Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Stories We Tell - Sermon on August 24, 2014

“The Stories We Tell”
Rev. Katelyn B. Macrae
Richmond Congregational Church
August 24, 2014

On Sesame Street they sang, "one of these things is not like the other, one of these things just doesn’t belong." And, at first appearance it may seem so as we approach these texts from Exodus in the Hebrew Bible and Paul’s letter to the Romans in the New Testament. And yet, the Revised Common Lectionary has paired them together ---- so let’s see if we might find the connections between them today.

When I was in seminary, this passage from Romans got right to the heart of the transformation and challenge I was experiencing as a student. I really resonated with this passage and went so far as to put it in my e-mail signature line!

When Paul issued this challenge to his first century community – "do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds" – he was trying to inspire a small community of believers who were seeking to follow a new faith tradition where they were surrounded by the dominant culture of the Roman Empire.

One example of this difference is Pax Romana vs. Pax Christi. Pax Romana, as practiced by the Roman Empire was peace by subversion, conquering and military rule whereas Pax Christi, was the peace that Jesus spoke of that could only be gained through loving and respecting neighbors, and having transforming relationships that went across the social and cultural divisions.

In our story from Exodus that we read this morning, the King seems to be practicing a similar type of rule to that of the Roman Empire. It says that the King did not know Joseph, who saved the Egyptians from seven years of famine by building up their grain stores. Finally The Hebrews have had an opportunity to follow the provisions of the Abrahamic covenant we heard about earlier this summer with Abraham and Moses. They’ve been fruitful and multiplied. But the King feels threatened by the growing numbers of Hebrew people, so he orders the killing of all of the Hebrew male children. Hebrew society was patrilineal, so by killing all of the males, the king was trying to wipe out the Hebrew people’s identity and connection.

In this story, the midwives (Shiphrah and Puah) do not carry out the king’s wishes. The scripture says that Shiphrah and Puah “knew God.” In a very subversive act, they lie to the king and say that the Hebrew women are “more vigorous” and give birth before the midwives have gotten there. One biblical commentator suggests the king must be unfamiliar with childbirth and the fact that the process usually takes many hours! The midwives use the king’s ignorance to their advantage. As Paul’s writes to the Romans many centuries later, the midwives would “not be conformed.”

Earlier this month, I discovered a BBC show called “Call the Midwife.” The series is about midwives working in the East End of London post WWII.  The midwives of Nonantus House are a community of young idealistic nurses and Anglican nuns, who together encounter all sorts of precarious situations made for TV drama – a Spanish-speaking woman with 19 children, whose husband only speaks English, excessive poverty, immigrant families domestic violence, racism, disease and the other challenges of urban poverty. These midwives find their niche in a community that sorely needs them.

The midwives accompany these women through the journey of childbirth, helping them to have healthy babies in spite of the conditions the children are born into.

The midwives also attend to residents other health concerns. In one episode, tuberculosis spread rampantly through the close confines of the East End.  The midwives learn that the hospital they work in conjunction with is getting an x-ray van to do lung x-rays to screen people for tuberculosis. But the van is slated to go to higher income neighborhoods first. The obstetrics doctor and one of the midwives goes before the hospital board and petition for the van to come to this low-income community first as the risk of spreading infection is much higher there.

The midwives are successful in getting the x-ray van to the neighborhood, and screen a record number of residents. With early detection, people infected are able to get treated quicker, and also slow the rate of infection for others.

As people of faith, I wonder, how are we like midwives? Are there ways that we can challenge the expectations and the norms of the dominant culture in places where there is dis-ease? Not just with justice and access to medical care, but with any number of concerns – such as hunger, housing, and poverty.

The bible is filled with stories where God does something new in the most unlikely of places and with the most unlikely of people. In today’s stories alone, think of how God chooses “unlikely” people to be ministers and midwives –

Paul, the author of Romans, was converted from Saul. Paul goes from working for the Roman Empire, to encouraging his community “not to be conformed” to it!

In the gospel text for this week from Matthew, (which we did not read today but was in the Lectionary) the disciple Peter seems to get it right one moment, and then screw up the next. Do you remember the story from a few weeks ago when Peter walked on water for a few steps and then began to sink? Yet Jesus chooses Peter to be “the rock” of the church and gives him the keys to the kingdom.

In the story that we heard today during Children’s Time, Old Turtle speaks a quiet peace among everyone who is arguing about trying to understand who God is, based on their experience.  Everyone gets louder and louder.

They can’t hear or understand each other, because they are each hung up on their own ideas. Then Old Turtle, quiet unlikely old turtle, gets their attention. Old Turtle helps each creature understand they each have an understanding of who God is, and when they put all of these stories together, it points to a much richer understanding of God.

