July 20, 2014 “Still Faithful After All These Years” (Psalm 137)

A sermon by Thomas R. McKibbens

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Until his death from a stroke last year, author Will Campbell wrote in a log cabin behind his house in Mt. Joliet, TN. On the wall of his study in that cabin was a sign that read, “Thank you for not cussin’.”

There could never be a sign on the Bible that says, “Thank you for not cussin’,” because the Bible has a lot of cussin’ in it! I know that may come as a surprise for some, but it is true! Just don’t mistake real cussin’ with slang or mere scatological language. Real cussin’ is a very important part of the Bible. I’m sure this needs further explanation.


Cursing is the flip side of blessing, and both are rooted in religion. When I use the oldest blessing in the Bible at the end of a service—the one that begins, The Lord bless you and keep you—the flip side of that would be something like this: “The Lord curse you and abandon you.” One is a benediction, and the other is a malediction. The Bible has both!

Now we can go a step further. The Bible may be considered a divine book, but it is also a very human book. It is full of human emotion. And what is more human than rage associated with tragedy? That rage is expressed in the Bible in the form of curses often centered around one of the great defining events in Jewish history: the fall of Jerusalem in the sixth century before Christ. It was a bloody, bitter, cruel military devastation. The book of Lamentations opens with a poetic description of the immense destruction:

How lonely sits the city that once was full of people!
How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations!
She that was a princess among the provinces has become a vassal.

It was a shattering of faith! It raised all kinds of questions about God and about their perceived place as the chosen people. It literally shook them to the core, and they would spend centuries sorting out what it all meant.

In the midst of their grief and bitterness over such a defeat, we have a body of literature within the Bible which can only be described as cursing. Many of the psalms are classified as cursing psalms. They lament the fall of Jerusalem, and they call for vengeance on those who perpetrated such cruelty.

Psalm 137 is perhaps the most familiar of such cursing psalms. Its opening lines are sublime in their heart-breaking beauty: By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. The psalm goes on to describe their bitterness when their captors begged them to sing for us one of the songs of Zion! It was turning their grief into a minstrel show; it was turning something holy into entertainment! They just couldn’t do it. They would rather hang up their harps for good than to entertain their enemies with their sacred songs.

By the end of the psalm the bitter rage rises to the surface. The author’s anger is directed first toward the land of Edom: Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem’s fall, how they said “Tear it down! Tear it down! Down to its foundations! Edom was a neighbor, located just south of Jerusalem. The people of Edom sided with the Babylonians in destroying Jerusalem! The sense of betrayal the Israelites felt lasted for hundreds of years.

Then the writer’s seething hatred toward Babylon erupts. His fury is so great that he creates a back-handed curse in the form of a blessing on those who would wreak vengeance on Babylon by brutally killing their children, presumably the same way the Israelite children were killed.

O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!

So ends the curse, and so ends the psalm! It may still be rather shocking that such as this is in scripture! But remember: there is no sign on the Bible that says, “Thank you for not cussin’!”


Let’s think together about this. It is no accident that we begin every worship service with a hymn of praise. Why do we do that? Don’t we all recognize that sometimes we enter the service with anything but praise in our hearts? Don’t we all know that sometimes we enter this place with our own version of Psalm 137? You may come into the sanctuary today thinking, “By the rivers of worry—there I sat down and wept.” “By the rivers of misunderstanding and estrangement—there I sat down and wept.” We all have our own version. Someone else might say, “By the rivers of loneliness or anxiety or credit card bills or red ink—there I sat down and wept.”

See where I’m headed here? We all enter this sanctuary from time to time with anything but praise in our hearts. Yet we always begin with praise. Why? The answer is simple—sometimes we sing praise to God, not because of, but in spite of! That is the beginning of an adequate faith. It is the praise of God in spite of all that we have been facing.

The title of this sermon is a spin-off from the old Paul Simon song entitled “Still Crazy After All These Years,” in which he sang about picking up the thread of a relationship that had once been strong, and then time and distance had separated them. He runs into his old flame on the street one night, and they share a beer together, talk of old times, and then part ways again. Then he concludes, “Still crazy after all these years, still crazy after all these years.” We are left to wonder exactly what he means. Was she still crazy after all these years? Or was it he? Or was it his feelings that were still crazy? We don’t know.

But in this sermon I am talking about faithfulness—“…still faithful after all these years.” I am talking about an adequate faith that is still there even when we sit down by the rivers of time and weep, even when our anger and rage rises to the surface and we strike out at life or even those around us. I am talking about faith when we feel like cussin’.


To read a psalm like this is to be reminded that faithfulness has no illusions. It is unshockable. We are not thrown off balance by some respected minister who runs off with his secretary; our faith is not shattered because of some priest abusing children. Sad and outraged…but our faith is not shattered!

Mature faith is not shocked because goodness is not always rewarded the way we think it should be. Our faith does not stumble over leukemia attacking an innocent child, or a drunk running his car up on a sidewalk and killing pedestrians. In short, our faith in God is not dependent on our escaping the inevitable disappointments and tragedies of life! An adequate faith is one that is not surprised by the potholes. Like New England roads in the spring thaw, they are just part of the journey.

