Category Archives: Past Sermons

Sermon, September 17, 2017

“Help for the Helper”
Rev. David Pruitt
Bradford Congregational Church-UCC

Mark 14: 32-42
September 17, 2017

We like to consider Jesus as perfectly resourceful, without our human vulnerabilities, above the strife of life. But within this mornings scripture we read that distress and anguish came over him so that he confided to his disciples, “The sorrow in my heart is so great that it almost crushes me. Stay here and keep watch.” He had brought Peter, James and John with him into the Garden of Gethsemane. He did not go alone, he needed them to watch and pray with him in his hour of extreme need. He did not pretend that God’s presence alone was enough. Christ’s genuine humanity left him vulnerable to grief and sorrow and he felt the need for human companionship and human understanding. Continue reading Sermon, September 17, 2017

Sermon, September 10, 2017

“Rules for the Church to Live By”
Rev. Jeff Long-Middleton
Bradford Congregational Church-UCC

Matthew 18:18
September 10, 2017

Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

Pretty heavy stuff – loosed on earth, loosed in heaven. Do we even believe it? Let’s be honest. Most of the time the church seems a marginalized institution. There was a time when what the religious order proclaimed mattered. Now it is science that claims truth as its purview. And do you know of any church without its problems? I don’t. I have been at this for nearly forty years and served four churches. None of them was without sin. Do you know why?
Because the people were not without sin and although I am loath to admit it, neither was I!

I mention this because it is the first lesson I take from this passage in Matthew 18. Jesus talks about troubles among the faithful because there was trouble among the faithful. You don’t outline how to handle conflict if you never have any. Jesus knew of the need to speak of this  from the very beginning of His ministry. Remember how often the disciples seemed clueless? Continue reading Sermon, September 10, 2017

Sermon, September 3, 2017

“The Lord’s Prayer for God’s Revolution”
Rev. Dr. Michael Caldwell
Bradford Congregational Church

Isaiah 63:7-9,16
Matthew 6:7-15
September 3, 2017

The Lord be with you…

Friends, when I thought about what to share with you in brief Communion sermon, it occurred to me to build on my reflections on the Lord’s Prayer with your children.

Here’s the nugget: The Lord’s Prayer is more than we think it is. I’m not exaggerating to say that it is Jesus’ prayer for God’s revolution. Continue reading Sermon, September 3, 2017

Sermon, August 27, 2017

“Who/Whose Am I?”
Deacon Marcia Tomlinson
Bradford Congregational Church

Exodus 1:8 – 2:10
Matthew 16:13-20
August 27, 2017

This morning we’ve heard the beginning of the Moses story. Wasn’t it fun to see the children act it out for us! … let’s recap what we once learned in Sunday School about Moses.

  • He was born when his people were in bondage in Egypt. His mother put him in a basket to save him.
  • An Egyptian princess adopted him and raised him as an Egyptian prince. When he grew up he killed an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave.
  • He fled the country but was considered an Egyptian by his language and stature. God instructed him through a burning bush to go back.
  • He spoke to Pharaoh, “Let my people go.” He unleashed plagues one by one each time Pharaoh didn’t.
  • He and his people were protected as the Angel of Death passed over Egypt. He led his people through the parted Sea. He led them to Sinai.
  • He smashed their golden calf. God gave him the 10 Commandments. He led the people 40 years through the desert.
  • God would not let him go into the Promised Land but did let him see it from the mountain top. Before his death he is said to have written down all the story of his people that we have in the first 5 books of the Bible.

Right from the beginning, we are reminded of his dual identity: Continue reading Sermon, August 27, 2017

Sermon, August 20, 2017

“Lost and Found”
Rev. Dr. Michael Caldwell
Bradford Congregational Church

Luke 15: 1-10
August 20, 2017

God has a lost and found. Have you used it?

When I traveled to Germany and Austria in 1973 for Foreign Study, I left my camera on the train in Munich. I was on my way from Berlin to Kitzbuhel in the Austrian Alps – where a weekly ski pass was $25 and the b & b was $1.50 per night. Anyway, knowing the exchange rate was that good, I bought a nice camera in Berlin, so to lose it when I changed trains was a huge loss. I was heartsick.

I filled out a lost and found form at the train station in Kitzbuhel, but never imagined that I’d ever see that camera again, especially since I lost it in Germany and filled out the form in Austria.

Two months after my return to the States, I received a cardboard box in the mail from Munich with the camera inside… and with film I developed pictures from that I still have.  The lost and found service of the cooperative German-Austrian train system really worked. Some conscientious person really went out of his way to serve me well.

