Tuesday, May 19, 2015

May 17, 2015--An Altar in the World: The Practice of Encountering Others: Community

Rev. Tom Ott
Matthew 25: 34-37
Last week we celebrated One Body worship by canceling both of our normal Sunday morning worship services and inviting everyone to come together at 11:00AM. We were celebrating confirmation last Sunday and it felt right to assemble the whole congregation to lay hands on the five young people who joined their lives to the life and ministry of the Christian community.
Many of us really look forward to our One Body celebrations. There is lots of energy in the room because the sanctuary is filled with people. We get to see folks who don’t normally worship with us on Sunday morning. And we get to experience more variety in our worship ritual as we incorporate elements from two very different services into one celebration. Inevitably after one of our One Body services, several people will come up to me and say “We need to do this more often.”
But the number of people who come to our One Body worship celebrations is always less than the number of people who come to our two different services. Sometimes people just forget about the schedule change and show up too early or too late for the service that day, but a significant portion of the congregation doesn’t want to cancel the service they prefer in order to be together with everyone.
Last week I was following an interesting Facebook thread about Sunday’s One Body service. It started out very complimentary with one person posting a message about how much she appreciated a song that was sung by a soloist. Several others echoed her appreciation but then the comments took a more evaluative tone. One person observed that we seem to be finding our groove for One Body Worship. To him, last week felt like the best one we’d ever done and that sparked some conversation about what made it better: maybe it was because of the special occasion that provided a good reason for the whole community to be together or maybe it was because it wasn’t like either of the two regular services but had elements that were new to everyone.
And then the conversation became more critical. Some of the elements that had been planned for the service didn’t work out the way they were planned and that felt disappointing. Some people wondered who we were trying to reach with the service and whether or not the target audience found the experience meaningful. Some suggested that more people ought to be included in the planning of One Body worship. Some admitted they don’t ever come to the One Body services because it doesn’t give them the kind of worship experience they value like the one they have when they attend the service they prefer.
Here at First Congregational Church one of our core strategic priorities is to embody difference faithfully, but as I followed all the twists and turns of last week’s Facebook thread on our One Body Worship service, what I realized is that we are all drawn to people who like what we like. Whether we are young or old, conservative or liberal, traditional or modern, 10 o’clockers or 11:45’ers, we are most comfortable being with people we have the most in common with: people who dress like us, talk like us, behave like us, believe like us.
The truth is, there are multiple cultures within our faith community: not just the 10:00 worship culture and the 11:45 Koinonia culture. Within each of those bodies there are multiple cultures. There are some who value pageantry, formalized ritual, robes, vestments, candles and sacred symbols. It inspires awe and reverence in them and makes them mindful of the transcendent power and majesty of God. There are others who value simplicity, for whom the casual intimacy of worship makes them mindful of the imminence of God in the ordinary affairs of daily life.
There are some for whom the sound of a pipe organ inspires a worshipful spirit. There are some for whom the throbbing sound of a bass guitar and the driving beat of percussion produce a worshipful spirit. There are some who are moved to pray by sitting still and being quiet: they communicate best with God by bowing their heads, folding their hands and closing their eyes. There are others who pray best by moving their bodies, raising their arms, calling out to God with their own voices.
There are some who cherish 19th century hymnology: hymns that sing our theology and remind us of our connections with our parents and our grandparents who sang the same sacred songs. There are people for whom contemporary metaphors, common language and the rhythms of music they listen to every day helps them connect their daily life experiences to their life with God.
There are people for whom this sanctuary has become sacred space, who feel the presence of God most fully in their lives when they take their places in the pews that they have returned to week after week seeking solace, comfort, inspiration and hope. For them, this is the place where all of the most significant experiences in their lives have been celebrated: it is where they grieved the death of their parents, joined their lives in marriage and rejoiced in the birth of their children. There are others for whom this place is nothing more than a convenient place to gather because for them, it is the relationships that are sacred. They feel the presence of God embodied in the connections they have formed with the people they meet when they gather here: people they have grown to know and trust, people who have been there for them in times of sorrow and joy, people who have prayed with them, laughed with them, wept with them and rejoiced with them.
There are lots of different cultures within this congregation, and each cultural group has its own reasons for wanting things the way they want them, but this week as I followed the Facebook thread on our One Body service, I found myself wondering whether we really want to know each other well enough to understand and appreciate those differences?
Here is what usually happens in any organization, including churches, whenever different cultures begin to emerge: we sort ourselves into groups of people who are like us, who see things the way we see them and want things the way we want them. And then, before long, the different groups become competing factions. They develop an “us” and “them” mindset and begin to keep score of who gets their way when. When did they win and when did we win? In the best case scenario, people in the different competing factions learn to accommodate each other. They try to balance out the wins and losses and learn to tolerate each other. In the worst case scenario, the competing factions destroy each other. It becomes a battle for power that eventually results in one faction winning and the other being banished.
But this week the spiritual practice that Barbra Brown Taylor introduced encourages us to consider a different way of being in community; one that moves us beyond tolerance and inspires us to cherish our differences.
In her book, An Altar in the World, Taylor writes:
“…encountering another human being is as close to God as I may ever get-in the eye-to-eye thing, the person-to-person thing-which is where God’s Beloved has promised to show up. Paradoxically, the point is not to see him. The point is to see the person standing right in front of me, who has no substitute, who can never be replaced, whose heart holds things for which there is no language, whose life is an unsolved mystery. The moment I turn that person into a character in my own story, the encounter is over. I have stopped being a human being and have become a fiction writer instead. (102)”
Barbra Brown Taylor calls us into a different kind of community: one that sees God in the distinctiveness of each individual. Instead of isolating ourselves into groups of likeminded individuals, Christian community calls us to embrace the beautiful diversity of the world that God has created. Instead of making assumptions about why people do and say the things that they do, followers of Jesus are challenged to learn each other’s stories and become curious about the experiences that shaped each other’s lives.
Most of us are familiar with the words that Jesus said in the 25th chapter of Matthew’s gospel. Usually we hear those words as a call to respond to those who are in need. Our shorthand translation of Jesus’ message is: feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick. But that misses the true focus of the teaching. The phrase that gets repeated over and over again in our text for this morning is the phrase, “When was it that we saw you…when was it that we saw you…when was it that we saw you…?”
It is our capacity for seeing each other that is at the heart of authentic Christian community. That is what makes it possible for us to move beyond the divisive “us and them” mentality that permeates most social organizations. That is what moves us beyond competing factions that, at best, learn to tolerate their differences and at worst, end up destroying each other.
Authentic Christian community isn’t rooted in consensus of doctrine, or worship practices, or programs or polity. Authentic Christian community is rooted in the knowledge that God is most fully present when we see each other fully. Amen.