Now we can go a step further and actually find inspiration in a cursing psalm like this. An adequate faith is not afraid of expressing our disappointments and even anger within the community of faith. Let’s get out of our minds that church is all back-slapping and hugs. As Dan Ivins would say, “Here we agree differently!” A mature community of faith is willing to deal with both our feelings of cursing as well as blessing.

Oh yes, one more thing. An adequate faith knows that bad things really do happen to the best of people. Marriages fail among the finest of people; germs pay no attention to church attendance; broken promises are not just for the bad guys. But does that mean that God has left us? An adequate faith knows better.

Two women were overheard in the checkout line at the grocery store. One of them, admiring the other woman’s grey hair, said, “I don’t know you, but I’ve been admiring the color of your hair. I’d give anything in the world to have hair that color. I know this is a personal question, but would you tell me what you put on it?” There was a pause, and the second woman said, “Honey, I don’t put anything on my hair. It turned this color almost overnight. We had a child to die suddenly and my husband got sick and lingered and then he died. Things were just hard then and it just happened! My hair turned this color grey.” And then she said, “Honey, you can’t get this out of a bottle!”

There are some things you can’t buy over the counter or get out of a bottle! God comes to the hard places, the unfair places, and the difficult places of our lives, even if we feel alone, even when we find ourselves cussin’ the world!


What if in today’s worship, you laid all your deep-down resentment and anger over some past event before God? What if you heard the words of Jesus, Come unto me, all you who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest, rest from the anger that is debilitating, the resentment that is demeaning, and rest from the visions of revenge that seem delicious.

If you today could lay those burdens down like rocks on a cairn, you would finally be free to move ahead in your life. You could once again take your harp from the willows of time and sing the songs of Zion. In the ever-contemporary words of the prophet Isaiah, you would this day go out in joy, and be led back in peace (Isaiah 55: 12).

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July 13, 2014 “When Faith Meets Fragile” (Psalm 46)

Psalm 46

1 God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. 2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, 3 though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging. “Selah” 4 There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells. 5 God is within her, she will not fall; God will help her at break of day. 6 Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall; he lifts his voice, the earth melts. 7 The LORD Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. “Selah” 8 Come and see the works of the LORD, the desolations he has brought on the earth. 9 He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth; he breaks the bow and shatters the spear, he burns the shields with fire. 10 “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.” 11 The LORD Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. “Selah”

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July 6, 2014 “With Hearts and Hands and Voices” (Psalm 100)

Psalm 100

1 Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth.
2 Worship the Lord with gladness; come before Him with joyful songs.
3 Know that the Lord is God. It is He who made us, and we are His;
we are His people, the sheep of His pasture.
4 Enter His gates with thanksgiving and His courts with praise;
give thanks to Him and praise His name.
5 For the Lord is good and His love endures forever;
His faithfulness continues through all generations.

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Sunday, June 29, 2014 “A Psalm for Transitions” (Psalm 23)

Rev. Thomas McKibbens, preaching

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June 22, 2014 “Wrestling with God” (Genesis 28:10-17, 32:22-32)

Linda Bausserman, preaching

I thought I would venture into the OT today and explore part of Jacob’s story. It covers something over 10 chapters. But today I just want us to focus on the two encounters between Jacob and God. To start, let me just give an over view of his life. Sometimes these OT characters begin to run together or we look at one particular aspect of the story and it’s hard to put it into context in the bigger picture of the person’s life. The story actually starts with Abraham, whom God promised would be the father of a nation with thousands of descendants. Isaac was his son and Jacob and Esau were his grandsons. They were twins and their rivalry began in the womb. Esau was born first and Jacob was born holding on to his heel. Esau grew to be the active, outdoors man and Jacob the quieter son. Both would have grown up hearing the stories of Abraham’s life and of God’s promises to him. Both would have known the importance of their family and the privilege and responsibility of the first born. However, it would appear that Jacob took it all more seriously and understood its significance better than Esau; for Jacob manipulated Esau into giving up his birthright. Esau came in one day exhausted and hungry after hunting. Jacob offered him some stew in exchange for his birthright and Esau agreed after complaining that his birthright didn’t matter since he was dying of hunger anyway. Then, at his mother’s instigation, Jacob tricked his father into giving him the blessing as well. Esau was furious when he found out and threatened to kill Jacob after Isaac had died. So Jacob was sent off to his uncle until the situation cooled down. He heads out with nothing, frightened for his life and this is where the first scripture which Ken read takes place. God appears to Jacob in a dream and tells him he will be the carrier of the covenant with Abraham and promises to be with him and protect him. Upon awakening the next morning Jacob recognizes that he is on holy ground and dedicates the spot. Then he heads on to his Uncle Laban. There he falls in love with Rachel and agrees to work for Laban 7 years to earn the privilege of marrying her. Laban tricks him (Jacob gets a taste of his own medicine!) and the morning after the wedding Jacob discovers that instead of Rachel he is married to Rachel’s older sister Leah. The nights must have been pretty dark there! He agrees to work another 7 years to marry Rachel. Once they are married he stays on with Laban and both he and Laban prosper. When Rachel finally bears a son (his twelfth) he decides to return home. He and Laban wrangle about the terms of his departure (more trickery and chicanery), but eventually God tells Jacob to leave and he does. On the way back home his fear of Esau returns. He sends forward gifts to Esau and his messengers return saying that Esau is coming to meet him with 400 men. Jacob, feeling guilty, assumes they are coming to kill him. So he separates his party into two groups so that if one is attacked the other can escape. He then sends everyone forward while he remains behind. Again he is alone and frightened in the night desert and this is where the scripture read by Elsa occurs. This time he is visited by God who wrestles with him until dawn. God touches his leg throwing his hip out of joint but Jacob won’t let go until he is given a blessing. He gets a new name, Israel, as well as a blessing and again God’s promise to be with him. The next day he heads home and is greeted enthusiastically by Esau, who apparently holds no grudges. This is a thin sketch of the story. I would encourage you to read it – it is only 10 chapters and includes a beautiful romance as well as lots of intrigue. But for today I want to focus on these two encounters with God which Elsa and Ken read to us.