Couple months ago I went to a contradance in Montpelier. You have to change into soft-soled shoes for dancing. Long story short, I left my good teva sandals there and didn’t realize it until the next day. Fortunately, I knew one of the organizers of that dance and contacted her. She went out of her way to check the lost and found for me and found the sandals and got them back to me.

God has a lost and found that really works – like these two lost and founds. Have you used it?

I can be so hare-brained and forgetful that I’ve lost a lot of stuff over the years. I’ve sometimes tried lost and founds without success. Other times I’ve forgotten to even try…

When we try God’s lost and found – and don’t forget to try it – we may not always be successful right away, but he parables of our Lord here in Luke 15 indicate that God’s impulse is to find us when we’re lost, and to look diligently for us until we get found.

The one lost sheep was so important that the shepherd went out of his way to find it. No sheep in that flock of 100 was extraneous. Every one was precious to the shepherd.

The woman who lost the coin knew the value of that coin and swept the whole house until she found it.

There’s more joy in heaven for one sinner who repents than 99 righteous persons.

Another way to say it:

God rejoices more when we turn to God when we’re lost than when we think we’re superior to others around us, or when we just don’t think we need help finding what we’ve lost – because, let’s face it, we’re all very vulnerable to loss –

loss of loved ones who have died

loss of health / loss of hope

loss of perspective / loss of direction

losing our temper / losing our cool

losing a marriage or a close friend… the list goes on.

One of my favorite books about ministry is Kate Braestrup’s Here if You Need Me – Kate’s memoir of her years as chaplain to the Maine Warden Service. If you haven’t read it, I recommend it highly. Great book. One of the things the wardens do, of course, is conduct searches for missing persons. As she says so well, though most searches do not end well, the families of the lost are always so thankful for the expertise and the dogged determination of the wardens and the whole search and rescue community in Maine.

Braestrup would be the first to compare the commitment of the wardens to God’s lost and found – a lost and found that works even when there is grief along the way.

You might say we use God’s Lost and Found every Sunday in worship, every day in moments of prayer and meditation. Your loss of Tom’s ministry is huge after three power-packed years when you accomplished extraordinary change. But when you focus with God on what you found together, by Grace, as a more fully inclusive Open and Affirming Church and as a congregation covenanted for direct communication, you find yourself fully found for a promising new future with a settled pastor.

In my work at a restorative justice center in Vermont, I see miracles happen in cases of tremendous loss – like with a woman who lost her sobriety over and over again before she got a full recovery when she stood to lose even the custody of her children – all this partly because she felt supported by a circle of support and accountability at the restorative center.

If you listen to NPR’s morning edition, you will recall “Story Corps” on Friday mornings. One of the most memorable stories I ever heard was from a woman by the name of Mary Johnson whose son was murdered. For some reason, she wanted to face her son’s killer, went to the prison and got permission to see him, I believe facilitated through her local restorative justice center. Something happened that first meeting – esp the tears and grief of the murderer – that kept Mary coming back to the prison. After many years, the prisoner became like a son to her and was released on probation early because of the bond with Mary that developed, and her testimony about his repentance.

One more story to conclude: my friend John Morris is a retired Episcopal priest who, in retirement, has immersed himself in activism for peace and justice, esp in the face of the growing revenge complex the US has since 9/11. He went to a march against the illegal and immoral practice of torture by the US military after 9/11 and ended up walking with a man who’s wife was killed on one of the planes that terrorists flew into the WTC in NY. He said to John: “it’s important to me in my grief to let go of my rage. If I give into it, it consumes me. My faith calls me to let go of my rage, like Nelson Mandela who said ‘carrying a grudge is like drinking poison and hoping your enemy will die.'”

What about you? Where in your life is loss hitting you hard? Unless we find a way to let go of our losses, grieve our losses, and find a way forward, find hope again, we stay stuck, we stay lost.

God’s lost and found in worship, in church, in conversation with a trusted friend, at an AA meeting, wherever, makes a huge difference.

Don’t forget to check God’s lost and found whenever you need to along the way… Amen.