May 3, 2015--An Altar in the World: The Practice of Walking on the Earth - Groundedness

Rev. Tom Ott
"A riot is the language of the unheard." MLK 1968. Recovering the spiritual practice of walking on the earth may be next right step forward. Here are some reflections on the possibilities:
Matthew 6: 25-33
Some of my favorite memories from childhood are my overnight visits with nana and pop-pop Savage. They lived in half of a twin home in Mountainville on the south side of Allentown. Back then, South Fountain Street was a quiet residential neighborhood anchored by an ugly modern church building at the intersection of Emmaus Avenue and an underground reservoir at the other end of the street, higher up the south mountain. There wasn’t a lot of through traffic on South Fountain Street; mostly just neighbors heading off to work in the morning and returning home in the early evening. Occasionally there would be a delivery truck bringing milk or delivering parcels, but on most days there were more people walking on the sidewalk than driving in the street.
On most of my visits Nana and I would go for mid-morning walks together. After pop-pop went off to work and the breakfast dishes were washed and put away, before we got into any serious card games of “go fish” or board games of Parcheesi, we would head up to the street for a stroll around the neighborhood. Inevitably we would stop and visit with neighbors who were out digging in their gardens or sweeping off their sidewalks and Nana would embarrass me by showing off her grandson and remarking about how much I’ve grown or bragging about my latest elementary band concert or little league ball game.
What I remember most about walking with nana was the pacing. We were never in a hurry to get anywhere. It wasn’t a power walk for cardio-vascular conditioning. It was more of a leisurely stroll through the neighborhood. We would venture out to discover what there was to see. Eventually we would head up to the reservoir, which was nothing more than a grassy field with lots of ventilation pipes sticking up out of the ground, but knowing that there was a huge cistern filled with water right beneath my feet was intriguing to me as a child. Without a stop watch or a prescribed course, we were free to take whatever detour presented itself and linger as long as we wanted. There was time to search for the perfect walking stick, pick up and examine the colors and textures of rocks before chucking them deep into the woods, admire the flowers and tree blossoms and to catch up with neighbors we encountered along the way.
I don’t remember the particulars of any conversations that we had during our mid-morning walks together, but I remember the experience. I remember feeling included in nana’s world when we were out walking together. I wasn’t just a visitor in that Mountainville neighborhood, I felt connected. I had a place there beside my nana as we strolled through the neighborhood.
This week when David Sweitzer sent out an email about the bread he was baking on Friday, he shared a story about walking with a guide in Nepal. The guide had accompanied David and some friends who had gone hiking in the Himalayans and carried their supplies. There aren’t many roads in Nepal and many areas are only supplied by Sherpa carrying loads weighing as much as their own body weight on their backs. David remembered how attentive their guide had been to them during their walk together. He frequently encouraged them to slow down their pace as they climbed in the high mountain altitude. He accompanied them all the way of their trek and walked back to the airport with them, refusing to leave until he had seen them safely on their way even though he faced a week long walk to get back to Kathmandu for his next job.
There is something about walking that connects us more deeply to each other and the world around us. This past week when David learned of the earthquake that devastated Nepal and caused so much death and destruction, the tie that he still felt to the guide that had accompanied them compelled David to respond to the crisis in Nepal. All of the proceeds from Friday’s bread bake were dedicated to an NGO that has a good history of working effectively in Nepal. If you would like to contribute to David’s Nepal relief effort there are special offering envelops in the pews. You can make your check out to the church and mark the memo line for Nepal Relief.