Maybe it’s like that with us as a community of faith, a community of unlikely followers, each with our own stories and gifts. When we take time to share our stories, and listen to each other, like putting together the pieces of the puzzle, soon, a greater picture of who God is, and what God can do, emerges.

In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he is writing to a small community, giving them an ethic for how to live together and practice their faith, in a dominant culture that does not necessarily welcome or appreciate their point of view. He urges them “not to be conformed, but to be transformed” – through learning, through discerning, through hearing the stories of God working in the world.

So it is with us as a community of faith here in Richmond, Vermont. We are not living in an oppressive Roman Empire, but we do live in one of the most secular states in the US.

And we have an important story to tell – the story of God’s transforming, abundant love and grace offered to all.  We are an amazing expression of the Body of Christ – some teachers, some ministers, some deacons, some preachers, some cooks, some artists, some money counters, each with a different story, a different skill set, a different understanding and experience of God.

As our children and educators head back to school this week, let’s be midwives for each other’s learning. Let’s tell the story of God who can and does work in unlikely ways with unlikely people in unimaginable situations, as well as in the day to day stuff of life. Let’s discern together. Let’s be transformed together. May it be so.


Friday, August 15, 2014

If I Had A Backpack

If I Had a Backpack
Tune: If I Had a Hammer
Lyrics: Katelyn Macrae
August 15, 2014

If I had a backpack,
I’d pack it for school
Preparin’ for learning,
Learning ‘bout mathematics,
English and science,
And the history of my brothers and my sisters,
All over this land.

When I’m in the classroom,
Reading and writing,
Critically thinking,
And taking exams.
Sometimes I wonder,
What’s all the bother?
Why can’t there be love between my brothers and my sisters
All over this land?

Now I’m an adult,
And I’ve got a briefcase,
With my laptop,
And a smartphone.
But sometimes I ponder,
Are we any smarter,
When we have strugglin’ between our brothers and our sisters
In so many lands?

We are the Church,
Called by Jesus,
To live the Good News,
In every way.*
We learn in the morning,
We pray in the evening,
And work for love between our brothers and our sisters
in all lands.

Ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh.

*or every day

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

“Wrestling with Scarcity and Abundance” - Sermon on August 3, 2014

“Wrestling with Scarcity and Abundance”
August 3, 2014
Rev. Katelyn B. Macrae
Richmond Congregational Church

Prayer: Dear God, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our creator, redeemer and sustainer. Amen.

We all have stories and struggles that we carry with us as we go throughout life. Sometimes it is writers, artists, and other creative visionaries who are able to speak best to the human experiences that we all share.

  M.F.K. Fischer was a well known 20th century food writer. Her books were part food log part travel memoir. She said, "People ask me: 'Why do you write about food, and eating, and drinking? Why don't you write about the struggle for power and security, and about love, the way the others do?'...The easiest answer is to say that, like most other humans, I am hungry."

Food is such a basic human need, right there on the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, along with shelter and water.

In the spring of 2009, I visited El Salvador as part of a cultural immersion and learning experience with a group of students from my seminary. Our group came from many different denominational backgrounds, but our host was the Anglican Episcopal Diocese of El Salvador. We stayed in the church’s dorm in San Salvador, and each day would travel out to a different location. We visited schools, churches, health clinics and mission sites. We were there to learn about El Salvador’s history, especially about Bishop Oscar Romero, the El Salvadoran Civil War, and the church’s current work. One day, we went to a mountain top community that was building a water pump to get water from the river below up to their farming.

Before the water pump, the villagers had to walk up and down a steep hill to fetch water for all of their daily living needs as well as for their animals and crops. As you might imagine, this process of going down, getting water and then carrying it back up, was tedious and challenging.

The church had been working with this community for a number of years. Before the water pump project, they helped the community build a bridge.

The community was up on the top of the mountain, and during the rainy season, the road would flood and became impassable for a car.

Like the location in our Gospel story from Matthew, this place was not only hard to get to, there was also very little there to feed people.

During El Salvador’s Civil War an entire generation’s worth of farming knowledge was lost. People working in the fields were easy targets for aerial bombing. People stopped farming, and many picked up weapons. They were trying to survive.

After the war ended, people such as the ones who lived in these mountain communities, tried resume their lives. But they had lost the knowledge of the previous generations’ farming techniques. Seeds were not saved from year to year.  Much of the fertile soil was depleted.

People who tried to grow crops were starting from scratch. They had to learn how to farm and borrow money for seeds and fertilizer. Given this, new farmers could barely turn a profit.