 

Sermon, August 13, 2017

“Be Not Afraid”
Cass Poulos
Bradford Congregational Church
August 13, 2017

Genesis 37:1-4,12-28
Psalm 105:1-6,16-22,45b
Romans 10:5-15
Matthew 14:22-33

Please pause with me for a moment of prayer:

Merciful God may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts together be acceptable in your sight. You are our strength and redeemer.  Amen

 

  1. Prevalence of fear today. Violence, hatred, and supporting rhetoric.

Fear→Stop thinking→ fight/flight, reptile brain

  1. Faith & Fear Cannot Co-exist Commonly expressed
  1. Christ theologians understood faith & trust to be synonymous→ either word could be used to express the same thing
  2. Faith: Noun➔Requires not action→ an intellectual agreement with a set of tenets/rules of faith or dogma
  3. Trust: Verb➔ requires action, follow through on faith
  1. Trust requires belief
  2. Belief can exist without trust/ without action
  1. Fear: Greatest potential for danger→ stops thoughtful action
  1. Be Not Afraid
  1. 1st X in Bible: Gen 3.10→ A & E have eaten of the forbidden fruit, hiding from God because they are afraid
  2. Addiction & Recovery→ Living Life→ Fear Can Stop Us→ Hide who we are, our deepest desires➔ fear becomes insurmountable→ grows in power and overwhelms. What was meant to serve as a warning and motivator to action becomes a blockade
  3. We become isolated from ourselves, others, and God
  1. Chaos
  1. Today: Racism, Violence, Threats of nuclear & conventional war,
  2. Sea in Ancient Times: Represented chaos itself. Chaos is unpredictable, dangerous, powerful➔ God only thing that held chaos at bay!

The image of a small boat with a single mast, a typical fishing boat, was an early symbol of Christianity. It represented the church as a refuge from a chaotic world where professing faith in Christ was dangerous. For the first time in Matthew, Jesus and the disciples are separated from each other. The translation from Greek, says Jesus “insists” which implies the disciples did not want to go alone, but they are obedient and “get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side” (Matt 14.22). Jesus then dismisses the crowds and he “went up the mountain by himself to pray” (Matt. 14.23). We learn the boat is “battered by the waves” and “the wind was against them” (Matt. 14.24). In Greek, the boat was “being tortured” by the waves. The sea and wind stand as a barrier between Jesus and the small vessel bearing the disciples. Remember the first boat story (8.23-27) (explain)…the second one is different: Jesus is not with the disciples; there is not a storm; and the disciples are not afraid of the wind. Indeed, the disciples are far from the land which means they are physically far from Jesus. They only become terrified when they see an apparition walking across the sea and coming towards them. Jesus comes to them in the latest and darkest part of the night. Even though there is only one thing which overcomes chaos, that can walk on water, from the disciples’ viewpoint, the apparition could be chaos itself. The disciples are rightly afraid. In terror, they cry out, “It is a ghost!” and then, they just cried out. (14.26). But it is Jesus and he says, “take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” So here we have further proof that Jesus is Divine. Jesus identifies himself with it is I which correlates with God’s I Am statements. Five times in Matthew, Jesus says, “Do not be afraid” and three times, Jesus says, “Take heart.”

Peter represents all of us. He calls out and addresses Jesus as “Lord.” The title Lord recognizes Jesus as Divine and in Matthew, Lord is only used by followers, believers in Christ. Peter displays a great deal of personal faith. But then he asks Jesus, “if it is you, command me to come to you on the water” (14.28). In other words, prove to me who you are by doing certain things. In the beginning of Matthew, Satan challenges Jesus twice; prior to crucifixion, he is challenged by the high priest and during crucifixion, he is challenged and mocked. On each of these occasions, Jesus is asked to prove his identity. But this is the only time that Jesus agrees to meet the challenge.

And Peter climbs out of the safety of the boat and steps onto chaos. It is not until he takes his focus off Jesus, until he notices a strong wind and becomes frightened that he begins to sink. And he cried out, “Lord, save me!” (Matt 14.30). Immediately, Jesus “reached out his hand and caught him…” and then Jesus asks, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matt 14.31-2). When they get into the boat, the wind ceases. For the first time in Matthew, the disciples who are in the boat worship Jesus and call him the Son of God.

Frederick Buechner said, “faith is disorderly…intermittent [and] full of surprises.”  Now we can ask why someone like Peter could have enough faith and trust to address Jesus as Lord and fearlessly step out of the comfort of the boat and yet challenges Jesus and then takes his eyes off him. He sees the wind and is fearful and begins to sink. Faithfully, he calls upon Jesus as Lord, and is saved. And the rebuke Jesus gives Peter is mild. Perhaps, rather than judging Peter for his shortcomings and his fearfulness, we should focus on his fearlessness.

The image of the boat as the church, a refuge from chaos is always apropos. We all experience chaos. Maybe we have financial fears. Maybe we or someone we love received an unwanted diagnosis. Maybe there is so much pressure we cannot even name it.

