St. Paul’s Congregational Church
August 4, 2019; Various scriptures – Lights of Liberty
The Rev. Cynthia F. Reynolds
Let us pray: may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
For two days this week, the town was working on sewer pipe maintenance in my neighborhood – I still had water, but the rest of the plumbing was off limits both days – at last I had an excuse not to do dishes because nothing could do down the drains. But as the noise of the trucks and machinery was unrelenting on those days, I began to get restless and frustrated that my “normal” living was being interrupted – sort of like some of you have felt when the roads are being dug up and repaved throughout Nutley this summer.
All of a sudden, though, as I read the complaints on the Facebook town pages I became a little embarrassed about my reaction to this temporary disruption – it’s such a first world problem, isn’t it.
Now, you all know that I’m a news junkie and being home allowed me to take in more than the usual amount of TV news – I realized that my frustration was not just about my plumbing issues but a reaction to the continuing coverage of conditions on our borders, the terrible plight of children and families in their desperate attempts for safety: and later in the month, the disgusting and relentless tweetstorms attacking mostly congresswomen and men of color, the lack of response by others in power – summer like temperatures in the Arctic melting glaciers – along with record breaking heat in Europe – just some of the effects of climate change we’re experiencing – the list went on. As I was writing yesterday news was breaking of the 3rd mass shooting this week – this time in El Paso – as I write the number of confirmed dead is 19, the number of injured is at least 40. Dear God, how long does this go on? When is enough enough? Yet again, I realized how powerless I felt to do something! It was pretty overwhelming.
But then I went back to that so very moving worship with my colleagues and members of such varied congregations that Friday night of the Light for Liberty observance on July 12: a time of such community, a time when we were gathered in a common purpose of prayer and a call to action. A time when the scriptures, the preaching, the music, the silence, the candles bringing light into our often dark world – all this came together to create an experience of centering, a profound feeling of empowerment for all of us present in God’s community that night.
From Micah 6: 6-8: a familiar, loved, and challenging passage: With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
8 And Micah’s response: he has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
For people of faith, on our lifelong journey of discipleship, our call is clear, isn’t it: to do justice, love kindness, love the stranger, and walk humbly with our God. It can’t be much clearer, more simple, than that. But, oh, so hard. But we can do this – together, walking with our God!
The gospel reading that night was from Luke 9: 46 – 48: an argument arose among the disciples as to which one of them was the greatest. 47 But Jesus, aware of their inner thoughts, took a little child and put it by his side, 48 and said to them, “Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me; for the least among all of you is the greatest.”
During Jesus’ time, children were disposable – they were property – they held no standing in society – and when the disciples argued, Jesus brought a child to the center – the least of these at his time – and teaches the disciples, teaches us, that we all matter! That we all are God’s children, due respect and dignity just because of that. No exceptions. All of us, created in God’s image – no exceptions. And it made me think deeply again – who are the least of these among us and how do I, how do we as a church community, live out God’s commandment to love God, to love our neighbor as ourselves, to do justice, to love kindness, to share hope – who is our neighbor, anyway?
Dave Shaw is the senior pastor of Union Congregational Church in Montclair – during my time away I worshipped there. He and a handful of other Union members spent a week in Brownsville, Texas at two different shelters for refugees coming across the border. There’s a bridge there that crosses into Mexico and they spent a week going back and forth between these shelters and crossed the border into Mexico – bringing food, supplies – but most of all their presence, bring hope to people who are waiting for up to six months to come into the United States. They heard stories of lives being threatened and loss of family members in unspeakable violence in their countries of origin, children and adults alike sick from sleeping on concrete floors, cold, hungry, dirty. But they also saw volunteers from the States helping in extraordinary ways; they also experienced the gratitude of the refugees – they were told by the refugees, “not just gracias” but that “your very presence keeps us going.” David and his “Team Brownsville” group experienced this world of hope, the goodness of humanity, in a most unlikely place: David said simply and profoundly, “This is the kingdom of God.”
