The First Words We Hear [May 2013]
Last week in worship, Imam Daayieee Abdullah powerfully called us to prayer with words that began “Allahu Akbar” – “Allah is great” or “God is great.” In Muslim tradition, those beautiful words are not only a call to prayer. As soon as a baby is born, it is the prayer first whispered in a child’s ear.
Martin Copenhaver, the senior pastor of Wellesley Congregational UCC in Massachusetts, has said of the practice: “So the word ‘God’ is the first word a baby hears. And this is the same call to prayer that is issued five times a day. In Muslim areas it echoes through the streets in a haunting chant. Wherever you are, whatever you are doing, the call to prayer finds you, and, if you are Muslim, it is a reminder of what was first whispered in your ear when you were born.”i Daily, in the prayers of the people lifted up throughout the land, they are reminded of God at their birth and God to whom they belong.
In our tradition, the gospel of Matthew describes the baptism of Jesus as a second birth story of sorts. Fresh from the waters, Jesus rises from the Jordan – wet with new life and God’s spirit. Then God says, “This is my Child, my beloved.” And at our own baptisms, with God’s spirit upon us, God speaks again those first words of love: “You are my beloved.” It is a love whispered in our ears that tells us who we are. It is a love to be whispered to the world.
We have so many opportunities to speak and act in love – to be reminded and remind others of the gift of God in our lives. In our welcoming folks to worship, to greeting new members, in acts of compassion, and in making stands that defend the vulnerable, God’s whisper is heard loud and clear. In our prayers and care, during these months of Confirmation, may we whisper into the ears of our youth – Grant Anderson, Antonio Rodriguez, and Peter Smolinsky – “You are beloved.” As our Muslim friends, five times a day, even more, may we hear again God’s prayer first uttered at our beginning. Beloved, may we be called to prayer, to love, to action.
May the peace of God be yours,
1Martin Copenhaver “ Whispered in Your Ear,” http://www.ucc.org/feed-your-spirit/daily-devotional/whispered-in-your-ear.html
The Newtown Project: Heart-Work, Justice-Work [April 2013]
The “Newtown Project: Art Targets Guns” is a powerful art exhibit that opens at First Congregational United Church of Christ on Friday evening, April 5. The exhibit will run until Pentecost Sunday, May 19. More than 33 artists from the US and Canada responded to a call for “art illustrating the need for more restrictive gun control laws in wake of the mass murder of 26 children and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School last December.”
The exhibit was organized by Charles Krause and was originally shown in his gallery and reviewed by Washington Post’s Mark Jenkins ( http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2013-01-24/entertainment/36524581_1_gun-rights-advocates-fine-art-advocate-for-gun-control ) and on NBC channel 4 (http://goo.gl/8H79i). With the move to First Church, the exhibit expanded to
include more than 40 works.
Yet even before this exhibit opens, we have been engaged in a project born out of Newtown. Last December, on the Sunday after the massacre, this congregation wrote a letter to the UCC congregation and families in Newtown (http://www.firstuccdc.org/2012/12/a-letter-to-newtown-ct/.) God called on us. We had to say something, pray something, do something. We stated in the letter, “As part of the UCC, we share a covenant of grace with one another. We are connected. Although we cannot begin to feel the grief your community feels, we will continue to hold you in our prayers. We will join you in the work of peace.” The images of Newtown – of both children and violence – have worked on us, and called us to pray and act.
Now the art and images that we will view in the “Newtown Project” challenge us beyond only a news account of gun violence. Instead, art goes deep into our imaginations and hearts. We can experience what often is difficult to articulate in words. God can call us, disturb us, and inspire us through the gifts and insights of art. Our hope is that many people will see the images these artists have created and inspire greater public support for effective laws that will restore hope to survivors of violence and to our communities.
I’ve always loved the quotation of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, “The work of the eyes is done. Go now and do the heart-work on the images imprisoned within you” (from “Turning Point”). Through the artistic images seen in the “Newtown Project,” may we do heart-work, justice-work, the work of peace. May that work become our holy project.
Easter [March 2013]
Resurrection life has everything to do with investing our lives, committing our lives, placing our lives in all those places where human beings suffer and are oppressed, in all those places where people yearn for new life, for transformed reality, for an experience of resurrection. I believe that Christianity is about forming a people who take the power of the resurrection life seriously in their everyday lives and move their bodies and resources into places where the power can bring new life.” quoted from Christine M. Smith in Risking the Terror: Resurrection in this Life
Year after year, Christine Smith’s reflections on Easter in Risking the Terror shake me and call for a deeper engagement and for courage to live the resurrection faith. She says the resurrection life cannot “be easily equated with the daily rebirth experiences, signs of earth’s reawakening, or experiences of wonder that restore hope and life” (page 89). Such experiences are powerful and meaningful. Yet there is something even more powerful even more terrifying.
