God is still speaking,  

 

Irondequoit

Church Of Christ

...

644 Titus Avenue

 Rochester, NY  14617

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OF UNITED CHURCH OF CHRIST

LAST WEEK'S SERMON

What Belongs to God

Matthew 22:15-22

Rev. Loren McGrail

Irondequoit United Church of Christ

October 18, 2020

 

 

            In the face of yet another aggressive and explosive question meant to entrap him, the Pharisees and Herodians, approach Jesus with a question: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” On the surface it appears this passage from Matthew, also told in the Gospels of Mark and Luke, is about taxation. Yet we know from history that the Pharisees of Jesus’ day saw this tribute tax as heretical and a capitulation to a pagan emperor; for stamped on the coin under the head of Caesar were the words, “Caesar Augustus, Son of God, Father of the nation.”

            In Jewish religious thought, foreign kings have power over Israel only by permission from God. The Herodians, however, saw refusing to pay the tax as sedition. Jesus understood either way this was going to be lose-lose proposition. Jesus did not get along with either religious elites or Roman conquerors. He knew that the Romans lived off the poll taxes collected from the conquered territories. What these religious elites were saying is, “Do you support us, those who collaborate with Rome, or side with the rebels who want to restore a Davidic empire? Will you follow Caesar’s law or Moses’ law?

            Though he is approached by flattery (“Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth”). Jesus knows their intentions are sinister, so he asks, for them to show him a coin. They dig into their pockets and pull out a Roman coin. Under Jewish law it was illegal to have these coins in the temple. Having caught them in their own web, he finally answers, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what belongs to God.”

            Dear Ones, reach into your pockets or purses and pull out a paper bill, turn it to the side that says, “In God we Trust” over the Lincoln Memorial. It used to say E Pluribus Unium. I invite you to ponder here with me what it means to have our currency stamped with a religious conviction, or to wonder why it was changed.

            “Give unto Caesar’s what is Caesars, and to God what is God’s.” How typical of Jesus to respond with a challenge, and a both- and answer. It’s important to stop here and recognize what Jesus does not say. He doesn’t say that there is a secular and a religious realm and they each require our fidelity. The coin already has the emperor’s image on it, so give it to him. Does this mean Jesus is condoning paying taxes? Some read the passage this way. Others are more concerned with what belongs to God. What kind of tribute do we owe God? Dorothy Day, Catholic activist and founder of the Catholic Worker Movement said, “Once you give to God what belongs to God, there is nothing for Caesar.

            Is Jesus saying we owe nothing to a false god like Caesar and reserve all things for God? Is he saying we may owe Caesar taxes, but we owe God our whole selves? Why should we render all things to God?

            Our faith teaches us that all people are created in the image of God.

Dear Ones, I invite you to remove your mask for a moment. I invite you to allow others to see God’s imprint on your beautiful face. I invite you to bring your hands together and repeat after me the namaste greeting, “The divine in me meets the divine in you.” Thank you. You may put your masks back on.

            If we believe we should give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, what happens when Caesar is Hitler or a tyrant?  What if the government has become an apartheid or fascist state? What if the rule of law takes the away people’s freedom or protects only the elite? Do we still give? Do we resist?

            There is a wonderful story about Henry David Thoreau who along with Ralph Waldo Emerson was a war resister. As part of his resistance, he refused to pay his taxes. He ended up in jail. Emerson is said to have visited him and asked, “Why are you in jail?” Thoreau answered, “Why aren’t you?”

            Dear Ones, each of us has to account for how we spend our time, energy, and financial resources. To whom do we give it over to? And how much?  If everything belongs to God, then our spiritual lives and our political lives must be in alignment. They must not contradict each other. As an image-bearer of a loving, forgiving and gracious God,

 we owe God grace and generosity to all of God’s people even those whom we differ with or deem enemies.

            During this election season, many of us are feeling compelled to vote no matter how long the lines, no matter how worried we are about the electoral process itself. Others feel compelled to give to organizations or people who champion the causes they care about. Others have signed up to be poll- workers. Many are praying for a just process and a peaceful transition no matter who wins.

            Wherever you are on this continuum we are all members of one body in Christ. IUCC’s doors will be open on November 3rd in the afternoon for silent prayer and meditation. You are invited to stop in anytime after 3:00 pm. I will also be around for pastoral conversation. At 6:30 we will have a short communion service.

            I would like to end with these words from the poem On Taxation Day by Walter Brueggemann:

                        In any case we are haunted
                        by what we render to Caesar,
                        by what we might render to you,
                        by the way we invest our wealth and our lives,
                        when what you ask is an “easy yoke”:
                        to do justice
                        to love mercy
                        to walk humbly with you.

                        Give us courage for your easy burden, so to live untaxed                            lives.

            Dear Ones, by all means give the emperor what belongs to him. But remember that our first loyalty is to God and God’s Beloved Community here, on the way, and not yet. All belongs to God.

 

 

What if?

Rev. Loren McGrail

Matthew 22:1-14

Irondequoit United Church of Christ

October 11, 2020

 

 

 

 

     What a parable. How can heaven be like this? On first reading I didn’t know what to make of the violence in the parable. What didn’t make sense to me was the interpretation that God was like this awful violent King or that we should all dress properly so we can be chosen. This didn’t square with my idea of who either Jesus was or what God’s essential character was.

     It also smelled like anti-Semitism to read that the A-list guests who refused to attend the wedding were God’s chosen people, the Israelites, and that the B-listers were last minute guests like us—the Gentiles. It’s a convenient interpretation for those who see themselves as the latecomers. Don’t we all secretly relish that we are glad we are not like those other guests who rejected the king’s invitation. Haven’t we all placed ourselves in the category of those who flock to the wedding feast in our fancy garb?

     Dear Ones, I think we need to repent and reboot this parable. As Christ’s followers, do we really believe in a hotheaded vengeful and petty God who was ready to burn an entire city to the ground in order to appease his ego? A God who invites a homeless guy into his palace and then casts the guest into the “outer darkness” for reasons the guest can’t control? Do we really believe in a God whose holiness rests on unyielding and violent anger? A God whose invitation to salvation has strings attached? Many of us were brought up with this kind of father/king God and have been severely damaged by this belief in a judgmental tyrant.

     But what if the king in the parable is not God at all? What if the king is what we project onto God? What if the king embodies everything we’ve learned to associate with power and authority from watching human kings and rulers? Rulers like Pharaoh? Kings like Herod? Or leaders in our own time who exercise their authority in abusive, violent ways that have even led to unnecessary deaths?

     Let me share with you another interpretation from the wonderful and humorous Lutheran pastor Nadia Boltz Weber, from her sermon The Worst Parable Ever:

00

A king throws a wedding banquet and invites the other rich, slave-owning powerful people. Seemingly unimpressed by the promised veal cutlet at the wedding feast, the elite invitees laugh at the invitation and proceed to abuse and then kill the slaves of the king.  Well then, the king kills them back.  But he doesn't stop there, not to be outdone, he burns down the city… and it is there amidst the burning carnage of the newly destroyed city he sends more slaves to go find whoever they can to fill the seats. After all, the food is ready, and he has all these fancy robes for the guests. All he cares about is having every seat filled at his big party.  But who is left?  He burned the city.

The rich and powerful have been murdered so it's the regular folks wandering the streets looking for their dead, picking apart the charred debris of their burned city who are then told that they have no choice but to go to the party of the guy responsible.  And it's already been established that he doesn't respond well if you turn him down.  So, the terrified masses show up and pretend that this capricious tyrant didn't just lay waste to their city.  Out of fear they all dutifully put on their wedding robes given them at the door and they pretend. Slipping on a gorgeous garment was what you did for a king's wedding feast. And the guests got to keep the outfits, just a little souvenir of the king's generosity - and a reminder to keep in line. You don't get anything from the empire without it costing you a bit of your life. 

    0 Well, our 0story ends with these well-dressed survivors looking on as the King spots the one guy at the banquet who isn't wearing a wedding robe.  0And when the innocent man has nothing to say for himself the king has this scapegoat hogtied and thrown into the outer darkness. Many are called but few are chosen he says.

     What Nadia’s interpretation does is to invite us to think more deeply about the guy who refuses to wear the king’s wedding robe. What if the kin-dom of God is all about that guy who says no to imperial authority? What if the kin-dom of God is about a guy who gets scapegoated and hog tied because he doesn’t conform? What if the kin-dom of God is about a man who ends up wearing a loincloth on a cross?  What if Jesus is the un0robed guest?

     If Jesus is that one then,0 what robes of power, privilege, wealth, empire, or complicity would you have to refuse to wear? What feasts would you have to forgo to follow this unrobed dissenter when he’s escorted into the darkness? God is not an imperial king, therefore God’s kin-dom will not look like it does here where you must be an elite to get on the A list or come and conform if you are on the B list. However, it is still true, if you refuse to submit to imperial authority you may indeed be cast into the darkness because of your refused to wear empire’s finest finery. You may also be scapegoated and tied if you wear your own gay apparel. And you will definitely end up in the gutter if you dare say the Emperor has no clothes.

     So, what can you wear? You wonder. You could choose to wear the sun like Mary, the queen of heaven, did or you can don a long white robe with a golden sash like the Son of Man or you can put on the armor of God.  Or, dear ones, you could simply allow yourself to ‘be clothed’ in Jesus’s tender love and come as you are.

          Dear ones, this is the good and bad news. God will garb you. There will indeed be a heavenly banquet, a feast where everyone is invited. I invite you to accept the invitation. Then I invite you to00 disrobe, to lose empire’s straitjacket of dos and donts and garb yourself in the One who has always loved you, accepted you just the way you are.

          On this Neighbors in Need Sunday I invite you to support all our neighbors, sisters and brothers, who live on the margins of empire, who hide in its shadows waiting for a meal, clothes for the cold. On this Sunday of celebrating Coming Out, I invite you to revel in our rainbow graced world and recommit ourselves to welcome and equal rights for all. On this umpteenth day during our global pandemic, I invite you to not only get your flu shots but to stand up for the health and well- being of all God’s people. Finally, on this glorious Fall Sunday, I invite you to refuse not only to ‘stand by’ but to stand up and speak up for all the guests at the table and be thankful that you are one of them.

 

 

 

 

 

Lord Make Us Channels of Your Love

Matthew 26:47-52

The Legend of Saint Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio


Rev. Loren McGrail

Irondequoit United Church of Christ

World Communion Sunday and Saint Francis Day

October 4, 2020


“In God’s hand is the life of every living thing

and the breath of every human being.

                                                    Job



          Good morning dearest ones, so glad you have tuned in to be with us in worship. Today is World Communion Sunday and Saint Francis Day. To celebrate both of these liturgical events our worship today will include prayers from around the world in our Communion liturgy and we will include a well -known story about St. Francis as part of reading sacred stories.

