10/01/2017 - In God We Trust

Sermon by Pastor Dan Woodman


Exodus 17:1-7
Matthew 21:23-32


Trust is a big issue for a lot of people.  Actually trust is a big issue for most people.  If the trust you have in something or someone is abused then regaining that trust can become an insurmountable problem.  And, that problem can just wear you down for an awfully long time.  It can impact all areas of your life.  It can prevent you from functioning as a “normal” person.  When we have been burned by someone we trust we build walls around ourselves.  We delude ourselves into thinking these walls are invincible.  Unfortunately, they are not.  They hold us back and prevent us from interacting because we are afraid.  They keep others out.  They can keep God out.  But they are not invincible.  They are built out of fear and they can come down out of love.  When we give into mistrust we can become cynical.  Since we have been hurt by someone we presume we can be hurt by everyone.  We look at our fellow beings with suspicion.  I’m reminded of the cynical sign posted by some cash registers.  “In God we trust.  All others pay cash.”  I suppose the sign is posted to be both cute, and to send a message that your personal check will not be accepted.  For me it’s not cute at all.  I wonder how God feels about that sign.  I wonder how Jesus would react to that sign.  I know how I react, and it’s with pity, and sadness, and sure, a healthy dose of indignation.  I find it personally offensive even though I don’t know this person and I’m pretty sure they don’t know me. Using God as an excuse for mistrust borders on heresy.  It means you don’t really understand God at all.

On the other hand I don’t want to diminish the consequences of abuse: People who have been taken advantage of by strangers.  People who have trusted and been devastated by the person they loved.  People who have been hurt physically and emotionally and carry scars that can last a lifetime.  Perpetrators of these kinds of things make my blood boil.  But, where is the line between being gullible and being trusting?  How do we open our eyes to see the truth when we have been blinded by hurt?  Sorry, I don’t profess to have the answer, but I do recognize a source of comfort.  We can all experience that source in a few minutes as we gather in a circle of fellowship and share together the cup and the bread that reminds us of the one who took on our pain and our sin that we might have eternal life.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself. I want to talk about our Exodus passage.  It is eerily similar to what we heard and talked about last week.  This time it’s not food they are complaining about.  Food they have been given.  God had heard their pain and in a gesture of good will and love, he sent them manna from heaven.  Their bellies are full, but guess what?  They’re thirsty.  And guess what they do.  They complain, again.  Somehow it’s not enough that God has proven God’s trustworthiness.  They want more.  I envision what it might be like to have been there then.  I suspect that the power of suggestion may be in play here.  You know what it’s like when you’re hot and sweaty.  Someone says, “Boy, what I would give for a lemonade!”  Suddenly that’s all you can think about, even though your thirst is far from desperate.  You share with your friend how good that would be.  How refreshing that cool, and sweet, and citrusy, satisfying drink would feel just spilling down your throat.  Pretty soon everybody is craving lemonade because they don’t have it.  This may not be how it went down in the wilderness, but I’m thinking it’s a pretty strong possibility.  They react in the extreme, just like when they were hungry.  They say, “Moses, you brought us all this way to kill us!  Get us some water, now!!!”  Moses is again at his wit’s end.  He turns to God and says, “Sorry, God.  Once again they don’t trust you.  Can you help me out?”  God is not pleased with this lack of trust but gives Moses control over water just like he did at the Red Sea.  This time though it’s to create water and to bring it out of rock.  The people get the water but Moses names the place Massah and Meribah.  These names translate to test and quarrel so that people would always be reminded of the lack of trust they had in God.  Why do we not trust God?  Is it because of bad experiences?  Is it because we’re afraid of letting go?  Is it because we feel our status quo and our comfort might be threatened?  This is the message in our Matthew reading this morning.

A lot of people find this passage confusing.  And, that is very understandable.  On face value it doesn’t seem to make much sense.  I’ve thought about it, and have found the context where it makes perfect sense.  John the Baptist is the focus here.  The reason for that is that just as my blood boils when I see people who are victimized, Jesus’ blood is still raging hot over the execution of his beloved cousin, the prophet who people revered, the very same man who baptized Jesus himself.  John is in the forefront of Jesus’ mind as he continues to grieve his loss.  So when he is challenged by chief priests and elders who question how Jesus could possibly have the authority to teach in the temple, he gives it right back to them, in spades.  “If you answer my question, I’ll answer yours.” he says.  “Was my cousin, John’s baptism heaven sent or manmade?” They were in a bind and they knew it.  If they answered heaven it would make them hypocrites since they did not recognize John as a legitimate prophet.  If they said manmade they would incur the wrath of the people who knew John was special.  So, they said, “We don’t know.”  Jesus says, “Then I’m not answering yours.”  Why should Jesus bother with an explanation?  If they didn’t believe John, they were certainly not going to believe him. Jesus is not done with them.  He tells them the parable of the two sons.  One says he’s not going to do as his father asks, but later changes his mind and does it anyway.  The other son says he’ll do it but does not.  Which one did as his father asked? The elders respond with what seems the obvious answer.  We probably would, too.  The first one did the will of his father, right?  Well, not exactly.  It’s the second son who Jesus celebrates here.  And, it’s the second son who is just like us.  Jesus is drawing a parallel between those who rigidly and blindly follow the Jewish law (son number one) and those who question and are open (son number two).  He goes on to berate the elders for their lack of trust in John who came in the way of righteousness.  They ignored John.  They did not believe him. They did not change their minds, and this was likely a contributing factor to his death.  They were so secure in their lofty, holier-than-thou places that they were blinded to the truth and unable to trust.  The humble sinners on the other hand were open to John, and are likewise open to Jesus.  They can see where there might be a better way to serve God.  They trusted when much of the rest of the world did not.

09/24/2017 - Father Knows Best

Sermon by Pastor Dan Woodman


Exodus 16:2-15
Matthew 20:1-16


For those of you under fifty, you likely have no idea as to who the family portrait is on the front of your bulletin.  For those of you older than that you absolutely know not only who it is but can likely name them all by both character and actor.  The characters are the Anderson family.  The show, Father Knows Best, was one of the most popular shows on television.  It ran from 1954 to 1960 and won six Emmy awards along the way.  It was based on a radio program with the same name. It was on at 10:00 on Sunday nights and then switched networks and aired on Wednesdays at 8:30, and everyone was watching.  If you’re scratching your head trying to come up with all of their names:  Robert Young played insurance manager Jim Anderson.  Jane Wyatt was the wise housewife, Margaret Anderson.  The oldest daughter Betty (aka Princess) was portrayed by Elinor Donahue.  The son, Bud, was Billy Gray, and finally, everyone’s favorite, the youngest daughter was Kathy (aka Kitten) played by Lauren Chapin.  Jim Anderson was the problem solver as he and Jane raised their kids in suburbia.  He always had the answer, even if the answer was sometimes not what they wanted to hear.  It was that golden age of innocence and optimism in the country, and it was reflected in its television programming.  We all know now that that innocence was far from perfect.  There was still racism, poverty, substance abuse, gender inequality, sexual discrimination, and a host of other social problems that have, thankfully in recent years, been brought out from behind the curtain of ignorance and looking the other way.  But today I want to focus on our need to have the answer.  Even if that answer is not what we wanted to hear.

I’m referencing God as father in this message, but I recognize that for some people that does not work, and for all kinds of good reasons.  So, feel free to substitute your own pronoun or no pronoun at all.  The point is about our need for answers.  And, my intention is not to elevate Jim Anderson to divine status, but simply to lift up that we have a need to know what to do and how to do it.  When we don’t know that, we complain.  Complaining is one of the easiest things in the world to do.  Nowadays it seems almost like a national pastime.  As we look at today’s scripture passages it’s pretty obvious that it was a national pastime then, too; both in the Old Testament and the New.  And, I think we all know people who are not happy unless they are complaining.  I’m sure that’s none of us!  The point is that we complain because we are in a place of discomfort.  We want what we don’t have.  We want to be guided, to have certainty of direction and purpose.  When we don’t have it we are insecure and aimless; always in search of that which will forever satisfy our longing, and thus we complain.  I came across a quote recently and I would like to share it.  It’s on this very passage, describing how the Israelites awoke to fine manna on the ground and Moses says, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.”  This poem lifts up how we might perceive God despite our hardships.  It is by Steve Garnaas-Holmes.

What gets you through the desert?
What gets you through?
What gets you through the chemo,
the healing from abuse, the bad marriage,
what gets you through
the job that tries to kill you,
the dark alley of the shadow of death,
the rotten places, the placeless places,
the evil you fear, the evil you've done,
your daily inadequacy,
what gets you through?

Some will call it courage or stamina,
luck or faith or reaching down deep.
But you know it's not you, not yours.
It's given. To you. For you.
From the Holy One.

The thread you follow,
the source you drink from,
the encouraging voice,
the Divine desire that you thrive,
the gift amid the desolation,
you find it anywhere—
the usual, the impossible,
the unwelcome.
You learn to recognize it.
You learn to receive it.

For that grace that gets you through
you learn to say thank you.

You learn to count on it,
and be surprised,
every morning.
Every morning.

Pretty good, right?  God does listen.  God does care.

So, on to our Gospel message.

So, let’s take a look at our Exodus reading.  The Israelites here are what we might call professional complainers.  It’s in the seventh word of the passage: “The whole congregation of the Israelites complained” against Moses and his brother Aaron.  They said they would have been better off dead in Egypt rather than die of starvation in the wilderness.  This whole exodus thing was a bad idea and it’s all your fault, Moses.  Why did we ever listen to you?!  Do something!  God does indeed hear their complaining and tells Moses he’ll fix it.  But it comes with stipulations.  He sends manna from heaven but they can only take what they need for a day.  On the sixth day they can take two days worth so that they can keep the Sabbath Day holy.  As grateful as they are for the food that brings them sustenance, do they follow the instructions?  In the subsequent verses we learn they do not.  They try to hoard it, and it goes bad.  They look for it on the Sabbath and there is nothing.  The message here is pretty clear to me.  God hears us, but we don’t hear God.  God provides us with our needs but for us it’s never enough.  We need something to complain about because we have been unable to clean the wax out of our ears so that we might be open to receiving God’s grace.  God can take our complaints.  God invites our complaints.  God knows life can be tough.  People get sick.  People are mistreated.  People die.  It so soften appears that life is just not fair. The Psalms are full of laments (another word for complaints).  There is a whole book of lamentations.  God wants to hear our innermost feelings, our deepest sighs, our most passionate expressions.  And, it’s so good to let them out!  But, for maximum benefit we need to make it a two way conversation.

