11-27 “A Pause for More Thanksgiving”

“A Pause for More Thanksgiving”

A meditation based on Luke 17:11-19

November 26, 2017

Community Congregational Church of Chula Vista

Dr. Sharon R. Graff

* * * * *

                   Today is a day not too often experienced in the Christian year…it is a pause, on a Sunday, for even more thanksgiving!  Usually, we go right from Thanksgiving Sunday (last week) directly into Advent.  But not this year.  This year, the calendar gives us a blissful extra Sunday before the waiting of Advent begins next week.  And with this extra Sunday of giving thanks, we’ve read one of Jesus’ best teachings on the topic of gratitude.

                   The story of the ten lepers, healed by Jesus, with emphasis on the one who returns to give thanks, is a story that inspires some questions.  Was Jesus teaching a lesson on good manners?  Always give thanks…go out of your way to show appreciation… practice gratitude and you will be rewarded.  After all, Jesus does say to the one who returns thanks, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”  And yet, the other nine were healed, too, even without Jesus remarking on their faith or them returning to him to say thank you.  So it seems more than manners and more than faith that Jesus is teaching here.

                   Perhaps Jesus was showing us that healing sneaks up, sometimes unobserved, like it did for that one man.  Verse 15: “Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice.”  That verse packs a lot in!  The man was, like the other nine, following Jesus’ instructions to go to the priests.  Along the way, the man looked and noticed he was healed.  Can you imagine that moment?  The unbelievable shake of the head.  The stop-in-his-tracks sudden jolt of this new reality.  He was healed.  No more leprosy.  The condition, which had isolated him—socially, legally, religiously—isolated him from his community, from his family—that condition disappeared while he was walking away from Jesus and toward those priests.  Healing is like that, isn’t it?  We notice it, sometimes bit by bit, often in a flash of insight.  The pain is gone.  The wrong committed to us or by us is no longer a heavy weight on our shoulders.  The doctor says all tests are go.  In that moment of awareness, our bodies rejoice!  And, if we are awake, spiritually awake, like that one former-leper was awake, then we turn our attention immediately toward God and gratitude.

                   In our day, we are fortunate to live in a time where scientists continue to repeatedly prove the benefits of gratitude.  A few years ago, Harvard Health Medical School published an article that delineated gratitude’s health benefits.  A couple of leading scientific experts in the field of gratitude, asked three groups of people to write a few sentences each week about their lives over the past seven days.  One group wrote about things they were grateful for that had occurred during the week.  A second group wrote about daily irritations or things that had displeased them, and the third wrote about events that had affected them (with no emphasis on them being positive or negative).  After 10 weeks, those who wrote about gratitude were more optimistic and felt better about their lives.  Surprisingly, they also exercised more and had fewer visits to physicians than those who focused on sources of aggravation.  Harvard Health reported that most studies published on gratitude support that association between gratitude and a person’s general well-being.

                   Forbes.com picked up on this, and in 2014, they published a variety of research that revealed seven benefits of regularly practicing gratitude. 

  1. Gratitude opens the door to more relationships and new opportunities.
  2. Gratitude improves physical health.
  3. Gratitude improves psychological health, by reducing a multitude of toxic emotions, ranging from envy and resentment to frustration and regret.
  4. Gratitude enhances empathy and reduces aggression. Grateful people are more likely to behave in a positive manner, even when others around them behave less kind; and people who practice gratitude are less likely to retaliate against others, have more empathy and a decreased desire to seek revenge.
  5. Grateful people sleep better.
  6. Gratitude improves self-esteem. Rather than becoming resentful toward people who have more money or better jobs—which is a major factor in lower self-esteem—grateful people are able to appreciate other people’s accomplishments.
  7. Gratitude increases mental strength. For years, research has shown gratitude not only reduces stress, but it may also play a major role in overcoming trauma.  A study found that Vietnam War Veterans with higher levels of gratitude experienced lower rates of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.  Another study found that gratitude was a major contributor to resilience following the terrorist attacks on September 11.  Recognizing all you have to be thankful for—even during the worst times of your life—gratitude seems to foster resilience.

The Forbes article concluded, “gratitude may be one of the most overlooked tools that we all have access to every day.  Cultivating gratitude doesn’t cost any money and it certainly doesn’t take much time, but the benefits are enormous.”

