevermind the fact that in Jesus’ day, a mustard plant would never be something any self-respecting farmer would have sown - it’s a weed and would have taken over anyone’s field). It’s a sentiment that is echoed in the Ezekiel text - God taking sprigs from trees and making dry trees flourish and drying out thriving trees, making a home for birds of all kinds.
God’s kingdom is unexpected, uncontrollable, and unfolds in ways we have no good grasp on - it’s unmeasurable and unknowable, deep and mysterious. It takes our well-laid plans - or perhaps our not well-thought-out ones, and turns them on its head. It takes our securities and comforts and invites us to challenge our assumptions. It takes our sorrows and hurts and wounds and turns them into places of harvest and abundance.
On Easter - we talked of death and resurrection and spent some time reflecting on the things in our lives that have died and what resurrection work God may do in the year ahead. Death and resurrection are all part of kingdom work - after all, who would have expected God to raise Jesus from the dead after three days?
We wrote on seed paper crosses to name and acknowledge those deaths as well as to name and acknowledge the growth and hope and resurrection God brings about when those deaths happen.
I want to pause here and name for a moment, that we - together - are undergoing one of those big death moments. Our relationship - our connection - to the United Methodist Church, is something this body has discerned needed to die. We prayed and struggled and wrestled and came to this place that meant following God involved stepping away from that connection. Only two weeks ago was that decision ratified by the New England Conference. It’s a death - or maybe more apt, it’s a relationship that is dying. And just like when someone dies, there is a lot of emotion surrounding that process of grief and letting go - even when we know someone is ready to go. There’s sadness, anger...there can be relief and hope and peace...there can be a “thank God it is over.” I want to remind ourselves of that as we make our way through these final weeks.
I also want to remind ourselves that in God’s kingdom, wherever there’s a death, God stands ready to offer new life - and we never know quite what that will look like. This for me is what ties us back to our passages for today. God’s going to work among us - and we have no idea what the Spirit will bring forth. We don’t know the timing and we don’t know the harvest. We may grow impatient at the waiting - wanting to control and force results - just like me and my gardening skills.
It’s not an easy path - slow, mysterious growth comes hard. Seasons of fallowness can leave us impatient. Plants that grow in ways we don’t like or that we don’t think belong in our garden frustrate us. Turning over our wants and desires and dreams for the sake of what God wants to grow can be a struggle.
But I know that with faithful perseverance, with steady, constant surrender to the leadings of the spirit, with loving attention paid to the smallest, most insignificant things, with an open-hearted embrace of people and situations the world has written off, with a posture of open-handed trust - that we will be surprised beyond our wildest imaginings at what God does as a result of this step of faith.
The seeds have been planted. Our invitation - and challenge - is to rest in God’s grace...to tend to what springs forth (even if it looks like a weed)...and to release ourselves (both as individual people and as a people) again and again into God’s care and provision, trusting that it is God - and not us - who will bring the abundant harvest...who brings green growth to our barren places...who will create in us a shelter for all who need a home. Amen.
Scripture - Mark 3:20-35
Mark 3:20-35 (New Revised Standard Version)
Then he went home; 20 and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. 21 When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” 22 And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” 23 And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? 24 If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. 25 And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. 26 And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. 27 But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.
28 “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; 29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”— 30 for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”
31 Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. 32 A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” 33 And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” 34 And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
Jesus has this odd notion of family. In this text, he returns home and his own family comes out to protect him because they are worried that the crowd is going to do something dangerous to him - they fear for his safety because of the fact that the crowd is saying “he’s out of his mind” and the scribes are calling him demon possessed. In the midst of this teaching, Jesus receives word that his mother and brother and sisters are around him - and he uses that as a teaching opportunity to declare that all who do the will of God is brother and sister and mother - he takes the definition of family and extends the circle, making family about more than blood relation, but about connection in the heart of God -- and that means something pretty powerful. It means we’re obligated to one another in the same way we understand healthy families are obligated to one another -- and all the negotiations that go with it.