          Often churches do an animal blessing in or around St. Francis Day to honor the Saint who is best known for his deep connection to all of God’s creatures which also include the sun and the moon. Like a saintly version of Dr. Doolittle, Francis was known to address all of God’s creatures as sister and brother. By treating all with respect and dignity we get to the idea of blessings our pets.

          This being a virtual service, you are invited to bless the pets in your home as part of today’s liturgy. You are invited to read this blessing and the poem about the Sow at any time you wish to give thanks to the creatures you know and take care of or who take care of you.

          Today, however, I would also like us to shift toward another part of St. Francis’ legacy and that is his deep commitment as a follower of Jesus to love of enemy, forgiveness and nonviolence.

          Most know of St. Francis vow of poverty, but little know about his deep commitment to peacemaking. I would like to share a few details from his life story so you can understand how he might have arrived to this deep commitment and practice.

Then we will reflect on the relationship between this legend and our Gospel reading. Finally, we will reflect what these texts have to say to us today.

          St. Francis was born in Assisi, Italy around 1182. His father was a wealthy cloth merchant. At age 20 Francis became a knight and went off to war against the neighboring state of Perugia. He was captured and spent a year in jail. After his release he became seriously ill. His epiphany came while traveling the countryside on his horse. It is said that one day while riding he saw a leper and dismounted and gave him his cloak and then kissed him. This event was life changing. He heard God call him, “Francis, repair my church.” He understood first as a call to literally fix up the old church in Assisi. Later he understood this to mean he was to “recall the church to the radical simplicity of the gospel, to the spirit of poverty.”

          A return to radical simplicity included seeing nature as a magnificent book in which God speaks to us and grants us a glimpse of his infinite beauty and goodness. God is in all of nature including all its creatures. They are our brothers and sisters. And thus, we are to bless and protect them and do them no harm.

          The legend of St. Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio is an example of this deep understanding. I would like to highlight a few parts of the story for your reflection today.

          The story begins with a detailed explanation of the experience of violence and terror of Gubbio by a wolf. The town was terrified and believed that the wolf must be killed. They appealed to St. Francis to perform some kind of miraculous killing or send the wolf to Spoletto, their enemy next door. The mayor and the townspeople wanted revenge and they wanted Saint Francis to help them.

          Francis stated he would go and meet with the wolf to hear his story. When the wolf saw Francis, he stalked him like a predator. Seeing the wolf, Francis felt a connection and made the sign of the cross and called the wolf to come closer, “Come Brother Wolf, I will not hurt you. Let us talk in peace.” Once the wolf felt Francis meant no harm, he sat down to listen. Francis then told the wolf about what the townspeople were experiencing. He described the pain and resentment and then asked this wonderful question, “How did this come to happen?” Why did you kill the livestock and people?

          Francis then listened to the Wolf’s story about how his pack had left him because he had been injured; how he could only catch prey that couldn’t run fast like sheep and goats. He explained to Francis that all he wanted was to eat when he was hungry.

          Dear Ones, when was the last time you stopped to listen to the story of someone who has harmed you or people you care about? Were you able to address this person as sister or brother? Were you able to listen to all the details? Did your heart open?

          Francis not only listened to the wolf’s story but explained how the wolf’s actions affected the people. Through Francis the wolf was able to feel remorse at having caused such pain. Then Francis prayed while the wolf watched not completely understanding.

          The resolution for both the wolf and the townspeople was for them to feed him and in return the wolf would stop killing the people and their livestock. Working now as a kind of spiritual bondsman, Francis assured the wolf that he would be forgiven and welcomed.

Francis trusted that the townspeople could let go of their fear and hate if they saw the wolf ask for forgiveness.

          Francis trusted the wolf not to do any future harm and that the townspeople would be moved by this act of forgiveness. Dear Ones, have you ever been in the place of either the townspeople or the wolf? Have you experienced the miraculous healing of forgiveness?

          When Francis brought the wolf into the town square, he added that the wolf couldn’t be killed or passed off to Spoletto, or Perugia and that Brother wolf would serve as a defender of the town.

          I love the part of the next part about the way Francis wept with the townspeople as they struggled to let their hearts soften. He was no neutral negotiator. After many tears, the townspeople found compassion for the wolf. At Francis’ suggestion, they addressed him as Brother Wolf.

          And then one of the loveliest parts of the story comes at the end when the wife of the slain shepherd comes out with food for the wolf. “Brother Wolf was humbled when he found his apology accepted.”

          So, sisters and brothers, dear ones all, we are living in desperate times surrounded by wolves--- hate groups ready to go into battle at a given notice. Imperial authorities have once again raised their clubs and swords ready to capture by force the innocent ones who refuse to surrender to secular authorities or who obey a higher authority that proclaims love of neighbor and love of enemy as their mantra.

          Dear ones, we are at that place in our own story where we must not only decide which side are we on in this war for racial equity and respect, but how are we going to proceed with a spirit of love and nonviolence. We are called not to stand by but to stand up.

          God give us the strength today to put down all our swords, to find a way to listen to our brother and sister wolves, and most importantly a way to allow the truth of the oppression to be told in such a way that even those most harmed and oppressed can step forward and let go of the burden of hate. Creator God, brother Jesus, we pray to live more deeply, more reverently into the belief that the life of every living thing and the breath of every human being is precious.

     






   

Feed them and Walk with the Wind

Matthew 14: 13-21

Rev. Loren McGrail

Irondequoit United Church of Christ

August 2, 2020



    Now Jesus was sad and needed time alone. He had just learned that his beloved cousin John, John the Baptist, had been beheaded and served on a platter at Herod’s birthday party. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus withdrew from the boat to a deserted place by himself but the crowds followed him. And when he saw them, he had compassion for them. The disciples too had compassion and suggested that the crowd disperse so they could go back to their villages and buy food. Seems logical and thoughtful but instead Jesus said, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” The disciples point out that there is not enough only two fish and five loaves. Jesus asks them to bring them to him so he can bless them. And then the miracle happens. He breaks the bread and there is enough, more than enough.

            Dear Ones, this is not some kind of divine magic trick. The miracle is that they all shared what they had and that was enough. The people made do and because of this God’s grace provided enough and then some.

            Hard to believe that there will be enough in the middle of a pandemic when t unemployment benefits have run out, when we are facing what some are calling an eviction apocalypse, and we have a surge of bread lines throughout the country equivalent to those of the Great Depression. Even here in Irondequoit just last week thousands lined up for food and milk distribution from the Dairy Association.

            Hard to share when the culture tells us to spend, save, or even hoard. Remember the toilet paper frenzy? On top we live in a culture that prizes individual rights over the need to protect others. Doubly hard then to trust in someone else providing, let alone sharing. Not easy to trust in God’s abundance when all you have known is either you must make it on your own or you won’t have enough. Hard to trust that there will be enough for all.

            And then there were the leftovers.  There were leftovers which were gathered up so that nothing would be lost. Isn’t this part of the miracle that abundance persists after the feeding?

            Jan L. Richardson says, “Call it persistence of wonder, or the stubbornness of the miraculous; how Christ casts his circle around the fragments, will not lose his hold on what is broken and pieces.”

             What does this persistence of plenty mean when there appears only lack?

            Persistence in facing lack is a persistent theme in our holy texts from the Exodus story of manna in the desert to Jesus breaking bread at the Last Supper or breaking bread with the disciples on the road to Emmaus. We are called to persist even when we face great dangers.

            On Thursday the late great congressman John L. Lewis was eulogized and laid to rest. People are celebrating his life and lifting up his many words of wisdom. Both are providing spiritual food for a nation starving for authenticity and leadership. I would like to end today’s sermon with a story he told in his memoir about an event that happened in his childhood during a terrible storm. The event made a lasting mark on the young boy that later became a mark of his legacy to us. This story too is a story of persistence. Here it is:

About fifteen of us children were outside my aunt Seneva’s house, playing in her dirt distance, and suddenly I wasn’t thinking about playing anymore; I was terrified…Aunt Seneva was the only adult around, and as the sky blackened and the wind grew stronger, she herded us all inside.

Her house was not the biggest place around, and it seemed even smaller with so many children squeezed inside. Small and surprisingly quiet. All of the shouting and laughter that had been going on earlier, outside, had stopped. The wind was howling now, and the house was starting to shake. We were scared. Even Aunt Seneva was scared.

And then it got worse. Now the house was beginning to sway. The wood plank flooring beneath us began to bend. And then, a corner of the room started lifting up.

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. None of us could. This storm was actually pulling the house toward the sky. With us inside it.

That was when Aunt Seneva told us to clasp hands. Line up and hold hands, she said, and we did as we were told. Then she had us walk as a group toward the corner of the room that was rising. From the kitchen to the front of the house we walked, the wind screaming   outside, sheets of rain beating on the tin roof. Then we walked back in the other direction, as another end of the house began to lift.

And so it went, back and forth, fifteen children walking with the wind, holding that trembling house down with the weight of our small bodies.

            More than half a century has passed since that day, and it has struck me more than once over those many years that our society is not unlike the children in that house, rocked again and again by the winds of one storm or another, the walls around us seeming at times as if they might fly apart.

It seemed that way in the 1960s, at the height of the civil rights movement, when America itself felt as if it might burst at the seams—so much tension, so many storms. But the people of conscience never left the house. They never ran away. They stayed, they came           together, and they did the best they could, clasping hands and moving toward the corner of the house that was the weakest. And then another corner would lift, and we would go there. And eventually, inevitably, the storm would settle, and the house would still stand. But we knew another storm would come, and we would have to do it all over again. And we did. And we still do, all of us. You and I.


            Dear Ones, we have been hit by a number of storms lately. Some of have called them pandemics. We have Covid 19, racism, police brutality and militarization, climate catastrophe, and growing economic inequity.  

            In Lewis’ story the children walked with the wind to

hold the house down with the weight of their trembling bodies. During the Civil Rights Movement, Lewis saw a parallel story with the way people clasped hands and moved toward the house that was the weakest.

            Dear Ones, in the middle of summer, in the middle of all these ongoing pandemics, we are commanded to show compassion, to feed each other and to pick up all the fragments and broken pieces so that we all may know there will always be enough today and tomorrow. Furthermore, this is where we will find him--- in the breaking of bread, in sharing our lives. 

            So Dear Ones, walk with the wind into all the storms and pandemics and share what you’ve got and watch it multiply by God’s grace. And then gather up all the fragments and broken pieces to remind you that you are enough and that there will be enough if we share.









          


         









   

The Signs are All Around

Matthew 13:31-33,44-52

Rev. Loren McGrail

July 26, 2020

Irondequoit UCC


More parables about what the kin-dom of God is like this week. What all these parables have in common is that they all hint that God’s kin-dom is already breaking into the world in a disarming and for many disenchanting and maybe even a gross way. Even now we do not sing O what a might mustard bush is our God, right?