                   Earlier this year, there was an article published in Greater Good Magazine, a journal dedicated to science-based insights to help us live more meaningful lives.  That article indicated what we’ve seen already this morning, plus more.  While the practice of gratitude is clearly beneficial for those of us who are already relatively healthy, Greater Good showed that gratitude also benefits those of us with mental health concerns.  They invited a group of adults who were seeking counseling services for depression or anxiety to add to their therapy…by writing one letter of gratitude to someone each week for three weeks.  Two other groups were asked to write other things.  The results showed that those who wrote 3 letters of gratitude had significantly better mental health four weeks and 12 weeks after their writing exercise ended.  This suggests that gratitude writing can be beneficial for all of us, whether we struggle with mental health concerns or not.  In fact, it seems, practicing gratitude on top of receiving psychological counseling carries greater benefits than counseling alone, even when that gratitude practice is brief. 

                   And that’s not all. When the researchers dug deeper into their results, they found preliminary indications that gratitude might actually work on our minds to increase our neural sensitivity in the parts of the brain associated with learning and decision-making.  More surprising, these changes in brain activity were evident on MRIs three months after those gratitude notes were written.

                   Sisters and brothers, Jesus was onto something!  When he said to the healed and grateful former leper, “your faith has made you whole,” maybe Jesus wasn’t talking about faith in the traditional religious way.  Maybe, just maybe, Jesus was pointing to the benefits of practicing gratitude…of believing in those benefits…of using gratitude as a way to improve our health—in body, mind and spirit.

                   One more bit of anecdotal research, and it is from my own life.  Years ago, when our family was going through a most difficult year, I was reading a daily devotional book that recommended starting a gratitude journal.  I did so.  Nearly every night, before heading to sleep, I wrote a list of 10 things I was grateful for that day.  Some nights that was a challenge.  Other nights, not so much.  By the end of the year, I had survived, and I’m not sure I would have as well without that gratitude journal.  In addition to the professional therapeutic help our family sought and received, that regular practice of forcing myself to see through the muck to acknowledge the people and places and events and things for which I was grateful, that practice literally saved me. 

                   To this day, I continue a daily gratitude journal, and I encourage you to do the same.  Yours may be a list, a letter, a photo, or simply a mental note of your appreciation for another.  Your gratitude can take the form of a prayer, meditation or simply taking time to count your blessings from the day just past.  A regular practice of gratitude can be anything that serves to put you in a place of gratitude, as happened for that once-leprous, now-healed man in the first-century world of Jesus.  He saw himself healed; he turned around and gratefully acknowledged it before God and anyone else with ears; his faith in the healing benefits of gratitude is what saved him, “made him whole,” Jesus said.  Friends in Christ, the same is true for us…take a pause for even more thanksgiving!


Amen and Blessed Be!




11-19 “Thanksgiving”


A meditation based on Psalm 100

November 19, 2017

Rev. Victoria Freiheit


O give thanks unto the Lord, O give thanks all ye lands. Serve the Lord with gladness and come before him with a song.” Congratulations! Every time you come to church, find your seat, sing God’s praises—you are obeying Psalm 100. If illness causes you to miss attending, you can still serve God with gladness and sing at home. We can be thankful every day, not just Thanks-giving Day, the 4th Thursday in November. In Canada, they celebrate Thanksgiving on October 9.


According to Google, Mexico does not have a Thanksgiving Day. Dia de los Muertos is a similar holiday, and there is a Catholic celebration in the pueblos–one day a year to celebrate their Patron Saint with music and food. They give thanks for good harvest, health, and happiness. In many pueblos now they celebrate Thanksgiving in their homes just as in the U.S. for the simple reason that their loved ones live in the U.S., or they returned back to Mexico bringing with them Thanksgiving celebration.


I’d like to learn about Thanksgiving Days all over the world, but today, we concentrate on why we have Thanksgiving in the U.S. You’ve heard the story about the Pilgrims who came over on the Mayflower. You can Google the list of Mayflower passengers. They had some interesting names: Desire, Resolved, Humility, Oceanus, Love, and Wrestling. Our own Dr. Bradley used to admit that his forbears had come over on the Mayflower. One of the strands of the United Church of Christ is Congregational, and they trace their roots to the Pilgrims. We are grateful for Nathaniel Philbrick, who recently researched the Puritans and what happened to them when they got here in 1620.


In school we learned that they sailed on the Mayflower to achieve religious freedom. They were Separatists who believed you should read directly from the Bible, not from the Church of England “Book of Common Prayer.” Their congregation began with a covenant between a group of believers and God. They saw a person’s conscience as the “voice of God in man.” But all who sailed on the Mayflower were not Separatists. There were a few more families. Miles Standish was a military man, John Howland an indentured servant. He married and had 10 children and 88 grandchildren.


