Category Archives: Past Sermons

Sermon, December 4, 2022

A Sermon


The Rev. Jeffrey Long-Middleton

Bradford Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ

December 4, 2022

“Did John Get It Wrong?”

His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Matthew 3:12[i]

I suspect there is a place for stern warnings and instilling fear.  Nation states use this method all the time.  Indeed, the threat of thermonuclear war has kept the United States, China, and Russia, from crushing each other’s throats.  Every parent knows the value of instilling fear and punishment.  Doug was less than five and we were walking to the home of his daycare provider.  We came to the curb and without looking, he left my side and ran across the street.  I was scared to death which may explain why I got in his face and gave him a swat on his bottom telling him to never, ever, do that again.  He didn’t. There is a place for stern warnings and instilling fear.  But when it comes to God, we have a problem.  How can the God who gave His son up on the cross be the same God who rains fire upon the very sinners God is said to have died for?  God cannot contradict God’s own nature.  God is either for us or God is against us.  Which is it?

            So I begin this sermon declaring that John the Baptist got it wrong.  His God of judgment and retribution is not the God of the cross.  In addition, here in the third chapter of Matthew, John is not talking about the Second Coming of Christ.  He is talking about Jesus.  So I ask you, does this sound like an accurate description of Jesus:

His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.

And if I were to make this personal, is John’s Jesus the same Jesus you know?  This is the man who said:

‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.30For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’  (Matthew 11:28-30)

The truth of the matter is that we were called into the faith not out of fear of fire but by the compelling nature of God’s love.  So, John got it wrong.  The Jesus he describes is not the Jesus of history.

            But was John completely wrong?  I began this sermon stating that perhaps there is a place for judgment and instilling fear.  I hold by that statement because I know it to be true.  Let me illustrate this point.

            In one of the churches I served there was a man who had a son.  His son was troubled and suffered from heroine addiction.  The pain of this addiction was unrelenting.  It had destroyed what would have been a promising life.  His father loved his son but would admit he did not know what to do.  Seeing his son in pain was unbearable.  One day when his son had run out of the drug that brought him peace, his father drove to a city where drug dealers were readily available.  At his own risk, he bought heroine and brought it to his son.  His love had compelled him to stop his boy’s pain, but most of us would say it was mistaken love.  Without consequences, life evolves into chaos.  Love is lived in light of consequences or it is not love.  Without limits, life has no boundaries and without boundaries we are likely to fall off a cliff.  So while I may have difficulty with John’s description of Jesus, I, nevertheless, believe that life’s natural order has inevitable consequences woven into it.  Transgress against the principle of justice, and life will deal you pain.  Oh, it may not come in the form of the fires of hell, but the soul becomes twisted and life becomes brutish.  My friends, I believe we come to Jesus because His message and His life reflect what we know to be true.

            This from Martin Marty writing in The Christian Century:

From the tradition of Bernard of Clairvaux in the Middle Ages there survives the story of a woman seen in a vision.  She was carrying a pitcher and a torch.  Why these?  With the pitcher she would quench the fires of hell, and with the torch she would burn the pleasures of heaven.  After these were gone, people would be able to love God for God’s sake.”[1]

So I end by saying this.  As we look over the communion table set with the elements that ask us to remember the One who came into the world to be the savior of us all, do not come fearing the fire of John’s vision, but come embracing the God who loved us despite our sin.  The One who bids us come is the One whose arms are opened wide.  Let us pray…

[1] Marty, Martin E., The Christian Century, “Spirit at the Solstice,” December 22-29, 1982, p. 1309.

[i] Matthew 3:1-12

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”3This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” 4Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.5Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

7But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 11“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Sermon, November 27, 2022

A Sermon


The Rev. Jeffrey Long-Middleton

Bradford Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ

November 27, 2022

“Living in Hope”

Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

Matthew 24:44[i]

I have a confession to make.  The idea of Christ’s return is not high on my agenda.  I don’t give it much thought.  There are Christians who do.  I’m not one of them.  I suppose I’m more like Andre Trocme, a Huguenot pastor in Southern France who is credited with having led his little village of Le Chambon in saving over 3,500  Jews from deportation to the Nazi death camps.  He and his compatriots performed this task right under the nose of Vichy France.  He was arrested.  While in prison, some French Communists who were also prisoners asked the pastor if he believed in heaven.  He responded by telling them he didn’t know about heaven.  He was more concerned with doing God’s work in the here and now.  So it is with me.

            But I am a realist.  Given our proclivity to sin, the here and the now will always be flawed, imperfect and unjust.  I may like to think that I work for the betterment of the world and the people who live in it, but I can never fully know the outcome of any action I take.  History is replete with examples of how good intentions led to disastrous results.  So today, I am a chastened sceptic.  If I cannot see beyond the present to what God has promised, my life is deprived of hope.  So, here is my contention: there is no greater hope than living into the hope of Christ’s return, all of which raises the question “Why?” 

            First, Christ’s return leads to the fulfillment of the kingdom’s promise.  I said earlier that I am a realist.  I know that I am incapable of either perfect love or perfect justice.  This doesn’t mean that I should give up on both.  Just because I cannot achieve perfection does not excuse me from doing the possible.  Given the constraints of my finitude, I am called to pursue both love and justice.  But I also know that short of God’s perfect love and perfect justice they will never arrive.  Unless Christ comes again, all the efforts of humanity to fulfill the vision of Christ’s kingdom will fail.  Oh, we may move the needle, we may make progress.  Indeed, I think the era in which we live is far better than feudalism in the Middle Ages.  But I am a North American White, middle-class male.  Things undoubtedly look better to me than they do to many in this world who live under the thumb of oppression and the blight of poverty.  So, I hold this truth to be self-evident — namely, in Christ, in the Second Person of the Trinity, we find perfect love matched with perfect justice.  Without His reign being fulfilled, we are bereft of hope.  Christ’s return leads to the fulfillment of the kingdom’s promise.

            If my first point is Christ’s return leads to the fulfilment of the kingdom’s promise, then my second point is this — without transcendent hope, we are hopeless.  It was Brendan Rodgers who wrote:

I’ve always said that you can live without water for many days, but you can’t live for a second without hope.”

Do you buy that?  Do you think that despite its hyperbole, it is factually true?  I do.  Rob humanity of hope and we are doomed.  Right?   But to have genuine hope, one that will outlast the vicissitudes of life, it must be grounded on the transcendent. 