I think about that especially as we approach Annual Conference this week, and the vote that will take place on Friday on our disaffiliation from the United Methodist Church. This vote is happening because we chose to treat our LGBTQIA friends and families as part of our circle - affirming and celebrating their gifts, beloved in the eyes of God for who God created them to be.
The three churches disaffiliating (HopeGateWay in Portland, Tuttle Rd. in Cumberland, and us) are sharing our reasons to convince the Annual Conference session to let us leave through a video. Representatives from each of our congregations shared their thoughts - and for worship today, I’d like for this to be a reminder of why we’ve taken these steps.
This is what it means to be church - we are a family together. We belong to one another - in ways that go beyond mere blood connection - though there is plenty of that here to be sure. We empower and give strength to the weak, we listen to the voices from the margins, we look out for each other. We love each other as if Jesus were right alongside us.
As we take this next step this week, may we keep those bonds of kinship in the family of Christ in mind and take them to heart. Amen.
Scripture - Isaiah 6:1-8, John 3:1-17, Romans 8:12-17
Isaiah 6:1-8, New Revised Standard Version
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. 2Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. 3And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” 4The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke.
5And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” 6Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. 7The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” 8Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”
John 3:1-17, New Revised Standard Version3Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 3Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? 11“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
Romans 8:12-17, The Message
12-14 So don’t you see that we don’t owe this old do-it-yourself life one red cent. There’s nothing in it for us, nothing at all. The best thing to do is give it a decent burial and get on with your new life. God’s Spirit beckons. There are things to do and places to go!
15-17 This resurrection life you received from God is not a timid, grave-tending life. It’s adventurously expectant, greeting God with a childlike “What’s next, Papa?” God’s Spirit touches our spirits and confirms who we really are. We know who he is, and we know who we are: Father and children. And we know we are going to get what’s coming to us—an unbelievable inheritance! We go through exactly what Christ goes through. If we go through the hard times with him, then we’re certainly going to go through the good times with him!
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.
Mother, Child, Womb.
Lover, Beloved, Love.
For generations, Christians have tried to articulate the myriad and mysterious ways they’ve experienced and encountered God. To be sure - Christians - along with our Jewish and Muslim siblings - assert that there is one God. And yet, in our faith, there is this doctrine of the Trinity (a word that appears nowhere in Scripture) as a way of coming to term with this One God in three persons that are all equally God and yet distinct. (In reality, this doctrine came about 350 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus). Portions of what I’m sharing this morning are attributed to Rev. Dr. Carl Gregg, who blogs over on patheos.com.
These three scripture passages are representative of the ways that folks in the Bible - as well as the early Christians - experienced Jesus.
In our Isaiah text, we see a God who is beyond us - a transcendent God - a holy God - a God that is completely other, unable to be fully known or comprehended. This is a God clothed in majesty and awe, a God to be worshiped and venerated, a God that makes us very aware of our limits and mortality.
In our Nicodemous text, we see a God who is with us. Even as God is beyond us, God is with us - present fully in the person of Jesus. In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus - we (and the early Christians) see and experience a God that is with us in the flesh - teaching, eating, healing, walking, grieving, dying - in all these acts, we see and experience God enfleshed.
And finally in our Romans text - we see a God within us - present among us, working in our hearts and in our communities. Jesus was no longer physically present with them, and there would always be this understanding of God’s holiness and transcendence that is beyond them -- but they still felt this closeness - this empowering work among them and sensed God at work within them as if they were breathing - and here we have the Holy Spirit.
God beyond….God with...God within...Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and all one God with three distinct persons that exist and interact and relate with each other.
Now I don’t want to get too theologically heady and wander down the rabbit trail of why the early Christians needed the doctrine of the Trinity and all the theological arguments that cropped up, giving rise to creeds of various kinds and ideas that were ultimately denounced as heresies. We won’t go there today.