We do not know the exact date of the first Thanksgiving—probably in late September or early October when all had been harvested—corn, squash, beans, and barley. The barley came in handy for brewing beer, which they had become accustomed to, due to the bad quality of drinking water in England. Then, the feast: ducks, geese and wild turkeys—probably some bass, bluefish and cod as well. Then came 5 freshly killed deer by the Indian Massasoit and a hundred Pokanokets who joined the party. At that first Thanksgiving, the Indians outnumbered the Puritans 2-1!

Chief Massasoit and Squanto both helped them in that hard year since they first arrived. Squanto spoke English and showed them how to use fish for fertilizer on their corn. He also helped arrange the pact which allowed the Pilgrims and Indians to live in peace. But still, half of them did not survive that first year. Have you ever been in a survival situation? Only once for me—I was taking care of Seth, my new grandson, while his Mom and Dad had their first weekend away from home after his birth. They lived in Gunnison, Colorado and it was icy, snowy and cold.


They had a wood stove which had to be fed every two or three hours. “Does that mean I have to get up in the middle of the night to keep the fire going?” I asked my daughter and son-in-law. “Yes, if the fire goes out and you can’t get it started again, you will have to bundle up Seth and go down the road to our nearest neighbor and stay there until we get back.” “Survival,” I thought, “me and Seth and the fire.” So, I set the alarm for every two hours just in case.


Survival was not to be for many of the Puritans who did not all make it through that first year. Diseases, lack of shelter, pneumonia and scurvy were responsible for 51 deaths of the 102 who had come on the Mayflower. At one point there were only six of them to care for all those who were sick. They had to build homes for each other, hunt for game, plant vegetable gardens, pick whatever wild plants they could eat, and always worry about being attacked by Indians. Chief Massasoit’s assistance came in the form of men to help build, sharing of some food and fending off other Indians.


Let us remember that the Puritans were willing to pay a great price for the privilege of freedom of worship. They were profoundly grateful to God! Here, in the New World, no established church harassed them, no government agency restricted them, and no one ridiculed them. They were free to worship in the manner they chose. On this Thanksgiving, let us be grateful for our abundance, thankful for our many blessings. Let us also profoundly appreciate our freedom to worship according to our hearts and minds.


That first Thanksgiving was joyful for the Puritans–they knew they were going to make it in the New World. But it was sad, because they missed their loved ones who had died. Perhaps we can identify with them—we too know we can make it—sometimes not so easily—with hard work and prayer. AND we can identify with those who celebrated that first Thanksgiving, because we too must celebrate without our loved ones who have died.


Today, as we sit around the tables laden with a bountiful turkey dinner, we silently take notice of those who sat with us last year or in years gone by. We say a prayer, thanking God for all who have had an influence on us; thanking God for the good life we have now; thanking God for those immigrants who came in 1620, 1780, 1890, 1929 and last year as well. We are all immigrants except for Squanto and Massasoit and the other Indians here before us. We are survivors. Amen.

11-12 “Covenants, part 1 and 2”