09/17/2017 - Deliverance

Sermon by Pastor Dan Woodman


Exodus 14:19-31
Matthew 18:21-35


My message this morning is on deliverance, on God’s faithfulness, and on our natural ability to deceive ourselves.  I want to connect some dots between these themes and the power of the bluegrass music that surrounds us this morning.  I have some ideas, and we’ll see how it goes.

I want to start by thinking about one significant line from the Lord’s Prayer.  You know, we say this prayer so often, for some of us every day, sometimes several times a day, especially when we hit a rocky spot in our lives.  Like anything that we do a lot it can lose some of its impact simply because it is so familiar.  We recite it by rote, sometimes skimming over the words like a flat rock we toss across a smooth lake.  We don’t mean to do this, it’s simply a function of our being human, our being fallible.  So, I want to extract one line and lift it up for our consideration.  I want to look at it from different angles.  The next time you hear and speak the line will be in a few minutes.  See if it feels any different.  The line is simply: “Deliver us from evil.”  What does that mean to you when you ask God to deliver us from evil?  I don’t want to be a Danny Downer this morning but evil exists.  I admit that I’m the first one to put on the rose colored glasses as I choose to ignore evil, but unfortunately that doesn’t make it go away.  When I say this line in the prayer I think I am acknowledging evil but it’s out there some place.  It’s an unknown entity that I am asking God to protect me from.  It’s not personal.  It doesn’t have a name or a face because that’s the way I’m comfortable.  But being an ostrich doesn’t help.  There are two kinds of evil I want to look at today and both are in the scripture passages we heard.

In the Exodus reading we have the famous parting of the Red Sea as the Israelites evade the Egyptians.  Who among us does not think of Charlton Heston portraying Moses in the Ten Commandments?  He holds out his hand as we witness what was then state of the art cinematography.  There is suddenly a road on the ocean floor with huge walls of water on either side.  Those were breathtaking effects at the time even though today it looks pretty dated.  By the way, there is a line in verse 21 that I never noticed before. “Moses stretched out his hand over the sea.  The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land.  It had never occurred to me that this was anything but an instant miracle, but apparently not.  I guess the movie was plenty long enough without adding that little detail.  What it did make me mindful of, though, is the awesome power of the force of nature: awesome power that we have unfortunately witnessed all too much in the past few weeks with Harvey and Irma.  It makes me wonder if there may have been some sort of natural disaster in play with this story as well.  But back to evil…(sorry).  What was it that the Israelites were trying to get away from?  What was God delivering them from?  It was the evil of oppression.  Pharaoh ruled with an iron fist.  There was no tolerance for dissent.  I doubt there was any effort to start a movement called Hebrew Lives Matter.  If you disagreed or disobeyed you were simply exterminated.  There was no such thing as the value of human life.  I think it’s pretty fair to call this evil.  I think it’s pretty fair to call oppression evil.  And, we have plenty of that to go around in our world today.  Any time we have disrespect for the value of human life we have evil.  We see it in religious extremism.  We see it in totalitarian governments.  We see it in intolerance.  And, this can be just as frightening to us today as it was to the Hebrews over 3500 years ago.  I call this kind of evil external evil.  It is evil that occurs outside of our control.  It can happen to us.  It can happen to people we care about.  It does happen to innocent people way, way too often.  This is evil we can give a name to.  It is evil with flesh and bones, and it is evil that we can pray to God to deliver us from.

The other kind of evil I want to lift up is what I call internal evil.  This is what we see in our Gospel passage today.  The parable of the unforgiving servant is one of those stories that we can so easily say to ourselves: “Oh that would never be me!”  Jesus tells us a story about a king who sees that one of his slaves owes him money.  The slave can’t pay it so the king orders him and his possessions and his family all to be sold in order to settle the debt.  The slave pleads his case.  The king relents, and releases the slave and forgives him the debt.  Is the slave grateful?  Of course.  Does he learn from this kindness?  Not so much.  He runs into another slave who owes him money.  He demands payment and since the other slave didn’t have it he has him thrown in jail.  The king hears about it and it’s curtains for the unforgiving slave. This obviously is a story about forgiveness, and Jesus gives us a mandate to be forgiving (or else), but there’s something else going on here.  It’s the part of us that chooses not to listen.  It’s the part of us that thinks (with some smugness) “that would never be me.”  We all too often tend to think we are better than we are.  I was reminded of this the other day when I was reading something by Mary Luti.  She was talking about something she calls “presentism.”  She describes it as the concept of how superior we feel over those who are in the past.  We tend to think we are smarter simply because society and technology has advanced to such a degree that people from before are somehow deficient; that we are somehow smarter.  We have iPhones!  They had rotary phones (whatever they are), or telegraphs, or smoke signals.  How quaint!  But, even more sinister than our thinking we are smarter is our thinking that we are somehow morally superior.  She mentions those who collaborated with the Nazis in France.  She poses the question: “Why should we think we are any different or any better?”  How would we react in those same circumstances?  And, I am reminded of the crowd in Jerusalem, 2000 years ago, worked up into a frenzy, and screaming for the release of Barabbas.  Are we any different or any better than them on September 17, 2017?  I wonder.  We are human.  We are fallible.  And, that is the way we were intended to be.  How else would we able to choose God?  God wants us to choose God.  If we don’t have the choice we are nothing more than robots.  We have the ability to discern right from wrong, evil from good.  The whole story about Adam and Eve is just about this.  Choice is a gift but it’s also a curse.  Wouldn’t it be easier if we didn’t have to think about it?  But we do don’t we.  And we know in our hearts the difference between evil and good.  And, even worse, we dwell on those times when we know we have made the wrong moral choice.  So, this is the other deliverance that we ask for when we pray, “Deliver us from evil.”  It’s the evil in ourselves: the internal evil.  It’s the giving in to the temptation of the easy way out or the “what’s in it for me?”  Jesus knew this, too.  Why else would we have the line in the Lord’s Prayer that precedes “deliver us from evil?”  It’s, of course, “lead us not into temptation.”  These lines are just as relevant today as they were then.  They are just as personal today as they were then.

So how do we deal with these external and internal evils that are such a part of our time here on earth?  What helps us to get through those times when life seems to overwhelm us?  For some of us, and I would include myself in that, it is music.  Music speaks to me like nothing else.  Music brings me closer to God as much as anything else.  Gospel music was born out of the evil oppression of slavery.  There is not anything much more evil than slavery.  And yet, within that music there is hope.  There is hope in God’s promise of deliverance.  It may not be today.  It may not even be until we die, but the promise is there, and the promise is real.  Bluegrass music is born out of the indomitable spirit of the Scots-Irish who settled on the east coast of this country to find a better life for their families.  I know that Charley did a sermon series on The Hillbilly Elegy, and if you haven’t read the book, I would strongly recommend it.  It paints a realistic picture of this struggling culture today, but within it there is still power in their faithfulness to family, to tradition, and, to many, their God.  That is where we have Bluegrass gospel music.  Yes, times can certainly be hard, but implicit in this music is hope, and there is joy in God’s promise to ultimately deliver us from evil.  Listen to the lyrics again of the song we just heard.  It was made famous by the classic team of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs:

Take me in your lifeboat, oh Take me in your lifeboat
It will stand the raging storm
Take me in your lifeboat, oh
Take me in your lifeboat
It will bear my spirit home.

This is music that speaks of hardship and adversity but it is music that speaks of deliverance, and hope, and the promise of God.  And, implicit in the rhythm and harmonies of this music there is joy.  Joy in the unconditional and everlasting, grace of God.  Yes, times can sure be hard as a result of both external and internal evil but evil can never conquer the hope, and the light, and the love that is God.

Let us pray.

Holy and loving God, deliver us from the evil that is around us and within us.  Help us to be mindful of your promise and your grace.  Help us to reach out beyond ourselves in order that we might help others who are struggling with life hardships, with oppression, and with guilt. Help us to be your instruments to make this world a better place. And, thank you for music that lifts our souls and brings us closer to you.  In the precious name of Jesus we pray, Amen.

09/03/2017 - Let God Be God

Sermon by Pastor Dan Woodman


Exodus 3:1-15
Romans 12:9-21
Matthew 5:1-12


Who among us is uncomfortable with NOT being in charge of our daily life; of not being in control?  Who among us thinks we are in control?  We pretty much all do, right?  That is until something happens when we realize we are not in control at all, and that we were simply fooling ourselves.  We like to think we are captains of our own ship, masters of our own personal universe until we realize that is not the case.  We are not the ones driving this car.  All of us have had this realization at one time or another.  But here’s the thing.  Something happens to you that is out of your control.  Let’s say it’s a job loss.  Through no fault of your own your company was sold, and your services are no longer required.  All this time you’ve been going along, doing your thing, and suddenly everything is different.  This kind of thing is very disorienting.  What had been normal is suddenly not.  We do our best to come back to normalcy because that is what we need.  So, you get a new job, even a better job, you’re in control again, and boom, you trip going down the stairs, tear your ACL, and are laid up for the next six weeks.  These kinds of things happen to us all the time, but in our search for being in control, do we learn from the times we are not?  Speaking for myself, not so much.  Maybe it’s some kind of instinct for self-preservation but for me, pretty soon after the crisis is done, I’m back to thinking I’m in charge again. Why don’t we learn?  Why don’t I learn?  One thing that has become increasingly clear to me as I’ve gotten older is that I cannot control the external forces in my life, but I can control how I react to them.  To qualify that, I can try to control how I react to them.  It’s still pretty hard to let go.  It’s taken me a long time, and a lot of banging my head against the wall but at least I can see now how I should react when life happens.  Like John Lennon said, “Life is what happens when you are busy making other plans.”

