Monday, April 16, 2018

270 years: legacy and future promise

            Some time in the spring of 1748 St. Paul’s United Church of Christ assumed its identity as a church in what would become the town of Woodstock.
At its very beginning the name would be St. Paul’s Reformed Church and the town was then known as Muellerstadt, Virginia.  As we prepare to gather for our 270thAnniversary Celebration on Sunday, April 22, 2018, I think it is worthwhile to think about the place of churches in communities.

            Of course an initial reaction would be that the purpose of the church is to convert sinners to the saving power of Jesus Christ, end of story.  But it is not the end of the story is it?  Because if that were our sole purpose we could pitch tents and deliver our message.  Yet from the smallest community in the countryside to our largest cities the physical existence of church buildings is an iconic reminder of our need for faith, for community, for focus, for action.  Long after the pews are no longer filled each Sunday, those structures tell a story and await new people to come and experience the power of faith in community.  Here are some of my observations around local churches as St. Paul’s UCC gets ready to begin its 271styear of witness and ministry.  And because of the anniversary I will construct my observations around the life of one church knowing that the values and images can also fit other churches.

            1.  Life in 1748 in Muelllerstadt, Virginia, on the banks of the Shenandoah River and between the mountain ranges of the Blue Ridge, Massanutten and the North Ridge of the Alleghenies was life on the frontier. The German settlers than made their way to this remote location were for the most part farmers and many immigrants (or close to it) from the war-torn Palatinate Region of Germany.  As the saying goes, they immigrated with their Bibles and their Heidelberg Catechism.   Their strong faith was what sustained them in Europe and it would be what would sustain them on the frontier.  Their faith was so central to their lives that it could not be contained within the walls of their homes.  They talked with one another as people who were solving the problems of settling the wilderness and that language was within the structure of the faith that defined them.  The life of a local church is a place for faith language and faith inspired decision making.  

            2.  Community is a central identifying characteristic of a local church.  Sometimes it is defined as a “church family”.  Although I get the meaning behind that language, it feels a little narrow for my tastes.  Yes, families have all kinds of folks living in relationship.  Some of whom folks may feel they could do just as well without. Others are beloved matriarchs or patriarchs.  A community is more than those who have been born into a relationship or married into it. It involves learning to live together when no relationship requires agreement.  It is finding the “common” that holds us when the particulars differ. It is a pot luck supper not a specially crafted meal.  The local church is where the Table is always big enough to include those who choose come.

            3.  A local church is not stagnant.  Those of us who are identified with the United Church of Christ understand that when we take the Bible seriously not literally we are confronted daily with God revealing God’s Self through these sacred words.  Whereas once upon a time St. Paul’s would view slavery through the lens of an acceptable behavior as evidenced in the language of the Bible,  that is no longer the case.  Thanks be to God!  Then it was a justification for excommunication (the case of Judge Rye). Now racism is topic for deep soul searching and sacred conversation.  Once upon a time women were not allowed to be leaders in the church. Now we cannot do without them!  A local church can be that safe place to grapple with the issues of life and become open to new ways of living in relationship.

            4.  Those buildings in towns and cities that have the steeples, or the bell towers, or the open and welcoming modern spaces are symbols of hope for both those who live in a community but also those who are only passing by.  Those buildings carry a bigger story – one of remembered stories, one of vows exchanged, one of “if only”, one of God’s love made available to all.  As such they contribute to the life of a community, just as do the symbols of justice in the Courthouse, or the symbols of education in the schools.  These three words: faith, justice, education define communities as places where people want to live.   Built on the firm foundation of Jesus, we are also part of the firm foundation of Woodstock and Shenandoah County.

            As St. Paul’s United Church of Christ celebrates 270 years of witness and ministry, may it move forward into its future
·     being a place where faith and our lives intersect
·     being a welcoming and inclusive and diverse community
·     being a safe place for difficult conversations and decisive witness 
·     being a continued foundational pillar for Woodstock and Shenandoah County

Grace and Peace

Rev. Clara

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Easter:  It’s about love

            Christ is risen!  Christ is risen indeed!