“Covenants, part 1 and 2”
A meditation based on Psalm 25
November 12, 2017
Community Congregational Church of Chula Vista
Dr. Sharon R. Graff
* * * * *
Part 1
Covenants! That’s what today is really all about. And the Bible is filled to overflowing
with teaching about covenants. From Genesis to Revelation, 380 times, the word covenant
appears. From the very beginning, as God is corralling the wanderers, forming them into tribes,
and eventually leads them into their own land with monarchs and structures and civic duties
and community privileges, that theme of covenant weaves through the whole story.
The first official covenant in scripture is the one God makes with Noah. Remember
that? God promises Noah and his family safety in the ark, then after the floodwaters recede,
God appears again to Noah with another promise for he and his family: “Never again will I
destroy the earth with floods.” And the sign of that promise? A beautiful rainbow in the sky;
and it seems no matter how many times we look up and see those vibrant colors arched across
the sky, they still take our breath away!
God and the people go on through history to make one covenant after another. Some
of the covenants promise land and prestige and family. Some promise loyalty and honor and
worship. Covenants in scripture tend to be two-way, with the promises moving in both
directions between both parties. So covenants were intended to bring the two closer together,
God to humans, humans to God.
Covenants form the relationship we have with God, that God has with us, and that we
have with one another. Covenants practiced through the years strengthen those many
relationships. Covenants are not tests. Nor are they grading sheets that record our failures as
big as our successes. Covenants are the foundation and the walls of our relationship with God.
And they also extend outward to form our relationships with one another as humans on this
planet. We covenant, for example, every time we get in the car to drive. We covenant with
our fellow drivers to color inside the lines, to follow the rules of the road, to watch carefully so
our actions do no harm to another.
One covenant teacher of mine years ago, referred to the image of a cross to describe
the full effect of covenants in our spiritual growth. Covenants move us up and down to
strengthen our relationship with God, and they move us back and forth to bring us more fully
into community. This is basic Covenant 101! And it comes directly out of scripture.
Now, fast forward from the scripture stories to this sanctuary on this day. You are
each holding a symbol of covenant…we call it a Lego. The word “Lego” means “play well…!”
We could add to it, couldn’t we?! Play well with others…Play well by yourself…Play well with
God…Play well everyday…Play well at work…Play well at school…Play well with your family…
Play well with your enemies… (Ah, now we’re just meddling…!). Play well mindfully and
intentionally…Play well with your time, your talent, your treasure… This “play well” theme
sounds like covenant to me!
And so it is that today, we pause to make covenants, one with another, and each of us
with God. In a few minutes, after we sing, you are each invited to come forward with your
Lego piece; if you have them with you, be sure to also bring your commitment cards forward.
If you got out the door this morning without your commitment cards, you may turn them in
later in the church office.
This is a time of great joy! Where you, as people of God in this place, step out in faith,
literally and symbolically! Your literal covenants are your commitment cards—where you
commit time, talent, treasure for the moving forward of God’s mission of love right here in this
place. Some of you brought these commitment cards today. Some of you will bring them in
later. Some of you make these important commitments of time, talent, treasure as the year
unfolds. However that works for you, it is blessed and it is good. In addition, I’m inviting all of
us to make a symbolic commitment today, by using this little “play well” Lego in our hands. As
we sing, hold your Lego, and think about the many ways you already do (or perhaps can), how
you embody the love of God right here. Let that Lego represent your personal covenant, your
symbolic covenant to God and to this community of faith.
Now, let’s sing like the saints God has called us to be!
[After song…]
Now it’s time for a commitment parade! Bring your commitment cards forward, and place
them in the basket. Bring your Lego forward…attach it to another piece or to one of the
bases. And let’s see what God builds through us today!
Part 2
[Looking at the creation on the altar…]
So I preached Part 1…now it’s your turn… ?
Check out this creation! Check out this basket! Both of these are signs of the covenant
between you and God, between you and you. So I ask, as you gaze at these two signs, what
does it look like you are you building here? I’ll bring the mic around, so all can hear.
What does it look like you are building here?
The psalmist has a great handle on what makes a covenant. Here’s how it breaks down:
• 2 parties: person; God
• Person’s part:
o Open up to God (To you, O God, I lift my soul…)
o Trust God (“My God, I trust in you…)
o Eyes open (“Show me your way…”
o Mind open (“Teach me your paths…)
o Future open (“Lead me…”
o Patient with confidence (“I wait all day for you…”)
• God’s part:
o Merciful
o Ancient, unwavering love
o Forgiving and forgetting “the what”
o Remembering “the who” with love
o Good, upright
o Paths full of love and faith
o Protective
o Healing
o Deliver
o Gracious
o Our only hope!
This table of fellowship—filled to overflowing with color and vibrancy and hope and
commitment—becomes today a table that points the way forward for you. You are, indeed, a
family of faith. You are, indeed, a place of safety and learning, of care and curiosity. You are,
indeed, a place where God is still speaking and you are still listening, and all will be well, and all
manner of thing will be well.
Amen and Blessed Be!