Thinking about our Exodus story today, Moses was simply doing his thing.  He was working for his father-in-law doing the best he could to do a good job.  He was pretty much in control when, boom!  There in his path is this bush that is on fire, but not being burning up.  I found a pretty cool picture of what that might look like for the bulletin cover.  And, then the voice, “Moses! Moses!”  Can you imagine what that might be like if God were calling your name?!  I think most of us would react pretty much the same way as Moses: freaking out.  Moses’ life changed forever that day.  He was given his marching orders (quite literally).  I suppose he could have said no but who is going to do that?!  He gave up control of what had been a pretty normal life and became the most important leader in the history of Israel.  He turned it over.  Despite the daunting job God had assigned to him, he let go of the controls, let God work through him, and make a difference.  He let God be God as he became the agent for God’s plan.  He worked from the human side, and, leaning on God’s guidance, did what he was able to do.  In giving up his human control he took the risk.  He turned it over.  Taking care of his father-in-law’s sheep was in the rear view mirror as his life (and the lives of the Israelites) changed forever.  So, here’s a question.  Where is the burning bush in your life?  Where is God trying to break through to you?  Where is God calling your name?  And, what are you going to do about it?  I think we all have burning bush moments but most of the time we are too busy, too distracted, too overwhelmed, trying too hard to be in control, that we miss them.  We miss what God is trying to break through to us. I’m reminded of an old joke.  Maybe you’ve heard it.  There is a flood and the faithful church going man goes up on his roof, confident that God will save him.  A rescue boat comes by to pick him up.  He says, “No thanks, God will save me.”  They leave and as the water gets higher a helicopter comes by and lowers a ladder.  “No thanks,” he says, “God will save me.”  The man drowns.  He appears before God and says angrily, “Where were you?  I trusted you to save me!”  God says, “Don’t blame me! Where were you when I sent the boat to get you?  Where were you when I sent the helicopter?”  When we close ourselves off, for whatever reason, we miss out on opportunities.  So, how do we become aware of the burning bushes in our lives?  How do we make sure not to miss those God moments?  I think, for starters, we think a little less about ourselves, and a little more about our neighbors.  That was the problem for the poor man on the roof.  We can’t always control what happens to us but we sure can control how we react to it.  Paul tells us what we can do very succinctly in our Romans reading today.  “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good.; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor…Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.  Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.”  These things are our call.  These things are how we are to be when we are challenged by life.  This is how we get through; by supporting each other.  We can’t control the forces of nature like Hurricane Harvey.  But, we can sure make a difference by contributing to the needs of the saints and extending hospitality to strangers by giving generously to our hurricane relief fund special offering today.  That is something we can control.  That is something we should control.  Paul goes on to tell us about other things over which we can exert control. “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.  Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.  Live in harmony with one another.”  These are things we can control.  Don’t try to exact your own revenge.  “That’s my job,” says God.  If your enemies are hungry, feed them.  By the way, that whole “heaping of burning coals” on their head thing?  I know that sounds really strange but it was a figure of speech back then that simply says acts of kindness toward your enemy might make them feel ashamed and maybe even remorseful.  “Do not be overcome with evil (which we may have no control over) but overcome evil with good (which we most definitely do have control over).”  And, just for a little gospel reinforcement, where did Paul come up with these suggestions?  Look no farther than Sermon on the Mount.  In particular chapter five verses 1-12 in Matthew.  The Beatitudes: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.  Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.  Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.  Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.  Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.  Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.  Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil things against you falsely on my account.  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”  These are the words from Jesus, echoed by Paul.  These are the things we can control.  We can take time out of our crazy lives to appreciate that which is heaven sent; those gifts from God with which we have been so richly blessed.  This is something we can control.  We can’t control the external forces in our lives but we can control how we respond to them.  I’ve mentioned to you before how much I have come to appreciate the great American music genre of Bluegrass.  One of my favorite bands is Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver.  This is a line from one of their recent recordings.  I would play it for you but there’s not enough time today.  Maybe another day.  The song talks about the realization that our time here is finite, and we need to be grateful for, and appreciate what we have. That is certainly something over which we can have control.  The line from the song is: “I can’t add more days to my life so I’ll add more life to my days.”  One way that we can add more life to our day today is by our sharing together the gift of our communion meal.  I invite you this morning as we share this meal, to look at it with newness.  To feel the connecting thread that binds us one to another, and to all the saints who have gone before us who have shared in this holy feast.  Sometimes we can get complacent about rituals like this.  We do it so often that it can lose what it is that makes it special.  This, too, is something over which we have control.  I’m challenging you this week that in addition to praying for your post it neighbor, that you spend some time to think about what this sacrament of communion means to you.  As you receive the elements this morning we will say to you: this is the bread of life.  And, this is the cup of salvation.  These are pretty big, and pretty significant words.  Let them sink in today.  Let them motivate you to go deeper in your spiritual life.  This is something that you can control.  I invite you this morning to open your hearts, receive the gifts, and let God handle the rest.

Let us pray:

Holy God, grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change; the courage to change the things we can; and the wisdom to know the difference.  Help us to accept the mystery that is your way, and to trust that your plan for each of us is unfolding as it is meant to be.  Help us to accept that it is you who are in control, and at the same time empower us, as we are able, to respond to you and serve the needs of your kingdom.  In the holy name of Jesus we pray, Amen

08/27/2017 - Who Do You Think You Are?

Sermon by Pastor Dan Woodman


Romans 12:1-8
Matthew 16:13-20


Sometimes I really love ambiguity.  It gives me a chance to look at the same thing in different ways.  Some of our greatest art and some of our greatest literature would not be so were it not for ambiguity.  Look at the Mona Lisa, for instance.  Is she smiling?  Think about Moby Dick.  What does that white whale represent?  Of course, there are times I hate it, too.  Like when I want a direct answer to something and all I get is everything but a direct answer.  Jesus was particularly gifted at responding ambiguously.  It makes us think!  And, I have to admit, I enjoy preaching ambiguously; not because I’m trying to be mean or I’m trying to obfuscate, but because I don’t have all the answers, but I do have a lot of questions.  I pose these questions and suggest different ways to think about them but I don’t have the answer for you, only you do.  So, I invite you to think with me.  The title of today’s message is deliberately ambiguous.  I’ll read the same words two ways: Who do you think you are?  Who do you think you are?  Isn’t it amazing that the same words can have such different connotations simply being read with different emphasis?  In this morning’s message I’m going to embrace both of these connotations as we talk a little more about how we identify ourselves.  I know we’ve spent a lot of time talking about who we are, who is our neighbor, and what God may be calling us to do, but today’s lectionary readings are almost screaming these messages.  And, I don’t think it’s possible to think about them too much!  When we think we have the answers we’re in trouble because we are constantly changing.  Life is constantly changing. As soon as we stop searching and wondering, and close ourselves off to new possibilities we become stagnant and complacent both as individuals and as a community.  That is not good.  That is just the opposite of what God is calling us to do.  So let’s take a look at these scripture passages and see how we might gain some fresh insight into our three questions.  And, the way we read them this morning they are in reverse order.  We’ll save the best for last.  Romans: I may have mentioned in the past that when I was in seminary I had a course that was entirely devoted to this book.  And, it was taught by a professor who has made the study of the Apostle Paul his life’s work.  It is the very first book in the Epistles and that is not because it’s his earliest letter.  It is in fact the last letter that we have from him.  It is also the longest of all of them.  The reason that it is first is because it is his most important.  It is when he is the most theologically mature.  Since his conversion he, like us (I hope) continues to spiritually evolve.  He was a skilled lawyer, so he uses all of the rhetorical devices of the time to make his arguments persuasive and compelling.  He was writing to the early Roman Christian churches (such as they were) to let them know that he was on his way to see them and hoped to get some funding so that he could continue his evangelical work in Spain.  Spain was his ultimate destination since, in those days it was the end of the then known world.  It was as far west as you could go.  Completing his work there would mean that he had brought the good news of Jesus Christ to virtually the entire known world; from south to north and from east to west.  That’s pretty impressive for one guy.  Unfortunately he never made it to Spain.  He ended up being imprisoned in Rome and was ultimately martyred there.  However, his gifted evangelical oratory remains today as having effectively brought this good news to millions for over two thousand years.  So, back to chapter 12.  “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”  This would have resonated with the Roman followers since, unlike now, ritual sacrifice was a common occurrence.  It was practiced by both Jews and pagans.  It was common to kill a living thing as a tribute and expression of worship.  But, Paul is talking about not killing but living.  Make your body a living sacrifice.  Show the world who you are not by killing something but by living a holy life.  He goes on to say, “don’t be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God.”  And, there you have Paul’s response to our own question three.  How do we discern what God is calling us to do?  We look beyond the things, the circumstances, in our lives that are holding us back.  We let go of the chains of materialism, mistrust, fear, anger, all of that stuff, to let ourselves be transformed by the renewing of our minds.  That puts us in a place where we are ready to hear that still small voice of God.  It’s like opening a window to let in the fresh air.  It’s like coming up from underwater and hearing the life all around you.  It’s like feeling the warmth of the sun on your skin (you can probably tell I’ve been to the beach on vacation, right?).  It’s like an unexpected taste that simply sends you over the moon in delight.  This is what it is like to be transformed by the renewing of your mind.  It’s amazing!