We don’t spend very much time walking anymore. Most of the time we get into our cars and speed across town to get to wherever we want to go. Even when we travel out of town, we roll up the windows get on the highway and speed across country as quickly as we can. We don’t really see any of the places we pass bye. We don’t appreciate the beauty of the countryside. We don’t take in the unique character of the communities we pass through. We don’t enter into conversation with anyone we encounter along the way. Most of the time we rush from one place to next without noticing much of anything along the way.
But Jesus walked everywhere, and most of the stories that we have about his life are stories about encounters he had with people he met along the way: blind Bartimaeus calling out to him as he passed by, the woman with a flow of blood to reached out and touched his robe, a tax collector named Zacchaeus who climbed a tree to get a better view of Jesus. They weren’t people that Jesus had appointments to see. None of them were on his itinerary. They weren’t people he had intentionally set out to visit. They were all people he encountered while he was out walking. Most of the lessons that Jesus taught were not sermons carefully crafted in his study. They were observations he made about the things he notice while walking through the Galilean countryside:
“…do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? …Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?
In her book, “An Altar in the World,” Barbara Brown Taylor points out that, “While many of (Jesus’) present-day admirers pay close attention to what he said and did, they pay less attention to the pace at which he did it. Jesus was a walker, not a rider. He took his sweet time.”
More and more that feels like a spiritual practice that we need to recover. If we have any hope of ever living peacefully with each other in a multi-racial, multi ethnic world, then we are going to have to spend a significant amount of time walking with each other, strolling through the different neighborhoods we live in, opening ourselves to the detours, discoveries and chance encounters we might have along the way.
In 1968, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., speaking in Grosse Pointe, Mich., made an observation that we have continued to ignore at our own peril. He said, "I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard...What is it America has failed to hear? ... It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity."
Instead of driving through the blighted neighborhoods of Baltimore, Ferguson, and New York City, and even Battle Creek, we are going to have to get out our cars and take to the streets. We’re going to have to recover the ancient practice walking together and slowing ourselves down to a pace where we can actually talk with each other and learn each other’s stories. Instead of waiting for rioting and looting and then labeling people thugs, we’ll have to walk together through the neighborhoods that they live in and listen to the frustrations of the chronically unemployed, get in touch with the hopelessness of people who feel they have no opportunity of improving their lot and hear the resentments of those who are target by police for pat downs and searches because of the neighborhoods they live in or the color of their skin.
Something happens when we get out of our cars and walk. We get oriented to the world around us. We notice things that take time to see. And we become more accommodating when we walk together. We match our pace to suit the people we are accompanying. We look each other in the eye, talk more authentically and care more deeply. We get close enough to really see each other, hear each other, smell each other and touch each other. Walking together is a much more intimate experience than getting into our cars and driving to visit each other.
And walking takes time. It is a spiritual practice that slows us down long enough to be present with each other, to be attentive, to explore each other’s neighborhoods, and to care more deeply about each other’s welfare. Some of Jesus’ most significant encounters happened while he was walking through the foothills of Galilee. Perhaps the same will be true for us as we resume the ancient practice of walking on the earth together through all the different neighborhoods of Battle Creek: Urbandale, Washington Heights, Park Hill, Freedom Acres, Merritt Woods, Garrison Hills, Piper Park, Post-Addition, Springfield, Prairie View, West Lake, Riverside, Cascade Hills, Windamere, Minges, Pheasant Run.
Walking on the earth is the spiritual practice that grounds us and makes it possible for us to feel connected, included, at home on each other’s streets. Amen.