            The sounds of Easter proclaim new birth and new beginnings.  Indeed for those areas of our country that experience the four seasons, Easter comes at the same time as new blooms and new leaves.  The starkness of winter makes way for the painter’s palate of yellows and pinks and greens. 

            This year Easter is coming at a time when our new grandson has been birthed into our lives.  Once again I have experienced the incredible joy known when my own son and daughter were born and when my other two grandchildren were born.  That feeling can only be expressed as “love beyond words”. 

            That’s the message of Easter:  “love beyond words”.  God so loves us that all of creation is opened up for us and we see a glimpse of the sacred amid the mundane world we usually notice.  Note I added “usually notice”.  For our God is ever and always showing us new hope and Easter promise every day.  We just don’t usually take the time to notice.  Easter directs our vision and opens our eyes.
Easter invites us to experience “love beyond words”.

             There is a challenge in Easter also.  While those of us who experienced God’s love touching our lives know the power of such joy, many have not experienced real love from anyone lately (perhaps ever).  There are far too many people who have given up on love or joy or hope.  Many give a skeptical look to the way we in the church dish out our  formulas for finding love.  That’s because we have a tendency to say the words but not do the words.  Our God already loves each person who feels unloved.  Our God already loves them beyond words.  But do we?  Will we?

            Carrying the message of unconditional love in our hearts but not doing the work of unconditional love to one another is putting the Christ back in the tomb to be released one day a year for a celebration. 

            We see in the events of our times that people who have felt bullied, unloved, misunderstood, underappreciated have found ways to act out their hurt and anger in frightful ways.  We have ability to make a difference.  Perhaps it is a neighbor youth, a co-worker, an acquaintance at the gym class, the day laborers, the neighbors fearing their families will be broken by ICE deportations, the homeless men and women on the street corners, the women seeking safety in domestic abuse shelters, the differently-abled facing discrimination – all these people and so many more need us to get to know them and know their circumstances.  They need to know that they can be loved beyond words by somebody. 

            Easter morning – and every day – we proclaim the Good News that      GOD LOVES US BEYOND WORDS.  Hopefully we do it through our actions as well as through our words.  The world is aching to experience love beyond words.

            Christ is Risen!  Christ is risen indeed!

Grace and peace,

Rev. Clara

Monday, March 26, 2018

Lent 6 – at the cross

            We entered the wilderness on Ash Wednesday, as did Jesus after his baptism.  It was to be for us, as it was for him, a time to give serious consideration to our faith life.  We framed our journey within the tradition of the classic seven deadly sins:  sloth, envy, lust, greed, gluttony, wrath, pride.  We became aware during our journey that these categories fit more than individual behavior.  They have serious repercussions on our life together.  They form, in essence, the evil Jesus spent his earthly life lifting from those whom he encountered in his day-to-day life.  They name the kinds of things we have been called to work against if we are to be faithful disciples.

            Now, after six weeks, we stand at the end of Lent but at the foot of the cross.  The last category looms in front of us – pride.  Can we say no to pride and yes to Jesus?  That is the ultimate question of Holy Week. 

            In Matthew 26 we read:  When it was evening, he took his place with the twelve; and while they were eating, he said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.”  And they became greatly distressed and began to say to him one after another, “Surely not I, Lord?”

            We stand at foot of the cross.  Will we let Pride keep us from being Christ’s hands and feet in the world?  Will we turn our back from the cross so we can avoid admitting that by our actions or our inactions we have been complicit in the ways that sloth, envy, lust, greed, gluttony, and wrath have done their damage to the lives of God’s Beloveds?  Will we walk away from the cross hand in hand with Pride, justifying our position by our own egos?

            Or will we fall on our knees and surrender our pride to loving arms of our savior.  The answer to pride is in the words of the hymn written by Judson W. VanDeVenter, “I Surrender All.”  May it be our prayer this Lent.