            Let’s see if this exercise makes the point clearer.  I am going to state a hope many of us have.  I hope my children will live happy, meaningful, and productive lives.  Sound familiar?  Most of us would state that as a hope for our children.  And that hope can come to fruition.  Right?  They be fortunate enough to live lives that are happy, meaningful, and productive.  But isn’t their happiness wrapped up with the happiness of their children?  I don’t think my son could be ultimately happy in life if his children lived in misery.  Just as my happiness in contingent on the happiness of my children, so my children’s happiness is contingent on all the generations that follow.  Get the point?  For hope of this nature to exist, for it to be possible requires a hope grounded on an unknown and unforeseeable future.  But more than that, this hope whether we recognize it or not, cannot be fulfilled if we cannot see beyond the immediate present.  To find hope’s ultimate fulfillment it must be pinned to the transcendent hope found in Christ’s return.  Only God can bring our futures to perfect fulfillment, so while I may hope for my children to live happy, meaningful, and productive lives, by extension I also am hoping the same outcome for generations yet to come.  Unless my hope is pinned to God it is not a realizable hope.  Our hope must be a transcendent hope.

            Third, there is no greater hope than living into the hope of Christ’s return because, in the end, the forces of evil cannot prevail against it.  There are, are there not, forces that would shatter hope?  The world and its principalities have interests that are counter to the interests of God.  Robert Frost wrote, “Something there is that does not love a wall, that wants it down,” and I would say, something there is that does not love our hope and  wants to tear it down.

            But in the promise of Christ’s return, we stake our hope on the One who thwarted Satan’s plan.  Paul wrote in his letter to the church in Rome these words:

If God is for us, who is against us? 32He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? 33Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. 35Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?….37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

My friends, there is no greater hope, no more enduring promise than living into the hope of Christ’s return.

            I started this sermon with a confession that the second coming of Christ is not the primary focus of my faith only to find that without it, I have no ultimate hope in the future.  So, I end saying, “Come, Lord Jesus, Come.”

[i] Matthew 24:36-44

36“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into.44Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

Sermon, November 13, 202

A Sermon


The Rev. Jeffrey Long-Middleton

Bradford Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ

November 13, 2022

“Thy Kingdom Come”

The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent—its food shall be dust!  They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.

Isaiah 65:25[i]

It’s over — the midterm elections are behind us.  Various forms of media will go back to their usual forms of advertising and, at least at some level, our lives will return to some semblance of normality.  The issues before the American electorate were important and the people have spoken.  For a while, we will get a political reprieve – at least until we gear up for the 2024 elections.

But things feel different than they did twenty years ago.  Oh, there was still division between liberal and conservative.  But the level of political polarization we are witnessing today is of a different order.  Recently, the New York Times ran an article entitled, Today’s Politics Divide Parties, and Friends and Families, Too.  The article states, “In the latest poll by The New York Times and Siena College, nearly one in five voters said that politics hurt their friendships or family relationships.”  I have seen it in my extended family.  I have seen it within our church.  Something seems different.

            I believe our faith has something to offer amidst all the divisiveness, and I think it is found in our reading from Isaiah.  At first blush, it can be seen as a fantastical view into the future.  I am very sure that this picture of a lion lying with a lamb was Photoshoped!  And I am certain that Isaiah did not want these words to be taken literally.  So how do I find a helpful message contained in this idealized view of our world?  How does Isaiah help to heal our current political divisions?

            In the interest of transparency, let me confess that much of what I am going to offer is derived from Garrett Galvin’s[1] commentary on Isaiah 65:17-25.  We begin by exploring the context in which these words from Isiah were written.  Galvin notes that it was a time of internal turmoil.  Those who were taken to Babylon in captivity were returning to Israel.  One would think that this would be a time of great joy and celebration.  But wait.  Those who were retuning had been the best and the brightest.  Before they were captives in Babylon, they had been the movers and shakers of Israel.  Indeed, they were so gifted that they had prospered while being captives.  And those who had been forced to remain in Israel under Babylonian occupation?  They had learned how to survive.  They had the shame of planting vineyards and never eating the grapes, of building homes for their oppressors — homes they would never occupy.  They had endured.  Now the elite return with the skillset needed to govern and the capital to get things done.  Instead of this being a time of unfettered joy, there was conflict in the land.  Having suffered under the Babylonians, now they will be forced to endure the rule of those who knew little of their suffering.  Oh, these rulers would be their fellow citizens, but neither the elite nor the less fortunate could find enough empathy to avoid conflict.

Sound familiar?  In America there are vast numbers of people who feel disenfranchised, who believe the system is rigged against them.  The MAGA (Make America Great Again) movement has millions who heed its call and millions who see it as dangerous.  Black Lives Matter has millions who embrace its message and millions who see it as an illegitimate cause.  The poll I mentioned earlier appears to have gotten it right.  And if all this is true, then we, too, have little empathy for those outside our political camp.  Both Isaiah’s Israel and our America have lived through trauma and need a unifying vision.

Garrett Galvin, the commentator I mentioned earlier writes:

The prophet has to imagine what a land with empathy would look like for them: a land without violence and destruction where the wolf and lamb or the lion and ox will live peacefully together.

Galvin continues:

There is a desperate need to build empathy bridges between the polarized groups in the United States. That is exactly what we see happening in this oracle from Isaiah. Rather than declaring one group right and punishing the other group, this oracle imagines a world in which both these groups coexist peacefully. They still have their salient characteristics: a lion is still a lion as well as a lamb being a lamb, but they coexist.

            How might we arrive at such a place?  By finding our shared humanity.  So I ask, Does God love you more than God loves me?  Does God love us more than God loves them?  Isn’t God’s forgiveness extended to us all and are we not called to extend the same even to those we find it hard to forgive?

            I have cited this quote from Reinhold Niebuhr before but I find it particularly apt for the healing we desire.

“Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.  Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith.  Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love.  No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.”[2]

 Bearing his words in mind, I pray we find our way to empathy for the other and thus come to a nation healed.  Let us pray….

[1] Garrett Galvin, O.F.M., was born in December 1968 in Wilmington, Delaware to parents who recently emigrated from Ireland. After receiving his doctorate from the Catholic University of America, he began teaching full time at Franciscan School of Theology and the Graduate Theological Union in 2009, where he teaches a variety of courses on the Old and New Testament as well as Hebrew.