The Park United Methodist Church in Bloomfield has long been involved in refugee resettlement in our area – including Syrian families and now a family from Guatemala. Back in April the pastor called together his congregation asking for help to assist a Guatemalan mother and child seeking asylum from a drug cartel in Guatemala who murdered the husband/father. The mother had documentation and police reports verifying the immediate threat to her and her daughter. A local person stood ready to drive to Texas, pick them up, and bring them to Bloomfield – the congregation approved travel expenses, becoming a co-sponsor on their pursuit of asylum/ sanctuary, and would help to gather legal, financial, and therapeutic support as part of a community effort. The family is now here – please keep them and others in the same situation in your prayers. This is a dangerous time for our brothers and sisters seeking asylum and sanctuary – so dangerous that much as they wanted to come to the Vigil service in July, it was not safe. I’m haunted by the image of the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven against this fact of life for our brothers and sisters around us today.
Two other scripture readings from the worship: from Leviticus 19: The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 2 Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy. 33 When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. 34 The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.
Indeed, we are all aliens, aren’t we. And God’s commandments are clear: the same for us as for those ancients Hebrews looking for the Promised Land.
And from Deuteronomy 10: 12-13, 18-19: 12 So now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you? Only to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, 13 and to keep the commandments of the Lord your God[a] and his decrees that I am commanding you today, for your own well-being.
18For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, who is not partial. It is God who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. 19 You shall also love the stranger, therefore, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
In the overall scheme of God’s plan, those plumbing frustrations mean nothing! I’m so grateful for that realization that brought me a freedom I’d lost! How do I, how will I, live that out? How do we as church live that out as we continue to discern our ministry?
Friday night I attended the New Voices of 2019, Learn Your Lessons Well performance at the Paper Mill Playhouse – I know some of you went this weekend as well – our own Valeria Flores was one of 120 extraordinarily gifted and talented performers ages 10- 18 who presented nearly 2 hours of breathtaking singing and dancing in concert. And as I watched the opening production numbers with all of the performers on the stage, I was so struck by the diversity of the group – all ethnicities, all shapes and sizes of the youth, bound together by their love of music, dance, their faces radiant with the happiness at doing what they love!
And even more impressive was the song that made a radically inclusive statement about LGBT love, mixed ethnicity love, and love between a teenage boy and girl. It was awesome!
And talk about energy! Talk about joy! Talk about empowerment! Talk about hope for the future! Talk about encouragement for our ministry!
One of the production numbers was “Start of Something New” from the show, High School Musical. Listen to some of the words and I challenge you to make them your own:
Living in my own world I Didn't understand That anything can happen
When you take a chance
I never believed in What I couldn't see
I never opened my heart
To all the possibilities
I know that something has changed. Never felt this way and right here tonight This could be the start of something new
It feels so right to be here with you.
Now who'd have ever thought that We'd both be here tonight And the world looks so much brighter With you by my side I know that something has changed Never felt this way I know it for real This could be the start of something new.
I never knew that it could happen till it happened to me I didn't know it before But now it's easy to see It's the start of something new It feels so right to be here with you And now looking in your eyes I feel in my heart That it's the start of something new It feels so right to be here with you And now looking in your eyes I feel in my heart The start of something new.
We’ve observed our 125th anniversary of ministry here at St. Paul’s church in some wonderful ways. But now maybe it’s time for something new in our ministry – building on the past, savoring the present, and looking forward to what’s to come. It’s the time to step up and believe, to see the world in a new way, firmly grounded in scripture and prayer, to face the ancient challenge to love God, love our neighbor, to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. God has shown us a radical welcome, open hospitality – now is the time for us to express that same radical welcome, that same open hospitality, to our neighbors – those we know and those we have not yet met.
People of God, we are called to this journey. Do you choose to walk this walk? I hope so - People of God, we can do this – together, surrounded by the love and strength of God.
I close with some challenging but hopeful words from another of the musical pieces from the New Voices 2019, this time from the Broadway hit show, Hamilton – History Has Its Eyes On You:
I was younger than you are now When I was given my first command I led my men straight into a massacre I witnessed their deaths firsthand I made every mistake And felt the shame rise in me And even now I lie awake
Knowing history has its eyes on me.
Let me tell you what I wish I'd known When I was young and dreamed of glory You have no control
Who lives, who dies, who tells your story
I know that we can win I know that greatness lies in you But remember from here on in
History has its eyes on you.
Friends, History has its eyes on us!
Our future is in God’s hands – may we joyfully and courageously follow God’s call - together. Amen.