All to Jesus I surrender, all to him I freely give;
I will ever love and trust him, in his presence daily live.
I surrender all.  I surrender all,
all to thee, my blessed Savior, I surrender all.

All to Jesus I surrender, humbly at his feet I bow,
worldly pleasures all forsaken: take me, Jesus, take me now.
I surrender all.  I surrender all,
all to thee, my blessed Savior, I surrender all.

All to Jesus I surrender, make me, Savior, wholly thine:
may thy Holy Spirit fill me, may I know thy power divine.
I surrender all. I surrender all,
all to thee, my blessed Savior, I surrender all.

All to Jesus I surrender, Lord, I give myself to thee;
fill me with thy love and power, let thy blessing fall on me.
I surrender all.  I surrender all,
all to thee, my blessed Savior, I surrender all.

Grace and peace,

Rev. Clara

Monday, March 19, 2018

Lent 5 – Anger unleashed

            Our Lenten journey has taken us into the wilderness where we have confronted our own inner demons and we have thought about how those classic seven deadly sins impact our corporate lives.  This fifth week of Lent finds us dealing with wrath – anger unleashed.

            Five weeks into Lent we find ourselves within sight of the cross.  It stands before us in its stark reality ready to receive the One who has taught us – has led us – has shown us God’s Love at work in the world.  The cross stands before us reminding us that we, in our actions, in our attitudes, have erected that cross just as surely as did the Roman Empire two thousand years ago.  As we approach the cross we become aware that hate and anger tried to suppress Love.

            We are seeing anger unleashed in the ways we relate to one another in our country.  Wrath is fueling the “us”/”them” mentality.  It starts out small with seemingly petty disagreements or resentments.  It feeds itself with narratives.  Some of those narratives are the way we choose to read history.  Some are based on the ways we read the Bible.  And yes in today’s world the buzz words – are “Alternative Facts” and “Fake news”.  Ultimately rage or wrath has the power to kill.  We have seen it in the Holocaust.  We see it in extermination and genocide programs around the world.  We see it as laws and civil liberties are ripped away because judgment has deemed some persons are unworthy of existing in the same world as we live.

                       
            Our Lenten journey into the wilderness compels us to combat the winds of hate and wrath.  We don’t want to admit that we are capable of hate, yet we know that we are.  The words racism, misogyny, homophobia, classism make us very defensive and very uncomfortable.  We try to gloss things over and talk about how we are really good people and think the best of people.  We only dislike those who do something wrong.  Yet we feed our negative attitudes and hate grows.  We justify our positions and rage results.  We act out our thoughts and we see wrath knocking everything down in its path.

            When we confront our God in the wilderness we will be asked about our attitudes. We will have a choice.  Will we fuel our strongly held angers?  Will we choose to add more nails to the cross of Christ?
Can we, will we, fall on our knees before the God of Love and be transformed into a new creation? 

Grace and Peace

Rev. Clara

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Lent 4 – Food Abuse

            Any prolonged walk in the wilderness is going to burn calories and cause the trekker to reach into their backpack for the Power Bar or some other source of nutrition and energy.  An experienced wilderness walker would also recognize what fruit and berry found along the way is safe for consumption.  It is only when the provisions run out that we become aware of the luxury of food. 

            Our Lenten journey has taken us into the wilderness and our provisions are getting dangerously low.  Before we entered this path we were comfortable enough with the availability of food that some of us decided to “sacrifice” eating something – chocolate is a favorite.  Traditionally, in the church, the consumption of meat is the Lenten discipline. 

            During this year’s Lenten journey in the wilderness we have been encountering those attitudes and conditions that traditionally have been classified as “seven deadly sins”.  Those are, in the language of the tradition, sins that carry the most weight, are the most serious, and have the most ramifications.  We have discovered during our journey that these are not only acts (sins) of individuals, but they are also indicative the ways evil manifests itself within our society as a whole.  We have become aware that the message of Jesus (those exorcism experiences we find in the Gospel) is that he confronted the powers of evil and lifted that power off of the men and women he met.  We also read in the Gospel that part of our call to discipleship is to continue that work.