[2] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History

[i] Isaiah 65:17-25

17 For I am about to create new heavens
   and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
   or come to mind. 
18 But be glad and rejoice forever
   in what I am creating;
for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy,
   and its people as a delight. 
19 I will rejoice in Jerusalem,
   and delight in my people;
no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,
   or the cry of distress. 
20 No more shall there be in it
   an infant that lives but a few days,
   or an old person who does not live out a lifetime;
for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth,
   and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed. 
21 They shall build houses and inhabit them;
   they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. 
22 They shall not build and another inhabit;
   they shall not plant and another eat;
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
   and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. 
23 They shall not labor in vain,
   or bear children for calamity;*
for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord—
   and their descendants as well. 
24 Before they call I will answer,
   while they are yet speaking I will hear. 
25 The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,
   the lion shall eat straw like the ox;
   but the serpent—its food shall be dust!
They shall not hurt or destroy
   on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.

Sermon, November 6, 2022

A Sermon


The Rev. Jeffrey Long-Middleton

Bradford Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ

November 6, 2022

“Living in the Not Yet”

The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts…

Haggai 2:9a[i]

This sermon is given for me.  I need to cling to hope.  Personally, I have a brother who is suffering from a chronic illness and will be lucky to see Christmas let alone Easter.  I have a friend and colleague dying from ALS and another friend who’s recovery from breast cancer is uncertain. I’m at the age where one’s medical history becomes a common topic of informal conversation!  Add to this that although God called me into ministry, I wonder if God got the wrong number.  You see it.  This church should be filled with young people seeking the purpose of life.  Instead, our congregation is slightly larger than a small group.  This sermon is for me because I need to cling to hope.  That is exactly what I found when I came to this reading from Haggai.

            The evidence that would make for doom and despair was all around him and his people.  Indeed, he acknowledges the bleak condition of their present moment.  The nation defeated.  Many taken into captivity.  The Temple destroyed.  It is hard to cling to hope when death and loss are constants.  Yet Haggai hoped.  He clung to the promises of God and asked his people to do the same.  He saw beyond the undeniable present to a promise making and promise keeping God. 

            We, too, must make the promises of God our ultimate hope.  Let me suggest that it will require three affirmations.  First, realize that any given moment is capricious.  Second, cling to this truth — the promises of God never fail.  Third, know that the constraints of our finitude are not final.

            We already know the truth of the first affirmation — namely, any given moment is capricious.  That’s why we invented marriage.  Right?  Do you remember the days when you were head over heals in love?  It hurt to be apart.  You were infatuated with the other person.  Twenty years later?  Not so much.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer captured this truth when he wrote to a couple who either were or were planning on being married.  He talked of marriage as an institution, an office, that one enters into.  While you might be driven to getting married out of a mutual infatuation with each other, marriage is more than sentiment.  It is an obligation centered on a promise and a willingness to keep it.  He said that while love may drove folks to get married, it is now the marriage that will sustain their love.  One’s infatuation with the other will not always burn with heat.  What is needed is commitment to a future that cannot be fully seen in the present.

            But why would anyone do it?  Why take such a risk?  I have shared this before but here is what Joseph Sittler has to say:

“The heart of marriage is a promise.  On the face of it, it’s a crazy promise: two people who have only a partial understanding of each other stand up and make this bizarre statement that they’re going to cherish and care for one another for a lifetime.  They say, ‘I take this one and this one takes me as long as we both shall live,’ not ‘as long as we both shall love.’  To many persons this seems like a mad and risky thing to do.  Yet I would suggest that the madness is the romance.  Without risk there is no beauty or strength or goodness.”[1]

            What is true for marriage is true for the passage of time.  The imprint of either despair or joy is capricious.  It can change in any given moment.  If we cling merely to the heat of our emotions, we will be trapped by what is and never see what might be.  To have hope Haggai had to see beyond his present moment to a nation restored and a Temple rebuilt.

            If we are to have hope, the second requirement is to affirm that the promises of God never fail.  It is impossible to make this affirmation if we cannot live out the first requirement of seeing any given moment as capricious.  Right?  I catalogued at the beginning of this sermon why I needed hope.  My present moment is filled with enough ominous reality to sink my optimism.  How, then, am I supposed to affirm the promises of God never fail?  Aren’t they failing now?  Why do the good people in my life have to suffer?

            I don’t know.  What I do know is if I let this question consume me, I will go down a rabbit hole of speculation.  In the end, I don’t believe there is a satisfying answer to this question.  But if I continue to affirm that God’s promises are always kept, it changes the way I frame the question.  Given the fact that good people suffer, suffering is not their final end point.  There is a Sunday com’in.  The cross may serve as a reminder of suffering’s reality, but it is empty.  It is not Christ’s end point but the means by which He arrived at an empty tomb.  The promise was kept.  Trust in the promise making and promise keeping God. 

            If we are to have hope even in dark times, then, as just suggested, know that our finitude is not final.  Put succinctly, God is not done yet.  Satan, the forces of evil, they know this.  If Hell has parties, certainly they had one on Good Friday.  The voice of truth, the champion of justice, the ambassador of peace, silenced on the gibbet of shame.  But there was a Sunday com’in.  What Satan could not see, what the forces of evil cannot comprehend, is that God is not done yet.  Even amidst all of life’s afflictions, our lamentations about the condition of the world, the promise making and promise keeping God is not done yet.  Satan and his minions were fooled.  But I will never be, and for that reason, I live in hope.  And you?  Let us pray…

[1] Sittler, Joseph, Grace Notes and Other Fragments, Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1981, p. 17.

[i] Haggai 2:1-9

2In the second year of King Darius, in the seventh month, on the twenty-first day of the month, the word of the Lord came by the prophet Haggai, saying: 2Speak now to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and to the remnant of the people, and say, 3Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing? 4Yet now take courage, O Zerubbabel, says the Lord; take courage, O Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest; take courage, all you people of the land, says the Lord; work, for I am with you, says the Lord of hosts, 5according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt. My spirit abides among you; do not fear.6For thus says the Lord of hosts: Once again, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land; 7and I will shake all the nations, so that the treasure of all nations shall come, and I will fill this house with splendor, says the Lord of hosts. 8The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, says the Lord of hosts. 9The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts; and in this place I will give prosperity, says the Lord of hosts.

Sermon, October 16, 2022

A Sermon


The Rev. Jeffrey Long-Middleton

Bradford Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ

October 16, 2022

“The Heart of the Matter”

But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

Jeremiah 31:33-34[i]

In Harvey Cox’s little book, When Jesus Came to Harvard, Cox tells about a course he taught for undergraduate students at the university.  The course was entitled, “Jesus and the Moral Life.”  Cox didn’t expect much of a response.  After all, it was Harvard, not exactly a bastion of Christian Evangelicalism.  What happened shocked him.  The course became so popular that it had to be taught in a theater often used for rock concerts.  What Cox found is that the young people who attended the class were looking for a moral rudder for the modern world.  After having been exposed to Immanuel Kant’s moral imperative of never do anything that you would not wish to become a universal law, after they had been exposed to utilitarianism’s admonition to do that which produces the greatest good for the greatest number, after they had learned about situational ethics, they had come to find themselves as confused as ever.  They were seeking an anchor that could withstand the waves of moral relativity.  What Cox found is that by exploring the life of Jesus, the students found what they needed.  Ethics, Cox would contend, is more about following the example of Jesus than practicing lofty principles.