Our second question has been who is our neighbor.  Verse 4 is Paul’s response to that: “For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members of one another.  We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us.”  Gifts like prophecy, ministry, teaching, encouraging, giving, leading, compassion, and on and on.  Paul’s message is obviously directed at this early Christian community, but I might suggest that it can easily be expanded to our community, and not necessarily limited to FFC.  I would suggest that there is not one person who has not been created in the image of God.  And, there is not one person who has not been graced with a unique Godly gift.  Pushing it even more, we are one body in Christ whether we believe in the divinity of Christ or not.  I know that can be hard to digest for some but I so much believe that each of us has so much potential…whether we identify as Christian…or not.  Our neighbor is loved as much by God as we are.  The biggest part of our current polarized, divisive culture is that we close ourselves off from the divinity in each other.  How much better might our world be if we could only think of each other, no matter how different: in culture, in politics, in gender, in race, you name it…as divine.  We are all members of this body.  We all have gifts that contribute to the Godliness of this body.  Our neighbor is next to you right now. You might know them and you might not.  Our neighbor is in Bellingham, Wrentham, Norfolk, and Medway.  Our neighbor is in Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut, and, as hard as it is to say, New York.  Our neighbor is in Mexico and Canada.  Our neighbor is in South America, Europe, the Far East, the Middle East, the Near East, Australia, Africa, and the Arctics.  There is nowhere you can think of that is not our neighbor.  There is no where you can think of that does not have an aspect of the Divine; especially and amazingly including you.  That is our neighbor. Thank God.

To our gospel message and the reverse order of our questions.  Who are you?  And, we’ll give it a twist.  Who do people say that you are?  Who do you think you are?  People love to talk, don’t they?  Who among us has never participated in gossip?  Why do we do that?  I think part of it is that we like to be in the know.  We like knowing something other people don’t, and we have a sense of authority when we share secret things, even though they may not be true.  Jesus was wondering about the gossip surrounding him.  He asks Peter, “So, what have you heard about me?  What’s the scuttlebutt on who folks say I am?”  Somehow I don’t think Jesus was very surprised at Peter’s answer.  There was plenty of gossip about who this prophet from Galilee was.  He was rumored to be his cousin, John the Baptist, or the great prophet Elijah, or a ton of other possibilities.  The gossip spread like wildfire; as gossip does.  But, then there is that burning, direct, unambiguous question to Peter.  “Who do you say that I am?”  Peter’s responds unequivocally and with conviction says, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!”  Right answer, right?  Jesus sure thought so.  Enough so that he told Peter he would be in charge of building the church.  He would have the keys to the kingdom.  Wow!  That’s pretty heady stuff.  Maybe it’s just me, but do you know what I think of when I hear this scripture?  I’m transported to that upper room in Jerusalem.  The night that Jesus shares his last meal with his friends.  The night he tells Peter, “Before the cock crows you will deny me three times.”  Peter doesn’t believe it, but we know it happens don’t we?  Peter is just so incredibly human, incredibly vulnerable, and incredibly flawed, just like us.  But, the good news there is that despite our weakness, our human flaws, we are loved; and loved powerfully.  We all have stuff, and stuff we are not proud of.  But, that does not in any way prevent us from living in to who we can be.  So, who do you think other people say you are?  There is not one of us that is free from being gossiped about.  But the more important question is, does it matter?  If you know who you are, and of course God knows who you are, what difference does it make?  If someone thinks you are not who they expect you to be and says, “Who do you think you are?”  Are you able to answer with, “I am who I am meant to be.  I am a Christian and I love as I am loved.”  Who do you think you are?  That is the question that counts. Better yet, who do you know you are?  None of this think stuff.  In your heart you know this.  You are who you are meant to be.  You are a Christian and you love as you are loved.

Let us pray:

Holy God, help us to love who we are.  Help us to stand strong in our identifying as a people who honestly represent your redeeming love.  Help us to be open to our neighbors as we honor the divine spark that is in each of us.  And, O God, help us to discern your will for us as we become transformed by the renewing of our minds.  May our lives be shining examples of your love.  In Jesus’ holy name, Amen.

08/20/2017 - Forgiving is not for Sissies

Sermon by Pastor Dan Woodman


Genesis 45:1-15


The story of Joseph has something for everyone.  It pretty much runs the full gamut of human emotion.  And, it has adventure.  It has intrigue.  It has suspense.  It has comic relief.  It has all the elements of a great musical play.  Come to think of it, I guess there was one of those.  But more than anything else it has what seems like nothing less than super-human forgiveness.  How is it possible that Joseph who had been sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, then became such a powerful person under the pharaoh in Egypt, and then, when he saw his brothers again, embraced them, and forgave them?  How is it that when we are wayward, when we drift from our true self, when we commit sins of both commission and omission, that we are embraced and forgiven by God?  And, if God is so willing to forgive us, why can’t we find it in our hearts to forgive each other?  And, even more tough, why can’t we find it in our hearts to forgive ourselves?  I think that that forgiveness is the toughest of them all.  The story of Joseph is a pretty important story in a pretty important book in the bible.  It is so important that it takes up about one quarter of the entire book of Genesis.  Joseph was the son of Jacob, who was the son of Isaac, who was the son of Abraham.  That’s pretty significant genealogy.  If you haven’t read his story in a while it’s worth another look.  It goes from chapter 37 to the end of the book at chapter 50.  And, it’s pretty easy reading, almost like a novel. The story has such prominence in the bible because it says how much who we are, warts and all.  And, it says so much about God, and who God is, forgiveness and all.  So I want to talk about forgiveness.  I want to talk about it in increasing degrees of difficulty.  We’ll start easy and end up hard, even provocative, but I think it’s important to think about. 

You’re talking with someone and you don’t hear a word quite clearly.  “I’m sorry?” you say.  You’re at the grocery store and your cart bumps into someone else’s.  “Oh, I’m sorry!”  You need to share something honestly with someone who might be offended.  “Forgive me for saying this, but…”  You were turning left at an intersection and didn’t look right.  The car with the right of way hits you.  “I’m so sorry.  I didn’t see you!  It’s all my fault.”  Here’s a driving one from a different angle.  Forgiveness works two ways.  You are not the perpetrator this time. You are driving around the rotary when someone comes blazing into it forcing you to slam on your brakes.  You toot your horn and they make an unpleasant gesture at you with their hand.  Can you forgive them? (That happened to me recently).  You just settled in for a nap.  The phone rings.  It’s Tammy who has a great deal for you at a resort.  Can you forgive her?  Another driving one, these are just so many!  Traffic is heavy on the interstate.  The exit ramp is backed up for two miles.  You patiently are waiting to get off.  You are finally at the exit when someone comes flying by you on your left, cuts you off, and exits.  Can you forgive them?  It’s human nature to get irritated, to get mad, to even wish for revenge of some kind.  Is it human nature to forgive?  No, I think it’s the survival instinct in human nature that crops up when we are wronged.  Sometimes it’s just pig headedness that holds us back.  But, it’s Christian nature to forgive.

Self-disclosure time: Rod and I became friends in 9th grade.  I had just transferred to Burdick Junior High School.  Rod and I became best friend throughout high school, college, our careers.  We were in each other’s weddings, and did things as couples all the time, even though we lived in different states.  We each had two children at about the same time.  It was when his oldest was in college, and his younger son was in high school that he met someone on the internet.  He told his wife he no longer wished to be married, and filed for divorce, and moved to Oklahoma.  His wife had to sell the house, move to a condo, and struggled to do what she needed to do for her sons.  He called me to tell me what he was doing, and why.  I wanted none of it.  I felt that what he had done was unforgivable.  After that conversation I did not speak to him for probably fifteen years.  He divorced the woman in Oklahoma, and married and divorced another woman.  His first wife who we were still very close to, remarried to a very loving and caring man.  It wasn’t until about five years ago.  I had been in seminary for a couple of years.  It suddenly came to me.  “What am I doing?  Who do I think I am?  What is the purpose of holding a grudge?  Whose interest is best served?”  I came to the conclusion that I was not being honest with myself, and I was not being honest with God.  I felt like some of those stiff-necked Israelites who were always in trouble with God.  Now I felt that not only should I reach out to Rod, but I needed to forgive myself too, for being such an idiot.  And, I’m still working on that.  Like I said in the beginning, forgiving yourself is hardest.  Did I forgive Rod for what he did? No.  Did I forgive Rod for who he was: a sinner with human frailty just like me?  Yes.  I called him and we talked for quite awhile.  He was grateful for my reaching out.  Will it ever be like before? No, but I feel that a bridge was crossed, and it feels right.

I mentioned provocative before and here it is.  This comes from one of the Stillspeaking devotionals that I get in my email every day.  It was written by Matt Fitzgerald and posted on July 22.  It’s called, “The Killer Said ‘Grace’.”

He said to them, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners." - Mark 2:17

The killer brutally murdered a teenage girl. Twenty-one years later he was still awaiting execution.

The killer sat on a gray plastic chair beneath fluorescent lights. Death row didn't look like a dungeon. It looked like the DMV.

The killer looked younger than his age. His skin was smooth. His face was framed by a pair of thick, heavy glasses. His hands and feet were chained together. His voice was gentle.  

The killer said "grace" over and over and over again. "Unmerited grace. Freely given grace. Undeserved grace."

I flinched. That's when things got disturbing. 

"Listen, I'll never forget my crime. It is always deeply, deeply disturbing to me. But there has to come a point where you receive forgiveness and then forgive yourself —not to justify your actions, but to let God be God."

He kicked his legs and waved his hands. His shackles rattled as he spoke. "I'm not letting myself be restricted. I'm a person, and I'm a person who is loved and forgiven by God."

Grace is easy to preach. But it can strike you like lightning strikes a tree. Christ burned my understanding of justice and decency to the ground. Sometimes their embers still rise up. But I know that if what I believe about God is true, that killer is beloved. 

I walked onto death row expecting monsters. Instead the most unnerving thing I encountered was the grace of God.

