Category Archives: Past Sermons

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

Sermon July 9, 2017

“Take His Yoke Upon You” 
Cass Poulos

The Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ,
Bradford, Vermont
July 9, 2017
Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

(Ms. Poulos preaches from notes rather than a written sermon … these are the notes from which she preached July 9th. You’ll better understand why Jesus said to take on his yoke and to learn from him.)

Heavy bags are burdens. I considered doing this but NO! I decided this whole exercise places too much importance on our burdens, when we are often informed by images of underlying beliefs.

I. YOKES … the first time I saw an actual yoke was in New Hampshire at a Founder’s Day. I was watching an Ox Pull, where two yoked oxen had to move a heavy load. Each time more weight was added as the yoke began to push taut against their chests. These oxen took short steps together, straining against the weight and the whip. Eventually the weight was too much and they stopped. In order to get them unhitched from the weight they had to be backed up.

1) These oxen are special, willing to work together, to trust each other. They work towards a common goal, a common good.

2)There were yokes in Roman times, too. They were used on enslaved people to enforce subservience, those without a homeland or rights, at the mercy of someone else. There was shame associated with being yoked.

3)In the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible, the yoke is a sign of obedience and submission. It also represents wisdom and justice!

4)Chosen obedience/submission leads to wisdom and justice? A positive image!

II. IMAGES … images inform the way that we think and act, whether our behavior is shameful or honorable. Images can be helpful or debilitating, a burden that weighs us down until we can’t move forward.

A) Images of God: boss, fixer, power, active

B) Rugged individualism: grown, venerated, implying success. We think of leaders of industry. They don’t need anyone’s help! Unless in dire need, they have no yoking for themselves and sometimes not even then.

C) Acts of submission: asking for help, acknowledging we do not have all the answers! Church, education, government, military, Grange, clubs. Going to speak with a counselor, a minister, a friend or relative, asking for help in some way. Welfare. Work for the common good.

III. (there was a) YOUNG WOMAN … she believed that she was too bad for God. She thought God deserted her and wanted nothing to do with her. At best, God was missing and was the same as everyone else in her life.

A. STORY: Lowest point, in substance abuse treatment, she decided to be “profoundly honest” with someone else. Told counselor how bad she was. Beyond hope. Believed she was nothing more than a pile of manure. She spent her whole life building this self-image.

B. COUNSELOR SAID: Have you ever considered what that is? And, do you know what that looks like? He didn’t say anything else and didn’t wait for a reply. He left the room and she was alone with this image she created and nurtured her whole life.

C. SELF-IMAGE: she was the survivor of childhood sexual and physical abuse. Her image became a hard-outer shell that once offered her protection from pain. It developed into her prison, a burden that she neither saw or could break through. She realized she lived life on the outside, removed from love and warmth. She realized she was full of fear. She rejected herself, God, and everyone else.

D. THE COUNSELOR’S WORDS: they cracked the shell, her self-image and allowed light to creep in.

IV. HOW WE RELATE TO GOD INFORMS HOW WE LIVE! All of us have some image of God. They usually reflect who we are, do not challenge us to grow, to be more than we are because the God we serve is really a reflection of who we are. Jesus said God sent two to us and both were rejected.

A. JOHN THE BAPTIST: fierce, scruffy guy out in the desert eating locust and honey and proclaims judgment. He cries out for Baptism by water, for us to decide, place God first, and follow. He forecasts the One to come who will Baptize with fire. Most of us would dismiss him as a nut.

B. JESUS: eats, drinks, parties, and even turns water into wine, so abundantly it is too much for the wedding party. He hangs out with outcasts and challenges the religious and political status quo. He preaches about God who forgives and desires humanity to know and follow God, to serve God, to even love God with all our heart, mind and soul, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.

V. OUR IMAGES, especially the hardened, impermeable ones are NOT of God.

Jesus said: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden light.” (Matt. 11:28-30)

VI. YOKES. Woman in story: her hard-outer crust began to crack because she asked for help. Another person saw what she could not and asked a question which led to her recognition that she was much more than a pile of manure.