We have the image of the boat as the church floating on chaos. It is easy to say nothing, to sit within the confines of the church and never risk because we are afraid. It is too easy to ignore the clamoring of want and need outside our doors. It is too easy to remain disconnected from others because of fear. We are fearful of people with a different skin color, folks who immigrate, and people who are destitute. We may throw money towards “social problems.”  But the Gospel calls upon us to be open hearted, to be risk takers for the sake of Christ. We are called upon to risk finding out that we are worthy, that Jesus reaches out to us in the darkest and deepest part of the night. To be connected with another means that we risk vulnerability, that someone will see us for whom we really are. And maybe if they know, they will reject us or not meet our expectations. But to be faithful, to be sloppy and “disorderly in our intermittent faith” means we are open to the possibilities of Jesus reaching out and the possibility that we are loved exactly as we are.

Speak out against violence. Reach out to those who are different. Reach out to those who are fearful. Tell someone what God is doing for you today, what God does for you each and every day. How does faith and trust make a difference in your life.

Faith and trust are never complete. Rather they wax and wane and come back again stronger than before. I do not remember the amount of times God says, Be Not Afraid, but I do know God said it because humans experience fear. It is appropriate in dangerous situations. If it keeps us enslaved and stuck then it is time to jettison some of it… enough to take a step outside the boat and trust that when we begin to sink and we will, that Jesus will meet us with an outstretched hand.

Amen.

Sermon, August 6, 2017

“Taxi Driver”
Rev. David Pruitt
Bradford Congregational Church
August 6, 2017

Luke 24: 13-40  Matthew 25:31-40

When He walked the earth, the compassion of Christ could show up at strange times and in unusual ways.  It was sometimes not accurately identified until after the fact.  Luke describes two followers of Christ who hungered for connection with him and spent likely a blessed hour or more with him but did not recognize him until the end of their visit.

Matthew gives us Jesus praising other followers for marvelous ministry to him in his need when they had no idea it was Christ they were serving.  This can still be true today.  This morning we’ll share a short communion reading reminding us of that truth.  It’s entitled “Taxi Driver”.

TAXI DRIVER

Twenty years ago, I drove a cab for living.  When I arrived at 2:30 a.m. the building was dark except for a single light in a ground floor window.  Under these circumstances, many drivers would just honk once or twice, wait a minute, then drive away.

But, I had seen too many impoverished people who depended on taxis as their only means of transportation.  Unless a situation smelled of danger, I always went to the door.  This passenger might be someone who needs my assistance, I reasoned to myself.

I walked to the door and knocked.  “Just a minute,” answered a frail, elderly voice.  I could hear something being dragged across the floor.  After a long pause, the door opened.  A small woman in her 80’s stood before me.  She was wearing a print dress and a pillbox hat with a veil pinned on it, like somebody out of a 1940’s movie.  By her side was a small nylon suitcase.  The apartment looked as if no one had lived in it for years.  All the furniture was covered with sheets.  There were no clocks on the walls, no knickknacks or utensils on the counters.  In the corner was a cardboard box filled with photos and glassware.

“Would you carry my bag out to the car?” she said.  I took the suitcase to the cab, then returned to assist the woman.  She took my arm and we walked slowly toward the curb.  She kept thanking me for my kindness.  “It’s nothing” I told her. ” I just try to treat my passengers the way I would want my mother treated.” “Oh, you’re such a good boy,” she said.  When we got in the cab, she gave me an address, then asked, “could you drive through downtown?” “It’s not the shortest way,” I answered quickly.

“Oh, I don’t mind,” she said.  “I’m in no hurry.”  I’m on my way to a hospice.”  I looked in the rear-view mirror.  Her eyes were glistening.  “I don’t have any family left,” she continued.  “The doctor says I don’t have very long.” I quietly reached over and shut off the meter.   “What route would you like to take?” I asked.  For the next two hours, we drove through the city.  She showed me the building where she had once worked as an elevator operator.  We drove through the neighborhood where she and her husband had lived when they were newlyweds.  She had me pull up in front of a furniture warehouse that had once been a ballroom where she had gone dancing as a girl.  Sometimes she’d ask me to slow in front of a particular building or corner and would sit staring into the darkness, saying nothing.

As the first hint of sun was creasing the horizon, she suddenly said, “I’m tired.  Let’s go now”.  We drove in silence to the address she had given me.  It was a low building, like a small convalescent home, with a driveway that passed under a portico.  Two orderlies came out to the cab as soon as we pulled up.  They were solicitous and intent, watching her every move.  They must have been expecting her.  I opened the trunk and took the small suitcase to the door.  The woman was already seated in a wheelchair. “How much do I owe you?”  she asked, reaching into her purse.  “Nothing” I said. “You have to make a living,”  she answered. “There are other passengers,” I responded.  Almost without thinking, I bent and gave her a hug.  She held onto me tightly.  “You gave an old woman a little moment of joy,” she said. “Thank you.”  I squeezed her hand then walked into the dim morning light.  Behind me, a door shut.  It was the sound of the closing of a life.