April 19, 2015--An Altar in the World: Paying Attention

Rev. Tom Ott
Exodus 3: 1-5
One of the ways we maintain the illusion of control in our lives is by shrinking the world down to a size that feels manageable.
We bring the sky down to a ceiling just a few feet above our heads, which, in most cases makes us the biggest thing in our world. We wall off the space that we live in so that we can arrange everything in our world to be exactly the way we want it to be. We choose the colors that we look at every day and the texture of ground beneath our feet: soft pile carpet in one area, smooth polished boards in another, hard glassy tiles in another. We arrange the furnishings to suit our preferences, we decorate the space to reflect our aesthetic sensibilities, and we control the light illuminating the world that we live in. By shrinking the world, we can keep everything relatively clean and neat. We can filter the pollen and dust particles out the air and set the temperature to our own liking. We can choose what to bring into our world and what to exclude.
Shrinking the world down to a more manageable size allows us to maintain the illusion of being in control of our lives. And when we have to venture outside, we enclose ourselves in a mobile miniature world that transports us from one shrunken world to the next.
But in between those places, on our way from one shrunken down world to another, if we step outside and look up, we are suddenly struck by the realization that the world is a much bigger place than we imagine.
There is an oak tree growing next to my house that is over 70 feet tall. It is probably closer to our house than it should be. Every once in a while, a branch will break off during a storm and impale itself in our roof. Twice since we’ve been in our house I’ve had to patch holes in the roof over our living room made by limbs the size of my forearm that penetrated the shingles and roof decking and were protruding down into our attic space.
I’ve been aware of that huge oak tree for the last seven years, but that tree has lived near the stream that flows past our house for more than a hundred and fifty years. Its canopy towers over the house I live in. Its lowest branches are so high that they have been inaccessible to anyone for a long, long time. Its trunk is so wide that my two arms won’t reach even half way around it. That tree has endured countless long cold winters and hot scorching summers. Every spring it buds with tender shoots of new growth and every fall it blankets the ground with its leaves and its acorns sustain another generation of chipmunks, squirrels, raccoons and deer.
I hold deep reverence for the huge oak tree growing beside my house. I don’t worship it or idolize it or attribute any divine powers to it. But I am in awe of it. When I stand next to the trunk of that beautiful tree and look up at its limbs towering above me, it makes me dizzy. It was alive even before my grandparents were born and in all likelihood, it will still be standing long after I am dead.
There is a perspective that I recover every time I see the huge tree growing next to my house. It is impossible to feel too self-important in the presence of such a mighty oak. I am dwarfed in its shadow, I am humbled by its beauty, I am overawed by its enduring strength.
The great oak tree next to my house never goes away. It doesn’t ever shrink back down to a sapling, it doesn’t uproot itself and wonder around the neighborhood. Its beauty, stature or strength doesn’t diminish with the changing seasons. The great oak tree next to my house is always there but I am not always in awe of its majesty. In fact, most of the time I’m am completely unaware of its proximity. Even though it stands little more than 10 feet away from the living room couch where I sit, relaxing, practically every evening of my life, it has little impact on me most of the time.
In order to experience the reverence inspired by the oak tree next to my house, I have to turn aside and pay attention to it. I have to get out of the shrunken world that I have created inside the four walls of my home and look up. I have to pause on my way to and from the busy activities that fill my days and stand still long enough to notice what is always there, standing right next to me.