So, that’s pretty hard.  Is forgiveness to this degree just for God, or is it for us, too?  That is not a question I can answer for you.  Only you can do that.  I wrote this sermon three weeks ago, before leaving for vacation.  Since then we have been exposed to Charlottesville, to Barcelona.  These events are more relatable for us than the prisoner on death row.  We can easily see ourselves or those we love as victims to this kind of evil.  Where is our forgiveness there?  Where is our Christian response to this?  I can only speak for myself, but it’s freaking hard.

But, as I said before there is, believe it or not, an even harder kind of forgiving.  It is the forgiving of ourselves.  We are tougher on ourselves than we are with anyone else, even God.  We judge our past actions, we dwell on our mistakes and our faults.  We are our own toughest critics.  We can be brutally merciless on who we are because we simply can’t live up to the impossible expectations we create for ourselves.  It’s a battle we can never win because it is a standard that is not humanly possible.  Here is the Christian response to that.  And, this is maybe the most important part of our faith.  By not letting go and forgiving ourselves, loving ourselves, we are doing a disservice to the One who already took on all of that baggage for us.  Jesus took on the sins of the world in order that we might have life.  We are loved more than we can ever know.  If God loves us enough to do that for us, don’t we owe it to God to respond in kind?  I know it is far easier said than done, but for us to be able to really forgive anyone else, we need to start with ourselves.  We deserve to love who we are because we are made in the image of God.  God knows us inside and out.  And, God accepts us, even the parts we don’t like very much.

There was another Stillspeaking devotional a few days after the one I just read.  It’s by Tyler Connoley and he talks about a Buddhist meditation practice called the Loving-Kindness Meditation.  It’s something he has practiced regularly, and I have done it too.  It fits well with our theme of forgiveness.  It goes:  Begin by directing loving-kindness toward yourself. Then toward people you love. Then toward people who are neutral (like the person to your left in a group, or your mail carrier if you're meditating alone). Then direct your loving-kindness toward your enemies. Finally, direct it toward "all living beings." By beginning with yourself, and moving through the cycle, it becomes easier to think of your enemy as just another being who needs compassion.'  You use words something like: “May I be happy.  May I be well. May I be safe.  May I be peaceful and at ease.” Then you expand it to people you love, people who are neutral, people who are your enemies, etc.  Tyler modified this to give it a Christian understanding, and I love it!  This is it.  You might try this as words to meditate on yourself as you work on forgiving others and forgiving you.

Let us pray:

God, grant me love. Grant me joy. Grant me peace. And grant me life abundant.
God, grant my family love. Grant my family joy. Grant my family peace. And grant my family life abundant.
God, grant my enemy love. Grant my enemy joy. Grant my enemy peace. And grant my enemy life abundant.
God, grant all your children love. Grant all your children joy. Grant all your children peace. And grant all your children life abundant.

7/30/2017 - Anything's Possible

Sermon by Pastor Dan Woodman


Psalm 119:129-136

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52, 17:20

Anything's Possible

What is the kingdom of heaven? What's it like? Where is it? How do I get there? These are questions that Jesus was asked...a lot. And, if you're like me you find yourself asking the same questions. Maybe not all the time, because we are busy doing life, but sometimes that question just appears. It's waiting for and looking for an answer. You might be looking at a beautiful sunset, or the ocean, or a mountain, or the stars. You might be at a funeral or a wake and maybe caught up short by the fragility or unpredictability of life and wonder about this question since it's right there in front of you. On the other end of the spectrum you might see a baby or witness a baptism like we did last week and find yourself in awe of this miracle of life. And, on the other hand, you might be thinking about tragedies in life; tragedies like terrorism, famine, climate change, our sometimes senseless inhumanity to each other, and find yourself wondering how a kingdom of heaven is even possible. We all have this wonder from time to time, and these questions, and yes, even these doubts. It was not very different in the first century. Maybe climate change was not much of a factor but there were plenty of atrocities and injustice to go around. And, there were beautiful sunsets, and oceans, and mountains, too; and, obviously deaths and births and all the other things that would elicit the wonder, or the doubt, about the kingdom of God.  So, Jesus spent a lot of time explaining the kingdom of God.  And, sometimes it’s pretty confusing.  Sometimes it seems he’s talking about it in the present tense.  The kingdom is right here, right now.  Sometimes it’s in the future.  It’s apocalyptic.  At the end of time we’ll have the kingdom of God.  Which is it?  And, again, what is it? Where is it? What’s it like?  With Jesus there is no straight answer.  Instead there are parables; not a pair of bowls as Lou Costello thought but parables.  Come to think of it that is the entire purpose of a parable.  It’s intention is for us to not listen with simply our ears because so much of the time what we hear is filtered through our experience and what we hear is not necessarily what is said, hence, the pair of bowls.  The intention of the parable is to make us listen with multiple receptors: our ears, yes, but also our minds, and especially our hearts.  Our Psalm reading today echoes this pretty well. “The unfolding of your words gives light: it imparts understanding to the simple.”  We need to hear about the kingdom.  We need to digest the knowledge and have it infuse our being.  The psalmist says, “Make your face shine upon your servant, and teach me your statutes.” So the parables are an unfolding of words.  They are indirect, oblique, and, sure, sometimes obtuse.  But they serve to engage us inform us, not just with our ears but with our hearts.  Matthew obviously liked them a lot.  His gospel is full of them, and Chapter 13 that we heard this morning is pretty much entirely parables.  I want to focus on the mustard seed which is the first one, and the last one which we heard this morning from Chapter 17, but let’s look first at the ones in the middle.  It makes them kind of a mustard seed sandwich.  They are all short and pithy.  It helps to put them in historical context.  The parable of the yeast is interesting. ‘The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.’  Bread and its making was known by everyone.  We all know yeast is a catalyst and has dramatic effect on flour.  Did you know that three measures of flour is equivalent to 23 liters?  That’s a lot of flour.  The yeast is like the kingdom of God in that it takes just a little to mix in with the flour.  The flour here would be the world.  In other words the kingdom of heaven is an active agent in our present daily lives; right here and right now.  The next two are very similar.  ‘The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. 45 ‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; 46on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.’  Both of these describe the kingdom of heaven as having inestimable value; in other words, “The kingdom of heaven? Priceless!”  The next one is interesting. ‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; 48when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. 49So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous 50and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” That’s kind of a gruesome image, right?  This one is pretty much a warning.  But, it’s confusing.  Here he seems to be saying that the kingdom of heaven is not now but at the end of time.  It’s apocalyptic.  Be ready!  So, which is it?  Now or later?  My opinion comes later.  Then we have verses 51 and 52. ‘Have you understood all this?’ They answered, ‘Yes.’ And he said to them, ‘Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.’  So let me ask you, “Have you understood all this?”  If your answer is yes then maybe you can help me.  For most of us it’s still kind of uncertain. The cool part of this verse though is the end.  Jesus says when we finally get it, I mean really get it, then we can be agents of the kingdom of heaven.  We can help others to understand as, like the master of a household, we bring out the treasure of both old and new.  The old here refers to the Torah, the Hebrew Bible, and the new is about Jesus’ teaching.  We can be agents of change because we have internalized this holy wisdom.

So, the mustard seed thing.  As I noted, it’s used by Jesus twice in this gospel.  Obviously there were no microscopes in the first century, so this seed represents one of the smallest life forms known.  Not only are they tiny, and you can see them attached to your bulletins, but they transform.  It’s amazing that they can grow to a tree as large as thirty feet tall with a thirty foot spread.  These seeds pack a punch of power.  Inherent in these seeds is magnificence.  ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.’  When you get a chance google mustard trees.  They are beautiful.  The kingdom of heaven has transforming power.  That means here, and that means now.  That means you and that means me.  We are both transformed by the kingdom of heaven and are in fact agents of that transformation; right here and right now.  We might feel tiny and insignificant sometimes just like these seeds, but we have within us a divine spark that can blossom into something big, and beautiful, and majestic as we work our transforming miracles in our relationships with others, and our lifting up of the weak, and our standing up for what we know in our hearts to be important.  Do we sometimes question or have doubts about this tiny divine spark inside us?  Sure, but that is what this last verse is about.  ‘For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, “Move from here to there”, and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.’  Those are very big, and very powerful words.  And they speak of this little tiny thing on your bulletin.  Jesus says if you have faith the size of just one of these things, you can do anything.  Anything’s possible.  That is because faith cannot be measured by physical size.  Faith is in fact immeasurable.  It’s there or it’s not.  It is the divine spark in each of us that, by its very nature has no limits.  That is because there is no limit for God’s love for us.  It cannot be measured.  It simply is.  It is unconditional and unequivocal.  God has shown us that through the birth, the life, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus.  We have grace, we are forgiven, we are loved.  So, what is holding you back from embracing that, and letting your mustard seed of faith blossom in to magnificence?  I said before that I would share with you my understanding of the kingdom of heaven.  Mind you, it does not need to be your understanding.  It’s simply me being me.  Is the kingdom of heaven here and now?  Is the kingdom of heaven sometime in the future; either when we die or when the world implodes.  I say it is both.  The kingdom of heaven is all about relationship for me.  It is our relationship with God, our relationship with God’s creation, and our relationship with each other.  When these three things are aligned through the gift of God’s grace, nothing is impossible.  It is here and now, and it transcends physical time.  Love is permanent.  Love is everlasting.  Love never dies.  We can channel this love with faith as tiny as one of these seeds, and with that we can move a mountain.  Anything’s possible!

Let us pray:

Holy God, sometimes we have doubts and we have questions.  Help us to let ourselves be open to you.  Help us to recognize our divine spark, and with it become your agents of transformation in this kingdom of heaven, and the kingdom of heaven that is to come.  Love transcends time and your love for us is forever.  We pray that with your guidance our sparks will glow and grow to become a holy fire of love that will empower us to bring warmth and compassion and change to your kingdom.  With you at our side anything is possible.  Amen.


7/23/2017 - What Is God Calling Me To Do?

Sermon by Pastor Dan Woodman


1Samuel 3:1-10

What Is God Calling Me To Do?