10-22 “Setting An Example”

“Setting An Example”
A meditation based on I Thessalonians 1:1-10 (NRSV)
October 22, 2017
Rev. Victoria Freiheit
I Thessalonians was one of the first letters written by St. Paul to the churches he
founded. That congregation was one of the longest relationships he had.
Thessalonica was the capital city of the Roman province of Macedonia—an
important place in that day. That congregation kept his letter, and well they would,
since it begins with such words of praise for their actions. By Paul’s standards it was
warm and almost gushing. He uses the Trinity of Virtues here—Faith, Love and
Yes, that is the same list used in I Corinthians chapter 13, the one you always hear at
weddings. But this time, he puts hope last. Does it matter? Paul wrote to each church
according to their needs at the time of his writing. The church in Corinth had many
problems of division and strife within. And the church in Thessalonica did not—they
were united in their works of faith, labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our
Lord Jesus Christ.
Hope is what keeps us going when the going gets tough. Martin Marty, author and
pastor, tells of a time when he had no hope. In the depths of depression, he cleaned
out a file and decided to go through his Christmas cards. The notes he received from
friends and family and the message of Christ’s birth lifted him up and gave him hope
again. He came up with two house rules: 1)Hold the railing; and 2) No whining. A
good example for us.
I have another story about a good example—Arthur Ashe. He was a world-class
tennis player, and a world-class father. He believed in leading by example. He
remembered when he used to tell his daughter not to put her elbows on the table
during dinner. One night, after dinner, Arthur Ashe put his elbows on the table and
his little daughter said, “Dad, you have your elbows on the table.” Here’s his reply:
“You have to be man enough or woman enough to say, ‘You’re right,’ and take your
elbows off the table. In fact, I think she learned better by watching it happen, than
just by hearing me say it.” She listened and she learned. It takes actions rather than
mere words to teach our children. We all know that, don’t we? Actions always speak
louder than words.
I love children’s stories about examples—another one is about a 3-year-old
grandson who wanted to learn to play golf, just like grampa. So, one day at a family
cook-out the little boy jumped up and grabbed one of grampa’s clubs and a golf ball
and said,”Watch me play golf!” He swung and missed, said a word we can’t repeat
here and flung the golf club up into the pear tree. That little guy learned more than
just how to play golf. And he did it simply by observing grampa’s example.
St. Paul praised the Christians at Thessalonica for being “an example to all the
believers in Macedonia and Achaia.” The people in Thessalonica had been
worshipers of idols, but now they were imitators of Christ. And they made this
transition in the midst of persecution. There was nothing phony in their witness;
they were the real thing. And everyone who heard their story was compelled by it.
That’s what we need today. People who are willing to be examples. People willing to
surrender their own wishes for the greater good. People willing to be role models.
An unknown author describes the present:
“We have taller buildings, but shorter tempers. We spend more, but have less; we
have bigger houses, and smaller families. We have more conveniences, but less time.
We have more experts, but more problems. We have multiplied our possessions, but
reduced our values. We’ve learned how to make a living, but not a life. We’ve been to
the moon and back, but have trouble crossing the street to greet a new neighbor. We
have fancier houses, but broken homes. There is much in the show window, but
nothing in the stockroom.” Have we ever needed role models more than we do now?
A good role model a few years ago was Dave Thomas, the founder of Wendy’s
hamburger chain. My son Mark moved to Louisiana when he was 19 and got a job
learning plumbing. He told me how he went to Wendy’s every night—a wonderful
salad bar where he ate his fill. He never met Dave, but he heard the story of how
Dave quit school at 15 and moved out on his own. Dave got a job in a restaurant,
learned the business, saved his money and founded Wendy’s.
In spite of his success, he regretted not finishing high school. So he got his GED. It
wasn’t easy, and the kids at Coconut Creek High School knew that. They adopted
Dave and his wife and asked them to come to the senior prom that year. They
crowned them King and Queen of the prom, so they could honor Dave for going back
and taking care of business. One reason Dave did it was so that young people would
not follow his example and would not quit school. When other people his age were
retiring, he was going to High School—what an example.
We need people who are willing to set an example. People who don’t say one thing
and do another. There was one such a woman, whose name was Dranafice–also
known as Rose. She lived in Albania and was very poor. But no matter how little
they had, Rose and her husband helped others by inviting people over for dinner.
Every time one of Rose’s daughters would ask who was there for dinner, Rose would
say it was a relative. Her daughters believed they came from a very large extended
Even after Rose’s husband died, she found a way to feed the hungry and help the
destitute. One of her daughters was influenced by Rose’s example of sacrificial
love—Agnes was her name. She grew up to become an advocate for the poor and
dying. Yes, you have guessed who she was—Mother Teresa, the 20th century’s living
example of Christ and the world. Mother Teresa became who she was because of
Rose’s example—Examples matter.
We have examples right here at Community Congregational Church. You know who
you are, and might even be embarrassed if I named you out loud. You are the ones
who are here week after week, even when it is hard to get ready on time, even when
you don’t feel too good. Worship, Bible Study, Board meetings. You are being an
example of one who loves God and shows up, sometimes sacrificially.
You are the ones who do the work—count the offerings, sing in the choir, plan
events, keep up the kitchen, buy flowers for worship, and give all you can in the
offering plate and in life. You have invested yourself in God’s work here in church
and in your life. You are the ones who invite others to come to church, who help the
poor, who raise your children to love and serve the Lord. The first question in the
old catechism was, “What is the purpose of life?” and the answer–”To love and serve
the Lord.”
You are the examples like the church people in Thessalonica. Today, we give thanks
to God for you and for your work of faith and labor of love and stead-fastness of
hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. People come to Christ because they encounter Christ
in those who follow Him. That is why Paul was praising the Thessalonians. This is
how children grow into responsible adults. They see by example–your love, your
courage, your persistent presence.
I’d like to end with another children’s story. It is about the mother cleaning her
house and tripping over her little 4-year old son every time she turned around. To
get him out from under her feet, she kept saying, “Why don’t you go out and play?”
or “Wouldn’t you like to go swing on the new swing set?” Finally she asked him why
he was under foot all the time. His answer, “In Sunday School my teacher told me to
walk in Jesus’ footsteps. But I can’t see Jesus, so I’m walking in yours.”
And that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? Role models still count. After 2000 years of
Christianity, worthy examples still make a difference. Perhaps , if the Christians at
Thessalonica all those years ago had not been faithful under hardship—setting
examples of sacrificial love for their neighbors—you and I would not be Christians
in 2017. Are you willing to stand up for Christ today? Are you willing to continue to
participate (this goes beyond just showing up) and to be an example? Is there
someone you know who is waiting for you to invite them to church? Someone who
wants to know what Christ means to you? Someone who knows because they see
how you live? Be an example.