What I do want to explore is what the Trinity invites us into - because it’s difficult to understand or explain well or to consider what impact it has in day to day lives.
First, it invites us into mystery. There is something profoundly mysterious about the Trinity that defies our fully naming and understanding what it means. It points to how our human images and metaphors ultimately fall short in describing who God is - because in what universe does Father and Son and Holy Spirit - 1 + 1 + 1 = 1 -- 1 God? Each fully God and each fully distinct - and isn’t that a wonderfully beautiful mystery?
Secondly, it invites us into deep relationship.
There’s this passage from the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams - who writes this:
“Grace, for the Christian believer, is a transformation that depends in large part on knowing yourself to be seen in a certain way: as significant, as wanted. The whole story of creation, incarnation, and our incorporation into the fellowship of Christ’s body tell us that God desires us, as if we were God, as if we were that unconditional response to God’s giving that God’s self makes in the life of the Trinity. We are created so that we may be caught up in this; so that we may grow into the wholehearted love of God by learning that God loves us as God loves God. The life of the Christian community has as its rationale - if not invariably its practical reality - the task of teaching us this: so soldering our relations that human beings may see themselves as desired, as occasion as of joy.”
Embedded in this idea - that God desires us as if we were God, that God loves us as God loves God - and the idea that Jesus invites us to love our neighbor in the same way we love ourselves - shows the way that we are all bound up together in this deep relational dance. In fact, this was another way early Christians interpreted the Trinity - through the word perichoresis - “to dance around” some of these early theologians believed that God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit “dance around” each other, and in this dance we all find our place.
Contemporary author and theologian Len Sweet puts it this way: “The choreia or dance of God is the choreography of the cosmos, the interrelationship of Creator, creation, and life itself, the holy creativity of the All in All.” he continues, “The dancing metaphor of the holy Trinity is envisioned and embodied as a circle dance...The dance of the triune divine is moving, active, eternally both transcendent and immanent, and flowing together in a joyful and harmonious, rhythmic and resonant celebration of life.”
Imagine the dynamic love flowing through the persons of Trinity - and that God loves us in that very same way God loves God’s self...and in the way God loves us we are invited to love other human beings...in the same way we love ourselves.
Can you feel the rhythm and movement and mystery surrounding that idea?
I want to close with an excerpt from St. Patrick’s Breastplate - and as you hear these words, I invite you to consider the way you experience or name the Trinity - and what that means for you as you seek to embrace the mystery of God and immerse your whole being in that powerful, transcendent love of God which flows through us to love one another.
I bind unto myself the Name,
The strong Name of the Trinity;
By invocation of the same.
The Three in One, and One in Three.
Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.
I bind unto myself the Name,
The strong Name of the Trinity;
By invocation of the same.
The Three in One, and One in Three,
Of Whom all nature hath creation,
Eternal Father, Spirit, Word:
Praise to the Lord of my salvation,
Salvation is of Christ the Lord.
Scripture - Acts 2:1-21
1-4 When the Feast of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Without warning there was a sound like a strong wind, gale force—no one could tell where it came from. It filled the whole building. Then, like a wildfire, the Holy Spirit spread through their ranks, and they started speaking in a number of different languages as the Spirit prompted them.
5-11There were many Jews staying in Jerusalem just then, devout pilgrims from all over the world. When they heard the sound, they came on the run. Then when they heard, one after another, their own mother tongues being spoken, they were thunderstruck. They couldn't for the life of them figure out what was going on, and kept saying, "Aren't these all Galileans? How come we're hearing them talk in our various mother tongues?
Parthians, Medes, and Elamites;
Visitors from Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia,
Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia,
Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene;
Immigrants from Rome, both Jews and proselytes;
Even Cretans and Arabs!
"They're speaking our languages, describing God's mighty works!"
12Their heads were spinning; they couldn't make head or tail of any of it. They talked back and forth, confused: "What's going on here?"
