Easter Sermon: Holy Imagination

Holy Imagination

On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus.

While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: The Son of Man must be delivered over to the hands of sinners, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.’ ” Then they remembered his words.

When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others. It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles. But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense. Peter, however, got up and ran to the tomb. Bending over, he saw the strips of linen lying by themselves, and he went away, wondering to himself what had happened.

It seems appropriate that, each and every year, the timing of an event as mysterious as Easter depends on the cosmos itself. You need to look first for the vernal equinox, a sky-defined event, and then for the full moon, a dark-defined event. And the point of course – counter-intuitive as it might be – is that you need to look into the dark to find the light.  Dawn may be when weeping women and shaken men could not find the body of Jesus, but whatever happened to it, it happened in deepest darkness.

But t Jesus’ life had always been about rejoining darkness and light, hasn’t it? Twelve resurrection stories struggle to show us how this can be now.  No two are alike.  Some are about the absence of death.  Some are about seeing Jesus alive.  But the more there are, the more questions they raise.  Were these stories about actual events as we define actual? Were they visions?  Are visions delusions or are they our only way into some realities? Could all this be someone’s imagination? The church’s? Ours? Jesus’s?

What is imagination anyhow? The dictionary says it’s the ability to form new concepts or happenings not previously present to earthly senses. We’ve certainly noticed that Jesus always walked between the clarity of belief and the shadow world of imagination, pointing out that life is not defined by Caesar’s reign, Pilate’s grasp, or conventional pieties. What might we learn if we could know what his God-centered imagination taught him about life beyond life? What might he know about darkness that we can only guess? It takes a certain kind of imagination to look into the dark to find the light.

One thing we know about imagination is that it’s not available to senses of touch and feel, but it’s not delusion. Ask Walt Disney. Ask Jesus –  his scars are part of him now. So is his imagination, the only sign we have of his amazing ability to remain faithful even when his human life was ripped away. We’ve said over and over again this season that Jesus perceived God as radically alive and trusted his life and his hope to his perception of the overwhelming nature of that aliveness.

And now we come to see that’s the real focus of Easter: the coming together of completely different ways of being – God’s and ours. When Jesus chose to trust God to the end by choosing the wellbeing of others, he chose the way of the other, the path of ultimate commitment. Jesus’ way was God’s way. Jesus’ compassion was God’s compassion. Jesus’ life was taken into God’s eternal life.

But what of the rest of us? Luke says that the women who ran to the tomb saw what they saw and believed what they believed what they believed. But when they shared their conclusions with the apostles, the gospel says that Peter “ got up and ran to the tomb. Bending over, he saw the strips of linen lying by themselves, and he went away, wondering to himself what had happened.” What that means today is that the heart of the Christian story is a still place where the courage to go on is born of glimpses and yearnings and the need to see the linen strips for ourselves.

Luke did not try to speak the unspeakable. He did not tell us exactly how long ago or exactly how it was that Peter sensed the risen Christ. He told us instead, how to sense Christ for ourselves. Go, Luke tells of the angel saying, go to your own Galilee and try to live as Jesus did. There’s still more to life than our take on Caesar’s reign, Pilate’s grasp, or conventional pieties. Try for yourself and then you will know that the story has no end – for Christ has gone ahead of us. Christ is risen. Alleluia.

Let us pray: God of all creation, you are the one un-confined by our definitions. You are light from past the galaxies, love without a farther shore. We are so small and so very grateful for a glimpse into the mystery of our presence in our world – for our own sense of Christ’s compassion and integrity and resurrection.

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Happenings: Easter

is when tears
turn to alleluias!

In the turning of hate and death
into love and life,
our God is revealed.

Please join us Sunday
April 21st at 10:00 am for
the festival celebration of
the resurrection of Christ.

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Sermon for Palm Sunday: Voices

When Jesus had come near Bethpage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’” So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” They said, “The Lord needs it.” Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

After the parade and the palm-waving and the borrowed donkey, after the confusion and the hosannas – after all this, Luke tells us. Jesus went into the temple and threw out the money changers. Maybe then, he stopped to look around for one last quiet time.

He did not speak a word that Luke records. He did not heal anyone. Here, in the sacred space at the heart of his people, Jesus was simply alone, alone with the shadows and reflections and memories –  and maybe premonitions.