 Barbara Brown Taylor reminds us that all these stories talk about the hiddenness of God in the most ordinary everyday things.  These parables are also like heavenly templates that help us measure what a good society should look like or include. The problem according to the writer of the Gospel of Thomas is that “The Father’s kingdom is spread out upon the earth, and people don’t see (GT 113). It is spread out upon the earth but also inside us. Entry into the kin-dom is a full process of finding, growing, selling, and buying.

Let us take a closer look at some of the parables beginning with the mustard seed. Let us start with the fact that mustard was an obnoxious, invasive, and forbidden weed in a Jewish garden. It is the complete opposite of the mighty cedars of Lebanon associated with empires. Though it is comforting to read this as our small amount of faith can grow into a mighty tree, I would like to suggest rather that once again Jesus is reminding us that even the weeds are mighty in God’s vision of shalom and that perhaps God’s empire is more pervasive than dominant, more like a pungent weed that takes over everything and transforms into a shelter for the birds of the air. Reading this parable this way would have been comforting for those on the bottom of society who were most of the people listening, and discomforting for those at the top who would rather align themselves with the mighty cedars.

When we sow even the smallest of seeds, we can affect others in significant ways. We have also seen during this pandemic the power of a phone call from a beloved friend, a zoom dinner online with family, a socially distant walk in a park, a note from your church, a prayer. Nancy Smith shared in Bible Study this week the story of how a friend named Dave had a wife who was dying and how her students gave her a concert before she died. When we let go of all our seeds and allow the Holy Spirit to help, we might indeed be planting weeds that will become trees for all of God’s creatures.

The second parable is harder to grasp because understanding the subversive nature of it requires knowing a little about how bread was made in first century Palestine and how the patriarchal society looked down on women’s work.

Let’s start with the meaning of ‘leaven.’ Leaven was leftover bread that was put in a dark damp place until the bread rotted and decayed into mold which was then used as a kind of wildly proliferating leavening agent, unlike modern commercial versions of store-bought yeast. Leavened bread which was inflated by mold was used every day. In addition, it represents the border between domestic and the wild. By lifting up leavened bread and not the holy male bread, unleavened bread, Jesus is once again showing us how God’s kin-dom lifts up women and their holy work of bread making. This parable would have made the listeners hold their noses or hoot with disbelief that their bread was the favored one.

Jesus is a champion of weeds and women and composting mold.. He is, as Jim Perkinson says, “Pillorying the patriarchal and the tamed.” Our calling as Christians then is not to separate ourselves from imperfection but rather to call for those at the bottom to rise up. The flour and the water and the leaven are all jumbled together yet it is the lowly leaven that has a unique role in causing the dough to rise.

Over the past week in Portland, Oregon we have seen a new kind of uprising taking place in the streets during ongoing protests for Black Lives Matter. It started down in Louisville when the women in the community formed a human wall around the protesters to protect them from the potential violence of the militarized police. The women acted as human shields. In Portland, and now Chicago, and across the country, mothers are rising up to protect the lives of all their children against tear gas, pepper spray, and other tactics of force against the protesters. Wouldn’t Jesus be pleased to see how his parable of leaven has been interpreted and applied in our modern times?

The parable about the hidden treasure and the pearl invites us to become archeologists and divers of the holy, to look through dirt and rubble for hidden treasure, to excavate the landscape for things of worth to reveal what is truly valuable. We are to become merchants of on the make searching and looking for ways to connect with the source of who we are. We are called to buy into God’s plan.

Lastly, we are called to cast our nets wide, to catch the good and bad fish together. Each fish will be examined on the shore. This is not our work. Our work is to be a fisher of people. God will do the judging in the end.

Each parable calls us into a deeper understanding about how the world should be. First, we must understand what it should look like with the least made first, and the first made last. Once we have understood God calls us to say Yes but this must be followed by action. Each of us must  become wise in putting the new and the old together. What has been discovered or found must literally be invested in. The kin-dom of heaven is an ongoing process of putting together the new and the old, of finding, selling, and investing in our earthly holy lives; and then finally reinventing ourselves in the light of the going revelation of God’s inclusive love.

Lutheran Pastor Nadia Volz-Weber says, “When we can identify the kingdom of heaven sown around us it’s not just an FYI kind of thing it’s a subversion. It’s God peeking through the curtain and letting us know that there is a deeper reality present in the world – a reality in which God gets God way… And seeing where God seems to be insistently, dangerously, gorgeously and hilariously sewing signs of the kingdom is important because seeing signs of the kingdom of heaven loosens us from the kingdom of this world.  It frees us from the false promises of human culture and shows us that which is eternal and true and unstoppable.







          


         









   

Is this What the Kin-dom of Heaven is Like?

Matthew 13:24-30,36-43

Rev. Loren McGrail

Irondequoit United Church of Christ

July 19,2020

 

Yes. The parable Jesus teaches is another lesson about God’s kin-dom on earth as it already is in heaven. It is another parable about farming and nature---a story about planting wheat and how and why weeds called tares or cheat wheat grow alongside the wheat and what to do.

This parable found only in Matthew was addressed to a community in crisis or divided between Jewish and Gentile Christians. Jewish Christians felt they were the wheat because they still followed the Torah while Gentile Christians felt they were the wheat because they had freedom from the old rules. They each identified the other as the poisoness tare. Jesus’ message to them was that the wheat and the weeds must co-exist in peace because their roots are entangled. If you pulled up the shoots of the tares, you would pull up the wheat. Therefore, one must wait until the harvest or you would poison the grain and contaminate next year’s crop The Jewish Christians must not use violence to uproot the latter. Furthermore, Jesus wanted them all to know that the message was about those who responded to his call to be part of a Beloved Community and those who didn’t. Those who didn’t were the weeds. This is one interpretation of the parable based on looking at the parable from the context of a message given to a divided people. We would be wise to ponder the divisions we see in our own church or society and heed the call to live together –roots tangled, wheat and weeds.

. Another interpretation focuses more on the social economic and political context of people following Jesus. For the landless peasants who were Jesus’ main audience economic loss from a contaminated field would have been a huge hardship. It would have meant a loss in wages which would have meant not enough money to support their families. To the wealthy landowners, a contaminated field would have meant a loss of profit and thus no wheat to sell to feed his family. You see the rich ate wheat while the poor first century Palestinian peasants eat barely.

The parable puts forward what life under empire looked like. Wealthy landowners use enslaved servants and day laborers to do their dirty work in the fields. And the Roman Empire wanted to keep this system intact as an easier way to occupy the population. Roman law forbade a world where the wheat and the weeds would live together. A kind of Jim Crow system that said there should be no intermingling.

Those Galilean peasants listening to Jesus would have been laughing about the threat to the wheat field. They identified themselves as the weeds. These peasant farmers might even have secretly clapped because this unknown weedy healer whose life was under constant threat and heavy surveillance from both the secular and religious powers had just likened heaven a place where even they had a place.

This seemingly benign parable with its tacked on ending about the how the church must tolerate the wheat and the weeds until the end times turns out to be rather a subversive tale because perhaps God’s beloved community, kin-dom ,is not meant to be a monocrop, a genetically modified weed resistant crop but rather more something like a community garden where everyone has a share and where milkweed and dandelions grow like weeds for the bees and other pollinators. In this permaculture garden, all have a place.

         Barbara Brown Taylor sees this as a parable that reminds us that God is more interested in growth than perfection. I would go further and say the parable celebrates weeds, even those that might look like and act like enemies. The issue is who is the enemy? Or who gets to call others enemies.

            Jim Perkinson’s thought provoking commentary it is the landowner who says it is the tare that sows itself against the grain of his settled agriculture’s intention to enslave and exploit that is the enemy.

            In our current world who do you consider the wheat and the weeds? I invite you to consider who is enslaving whom and profiting. I invite you to consider the tares who are going against the grain.

            The good news Dear Ones, is that heaven is full of weeds just like us. The question is how do we embrace our calling for prophetic witness while resisting the temptation to weed the garden? How do we allow ourselves to become root bound with those we consider ‘other’, less than, even poisonous to our way of life? How do we allow or even cultivate diversity so all can co-exist and even thrive including the pollinators?

            We begin by remembering that in God’s kin-dom, not kingdom, there are no outsiders, no enemies; we are all kin, part of one family. “An injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are all tied together in a garment of destiny”, said the late Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

            To do this we need to develop love, appreciation, and forgiveness for others. This weekend we are remembering one of God’s greatest lovers and one of America’s most dedicated civil servants. John Robert Lewis died on July 18th at age 80 due to cancer. This distinguished man was arrested 45 times, beaten almost to death, and served for 33 years in Congress. He began his life preaching to the chickens on his parent’s farm in Alabama and ended it preaching to us on how to love our way out of this hot mess we have created.

            In his memoir Across That Bridge: Life Lessons and a Vision for Change, Lewis wrote:

Anchor the eternity of love in your own soul and embed this planet with goodness. Lean toward the whispers of your own heart, discover the universal truth, and follow its dictates. Release the need to hate, to harbor division, and the enticement of revenge. Release all bitterness. Hold only love, only peace in your heart, knowing that the battle of good to overcome evil is already won. Choose confrontation wisely, but when it is your time don’t be afraid to stand up, speak up, and speak out against injustice. And if you follow your truth down the road to peace and the affirmation of love, if you shine like a beacon for all to see, then the poetry of all the great dreamers and philosophers is yours to manifest in a nation, a world community, and a Beloved Community that is finally at peace with itself.” Amen Brother John. Rest in power.

Dear Ones, we are called to love not only our neighbor but our enemies too, to love the tares, to perhaps even to become one by getting into trouble, “good trouble, necessary trouble” as Lewis said many times.

So Dear Ones, while you wear your masks in public, I invite you to unmask yourselves to each other, so that you can appreciate your weedy selves and shine like a beacon. While you are maintaining social distancing in public, allow yourselves to get close to, mingle with those who are different from you; close enough so you can hear the truth of their stories and hear them as part of your own.

Go forth this hot July day, ready to accept the field that we are in---wheat and weeds intermingling, and when the time comes don’t be afraid to stand up, speak up, and speak out against any injustice in the name of God’s inclusive love for all. And remember that tares, toxic to humans and cows, are food to the doves like the one who returned with an olive branch to Noah or who descended from heaven and called Jesus Beloved. Remember this too!

         

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

The Extravagant Sower and Being a Cracked Pot

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Rev. Loren McGrail

Irondequoit United Church of Christ

July 12,2020

 

          Jesus says: a man went out to plant, scattering seed everywhere. Some never sprouted because the birds got to it first, or it landed on soil too rocky for roots. Some seed that did germinate got choked off by weeds, and some couldn’t get enough sun. But some fell on good earth: it got the right light and enough rain and yielded thirty, sixty, and a hundred-fold. Jesus explains: the seed is the word of God. Not everyone who hears it will take it in. But if we do, what can happen to us is beyond dreaming.