A. None of us grow alone. Can read all the self-help books, Bible verses, etc. Without the aid of others our burdens do not shift!

B. We must be willing to be yoked to Jesus/God/other people

C. 12-Step Programs: to keep it must give it away! Cannot hoard. Jesus sends the disciples out in twos. They are yoked together and yoked to Jesus. Chosen obedience/submission leads to wisdom and creates justice. They can only share what they have, experience with the Grace of God. We are called to be disciples. Challenge unhelpful, negative images which burden others, create a just world.

We can do this because we submit to Jesus’ yoke.

We are never alone.

Sermon, July 2, 2017

“I Am with You Always, to the End of Time” 
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder

The Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ,
Bradford, Vermont
July 2, 2017
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, Transition Sunday
Psalm 121; John 14-17

Dr. Ira Byock directed palliative care at Dartmouth Hitchcock.  His books tell us to be sure to say four things when we come to a final goodbye: please forgive me; I forgive you; thank you and I love you.

The end of every stage of life marks the transition to the next.  To be present in such a moment is to have one foot in the past and one already stepping toward something new.  It is important to make a careful ending so that we do not stumble as we make our first step toward the new life.

So it is important today that I ask your forgiveness, and that I assure you that I forgive you, and that we thank one another, and that we express our love for one another.

This is a sanctuary, meaning a safe place to feel and live our truth and know we will be accepted and affirmed as we are.  You may be in one of the stages of grief, or you may feel excited for the next stage of the journey, or you may feel all mixed up.  It is fine.  We love you.  Let your feelings be what they are.  They have something important to tell you, and then they will pass and you will feel something else.

I could not possibly speak to where every person is today, but I will speak to a place where we all go sometimes, the place of needing comfort for loss and grief. The church and Jesus Christ can help us there.
Continue reading Sermon, July 2, 2017

Sermon, June 25, 2017

Hagar’s Story
Rev. Pam Lucas

The Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ,
Bradford, Vermont
June 25, 2017
Third Sunday after Pentecost
Psalm 86; Genesis 21: 18-21

pam
Vermont Conference Associate Minister, Rev. Pam Lucas

‘In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a mighty wind swept over the face of the waters.’ And out of that chaos God brought order and purpose and life…men and women created in the image of God.

And then out of all the men and women in the world God called to Abraham and Sarah, ‘Go from this your country to a land I will show you. I will make of you a great nation. I will bless you so that you will be a blessing – and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’

The story of God’s people in scripture is the same story we hear each day in the daily news. The Holy Land of Scripture is the Holy Land of today. Three monotheistic faiths share the creedal belief that there is but One God. All three trace their family tree back to Abraham – that patriarch of our faith.

And we – who share a God who created us all in God’s image and gave us a common ancestor have managed to dismantle order and create chaos – in our Holy Land of origin.

For Jews and Christians, that tree is traced from Abraham’s son Isaac – born to Sarah and Abraham in their ‘very’ old age! The pages of the Old Testament – variously also called the Hebrew Scriptures – or the First Testament tell the rest of the sacred story of our Jewish brothers and sisters. And the pages of the New Testament – or Second Testament continues to trace the sacred story through the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ who binds the Christian community into the church born on Pentecost.

Yet, the third monotheistic faith is Islam – who trace their family tree through Abraham’s son Ishmael, birthed by Hagar – Sarah’s slave-woman. The rest of their story unfolds in their sacred scripture – the Koran.

But we have a hint of that other family story that grows into its own branch of the family tree. Right at the beginning of our common story, we learn that God is present with the outsider and the oppressed.

Hear Hagar’s Story in Genesis chapter 21:18-21.

Hagar sat on a small rock in the blazing son, rocking back and forth, back and forth, her arms wrapped tightly around her, trying not to hear the cries of her son – her dying son.

A sob escaped her lips – a scream of terror and anger – directed at anything – everything – directed at God – even though Hager knew that God was nowhere near.

The cries of her son stopped. He would die soon – then she would die – and then it would all be over. But then – from somewhere deep inside – came a cry of defiance – yes directed at God. What had God ever done for her – except give her a bit of hope – and now had thrown her out into the desert with her son to die.