This is the third and final message on the series of three questions that was posed to us by Kelly Gallagher, the head of the UCC Central Association, to consider as we reflect on how to make the best use of our sabbatical time together. The physical and emotional distance that we have from Charley provides opportunity to be more objective about how we identify ourselves as a community of believers and as individuals. Charley is asking himself these same questions while he is away. It will be great to compare notes in October. The question we considered two weeks ago is “Who am I?” Last week it was “Who is my neighbor?” This week it is “What is God calling me to do?” Not one of these questions can be answered fully without considering the other two. They depend on each other and are integral to each other in framing our personal and our corporate identity as we try to open ourselves to who God created us to be and what is the plan God has for our life. These three questions interrelate. Just like the three persons of the Trinity interrelate, and it gives me the chance to use my favorite seminary word: Perichoresis. It’s a Greek word which means mutual indwelling. It defines the nature of the trinity as mutually dependent and independent at the same time. Maybe it’s a stretch to apply it to our three questions but it gives me a chance to show you how smart I am. In any event each of the questions helps us to think about the others. We talked about “Who am I” in the context of how we might discern who it is God created us to be. We were created in God's image, and God has a plan for each of us. But, from the moment we are born we pick up patterns of behavior and influences from those around us. We try to differentiate ourselves from our environment but it's hard. It begins with our parents as we subconsciously pick up patterns of behavior and attitudes that are passed down from generation to generation. As we mature we try to figure out who we are through trial and error. And, we all go through lots of trial and errors. That is, unfortunately the way it is meant to be. But as we continue to differentiate and discern, and as we become more intimate with our true selves, that is when we are happiest. That is where we are as we more perfectly reflect our own sacred God-created image. In talking about “Who is my neighbor” we reflected on the difference between boundaries and barricades. Boundaries are important. Boundaries are essential, in fact. They protect and define our individuality. Boundaries exist for a host of good reasons. Boundaries make good and healthy neighborness. But barricades are a product of our own creation. We erect them both consciously and subliminally. We defend them oftentimes without even knowing why we are doing it! Barricades prevent us from engaging with our neighbor. I suggested a strategy of deploying our own “personal permeable membrane” that would allow us to filter our encounters with others. We have the ability to control how we engage. We can figure out how to honor that which is holy and common between us. And, we can prevent the negative elements of fear, mistrust, anxiety, and prejudice from getting in the way. So today's question of “What is God calling me to do,” is a natural extension of the first two questions. I firmly believe that each one of us has a calling. We are created for a purpose. Figuring that out is part of the fun in life. Ok, maybe fun is the wrong word but I think exciting might work. But I clearly acknowledge that frustrating and confusing work pretty well, too. So, how do we figure out God's intention for us? Where do we look for the answer?  Here again, just like the other questions, it’s a process.  It’s a journey of trial and error.  And it’s a journey that can take a very, very long time.  But throughout this journey we are constantly learning.  Information is pouring in to our consciousness and our sub consciousness constantly.  And it demands that we look both inward and outward.  We all have the gifts to be able to direct this data; channel it, analyze it, and act on it.  For some people it can take a long time. I mentioned before how it took me almost fifty years to settle in to what I understand God’s call for me is.  Do I regret that I did not get here sooner?  No, I would not change a minute of any of my life experience.  All of that stuff has been fundamental in making me who I am today.  Am I happy with what I’m doing now?  You bet.  Do I feel like I wasted time in getting here?  No way.  I am the happiest I have ever been because I feel aligned with what I understand to be God’s purpose for my life.  It just took a while.  But I don’t think I would be where I am without embracing all that has been part of my journey.  And, there has been some pretty hard stuff.  But it is all necessary stuff; stuff from which we learn.  So, it’s taken me a while.  But, for some folks it can happen a lot faster.  I don’t think there is any explanation or formula for that other than it is all part of the mystery that is God’s plan for each of us.  For some people it can be while they are young.  We witnessed that very thing this morning as we celebrated the blessing and honoring of DJ’s name.  He knows at 18, knew at 16 even, who he was.  He has courageously embraced who he is, who God created him to be, and, I believe, trusts in God’s plan for his future.  And, that’s the thing.  God’s plan for us, God’s call to us, is in no way stagnant.  It is vital, it is alive, and it can change.  God’s call to us can be different tomorrow than what it is today.  It can be different in five minutes from what it is right now.  Again, that is part of the beauty and mystery of The Plan.  The trick is we must be open to it.  We open ourselves to it by going inward and outward.  We search inwardly with prayer, as we quiet our mind and open the ears of our heart as we listen.  Will we hear it as plainly as Samuel?  Maybe.  We search outwardly through engaging with others.  It’s that trial and error thing again.  It takes some risk but it is oh so important.  We are meant to engage and learn from each other; to help each other on their own individual path.  Helping others helps us in our discernment as share our journeys of discovery together.

I just mentioned Samuel so let’s take a look at our question for a biblical context.  Samuel was a pretty important guy in the Hebrew Bible.  For those who don’t know, Samuel’s mother, Hannah, had been unable to have children.  She appealed to the great priest Eli who was touched by her earnestness and her faith.  He told her the Lord would help.  Sure enough, Hannah had Samuel.  She was so grateful for Samuel that she took him to live with Eli that he might be dedicated to the work of the Lord and become a great priest.  This is the background of our reading today.  The most important thing about Samuel’s mission in life though is that he was the one who responded to God in selecting and anointing the first great king of Israel, Saul.  And, after that, God was instrumental in directing Eli to discover, and to anoint, the greatest of all the kings of Israel, King David, from whom Jesus is descended.  So Samuel was a pretty significant player.  What we heard today is the famous Call of Samuel.  We don’t know exactly how old he is but he is obviously a boy who is living with and studying under old Eli.  God speaks to him, and it is so clear he thinks it’s Eli from the next room.  God calls him by name, just like God calls each of us by our name. “Samuel! Samuel!”  He jumps up certain that it is Eli, and runs into the next room where Eli is sleeping.  “Here I am!” he says.  This happens three times and Eli figures it out.  He tells Samuel that the next time it happens simply respond with; “Speak, for your servant is listening.”  And, he did.  So, fast forward to today, to right here, right now.  I think God is calling our names all the time.  Tim! Debbie! Sue! DJ! Judy! Roger! Andrew!  You get the idea.  God is calling us all the time but we generally are just so involved in our own stuff that we can’t hear him.  That is why we need the inward and the outward.  We need to let go of the distractions and listen.  I mean REALLY listen.  God has a plan for you right now.  Do you know what it is?  In your heart, I think you know.

If you haven’t yet written on the post its, now is the time.  Remember, this is anonymous.  Write whatever you feel is your call, right now, at this moment on both post its.  Make it as specific as you are able.  Blank is not an option.  If you’re really not sure put down a question mark.  That’s ok. The question mark is an acknowledgement that you’re searching.  Remember your call can change from minute to minute, and day to day.  The ushers will come by with a basket.  Drop only ONE of them in the basket.  The other one is for you to take home and put on your refrigerator.  You will be reminded of your call, and/or your search for your call every time you see it.  If you would rather keep it confidential from the household, put it in your wallet.  The ushers will bring the baskets forward and I will bless these calls because every one of them is special and precious.  Just as each one of us is special and precious in the eyes of God.

Let us pray:

Holy and Loving God, you know each of us by our name.  You have a purpose for each of us.  Open our eyes that we might realize that purpose and live in to who we are meant to be and what we are intended to do.  Help us to support each other on our journeys that we might, together, make your world a more loving, open, caring, and just place.  Help us in our search to trust in your divine will and goodness.  In your holy name, Amen.


7/16/2017 - Who is My Neighbor?

Sermon by Pastor Dan Woodman


Luke 10.25-37 

Who is My Neighbor?

This is the second in a series of messages around the three questions proposed to us by Kelly Gallagher, the head of the UCC Central Association to which we belong. The questions are suggested to give us an opportunity to do both a personal and corporate assessment of ourselves while Charley is on sabbatical. Last week we talked about our personal and corporate identity as we considered the question, “Who am I?” Next week we’ll think about, “What is God calling me to do?” Today’s topic is a good one, and a timely one, “Who is my neighbor?” With all of the global and domestic controversy around immigration, I think there is no better time than right now to lift it up for us here at FFC. It’s such a complicated topic and it is such a divisive topic! Like so much of political discourse today folks can get so fired up on one side or the other that communication becomes impossible. Intolerance on both sides becomes the order of the day and that is just not the way it should be. Intolerance is just so incredibly dangerous. As an aside, I heard recently about a potential new connect group. This group would be made up of people from a spectrum of political views who will gather with the intention to air their views in a setting of careful listening and respect. Is such a thing possible? I say if it’s possible anywhere it is possible right here. Who knows? It might take on a life of its own and we might become the model for respect and tolerance that could spread locally to globally. Maybe that’s a bit too optimistic but it’s nice to dream, isn’t it? Anyway, we are not going to solve this problem this morning, but I hope that we might find a kind of base level understanding and perspective as we look at the topic of neighborness through a biblical parabolic lens. The parabolic lens is a play on words as we look at what neighbor means in the context of the most famous parable in the bible, the Good Samaritan.

