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

Happenings

April 7 – 12

Beloved…

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

Happenings

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

Happenings

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

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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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Happenings: March 15 – 22

Happenings:

March 15-22

Luke 13.1-9

A tree is just standing there – with no sign of fruit.

Does that mean it has no sign of hope?

Or that we have no sign of hope?

Join us Sunday at 10 as we puzzle this out.

The First Congregational Church of Verona

19 Church Street, Verona

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Sermon: Beloved Is Where We Begin

Deserts are not fun places. The sun is fierce; the wind is harsh and dry – sand is blowing everywhere. The plants are prickly and the animals, predators. But the desert is the place where Jesus – with the words from God that “You are my Beloved,” still ringing in his ears – was led. Not exactly what he might have expected after hearing that he was God’s beloved son, you say?

So here’s another question –  what might he have been expecting after hearing the voice that said “this is my son, my beloved”? Do we have any way of knowing how Jesus might have felt about hearing those words –Confident? Overwhelmed? All the above? Is it possible – do you think – that this whole scene with the devil is about what was going on in Jesus’ heart as he tried to live within those amazing words from the heavens? Might this confrontation have helped him realize his complete identity?

When you listen closely to the dialogue, what the devil said was true. “Tell these stones to become bread,” he said, “if you are the Son of God.” Well yes, the son of God could probably could find bread in the desert. On the one hand, it had happened in the past – God had provided manna during the exodus from Egypt. And, it would happen in the future – in stories to come, Jesus would provide a miraculous abundance of food for thousands of people.

But the time of manna was past and the time for feeding the thousands had not come. This was in between time, the time when Jesus had to decide what it meant to live within the boundaries of God’s will for his life. And so he answered that we need more than just bread in order to live. We need a connection to God.

Then, Jesus – all alone, with no followers and no disciples gathered around him – was offered this one: “Look at all these kingdoms – look at all those people! They can be yours! All yours!”

Finally, a vulnerable Jesus, was offered this one at the start of his ministry: “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down to the stones below. Let’s just test God’s commitment. Let’s find out if the scriptures are right about angels coming to protect you.

But the time of heralding and guiding angels was over. And the time of angels rolling away the stone had not come. This was the in-between time, when life needed to be lived and people needed to be fed. And so he answered that he was no more desperate for instant power than he was for instant food.

Still, there was something Jesus did need and did receive in the wilderness. When he came out and turned his face towards Galilee, he took with him an amazing clarity about who he was and what he was going to do. Moments  later, in a synagogue in Nazareth, he would express his new understanding as he read from the scroll of Isaiah: Good news to the poor, he said; release to the captives, sight for the blind, fulfilled in your own hearing.

Clarity like that doesn’t come cheap. It takes a wilderness – a space where we can shed something of the routines and rhythms we have shaped our lives around — or perhaps bent and broken our lives upon. And in that space, we can begin to see and to know who we are, perhaps even who we are meant to be.

To understand a little more of how Jesus came to that clarity, we need to take a closer look at the Old Testament stories behind his conversation with the devil, specifically the stories of the Exodus through the wilderness to the promised land.

One of the major themes in the Exodus story has to do with the people putting God to the test. “Putting God to the test” seems to mean forcing God’s hand and then not recognizing it. In the Book of Numbers, God says that “None of the people who have seen my glory and the signs I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have tested me ten times and have not obeyed my voice, shall see the land that I swore to give to their ancestors….”How long will this people despise me? And how long will they refuse to believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them?”

So, clearly Luke is using the imagery of the exodus from Egypt and the forty years in the wilderness. When Jesus said do not put the Lord your God to the test, those are the stories in his mind.

But what might they mean to us? We know the dangers of looking for salvation in material things. We do not live by bread alone. We know about not preferring material things over holy things. We try – imperfectly to be sure – to resist those temptations. But this notion of testing God –  this thing Jesus was so determined to avoid – what might it look like today?

I think we need to look at the difference between the “words of the Bible” and the understanding of Scripture as God’s living word in order to find a useful answer here. Going back to the temptation story, we need to recognize that – though the devil’s words are from scripture – they were not God’s word to Jesus at that moment in his life. For Jesus, it was not just about God’s word; it was also about God’s context – God’s time, God’s hope, and most of all about God’s love.

Although God would, through Jesus, bring vast crowds together for an abundant feast, this moment was not God’s time for Jesus to use God’s power to provide. Although God would reveal the full extent of Jesus’ authority, this was not the time or the place for that revelation.

And what about us? As individuals, our temptations are not very much different from Jesus’ – to take care of our own needs first; to show off; to force other people to do things our way. In short, to forget that we are God’s beloved too – and to forget that being beloved implies strengths and skills we don’t even know we had, until we spend some time with them.

But what about us as a church? We are a tiny group of people. Many of us ache for the old days when the sanctuary was crowded and the Sunday school was full. Many of us would say that these are wilderness times for the church.

But – even if that is so, we have strong, caring love among us and big hearts to reach out to neighbors who need us. So here’s a big question – is God’s presence here any less now than before? Are we as faithful – to God and to each other – as ever?

But beloved is where we begin. the lesson of the desert is that it is not devil-defined and God-forsaken. It’s the place to hear God’s own voice, within us and beside us and waiting to lead us home.   Amen.

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Happening: March 9 – 15

Join us Sunday at 10 for the Service of Ashes,

our way of visioning through holy story

to the mystery of the Christ.

The First Congregational Church of Verona

19 Church Street, Verona

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