Smith calls us to join God in taking on crucifixion and death in our world. As we finish up the season of Lent, journey through Holy Week, venture to the tomb, encounter the risen Christ, let us hear those stories from “where the pain is” (the phrase used by Susan Thistlethwaite in her sermon delivered here at First Church). Then bound to Christ, we invest our lives, commit our lives, place our lives in those places longing for resurrection. In the weeks a head, hear the stories, experience the stories. Join First Church for Palm Sunday on March 24, and for a reflective service on Maundy Thursday evening, March 28. On that evening we will share a simple meal and then journey through experiences of the Last Supper, Jesus in the garden and at the cross, and finally at the tomb. Gather with the sound of the trumpet on Easter, March 31terrified, hopeful, and ready for transformation. Yet, let us ground our hearing in the yearnings of this time,where the pain is. What are those yearnings? Struggles against gun violence, the dangers facing our children, countless deaths in Syria, bigotry against the Muslim community, economic vulnerability, earth needing healing, and fear faced by so many? Let us live boldly –where the pain is, with those in pain—facing even the terrifying –living resurrection in this life.
Christ is risen. Rise with Christ terrified, bold, and hopeful. Christ is risen indeed! May God’s peace be yours,
RECONCILE: From Lent through Easter [February 2013]
Ash Wednesday, February 13, begins the season of Lent. These 40 days of preparation for Easter are often considered a time of giving up – sacrificing a taste for chocolate or a nasty habit – but this year consider it a season of giving in. Reconcile.
In this year’s Bible readings during Lent, reconciliation is expansive in meaning.
It means forgiveness and healing, restoration and wholeness, unity and justice, peace and making things right. This is the prayerful work of these days. It involves giving up pride and despair and giving in to God’s healing of our world. We are called to break down the barriers we set between ourselves and God, and to be reconciled (2 Corinthians 5:20-6:10). We join the prodigal child who turns away, but finally returns home, reconciled and embraced by the compassionate parent (Luke 15:1-32). The words of the prophet call us to share our bread and home with those who are poor (Isaiah 5:81-12) – making just our relationships. The words of Jesus call us to repent and to bear fruit – make good out of our lives with others (Luke 13:1-9).
So this year, it’s a time to reconcile. “God, help me be honest about my relationships and to seek forgiveness for harm caused. God, turn me around and toward those in need and to take a stand for your justice, your compassion. God, for those who suffer or are ill, embrace them with your healing and wholeness. Move me from prayer to act, to reconcile.”
Such are our individual prayers, but we are invited to take this Lenten path together. Saint Paul declared to the church in Corinth that they have been “given a ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:17). It’s our ministry too. In the days ahead, let us reconcile.
Please join us as we begin this Lenten ministry of reconciliation at one of the two Ash Wednesday services on February 13: 12:00 noon to 1:00 p.m. at Lincoln Temple United Church of Christ for a joint service with 7 other UCC congregations. And 6:30 to 7:15 p.m. here at First Congregational UCC.
May God’s peace be yours,
An Old Covenant and a New Start [January 2013]
The beginning of a new year is always a time for making fresh promises, resolutions, and yes, covenants. Often such resolutions are about a renewed commitment to dieting, exercise, to healthier habits. At First Congregational UCC, January is also a time of renewed promises.
On the last Sunday of January, we gather for our Annual Meeting to celebrate God’s goodness to this congregation and to prayerfully determine our calling in the new year – our budget, our leaders, our mission. We come together to renew our covenant with one another and God. This month, we will first renew that covenant when we welcome new members to our congregation on Sunday, January 13. And we’ll declare the covenant again when we worship on that day of our Annual Meeting.
Even if it is 2013, a fresh year, the covenant we share has been around a long time. Our English forebearers loved to make them.1 In 1629, a group of Puritans sailed across the Atlantic to a fishing village called Naumkeag, Massachusetts, and established their covenant. The Salem covenant joined the settlers’ personal, church, and public lives – calling on them to walk together in God’s holy ways. The locals picked up on their holy vision, and together, they renamed the village Salem, meaning “peace.” Yet they did not always live in such peace with one another. There were days of terror. In 1692, Salem convicted and executed 19 persons as witches. Church members were among the accusers, the defenders, and the executed. The covenant shook. In time, even after such evil, the covenant called them back to a renewed faith.
Their old-English covenant sounded like this:
We covenant with the Lord and one with an otherand doe bynd our selves in the presence of God,
to walke together in all his waies, according as he is pleasedto reveale himself unto us in his blessed word of truth.2
This covenant is the basis of the renewed covenant that we share year after year. As we share it together in the days ahead, may it inspire not only our life together at church. May God give us the courage to live it in the world – in the midst of the evils in our day of violence, fear, and injustice. Together may we journey God’s holy way of peace, compassion, and bold justice.
Let us covenant anew in 2013:
In grateful response to the call of Jesus Christ,we covenant with God and with each otherto be a church of Christ.We bind ourselves, in God’s redeeming presence,to walk together in ways revealed to us by the Holy Spirit in sacrament and Word, study and prayer,fellowship and mission.
1 This material is adapted from What Matters to You, Matters to Us (Cleveland: United Church Press, 2008).
2 “Salem Church Covenant,” Book of Worship, reprint (Cleveland: Local Church Ministries, Worship and Education Ministry Team, 2002) 511.