Today in our scripture lesson from the book of Exodus, we heard part of the familiar story of the call of Moses. Usually when we hear that story our attention is drawn to the spectacle of the burning bush. It was on fire but it was not consumed by the fire, and the voice of God spoke to Moses from out of the burning bush. It was such a profound spiritual encounter for Moses that he felt compelled to take off his shoes because he realized that he was standing on holy ground.
Most of the time we move very quickly from the encounter with the burning bush to the activity that was inspired by it. From the burning bush, God called Moses to a ministry of liberation saying, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey...come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”
The burning bush encounter profoundly changed the trajectory of Moses’ life. Instead of tending the flocks of his father in law Jethro, he returned to Egypt, confronted the mighty power of Pharaoh, liberated the Hebrew people from their slavery and accompanied them throughout the forty years of their wilderness wandering.
Without the burning bush encounter, there would be no exodus, no gathering at Mt. Sinai, no tablets of stone, no Torah, no conquests of Joshua, no throne of David, no holy city of Jerusalem, no temple, no Israel, no Christianity, no conversion of Paul, no mission to the gentiles, no congregational movement, no pilgrims, no New England missionaries traveling to the Midwest frontier, no First Congregational Church in Battle Creek. It is not inaccurate to say that one bush is responsible for our being gathering in this space today offering our worship to God.
But as Barbra Brown Taylor points out in her book, An Altar in the World, the bush that was burning but not consumed was not right in front of Moses. It wasn’t blocking his way. It didn’t top him in his tracks. It was off to the side somewhere. Moses had to turn aside in order to investigate this thing that had caught his attention out of the corner of his eye. He could have easily gone on about his business without stopping. God didn’t yell to Moses from out of the burning bush. On the contrary, God was just waiting to see if Moses would pay attention. The text says, “When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And he said, ‘here I am.’”
That is what reverence requires. In order for us to become aware of anything greater than ourselves, we have to be willing to turn aside and pause long enough to see what is beyond our control and to notice what transcends our understanding.
This past Tuesday, Emily Joye and Tom and I were on retreat down at the Gilchrist Center just north of Three Rivers. It is a beautiful place to turn aside and become mindful of the full extent of our limits. In a meadow next to the house where we were staying there was huge labyrinth that had been mowed into the underbrush. It took us about an hour to make our way through the labyrinth, walking with our prayers, moving back and forth, in and out, sometimes walking away from each other, sometimes approaching each other.
When we all reached the center of the labyrinth we ended up laying on the ground on our backs looking up into the late afternoon sky. It was deep blue with high wispy clouds. Our eyes had been looking down most of the hour as we made our way through the undulating terrain of the labyrinth and the world had shrunken down to a few footfalls in front of us. But laying our backs looking up suddenly filled us with reverence and awe as considered our own size and the enormity of the world we live in.
This week I want to challenge you to turn aside and pay attention to a burning bush, or a towering oak tree, or billowy clouds drifting in the afternoon sky. Wednesday is Earth Day. Take some time to notice the miracle of life springing forth all around us: green shoots pushing up through the ground after lying dormant in the earth all winter long, the melodies of song birds, the soft warm flesh of another human being created in the image of God.
Don’t be content to live your life in a shrunken down world. You don’t have to go anywhere special or practice any complicated ritual to be reverent. Just step outside and look up, or turn to the person next to you and see their beauty. This week, turn aside and practice paying attention. Amen.

An Altar In The World: Vision Rev Tom Ryberg 4-12-2015

April 5, 2015--Easter: How exclusive is your Alleluia?