Now I have to tell you up front that I have had a problem with this story, especially these two encounters. What’s more I don’t have an answer to my questions. So you’re not going to get a sermon today where everything is tied up neat and tidy at the end. And worse, I don’t even feel guilty about it. Hear this quote from Richard Rohr, “The Bible illuminates your human experience through struggling with it. It is an invitation into the struggle itself; you are supposed to be bothered by some of the texts. Human beings come to consciousness by struggle and most especially struggle with God and sacred texts. We remain largely unconscious if we avoid all conflicts, dilemmas, paradoxes, inconsistencies, or contradictions.” And, he says, “The Bible is a book filled with conflicts and paradoxes.” So struggle with me a little. Here’s my question. Jacob leaves home in disgrace, having tricked his brother into giving up his birthright and then deceiving and lying to his father, pretty sleazy behavior. Then he has a dream in which God promises to give him and his descendants the land he is standing on, to be with him, to protect him wherever he goes, and to bring him back to this land. He has clearly done wrong by his brother and father but in his dream there is no accusation, and no judgment. Instead he is encouraged and given promises. This is already puzzling – not what one expects from the Old Testament God of judgment. The encounter on the return trip is quite different and just as puzzling. Jacob has worked for Laban many years, despite being deceived. He seemed to be trying to do his best; but when he nears his homeland and is again frightened and alone in the night, God comes and wrestles him. I’m sorry but it just seems that God got it backwards. When Jacob has done wrong, God is comforting and helpful; but years later, after he has been working hard but is equally in need of comfort, God wrestles him? Leaves him with a limp for the rest of his life? Well, it just didn’t make sense to me. But, since God obviously does not do things backwards, it suggests that maybe I am the one who needs to do some struggling to try to understand what is going on here.

When he left home, Jacob was clearly in need of God’s comfort and encouragement though he certainly didn’t deserve it. He was obviously in the wrong. Jacob and his mother, Rebecca, were ambitious and were pushing against God’s timetable. God had told Rebecca that Jacob would be the more powerful son but Rebecca couldn’t wait or didn’t trust God enough to wait for God to make it happen. Sometimes we have to wait for God’s grace. But when God wills something, it happens. God says in Isaiah 55:10-11, “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” Once God makes a promise, it happens. One can see why Jacob is more suited to the birthright and blessing than Esau, who really had no interest in carrying on the covenant. Jacob’s problem is that he resorted to deceit to obtain it. Despite all this, God comes to him in a dream and, after identifying himself as the God of Abraham, he promises to give him the land, to keep him safe and bring him back to the land. God says he will not leave him until all this is accomplished. Jacob realizes the significance of the dream. “Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it!” The next line in the text is “And, he was afraid.” Why was he afraid? He had just been given this wonderful promise. We have talked before about how when one confronts God one sees oneself. I think Jacob saw that what he had done was wrong and felt guilt and fear. So he made a vow saying, ‘If God will be with me, and will keep me in the way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house; and of all that you give me I will surely give one tenth to you.” He’s still pretty gutsy, adding specific wants to God’s promise, but he does recognize his indebtedness to God and promises to give back a tithe. Perhaps Jacob needed the encouragement to continue his journey. He was after all young, had probably never been away from home before and was probably lacking in confidence. Or, maybe he needed to know that despite being sent away, he would still be the one to carry out the family destiny. Maybe he needed to be reassured that though he was weak and had failed, his relationship with God was still intact. In any event he proceeded to his Uncle where he stayed until God told him to return. So Jacob had had a continuing relationship with God and was obedient to God’s commands.