In Jerimiah’s day, the nation faced a crises point.  The Babylonians had wreaked havoc .  Conquered cities.  People imprisoned.  The best and the brightest taken into captivity.  The fields desolate.  Jeremiah believed the tragedy was a result of the peoples’ unfaithfulness to God, that God had brought the destruction, had unleased the Babylonians to punish the nation for its sin.  In Jeremiah’s mind, what had been practiced by the people had not worked.  Obedience to an external law code had not prevented the calamity of captivity.  Something else was needed.

In our own day, something like the same crisis is upon us.  We live in a world awash in moral relativity when one’s person’s conception of right and wrong, differs sharply from another’s.  We seem to exist in an age where ideology rather than principal reigns.  Truth seems to be in the eye of the beholder, and we find ourselves echoing the words of the poet:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,…

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

Could it be that we suffer from the same malady as those young people at Harvard?  We look for a moral rudder and cannot find one the guides us through the confusion of our age.  Let me suggest why this may be so.

To gain some understanding our plight, I want to use a typology suggested by Max Stackhouse, a professor of ethics at the seminary I attended.  In his thinking, there are three primary ways to think of ethics — Good and Bad, Right and Wrong, Fit and Unfit.  I am going to try and unpack them and then point to the problem they fail to resolve.  To illustrate my point, I am going to make use of very contentious moral issue —abortion.  People have strong and visceral feelings about this issue and while my purpose is not to suggest a moral solution to this dilemma, the issue of abortion is a helpful way to understand the differences between these three ways of thinking ethically suggested by Stackhouse. 

First, those who think ethically about things being either good or bad.  This ethical approach takes the long view.  It asks what type of society does one untimely want.  I am going to assume that we all want a good society.  Some see a good society defined by banning abortion.  The protection of the unborn is seen as a noble end.  It points to a society that values human life.  It is, therefore, good.  Others, however, believe that government is intruding on what ought to be a personal choice.  They ask, “Who has the right to demand a woman carry a pregnancy to term?  What kind of society do we create when we cede the right to choose our own destiny to the dictates of the state?  Preserving the right to choose makes for a freer and, thus, better society.

Anyone who is paying attention can clearly see that the dichotomy of Good and Bad as a form of ethical decision making does not necessarily resolve the moral ambiguity between two divergent views.  So, let’s take up the next way of determining an ethical position — seeing things from a legal point of view of right and wrong.

This point of view has much to commend it.  It has the ring of moral clarity and reduces ambiguity.  If something is illegal, it is, by definition, wrong.  I suppose one could argue that the Jewish law codes were driven by this typology.  What was decreed as unclean was seen as illegal to eat.  Most of us live within this way of thinking and want people held accountable for breaking the law.  When the issue of abortion is brought to bear, however, things become immediately murky.  For fifty years in this nation, a woman had to right to seek an abortion up to 21 weeks of first becoming pregnant.  Suddenly, that legally protected right has been overturned.  Now individual states get to decide the issue.  The result?  If you have money, you will have access to an abortion.  A woman living in Texas can, if she has the financial means, travel to Vermont and get an abortion.  But poor woman have no such option,  In addition, the poor are at a higher risk of having a problem during pregnancy due to a lack of access to health care.  Does this seem right?  Does it seem equitable?  Sometimes the law gets in the way of justice.  One must always remember that there was a time when people of color could not drink from the same water fountain as folks deemed “white.”  Segregation may have been legal.  It was never good.  Like the first typology of Good and Bad, Right and Wrong does not remove all ethical tensions.

Which bring us to our third approach to ethical decision making — namely, Fit and Unfit.  This is often referred to as situational ethics.  It seeks to make ethical decisions based on the immediate context of the problem.  When the issue is abortion, it asks some very important question.  Is it fitting to require a twelve-year-old girl who is the victim of incest to carry a pregnancy to term?  Almost all Americans would say “no.”  Given the context of the pregnancy in question, it seems highly unfit for a number or reasons.  But the issue of context is not always seen as relevant.  When a woman is making a choice and there are not extenuating circumstances, to many it seems fitting to place restrictions on that choice because there are other moral factors involved or they see the issue defined by one of the other two typologies of Right or Wrong, Good or Bad.  Seeing things as Fit or Unfit, like all the others we have examined, does not result in universal moral clarity.

So, where does that leave us?  We have to live in the world we have been given.  How are to do so ethically, and more than that, how are we to do so with a degree of civility that allows for differences of opinion?

Short of a faith filled answer, I have no idea.  To think that one way of making ethical decisions is pure is to ignore the moral ambiguity contained within them all.  But my faith informs me first and foremost that I am not God.  Simply put, I get things wrong and while I may want to believe that I have the correct moral answer, I am forced to admit that not only may I have it wrong, but my brothers and sisters who see it differently think just as strongly they have it right.  If I can retain this perspective, I am called into humility and a more compassionate approach to those who think differently.  But my faith also informs me that there is no pure place to stand, that when it comes to difficult moral choices, I must choose between competing principles and like the students in Harvey Cox’s class at Harvard, learn from Jesus.  When I do that, I come to see the wisdom of the cross, that to engage the world is one of the causes of necessary suffering.  In the end, I seek what Jeremiah offered — that the law of God be written upon my heart for if it is, then I will come to love my neighbor as I love myself.  Let us pray….

[i] Jeremiah 31:27-34

27The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of humans and the seed of animals. 28And just as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring evil, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, says the Lord. 29In those days they shall no longer say: “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” 30But all shall die for their own sins; the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge. 31The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. 33But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

Sermon, October 9, 2022

A Sermon


The Rev. Jeffrey Long-Middleton

Bradford Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ

October 9, 2022

“Do We Walk On?”

Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice.  He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan.

Luke 17:15 & 16[i]

There are four important messages contained within this reading from Luke.  First, if there is anyone who desires to be healed, note that the ten leapers received their healing while going to the priest.  Second, they did not need to be physically touched by Jesus.  Indeed, they simply yelled their request.  Third, the healing took place in the border lands where the disempowered live.  Fourth, the one leaper who returned to give thanks to Jesus for his healing was the one least expected to recognize Jesus as a source of divine power.