I didn’t pick up any more passengers that shift.  I drove aimlessly, lost in thought.  For the rest of that day, I could hardly talk.  What if that woman had gotten an angry driver, or one who was impatient to ended his shift? What if I had refused to take the run, or had honked once, then driven away?

On a quick review, I don’t think that I have done anything more important in my life.  We’re conditioned to think that our lives revolve around great moments.  But great moments often catch us unaware–beautifully wrapped in what others may consider a small one.

People may not remember exactly what you did, or what your said, but they will ALWAYS remember how you made them feel.

So we celebrate an act of thoughtful, heart-felt compassion.  The name of God, of Christ is nowhere spoken.  The taxi driver, and perhaps the elderly woman, may have seen their experience as only an act of human kindness.

But after the fact, such acts can and should be celebrated as in the spirit of Jesus of Nazareth.  When the time comes, may there be such a taxi driver for you and me.

Sermon, July 30, 2017

“The Seed Cracked Open”
Elisa Lucozzi
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-46
Bradford Congregational Church
July 30, 2017

Although I come from a legacy of wheat farmers, I would not describe myself as someone who has a green thumb.  This year however I have found that there is one thing I have an incredible knack for growing – WEEDS!   We have had an abundance of rain and what that means is everything is growing in spades it seems especially weeds.  What it also means is that there aren’t enough sunny days to keep up with pulling them all.  So I’ve had to do some letting go about wanting my garden to look a certain way.  When I can do that what I’ve noticed is that there seems to be more of creation’s critters around – more bees, more birds enjoying the shade and feasting off of the vegetation.

May the words of my mouth….

This morning we hear yet another parable from Jesus as he tries to teach his disciples.  Jesus’ preferred method of teaching was by telling stories – parables.  In fact scholars tell us that almost a third of Jesus’ teachings come in the form of parables.

Over the last couple of weeks, the gospel reading has introduced to this idea of kingdom of heaven through parables many of them using the planting of seeds.  I call these parables – the horticulture of the heart stories – Jesus’ victory garden.  This parable – the parable of the mustard seed appears in all three of the synoptic gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke.  And in all three it is distinctly noted the seed in question is the “the smallest of all the seeds.” Now while that not be totally accurate – poppy seeds are certainly smaller mustard seeds would have been a familiar item in the Middle East in Jesus’ time.

The kingdom of heaven comes from something small and in unexpected ways.

So what is this parable about? –perhaps the subtitle of this parable should be “good things come in small packages” – how great things can come from small things –Etc. A small act of kindness can go a long way – like offering a smile to a stranger can be just the thing that could turn around a bad day or a feeling of loneliness.

Mother Teresa whose quote you find in your bulletin this morning also has another quote that speaks to this notion of finding the kingdom of heaven in the small things – “If you can’t feed a hundred people, then feed just one.” It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the needs of the world – so much violence, poverty, that it seems like a small gesture would have little effect.  I know I often feel that way but that’s when I remember a quote from spiritual master His Holiness the Dalai Lama who says “If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.”

I’ll tell you that one of the first things I think about when thinking about “small things” is the saying “Don’t sweat the small stuff… and it’s all small stuff.” The saying is actually the title of a book by Dr. Richard Carlson originally published over twenty years ago and with more than 25 million copies in print. The book talks about how we spend far too much time worrying about minor irritations and frustrations and not enough time generating gratitude and hope.  It seems that we have a way of latching onto the negative “small things” and barely noticing the life-giving things that we encounter every day.

The kingdom of heaven is in everyday things already amongst us.

The stories Jesus tells us about the kingdom of heaven are down to earth – literally! They are common stories about ordinary people – a farmer, a baker, a fisherman not kings and heroes.  These ordinary folks are doing everyday things. Not exactly the exalted vision of God’s realm one might expect.  As Christians, we are called to believe in the incarnation, the word made flesh, the mystery of the meeting of the divine and human in the person of Jesus.  In this parable Jesus is bringing that same incarnational focus to the world around him.  The kingdom of heaven is like the most common things in human life. For the people of Jesus’ time – seeds, some leaven and fishing nets.  Take just a minute and think about some every day, common thing you interact with – can you find the kingdom of heaven within it? Our busyness, our distracted minds, and our preconceived notions often keep us from seeing the kingdom of heaven that is already in our midst.

The kingdom of heaven is within those things that are considered nuance, cast away, or without value.

