All are Welcome

Our welcome isn’t just bricks and glass on Sunday.

As a community that cares for each other all the time, not just now and again in a separate space, we invite you to our weekly sermon and prayer so we might share a moment here and now…


19 Church Street, Verona, NJ

973-239-3212 / webmaster@firstcongverona.org

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Services cancelled for March 15.

Friends,

We regret to inform you that due to the current issues with COVID-19, services will be cancelled for March 15.

 

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Sermon, December 22: Mary’s Song

Luke 1: 26-55, selections:

In the sixth month [of Elizabeth’s pregnancy], God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David.” …    “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.” Then the angel left her….[and Mary went to visit her cousin Elizabeth who was pregnant with John the Baptist.] Mary said “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for God has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me. Holy is God’s name. His mercy extends to those who fear him from generation to generation. He has performed mighty deeds with his arm. He has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things, but has sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel…”

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Sermon, December 15: The Carpenter’s Choice

The gospel of Matthew is very insistent about this: Joseph named Jesus. When today’s theologians consider this, they start, of course, by knowing the Easter story. And so, they think back from the resurrection and try to explain how life before it must have been. The gospels tell the story of Jesus the Christ – not the simple story of any carpenter’s son.

In doing so, they weave the way life was in the first century with biblical prophecies. But just as close to home was another tradition of the first century –  a birth tradition that was followed by emperors and centurions and other important people. When a baby was born to a ruling family, the midwife would place the infant on the ground for the head of the household to raise up and name. Only then would the child be allowed to live. You could say that naming was what gave the child the right to life.      So when Matthew points out that Joseph named the child, he’s making an important claim that we could miss because it’s a custom we’ve mercifully forgotten. Tradition says Joseph was a carpenter, a man who spent his life making things fit together – tables and chairs and boats and even houses. He probably wasn’t much different from us – ordinary people who do our best, most of the time. And who feel, most of the time, that God’s great plans are carried out by powerful or important people – by someone else, that is.

The story suggests that Joseph was a righteous and a kind man. His first reaction to Mary’s unlikely story must have felt like fierce betrayal. Not even he could make this fit together so that it made human sense. And that left Joseph with a terrible choice.

The law regarding his marriage is precise. The book of Deuteronomy says very clearly that if a man lies with another man’s wife, “you shall stone them both to death and purge the evil from Israel.”

If he set aside the law and didn’t have Mary killed, Joseph’s other legal option was to give up trying to make sense of it and to divorce her quietly. Joseph chose kindness and, hoping perhaps for a little escape, he chose sleep. But he dreamed instead, dreamed of an angel with a message of mystery past human understanding. “Here,” whispered the angel, “here’s the key to the crisis. Believe her – never mind the story is humanly unbelievable. Marry her.

Why? Ah – that’s the real question. How about because the boy will need a father? This boy will need, not just any father, but a father to teach him what to do in times like this, when hope seems lost and pain is all that’s left. If you do not walk the road to Bethlehem, who will teach him to climb the hill to Calvary?[i]

It was a message that surely couldn’t be fit together with life as Joseph had known it. Or, maybe it could be that the point of the message was that the point of the miracle was not about the mother – it was about the baby.

Having this baby, of course, was an act of extraordinary faith and extraordinary importance. After all, this was Jesus, who would grow up to speak of God’s presence in everyday life, often doing so by drawing stories from the time he’d spent with Joseph.

Aren’t these words learned from a man who knew about making things fit together: “Everyone who hears these words of mine and does them will be like the wise man who built his house upon the rock, and the rain fell, and the floods came and the winds blew and beat upon that house, but it did not fall because it had been founded upon the rock.” That is the wisdom of a builder.

And remember how Jesus spoke of God’s love, saying:

“What man of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake?  If you…know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him?” That is the wisdom of a beloved son.

So Joseph did what he had always done to piece things together, that carpenter who faced that terrible choice years ago. If he had done what common sense suggested and the law required, Mary’s child would have died within her. And God’s great plan for salvation, would have died along with them. But instead, Joseph trusted and he named the infant Jesus, because, as the angel said, “he will save his people from their sins.”

Amazing isn’t it, how the highest desires of heaven are fragile as newborns in the hands of ordinary people who spend their time doing their best to make life fit together somehow.    Amen.