The church in El Salvador had a vision that if they could teach people organic farming practices such as saving seeds, using natural fertilizer, and growing crops better suited for their soil, it would help people to better provide for their communities, and hopefully, eventually, climb out of poverty. As people transitioned from learning how to use guns to learning how to garden it was a literal turning of swords into plowshares.

The church committed itself to this vision that that another way was possible for the people of El Salvador.

Yet, economic and political realities in El Salvador, and other Central American countries, persist. Even with all the good work of NGOS and religious organizations, economic security and stability is far off for many people. Gangs run rampant. There are not the same opportunities for people to get education, there aren’t that many “middle class jobs” and many families now rely on relatives working abroad in the United States to send remittances home. Almost everyone knows or is related to someone who has gone to “El Norte.”

People risk their lives to cross the border – to the American dream of freedom and prosperity. But what they often meet is anything but that. If they do make it here, many take below minimum wage jobs, endure unsafe working conditions and yet pay taxes and are a vital part of our economy.

We can no longer ignore the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants who are residing in the United States. Our current immigration policies need drastic reform. It is time for people of faith to step up and be the visionaries that say “another way is possible.”

On Thursday, a group of UCC leaders joined with other religious and social justice advocates in front of the White House to call on President Obama to stop the mass deportations of children, and reform our immigration policies. In addition to this action, the delegation also visited legislators, and encouraged them to take action before their August recess.. 

Da Vita McCallister, the Conference Minister for Children and Youth in the CT Conference, posted on facebook to explain why she was going -

I have tried to imagine how desperate I would have to be to tell my 16 year old son, ‘take your nephew (almost 3 years old) and these two sandwiches. Walk to California and give the first person you see this note. It has the name of a friend of mine and she will take care of the two of you."

And yet, there are mothers who feel they have no other choice but to do this.

As food writer M.F. K. Fisher wrote - “Like most other humans, I am hungry….”

I imagine that the crowds gathered around Jesus in that deserted place were hungry too. They were not only physically hungry but hungry for the comfort of being in a safe place.

In the verses immediately before our story from Matthew’s Gospel begins, Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist was beheaded by Herod and his head was served up on a platter. No doubt, the people following Jesus had heard about this. They were also grieving the loss of John the Baptist, and not sure what Herod might do next.

Our story begins– “Now when Jesus heard this” – this being the beheading of John - he took a boat to a deserted place by himself to grieve. The people followed on foot. Even though Jesus was trying to be alone, Matthew says that Jesus “had compassion” for them – he healed and cured the sick all day.

But as it got to be close to nightfall the disciples were concerned.  They came to Jesus and asked, “Should we send them into the village so that they can buy something to eat?” Remember, they were in a deserted place. And so they scratched their heads and dug around through their pockets and in their bags.

Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”

“We’ve got nothing here but five loaves and two fish,”

Jesus, also keenly aware of the thousands of people out there said, “Bring them here to me.” Jesus sees the meager offerings that the disciples have to feed the people, and he blesses them any way. In his actions, Jesus casts this vision that this food can and will be enough. Instead of focusing on scarcity, he sees the opportunity for abundance.

It’s similar to how the church in El Salvador saw an opportunity to teach people to farm – and therefore to move out of scarcity towards abundance.

In a few minutes we will celebrate Communion.
There is a great Latin American Bread Prayer that goes – Give bread to those that are hungry, and a hunger for justice to those who have bread.

As we break bread, let this be our prayer. Because when we pray, we’re not only asking for God to do something, but we’re also transformed through the process of prayer.

Lynn Bunyak, the VT Conference minister wrote this about prayer this week –

“By praying we open ourselves to God's work within us, making us more compassionate and able hear God's call more clearly. Prayer is a subversive act that not only changes the world, but changes us and our relationship to the world filled with people whom God loves with an everlasting love.”

Friends, as we go about our week, may we take time to pray, and as we pray may we be open to how God might be calling us to be the artists, visionaries, writers, and people of faith who can further the narrative of God’s abundant generosity for all of God’s children.

May it be so.


Seatbelts, Lifejackets, and Bike Helmets - Sermon from August 10, 2014

“Seatbelts, Lifejackets, and Bike Helmets”
August 10, 2014
Rev. Katelyn B. Macrae
Richmond Congregational Church

Prayer: Dear God, may the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight. O God, our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Amen.

By a show of hands, how many of you consider yourselves safety conscious?

Growing up my parents were always very safety conscious with my sister and I. We held hands and looked both ways before we crossed the street. We buckled our seatbelts before the car moved and sang “Buckle Up for Safety.” We wore bike helmets for riding bikes, and lifejackets for boating. I started wearing a ski helmet long before they became the norm, and I still remember the neon yellow and pink knee and elbow pads that I had for my roller blades. Wearing safety equipment was just part of what we did in the Macrae family.