They say that just before you die your whole life plays out before you –

She saw herself as a child in Egypt – taken from a home she barely remembered – sold as a slave to Sarah – waiting on her for years and years. Old Sarah – barren Sarah – Sarah who could have no children argued and begged God to give her a son.

And then fourteen years ago – Sarah had grabbed her arms and pushed her into Sarah’s tent and told her husband Abraham – ‘Here – make this slave-girl pregnant. If I can’t give her a son, she can. But it will be MY child. Do you hear that, slave?’

Hagar remembered nodding silently – she had no choice. She was a slave who did what she was told.

Hagar did get pregnant. She loved that child growing inside of her. But as Sarah kept reminding her –‘It’s NOT your child.’

Hagar should have known better. She should have known that slaves do not taunt their owners. But this was so unfair. She blurted out – ‘You’re right. He’s your child, o barren woman!’

Of course, Sarah lashed back in anger. She beat her. And Hagar had fled into the desert. It didn’t seem so bad that time. She felt God’s touch on her swollen belly. She seemed to hear God speak. ‘Give Sarah time to cool down, and then go back. You will bear your child. Give him the name of Ishmael – which means, ‘God hears’. God will hear you. Your son shall grow up strong, and you shall hold his children on your knee.’

Hagar did return. She did her best to follow orders and stay out of Sarah’s way – and to keep Ishmael out of her way as well.

But then came the day there were rumors – rumors of angels – rumors of Sarah and Abraham laughing out loud at the angelic good news that Sarah would have a son.

Hagar looked at her son – now in his early teens – she thought – ‘Good news! Not for me. Not for Ishmael. Hagar did not laugh when Sarah birthed a son named Isaac – which means ‘laughter’.

Little Isaac toddled from tent to tent. Ishmael saw the child fall and hurt his knee a bit. Ishmael picked him up to comfort him. When Sarah suddenly appeared and saw Ishmael with her son, her beloved Isaac, she screamed and told Hagar to ‘Get out – go away – I don’t ever want to see you again. Get out!’

Abraham had tried his best – ‘Sarah, you’re the one who brought Hagar to me. It was you who said that we should have a child through her. And now you want to throw them out – it’s not right.’

Sarah didn’t back down – ‘that boy is old enough to take your place – if you die, he will inherit everything and the child God sent to us will be left with nothing. Get rid of her and her son. Right now!

Abraham even talked with God about it. ‘They’ll die if I send them out into the desert. What can I do?’

God said, ‘Do as Sarah tells you. I will work it out. I will make of nation of multitudes for him as well – for he is your offspring.’

And now Hagar screamed at God. ‘So much for your promises, God. My son is quiet now – maybe he’s already dead. I put him over there because I can’t stand to watch him die. The child who was supposed to be Abraham’s son. He sent us out here with one skin of water and a little bread – for two of us – in a place where there is no water or food – or villages or people. What did he expect – except that we would die.’ Her sobs took over the words – her tears were blinding.

Something inside of her nudged her to go over to her son – to wrap her arms around him one more time. She got up and stumbled over rocks and brush and held his body – and she heard the promise – God had heard the cries of her son – and God had heard her cries of trouble and hopelessness – her anger and despair – God said – remember – I am going to make a great nation of him. He will have a wife –

And then through her tears – she saw –

Hagar
“Beer-lahai-roi” (“Well of the Living One Who Sees Me”), Hagar after the angel of the Lord found her by a spring of water in the wilderness. By Marcia Tomlinson

She saw a well? Was she so far gone that she was seeing things? Why hadn’t she seen it earlier? Had God just given her a miracle?

She laid her son’s body down and hurried to fill her water skin. She poured it out on the thin cracked lips of Ishmael. At first he didn’t respond – but then he moved. He drank and drank –

She whispered to him – ‘You will live, Ishmael’ – and Hagar knew that she and her son were loved of God – and children of God’s promise – just as much as Abraham, Sarah and Isaac.