 

          So, don’t we all just want to be the ‘good soil’ who hears and

understands the Word? Isn’t this a parable about becoming a better

person---one worthy for God to plant God’s Word in us? How do we

then transform our shallow, rocky, or thorny selves into good soil, into

something worthy of bearing God’s Gospel seed?

          Christian mystic Suzanne Griffith recounts that her grandmother taught her a rhyme when planting that goes like this: “One for the mouse, one for the crow, one to rot, and one to grow.” This understanding has allowed her to identify positively to all kinds of soil. “I embody the infertility, the leaving to chance, the impossibly stubborn thorns, the immutable rocks, the shallow soil, the unprotected ground, the carelessly trodden pathways wide open for the winged robbers and burrowing thieves.” Then she goes on to say, “I need not hoard grace--- so you birds of the air, you little mice feed your families, eat your fill.

 

Plenty of grace for all.”

Plenty of grace for all because the Sower is generous and scatters

the seeds amongst the rocks and thorns and even the pathway just like the elderly Chinese woman who scattered her seeds along the pathways waiting for the cracked pot to release its water. Like Jesus, who scatters his seed on all who have ears to hear and who squanders his time with tax collectors and sinners, lepers and outcasts, the Sower flings his seeds everywhere and wastes with abandon, confident that there is enough to go around. Lutheran preacher and writer, Nadia Bolz-Weber says, “Grace is the cargo train that distributes into my life all the good and beautiful things that are un-earn-able.”

          You see Dear Ones, God is besotted with us and wants to give us this ridiculous harvest. You can trust God to produce this beauty, to produce it with or without us. The parable is not about what kind of soil you are but about the extravagant love of God who keeps on sowing giving us a harvest that is not of our own making.

 

          The question then, Dear Ones, is what wild and unexpected seeds  might you be holding in your hands? What kind of deep cultivation is going on in your soul that allows you to accept this grace? What flowers are you growing from your imperfections?  What beauty are you bringing forth to someone’s life?

I would like to end with this prayer/poem by Steve Garnass

Holmes called The Sower:

God will sow the seed of herself in you

and sometimes you won't know it.

Sometimes you'll suspect but not trust.

Sometimes you'll believe but chicken out

Sometimes you'll do your best to receive but fail.

And sometimes grace will bear fruit in you.

You'll need to forgive

and sometimes you won't try,

or try and get hung up on your own deserving,

or get discouraged when the other doesn't get it.

And sometimes forgiveness will set you free.

God will sow you in the world

and sometimes you won't belong.

Sometimes people will misunderstand.

Sometimes they'll dislike you or use you.

And sometimes you'll blossom.

Sometimes you'll try to sow seeds of justice

but you'll do a lousy job.

Or do it well, but folks will resist.

Or they'll care but they'll be overwhelmed by an unjust society.

And sometimes your witness will bear fruit.

Failure,

failure,

failure,

fruit.

All of it grace.  All of it.

 

          Lord of the harvest, teach us to be reckless sowers, scattering the seed of your Gospel in the most unlikely places. May God the Sower make us fertile in faith, love, and goodness; take us out with joy and lead us on in peace as signs of the faithfulness of heaven. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  

Learning the Unforced Rhythms of Grace

Sirach 6:23-31

Matthew 11:16-30

Rev. Loren McGrail

Irondequoit United Church of Christ

July 5,2020

 

          It’s July 4th weekend without approved Firework displays, somewhere deep into our world -wide Covid -19 pandemic, and a new chapter in our ongoing race pandemic that began in 1619.

           This is also the opening of our first outdoor worship service not on our church campus but in the community where after over 4 months we meet wearing face masks and sit six feet apart and wave our ‘Peace of Christ’ fans to each other during the passing of the peace. It is also the first time we are having a service that you can listen to in your car on an am station. Our first drive-in worship for those who have been sheltering in place and still need to minimize possible exposure to the virus. It is also our first service where you are invited to bring your own communion ‘elements’ and sing while wearing a face mask. So thankful this morning to all of you for showing up online, coming out to see your church family, and to worship our God as a strong and steadfast community able to make new ways out of old ways.

          So many firsts---good and bad and lectionary readings this morning that are perfect for the state of our weary souls carrying so many new experiences, worries, challenges, even burdens---personal and collective.

          This morning’s sermon centers on three key words in Matthew’s Gospel as they relate to a message for cities to repent and a call to ones without power or who have been abused by those in power to come and find rest. The words are wisdom, rest, and yoke.

          But first let’s look at the context in which Matthew is speaking to his persecuted flock in First Century Antioch. The first Jewish revolt had failed, the Temple was in ruins, and the Galilean mission had been a failure. Jesus heaps a powerful reproach to those who did not welcome him and thanks God for showing things to the simple people--those who are innocent and able to discern wisdom and those carrying heavy burdens on their backs. These include carrying real bricks, the weight of empire’s demands, or the invisible load of grief and fears.

          The new Christians Matthew was speaking to still had strong ties to their Jewish traditions, so Matthew uses Jewish references to anchor his stories about Jesus. He wants his listeners to see that Jesus not only knows his Torah but that those who turn to him are obeying the tradition’s commands.

           This is most evident in verse 11:19 “Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds. Who is Lady Wisdom and why is she vindicated by her deeds? And what does this have to do with Jesus?  Lady Wisdom, Sophia, written about in Book Sirach and in the Book of Proverbs was with God from the beginning of creation. She calls all to dine at her table to feast and then invites them to put their necks in her yoke so they can receive her instruction, “Put your feet into her fetters, and your neck into her collar. Bend your shoulders and carry her, and do not fret under her bonds…Her yoke is a golden ornament and her bonds a purple cord.” Some say Jesus is Sophia incarnated. Matthew’s listeners would have heard the reference to Lady Wisdom and felt assured when Jesus too invites them to come and rest and allow themselves to be yoked to him.

          Yoke. Let’s talk about this term. A yoke is a kind of harness used to allow an animal or a human to carry heavy things. Farmers often used two animals together so they could lighten the load for each other or for the older one to teach the younger one. The word yoke is also often used as a term to describe obedience to Torah.

          Jesus invites all those who labor with excessive burdens of responsibility and control to put on his easier yoke, a yoke that he offers out of compassion and love which is light.

          Jesus promises us rest by putting on this yoke. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann says we are weary because we feel driven, anxious, and coerced to keep busy in order to succeed. I like the way Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor speak about this need to perform, “I may believe that my life depends on God’s grace; but I act like it depends on me and how many good deeds I can perform, as if every day were a talent show and God had nothing better to do than keep up with my score.” Anyone would be weary from this.

          Well, I don’t know about you but one of the gifts of the pandemic, the lockdown and sheltering in place has been the opportunity to literally slow down because there has been nowhere to go. Haven’t we all found that we now have a better sense of what matters and doesn’t?

          My weariness has come from way too many zoom meetings, and news reports about new infections, and listening to streams of hate flowing throughout the land which also includes brutal attacks on Black and Brown people. Dear Ones, this makes me weary. I would like to take a rest from this Jesus. It’s great that you will come help me carry this weariness but please go to the others who have no health insurance, who are vulnerable, or targeted because of the color of their skin. Share your yoke with them too.

          In his article, “How to Find Spiritual Rest”, Todd Hudnall tells a story to illustrate how some of us come to spiritual rest. It is usually after we have tried our best to do it ourselves and when that doesn’t work, we pray or turn it over to God. Here is the story:

          A strong young athlete was wadding waist deep in the               shallow part of a recreational lake. Unknowingly he stepped off an underwater ledge and plunged fifteen feet beneath the surface of the water. After several seconds he bobbed to the top of the water flailing his arms and gasping for breath. The lifeguard attentively watched the situation from a nearby bank. A friend of the struggling young athlete grabbed the lifeguard by the arm and cried out, "Bob can’t swim, you’ve got to help him." The lifeguard continued to watch the struggling swimmer but remained unmoved  as Bob continued kicking and splashing wildly. The young man’s furiously yelled at the lifeguard, "If you won’t go after him, I will." Calmly but firmly the lifeguard said, "None can help him yet. I’ll help him when he’s ready for my help." After a couple more minutes the young athlete stopped his  struggles. As his body became limp, the patient lifeguard suddenly dove into the water, swam out to the young man, and brought him to shore for a successful rescue. Later the friend asked the lifeguard, "Why did you wait so long to help my friend." The lifeguard responded, "As long as Bob was trying to save himself there was nothing, I could do for him. If I swam out to him, he would have grabbed me and pulled me under with him. Only when he was weak, exhausted and had given up was I able to save him."

          Weak and exhausted was what I was when I lay in that hospital bed at Strong Memorial and learned I had Covid-19. I was patient 12; patient 11 died that night down the hall from me. I remember distinctly praying out loud, “Ok, then, I need your help now.” And then I kind of baited God with words like, “If you want me to be one of your people, your messengers, I need to get through this.” I recall a sense of deep peace, a kind of rest come over me, and I knew I wasn’t alone. My rest was both a rescue and a call to continued discipleship.

          Dear Ones, as we resume being a church that meets in person, I invite us to grow back not to what was but instead towards what we can become. We have been gifted with a new beginning, a new way to be with each other and to be church. It begins today with laying down our heavy burdens or heavy yokes we have made for ourselves. It means sharing our burdens with each other, sharing our yokes so that the labor is easier, the burden lighter. It means learning the unforced rhythms of grace and trusting that Jesus will walk with us through whatever comes next.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Become Prophets of Welcome and Justice

Matthew 10:40-42

Rev Loren McGrail

Irondequoit United Church of Christ

June 28, 2020


‘Welcome and Justice for All’ our rainbow doors announce to the world. You are not only welcome here, but you are affirmed in being exactly who God has made you to be. Furthermore, we will speak up, stand up, and show up for you, when Justice is denied.


This last Sunday of June is a celebration of achievements and farewells. We are honoring and sending off our seniors, Caroline and Tim. Some of you have known them since they were wild little toddlers; others remember them from Sunday school, and all are thankful for their service as sextons and now filmmakers.


We send them off with thanksgivings into the future unknown that will need all they have got to give to make our world a safer and more just place. One of the things we hope most is that the love they have experienced here will become a cornerstone of who they are and the guiding light in all they do. We especially hope that they will extend God's gracious just hospitality to all they meet. They will do this by not only welcoming those at the margins and sidelines but by allowing themselves to be welcomed by them as equals and teacher.

In particularly we hope Caroline and Tim that you will remember that you grew up in an Open and Affirming church that support LGBTQ individuals and communities and that speaks up for their rights. We trust that you will make decisions that show how you also support all people no matter their mental or physical abilities, their economic or social status, race or national origin. We know that this call to prophetic welcome is risky and will come with a cost. We hope that we have shown you that it is worth it.

Our lectionary reading today reminds us that like the first disciples, we too, are sent out to become prophets of welcome, to proclaim God's kin-dom open for all.

We live in a thirsty World. There is a deep thirst for love, mercy, and peace that comes through many forms but also begins by offering someone a glass of water.