Though my parents were safety conscious, they also encouraged my sister and I to play and explore outside.
One late spring day when I was in second or third grade, my dad and I were out in the river and a gust of wind came up and our little row boat capsized. The water was cold. Another boater came over and pulled us to safety. We were okay. But this incident has forever cemented my belief in wearing life jackets when boating!

I can imagine that if life preservers did exist two thousand years ago, the disciples would have been happy to be wearing them.

This story that we read today appears only in Matthew’s Gospel. It’s the second time that Jesus ministers to his disciples in the boat. The first time they’re in a boat going across the sea, and the storm is raging. Jesus is asleep through the storm, and so they wake Jesus up and he calms the storm.

This time, the disciples are by themselves in the boat. This story from Matthew follows on the heels of our story last week where Jesus and the disciples fed the 5,000. Jesus tried to get away to a quiet spot after learning of John the Baptist’s death. But, the crowds followed him and he didn’t get a chance to mourn. So now, after the day of healing, and an evening of feeding, Jesus finally gets away to a quiet place to pray. He sends the disciples, who are also tired and grieving, across the sea so that they can continue ministering.
The storm rages all night long as they journey to the other shore. In this time period, the sea and nighttime were associated with evil spirits, and the devil. You can imagine the disciples’ stomachs sinking with fear when, at around 3 AM, they see this shadowy figure coming towards them in the mist – walking on the water.

Who is it? What is it?

 They are wrapped in fear - “It’s a ghost.”

Jesus calls back, “Take heart, It is I; do not be afraid.” Other translations render this phrase as “Take heart, I am, do not be afraid.” Calling himself “I am” links Jesus with the name of God used in the Hebrew scriptures, “I am who I am.” This is quite the opposite of what the disciples may have thought was coming towards them in the midst of the storm.

But even with this reassurance, Peter decides to test the shadowy figure in the mists -

He calls to Jesus, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”

So, Jesus calls Peter, “Come.”

He climbs over the gunwale, and his feet touch the surface…

He takes a few steps…

He’s actually walking on the water!

But then, then a gust of wind comes up and Peter gets scared, and it’s only then that he begins to sink…

He cries out, “Lord, save me.”

Immediately Jesus grabs his arm and pulls him up and out of the deep, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

Then Jesus and Peter get into the boat with the disciples, and the wind subsides.

The disciples recognize Jesus as the Son of God and they worship him.

The theological term for this kind of a story is a “theophany” - a story of God appearing.

This story gives us a glimpse of the intimate relationship that Jesus had with his disciples and the way that he cared for them. It also gives teaches us about human behavior. Peter’s actions remind us how quickly we can go from confident and cocky to crying out for help in the face of our fears.

One message we can take from the story is that we should try to avoid what Peter did. He let his doubt and fear get in the way, and began to sink. Therefore, if we can just keep our eyes on Jesus, no matter the storms, and just have faith, we won’t sink. But the reality is that very few of us will ever cultivate such a singular and unwavering faith. 

Sometimes, like Peter, we balance between faith and doubt. We can get distracted by the waves and the wind of family concerns, economic hardship, illness and disease, broken relationships, and news headlines. We feel the need to challenge and test Jesus to see if he is real. This story reminds us that even with all of our fears and doubts and questions and challenges; Jesus wants to be in relationship with us.

Jesus responds to Peter’s challenge with an invitation… “Come.” 

And Peter is doing fine walking on the water, until suddenly he’s not. Peter is literally in over his head when he realizes Jesus for who he is. Jesus comes to Peter, Jesus saves Peter, just as Jesus comes to us -

And through the questioning, struggle, challenge and the embrace, we, like Peter, can arrive at a greater and deeper understanding of who God is, and how God longs to be in relationship with us. Our relationship with God, like bike helmets, seatbelts and lifejackets doesn’t guarantee that we’ll always be free from harm.
But it equips and empowers us to grow, to explore, to try new things, to question, to take risks, to get out of the boats and walk beyond our comfort zone.

Our relationship with God, challenges us to try seemingly impossible and foolish things –
o   Like feeding 5,000 people with 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish
o   Walking on water
o   Or, Being a community of faith, changing people’s lives, advocating for peace and justice, and abundant love, in a dominant culture that says the church is no longer relevant.

That’s the God that I want to be in relationship with -
God who comes to us in our deepest nights,
God who calls us beyond our comfort zones and challenges us,
God whose hands save us from our foolishness and whose love wraps around each of us like a life  
     jacket we can never remove.
God who climbs into the boat with us to ride out the wild storms.
Thanks be to God for this relationship.