It was pretty much exactly a year ago today that I happened to lead worship here. The lectionary text for the day happened to be this very parable. I shared with you the revelation that came to me as I prepared the message. I juxtaposed the roles in this story and it had fresh relevance and meaning for me. It occurred to me that the Samaritan and Jesus could be one and the same as he modeled selflessness, challenged social convention, and sacrificed at his own expense. The man who had been attacked and left for dead could be us. We are all too often beaten down both by life circumstances and even worse by our own doing with the chains of guilt that we carry with us. And, best of all are not our needs met with understanding, compassion, and mercy, by none other than Jesus himself?! And, what about those folks across the road? The ones who avoided the whole messy situation because it was inconvenient, or too risky, or socially unacceptable. Well, that would be us too as we likely avoid eye contact with the First Responder across the street. That was pretty much my message then, but today I chose to focus on this parable because it fits so well with our question, “Who is my neighbor?” And, so much has happened in the past twelve months, right? The election. The immigration ban. The tragic stories of boats sinking in the Mediterranean overloaded with families desperate to escape terrible, life threatening conditions. The swelling of immigrant populations in Europe. The mistrust of everything Muslim. The isolationism. What do you think when you see these stories? Are we like the priest and the Levite who are avoiding an uncomfortable situation? What do you think Jesus meant when he used the word “neighbor?” What do you think when you use the word neighbor? Are they the same, different, somewhere in between? The Samaritans and Jews despised each other. It had been that way for hundreds of years.  They despised each other with a passion. Discrimination was passed down from generation to generation. No one questioned it. It was simply the way things were; the way things had always been; presumably the way they would always be. That is one of the most powerful aspects of this parable. Jesus steps in to break the cycle of misinformation, mistrust, intolerance, hatred, finger pointing, and fear. He demonstrates through a modeling of behavior that there is something holy in each of us. There is in each of us something so much deeper that connects us to each other below the level of our inherited concepts of discrimination. We just need to get there. I know it's much easier said than done. But if we can simply strive to embrace that which we hold in common, we too can be models of compassion, trust, and understanding. How do we acknowledge the holy spark that is in each of us? How do we open our eyes to witness our holy commonality while still respecting our differences? Better yet, how do we help others to do the same thing? It's fairly easy to identify who our neighbors are. They are sitting next to you. They live next door. They are in the next town. Anywhere there is a boundary there is a neighbor. You are on one side of it and they are on the other. So consider all the boundaries that we have. They spread out from the person next to you, to the next town, to the next state, to the next country, and, I suppose it's likely that someday we'll be able to say the next planet, galaxy, or universe. It's easy to identify a neighbor.  Indeed our question of the day is “Who is my neighbor?” I've just listed them all. The challenge is how we react to, how we treat that neighbor, how we honor that neighbor as a creation of God. As our Poet Laureate Peggy Maxwell begins the poem we heard today, “Jesus said, 'You shall love your neighbor as you yourself.” How do we do that? What does it take for us to not be like the priest and the Levite who look the other way?  I think that one thing which might be helpful is our understanding of boundaries.  If a boundary defines who our neighbor is, is that a bad thing?  I don’t think so.  We need boundaries for all kinds of reasons.  They protect our personal space.  They define where it is we live.  They offer us safety in our sovereign country.  We need boundaries for our safety and our well being.  Boundaries are essential.  But, here’s the thing: a boundary is not a barricade.  Boundaries are simply dividers that exist between neighbors.  We don’t have control over them.  But barricades are something we create.  Barricades are optional, boundaries are not.  Barricades are raised out of fear, mistrust, misunderstanding.  They can be figurative and they can certainly be literal.  They can be an invisible (or visible) wall that we wear; a wall that tells others “I’m not listening,” a wall that shows others I have my fingers in my ears.  I’m right.  You’re wrong.  It’s a barricade that kept the priest and the Levite on the other side of the street.  And, it’s barricades that prevent us from loving our neighbor as ourselves.  We all have barricades.  Some are conscious creations and some are inherited.  Some we have control over and some we don’t.  My suggestion this morning is that we direct our efforts at turning those barricades into permeable membranes.  A permeable membrane filters stuff.  It’s fluid and organic.  It allows certain elements to come and go while preventing others from crossing.  Imagine for a moment what it would be like if our personal permeable membranes (let’s call them PPMs for short) were open for love and personal connection while at the same time closed to fear, mistrust, anxiety, and hate.  What a world that would be!  Our PPMs open to each other’s God created essence.  That lowest common denominator that we all share, that unconditional love and grace, moves fluidly between us and among us and around us, while at the same time the negative and evil elements of suspicion, guilt, and fear are blocked.  I understand this is an ideal, but I also think that each of us has the ability to control our personal permeable membranes.  We don’t all need to be like Saint Mother Theresa but we are able to exert some control over how we view things and how we react.  We have the gift to be able to adjust our own filters.  Simply being aware of that ability is a powerful first step on the road to creating a more perfect world, a more perfect neighborhood, and a more perfect and loving individual who we were indeed created to be.  May God bless us in this effort.

Let us pray,

Holy God, help us to open our eyes that we may see more clearly our neighbors both near and far.  Help us to acknowledge the holy human essence that connects us all.  Help us to react with thoughtfulness and love as we undertake the building of bridges and the removal of our personal barricades.  In Jesus we have the perfect model for perfect love.  Grant that we may have the will and the skill to open our hearts to you and to those around us.  In Jesus’ holy name we pray, Amen.




7/9/2017 - Who Am I?

Sermon by Pastor Dan Woodman


Acts 9:9-22

Who Am I?

This is the first in a series of sermons that will explore three questions that Kelly Gallagher, the head of the UCC Central Association, suggested that we consider.  With Charley on his sabbatical for a while we have the space and the time to do some serious self-evaluation.  The status quo is shaken up a bit.  As I mentioned last week we have a “new normal.”  For me the new normal is all about opportunity.  The first question on our plate is, “Who am I?”  Next week we’ll consider, “Who is my neighbor?”  And, the following week will be, “What is God calling me to do?”  These are all great questions and they all interrelate.  So, let’s give it a go. 

I have a memory test for you.  Hold up your hand when you know what these things have in common.  United States Navy Vice Admiral James Bond Stockdale.  June 18, 1992.  Dan Quayle. Al Gore.  And, this quote: “Who Am I? and Why am I here?”  For those still wondering, the common denominator is the vice-presidential debate on June 18, 1992.  The presidential contest was between the incumbent George H. W. Bush (who had pretty much blown it with his read my lips no new taxes quote), the young charismatic governor from Arkansas, William Jefferson Clinton, and the quirky Texas business man running on the Independent ticket, Ross Perot.  Ross Perot had selected Vice Admiral Stockdale as his running mate, and this debate was his debut on the largest political stage of his life.  He had not been informed that he would be in the debate until the week before June 18.  The other candidates however were thoroughly prepared.  At the start of the debate each candidate was asked to provide a brief opening statement.  Gore and Quayle offered their well rehearsed and polished synopsis of their positions.  Vice Admiral Stockdale on the other hand, led with two questions that became the focus of late night comedians and pretty much everyone else for months to come.  He stared into the camera and with deadpan expression said, “Who am I?  Why am I here?”  Of course he went on to answer his own questions but no one remembered any of that.  It was just too easy to make fun of him. Jim Stockdale was no politician.  He was a career military man who served his country with honor and distinction.  On September 9, 1965 he was the flight commander on a mission over North Vietnam when he was shot down, captured, and served as a prisoner of war under brutal conditions, enduring incredible torture and hardship for the next seven and a half years.  He organized and led his fellow POWs as they supported each other and resisted the enemies’ attempts at using them for propaganda.  When he was ultimately freed he was awarded the Medal of Honor.  Jim Stockdale knew who he was.  When interviewed years later about how he was able to keep hope alive for those seven plus years he said, “I never lost faith in the end of the story, I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.”  Jim Stockdale was no fool.  Jim Stockdale was a genuine American hero.  He simply was not a politician.  Did he know who he was?  Absolutely, and I’ll bet he knew who he was a lot better than many of us know who we are.  He accepted the vice-presidential candidacy because he was a patriot and felt it was his duty to continue to serve his country with honor and distinction.  Yes, folks made fun of him for months, years even, but when we look at the man in the context of who he was it does not seem quite so funny.  Jim Stockdale knew darn well who he was.  How do we know who we are?  How does anyone figure out who they really are?  The default answer to that is that we typically define who we are by what it is that we do.  That works ok for a while but it has its drawbacks.  Consider the problem with retirement.  We spend years planning on how great it will be, and all too often discover that it’s not what we thought.  I’m no longer the lawyer, business owner, police officer, teacher, you pick it.  We are suddenly something else.  We are a former one of the above. Or, you’ve lost your job for whatever reason.  Maybe you’re laid off, fired, you got sick.  Once again you are a former whatever.  You’ve spent your adult life raising a family and suddenly the kids are out of college, pursuing a career in California, getting married and having families of their own.  You are again a former something that you did not expect.  The house is uncomfortably quiet and you’re not quite sure anymore who you are and why you’re here.  Certainly our careers are important and there is not anything much more satisfying than seeing your kids do well, but…Who am I?  And, Why am I here?  Better yet, who am I as a worshipper and participant in the life of Franklin Federated?  And, what difference do I make to this community and the larger community of Franklin and beyond?  These are questions I cannot answer for you.  But they are important.  We choose what it is that we do professionally for a wide variety of reasons.  Sometimes we are forced into a choice that we might not have made.  Life happens.  But I would suggest to you that who you are goes much, much deeper than what you do.  Sometimes the two things come together perfectly but for most of us there must be compromise along the way.  Did I want to be a merchant for thirty-five years?  I was okay at it and it certainly helped in contributing to the family budget, but was it me?  To be honest I would have to say yes, and no.  During my Woodstock years while at my first college I was called in to the dean’s office for some behavior issues.  Dean Yates said to me, “Dan, what do you want to do with your life?”  My response was a combination of flippant and visceral.  “Dean, I think I would like to be a shepherd.”  This was not an answer he was expecting.  Our meeting ended shortly after as did my time at that school.  It’s funny though as I think of it now.  Was there a part of me then that knew someday I would be a pastor?  My decision to do what I’m doing now did not happen for another almost 50 years.  In the meantime life simply happened.  I think we are all created with unique and special gifts.  Do we know what they are and how we can best use them?  Most times, no.  It’s trial and error.  And, we have all had our fair share of that.  We are tested every day aren’t we?  I think God intends for us to be who we were created to be but in the meantime we have to go through a lot of stuff to get there.  And, I think, once we are there, that is when we are absolutely the happiest we can be.  That does not mean we no longer have challenges but we are simply much better equipped to handle them. You are operating from a place that is grounded in the security of knowing you are doing the right thing because you are acting on behalf of who you really are!