When he returns he is a wealthy man. He has two wives and their two handmaids with whom he has fathered 12 sons, who will become the patriarchs of the 12 tribes of Israel. However, emotionally he is not far from where he was when he left. He is still guilty and fearful. He divides up his retinue hoping that half of his people, animals and goods can be saved. And then he prays. “God of my grandfather Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O Lord who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your kindred, and I will do you good,’ I am not worthy of the least of all the steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan; and now I have become two companies. Deliver me, please, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I am afraid of him; he may come and kill us all, the mothers with the children. Yet you have said, ‘I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted because of their number.’” Jacob is humble in that he admits that he is undeserving but then comes on pretty strong in reminding God what had been promised him. ‘You promised me countless offspring and now I am afraid that my children will all be killed. You told me to come back and said that You will do me good. I have obeyed and returned but now I am afraid.” So he admits his indebtedness and his fears to God and he begs God to make good on his promise. He sends everyone off and again finds himself alone in the night. This time a man wrestles him. Jacob puts up a good fight and the man dislocates his hip. The man tells him to let go but Jacob insists that the man give him a blessing first. He asks Jacobs name and gives him a new name, Israel, which means contends with God or prevails against God. When Jacob asks the man’s name he doesn’t answer but does bless Jacob and Jacob comes to realize that the man is God. Jacob says, “I have seen God face to face and yet my life is preserved.” It has been suggested that this encounter is to strip Jacob of his pride in his accomplishments. He has been made weak and his limp will be a constant reminder of God’s strength and his dependence on God. It may be that God was displeased that Jacob was frightened even though God had promised a return in peace. Since all the other promises had been kept, Jacob should have trusted that he would return safely. A point has been made about the fact that he didn’t let go even after his hip was dislocated. If he thought he was being wrestled because of his sin, then holding on may have been his way of begging for forgiveness. God told him “you shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel for you have striven with God and with humans and have prevailed.” God told him why his name was changed but he did not tell him, nor us, why he wrestled him in the first place. However, this experience moved Jacob beyond the usual perception of power as wealth or authority over others, to a new spiritual depth and spiritual power, which only comes by encounters with God.

The fact that I don’t fully understand what was going on doesn’t take away from the story for me. I don’t expect always to understand God’s actions. God is way too vast and mysterious for me to try to understand. And, isn’t that what faith is about, following without always understanding everything. That isn’t to say, however, that we shouldn’t study and try to understand. We grow to know God better when we do.

If you look at the shape of this story, does it remind you of a New Testament story? Two sons, the younger leaves for a far country, leaving an angry older brother, and returns many years later. The outline is like the story of the prodigal son. There are obvious differences. Jacob left home with nothing and came back wealthy and the opposite was true of the prodigal son. Also, Esau welcomed Jacob home but the prodigal son’s older brother was still angry although his father welcomed him enthusiastically and lovingly. There are many stories of leaving and returning home. Moses was away living the life of a shepherd for many years before returning to Egypt to free his people. Even Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness before beginning his ministry. This is still a topic of stories today. There is something about getting away for a time that allows us to see our situation, who we are and what our values are more clearly. For Jacob being away was a time of maturing, learning to work for what he got and learning patience.

Another important lesson from this story is that God uses whoever and whatever is needed to get the job done. We often think that a person must be perfect or at least special to be used by God. Since none of us is perfect, isn’t it a good thing that God is willing to use flawed people! Again and again, God chooses ordinary and even flawed people to do his work. For example, God chose Moses, who had killed a man, to deliver his people from bondage in Egypt and Isaiah, “a man of unclean lips,” to be a prophet. And Jesus chose simple fishermen for disciples. Yet we think that God cannot use us. We are not deserving enough or not educated enough or not strong enough or not energetic enough. Or, the all-time favorite, we don’t have time enough. Jacob, for all his faults and fears, said yes to God. Perhaps we don’t need to understand the reasons for God’s actions to see that God was faithful to Jacob and Jacob in turn was obedient and faithful to God. And the result? A nation grew out of that covenant of faith. So the story of Jacob demonstrates for us God’s faithfulness. And the story of the prodigal son shows us God’s love. Why then should we be afraid? If we can grow to trust God’s faithfulness and love, then our fears can be turned into hope.

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June 15, 2014 “Heavenly Handiwork” (Psalm 8)

Scripture Lesson

1 O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens. 2 From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise because of your enemies, to silence the foe and the avenger. 3 When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, 4 what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? 5 You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. 6 You made him ruler over the works of your hands; you put everything under his feet: 7 all flocks and herds, and the beasts of the field, 8 the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, all that swim the paths of the seas. 9 O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!

Rev. Nikita McCallister preaching

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Sunday, June 1, 2014 “She Left Her Bucket Behind” (John 4: 5-30)

New Testament Reading
5 So he came to a town of Samaria called Sychar, near the field that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob’s well was there; so Jesus, wearied as he was from his journey, was sitting beside the well. It was about the sixth hour.[a]

7 A woman from Samaria came to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” 8 (For his disciples had gone away into the city to buy food.) 9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.) 10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” 11 The woman said to him, “Sir, you have nothing to draw water with, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12 Are you greater than our father Jacob? He gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did his sons and his livestock.” 13 Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again.[b] The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” 15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water.”

16 Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come here.” 17 The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; 18 for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true.” 19 The woman said to him, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. 20 Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.” 21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 25 The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things.” 26 Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am he.”

27 Just then his disciples came back. They marveled that he was talking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you seek?” or, “Why are you talking with her?” 28 So the woman left her water jar and went away into town and said to the people, 29 “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” 30 They went out of the town and were coming to him.