“I Love My God, Who Heard My Cry” … I love my God, who heard my cry and pitied every groan. Long as I live and troubles rise, I’ll hasten to God’s throne …

The Genesis story tells us that when Abraham died, his sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave at Machpelah – where Sarah had been buried earlier. Ishmael settled from Havilah to Shur – which is opposite Egypt in the direction of Assyria. Ishmael had twelve sons – twelve princes according to their tribes.

This story confronts us with the flaws in our spiritual fathers and mothers in the faith. This story holds the seeds of so much of the violence that has been part of world history and Christian Church history and is still playing out in real time.

This God we call the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – and Jacob’s twelve sons who would form the twelve tribes of Israel – who would journey to Egypt – where the day would come when God would hear their cries in the midst of slavery and oppression and abuse – who would be led forth from Egypt to the Promised Land – to become the people of God who would be blessed to be a blessing to all the families – this God would call these people to remember – to remember that they had been slaves – they had been oppressed – they had been strangers and aliens and outsiders – they had been hungry and thirsty – and IF they remembered well – they were to welcome the stranger – and care for the widow and orphan – perhaps they were being called to do the opposite of what Abraham and Sarah had done to Hagar and Ishmael. Maybe they were begin called to act as God had acted – to make hope and a way for the outsider – to provide for the needs of the stranger and alien –

Perhaps that is what we do each time we make room in our lives and churches for the hopeless – every time we furnish food for the hungry – every time we work to make our churches, our communities safe for our children – each time we work to stop the cycle of domestic violence and make safe houses for women and children – every time we work to make shelter for those who have none – we learn from Sarah and Abraham that there is a better way.

U2’s lead singer Bono addressed the National Prayer Breakfast in 2006 and said ‘God is in the slums, in the cardboard boxes where the poor play house. God is in the silence of a mother who has infected her child with a virus that will end both their lives. God is in the cries heard under the rubble of war. God is in the debris of wasted opportunity and lives. And God is with us – if we are with them.’

Continue reading Sermon, June 25, 2017

Sermon, June 11, 2017

How Lovely Is Your Dwelling Place
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder

The Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ,
Bradford, Vermont
June 11, 2017
First Sunday after Pentecost, Trinity Sunday
Psalm 84; Philippians 2:1-11; Luke 10:25-37

How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts!
My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord;
my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God.
Even the sparrow finds a home,
and the swallow a nest for herself,
where she may lay her young, at your altars.
Happy are those who live in your house,
ever singing your praise.
Happy are those whose strength is in you,
in whose heart are the highways to Zion.
As they go through the valley of desolation
they make it a place of springs;
the early rain also covers it with pools.
They go from strength to strength.
For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere.
I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God
than live in the tents of wickedness.
Happy is everyone who trusts in you, O Lord hosts!
            compiled from Psalm 84

Psalm 84 can evoke a strong emotional reaction if we open our heart to it.  We long to feel as much at home as the writer did in that lovely dwelling place of God.  If we have ever felt unconditional welcome, refuge and love we remember how our heart sang for joy to be there—maybe our childhood home, or a grandparent’s, or a friend’s, or the home we made with our spouse.  Happy are those who experience such a dwelling place.

We long for churches to be lovely like that, but today many congregations struggle with conflict as they face the effects of a rapidly changing social context, including diminishing attendance and respect.  Outside the church society is increasingly divided by politics and race and a widening gap between rich and poor.  Earth itself feels like a less welcoming home as we come back from walks through Vermont’s beautiful woods and fields covered in ticks, and the weather grows stranger and more extreme.

All this increases our longing for God’s lovely dwelling place, and decreases our hope that we will find it.

But the Psalm was written by a people who had suffered exile for generations and learned how to find hope where there appeared to be no hope.  The Psalm speaks to those of us who are far from having a lovely dwelling place, who are strangers in a strange land, who feel the world is nothing like God’s realm and is hostile to it.  The Psalm holds out comfort and hope to the hopeless when it says, “Happy are those whose strength is in God, in whose heart are the highways to Zion.”
Continue reading Sermon, June 11, 2017

Sermon, June 4, 2017

Renewing the Face of the Ground
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder

The Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ,
Bradford, Vermont
June 4, 2017   Day of Pentecost
Psalm 104; Genesis 1:1-5, 2:7; Acts 2:1-17

The 104th Psalm says to God,

The earth is full of your creatures.
They all look to you to give them their food
in due season….
When you hide your face, they are dismayed;
when you take away their breath,
they die and return to their dust.
When you send forth your spirit,
they are created;
and you renew the face of the ground.