Rev. Tom Ott
Matthew 28: 1-20
If I didn’t know better, I would assume that we are in the exclusion business here in Christ’s church. All around the country states are rushing to pass legislation protecting our religious right to exclude.
No one else can get away with it anymore. Civil rights protections prevent state and federal governments from passing laws excluding people from services and opportunities. Discrimination laws prevent businesses from excluding customers from access to the goods and services they provide. School board policies prohibit educational institutions from excluding students from educational programs or services.
Today religion holds the exclusive right to exclude. If you want to say “no” to someone, you can only do so in the name of God: God insists that I say “no” to providing pediatric medical care to the children of same gendered couples, God insists that I say “no” to health insurance that covers birth control for my employees, God insists that I say “no” to entrusting unwanted children into the loving care of same gendered adoptive parents. If students publically condemn their peers at school, it isn’t bullying as long as it is based on their religious convictions. If parents deny their children access to vital medical treatment, it isn’t criminal child neglect as long as it is based on their religious convictions.
Does it surprise anyone that fewer and fewer people want anything to do with religion today? Only 46% of Americans attend church on a regular basis. “I’m spiritual but not religious” has become the watch cry of the post-baby boomer generations. The fastest growing population in America is the group that checks the box “none” for religious affiliation. Churches are closing every day and those that are still open are populated by people in their 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, but all across America state legislatures are rushing to safeguard our religious right to exclude.
If I didn’t know better, I would assume that we are in the exclusion business here in Christ’s church. That is really only time I hear the voice of the church speaking in public today. That seems to be the mission we are most committed to serving. That is what everyone is seems afraid of questioning or challenging. In America we respect the rights of religious people who claim that they are ordained by God to exclude.
But that is not our religion. Today on Easter Sunday, we have come together to proclaim God’s emphatic “YES” to the world. The fear and the hatred and the hypocrisy and the violence that had sealed the tomb holding the brutalized body of Jesus three days earlier was broken open by God on Easter morning.
God said “YES” to the world early that morning on the first day of the week, even after the world had said “no” to God. Even though jealousy, insecurity and fear had hardened people’s hearts, even though they harassed and threatened and betrayed and arrested and denied and humiliated and condemned and tortured and killed Jesus Christ, whom God had sent into the world as the incarnation of God’s love for the world, God refused to say “no.” God refused to give up. God refused to exclude. God refused to withhold the gift of life everlasting.
Easter is God’s unequivocal “YES.” Yes to life. Yes to everyone. Yes for all time. The rumble of the earthquake dislodging the stone and unsealing the empty tomb was the sound of God’s YES reverberating throughout the universe.
And those who were the first witnesses of that Easter event became God’s yes people. Simon Peter, who had earlier said “no” to Jesus three different times when questioned in the high priest’s courtyard, got to say “yes” three times over when the resurrected Jesus met him on the shore of the Sea of Galilee: “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these? Yes, Lord; you know that I love you…Yes, Lord; you know that I love you…Lord; you know everything; you know that I love you (John 21: 15-17).”
Instead of being excluded for his previous failure of nerve, Peter was rewarded with apostolic authority and became a great leader in the church. Later during an encounter with a Roman Centurion named Cornelius, Peter recognized the Holy Spirit at work in the life of his adversary. Instead of perpetuating the pattern of exclusion that always said “no” to contact with gentiles, Peter baptized Cornelius and his entire household and was inspired to proclaim God’s emphatic “YES” with these memorable words: “I truly perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation, anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to God (Acts 10: 34-35).”
Paul of Tarsus was a young Pharisee who had committed himself to excluding followers of Jesus from the Jewish community and had been given special dispensation to hunt down and persecute members of The Way after his role in instigating the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. But while Paul was on the road to Damascus, his life changed forever when he was blinded by a bright light and heard the voice of the resurrected Jesus inviting him to say “yes” to the all-inclusive love of God. From that day on, Paul dedicated his life to sharing the good news of the gospel with those who had previously been excluded. It was Paul who penned the beautiful affirmation of God’s emphatic “YES” to the world:
“If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? …Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? ...No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8: 31-39). “
Those who first witnessed God’s emphatic “YES” on Easter morning went on to found a community of people who said “yes” to the world. They had a radically different orientation to the world because, like Jesus, they embodied God’s “YES” in their daily lives: yes you are welcome in my home, yes I will share what I have with you, yes I will pray with you and study with you and serve with you, yes you matter, yes you can make a difference, yes you have unique gifts to share, yes you can be like Jesus, yes you can change the world, yes faith, hope and love endure forever.
That religious community, founded on the resurrection “YES” of Easter morning, is our religious community. For 2000 years God’s “YES” has been proclaimed and embodied and shared with the world through those of us who have been gathering every Easter morning to sing our joyful Alleluia’s.
I don’t know whose religion needs special legal protection to preserve their right to exclude, but it isn’t ours. We people of the resurrection know that nothing has the power to exclude anyone from the love of God that was revealed to all the world on the day when the earth shook and the stone rolled and the empty tomb of Jesus was unsealed forever. Amen.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Pastor Tom Ryberg May 2015 Congregationalist