            First, all those who desire healing, note that the ten leapers received their healing while going to the priest.  It took faith to set off before the healing had taken hold.  The only reason a leaper would go to a priest is because they were healed.  The priest served as the guardian of society.  A leaper was ostracized by the community, kept at a distance, lest the entire community become infected.  A leaper had to be certified as “clean” by a priest.  So, to set off to the priest prior to being healed shows a great deal of faith in the One who sent them.  You don’t start off if you don’t think you are going to be healed.  Perhaps their healing began when they took that first step.  They believed they would be healed even before the healing was fully evident.

            How often do people live defined by their disease?  Their illness becomes their identity and society sets them apart, defines them as less than normal.  These ten leapers began to be healed when they were willing to challenge their social isolation before their healing was self-evident.  Perhaps we should take Jesus at His word when He says, “Your faith has made you well.”  It is in faith that the ten set out to journey to the priest.  Perhaps our healing begins with the faith to believe we are already made well.  The ten leapers received their healing while going to the priest.

            Second, they did not need to be physically touched by Jesus.  This is good news.  Many of the healings Jesus performs have Jesus touching the diseased — the man whose blindness was cured by Jesus applying mud to his closed eyes, the woman who touched the hem of Jesus garment and many others physically touched by Jesus.  But not these ten leapers.  Note, however, they are not the only ones who were healed by never being touched by Jesus.  The centurion’s servant in Matthew 8 is not even seen by Jesus.  The demon possessed daughter of a Canaanite woman is healed without being touched.  This must be good news to those of us living in the 21st Century.  We are not able to be in the physical presence of Christ.  Jesus cannot physically touch us, but it doesn’t mean that Jesus cannot heal us.  Indeed, we may not be in the physical presence of Christ, but Christ’s Spirit is present with us.  Our healing, like the one granted the ten leapers, does not require us to be touched but for us to trust.

            Third, the healing took place in the border lands where the disempowered live.  It was the Rev. Francisco Garcia’s commentary on this passage that makes this important point.[1]  He notes that the place of this healing is significant because it takes place as Jesus is going to Jerusalem by passing through the region between Samarian and Galilee.  This is not where the affluent and powerful live.  It is an in-between location, not here and not there.  It is the kind of place where the marginalized people of this earth find a home and it’s where these leapers reside.  Indeed, of all the marginalized, the leapers are perhaps the most disenfranchised.  It is here that Jesus performs a miracle of transformation where the last are made first, where the outcasts find acceptance. 

            All of that may not be directly important to you or to me.  After all, I am hardly one of the least.  I am not disenfranchised but live with privileges I am not even aware of.  But the importance of Rev. Garcia’s insight cannot be diminished in a time when so many Christians have embraced the gospel of success.  They speak of faith as the guarantor of worldly prosperity, of those living in the borderlands of our contemporary culture as unworthy of our attention or care, of the powerless as lacking faith.  This contemporary Christian movement is a denial of the ministry of Christ and must be challenged by those of us who know better, who are striving to walk with Jesus and not away from Him.

            Will it be popular to identify with those Jesus ministered to?  It may not.  But it will be faithful.  In the end, we won’t be measured by our worldly status but by our commitment to raise the least and the lost.

            Fourth, the one leaper who returned to give thanks to Jesus for his healing was the one least expected to recognize Jesus as a source of divine power.  Ten were healed.  Only one returned to give thanks to Jesus.  The one was a Samaritan.  He, too, would have been an outcast in the realm of Judaism.  Samaritans took exception to many of the tenants of their Jewish cousins.  For Samaritans, the Bible was to be comprised of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible.  The wisdom literature, Psalms, the minor and major prophets all were expunged.  Mount Gerizim, and not mount Sinai,  was the sacred mountain of faith.  Such differences led those traveling from Judah to Galilee to circumvent Samaria and opt for a longer route to avoid the Samaritans.  So, for this Samaritan leaper to return and give thanks to Jesus for his healing, is surprising.  He is the last of the ten cured leapers one would have expected to give thanks to a Jew for what clearly was a divine power.

            But note this.  He would not have had a reason to return if he had not been healed.  There may be some within Christendom who want to pronounce some “in” and some “out,” who want to delineate and limit the scope of God’s love and care.  They have come to think that migrants are less than worthy of human compassion, that those seeking to escape violence in their country of origin do not warrant asylum, that people of color and women in general are to live on life’s margins, that those struggling with their sexual identity are sinful.  Such thinking would have made the return of this Samaritan impossible to conceive.  Yet return he did and why?  Because the one who was the least and most outcast of the bunch had been healed.  The affront of God’s love is not its limit but its breadth.  It is not limited to those who profess our faith but is extended to those who share our common humanity.  God so loved the world…”  The inclusiveness of that love must not be lost.

            And now the final question for us.  Do we walk on or return to give thanks?  Do we ignore the love of God for the least or find in God’s acceptance the pathway to broaden our own inclusive spirit?  Do we walk on, or return to give thanks?

[1] The Rev. Francisco García is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theological Studies, Ethics and Action at Vanderbilt University in the Graduate Department of Religion, and a Graduate Research Fellow at the Wendland-Cook Program in Religion and Justice at Vanderbilt Divinity School.

[i] Luke 17:11-19

11On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, 13they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” 14When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean.15Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

Sermon, September 18, 2022

A Sermon


The Rev. Jeffrey Long-Middleton

Bradford Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ

September 18, 2022

“Well, That’s Surprising”

And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. 

Luke 16:8[i]

            There are passages of the Bible that ring with moral clarity.  “Love your neighbor as you love yourself,” is an example.  But here, in this 16th chapiter of Luke, one can be forgiven if the first reaction is to throw up one’s hands.  At first reading, it seems to be filled with moral ambiguity.  We don’t know what to make of it.  Indeed, it might have been easier if I had stayed away from this passage.  After all, there were several other lectionary options.  But I have never understood what Jesus is trying to say and I’m getting older by the day.  If I am ever going to discern some redemptive element within this text, I’d better get at it!  So, here we go.

            I am going to make four points and attempt to make them relevant for us today.  First, Jesus was born into a time and place.  Seems obvious, but unless we understand the circumstances Jesus and the common men and women of His day are dealing with, this passage remains opaque.  Second, God is bias for the poor and this passage is no exception.  Third, the action of the manager may have restored not only the manager’s future prospects but the owner’s moral virtue.  Fourth, living in the world when called to bear witness to the unseen kingdom of God, may require seeing the world anew.