The gospel of Matthew is very insistent about this: Joseph named Jesus. When today’s theologians consider this, they start, of course, by knowing the Easter story. And so, they think back from the resurrection and try to explain how life before it must have been. The gospels tell the story of Jesus the Christ – not the simple story of any carpenter’s son.

In doing so, they weave the way life was in the first century with biblical prophecies. But just as close to home was another tradition of the first century –  a birth tradition that was followed by emperors and centurions and other important people. When a baby was born to a ruling family, the midwife would place the infant on the ground for the head of the household to raise up and name. Only then would the child be allowed to live. You could say that naming was what gave the child the right to life.      So when Matthew points out that Joseph named the child, he’s making an important claim that we could miss because it’s a custom we’ve mercifully forgotten. Tradition says Joseph was a carpenter, a man who spent his life making things fit together – tables and chairs and boats and even houses. He probably wasn’t much different from us – ordinary people who do our best, most of the time. And who feel, most of the time, that God’s great plans are carried out by powerful or important people – by someone else, that is.

The story suggests that Joseph was a righteous and a kind man. His first reaction to Mary’s unlikely story must have felt like fierce betrayal. Not even he could make this fit together so that it made human sense. And that left Joseph with a terrible choice.

The law regarding his marriage is precise. The book of Deuteronomy says very clearly that if a man lies with another man’s wife, “you shall stone them both to death and purge the evil from Israel.”

If he set aside the law and didn’t have Mary killed, Joseph’s other legal option was to give up trying to make sense of it and to divorce her quietly. Joseph chose kindness and, hoping perhaps for a little escape, he chose sleep. But he dreamed instead, dreamed of an angel with a message of mystery past human understanding. “Here,” whispered the angel, “here’s the key to the crisis. Believe her – never mind the story is humanly unbelievable. Marry her.

Why? Ah – that’s the real question. How about because the boy will need a father? This boy will need, not just any father, but a father to teach him what to do in times like this, when hope seems lost and pain is all that’s left. If you do not walk the road to Bethlehem, who will teach him to climb the hill to Calvary?

It was a message that surely couldn’t be fit together with life as Joseph had known it. Or, maybe it could be that the point of the message was that the point of the miracle was not about the mother – it was about the baby.

Having this baby, of course, was an act of extraordinary faith and extraordinary importance. After all, this was Jesus, who would grow up to speak of God’s presence in everyday life, often doing so by drawing stories from the time he’d spent with Joseph.

Aren’t these words learned from a man who knew about making things fit together: “Everyone who hears these words of mine and does them will be like the wise man who built his house upon the rock, and the rain fell, and the floods came and the winds blew and beat upon that house, but it did not fall because it had been founded upon the rock.” That is the wisdom of a builder.

And remember how Jesus spoke of God’s love, saying:

“What man of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake?  If you…know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him?” That is the wisdom of a beloved son.

So Joseph did what he had always done to piece things together, that carpenter who faced that terrible choice years ago. If he had done what common sense suggested and the law required, Mary’s child would have died within her. And God’s great plan for salvation, would have died along with them. But instead, Joseph trusted and he named the infant Jesus, because, as the angel said, “he will save his people from their sins.”

Amazing isn’t it, how the highest desires of heaven are fragile as newborns in the hands of ordinary people who spend their time doing their best to make life fit together somehow.    Amen.

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Sermon, November 24: It’s Enough

What are we celebrating when we celebrate thanksgiving? We know gratitude when we feel it, but it’s difficult to put it into words. The closest I can come is by focusing on that feeling of heightened well-being that seems to accompany a sense of thanksgiving. It seems to involve a sense of the goodness of the giver as well as the goodness of life.
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Sermon, November 10: Gathering Darkness

The time change made a difference, didn’t it? Suddenly it’s darker, sooner. Suddenly it’s colder. And our reading of the gospel of Luke is coming to an end. Over the next few weeks, the Old Testament readings will begin to long for the coming of the Messiah and the New Testament will turn to understandings of Jesus as the Christ.

With All Saints’ Day just behind us, I found myself wondering about the hints and whispers that the Bible has actually left us about the Sadducee’s question. Are the ones we loved pursuing a life in some alternate dimension just past time and space that somehow follows the pattern of life as we live it? Or is there some other way of confronting the mystery that stays faithful to both our hopes and to our understandings?