Another interpretation of this parable is that among the items Jesus compared the kingdom of heaven to were things that were considered a nuisance or unclean.  Although there is some scholarly debate about this, some claim that in Jesus’ time the mustard plant was essentially considered a weed – a seed that grew into a “trash tree.” No farmer in their right mind would purposely plant a mustard seed unless they were prepared to be completely overrun by it.  There were far more valuable crops to be planted.  Can you imagine planting a field of weeds?

I laughed to myself while studying this scripture over the week. All the gardener imagery reminded me of the scene in the Gospel of John where Mary encounters Jesus at the empty tomb and “mistakes him for the gardener.”  Had Mary heard Jesus teach this parable there would have been no way she would have mistaken him for the “gardener.”

Here too the second part of this parable talks about the leaven added to three measures of flour.  The leaven or yeast in this story is not the stuff we think about that comes in those little brown jars or packets found in your local grocery store.  This is akin to sour dough starter which is begun with a fermentation process.  It’s called sour dough for a reason – it’s sour.  During Jewish holy days the houses were wiped clean of this “corrupt” item and only unleavened bread was eaten.

Jesus however had a propensity for turning things on their heads – the last shall be first. Jesus befriended, lifted and allied with those who society oppressed or rejected – women, children, the poor, those suffering from disease or mental illness.  In all of these Jesus saw the kingdom of heaven where others only saw a nuisance, something unclean or something to be cast aside.

 m seed5839As I mentioned there is scholarly debate that centers around the worth and value of a mustard seed at the time in history when Jesus would have been sharing this parable. One such scholar is Jewish Biblical scholar Amy-Jill Levine who argues that a mustard plant since it was native to the Middle East would have likely been seen as a valued crop.  Mustard seeds are commonly used in the cuisine of the Middle East especially in India and ancient civilizations were more likely to have been aware of its medicinal properties.

She also refutes the interpretation that Jesus was using the seed as a metaphor not just for the kingdom of heaven but for the “planting of the church” amongst his disciples. However, these Christian interpretations would never have been heard by Jesus’ original Jewish audience.  So bottom line from this scholar anyway is maybe a seed is just a seed.

So what is a seed?  It is the remnant of a plant.  A seed is what’s left behind after a plant dies.  In order for the seed to take on new life what must happen to it?  It has to crack open.  Author Cynthia Occelli describes it like this “For a seed to achieve its greatest expression, it must come completely undone. The shell cracks, its insides come out and everything changes. To someone who doesn’t understand growth, it would look like complete destruction.”

First, the seed dies. It finds welcoming soil and morphed into a tiny shoot. In time, with nurture, it grows, a thing of beauty at many levels, all on a scale out of proportion to the original seed. The tree provides shade and shelter, flowers and fruit. It might provide wood for warmth or walls or works of art. It might contribute to a landscape or resist erosion. It might inspire poems or plays, paintings or photographs. It might spark a scientific discovery or host children at play.

How does the kingdom of heaven grow? – when the seeds of love inside of us are cracked open, when our hearts are wide open.  And what can grow from that is beyond measure.  This is God’s horticulture of the heart.

Here’s the thing about planting – it’s going to be messy.  You’re going to get dirty.  Are you willing to roll up your sleeves and dig in?  Can you muster this much? (mimic the size of a mustard seed) Can you remember one tiny thing that gives you hope?  Can you look at something seemingly insignificant and dare to see the kingdom of heaven within it?

Abundance for the smallest things, greatness hidden in our midst, miraculous transformation from a “trash tree” to a tree of life, from corrupt leaven to bread enough to feed all who are hungry – the kingdom of heaven is like that.

Friends – the kingdom of heaven is among us
it is in the planting of a seed,
in the grateful harvest
in the baking and sharing of bread.
The kingdom of heaven is within us and it’s ok to start small
a simple act of kindness toward another
a tiny seed of compassion toward yourself.
Tend those things, nurture them, bring them out into the light so that they may grow.
“Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” AMEN.

Sermon, July 23rd, 2017

“Good Weeds?” 
Rev. Neil Wilson

The Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ,
Bradford, Vermont
July 23, 2017

Matthew 13: 24-30, 36-43

Redroot_Pigweed3I was tempted to title this morning’s message “Some Good Weed” without the question mark, but didn’t want anyone to get the wrong impression!

One doesn’t have to listen to much evening news to realize that this world of ours can be a scary place, full of war, famine, natural disasters, corruption and violence, state sponsored and individual but most of all perhaps, too much indifference to all these! While there is much evil there is also great beauty and moments of tremendous grace.

We live in a world of paradox, where people who love their families but will not hesitate to kill the members of other families who they consider a threat.

Good people still struggle and die while evil ones thrive.

Infants and children die of hunger every day, while dictators and oppressors live full and healthy lives.