            First, Jesus was born into a time and place.  As stated above, this seems obvious.  Anyone who has listened to a sermon knows we preachers often talk about historical context. After all, unless you know the history confronting Jeremiah, his prophecies of judgement against his nation make little sense.  Right? 

Think of it this way.  Suppose you were from Mars visiting the earth for the first time.  You turn on the television and a documentary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. comes on.  Being a Martian, you have no knowledge of the struggle for civil rights.  You don’t know about Jim Crow.  You don’t know Bull Conner, Strom Thurman, Rossa Parks.  None of it.  So when King says he dreams of the day when his children will be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character, you have no idea what he’s talking about.  But we’re not from Mars.  We know exactly what Dr. King meant.

I begin, then, by making this first point.  Jesus was born into a time and a place.  He is speaking in a world vastly different from our own.  We are like the Martian trying to figure out Dr. King.  Unless we know something about the culture of Jesus’ time and place, this passage makes little or no sense.

All of that brings us to our second point — namely, God is bias for the poor and this passage is no exception.  Is there anyone who would like to argue against this point?  You wouldn’t be alone.  The success gospel of our day is a reminder that there are preachers who will tell you faith will bring you wealth, that following Jesus makes good business sense.  Lost to them is the reality of the cross, the words of the prophets from the old Testament, and the warning of Jesus found in our reading this morning: “No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

Now I could go on.  I could quote passages ad nauseum.  All of it would go to prove that I believe God has, and always will have, a bias in favor of the least and the lost, that when Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor…” Jesus means it.  So I ask that we carry this fact with us as we explore this passage.  God has a bias in favor of the poor and powerless.

Third, the action of the manager may have restored not only the manager’s future prospects but the owner’s moral virtue.  To understand this point takes a little doing.  When I first read this passage, I thought the manager was a liar and a cheat.  But I did a little digging and I discovered that in the 21st century time frame, that is exactly what the manager is — a liar and a cheat.  He is cheating the owner out of what is due him.  Right?  In our world, he would be seen as skimming off the top. So why is Jesus commending him? 

It turns out that Jesus’ day is not like our day.  It was common practice to cheat the poor and powerless out of house and home.  That was how wealth was garnered.  Oh, the Jewish law forbade charging interest.  But there were ways of charging interest without listing it as interest.  When the manager reduces the amount the debtors owe the owner, he may be evening the score.  When he tells the one who owes 100 jugs of olive oil to write down that he only owes fifty, that may be far closer to what was actually owed.  What the manager may have been doing is showing mercy.

And note this.  If I am right, the owner was breaking the Jewish law code.  He was getting rich off those who had little.  This was a common practice in the first century.  Barbara Rossing[1] in her commentary informs us:

Rich landlords and rulers were loan-sharks, using exorbitant interest rates to amass more land and to disinherit peasants of their family land, in direct violation of biblical covenantal law. The rich man or “lord” (kyrios, v. 3, 8), along with his steward or debt collector, were both exploiting desperate peasants.

By reducing what the peasants owed, the manager is not only putting himself in the good graces of the peasants, he is elevating the status of the owner.  He restores not only himself but his master.  It truly is a stroke of genius and little wonder that the owner commends his manager.

            In our own day there are people who have amassed vast sums of money.  Indeed, governments around the world recently seized the property of many Russian oligarchs.  We got to see their yachts.  I, for one, didn’t have much sympathy for folks who made their fortune serving an oppressive regime.  Did you?  And in our own country Warren Buffett, one of the richest men in the world, confessed that he pays less in taxes than his secretary.  Even he thinks there is something wrong with that. 

            So maybe we can begin to understand that within the economic system of Jesus’ day, there was an unjust structure that kept the poor poor and the rich rich.  If God does, indeed, have a bias in favor of the poor, this parable only serves to emphasize this point.

            Fourth, living in the world when called to bear witness to the unseen kingdom of God, may require seeing the world anew.  To make this point, let me get personal.  This is a picture of our home on Grand Isle.  I am hardly hurting.  I am sharing it because I am reminded of what Augustine said, “The superfluities of the rich are the necessities of the poor.”  Simply put, I could live elsewhere, and the money spent to provide this home could have been used to assist those who have no home.

            I am far from a perfect follower of Christ.  I live in a world that often is at odds with the world Christ envisioned.  We all do.  Compromises are made and our imperfection remains.  To be honest, I have no intention of selling our home and moving into a more modest dwelling, of taking the prophets and donating it to Habitat for Humanity.  That is a fact. 

            In the end, I must rely on God’s forgiveness sealed in the cross.  I stand in constant need of being saved.  I have and always will, need Jesus.  My hope rests not in my virtue, but in God’s grace.  And you?

[1] Barbara R. Rossing is professor of New Testament at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, where she has taught since 1994. Ordained in 1982, she served as pastor of a congregation in Minnesota, director for Global Mission Interpretation for the American Lutheran Church, pastor at Holden Village Retreat Center, Chelan, Wash., and chaplain at Harvard University Divinity School. Rossing has lectured and preached widely, including at synod assemblies and global mission events for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), as well as at ecumenical theological conferences. She has served on the executive committee and council of the Lutheran World Federation (2003-2010), and chaired the Lutheran World Federation’s theology and studies committee. Her publications include The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation (Basic Books, 2004), a critique of fundamentalist “Left Behind” theology; The Choice Between Two Cities: Whore, Bride and Empire in the Apocalypse (Trinity Press, 1999); two volumes of the New Proclamation commentary for preachers (Fortress Press, 2000 and 2004) and articles and book chapters on the Apocalypse and ecology.

[i] Luke 16:1-13

Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. 2So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ 3Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. 4I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ 5So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’7Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ 8And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. 9And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.10“Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. 11If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 13No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

Sermon, September 11, 2022

A Sermon


The Rev. Jeffrey Long-Middleton

Bradford Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ

September 11, 2022

“Lost And Found”

“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?”

Luke 15:3[i]

The answer to the question is “No one.”  The Pharisees and the Scribes may have been many things, but they were not stupid.  Who would leave the 99 (in the wilderness, mind you) and go and search for the one?  No one.  It makes no sense.  Why not cut your losses.  You are going to lose sheep — some to illness, some to predators, some simply drift away and are lost.  Now you don’t control the drifters.  It happens.  But you can work to reduce the risks of disease and loss to predators.  That you can do.  Leaving the 99 to search for the one that is lost does not make sense.  Work at controlling what you can.  Right?  Indeed, let’s suppose that the shepherd in question is not the owner of the sheep, that at the end of day, this shepherd must answer to the owner and explain why the 99 were left to themselves.  Even if the lost sheep is found, if I were the owner, I’d fire the shepherd!  99 were left at risk and I could have lost everything.  So, this makes no sense.