 We anoint you to go out on our behalf to carry this life-giving water so that this thirst can be washed away by God's abundant love. You were baptized with water and now you are sent to become glasses of water for others in the name of the one who was sent to be living water for all. Go and God's peace with our blessings and hugs.

   


Making the Way Together

Genesis 21:8-21

Rev. Loren McGrail

Irondequoit United Church of Christ

June 21, 2020

 

    One of the longest stories in the Hebrew scripture is the story of Hagar. It appears in fragments throughout the larger narrative about Sarah and Abraham, and begins the narrative often forgotten or covered up that commemorates the blessing of another set of descendants who will also become numerous.

    As the entire world is pivoting to listen to the lives of Black and Brown people by facing systems of structural inequality and brutality, it seems providential that one of our lectionary readings for this Sunday tells the story of an enslaved woman who was commanded to sleep with her mistress’ husband so that God’s promise could be fulfilled.  

Through her slave’s womb, Sarai sought esteem and honor but instead felt threatened by Abrahm’s new concubine. Once pregnant, Hagar ceased to be Sarai’s slave and became his wife.

     It is unclear from our story whether the pregnancy awakened something in Hagar that led her to value her self-worth or show contempt for the barren Sarai. What is known is that relationship between Sara and Hagar changed. The child inside her was proof that she was more than a slave; she was a woman. Black womanist theologian Renita J. Weems, in her book Just a Sister Away, points out that the story of the Egyptian slave and her Hebrew mistress is “hauntingly reminiscent of the disturbing accounts of black slave-women and white mistresses during slavery. Over and over again we have heard tales about the wanton and brutal rape of black women by their white slave-masters, compounded by punitive beatings by resentful white wives who penalized the raped slave-women for their husband’s lust and savagery.”

     Caught between Sarah and Abraham in a struggle for power, Hagar knows all too well the choices facing those who encounter abuse. Yet this object of abuse and later exile, becomes the first in scripture to receive an annunciation, “I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted. You shall call him Ishamel, for the Lord has given heed to your affliction.” After hearing the angel’s words about Ishamel’s future at the Spring in the wilderness,

Hagar named the Lord who spoke to her, “El-roi, for she said, “Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?” (Genesis 16:13). Hagar is one of the only ones in the Bible to name the God she has seen.

    In her story this morning, we learn that Sarah commands Abraham to remove Hagar and her son Ishmael from the tent. He follows her directive. Some say he followed God’s directive so the prophesy of a nation coming from the descendants of Ishmael could be fulfilled. In Islam the story is told that they walked all the way to the desert in Saudi Arabia. Abraham left the two of them with only a satchel of dates and water. Stories vary about how old Ishmael was.

     In Islam, she was still breastfeeding him which means without water she would have no milk to feed him. In despair she ran back and forth up the mountains looking for someone to rescue them or for water. She did not want to see her son die of starvation.

     At the last moment, it is said in Islam that Ishmael scratched the sand with his foot and a great gush of water came out. Zamzam Spring which in now located in Mecca continues to play a role in the Islamic tradition.

     Every year thousands of Muslim pilgrimages make the haji or pilgrimage to Mecca, the site of the Ka’ba, Islam’s holiest shrine. As part of their ritual, pilgrims retrace Hagar’s steps, walking seven times between the two low lying hills of Marwa and Safa. In addition, they receive water from the Zamzam Spring which continues to flow in the Great Mosque in the Ka’ba.

     As you can see the story of Hagar is lifted up in Islam. In our Judeo-Christian tradition, she is seen more as a victim of abuse and violence of a jealous barren wife and a husband who turned her out. The “womanist” Renita Weems names this story of Hagar and Sarah as a story of ethnic prejudice, exacerbated by economic and sexual exploitation---a story of conflict and women betraying women, mothers conspiring against mothers. Some see her as a passive victim running first into the wilderness without a plan while others see her as a heroine of survival, one who makes a way out of no way. In the end, she refuses to be passive, seeing to it that Ishamel marries an Egyptian and that her own blood will flow through his descendants.

    So, what does this story of Hagar mean for us today? I along with others see this as a call for repentance. Hagar lives among us. She is the faithful maid or woman who is exploited, the black woman used and abused by both men and women, the surrogate mother, the resident alien or refugee without legal recourse, the runaway youth, the divorced mother, homeless woman with child at our shelter.

     Hagar is the mother George Floyd and every son or daughter calls to when dying. Hagar is our sister. Some say the injustice in our lands relies on the perpetual alienation of woman from one another and estrangement from each other. The future of our people depends upon our willingness to confront these tragedies, to walk headlong into that which makes us different as diverse tribes of a vast world so that we can march together and rediscover all that binds us together as people of God in making a way out of no way.

  

 

   

 


Become Scorched with Grace

Acts 2:1-21

May 31, 2020

Rev. Loren McGrail

Irondequoit United Church of Christ


Be not lax in celebrating.

Be not lazy in the festive service of God.

Be ablaze with enthusiasm.

Let us be alive, a burning offering

before the altar of God.

Hildegard Von Bingen


     They were all together in one place. It’s been weeks since we were gathered in one place as a church, each of us sheltering at home with or without our loved ones, glimpsing grandchildren through a glass door, sneaking off to Wegman’s in our masks to get groceries and maybe a wink and a muffled hello from a dear friend.

     They were all together those fearful disciples and followers across the barriers of language, culture, status, religion, gender, sexuality, and age. The winds of the Spirit rushed in reminding them that God was indeed the breath of life. The Spirit did not practice social distancing and challenged each to hear God’s voice in their own tongue, to understand each other even though each was speaking in his or her own mother tongue.

What baffled them was that in this Spirit filled place, this new body of Christ forming, each was welcomed and called to come in and feel at home.

     We are together in a hard place of grief, vulnerability, uncertainty, loss, and loneliness caused by the Covid-19 virus. We are together across the planet facing one threat that knows no borders or boundaries, that can suck the air out of you and make you lose your appetite for life itself.  We are together huddled behind our locked doors waiting for the roll out plan, waiting for the green light to go out, promising to not breathe or God forgive cough on anyone. But dear ones, while you carefully don your new masks that make you unrecognizable to go out on your walks, or to dig in the garden, I invite you to catch a whiff of that wild wind or the softness of God’s breath reminding you that all shall be well, all matter of things will be well. I invite you to breathe in all that good and life nurturing and exhale all that is no longer needed or desired.

        On that Pentecost, the Jewish festival of celebrating Spring’s first harvest and the revelation of the Law at Sinai, those disciples and their followers found themselves on fire with a new energy, a new life.  Just as fire cleanses dross, the flame of passion that settled above their heads burned away all that was false. They were cleansed by the flames. Their life energy was recharged.

      Listen to this story from one of the desert fathers from the 4th century in Egypt who willingly fled to the wilderness to shelter in place to learn the significance of Pentecost’s fire: One day Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said, “Abba, as far as I can, I say    my  office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace, and as far as I can, I purify my  thoughts, what else can I do?” In response the old man stood and stretched his hands  toward heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire, and he replied, “Why not  become fire?”

     Why not?  We become fire when we allow the Holy Spirit, the advocate of truth, to scatter our existential architectural drawings to the wind and blow our carefully planned lives into something we never could have imagined.

     The Holy Spirit empowered them to testify to God’s work. It emboldened Peter to preach to the Jewish skeptics and brought a different kind of harvest of life -giving fruits.

It called for sons and daughters to prophesy; the young to dream and the elders to see and share their visions. They were called to risk vulnerability, to speak up in the face of indifference, without the guaranteed of welcome. They had to trust that their words mattered, were essential. And the crowds listening had to take a risk too, to widen their social circles and welcome strangers as new neighbors.

     We live in not only a world marked by a pandemic but a world of toxic words, where all the isms threaten to divide us. The Holy Spirit loosened the tongues of ordinary people just like us to break down the barriers of difference to become one body in Christ, one church. In the face of diversity, God compelled his people to engage with each other so they could hear each other’s story so they could find God incarnate in each one. God birthed the church out of this chaotic hot mess of people. We celebrate this event by claiming this to be the birthday of the church.

    The good news is that the early church had no building, no money, and no political influence, and yet they turned the world upside down. The power of the Holy Spirit rearranged their priorities to align with God’s. We pray today that that same Spirit blow through us, speak through us, light us up so we can put aside what we don’t quite understand, can’t fathom; what scares us and keeps us separate from each other and You. We pray today to be scorched with a grace that will liberate us from our pasts and open us to a new language beyond our imagining that will come as a knowing deep in our bones so we can see and feel God’s presence in all of God’s essential people. Only then will be able to sing through our masks, Happy Birthday Church! Happy Birthday Everyone! Alleluia!

   

Now You Are God’s People

1 Peter 2:1-10

Rev. Loren McGrail

Irondequoit United Church of Christ

May 10, 2020

 

Once you were not a people,

but now you are God’s people.

1 Peter 2: 10

 

     So clean house! Make a clean sweep of malice and pretense, envy and hurtful talk. You’ve had a taste of God. Now, like infants at the breast, drink deep of God’s pure kindness. Then you’ll grow up mature and whole in God. (I Peter: 2-3).

 

     Jesus like us, came into the world by a womb. “The God who made heaven and earth came as one of the least of these, harbored in the body of a woman who became God’s mother… Mary’s hospitable yes, drew the uncontaminated God into the world,” says theologian Natalie Carnes. 

     Happy Mothering Sunday! So fortuitous to be able to preach on one of our Epistles this morning that begins with reminding us to start at home and clean our own glass house and then reminds us that we have already tasted the milk of compassion, have tasted God. We have nursed and been weaned on this precious nourishment. It is part of us now, incarnated into our very bones. In our Opening Prayer we hear these words with longing, “May the milk or your goodness be sweet upon our tongues.”

     If we can remember this taste, we might be able to become God’s living vessels of God’s sweet, sweet spirit. Lord, prepare us to be your sanctuaries tried and true especially now that we are not able to physically enter our own church’s sanctuary, or even worship together as an assembled congregation.

 

     Our Epistle reading from the author identified as Peter the apostle, was addressed to various churches in Asia Minor who were suffering religious persecution for declaring themselves to be followers of Jesus.

The letter is to remind them that before they were followers, they were all weaned on God’s love and that Jesus now is their living stone, their source of life. He was rejected by the builders, us, when he was crucified but God, the Master builder who has now set him in the place of honor, the cornerstone. Whoever trusts in this stone as a foundation will never have regret. If we are not able to trust, to believe, the stone that the workmen threw out will then become something we trip over or which blocks our way.

     In our Bible Study this week, we talked about the many rocks we have stumbled over when we have felt lost or forgotten who our rock is, where our salvation comes from, as the Psalmist says.