Linda Bausserman preaching

The decline in membership in mainline churches has been a subject of debate for years now. People are finding that some of their childhood beliefs do not fit with their experience – whether their life experiences or their experience of God. Even some pastors of evangelical churches are rethinking some of the tenets of their faith. I was brought up in a church where we were told to have a personal relationship with Jesus and to accept Jesus as our personal savior. But once we accepted Jesus and were baptized, they were done with us. Oh, we heard sermons and were taught about the Bible but, after all the emphasis on ‘personal’ no one told us how to have a personal relationship with Jesus. In conversations with some of you, I’ve learned that my experience was not unique. Many Christians today have a second hand relationship with God. They go to church and learn about God and Jesus but don’t really come to know God on a deep level. For example, if you ask people if God loves them they will easily reply, ‘God loves everyone.’ But when asked if God loves you personally, many people hesitate or even say, ‘Ooh I can’t go there yet.’ Why? Some think it sounds vain. But it’s actually more vain to think that you are beyond the reach of God. Others think they don’t deserve God’s love. But, of course, no one really deserves God’s love. It isn’t about deserving. In fact, it isn’t really even about us. It’s about who God is. God is love and pours out that love unconditionally, regardless of who or what we are. Other people are afraid of what they might find out about themselves if they open themselves to God. I think that is a legitimate fear. We are told that when we see the face of God, we see ourselves more clearly. Sometimes, we think, maybe it’s just better not to know. Certainly it’s easier. But I think most people who come to church are interested in having a deeper relationship with God, they just aren’t sure how to go about it. We come to church and someone prays and we even pray ourselves but our prayers are often rote and we are not taught how to listen for an answer or even to expect an answer. Often we come into that deeper relationship when something calamitous happens to us and we are forced to look at ourselves and the way we live our lives, in a deeper way; and that brings us into the presence of God.

It may be uncomfortable to stand before God open and vulnerable; but I think God is gentle with us. Now I got into trouble once for saying that. I was leading a workshop on spiritual practices and a pastor on the back row raised his hand and said, “God wasn’t very gentle with Paul. He knocked him off his donkey.” But Paul was working against God, not trying to find God’s will. If we look at how Jesus treated people, we will see that he was indeed tough on the Pharisees and those who thought they knew it all already. He could be scathing to people who were proud of their knowledge and who neither desired nor thought they needed help. People who were so caught up in their own righteousness and obedience to the law that they failed to live out the intent of the law – to love God and their neighbor. So Jesus could be tough; but he was always gentle with those he helped. Perhaps I should say those who let him help them for he never forced his help on people. There are of course many stories in the gospels describing how Jesus interacts with people. But I think that the story of the woman at the well is the most complete. It starts at the beginning of the encounter, only the two of them are present so there are no distractions, and it continues after their meeting. The Samaritan woman didn’t know who Jesus was and didn’t come asking for anything. They had a complex conversation in which he told her the truth about who she was and she was then able to see who he was. She then asked for the living water he offered. And he was able to help her. By the end of the story, she becomes an evangelist herself inviting the villagers to come and meet Jesus. In contrast, in most of the stories of Jesus healing people, we never hear about what happens to them after they are helped. Jesus’ interactions with the disciples were varied and occurred over a long period of time so their stories are probably more realistic. But this story is a sort of condensed description that includes all the elements of a spiritual journey .