That’s the question the Sadducees really asked, isn’t it? What’s it all about, they wanted to know. It’s one thing to sit around contemplating abstractions, they say, but look at what this belief does to the everyday practical reality of marriage. If you follow their logic, they reasoned, one barren woman might spend eternity with seven husbands!

Well. The situation the Sadducees cooked up about all of those husbands was a little far-fetched, cold to be sure, but not quite as unexpected as it might sound at first. In the book of Deuteronomy, marriage was a way to resolve practical issues, the way by which a man could ensure he had legitimate offspring to inherit his name and his property. It went like this: if a man died before he had children, his brother was obliged to marry his widow and produce a son in his dead brother’s name.[1] This would ensure that property was kept in the family and women were not left destitute in this world.

So the Sadducees’ argument was based on their assumption that life after time is a continuation of life as we know it now. Jesus’ understanding is that there is a radical disconnect in the continuum of being that starts in this life and goes on to the next. In other words, no institution here implies anything about any institution there – but here and there exist.

If you follow his reasoning a little further, Jesus made an amazing assumption for a man of his time a and that is that nothing outside ourselves is able to define us in God’s eyes. It was an extraordinary statement back then and it still is. Think about it. It is still true that when women marry, most still change their family names. Couples planning their wedding speak of their wedding day as “the most important in our lives.” Even today, marriage plays a huge role in defining who is blessed. But not so for Jesus. When the Sadducees posed their question about the barren widow’s afterlife, he responded by naming two different worlds: “this age” and “that age.” His point wasn’t a doctrine of marriage, but a reminder, as  Isaiah once said, that “our ways are not God’s ways.”

Our world has its rules – money talks, wealth deserves to rule, some killing is necessary, my home is my castle, small questions merit large battles. God’s world deals with the same factors, but God’s world has different assumptions and different conclusions. In God’s world, people aren’t defined by institutions of any kind – they are simply marked as God’s forever.

Jesus was a country preacher who responded to a question from the crowd. Years later, Paul would echo his thoughts in soaring words that we cherish and remember, words about the new life in heaven:

Lo, I tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised, and we will be changed…[2]

All of this happens, Jesus suggested – not because human relationships don’t matter and certainly not because death isn’t real –  but because hope is the nature of who God is. And so it is that the great sweep of biblical stories have the same pattern. They say that, as tough as it might be to grasp in the sad times, God’s one promise – from the flight into Egypt to the journey to Jerusalem; even from Calvary to resurrection morning – God’s one promise is that devastation and death are not the end.    Amen.

[1] Deuteronomy 25:5-10.

[2] 1 Cor. 15: 51-2.

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Rahab’s Rope Party: Fundraising Sale, November 21

Shop to Stop This Outrage – a girl is trafficked every 4 minutes

Help us help as you buy crafts from India and sample Indian tea and snacks  

 

Rahab’s Rope is a place of hope and transformed lives – an organization that provides food, shelter, and protection for women and girls in India. Our Rahab’s Rope Party will donate all proceeds.

Reservations can be made by leaving a message at the church office at 973-239-3212

 

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Sermon, October 27: Interspecies Communication

One thing I know about animals – big or small, wild or tame – they don’t take well to long sermons. Lots of us are like that. Just ask the animals, Job says, and they will tell you about the joy of living in this moment and accepting its gifts. Ask the animals we will, and so their gift to us this moment is that – instead of a sermon – we’re going to try a simple guided meditation. 

If you’re sitting where you can see the picture well, notice what happens when you look right into this animal’s eyes. If you’re sitting where you can’t see too well, now might be a good time to move. Or, if you’re holding an animal, try to make eye contact. Or – if neither works – you might want to close your eyes and think of any animal you’ve ever loved. Then relax and picture those eyes. Do you remember their color? Can you feel them staring back at you? Breathe in. Breathe out. In out. In out. In out.

Be aware of the centuries of living you sense in those eyes. Be aware of what you can’t see: the selfhood, the “I-ness” of this other being. What does the world look like through non-human eyes? Do you sense this is a being who has had experiences and hurts and joys you can never know? Who has moments of wildness and innocence you can never share?