     Once we accept Jesus as the cornerstone, we become living stones which can be built into a spiritual home (I Peter 2:5). Dear Ones, this is the origins of what it means to become God’s people, to become a spiritual home for God’s Spirit. It is an old story and begins with our sacred texts about God’s call to become God’s people. It includes Abraham and Moses, Elijah, and now us. We too are God’s chosen for this high calling to do priestly work, to do God’s work, to speak for her, by standing for her beautiful creation and all her creatures. We too are called to lead and stand up for justice and mercy.

     Dear Ones, our building made of stone and brick is closed but our spirit is busy at work doing God’s work in the world. We are sending Outreach money to those in need in our communities; we are making masks; we are working on the frontlines with and without proper PPE; we are staying in our homes to save lives; we are covering our beautiful faces to protect others; we are reaching out to family and friends even sharing zoom dinners; we are learning new technologies to stay connected to each other; we are learning how to worship online.

 Finally, because we have the time, we are experiencing life like we have never before. We are smelling and tasting the coming of Spring everywhere beginning with our own backyards, on our neighborhood walks, in our city parks. We are finding our whole world renewed with God’s greening power and holy light, especially our loved ones---family and friends. We are learning to celebrate each moment even while grieving our losses.

     Dearest Ones, in the midst of these challenging times, we who are being called to be a priesthood of believers, to Be the Church not just go to church, find comfort and strength here in Christ, our living stone, our foundation. Allow yourselves then to be rebuilt into a new people, maybe even a new congregation, that knows how to conserve our core values while seeking new ways to share God’s call for liberation. Allow yourselves to become living sanctuaries for God’s indwelling and your bodies to become an extension of God’s compassion, mercy, and love.

     I would like to leave you with this prayer, this charge. It is often called the Romero Prayer but was actually written by Cardinal Dearden on the occasion of the Mass for Deceased Priests in 1979 in El Salvador.

     As you listen, I invite you to pay attention to what phrase, image, or word stands out for you. I invite you also to ponder what it means to be workers, not master builders, to know that nothing we do will be complete.     

 

Prophets of a Future Not Our Own

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.

The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent

enterprise that is God's work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said.

No prayer fully expresses our faith.

No confession brings perfection.

No pastoral visit brings wholeness.

No program accomplishes the Church's mission.

No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about.

We plant the seeds that one day will grow.

We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.

We lay foundations that will need further development.

We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.

This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.

It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an

opportunity for the Lord's grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.

Abundant Life

John 10: 1-10

Irondequoit United Church of Christ

May 3, 2020

Rev. Loren McGrail

“I came that they may have life,

and have it abundantly.”

John 10:10


     While I was serving as your missionary in the field, serving in Israel and Palestine, it was expected that during and at the end of my term I would travel around the country and visit UCC Conferences and churches to talk about the work of our mission partner. For three years I was one of New York’s missionaries.

     One summer I was in upstate New York staying in the home of former missionary, Lawrence Gilley, who was our missionary in South Africa for over 30 years. He and his wife now lived near their family and worked on a farm in Deansboro.  One morning he asked me if I wanted to go out and feed the cows. I did not grow up on a farm or even near one, so I naturally thought this meant we needed to bring them food. We set out on foot passed the barn where I thought the food was kept, up to the pasture where the cows were standing around eating grass. He told me he had three pastures. I thought, “How nice.” He told me to wait at the gate and that he would return in a few minutes. Maybe he forgot the food. I thought. He crossed the small field and went to one of the three gates and opened it. I could hear him calling out their names. He and his dog managed to get all the cows out to the pasture. He came back and simply said, “Done.” You see every couple of days the cows were led to a new pasture to eat fresh grass. Former missionary, now farmer, Lawrence Gilley, led his herd literally to greener pastures. This how he fed them. This is how he gave them abundant life. I bookmarked this new knowledge in my brain but also new in my heart I was being given a lesson about the importance of gates. This knowledge has helped shape how I respond to today’s scripture.

            In both our readings today, Psalm 23 and John 10: 1-10, Jesus is identified as the good shepherd, an image that in ancient times was revered and connected to leadership. Hear these words from Ezekiel 34: 14-16.   

I will feed them with good pasture,

and upon the mountain heights of Israel

shall be their pasture;

there they shall lie down in good grazing land,

and on fat pasture

they shall feed on the mountains of Israel.

I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep,

and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God.

I will seek the lost,

and I will bring back the strayed,

and I will bind up the crippled,

and I will strengthen the weak,

and the fat and the strong I will watch over;

I will feed them in justice.

            The shepherd comes in through the gate and goes out first leading the sheep. They recognize his voice and follow. He does not scatter them and keeps an eye out for those that get lost or hurt. Once in Palestine I saw a shepherd helping a sheep give birth to a lamb. After a standing by protectively the shepherd picked up the lamb and put it across his shoulder and then he and the mother sheep rejoined the flock.

             A good shepherd stops at nothing to provide for his sheep. Jesus claims to be what is needed to live: water, bread of life, light of the world, shelter and safety. In our Gospel story, we are told that the sheep will not follow a stranger but will run from him.

Seeing that the Pharisees still did not get what he was saying John adds, “Very truly, I tell you I am the gate for the sheep.” All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them (10:9). Let us pause here. Who are the bandits and sheep, the false prophets, the ones who are claiming leadership,  or the truth today? Now before you go to where I think you are going in your minds, I wish to remind you that at one time Protestants were considered bandit shepherds trying to steer the church by rejecting Papal authority and supporting the rule of the princes and kings. Others then and now might say people from other religions are the bandits and thieves because they threaten our Christian identity which is closely connected to our understanding of nationhood. Others might say people with political views different from our own are the thieves espousing falsehoods and lies. Easier to follow a shepherd who mouths what we want to hear then the one who calls us by name and who says, “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved and will come and go out and find pasture” (John 9).  

            In this time of lockdown, sheltering in place orders, it is hard not to see the gate as something that keeps us from getting out, that hinders our freedom of movement, but I invite you this morning to remember the gate also protects and provides safety. It can swing wide also and lead us to greener pastures, better days, abundant life. Does Christ, the gate, keep the flock from corruption by the world or did God so love the world that he gave his son, the gate, to swing open for all, particularly the lost sheep? Does one flock or one fold, mean that all other sheep-- people or religions must be saved by Christ or does it mean that God’s love extends to all so that all may be one?

            Debi Thomas in her essay I am the Gate, invites us to take the text to heart by allowing it to provoke some personal questions. Listen to some of her questions and pay attention to those that are calling you today. Listen to how God’s word is speaking to you today:

What is it in me that resists the open gate? 

Where in my life am I walled off, closed to change, averse to movement, risk, freedom, joy? 

What flock do I belong to, and whose voice do I follow most readily? 

What calls to me, making seductive promises I shouldn't trust?

Do I know the shepherd well enough to recognize his call? 

Am I willing to leave the fold in order to find pasture, or am I too complacent, scared, suspicious, and jaded to pursue abundant life?

            In the coming weeks as the country begins to move towards opening up in the midst of a world- wide pandemic, I invite you to think about these questions. And be assured we will be tempted to close many gates. Many will try to seduce us with false promises of cures and security that have very little to do with Jesus’ call to abundant life. We will need to pray hard about our sheepfold, our flock, about who is our shepherd, our gate.

Merciful God,

Who is more than we can imagine,

Give us a wider vision of the world;

give us dreams of peace

that our not defined by boundaries of geography

or race or religion,

or by the limitations of worldly structures and systems.

Open our eyes and our ears, that wherever we go,

we may hear your voice calling us by name;

calling us to serve,

Calling us to share,

calling us to praise,

so that we never give up on the promise

of your kingdom

where the world is transformed,

and all can enjoy life

in all its fullness.


Easter Us

Rev. Loren McGrail

Irondequoit United Church of Christ

April 19, 2020


 

God speaks to each of us as he makes us,

Then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,

Go to the limits of your longing.

Embody me.

Rilke

 

            They were hiding upstairs in a locked room, the friends, his followers, who knew him best, who couldn’t stay awake when he was praying, who had betrayed him, who had pretended they did not know him, who had run away when he was dying, who hid when he was arrested, who were frightened and ashamed. He appeared to these ones and greeted them warmly. He didn’t ask, ‘What happened?’ or even ‘Where were you?’ He didn’t rebuke them, ‘You deserted me, or You screwed up’. He greeted them saying, ‘Peace.’

            We who are sheltering in place, keeping our distance, monitoring our temperature and even our breaths need to hear this good news this morning. ‘Peace be with you.’ He offered this greeting after showing them his hands and side and them recognizing that he was indeed risen, that he was indeed their Lord.

            Notice the text doesn’t say, “and when they repented or when they had promised to be more faithful followers, then they were worthy of receiving Jesus. No. Jesus comes to them and us in the midst of our fears, doubts, and even shame.  As Nadia Bolz -Weber puts it, “It takes more than locked doors and lack of faith or low self -esteem to keep Jesus out.  In fact, when we are at the point in life when our failings and shortcomings are so unfiltered, when we are at the point in life when we have blown it completely, when we are so undeniably aware of our need for God’s grace — it is then that God comes to us just as we are, bringing us peace and forgiveness. It’s just like God to barge in uninvited through our fear and locked doors to remind us, whether we like it or not, that we are forgiven, that we are more than the sum total of our bad choices and more even than the sum total of our good choices.”*

            Dear Ones, you are more than the sum total of your bad choices and more even than the sum total of your good choices. Is this not good news? No matter who you are, what you’ve done or think you’ve done, whoever you have betrayed or let down, Jesus greets you saying, ‘Peace.’ You are not accused, you are invited.”

           And then Dear Ones, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Like God’s breath to the first humans, Jesus revives them. Once revived he commissions them, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”  The chain is completed. From the Father to the Son, from Jesus to the disciples, from the disciples to the world by way of becoming a new creation, by living by the Spirit.

            Then the one who touched lepers, the blind, and the lame and who had allowed himself to be touched by a bleeding woman, anointed by another in Bethany, who received Judas’ kiss, who was stabbed by Roman soldiers in his side, and who finally was washed and rubbed with oil after his death, said to Thomas, the one had not seen yet his Lord and who needed physical proof, needed to see the marks, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put in in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”

            I love Thomas for his yearning for wanting a living encounter and dares to confess his uncertainty. Mystic Suzanne Griffith says, “For Thomas, the privilege of doubt is a deeper embrace. Invited to place his hand in the divine wound, Thomas touches the interior flesh of the Beloved.” I love that Jesus appears to this skeptical disciple scarred and wounded with a body that still bears its traumatic history of suffering.

            When you look at this painting by the Italian painter Caravaggio depicting the scene, Christ is drawing Thomas’ hand into his wound. It is an intimate moment.

Christ bows his head over Thomas’ hand, gazing at Thomas as he draws him towards his wound. Thomas’ whole being is absorbed in the wonder and horror.