Did he hear echoes of the voices of Mary and Joseph telling him the story about how they brought him to this temple when he was only eight days old? An elderly prophet named Simeon had taken him in his arms, saying, “Now let your servant depart in peace for my eyes have seen salvation: a light for the Gentiles and glory to your people Israel.” Simeon had blessed them then and told Mary that “your child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel – a sign that will be opposed, so a sword will pierce your own soul too.” Did he think about how this was the week when Simeon’s words to his mother would come so horribly true?

Might the lingering scent of temple incense have sparked a premonition of the woman who would open an alabaster jar of perfume to anoint him? “Wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world,” he would marvel, “what she has done will be told in memory of her.” She was the one who believed him. “I will anoint you now” her action said, “because I believe you are the Messiah, the son of David, the lamb of God.

Or do you think he might have heard the bleating of the Passover lambs in the cold dark temple? Or that the scent of their fear might have stirred up his own? He could still change his mind, after all. It was all still possible – he could just go back to Nazareth, stop the healing, stop the talking, live a long life. All he had to do was hug his God tightly to himself and never share another hint with another living soul. That’s all he needed to do and he’d be safe – safe from Jerusalem’s scorn, safe from Rome’s violent rage. Why didn’t he turn back while there was still time?

When he looked up, Jesus could see the veil of the temple that separated the courts of the people from the Holy of Holies. The veil was huge – 60 feet tall – woven from bright linen threads and embroidered with golden cherubim. It protected the place of the Shekinah – the ancient compassionate feminine presence of God-with-us. And so while the veil signified separation – separation of people from each other, separation of humanity from God, the Shekinah was the comfort Jesus longed for. In the moment of his death, the veil would rip from top to bottom and in the days and years to come, Jesus would be understood as the presence of God. It was a lot for one mortal being to contemplate at the end of an overwhelming day.

Later, back in Bethany, Mary would anoint him with precious nard. Was she the first to see that Jesus’ life was driven not by survival, but by an overwhelming love that enabled him to give his life away? The first to understand that this love allowed him to see God as the source of unending life and freeing him to love beyond human boundaries and fears .

“Father, everything is still possible,” he would pray a few days later. “Take this cup away. Let me live out my life.” I believe that lonely choice in Gethsemane’s garden matters more than all the pain on Calvary’s rocky hill because that was when Jesus chose his own high integrity. That was the night he trusted enough to die for us.

But Friday would come and the voices that shouted hosanna would be replaced by the voices shouting “Crucify Him!” And then all the voices would be quiet because the one that would whisper “Father, forgive them” would be stilled.

What was Jesus doing that evening in the shadows of the temple? Perhaps he was choosing to trust God to the end by choosing love for others, no matter where it led him. That trust would kill him, it’s true. But there is no death in the nature of God – that’s true too. Jesus’ way was God’s way. Jesus’ compassion was God’s compassion. Jesus’ life would be taken into God’s life.

But that was all for later. For this one moment on a Spring evening, in this holy place at the heart of his people, Jesus simply looked. And listened. And perhaps in this place, where the voices of memory mingled with the voices of prophecy, perhaps the voices of those dear to him spoke out too  – offering their prayers for the dark days ahead.

Perhaps in this sacred space, Jesus was able to remember voices of love and reflection along with the ones of betrayal and violence. Perhaps there was time to be blessed for one last moment by the sweetness of mortal life. So Hosanna! Hosanna to the son of Mary…the son of David…the son of God!   Amen.

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Happenings: April 12

Now is the time

for telling the story

of tears turning to alleluias.

In the power of the story,

in the turning of endings into beginnings,

our God is revealed.

Please join us Sunday at 10 AM for Palm Sunday.

Good Friday:  April 19th at Noon

A service of remembrance and prayer.

Easter Sunday:  April 21st at 10:00 am

The festival celebration of the resurrection of Christ.

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Sermon: A Multiplicity of Marys

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for Jesus. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

We’ve said before that Jesus perceived God as radically alive and that he trusted his whole life and death to his perception of the overwhelming nature of that aliveness. All these weeks, we’ve been looking at Jesus as human first in an effort to understand what he did and why he told the stories he told. From this, what seems to have emerged is that Jesus as human sensed that God could share some of God’s nature. The way Paul said this is that “The first Adam became a living being; the last Adam, a life-giving being.” And now we see the gospels shift emphasis to share their amazement about how Jesus was a life giving being. One way the gospel writers did this was by seeing him through the eyes of others who shared his story.

When Lazarus died, Mary said to Jesus, “if you had only been here, my brother would not have died.” This is a startlingly new way of looking at life and death, one that includes Jesus’ radical view of God’s aliveness forever. So, from the depths of his compassion and against all human understanding, Jesus called out – and Lazarus stumbled from his tomb.