How did this happen? Didn’t our Maker sow good seeds? Didn’t the Creator deem everything “good” in the beginning? Where, then, did all this evil come from?

Like Esau, we might feel that a conniving brother has somehow cheated us out of our worldly blessings. We begin to wonder how so many weeds sprung up in this garden.

Even in our anxiety over the weeds in life, we get a little excited when we hear this parable. There are weeds in the garden? No problem! I’ve got my gloves and hoe right here, let’s take care of them before they get out of hand!

Behind our enthusiasm is a self-certainty that we can tell the difference between a weed and wheat, between good people and less desirable ones.

But Jesus puts a damper on our enthusiasm. He calls us to leave the weeds among the wheat – let the good and the evil grow together. We just might not be wise enough to know the difference between what is good and what is evil.

What we call weeds, God may see differently – only God can finally judge anyone, or anything, or any situation in our world. If we appoint ourselves as judges, the chances are we may destroy some of the good in this world.

I assume many of you are gardeners.

When it comes to gardening what is your definition of a weed?

Something that grows where you do not want it to?

Is it a weed because it is of little or no food value?

Is it something we deem to be ugly, useless, even harmful?

It is a weed because if left unchecked it will spread out of control?

It seems to me that a weed is something we’ve determined we do not want where it is growing.

Did you know that there are instances where corn is considered a weed? (Midwestern farmers see what it called “volunteer” corn in the fields of soybeans is eradicated by the debatable use of Roundup)

Pigweed also known as Lambs Quarter is a wonderful spinach-like addition to salads.

What is an unsightly invasion of yellow to the lawn fanatic is a field filled with beauty bouquets for Mom or Dad to a child.

Now to be sure there are invasive species that are very problematic. Milfoil in our lakes for example. And what about Asian Carp in the Illinois River which is connected to Lake Michigan through the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. A series of electric barriers are in place to prevent the carp from entering the Great Lakes.

Mint can take over your herb garden and then your lawn. An example of a good plant becoming a weed?

Yet God can transform the ugly in the world to things of beauty. Gang members that become mentors to youth, former drug abusers become counselors. I do not know about you, but I’m glad it’s God who does the final judging and not me.

But still, how quick I am to judge! Whenever someone flies past me on the highway, I say “Where are the troopers?” And let’s be honest, like me, you take a certain amount of pleasure when in a mile or two there they sit beside the road with a police officer busily writing out a ticket! We want to be there when justice in meted out. I want to drive by and just smile.

In fact, if it were up to me, doing such things in traffic would get them all thrown in the prison for a while. And then, just around the next corner… I find myself not living by my own rules! Thank God, it is not up to me!

We want to see people get their comeuppance, don’t we? We want the speeder nailed, the thief punished, the cheater caught, the murderer condemned. We want our thirst for vengeance satisfied. We’re so stuck on this idea in our culture that we produce and patronize movie after movie on just such a theme – the bad guy getting his/her due – usually violently.

You see there are not just weeds in the world, but weeds in our own hearts. The Apostle Paul told the Romans that it’s not just the whole creation that groans in pain, but we do as well. We groan inwardly while we wait for redemption, restoration not just for this world but for ourselves.

Vengeance is just one of those weeds; there are others: pride, envy, gluttony, dishonesty, indifference, cheating, lying, anger. They’re all there – within each of us – weeds among the wheat of our good works, our good thoughts, our love, our caring, our compassion, and our hope.

Bookstores have shelves of self-help books we buy (and sometimes read) to help us weed our inner gardens, but often the weeds seem to grow back after a while don’t they.

Here’s a thought, what if, every once in a while we stopped and gave thanks for some of these weeds instead of trying to rip all of them up by the roots?

Our anger at times can cause great pain but also great joy. Anger has harmed relationships, driven people we love away, held us hostage, and caused damage to people and things. But it is also in learning to deal with this weed of anger that we can grow to be stronger, healthier, and happier. We can learn the art of forgiveness, of compassion, and self-control. That good weed of anger has also gotten some of us involved in causes that seek to make the world a better place – that seek to make the good wheat stronger.

Think of your own weeds. Think of those things about yourself that you’re ashamed of, that you don’t want anyone to know about. Think about your weaknesses, your addictions, your guilty pleasures.

Most of the time it isn’t possible to just yank them out, is it. But they can challenge you to grow stronger, to make your wheat outgrow all the weeds in your inner garden.

In a former life and career as a logger, I did a fair amount of timber stand improvement work. The object of such work is to harvest the poor quality and less desirable trees (sometimes actually called “weed” trees) to release the higher quality/value crop trees allowing them to grow to a greater girth and height quicker.