So here’s Jesus, tired and thirsty, sitting by a well. A woman comes in the heat of the day to get water. Ordinarily the women wouldcome together early in the day before it gets too hot or late to avoid the noontime sun. So the impression is that the woman who comes at noon is avoiding them. Many interpreters suggest that she is an adulteress and is shunned by the others. In any event she comes alone and much to her surprise finds Jesus, a Jew sitting there. It is Jesus who initiates the conversation. He asks her for a drink and she is startled, for Jewish men do not speak to women in public and Jews do not associate with Samaritans ever. The next surprising thing about this story is that the woman didn’t grab her bucket and dash away immediately. She was after all trying to avoid people. But she stays and they have this clever repartee about water and thirst. She asks, ‘how is it that you, a Jew, are asking me, a Samaritan for a drink?’ He replies, ‘If you knew God’s gift and who was asking, you would be asking me for a drink and you would be given living water.’ She spars with him – ‘how can you give me water? You don’t even have a bucket.’ In fact, isn’t it odd she didn’t point out that he was the one asking for water. How could he give it to her if he couldn’t get it for himself. But she is obviously not as cantankerous as I am. Jesus insists that what he offers is living water and she will never thirst again. ‘The water that I will give will become a spring of water gushing up to eternal life,’ he says. Next, she asks for that water. I wonder if perhaps she is beginning to catch on when he mentions an inner spring always welling up for eternal life. Or, if she thinks she will call his bluff. Or perhaps she just decides to go ahead and give it a try. After all, she doesn’t have much to lose. So she says, ‘give me that water.’ Now it’s Jesus turn to challenge. He says, “Go get your husband and bring him back here.” She replies, “I don’t have a husband.” To which Jesus says, “You got that right. For although you have had five husbands, the one you’re living with now is not your husband; you have told me the truth there.” “Sir,” she says, “I can see that you are a prophet.” This little bit of conversation is central to the story. Jesus makes this woman see herself for who she is. We have heard that when we come face to face with God, we see ourselves as we truly are. Faults and all. Another example from the Old Testament is Isaiah who, when he is carried up to the throne of God, says, “Woe is me for I am a man of unclean lips.” The opposite is also true – when we see ourselves more clearly, we learn more about God. Jesus confronted this woman with her living situation and she recognized him as a prophet. But did you notice that there was no condemnation from Jesus. He didn’t call her names, threaten Hell, or insist that she was a sinner. He simply described the facts of her circumstances. And he must have said it kindly because, again, she didn’t run off. She also didn’t deny the truth or try to explain or make excuses. Instead she launches into a discussion of religion. Now one possibility is that she is trying to shift the attention somewhere else, get the focus off of herself. It’s a lot easier to talk about religion and the law in general terms than oneself. Or she may simply be stalling for time, time to adjust to the fact this stranger knows all about her. But I wonder if she isn’t intrigued by this prophet. Perhaps she sees deeply and recognizes that he is more than a prophet. Perhaps, since he told her facts about herself, she believes that she can learn from him. Learn more about this living water. What is remarkable to me is the lack of surface drama in this scene both on the part of Jesus and the woman – no histrionics. Even though Jesus confronted her with exactly what she was trying to avoid in the villagers. I think the drama was taking place on a deeper level. In addition to his spoken words, I think she also heard the still small voice. I think his matter-of-fact approach and acceptance of her allowed her to also accept herself. She must have sensed the love in this man and was able to stay with him despite any feelings she may have had of shame or sorrow. She was able to see that she was more than her burden of sin. So she asks him about worship. ‘You worship in Jerusalem but we worship here.’ Beneath all that is going on in her difficult life, she is concerned about the right way to worship. And Jesus answers her. “The time approaches, indeed it is already here, when those who are real worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth.” She then says “I know that Messiah is coming.” And Jesus says “I am he.” This scene occurs before Jesus has the conversation with the disciples about who he is, before Peter says that Jesus is the Messiah. So this woman is the first to be told who he is. Amazing. This outcast Samaritan woman is told before any one else in clear, simple, straightforward terms. Then at this high moment in their conversation, the disciples return. The woman leaves her bucket and runs off to the village to tell people about her encounter with one whom she thinks might be the Messiah. This woman, who chose the discomfort of the heat of the noonday sun to avoid the villagers, is now running off to tell them her good news. Isn’t it interesting that the writer includes the detail about the bucket? She was in such a hurry to tell her neighbors that she leaves it behind. (She may have also been eager to get away from all those disciples. She has just had a life changing experience. She probably doesn’t want a meeting with a group of disapproving Jewish men. Admirably the men don’t say anything – they are used to Jesus strange ways by now.) But I think the bucket left behind is also a metaphor. The implication is that she no longer needs it. She has been filled by the living stream within. I think this story is a compact version of the process of becoming whole that can be carried over to our own times. God initiates our relationship. It usually doesn’t feel that way. You think you got up this morning and decided to come to church today despite knowing it was going to be downstairs and uncomfortable. You think you decide to pray and approach God. But the spiritual masters tell us that the desire to pray is given to us by God. So in effect when we pray we are simply responding to that desire of God. When we come into the presence of God, we see who we really are. We see ourselves with God’s eyes – the good and the bad. The negative aspects can be painful but at the same time we are in the presence of a God who loves us anyway and cares about healing us. And so somehow the pain is bearable. In the process we come to see who God is for us and how loving God is so we are drawn closer. In Isaiah 43:25 God says “I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.” God forgives sin for God’s own sake, because God wants reconciliation. We don’t like to talk about sin very much. But this woman was obviously heavily burdened when she came to the well but left lightened of that load. We all hang on to buckets. Buckets of fear and worries. Buckets that we need to leave behind in faith. We are given the desire to know God, it is up to us to respond. But look at the transition that took place in this woman when she acknowledged her sin and recognized and accepted Jesus’ offer to help her. Her whole affect must have been altered because look at the effect she had on the townspeople. John 4:39-43. Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony. “He told me everything I have ever done.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.” We are told to love God and our neighbors as ourselves. We tend to focus on quantity, but what if the comparison is about quality rather than quantity. We tend to talk about how much we love. But, another aspect is how we love. We are to love God, ourselves and our neighbors in the same way. Optimally in the same way that God loves us. This woman went a step further in that she loved her enemies. She went to those who scorned her and told them the good news of God’s kingdom. She has come full circle – bringing others to meet Jesus.

What a model she is for us. She is, however, a model not a standard. What has been compressed in this story into a single conversation takes place over a life time. In fact, it replays many times in a life time. The teacher in my spiritual direction course used to say that the real answer to “have you been born again” is yes, again and again and again. We are not transformed all at once but a step at a time. And in the course of that process we learn to worship God in spirit and in truth. We become what Jesus calls “real worshippers.” He says, “Such are the worshippers whom the Father wants, God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in sprit and in truth.” God desires to be in communion with us. We have only to respond with a Yes.

We come now to the Lord’s table. This is a part of the service where we receive from God. In our reflection time we are probably just settling down and getting focused. During most of our service, the flow is from us to God as we singing praises and offer prayers (though hopefully it is a time of both giving and receiving). But in receiving the Lord’s supper we come before God individually and silently to receive. Let us be open to the gift.