            But Jesus is not attempting to make sense.  He is making a point — not about sound business practice, but about the joy of God.  That is what makes this story so shocking.  Jesus is implying that God would do what none of the Pharisees or Scribes would.  The question I have is what does this story have to do with us? 

The first thing to note is we are part of the 99.  The shepherd’s attention is taken off us and focused on the one that is lost.  How’s that make you feel?  Are we being taken for granted?  The answer is “Yes.”  God has gone after the lost and we are expected to remain.  That may not be fair.  After all, we’ve been “slinging the hash.”  The church, the body of Christ, doesn’t run itself.  It takes a core of committed believers willing to do the unglamorous work of making an institution run.  Oh, it can be fun, but it lacks glory.  Jesus, the shepherd, is taking the loyal 99 for granted.

Why?  Because Jesus can.  We’re going to stay.  We are not here to receive some reward or accolade from God.  We are here because we believe we have found the truth, that in pursuing the cause of justice we open the door to peace, that in proclaiming the love of God for the least and the lost we participate in advancing the Kingdom of God, that in proclaiming a crucified and risen Christ we proclaim both the reality of suffering and its inability to win the day.  We keep opening the doors to this church every week because we want to be a part of God’s mission, and today we learn that the joy of God is found when we, the 99, can do our job that together with God we might reach the one who was lost.

As if to reinforce this point, Jesus now tells the story of the Prodigal Son.  Remember, Jesus is talking to the Pharisees and Scribes.  They cliqued their tongues at Jesus welcoming and eating with sinners.  He then tells the story of the one lost sheep and the lost coin.  But He isn’t done.  Our reding stopped at verse 10.  In verse 11 we see Jesus making sure the point of reaching the lost and rejoicing in their being found is sealed by the story of the Prodigal Son.  You remember the story.  I don’t have to repeat it but let me cite one of the closing sentences.  The father, speaking to the disgruntled older brother who refuses to join the celebration of his brother’s return, says:

 ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”

It is one thing to sit in this holy place and take stock of our virtue, but we are doing nothing more than what God expects of us.  God’s joy is found when we welcome in those who are lost.

            It does not take much to find them.  They may be among us.  Perhaps the biggest challenge facing modern America is prosperity.  It has led to a love of things often at the expense of ideals.  Listen to this warning from Louis J. Halle in his book, Civilization and Foreign Policy:

Men who have lost their belief in anything else will, perforce, live by bread alone. They will not deny themselves the satisfac­tion of their animal appetites in order to uphold a dignity which they no longer understand. Nothing will be left that is as important to them as material abundance; they will therefore accept any form of political organization that offers them such abundance and will reject any that leaves them unsatisfied in this respect. The consequence is that as vision is lost it becomes increasingly difficult for any political leader to prevail on the people to accept material sacrifices which may be necessary for defense against their external enemies. They will prefer to follow his rival who promises less taxation and still higher standards of living.[1]

Modern man and women may be captured in this warning and it is the calling of the Church to call us back to something greater than “stuff.”  When justice is less important than prosperity, those who think themselves to have been found are lost.

          In his book, Modern Schism, Martin Marty comments on the Puritan’s coming to America and the gradual loss of our religious moorings:

“These newly-rich at first seemed to want the benefit of clergy for their passage.  They had not inherited blood or land, but they had been successful traders, speculators, and merchants. The Puritan had been told to be suspicious of the rich. The evangelical had been told to be content if he was not rich. The American in the mid-nineteenth century was beginning to be told to get rich. In 1836 the Reverend Thomas P. Hunt in The Book of Wealth wrote that ‘no man can be obedient to God’s will without becoming wealthy’.  The Congregationalist, forty years later, in rather bizarre metaphor revealed the extent of materialism that resides under the veneer of religiosity in subsequent American religion: ‘There is no sleeping partner in any business who can begin to compare with the Almighty.’”[2]

You can hear it on your television.  The gospel of success proclaims Jesus will make you a worldly success, a person of means.  Meanwhile, one in six children in America worry about their next meal.  The plight of the poor and marginalized is the business of the church.  We the 99, are called to lift the 1.

          I call us all, clergy and laity alike, to remember who it is we are called to serve.  We have pledged our lives to follow in the way of Christ.  No one, not one, has done it perfectly, but when we do the possible the one who is lost is found, a party takes place in heaven and God’s joy is made complete.  The task awaits.  Let us pray…

[1] Louis J.. Halle, Civilization and Foreign Policy, p 168 & 169.

[2] The Modern Schism, Martin E. Marty, p. 123.

[i] Luke 15:1-10

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 3So he told them this parable: 4“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? 5When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 7Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. 8“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? 9When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ 10Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”


Sermon, September 4, 2022

A Sermon


The Rev. Jeffrey Long-Middleton

Bradford Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ

September 4, 2022

“What Are We To Do?”

“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”

Luke 14:26[i]

Wow!  This is a hard reading, one that I find unexpected.  Did you come into church this morning expecting to hear that if you want to be a disciple of Jesus you have to hate your family?  I doubt is.  We go from:

“Jesus loves me,

This I know,”


“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”

That’s a problem.  Indeed, this whole passage is a problem.  Not only does it seem too draconian, we simply are not going to do it.  I have not and I will not, literally carry the cross.  It may be true that I sometimes don’t like my family, but I have not and will not ever “hate” them.  Finally, I’m not going to sell all that I own.  I’d be homeless and my family, too.  So, what are to do?  We say we love Jesus.  We say we want to follow Jesus.  We meet each Sunday and proclaim Christ’s message.  But we readily admit that we aren’t going to “actually” do all He suggests.  So, again, What are we to do?

            It seems to me we have two options.  First, we can dismiss these troubling words.  We can say they are “inauthentic” that they are the creation of the author of Luke and not really said by Jesus.  This would remove their status and authority.  But this is a dangerous proposition.  Are we to take this course of action every time we don’t like what Jesus is saying?  And how does one determine which saying can be dismissed and which are to be retained?  The second alternative is to take a wider view of scripture.  Fact is, this is not the only place where Jesus seems at odds with common sense. Matthew 5 offers another example:

27“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.

If we took Jesus literally, we’d look like a remake of Peter Pan — Captain hook without a hand, pirates wearing eye patches.  I don’t know a single person who would follow the admonitions in Matthew 5:27-30.  And if this is true, can we not also suggest that the words of our text are not to be taken literally?  I know that for myself, I can’t take these passages seriously if I take them literally.  But that leaves us with a question, “If they are not to be taken literally, what is Jesus trying to communicate?