13Others joked, "They're drunk on cheap wine."
14-21That's when Peter stood up and, backed by the other eleven, spoke out with bold urgency: "Fellow Jews, all of you who are visiting Jerusalem, listen carefully and get this story straight. These people aren't drunk as some of you suspect. They haven't had time to get drunk—it's only nine o'clock in the morning. This is what the prophet Joel announced would happen: "In the Last Days," God says,
"I will pour out my Spirit
on every kind of people:
Your sons will prophesy,
also your daughters;
Your young men will see visions,
your old men dream dreams.
When the time comes,
I'll pour out my Spirit
On those who serve me, men and women both,
and they'll prophesy.
I'll set wonders in the sky above
and signs on the earth below,
Blood and fire and billowing smoke,
the sun turning black and the moon blood-red,
Before the Day of the Lord arrives,
the Day tremendous and marvelous;
And whoever calls out for help
to me, God, will be saved."
How many of you have tweens, teens and young adults in your life - grandchildren or nieces or nephews? Does it ever seem like they’re speaking a different language? I got a taste of this the other day when I was playing tag with Michael and his friends, and I tagged him and he said, “No! I’m on T!” And I’m like, what? On T? (Time out).
Anyway, Gen Z has its own dialect, much like every generation. But what this generation has that others don’t, is their very own devotional guide to Scripture - The Word according to Gen Z. Let’s take a look at some verses:
[Gen Z intro - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OngIO8itByw ]
(The Word According to Gen Z *is* a real resource, a 30 day devotional, and if you look up Sunday Cool Tees on YouTube, there are some more Bible Translations, as well as a few fun “how to speak Gen Z” videos to help you understand the young people in your life).
However, I don’t recommend going up to the teens in your life and saying “suh fam jam” lest you end up embarrassing yourself and those around you in a desperate attempt to flex your new skills, causing you and the teen in your life wanting nothing else than to yeet yourselves off into the distance.
But there is something about language and culture that meshes together that makes words and how we communicate with one another fundamental to creating authentic connection and relationship - and when I read our text from the book of Acts this week, I was struck by how the outpouring of the Holy Spirit empowered the early followers of Jesus to take this risky act of encounter and connection beyond themselves.
The text describes this dramatic event with images of wildfire and sounds of rushing wind and outbursts of language - it was such a spectacle that Jews from the surrounding regions staying in Jerusalem for the festival were drawn and amazed by these native Galileans - who wouldn’t have known the languages of these other regions - speaking in words the crowds could understand. Some were amazed and astounded and confused...and for some, there was no other frame to make sense of what was happening than by assuming the early disciples were drunk. Peter stepped out and proclaimed God’s saving day was near - and if we continue to read the story, many new followers of Jesus were baptized and added to their number on that day.
The Holy Spirit propelled - perhaps even compelled - the first followers of Jesus outward.
In that moment, the disciples didn’t talk to each other, they didn’t keep the experience to themselves, they didn’t devise growth strategies or wonder how to reach their Jewish Egyptian neighbor, they didn’t think about the next new vision statement that would be sure to attract people to the movement or schedule a meeting to brainstorm fresh new ideas. They didn’t hoard this Holy Spirit gift and devise ways to keep it to themselves. They couldn’t help but act, they couldn’t help but share what they had seen and heard and lived of God’s action in their lives - Jesus, in their midst - God, raising their beloved rabbi from the dead - the Spirit, poured out and here and God’s going be about something big and new - don’t you want to be a a part of it too?
I love this image from Debie Thomas: “This is what the Holy Spirit required of Christ's frightened disciples on the birthday of the church. Essentially, she told them: Stop huddling in what you call safety. Throw open your windows and doors. Feel the pressure of my hand against your backs, pour yourselves into the streets you've come to fear, and speak! Don't you understand? Silence is no longer an option. You are on fire!”
And that first step outward? Is all about creating connections. Relationship. Speaking the language - knowing the culture, needs, assumptions, worldview - of those out in the world.