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Sunday, May 11, 2014 “Christians and Jews: What We Should Know About Each Other”

Rabbi Marc S. Jagolinzer preaching

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May 4, 2014 “The Wonder of It All” (Luke 24:13-35)

New Testament Reading:
13 That very day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles[a] from Jerusalem, 14 and they were talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15 While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. 16 But their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17 And he said to them, “What is this conversation that you are holding with each other as you walk?” And they stood still, looking sad. 18 Then one of them, named Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?” 19 And he said to them, “What things?” And they said to him, “Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, a man who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20 and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. 21 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things happened. 22 Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning, 23 and when they did not find his body, they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. 24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see.” 25 And he said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.

28 So they drew near to the village to which they were going. He acted as if he were going farther, 29 but they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.” So he went in to stay with them. 30 When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. 31 And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And he vanished from their sight. 32 They said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?” 33 And they rose that same hour and returned to Jerusalem. And they found the eleven and those who were with them gathered together, 34 saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!” 35 Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread.

Rev. Don Anderson, Executive Minister of the Rhode Island Council of Churches, preaching

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April 28, 2014 “Behind Closed Doors” (John 20:19-29)

Linda Bausserman, preaching

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I hope everyone had a happy Easter. Easter is such a joyous day for us. Some people start the day with a sunrise service. We enjoy the children’s Easter egg hunts. We dress up, come to church and sing rousing and joyous songs of praise. And many of us share a family meal. Truly it is a day of celebration. We forget though that it was different for the disciples. They spent most of the day in sorrow and confusion.

In our scripture lesson today we find the disciples hidden away in a locked room. It was evening of what to them would have been the third day after the crucifixion. They were, of course, frightened that the authorities, knowing that they were followers of Jesus, might come after them as well and subject them to the same fate as Jesus. But also I think they must have been both physically and emotionally exhausted. In the college class we have been looking at Jesus’ activity during that final week and it was intense. Jesus again and again confronted the authorities. The disciples were a part of it all and, as observers, they had to see what was coming. It must have been terrifying. And, to have their leader, whom they had left their jobs to follow for three years and had come to love, come to such a horrible end would have been devastating. And, they thought it was the end of the story. They were apparently too distraught to remember Jesus’ promise that he would return after three days. The women had come to them earlier in the day to tell them of the empty tomb but according to Luke the disciples thought their news was an “idle tale.” In John’s story Peter and John went to the tomb, saw that it was empty and went home!

They had been told three times by Jesus in plain and straightforward words what would happen to him. The first time was after Peter said he was the Messiah. Jesus told them that The Son of Man would suffer and die and be raised after three days. Peter protests that Jesus should have to suffer; and Jesus replies, “Get thee behind me Satan.” Then he goes on to talk about losing your life to find it. He tells them a second time and Mark says they didn’t understand this teaching but were afraid to ask him about it. Guess they didn’t want to be called Satan! The third time Jesus is most explicit and detailed as he tried to make them realize what was coming. Hear Mark’s telling, “Listen,” he told them, “we are going up to Jerusalem where the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the teachers of the Law. They will condemn him to death and then hand him over to the Gentiles, who will make fun of him, spit on him, whip him and kill him; but three days later he will rise to life.” James and John respond by asking if they can sit at his right and left hand when he comes into his kingdom. They clearly didn’t get it! Perhaps they thought it was another of his parables and didn’t think it would really happen. They were still expecting a victorious Messiah who would overthrow Rome and rule Israel. Even when the predicted events take place, they don’t make any connection to his words of warning. Nor did they remember when they heard about the empty tomb or when Mary of Magdalene told them she had seen Jesus.

So here they are cooped up in a locked room, scared, confused, discouraged. And suddenly, unexpectedly, out of nowhere, Jesus appears. He says “Peace be with you” and is apparently met by astonished silence. Then he shows them his wounds and finally they believe and begin to rejoice. “Peace be with you,” he repeats once they recognized him. It was as if he had to penetrate their numb protective shells.

A lot is implied in that statement – that gift of peace – First and foremost, forgiveness. There are no complaints by Jesus that they had neither remembered nor understood his warnings, no recriminations that they had all deserted him. No judgments about their cowardice. He meets them where they are, locked away in the depths of their despair. He still loves them and accepts them for who they are. He still sees the potential in them even though they have failed him in a profound way. And he gives them the gift of peace. What hope and confidence that must instill – to be given peace. After this second statement he adds, “As the Father sent me, so I send you.” So he has given them authority to do his work. Next he breathes on them and says “Receive the Holy Spirit,” giving them the power to do his work. In both of these statements he is fulfilling his own promises to them. In John 14:27, before his death, he said, “Peace is my parting gift to you; my own peace, such as the world cannot give.” And in verse 16 of the same chapter, he promises to send them an advocate who is the Spirit of truth. After he breathes on them, he gives them the authority to forgive sins. The events that happened in this locked room had a profound effect on the disciples. When we read about them in Acts, they are different men. No longer confused and lacking confidence, they become the servants Jesus wished them to be. They are humble and hardworking, no longer seeking glory, but proclaiming the good news, and healing and helping others.