            Actually, I think the message is clear.  Namely, “God first.  All else second.”  If we with that as our guide, our lives would be shaped by the following standers:

  • Revenge has no place in the Kingdom of God.  I have been hurt enough by the action of others that I must remind myself of this principle.  I can live trying to calculate when I have bested my foes.  But this is no way to live.  It makes me small and robs my life of joy — not to mention that it is opposed to the way of God.  Imagine if revenge was God’s driving force.  We killed God’s only begotten Son.  If God lived out the calculous of revenge, we would be swept away.  Revenge has no place in the Kingdom of God.
  • Forgiveness reigns irrespective of the offense.  There is not a person here today who has not needed to forgive.  You already know the power of this principle.  Without it, we are doomed.  But the affront of the Kingdom of God is that forgiveness is extended independent of the original offense.  This is a high bar for us to reach, but it is the bedrock of our faith.
  • Kindness abides.  There is no place for making others feel small.  Christ did not just die for you.  Christ died for us all and when I cause another human being to feel small, I deny the gift Christ gave to us all.

I close with a warning.  Who we are is what we embrace in our heart.  This is why Jesus is right in saying, “God first.  All else second.”  Let God be your guiding star and you will find your nobility.  In the end, faithfulness is more about the strength of one’s will than it is about one’s beliefs.

We began by asking, “What are we to do?”  Put God first and else second.  Let us pray…

[i] Luke 14:25-33

25Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, 26“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. 27Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. 28For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? 29Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, 30saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ 31Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace.33So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.

Sermon, August 28, 2022

A Sermon


The Rev. Jeffrey Long-Middleton

Bradford Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ

August 28, 2022

“Quenching Our Thirst”

…for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.

Jeremiah 2:4-13[i]

These words from a poet who died in 1939:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre   

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst   

Are full of passionate intensity.[1]

My friends, Jeremiah’s age was not the first or the last to have lived through a time when things fall apart.  His people will be crushed by a foreign power.  He will flee for his life to Egypt.  The best and the brightest of his nation will be taken captive by the conquerors. 

            And we awakened this week to discover that a former president of the United States stashed government documents in his basement, some so highly sensitive that their disclosure could cost friends of our nation their lives.  We wake each morning to learn of new disasters – famine in Africa, war in Ukraine, drought in Europe and here at home, our environment in peril.  Some seek escape from the news, but ignorance of what is happening does not change the fact that it happened.  Some fall into a state of helpless despair, but if the psychologists are right and despair is “anger turned inward,” than we have embraced a maladaptive escape that robs us of agency.  We would rather be crippled by our inward anger than engage the sordid mess before us.   You heard the words from Jeremiah.  Are we so different?

            Look about you?  How many are with us this morning?  I have just outlined a host of problems that beset us.  Would you not think that at such a time as this, people might feel compelled to seek the aid of God?  Is it our cunning and intellectual skill that has led us to seek the gods of our culture rather than turning to the living waters of faith?  In our hubris we have sought to solve the problems of our own creation.  We turn to the god of science and work for a technical fix to the destruction of our sustainable future failing to recognize that science, corrupted by sin and greed, has helped to bring us to this place of impending doom. 

            Add to this malaise our collective inability to embrace the truth, and our impotence is complete.  We live in a time when “facts” are thrown aside and opinion reigns.  When asked why the then Press Secretary for the former administration had uttered verifiable falsehoods, an advisor to the then president, Kellyanne Conway, never answered the question but spoke of “alternative facts.”  We seem incapable of living in a world centered on truth.

            What is needed is what faith can offer.  Just as Jeremiah spoke of a nation that had lost its way, so, too, have we.  Unless we take seriously the nature of sin, unless we recognize our need to repent and set all things to the service of God, we will continue to twist our science to our advantage and seek to outwit our foes by using science to develop the next precision weapon rather than seeking to bring science to the service of creation.  In our sin, we twist all things to our own ends.  This will not stop once we have returned to seeking the guidance of God, but an acknowledgment of the pervasive force of sin will help us acknowledge our need to repent.  As it stands now, we think ourselves clever enough to untangle the twisted mess we have created.  What we fail to see is that we cannot untangle ourselves.  What is needed is the straight line of truth and a renewed commitment to walk where it leads.  It comes by way of a transcendent referent whose thoughts are not our thoughts and whose ways are not our ways.

             But I fear that I am “preaching to the choir.”  You who have gathered this morning already quest for the transcendent, already acknowledge God and have walked by the light God’s truth provides.  I am not reaching those who need to hear what I have to say.  They are not here and don’t much care to know what is being said. 

            In Jeremiah’s day, his nation would be defeated.  Many of his fellow citizens would be carried off into captivity.  Yet a remnant remained, a faithful few, and though the world was dark, the light of God’s truth sill burned.  Perhaps this is how we should view ourselves — a faithful remnant that remembers God’s demand for justice and God’s bias for the poor, that reminds the world of a truth bigger than ourselves.

            It may well be a lonely place to reside.  We may be seen as irrelevant fools who speak of things of old while the world presses on to what it perceives as the new.  But there looms a question.  Do you think faith to be foolish or our ultimate hope?  Do you think the world can set itself right if it never turns to walk in the way of God’s justice and peace?  Oh, it may well be that we are the voice crying in the wilderness but cry we must before we cannot cry at all.  Let us pray….

[1] From The Second Coming by William Butler Yeats.

[i] Jeremiah 2:4-13

4Hear the word of the Lord, O house of Jacob, and all the families of the house of Israel. 5Thus says the Lord: What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves? 6They did not say, “Where is the Lord who brought us up from the land of Egypt, who led us in the wilderness, in a land of deserts and pits, in a land of drought and deep darkness, in a land that no one passes through, where no one lives?” 7I brought you into a plentiful land to eat its fruits and its good things. But when you entered you defiled my land, and made my heritage an abomination. 8The priests did not say, “Where is the Lord?” Those who handle the law did not know me; the rulers transgressed against me; the prophets prophesied by Baal, and went after things that do not profit.

9Therefore once more I accuse you, says the Lord, and I accuse your children’s children. 10Cross to the coasts of Cyprus and look, send to Kedar and examine with care; see if there has ever been such a thing.11Has a nation changed its gods, even though they are no gods? But my people have changed their glory for something that does not profit. 12Be appalled, O heavens, at this, be shocked, be utterly desolate, says the Lord, 13for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.