Yet this is a being who is alive like you. Who walks the same ground and breathes the same air. Who feels pain and enjoys the warmth of the sun, the cool of the breeze, the taste of pure water –just as you do. Who knows how to love and be loved.  In this, we are all kin. In this kinship, is all life. From this kinship, we can learn wisdom, maybe even wisdom enough for the preservation of our shared home.

Come back now. Back to our own separate need to do what only humans do – read and project based on what we read. Back to our Book of Genesis where it says God made a covenant with all of flesh – not just with us, but with all living creatures. A covenant, as we know, is a promise. More than a simple promise, a covenant is a promise that assures us that something of the nature of God exists in all of us who share that promise. 

On our side of the covenant, being human – with all the complications and insecurities that entails – is reason enough to turn to a God who is known as mercy, compassion, and steadfastness. Being complicated is why we depend on a God whose love for us is surprisingly simple and whose desire for us is aligned with our own deepest yearnings. 

Animals – well, it’s true they can’t talk about the nature of an eternal covenant with the holy. But, sometimes when the moment is right, animals instinctively live out the sharing of  God’s love that begins with loving others – just in that moment, just as they are. Amen.

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Sermon, October 20: Love

No one, as John’s letter points out, has ever seen God, but most of us, now and then, catch a glimpse of God’s presence. 

Biblical images are the best our human words can do to share presence. They’re symbols pointing us toward a reality we can only touch by sensing.

So let’s go back to what today’s Genesis story tells us about who God is. The Creator, surely –  the holy One who breathed over the waters of chaos and first spoke creation into being and then began an ordered poetic procession of beginnings and boundaries.

But. What about the “big bang?” What about black holes and exploding stars, quasars and quarks and angry tribal politics? The ordered beauty of the Genesis story doesn’t seem to speak to life as we live it.

Still, before we toss the biblical account aside as irrelevant, we need to take a second look from our twenty-first-century perspective and we might come to notice that it’s not only a poem about origins. It’s a story about the Originator. 

It is a story that says that without God’s presence in the world there would be nothing but darkness and chaos. It is a story that says that God affirms that creation is good. Good, no matter what today’s headlines may say. 

The Genesis story also says you can find traces of God in creation. Which is precisely what John’s letter is saying in its own way. “Beloved,” it says, “let us love one another, because love is of God… Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” 

Our most holy writings tell us over and over again that God IS love. That love is not just something God does. Love is who God is and – in order for love to be – it needs to be given to another. Love needs to be experienced in community. 

The Christian community trusts that God comes among us as Christ – as living breathing Love that is patient and kind, not jealous or boastful or arrogant or rude. God comes as Love who bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things – as Love who never fails. 

But this mystery is forever tied to the reality that we – imperfect as we so obviously are – we are the ones who bear that love to each other. We can only hope to be patient and not jealous or boastful or arrogant or rude. We so often fail. 

But. The Genesis story will go on the tell of God breathing God’s own life into our first parents. And in the doing, blessed us to be God’s hands and God’s love in our generation. Thanks be to God.   Amen.