Sometimes I walk on a woods road that goes past ten acres of steep land that was clear-cut.  The skidders scarred the bare earth which eroded into gullies.  Gradually green has returned in the form of dense blackberries and a few pioneer trees.  They are stopping the erosion and beginning to rebuild the soil.

Whoever or whatever we envision God to be, surely this is the Holy Spirit at work renewing the face of the ground.  Jesus calls us to be instruments of this Holy Spirit and let its force of love and life and light work through us.

Continue reading Sermon, June 4, 2017

Sermon, May 14, 2017, Help Kids India

Help Kids India and Extravagant Hospitality
Catherine Kidder and the Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder

The Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ,
Bradford, Vermont
May 14, 2017
Fifth Sunday of Easter, Help Kids India Sunday
Psalm 31; John 14:1-14

help kids india IMG_5070

help kids india IMG_4773

Top: Hilda Isaac, Executive Director, and Angel, a crèche child.  Below: Beulah, Jasminepriya, and Benjamin.

Part I, by Catherine Kidder, Vice President, Help Kids India, Inc.

We know what the crèches do for the children but there are mother stories, too.  I’d like to tell you two of them in honor of Mother’s Day.  One story belongs to Hilda Isaac, the woman whose vision, dedication and boundless love drives the whole crèche project.  The other is about a crèche cook, Beulah, who credits Hilda and her job at the crèche with transforming her life.

Hilda is the executive director of the Betsy Elizabeth Trust, which Help Kids India and your church support.  She manages five crèches, two sewing centers for poor women, and a community health center.  She oversees thirty staff members, two rickety jeeps, seven properties, and the education, health, and care of 270 children.

Hilda grew up poor in a small coastal village, Porayar, where two of the crèches are now located.   Her parents were Dalit, or untouchables, but could read and write. Continue reading Sermon, May 14, 2017, Help Kids India

Sermon, April 30, 2017

United and Uniting
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder
The Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ,
Bradford, Vermont
April 30, 2017 Third Sunday of Easter,
Celebrating the United Church of Christ
Psalm 133; Galatians 3:23-29; Luke 24:13-35

We need to begin with a little review.
In last week’s gospel Jesus came through a locked door
into the room where the disciples were hiding in fear,
and it changed the world almost as dramatically
as the day billions of years before
when the first life form appeared on Earth.
And in a real sense, it was the same event,
it was the same force, the same intention,
the same new thing coming into being
as in bluebirds and daffodils and green blades rising,
the same thing coming into being over and over,
in an infinite variety of forms:
the force of light and life and love
that takes the raw materials of basic elements
and combines them into living things
which then find within themselves
the desire to live and make more life
and adapt and create around them a habitat
conducive to more and better life.

Jesus came to the disciples through that locked door
and helped them overcome
their fear and confusion.
Then he sent them out as instruments
of light and life and love
to serve and create the realm of God on Earth.

Today we are hearing about one of the essential qualities
by which we know God’s realm when we see it.
The Psalm says, “How very good and pleasant it is
when kindred live together in unity!”
And Paul says in Galatians, “As many of you
as were baptized into Christ
have clothed yourselves with Christ.
There is no longer Jew or Greek,
there is no longer slave or free,
there is no longer male and female;
for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

Jesus in his life broke down walls that shut anyone out.
He had women and children in his movement,
he had Jews and Greeks, he had sinners
and tax collectors, he welcomed all those
his society excluded or oppressed just because
they were different or poor or considered impure.
The movement he led was a united and uniting force.

Jesus showed that the realm of God
was a place where all would be one.
To be in Christ and have Christ in us
is to be one with God and one with all God’s creation,
because God is the same force of light, life and love
flowing through us as through all the universe.
Continue reading Sermon, April 30, 2017