            Theologian Debi Thomas imagines that Jesus winces when Thomas touches him because it would signal a real flesh and blood encounter with real pain saying, “I am with you. I am with you where it hurts. I don’t float thousands of sanitized feet above reality.” After death, Jesus will dwell in the heart of the chaos of life where we dwell.

            When Thomas meets Jesus’s wounds, he recognizes him, “My Lord and my God.” Resurrection happens again like this when we recognize Jesus as our Lord.

            Jesus does not criticize or judge the disciples for their fears or doubts. His wounds are marks of his love---earned scars through enfleshing love. No, he shows them and invites them to touch and see.

            Dear Ones, the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Trust your doubts as part of your faith journey. Honor your questions. Live into them as the poet Rilke said in his masterpiece Letters to a Young Poet, “Live the questions now, perhaps then, someday, you will gradually, without noticing, live into the answer.”

            I would like to leave you with a few questions to ponder this Second Sunday in Eastertide:

How do you honor your questions or pursue your doubts?

Whose wounded bodies have you touched or been touched by that have allowed you to feel God’s presence?

What evidence are you looking for to believe? or What evidence of resurrection have you experienced?

How do you allow your own wounded self to be known by others?

Have you experienced Jesus’ gift of peace? Can you imagine really sharing it with another?

            Dear Ones, we cannot hide from the Risen Christ. Allow him to find you, to remind you what he came to teach us, gift us. Invite him to Easter you by breathing new life into you so you can bring peace and forgiveness.

And yes, one more thing, invite him to give you Easter power and joy strong enough so that you too can touch and salve the wounds of our broken and bleeding world. Don’t forget that! The peace of Christ be with you.

 

*Nadia Bolz-Weber. "God's Love Is Stronger Than Our Doubt," Sojourners.com

 

http://blog.sojo.net/2011/05/20/gods-love-is-stronger-than-our-doubt/

 And Love Will Rise Up

John 20: 1-17

Rev. Loren McGrail

Irondequoit United Church of Christ

April 12, 2020

 

You are the God who remains with us during our Saturdaysof waiting and wondering, marked by the memoryof Friday and the hope of Sunday. Forbid us too-easy exits out of the darkness. May we wait until we are at last calledby your life-giving grace. Amen.Walter BrueggemannHoly Week for Western Christians has coincided with the worst week for the Covid-19 pandemic. What timing!More infections, hospitalizations, and deaths and still noteventhe peak. So,the question must be asked, “What does it mean to celebrate resurrection when people far and near are dying by the thousands? What does it mean that the tomb is empty when our mortuariesare over flowing and mourners can’tevenbury their dead? When I lived in Jerusalem,I used to tell people that the Palestinian people liveda perpetual Good Friday---alife full of pain and suffering. Everyone had an address on the Via Dolorosa. But this year,my first Easter as your pastor,I am thinking that we are living Holy Saturday. We are in hell. But then I remember our sacred storyand it matches. Jesus went toHadeson that Saturdayafter he was crucified to save and liberate everyonebeginning with his biblical parents---Adam and Eve. In the Universal resurrection tradition, Christ does not rise alone but raises all of humanity with him. St. Ambrose, the archbishop from Milan, put it this way: “In him the world arose, in him heaven arose, in him the earth arose. For there will be a new heaven and a new earth.”Dear Ones, there will be a new heaven and a new earth.In the Orthodox tradition they call Saturday Holy Fire Saturday. Do you know why? Because dear ones,the tomb was not empty, it was full of angels and light, light emanatingoff the stone where he was laid in his grave clothes. In addition to celebrating the universal resurrection they celebrate the mystery of the light in the tomb.So,in Jerusalem on Holy Fire Saturday,people flock from all over the world to go into the Old City to Holy Sepulcherto wait for the light to come from the tomb. You see the Holy Spirit arrives more or less around 3:00 PMon this holy dayand miraculously lights the torch of the Greek Patriarch who is in the tomb praying and waiting. Once lit he comes out of the tomb with historchand shares or passes the light to the other Patriarchs.They then pass it to all the people gathered with their lanterns or candles. Eventually the whole church is lit up. It is indeed a sight to behold.The light goes out from Jerusalem to the rest of the world.This is how Easter begins. The rest of us stand and wait to have our40 bees waxcandles singed and thenwebatheourselvesin the fragrance. It is a beautiful ritualand has added a new dimension for how I celebrate Easter. While it was still dark, Mary went to the tomb and saw the stone was rolled away and that Jesus was gone. She told Peter and one of the other disciplesto come and see for themselves. They saw the grave clothes 2neatly folded and ran off to find what happened to Jesus probably fearing the worse. Mary remained. When she looked in the tomb,she saw two angels in white sitting where the body had been.They said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping?" She said to them, "They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him."She like the two disciples thus far have not understood the meaning of the empty tomb or the tomb full of angelic presence and light. Then Mary turned around and saw a man who she thought was the gardener,but his voice wassofamiliar. Some say Jesus musthave put on the gardener’s clothes because he and thrown off his grave clothes. I prefer to think that like God, his father, the creator, Jesus was a gardener of sorts. Mary’s weeping gives voice to her agony, pain, and grief. You will recall in the storyof Lazarus, Jesus wept as he called Lazarus out of the tomb. Mary is a faithful disciple. She recognizes her beloved teacher, “Rabboni”, when he calls her name. What a lovely and important detailcaptured in Jan L. Richardson’s blessing,All you need to rememberis how it soundedwhen you stoodin the place of deathand heard the living call your nameDear Ones, we are standing like Mary in the dark before dawn in the place of death, are we not? Easter begins here in Hades when all rise or in the shadows before sunrise when someone you love and thought dead calls out your name. This Easter is special not only because we cannot gather together as a church family or have Easter dinners but because the story is so close to our lived reality. Mary is told not to cling to Jesus.It’s not a rebuke but a command to let go of the past so she can step into her new life which will begin with telling others. For this, Mary will be called the Apostle of the apostles. Later, the stories say, she was interrogated by the Roman Emperor about where Jesus was. When she told him, “He has risen”, he didn’t believe her. He picked up an egg and said that was like saying this egg is red. Then theegg turned red. This is why St. Mary is depicted holding a red egg and why some Christians dyetheir eggs redin the Eastern churches. “Do not hold onto me.” Mary had a decision to make that morning in the garden. She wantedto hold onto Christ and the life she had known. Only in letting go would she be able to move into her new risky normal; to proclaim that he is risen; he lives.Dear Ones, we living in this time of a global pandemic, of chaos, and upheaval, wealso have a choiceto let go of what we thought was normal and risk an unknown new life. This coronavirus has made the mighty kneel and brought the world to a halt like nothing else and our minds are racing back and forth withlonging for a return to normality. But should this be our aim, our goal? The skies are clear over Los Angeles. The sea turtles are mating again. Are we clinging to normal because it was so great or because it is what we knew? What gifts or lessons is the pandemic teaching us? Can we make this our new normal? Indian writer Arundhati Roy says this pandemic is a portal which forces us to break with the past and imagine the world anew. Easter, dear ones, is a portal too. It is a gateway between one world and the next, and we dear ones, who have been called by name, are given the choice to either cling to the past or choose new lives, to practice resurrection. Christis risen! He is risen indeed! He has risen in us and therefore lives.

 

The Time is Now: Sing

John 9:1-41

Rev. Loren McGrail

Irondequoit United Church of Christ

March 22, 2020


      My come to Jesus moment happened last Monday night around 10 pm. I was waiting for the test results of the covid-19 virus. My pneumonia and persistent fever had made me a candidate. I was given massive amounts of antibiotics through my thin veins to deal with the infection on my lungs and now they wanted to make sure I didn’t have the dreaded virus that was rocking the planet. I tried to keep myself awake by watching various silly TV programs. I was drinking enough water to sink a small tankard. They told me they would tell me the results Monday night. While waiting the kind nurse, Lyn, brought me Earl Grey Tea from her private stash. We talked briefly while she took my vitals. She asked me to pray for the baby in the NICU. I was both patient and priest. She was both nurse and caring person.  Around 10 the PA came in. I could hear the rustle of her plastic gown. I tested positive. She said, “The doctor will come in the morning and talk to you about next steps.” Then she left.

  In the half -lit room of the hospital Jesus and I had a talk. I wasn’t hysterical. No crying out how this could be. Though there was and persists a mind track that tries to chart where I might have picked this up. No, this was a very quiet prayerful moment. “What do you want me to do now?  Silence almost deafening then a sense of overwhelming calm enfolded me. “Trust me. I will walk with you through this. You will be ok. I need you.”  The last part was a bit hard to understand because how can I be of use if I am out of commission I wondered?

    The next day I was released home to a strict quarantine in my apartment with daily check ins from the Health Department. A few says ago an atheist friend suggested that I was an early adopter. It's a term used for an individual or business who uses a product or technology before all the kinks have been worked out. Companies rely on early adopters to provide feedback about the product’s deficiencies. Early adopters face risks. I have been trying on this concept of being an early adopter and seeing how it squares with “I need you.” And well yes, there is a synergy, a holy resonance. I was worried how I could lead the church if I was home bound and now, I see that my vulnerability, my having the virus and living through it is what makes me the perfect leader for you at this time. I have also identified as a wounded healer but now I get to be your authentic guide during this pilgrimage of sickness we are all on through these scary times.

    So, this is what I can tell you so far. And those of you who have been through serious illnesses know this already. We are all in this together. We are all connected, an injury to one is an injury to all. We are all vulnerable no matter our age or current state of health. Some are just more vulnerable to this particular virus.

   Jesus heals a man who is blind from birth with mud and spit. He is then sent to the Pools of Siloam which means Sent to wash off his past to begin his new life. Jesus anoints his eyes as a symbolic act of completing the creation God started. Creation is still at work and Jesus is activating or restoring spiritual sight. This is why one of his earliest titles is “Eye Salve.”

   Dear Ones, all of us, each of us, is invited to join Jesus in acts of mercy and kindness, to be healers along love’s way. We do it by bringing each other a cup of tea, by making a meal, sharing a kind email, a phone call.  But first we must wake up and face this new reality. We must see what is our new normal. Now is not only a time for social distancing to flatten the curve but a time for social solidarity. This ending of life as we have known it is also the beginning of a new life for our church family as we seek creative ways to stay in loving supportive relationship with each other.

   I would like to end with the Prayer/Poem by Father Richard Hendrick from Ireland called “Lockdown.”


Yes, there is fear.

Yes, there is isolation.

Yes, there is panic buying.

Yes, there is sickness.

Yes, there is even death.

But,

They say that in Wuhan after so many years of noise

You can hear the birds again.

They say that after just a few weeks of quiet

The sky is no longer thick with fumes

But blue and grey and clear.

They say that in the streets of Assisi

People are singing to each other

across the empty squares,

keeping their windows open

so that those who are alone

may hear the sounds of the family around them.

They say that a hotel in the West of Ireland

Is offering free meals and delivery to the housebound.