The breath of God is transforming. The word that is translated breathed is not found anywhere else in the New Testament. This is the only time it is used. And, it occurs only twice in the Old Testament. The first time it appears is in Genesis when God creates man. “Then the Lord formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life. Thus the man became a living creature.” The second time is in Ezekiel in the valley of dry bones. Ezekiel is told to prophesy to the dry bones and tell them that the sovereign Lord says, “I am going to put breath into you and bring you back to life.” (Ez. 37:5) So this breath of God is an act of creation. It is generative and life giving. It brings new life to the dead. This is what Jesus is giving his disciples – new life.

Now this bit about being able to forgive sins is puzzling to me. I quite frankly don’t understand the part about lack of forgiveness being binding. My own take is that I will leave those difficult decisions to God. However, in Matthew Jesus commissions the disciples to preach repentance and forgiveness. So, forgiveness is clearly of primary importance to Jesus. Another part of this, that is quite powerful, is that the disciples were given the ability to forgive. We all know how hard it is to forgive especially if we have been deeply hurt. Forgiveness is a process and often a long and hard one. So this is a great gift. The disciples have been forgiven themselves and have been given peace. I think if we have experienced forgiveness and are at peace within ourselves it is easier to forgive, in fact, these may even be prerequisites to true forgiveness. And the disciples have both. It’s a wonderful gift. So the disciples have seen and recognized Jesus, been given the gift of the Holy Spirit and the authority to do God’s work.

Our story, however, doesn’t end here. It has a second part. Thomas wasn’t present the first time Jesus appeared to the rest of the disciples. And he didn’t believe their story. So Jesus appears to them all again a week later when Thomas is present and goes through the same process with Thomas. Jesus appears eager to give the disciples what they need to believe. But then who else does he have to do his work. Just as today who does he have but us. Thomas not only believes it is really Jesus, but proclaims “My Lord and my God.” At last, somebody who totally ‘gets it.’

Initially it was puzzling to me why the disciples were still in that room a week later. Why weren’t they out telling everyone? I would especially expect impetuous Peter to be out announcing to the world that Jesus was alive. Were they still afraid? Had Jesus been unable to quell their fears with his peace? What were they doing in that room? But after some reflection it occurred to me that no one changes overnight. And these men underwent a profound transformation. From vying for prominence, they became servants. From men who were often confused and asking Jesus for explanations, they became confident. From passive observers, they became the ones doing the teaching and reassuring. How did that happen? I think the room they were in morphed from a place of hibernation to a place of incubation. This time away together allowed them to develop into the leaders of the new way of Jesus. Here is what I think may have happened during that week. You may remember that Jesus appeared to two of his followers on the road to Emmaus on that first Sunday. As they walked together, he explained the scriptures to them. Once they recognized him they returned to the other disciples and told them what had happened. I can imagine them spending the week reviewing what these two had told them, remembering Jesus’ words to them on the long trek to Jerusalem, reliving the events of that last week, perhaps celebrating the Lord ’s Supper with a deeper knowledge of its meaning. Most of all I imagine them praying. In the process, the locked door of fear and isolation became a door of opportunity. Interesting that it is the same door. It is the perspective that changes.

We too can find ourselves behind metaphorical locked doors. What is it that drives us behind locked doors Sometimes I think we are not even aware that we are locked in. What are our fears? What bars us from living fully? Jesus still comes to us in places of fear. When Jesus came to the disciples, at first there was apparently no reaction. They were no doubt stunned by his sudden arrival. Well, of course, they were stunned; he didn’t even knock and come through the door! He was just suddenly present. It was after he showed them his wounds, demonstrating his humanity, that they recognized him. Then they were joyful. So it is with us. We must recognize Jesus when he comes to us and accept his offer of peace. It may be that knowledge of his suffering helps us to accept him into our own suffering. We know that he understands, that he knows what it’s like, and that he knows how we feel. God, however, never forces us to accept his love or to be transformed – it is always our choice.

Paul writes to the Romans (12:2) “Let God transform you inwardly by a complete change of your mind.” He says that we are to become Christ-like. How are we transformed? It is not something we can do for ourselves; only God can transform us. Jesus exhorted us to go to our room, close the door and pray to our Father, who is unseen (Matt 6:6). When we allow Jesus to come in, past our locked doors, the doors become thresholds of opportunity and the room becomes not a place of escape but one of nurturing and growth. It is good to spend time there. But we can’t allow ourselves to become comfortable in that room for too long. For the next step, of course, is to open the door and cross the threshold to serve and teach others as the disciples did. Does it take courage? Yes, but the time in the room alone with God will strengthen us. I think we cycle back and forth across this threshold. We grow, we go out and become accustomed to new ways of being, then we find ourselves back in the room again. Transformation comes in steps and goes on through out our lifetime. But we always have the reassurance of Christ with us and the joy of Christ’s peace and the promise of abundant life.

So go behind closed door as often as you need to. While you are there, be open to the creative and transforming power of the Holy Spirit. And then, when you are ready, open the door and come out. If you have spent time behind closed doors with the living Christ, the world needs you. Amen

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