And I think the world - and our community - needs a whole lot more of that kind of connection.
This kind of connection doesn’t come about when we make assumptions, or think we know our neighbors. It only happens when we risk encounter - and in our Pentecost story, that connection came when both the disciples and the crowd stepped into surrender and humility. The disciples moved out of comfort and safety and had to trust that the words and languages on their hearts - new words, strange words, scary words — were words precisely ordained for the time and place they occupied, no matter how awkward or anxious or vulnerable they felt. The crowd, too, had to suspend their own assumptions and take the risk of curiosity, stopping to marvel and wonder instead of deride and dismiss - and not everyone could make that shift because some in the crowd chose to write off the disciples as drunks. But when surrender and openness happened - God’s kingdom unfolded in their midst.
When I think about a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit - this is what I’m hoping for for us - a willingness to suspend internal concerns for genuine encounter and connection with our neighbors - an openness and intention to understand the languages of those around us, to understand their assumptions, their hopes, their fears, their concerns, their questions, their struggles and celebrations - all with the hope that maybe we have a fresh message of God’s action in our lives and in our midst to share as well.
Because I think what the community hears a lot from us as a church is this: the church is here for you. You belong and are welcome. When times are tough, we’ll be there.
Don’t get me wrong, this is a nice message. It’s comforting. Hopeful. It’s nice knowing that there’s a safety net, and a community of caring people that will walk with you in the midst of life’s challenging moments.
But is it the message our community needs to hear? Is it a message that excites people to join up with what we’re doing? Is it a Holy Spirit message that builds bridges of relationship and invites others into a space of transformation and wholeness? Or does it place us in safe spaces where we don’t have to take the risk of encounter?
I say this because we’ve been on this journey of disaffiliation where we’re stepping away from the United Methodist Church - and that affords us the opportunity to renegotiate a lot of things. Some have shared that this is a moment for us to live the church we want to be. But if the Holy Spirit isn’t part of that equation, disaffiliation isn’t going to change anything but the name on our door.
Two thousand years ago - when the Holy Spirit first came over those followers of Jesus - what mattered wasn’t the strategic planning of the disciples, not their rhetorical skills or how pious or religious they were (or weren’t). What mattered is they followed Jesus’ instructions to stay in Jerusalem and wait on the Spirit’s power to move in and through them, enabling them not to build an empire of the familiar and known, but to ignite a movement that took them beyond themselves and their concerns.
We need that fresh outpouring too - we need the Holy Spirit to instruct and guide us, reshape and remold us. “We need new words to rekindle love. We need the wind and fire of God to challenge our complacencies, reset our priorities, ease our anxieties, and move us out” to engage and speak the languages of those outside ourselves so that the invitation we give is more than just “we’re here for you”....but it’s “we need you and your stories and hopes and dreams and fears and doubts because God is moving in all the world and is doing a new thing in my life and in these places and let’s be a part of that unfolding of peace and justice together.”
It starts with waiting on the Holy Spirit. And it starts with moving outside ourselves and finding connection. And true, authentic connection and relationship might be one of the greatest gifts we can give. It is only out of that connection and relationship that holy transformation and ministry can happen. All it takes is one simple step and waiting on the Spirit of God to embolden us to share whatever new thing God is doing in our lives and what we see God up to in the world and to invite others to be a part of that new thing too.
Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on me
Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on me
Melt me, mold me, fill me, use me
Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on me
May this be so for our lives as followers of Jesus….for our life as a church...that we may speak the words of hope our community needs to hear for the sake of healing and wholeness for our island and for our world. Amen.
Pastor Melissa Yosua-Davis has been serving the community of Chebeague and its church since July 2015. She currently lives on the island with her husband and five year old son and 2 year old daughter, along with their yellow lab. Read here recent sermon excerpts, thoughts on life and faith, and current announcements for the church community. She also blogs at Going on to Perfection.