Because of the uproar caused by all this, the Pharisees called a meeting of their highest court and came to the conclusion that, if they let Jesus continue to heal and teach, the Romans would destroy their nation. It is better, they decided that “one man die for the people, than the whole nation perish.” And so the end began to close in.

Back in Bethany, all unaware that storm clouds were gathering, the celebration of Lazarus’ new life was going strong. The family was serving supper in Jesus’ honor and this time, Mary brought out an extravagantly expensive perfume – precious nard worth enough to feed a poor family for a year. She anointed Jesus’ feet and dried them with her hair. An extraordinary  gesture, but why?

We need to stop here and think for a moment about how Jesus might have sensed God’ aliveness and – from what we read in the biblical stories – he learned about it by sensing God’s love. “You are my beloved son,” the text says over and over again. “With you, I am well pleased.”  John would later write that “God is love…[and] if we love one another, God abides in us and God’s love is perfected in us.”

In the gospels of Matthew and Mark, the story of Mary’s tribute is remembered as one in which she anointed his head.[i] The gesture reminded people of the prophets and kings like Samuel who anointed King David. In the gospel of Luke, Mary is portrayed as a sinner who anointed Jesus’ feet in an expression of faith and love for which, Jesus said, “her sins were forgiven.” But what was John’s reason for adapting this story, and what might it mean in our world where anointing and foot washing are ancient, forgotten gestures? Might it be a way to talk about love – Mary’s love, Jesus’ love, even God’s love?

We’d miss this point if we missed the link between this and the Last Supper. Then, Jesus would wash his disciples’ feet as an expression of his love for them. He would ask them to repeat this act of service to each other as a sign of God’s love. I will be your servant and wash your feet, he said in effect, so that you, and everyone who comes after you, can understand that serving each other is the way human beings actually live out God’s love.

Here, Jesus would allow Mary’s washing his feet and dying them with her hair. Her gesture and his acceptance were about outrageously extravagant love. What she did was give to Jesus what Jesus would later give to the disciples when he washed their feet at the Last Supper. She fulfilled his desire that we love and serve each other even before he said it to the twelve.

Like Jesus’ own, Mary’s was a faith that says “no matter what others may think, no matter what the respectable may say, no matter what it may cost, this is how God loves and this is how I will love also.” And no matter how one tells her story, the woman with the alabaster jar was the one whom Jesus loved, the one who would be first to meet the risen Christ..    Amen.

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Happenings: April 7 – 12


April 7 – 12


Matthew 26: 6-13; Mark 14: 1-9; Luke 7: 36-49; John 12: 1-8

A Multiplicity of Marys

Join us Sunday at 10 AM

@ The First Congregational Church of Verona

19 Church Street, Verona

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Happenings: March 29 – April 5


March 29- April 5

What’s a parent to do?

Luke 15.11-32 – Prodigal parent, prodigal sons, prodigal God?

Join us Sunday at 10 as we wonder

how God might be like a Prodigal Father?

The First Congregational Church of Verona

19 Church Street, Verona

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Sermon: Birds of a Different Feather

Right after Jesus told the people that those who are first will be last and those who are last will be first, “some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!

The Old Testament is a book of soaring images of God. Deuteronomy says that God is like an eagle that “flutters over its young, spreading out its wings, catching them, bearing them on its pinions.” And Luke was writing for a church that trusted and even cherished this image. So what are we to make of Jesus identifying with a mother hen in the face of Herod’s determination to undo him? She couldn’t even get off the ground.

At the same time, Jesus’ friends in high places warned him to get out of there as fast as possible because that fox Herod was lurking with bad intentions. But what about those friends? Do their voices remind you any of the voice of temptation in the desert? Back then, the temptations were about hunger, security and authority. But here, the appeal is sly and the temptation is not to listen to voices outside of him. This time the temptation is to surrender to a very normal and primal fear inside him – the real human fear for his life in the face of his ever strengthening sense of doom. “Get away from here and save yourself. Forget this madness and live a long and peaceful life like Abraham did.”

And he answered these voices with this odd counter image – “Jerusalem, Jerusalem – how often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing.” It seems to create two options: you can get through the days by tiptoeing around in fear of the fox or you can die protecting the chicks. And in setting up these options, it highlights empathy  – and courage.

Many in our world live by tiptoeing around the fox. We live in an age of anxiety. Whether the particulars concern violence or economic crisis, we are a people who listens daily to the message that everything might fall apart at any given moment.