Luke Taylor Ryberg arrived Sunday, May 3 at 7:25am

He weighed 9lbs 2oz and was 21 inches long

Pastor Emily Joye May 2015 Congregationalist

This is Aunt Rose. She is my spouse's father's sister. She is the oldest of 10 Reynolds siblings descended from Joseph and Martha Reynolds. She is 92. I met her while on a pilgrimage with J.R., Aurora and Isaiah to Hammonton NJ where the Reynolds' spent summers together. I met many beautiful souls in Hammonton for the first time while on vacation last week, people who share DNA and histories of love, laughter, aging, death, geography, and separation. I met cousins, aunts and uncles, family members by marriage, ages spanning all the generations. But the encounter with Aunt Rose stands out the most. Here's why.

I didn't grow up knowing much about my biological connections. That felt like a huge loss I didn't  even know I'd endured until
it was too late to do anything about it. But then God did what God does and connected me to family genealogists. I remember the first time I saw pictures of my brother and sister and their kids on Facebook: we all share my biological father's nose. I cried and cried seeing the family resemblance. It felt like reconnecting to parts of myself that, again, I didn't even know were lost. All this to say, when I began having children, making sure they had/have access to their ancestors was/is a huge priority for me.

Isaiah will never meet his grandpa, Joseph Reynolds II. He died at the age of 59 in 1984-too early. I grieve that loss even though I never met the man. His wife, Vivian Reynolds, and his daughter and son Susan Reynolds and Joseph Reynolds will often tell stories about him at the dinner table. I thank God for those stories. They help paint a picture. But I knew as soon as I saw Aunt Rose that I wanted to hear stories about Isaiah's grandpa from her. She'd grown up with him. She was his sister. But it wasn't her family status that clued me in. It was that she started crying the minute J.R. walked in the door. She got filled with the Holy Spirit in ways that I imagine only those of us who pay real close attention to the way grief and wonder wrap up in each other can understand. J.R. leaned down to kiss her and I thought her knees would fall out. It was a happiness this world can't give nor take away. Their reunion incarnated something. I felt Joseph Reynolds II in the room. Aunt Rose's tears just kept coming; they ushered him in.
Tears mean something. They mean something spiritual and significant. When our elders cry, we ought to lean in and ask them to pour out the world for us. They hold universes within them.

She sat on the couch quietly for most of the visit. She kept staring at Isaiah saying how much he looked like Ian and Quinn--her great grandsons. It's true; they look exactly alike. Before it was time to go, I got on my knees and asked her about her brother. She smiled into my eyes and just kept saying "ohhh, he was such a good man." Then she looked at J.R. and said "like him, outgoing and happy personality. He would do anything for anyone." She couldn't say much else. I don't know if it was overwhelming to be asked such a far reaching question or if memory loss might have been in the mix--but she left it at that. We got up to leave and she burst out in tears again, like a yearning within her couldn't take yet another separation. J.R. leaned and kissed her and said "you go ahead and cry." So she did while she held him tight. And Isaiah was there to witness the whole thing.

Sometimes we share through stories. Other times recipes, landmarks, and/or traditions passed down. Many times it's tears. And they are generous and real enough. This is how we bear witness. This is how we keep each other alive in the present and over years. This is the work of incarnation and resurrection.

Pastor Tom Ott May 2015 Congregationalist

When is enough enough?  It’s a question I think about lately whenever I walk into the sanctuary and look up. All around the room I see ugly brown stains and crumbling plaster, the tell-tale signs of the need for a new roof. It breaks my heart to see the beauty of our sanctuary marred by the infiltration of rainwater.