Today a young woman I know

is busy spreading fliers with her number

through the neighborhood

So that the elders may have someone to call on.

Today Churches, Synagogues, Mosques and Temples

are preparing to welcome

and shelter the homeless, the sick, the weary

All over the world people are slowing down and reflecting

All over the world people are looking at their neighbors in a new way

All over the world, people are waking up to a new reality

To how big we really are.

To how little control we really have.

To what really matters.

To Love.

So, we pray, and we remember that

Yes, there is fear.

But there does not have to be hate.

Yes, there is isolation.

But there does not have to be loneliness.

Yes, there is panic buying.

But there does not have to be meanness.

Yes, there is sickness.

But there does not have to be the disease of the soul

Yes, there is even death.

But there can always be a rebirth of love.

Wake to the choices you make as to how to live now.

Today, breathe.

Listen, behind the factory noises of your panic

The birds are singing again

The sky is clearing,

Spring is coming,

And we are always encompassed by Love.

Open the windows of your soul

And though you may not be able

to touch across the empty square,

Sing.






  


  


Born Again from Above

John 3: 1-17

Rev. Loren McGrail

Irondequoit United Church of Christ

March 8, 2020

 

     It was Easter Sunday and I was on my way from Jerusalem to Bethlehem to have lunch with my friends. I had gotten up before the dawn to celebrate an Easter Rise Service at St. Andrews Scots Memorial Church followed by a breakfast and then our usual 10:00 am service. I had my clergy uniform as de riquer for a Sunday morning in the Holy Land. I was traveling with a fellow clergy friend and we were enjoying the warmish sunny day in April. The young man across the bus aile decided he wanted to make conversation in English and said, “Are you born again?” Initially put off by the fact that I was clearly a minister of the church, I found his question provocative. I answered,” I am born again every day.” So UCC. God is still speaking. Never put a period where God has put a comma. The young man did not understand my answer. My Canadian friend smiled. I will return to the end of this story at the end of my sickly sermontette.

     Our scripture this morning is about a man, Nicodemus, a Pharisee, who comes to Jesus in the dark of night to have a spiritual conversation. He recognizes that Jesus is a spiritual teacher but doesn’t quite get what Jesus means when he says he, Nicodemus, must be born again from above. He most likely came at night so that his fellow Pharisees would not see him talking with this revolutionary Jesus. Not known from our scripture story is that it will be Nicodemus who will demand that Jesus gets a fair trial and that later after Jesus has died on the cross, he will anoint him with Joseph from Arimathea. That midnight consultation led to major changes in life of this Pharisee.

   The question I have for you this morning is how are you like Nicodemus, stumbling in the dark searching for answers?  When have you gone off script or let go of knowing all the answers?

   For those of us who have benefitted from the structures of power the way Nicodemus did, giving up the old life can feel like a loss. I invite you, however, to see this not knowing as the gateway to a new experience of experiencing God. “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know from or where it goes.” (John 3:8).

   This morning I have asked a few people to share their new birth stories with you so you can hear how being born again happens. I invite one or more of you to share.

     Martin Luther once said that we must put to death the old Adam daily because we are called again and again to come from the tomb. To be born again involves dying to the false self in order to live into an identity centered in Spirit, in Christ, or in God. The process can be sudden or dramatic or take place across a life time.

    Theologian Marcus Borg says that being born again from above is at the heart of our life as Christians and that the purpose of the church is to midwife and nourish this process.

    We have many examples of this from scripture from Paul on the Road to Damascus to Lazarus rising from the dead of his tomb. We also have stories like John Newton the slave trader who had a conversion to stop selling slaves. We celebrate his story when we sing Amazing Grace.

   Before cycling back to the story I started with this morning, I would like to share with you a story about a three-year-old girl. It comes from Borg’s book, The Heart of Christianity:

    She was the firstborn and only child in her family, but now her mother was pregnant again, and the little girl was very excited about having a new brother or sister. Within a few hours of the parents bringing a new baby boy home from the hospital, the girl made a request: she wanted to be alone with her new brother in his room with the door shut. Her insistence about being alone with the baby with the door shut made her parents a bit uneasy, but then they remembered that they had installed an intercom system in anticipation of the baby’s arrival, so they realized they could let their daughter do this, and if they heard the slightest indication that anything strange was happening, they could be in the baby’s room in an instant.

     So, they let the little girl go into the baby’s room, shut the door, and raced to the listening station. They heard their daughter’s footsteps moving across the baby’s room, imagined her standing over the baby’s crib, and then they heard her saying to her three-day-old brother, “Tell me about God---I’ve almost forgotten.”

    The story is haunting because it suggests that we come from God and that when we were very young, we still remember this.

    After telling the young man is the bus that I was born again every day, I said, “The important thing today, Easter, is that we are to live resurrected lives. He has risen; indeed, and therefore we are to live as if death is not the final chapter.”

   So dear ones, don’t be afraid to go into the dark and have those challenging conversations. Allow yourselves to be blown open by Spirit’s wind.  Rebirth is just the beginning of another story to live more deeply into God’s embrace.

As Above So Below: Choose Life

Rev. Loren McGrail

Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Matthew 5:21-37

Irondequoit United Church of Christ

February 16, 2020

 

 

 

I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.

Deuteronomy 30:19

 

        In this final section of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gives a series of antithetical statements more or less along these lines: “You have heard it said in the past…. but now I am telling you different.” Matthew is contrasting Jesus with Moses again.

    This was probably considered very radical at the time. Then Jesus ‘ups the ante’ by naming what he considers the most important commandments and how to interpret them in light of his followers becoming a new community. Jesus wants his disciples, and us, to live out the commandments into God’s way with intention. Jesus want to get to the tendrils of evil rooting in our heart as the basis for becoming a blessed and beloved community;

a community that will not just obey but follow his footsteps and incarnate divine love to a world hungry for hope and healing.

     God takes our relationships with each seriously and wants us to treat each other with deep respect, integrity, and love. Here are the relationships Jesus calls out and reauthorizes with new meaning:

·       No murder (no hatred)

·       No adultery (no lustful stares)

·       No divorce without papers (no divorce)

·       No false oaths (no oaths)

·       Proportionate violence (no violence)

·       Love your neighbor (love your enemy

 

    Remembering that Jesus’ preaching is not to replace but to intensify, to commit ourselves to the transformative power of God’s law and commandments, let’s then explore a few of these

antithetical statements together. As we go through them try not to use them as some

kind of litmus test for our how faithful you are or not. Remember these were issued to a group of people learning how to move from being called as individuals to being called now to become a community of believers.

     Let’s begin with divorce. In the time of the Old Testament and when Jesus was alive, and divorce left a woman penniless on the streets shunned not only by her husband but also her family.

         Remember Joseph and Mary and the choice Joseph made to stay with Mary to save her from disgrace. Jesus is reminding his disciples that just having a paper is not enough, there must be a process that honors and maintains the relationship, so the woman is not castigated or humiliated.                                  

     Today, we might read this as a call for couples who are separating or divorcing to find a way to part without tearing each other down. I am aware for example that there are formerly married couples in this church who no longer attend because they feel their divorce makes them outsiders.

In this case it is up to the congregation to extend love and acceptance to both people even when it feels difficult and challenging.

     Now let’s talk about adultery, not a fun topic on anyone’s list including mine.  In Jesus’ time a woman belonged to a man---was his property. Thou shall not covet another man’s wife because it was seen as stealing his property. In bringing forward this commandment again, Jesus is calling our attention to another dimension---lust which leads to the objectification and subjugation of women. Far from being a commandment we might wish to skip over or dismiss, this is an issue today that deserves our fullest attention not just in the courts where sexual harassment and misconduct cases are tried but in all our relationships. How do we see and treat each other with respect for the whole person? How do we find ways to be in relationships with each other that honor the integrity, and freedom of the other? The MeToo Movement is a good reminder that this issue is unfortunately alive and well as sexism, patriarchy, and abuse of power still operates in the world with impunity.

     Finally, let’s talk about murder. Old Testament law condemns murder because it is at the heart of how we show respect for the life of other. Our reverence for each other is at the center of creation. However, Jesus says coexisting without killing is not enough to break the cycle of violence. It’s just a beginning. Agreeing not to commit homicide is essential but what about all the other ways we kill our relationships through anger, rage, resentment, and unforgiveness. Don’t we commit violence to others by what we say don’t say--- by our words, by our refusal to extend forgiveness, to hear another point of view, through our silences?  Don’t we sometimes treat each other as less than human when we deprive people of clean water? When we cage children at our borders? When we defund basic social services like food stamps? Finally, as theologian Debi Thomas says, “What good is it if we, God’s children, technically spare each other’s lives, and yet commit unspeakable acts of murder through a refusal to love?”

     To get angry, to hold a grudge, to insult, to misrepresent the truth, or tell falsehoods are also acts of violence. The solution or better the way through is through a process of reparative reconciliation. Jesus is telling his disciples, and us, that violence and killing destroy life so we must find ways to

reconcile with each other. Reconciliation begins with admitting the hurt or harm we have done and then asking for forgiveness or making reparations. Remember this is not just for individuals but for  whole groups of people who have been injured or harmed like African Americans who were enslaved or Native people’s whose land was confiscated and never returned.

     Finally, before leaving this topic of violence, isn’t it an act of murder if we do not respond to the human caused climate crisis that is leading to the extinction of 30% of the world’s plants and animal species? Is not killing our planet and its biodiversity and creatures any less serious than killing people?

     Now let’s take this to the here and now of our church family trying to live in harmony with each other. I have lived with you now, been your pastor, for almost 10 months. I have heard about resentments and hurts that go back years that have led some to leave the church, or others to not attend worship anymore. I have seen the devasting effects of what happens when people, including your former pastors, could not find a path to admit division or work toward reconciliation. I have experienced myself your difficulty in speaking directly about an issue and instead choosing rather to gossip or withdraw.

     These are all acts of violence for they cut off or smash relationship. You, who have chosen this Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount, should wrestle with Jesus’ call then not to hate or dismiss each other’s humanity. You have painted this Jesus at center of your worship space. Let’s work on making him and his teachings then the center of your life as a faith community.

     My time with you during this interim time is a space to practice another way of being with each other; one that can acknowledge wrongdoing and pain, and then move through it by facing it, by apologizing, and seeking reconciliation. It will take practice to set new ways of acting with each other. It will take time to establish a new ethic that prizes mutual respect in all relationships even those we find difficult or problematic.

     During this upcoming Lenten season, I invite you to think about a fast from words or actions that perpetuate anger and resentment, that kill the possibility of real relationships with each other. Jesus tells us over and over, “But I say to you,” because so much more is possible than we have yet comprehended.  I invite you, IUCC, today to reach for it.  Walk into it.  Find ways to sustain it.  You are loved and you are blessed, right here, right now.  There is nothing left for you to earn, but there is everything left for you to share.  Become the beloved community you long for.