The messengers could be right. But, we’ve become so accustomed to the daily recitation of what might destroy us that we don’t even notice how the negative impulses seep into our consciousness as we double lock our doors, type in our passwords and never let our loved ones out of reach.

It sometimes feels safer that way. But if Jesus’ life is our model, we dare not imagine that the safe path is always the faithful one. And this is what the little red hen tells us that the mighty eagle can’t – no matter how cunning or powerful the fox, he cannot kill her courage. He cannot end her loving her chicks every single moment of her life.

If you have ever tried to kiss a hurt from a crying child or tried to dry the tears of a family facing the unbearable  – if you have ever loved someone you could not protect – you understand Jesus’ cry. You know first-hand that all you can do is open your arms. You cannot make anyone walk into them. You cannot keep anyone from slipping through them. You cannot keep tragedy outside them.

But you can choose to be there with your arms wide open. You can choose to add the reality of your empathy to mingle with – and ease another’s pain.  Jesus says that’s how God is.      Amen.

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Happenings: March 22 – 29


March 22-29

Luke 13:31-35

Nobody loves a barnyard hen. She’s squawky and she bites.

Nobody needs her.

Except a chick, especially if there’s a fox around…

Join us Sunday at 10 as we puzzle this out –

How might Jesus be like a Mother Hen?

How might you be like a chick?

The First Congregational Church of Verona

19 Church Street, Verona

Posted by Rev. Barbara Ewton in Happenings, 0 comments

Sermon: Hope

It can be hard to hope, especially to hope in the tough times. But Lent is a growing season, and hope is what gets us through any valley of the shadow. Hope creates, using imagination and, mostly –  time. Hope does not create in response to pressure, or to the insistence of any clock. So, when Jesus saw people tense up at the mention of the murdered Galileans, he responded with a story that had a space where hope could begin to grow:

An owner came to check on his fig tree – and everyone listening back then knew the fig tree was a biblical symbol of Israel itself – it’s the tree that lives for centuries, the one that gives fruit and oil and shade in the desert. But this one has no fruit, so – impatiently – the owner said, “Cut it down.” But the gardener said, “Let’s see.”

What are we to make of this odd story of the fruitless fig tree? Might it say anything to those people who want to know why calamity struck a group of innocent Galileans? Why do bad things happen? Especially, why do they happen to good people like us?

Do you ever wonder why we spend time looking for reasons behind other peoples’ troubles? If we can find  they did something wrong, or had bad genes, or live in a country where violence is rampant then perhaps, we can find a way to save ourselves – is that it, do you think?

Even those of us who claim to know better – and don’t blame God for the effects of nature or nurture run amok – react in a similar way. Crisis strikes and we spend time trying to find what went wrong. We check our behavior, our relationships, our diets, our beliefs. Give us answers, we beg. We need to understand what went wrong.

The notion that someone else’s pain is caused by someone else’s sin is a tempting concept because it seems like it might solve some problems. For once and for ever, it might answer the question of why bad things happen to good people: maybe they don’t. Maybe bad things really happen only to bad people. And we’re good, so we’re safe, right?

Then too, the notion that someone else’s pain is caused by someone else’s sin might give us a God who obeys our laws. For every action, there is an opposite and equal reaction: do something to upset God’s law, and God will get you good. That’s straightforward enough, right?

Jesus doesn’t go there. “No, that’s not how it is” he told the crowd, “but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” There is no connection between suffering and sin. Oh, good. But unless you repent of your sins, you are going to suffer too. Oh.

So what did Jesus do with this story? Let’s think about the fig tree as a way to explore the nature of judgment,” he said And at first glance, judgment does seems what this parable might be about.

We know that one way to try to understand a parable is to see if you can imagine who or what each character might represent. Is the landowner God and the gardener Jesus? Or might the tree be Jesus or even  you or me?

We’ve all had moments of bearing no fruit. Of sensing that the axe is at the roots, almost wishing  it would be there to end the misery. But that wasn’t how the story ended, was it? In the end, the gardener refused to cut down the tree and suggested instead that they nourish it and let it be for one more year.

Jesus never promised the fig tree would be standing this time next year. But it would have a this year, and it would receive the sun and rain and soft breezes and all the gardener’s care that the year could bring. For some of us, that may  not sound like good enough news.

But for others, it is gospel enough because it is a way of saying that – no matter what –  God is always with us. It is a way of saying that we are not in charge of days and months and years – or of what they might bring. It is a way of saying that it is enough to hope in the God who is  in charge of linear – and eternal – time  with  a loving kindness for every season, even the fruitless one.   Amen

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