            This week the deadly sin is named Gluttony.  Many people convict themselves of some form of this every January 1st when the gym memberships expand and the new diets begin.  There is no doubt a feeling that yes gluttony has serious repercussions, sometimes even deadly, because of the effect of weight on certain health situations.
So every year we join in the battle of bulge, hoping not to be judged too harshly by our doctor.  I daresay few people consider our attitude to consumption and food security has spiritual dimensions.

            According to feedamerica.org in a report dated September 17 these are statistics on hunger in the United States:
1.    FOOD INSECURITY IN THE U.S.
·       As of 2016, 41.2 million Americans live in food-insecure households, including 28.3 million adults and 12.9 million children.
·       The majority of people who are food insecure do not live in poverty, and the majority of people who live in poverty are not food insecure. An estimated 58% of food-insecure individuals reside in households that earn more than 100% of the poverty line, and 61% of people living in poor households are in fact food secure.13
·       An estimated 27% of individuals who are considered food insecure live in households that earn incomes above 185% of the poverty line, making them likely ineligible for most federal nutrition assistance programs.
·       12 percent of households (15.6 million households) are estimated to be food insecure.
·       5 percent of households (6.1 million households) experience very low food security.
·       Households with children report food insecurity at a significantly higher rate than those without children, 17% compared to 11%.
·       Households that have higher rates of food insecurity than the national average include households with children (17%), especially households with children headed by single women (32%) or single men (22%), Black non-Hispanic households (23%) and Hispanic households (19%).
·       As of 2015, 5.4 million seniors (over age 60), or 8% of all seniors, are estimated to be food insecure.6
·       Food insecurity exists in every county in America, ranging from a low of 3% in Grant County, KS to a high of 38% in Jefferson County, MS.7

            Statistics about world hunger suggest 1 in 7 people globally are hungry and about 1/3 of the food available globally goes to waste.

            This is staggering.  The reality of these figures is right in our own communities.  The implications of these statistics are huge. 

            Hunger literally eats away at people – their bodies and their minds and their souls.  No one can do their best work (or be their best in school) when hunger gnaws away their energy.  Hunger makes a difference when it comes to decision-making and learning.  Hunger encourages quick resolution, including cheap alcohol to numb the pain.  Hunger takes away a person’s self-confidence.  Hungry, humiliated, discouraged, the oppression of hunger enhanced by the over-consumption of others destroys lives.

            The definition of gluttony in Wikipdia is consistent with tradition.  Gluttony (L. gula, derived from the Latin gluttire meaning to gulp down or swallow) means over-indulgence and over-consumption of food, drink, or wealth items.  In Christianity, it is considered a sin if the excessive desire for food causes it to be withheld from the needy.

            As we have been discovering each of these individual sins can be magnified to a much larger and dangerous societal evil.  Whereas we can each “go on a diet” and give a box or two to a food pantry and feel absolved from our behavior, if we don’t address the societal inclination we are complicit in the pain and suffering incurred. 

            We have voices though those we choose to elect to legislative positions.  That makes policies that seek to reduce or eliminate WIC or SNAP programs important decisions when we seek ways to lift the oppression away from people.  These are not budget reconciling programs.  There are implications in the quality of food available to people when policies around insecticides and GMOs are being debated.  The arbitrary designation of where the poverty line is drawn also has real life implications.  Policies around health care and education and taxes, and yes, even student debt, have food security implications because sometimes people have to make choices whether they pay the bills or eat. 

            As long as we operate only out of our own food luxury and give little or no consideration of those who are not so fortunate, we perpetuate the oppression.  Is there any reason that anyone should be hungry in the United States should go to bed hungry when there is so obviously an abundance of food?  We say in our faith that God as Creator gifted our planet with all it needs to sustain life.  Yet 1 in 7 people globally know hunger as their reality.  This Lenten journey, may we examine our attitude to food and may we recommit ourselves to finding just ways to share our abundance.

Grace and Peace
Rev. Clara