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Sermon, October 13: Faith

Jesus was headed toward death in Jerusalem; but along the way, and against most expectations, he gave life to people. It is a source of deep and holy mystery for Luke – this growing and evolving awareness of how Jesus’ life and death gave life to others.
In today’s reading, the ones he gave life to are the ten lepers, the ones who stopped him as he traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. Actually, there is no land between Galilee and Samaria to travel along – Galilee stops and Samaria begins and so we read this story as fiction within Luke’s telling of the story of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. Calling them lepers tells us they were outcasts, abandoned by their families, their communities and their religions. They were, in short, enduring a kind of living death. No one would eat or walk or even talk with them “Keeping their distance,” Luke says, “they called out, saying “Jesus, Master have mercy on us.”
Go away, Jesus told then. Go talk to someone else. Could you do that? After finally meeting someone who might restore your life, could you simply walk away, trusting that the transformation you’ve prayed for will just happen as you wander off? It takes amazing faith. And it tells us something equally amazing about the nature of faith.
Go, and in the going, Jesus was saying, you will find that healing is within you. Faith can’t begin ‘til you begin the journey. Faith means doing; it means acting to take hold of that which is promised but is not yet evident. And in the very act of acting, faith fulfills its promise.
And so ten lepers continued on their way to the Temple. It’s what the Hebrew Scripture told them to do, and it’s what Jesus told them to do –  to show themselves to the priests. It was the prescribed legal step so they might be welcomed back into the arms of their families and the center of their villages and the courts of the temple. They could, in short, go back to being insiders.
But, welcome as the prospect of healing must have been to the tenth leper, nothing could change the fact that the one Samaritan would remain unwelcome in Jerusalem’s Temple. He would stay an outcast, a hated foreigner. There was nothing he could do and nothing Jesus could say that would transform him into an insider in Judean society.
And so, he chose to return to offer his thanks to Jesus. And in the doing, he was changed once and forever. “Rise and go,” Jesus said, “your faith has made you whole.” Well, that a wonderful ending to his story. But what, we might ask, does his action mean to us in this day when skin disease is of little consequence and temple sacrifice even less? We don’t live out there on some border.
Or do we? There are many kinds of boundaries in life and the only thing they have in common is that they keep some people in and other people out. Perhaps we live within the boundary called middle-class or homeowner or Christian.  Perhaps inclusion in our group is based on education or income or what stage of life we’re in – child, parent, empty nester, widow.
Some people say that we live at a crossroad in history, a time when a boundary has been drawn between a warm lovingly organized past and a future that’s radically different. Some of us are running towards that future with open arms. Some of us are clinging fiercely to the old traditions.
Jesus’ life has always called us away from the comfortable centers and back to the margins. It’s where we find him, after all – in the least of our brothers, wherever the need is greatest, where something we can’t even imagine becomes our reality and God’s unthinkable bursts into our merely possible. Amen.

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Sermon, October 4: Joyful

Today is World Communion Sunday, the day we come together to celebrate two things. The first is our diversity. The second is our oneness. My favorite way to think about this is by reading the story of the journey to Emmaus.

But before we think about what the story might mean, it matters that it is a story. And it is by story that we understand who we are, how we came to be, and what we are about. So let’s take a closer look at this old story, keeping in mind that its essence is eternal but the language is only ancient.

Let’s start with the simplest part – eating and drinking are essential to life. Even more, eating and drinking together are the way we mark big moments in our lives.

How, then, are we to celebrate with bread and cup, our very simple symbolic meal? What can it really say to us? The key biblical passages that pass on the church’s understanding of this meal are the words Paul wrote to the church at Corinth. They are the essence of it all, no matter the words we use, because their meaning is deeper than words. “For I received from the Lord,” Paul told the Corinthians, “what I passed on to you:”

The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord until he comes.”

Four things: take, thank, break and share. It’s about doing, and – in the doing – memories and hope are joined together. Why do we “do this”? We do it to remember Jesus. And the heart of this remembering has to do with what it is that we remember about Jesus.

It was common for a time in the church’s history to do this to remember only the Last Supper and so, to understand the sacrament only in terms of the crucifixion. But central to remembering the crucifixion is the vital awareness that the cross would be long forgotten if it weren’t visible always and only in the light of Easter morning. This is crucial: if Jesus is Christ, then crucifixion and resurrection can never be separated.

Without that light of resurrection morning, Jesus himself would be long forgotten. The two sad travelers on the road to Emmaus would have gotten it right. Once it had looked to them like Jesus was the one who had been spoken of by the prophets. Once Peter has even said he was the Christ. But that walk to Emmaus happened three long evenings after he was crucified. He had died and, as far as these two could see, it was over.

So Cleopas and his friend got out of town. While they were walking, Luke says “Jesus himself came up and walked along with them but they were kept from recognizing him.” When it began to get dark, they asked him to stay and share their supper.

“When he was at the table with them, “[Luke says] “he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them.” He did those four things – did you hear them – he took, thanked, broke and shared. It was about doing, and, in the doing, history and hope were joined together.

You know, of course, that this is not just a story about two people on a back road a couple of thousand years ago. It’s a story that repeats itself over and over down through time. What could we see, do you think, if we were at the table and our eyes were opened? Well, one thing would be that we would sense that God is involved in our lives – using the simple requirements of our lives to love us, change us, re-create us.

Trust the story, Jesus said. Break the bread. Drink the cup. Do this. Do it so we also might recognize the stranger as the One whose presence creates a space where all can come together and join in a moment when sharing the gifts of the earth becomes the way toward sharing the love of God.   Amen.

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