It also challenges my confidence in our faith community. I wonder if we have the commitment we need to pay for the roof replacement, plaster repair and painting of the sanctuary ceiling. We’re still getting estimates, but the cost is likely to be around $150,000. That is a lot of money.  Especially when we are struggling to cover our operating costs.
I know the deep sense of relief we all felt earlier this spring when we finally paid off our mortgage from the 6.5 million dollar renovation that we undertook 17 years ago to transform our church space. During the three capital campaigns to pay off that building debt, many of our members transferred significant assets to the church that took a lifetime to save and grow. Others made sacrifices in their household spending in order to dedicate a portion of their annual income towards one or more of the campaign pledges.

We were a much bigger congregation 17 years ago when we undertook the major renovation to our space. Today we are a small church with fewer members to help carry the financial load.  I suspect that many of us are asking, “When is enough enough?”

  • I then think about the significance of everything that happens under the dome of our sanctuary.
  • I think about lives that are transformed.
  • I think about all of the faithful people who have gathered for worship under the dome every Sunday since the doors of the building were first opened 107 years ago in 1908.
  • I think about all of the songs of praise lifted to God, the silent and spoken prayers of thanksgiving, the pleads of intercession, the reading of sacred texts, the inspirational sermons. 
  • I think about the hands stretching for offering plates to share gifts in support of the ministries of our church and the arms opening to embrace one another in fellowship. 
  • I think about our fifty year members who have gathered under the dome of our sanctuary practically every week of their lives. 
  • I think about grandparents celebrating their children’s and their children’s children baptisms, initiating them into a community of believers stretching all the way back to the first followers of Jesus. 
  • I think about the couples who commit their lives to each other and the grieving families seeking comfort and solace under the dome of our sanctuary.
  • I think of the miracle of Koinonia, a new community that Emily Joye and Tom have gathered under our dome that is touching a generation that has largely given up on church but have found in our church a community that embraces them, supports them, challenges and connects them.
  • I think of the hearts that have been lifted by the music performed under our dome: sacred anthems sung by choirs, organ recitals, Sunday Afternoon Live concerts, boys and girls choir concerts, community choir concerts, the choir camps and all city choir concerts. 
  • I think about gatherings under our dome that transcend racial and gender divisions:  Freedom School’s commencement, choir concerts from historically black colleges, Bridges to Cultural Understanding programs, Center for Diversity and Innovation programs, Biblical Self-Defense training for LGBTQ people, Transgender Day of Remembrance celebrations, guest speakers and preachers who have inspired in the work of racial equity and gender inclusivity.

Mostly, I think about the people I look forward to being with whenever I take my place under the dome of our sanctuary, and when I do I know I can never get enough: never enough of their encouragement, never enough of their support, never enough of their inspiration, never enough of their love.

Enough is never enough for me here at First Congregational Church.

Queer Revival: Is there religious life for LGBTQQIA Christians beyond reaction and defense?

Each June, our nation celebrate Pride Month, in which we celebrate the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Questioning, Intersex, and Asexual members of our communities. This year during Pride month, First Congregational Church will be kicking off a series called Queer Revival in our Koinonia community. We will be inviting in LGBTQQIA clergy from around the nation to speak during the Koinonia service and to hold workshops after worship. The final Sunday will be a time of celebration with a Pride party to follow the service.

Queer is an often misunderstood term. It has been often used in a derogatory way to insult those who are not heterosexual or who do not fit gender stereotypes. However, within the LGBTQQIA community, it is often used as shorthand for anyone or anything that does not fit stereotypes or assumed identities within dominant culture. Many within the LGBTQQIA Christian community seek to reclaim this term as a holy designation for the unique perspective, voice and gifts that queerness brings to our faith tradition.

FCCBC (as well as the United Church of Christ) stands in contrast to much of the Christian community as an open and affirming congregation. Even beyond being a welcoming place for LGBTQQIA people, we see that anything queer (stands in contrast to cultural norms) is of G-d. We want to spend time reviving and celebrating our commitment to embrace queerness in the way we love and live out our faith.

Leading up to Queer Revival, I will be leading Queer Theology 101 on Wednesday nights after Centerpoint (starting May 13). This study will examine our responsibility as Christians to understand the impact of queer theology on how we love one another, on our role in social justice action and on how we lead the way within the Christian community to adopt an attitude of radical welcome. —Jaimie Fales-Brown