Let’s look for a minute at today’s scripture.  The apostle Paul is likely the greatest single contributor to the New Testament.  Fourteen of the twenty-seven books are attributed to him directly.  There is some dispute over the authorship of some, but even the disputed letters were clearly influenced by his style and his theology.  I think we can pretty safely say that Paul was the greatest evangelist of all time.  But who was he before he was Paul?  This is what we see in today’s reading.  The short answer is that before he was Paul he was Saul; same person, different names.  Paul is simply the Roman translation of Saul.  And, it would appear that the names were pretty much interchangeable.   Most notable however, is what he was doing in his professional life and what changed and what stayed the same.  He was highly educated.  His father was a Roman citizen which meant he was too.  He was able to enjoy a kind of dual citizenship then between his strong Jewish Pharisee background and the secular Roman Empire.  Paul was brilliant, highly educated, and Paul was zealous in defending his faith.  Prior to his conversion this did not work out so well for the early Christians.  He was something of a moral bounty hunter searching out, arresting, and prosecuting those who he perceived to be a threat to his faith tradition and therefore to the stability and social order of the day.  And, he did it well.  It would appear his God-given gifts were a keen mind, devotion, and passion. He likely was pretty certain as to who he was.  But something big happened.  Paul had his “come to Jesus” moment; quite literally.  The result of which turned his career around by 180 degrees.  He went from prosecutor to protector of those early Christians.  And, from there to evangelist establishing Christian communities all over the then known world at great personal risk, eventually sacrificing his own life.  Was he a different person?  No, he was the same guy.  He had the same keen mind, devotion, and passion like he always had.  He simply found the place and purpose of his life.  He became the person who God intended him to be.  For most of us it does not happen so abruptly.  It would be great if Jesus walked in here now and told each of us what we should be doing.  But, that would be too easy.  We need to go through all of those trials and all of those errors as we approach the kind of self-knowledge that makes us one with whom we are and who we were created to be.  This is one of the most important parts of our fellowship together as a community of faith. We have each other to lean on and to support as we work toward that goal of defining our essential selves together.  With that kind of support and grounding there is nothing we cannot do.  With this understanding we are better equipped to share, to be compassionate, and to forgive each other as we work our way individually and collectively towards defining our essential selves and living in to who it is we really are, and who we were so lovingly created to be.  For Jim Stockdale it was seven and a half years in a North Vietnamese hell hole.  For Paul it was a conversion experience on the road to Damascus.  What is it for you?  What is it for me?  It is likely somewhere in between those two experiences.  But, we are indeed blessed to have each other to bear witness to our journey, and a loving and compassionate God who knows us better than we can ever know ourselves.  May we continue to be there for each other as we go through our trials and errors.  And, may we be consoled by the knowledge that God yearns for us to be the unique and special and gifted person who he created us to be.

Let us pray:

Holy and loving God we know that you know who we are and who you created us to be.  Help us to help each other as we dig deeply, explore our growing edges, and with your help, blossom in to who we are meant to be.  May we be blessed with patience and understanding for ourselves and those around us as we dare to be both bold and vulnerable in our quest to be one with you that we may be empowered to fulfill the purpose you intend for each of us.  In Jesus’ holy name, Amen. 

7/2/2017 - A New Thing

Sermon by Pastor Dan Woodman


Isaiah 43: 6-8
2 Corinthians 5:16-18

A New Thing

No one ever said change is easy.  We are somehow programmed, hardwired, to settle in to the status quo.  It’s comfortable.  It’s predictable.  It’s safe.  It’s normal. But is it good?  We hear the phrase “new normal” a lot nowadays.  And, it’s generally a negative comment.  Some have said the intensity and animosity of our political discourse is a new normal so we might as well get used to it.  Is that a good thing?  I don’t think so.  Is that a status quo that one can feel comfortable with?  I sure hope not!  On the other hand the term “new normal” can mean something positive.  It can mean new opportunity to look at the old status quo with fresh eyes.  New normals are not something over which we have control.  It is change that has happened outside of our individual ability to influence it.  It’s a social phenomenon.   What we do have control over is how we respond to it.  And, what meaning we can derive from it.  As I stand in front of you we are together experiencing a new normal in the life of Franklin Federated Church.  How we respond to that change is rich with opportunity and promise.  There is change.  There is challenge, and there is just maybe some anxiety.  How will it be without Charley around for the next three months?  For my part I could not be more excited.  We will journey together as we experience this new normal. We will explore what it is that makes us a community of faith.  I will encourage you to look at things differently.  We all tend to take normalcy for granted.  That can be stifling and inhibiting without our even knowing it.  This is the part of change that is good.  Some things will be the same and some will not.  Charley and I are two very different people.  Some might say that Charley has pretty big shoes to fill.  I think that’s true but that is not how I see the job.  I have different shoes, and am very comfortable wearing them.  As your pastor for the next three months I want you all to know that I am here to listen, to support, to share, to comfort, and to lead.  My phone number is posted.  I will be here every Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday (except for the first two weeks in August).  If you need me outside of that time just call the church office or email.   We are all of us very different and that is God’s intention.  We are each uniquely created in God’s own image.  We each have special gifts that are like the threads of a tapestry which, together, create the amazing richness and multicolored splendor of God’s kingdom.  We have a microcosm of it right here in this faith community.  We have our own unique and special Franklin Federated tapestry.  The best part, though, is that this tapestry is constantly shifting and changing.  It is far from stagnant. Members come and members leave.  People are baptized and people pass away.  Our missions focus can change as the needs dictate.  Our building and grounds evolve as folks have so generously donated to the restoration campaign.  There are new and different connect groups.  We have a new church administrator.  Lois is not Lisa nor should she be.  Lois is Lois and brings her own unique skills and gifts to FFC.  And the list can go on and on.  But our tapestry is just as rich, even richer in fact, as we evolve together.  The image may shift and change but the threads remain the same.  Each of you is a thread.  You are a critical part of the fabric.  Your thread is important.  The image that is the Franklin Federated tapestry changes because it has life.  It has your life.  This is an exciting time for this church, but I know it does not come without tension and anxiety.  We have the opportunity to look at the tapestry of this church with fresh eyes.  We have the opportunity to look at our individual threads with objectivity as we look at the space from our past, to our present, and to our future.  One of the ways we will be doing that is in a series of messages from yours truly.


You may recall that Charley had a conversation a while back with the UCC chairperson of our association, Kelly Gallagher.  She suggested we all consider three questions as we take stock and assess where we are.  He listed them in the Connections newsletter back in March.  We will take a look together at each of these questions in more detail over the next three weeks.  It’s kind of like stepping out of our tapestry and looking at it as we consider the following: “Who Am I?” “Who is my Neighbor?” and, “What is God Calling Me to Do?”  These are not questions for which I will provide the answer.  The answer must come from you.  But I will try to help you to consider ways you might think about these things.  It is something that I think about regarding myself all of the time.  We will look at the Bible as a resource.  These questions are all dealt with there; in lots of places and in lots of ways.  In order for us to have solid answers to these things we need to look outside ourselves, and I can think of no better place than the inspired word of God for a starter. Not only are these great individual questions but they also interrelate with each other.  In fact you can’t answer one completely without considering the other two.  “Who Am I?” This is a question that goes to the essence of our existence.  But, don’t we assess ourselves relative to how we see others, and who it is God means me to be?  “Who Is my Neighbor?” From the moment we’re born we are constantly learning to differentiate who we are from others.  This may seem so simple but it is so complicated.  And, how does God fit into that?  Look no farther than the Golden Rule.  “What is God Calling Me to Do?”  It’s pretty easy to follow directions when they are clearly in front of you.  But, what if they’re not?  How do you know the directions you think you are getting from God are the right ones?  Wouldn’t it be great if just like Google maps you could simply enter where you want God to send you, and boom there you have your choice of driving directions, biking directions and even a walking route?  The answer here too lies in our understanding of the other two questions.  Each week we’ll focus on one question but rely on the others to help us.  So, that is a kind of preview of coming attractions.

But let’s return to the new thing for a moment, and let’s look at it in the context of our scripture reading.  In Isaiah we hear “Do not remember the former things or consider the things of old.”  That is not to say we disregard or forget about Charley What’s-his-name.  What it does suggest to us is that God is in the business of creating newness all the time.  For historical context this was written as the exiled Israelites are about to be freed from Babylon and return to Israel.  God has never been separated from them or their journey.  Just as God is never apart from us or our journey, God makes a “way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.”  So, despite whatever hardships or anxieties we might have over a change in our circumstance, we have company and direction from the One who loves us more than we can ever know.  And, as we look at Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth we are even more assured about newness.  When we accept Christ as our redeemer we become reconciled to God.  “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see everything has become new!  All of this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.”  What is the “ministry of reconciliation?”  We have been entrusted with this free gift of redemption, of grace, through the sacrifice of Jesus.  We have been blessed.  God has drawn us ever closer to God’s self through this amazing gift.  So, however we might feel unsettled about new normals, and no matter how we might mess things up with not knowing what we are doing, we can be confident that we are understood and we are loved.  There is nothing that we might feel that has not already been experienced by Jesus.  Jesus gets us.  When we are armed with that knowledge there is nothing new under the sun that can keep us from God’s everlasting and unconditional love.

Let us pray.

Loving God we thank you for the opportunity for new experiences.  Help us to be mindful that we are yours.  Help us to help each other as we embark on this new chapter at Franklin Federated.  Help us to grow as we consider who we are, who our neighbor is, and how we can best serve you.  We ask your blessing on Charley and pray that this time might be fruitful for him and for his family.   May he return to us rested, restored, and invigorated.  We pray all this in the holy name of Jesus.  Amen.