But one had to be especially careful not to cut away all the lower quality “weed” trees for you could do more harm. The crop trees needed these “lesser” trees to protect them from strong winds and these so-called weed trees would compete with the crop trees for sunlight forcing them to grow taller, straighter and with fewer limbs thus fewer knots in the lumber.

In the end, the lesson from scripture and logging is nothing all that amazing or new:

Judge not lest you also be judged. Cast not the first stone. We cannot always see the end result, only God can. So, leave it to God to take care of most things.

Use the occasional weeds that pop up in our lives, those perceived as problems, wisely and you will find that God can redeem them – and out of them perhaps even create something beautiful in our lives. After all, this is what God does!

In the end, these are my thoughts on Jesus’ parable. I encourage you to consider them and ponder your own.

Amen.

 

Sermon, July 16, 2017

“The Parable of the Sower” 
Cass Poulos

The Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ,
Bradford, Vermont
July 16, 2017
Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

(Ms. Poulos preaches from notes rather than a written sermon … these are the notes from which she preached on July 16th.)

Corn field next to our house: Mother-in-law with dementia looks at the corn each morning and multiple times throughout the day: “look how much the corn has grown.” And “the corn really is growing. Isn’t that wonderful.” Many times, throughout the day we talk about the growing corn.

Parables: Sometimes they seem to be difficult to understand. Ever wonder why Jesus tells us parables?

  1. Story and Riddle must pay attention to it if we want to understand it.
  2. Stories To make a point, stories put a face and action to all the words it would take to explain the point.
  3. Stories use common experiences so they give us a picture and action that we can always come back to.
  4. Parable as a riddle, hides as much as it reveals about Godlike a kaleidoscope or hanging crystal, they give us many perspectives of the same image. The image and point become clearer, but never fully clear. We cannot have full understanding!
  5. Seeing from a different perspective is like seeing something for the first time. It is new and full of mystery. It engages us in a fresh way.

The Sower; the soil; and the harvest

The Sower

  1. Unlimited supply of seed
  1. farmer today tends to soil 1st nourish it and prepare way for seed
  2. Jesus’ time seed first and then turn soil
  1. Sower is extravagant tossing seed everywhere, even in places where they are not likely to sprout and grow
  2. Sower is wasteful, even foolish for wasting good seed could be used by someone else
  3. Might shake our head at the sower action does not make sense to us.
  4. The Soil:
  1. 4 types the path which isn’t really soil; rocky soil; soil infested with thorns and weeds; and good s
  2. Jesus says: The soil is the landing place for “the message about the Kingdom of God” …and the message is “sown…in [our] hearts” (Matt 13.19).
  3. Soil is a metaphor for heart

I

  1. Heart in BibleBrokenhearted; hard hearted; faint hearted; heart ache; heartless; kindhearted; stouthearted; wholehearted; heart’s desire; heart’s delight; heart’s prayer to God hearts that turn back to God; that are given to God; that are loyal to God; that are fully committed to God
  1. Today (Greek understanding):
  1. Mind and will are centered in our heads (“I think therefore I am” Rene Descartes)
  2. Mind, ability to think and reason is ultimate
  3. heart is the center of our “total personality…intuition, feeling, and emotion” (Dictionary.com).
  1. Jesus’ time: heart essence of who we are
  1. encompassed intuition, feeling, emotion as well as our mind and will.
  2. To have an open heart, all components would need to be centered and equally developedneed an open heart to be a disciple to love God with all our heart, mind, and strength and love our neighbor as self
  1. The Seed in Mathew
  1. Working in Substance Abuse Treatment and Planting the Seed
  2. Grace of God establishing the Kingdom of God
  3. Opposition to Kingdom of Godsame as a hard heart
  4. The Extravagant, Super-Abundance of God’s Grace Seeds flung everywhere is the arena for God’s love and redemptive activity
  5. The outcaste; the poor; widows and children; all who were unclean and unwanted; tax collectors; and prostitutes Sometimes the wealthy and powerful anyone who could listen and hear the message about the Kingdom of God not possible to be open always, but even a little is enough
  1. Seeds that come to fruition
  1. Folks who get clean and sober
  2. Rooted, sprouting and growing seeds call for a response from us otherwise the seed has not come to fruition
  3. Carry the message Be a disciple Open heart to someone not like you, someone you don’t like, an acquaintance
  4. This is what God’ Grace is doing for me
  1. The Abundance of the Harvest 7X good harvest10X True abundance30X feed a village for a year100X retire very wealthy
  1. My Mother-in-laws attention to the corn field Like God’s attention to us
  2. God has an Open Heart No matter what, God never stops trying to get our attention
  3. Never limits to God’s Grace