10-29 “From ‘Here I Stand’ to ‘Here WE Stand'”

“From ‘Here I Stand’ to ‘Here WE Stand!’”
A meditation based on Matthew 22:34-40
October 29, 2017
Community Congregational Church of Chula Vista
Dr. Sharon R. Graff
* * * * *
Every 500 years, whether we need it or not, there is some sort of major shake-up in
the religious world. Every 500 years, like clockwork! 500 years ago was the Protestant
Reformation, 500 years before that was a major schism between east and west in the Church,
500 years before that was the Council of Chalcedon and Gregory the Great, 500 years before
that was Jesus. Each of these mile-markers pointed the way to a whole new way of seeing the
relationship between God and people. Yet, this is not only a Christian narrative, for Islamic
scholars have noted a similar 500-year pattern in their faith tradition as well.
Returning to the Judeo-Christian story, 500 years before Jesus was the Jewish
Babylonian Exile, and 500 years before that was the Age of the Judges out of which came Kings
Saul, David and Solomon. So now, we’re at 3,000 years of human spiritual and religious
history, and like clockwork, these expressions of faith seem to change every 500 years or so.
Every 500 years, there comes along a new leader, a new paradigm shift, a new way of
realizing, of experiencing, of living an old old hope. The old old hope? To draw closer to the
Divine, of course…to grow into God, some might say…that’s our hope! And from that hope,
realized, flows all manner of good things…from that hope to be more deeply connected to the
Divine, comes our purpose and a realization of our gifts and the courage to put those two
together for the benefit of the world around us. Do you see? And history teaches us that we
humans need a recharge about every 500 years.
We are in such a season now. That alone might explain the seeming chaos in the
religious world around us…change, friends, is rarely tidy! For 500 years ago, this coming
Tuesday, Father Martin Luther of Germany, declared his 95 beliefs—most of which demanded
radical change in the church he served—and Luther made sure that the religious authorities
heard about it. He put his mind and his heart and his feet to work, together, to courageously
speak truth to the powers of his day.
The truth he spoke was not his own…it was of God…and that truth declared that the
most effective way for people to draw closer to God was through the pathway of grace. That
was a radical notion in Luther’s day. And a whole movement flowed from his declarations…
Luther declared that God is, at the heart, a God of love, not of fear; a God of love, not of
distance; a God of love, not of judgment or hatred. As you can imagine, in a world where the
church was making a lot of money on fear and hate and judgment, as was true in Luther’s day,
his declarations were not well-received!
Nevertheless, Luther continued to declare, “Here I stand.” Those three words have
found their way into this holy space that is your spiritual home. Look over there. There is the
Luther window, or more broadly, the window that claims our UCC heritage within the Protestant
Reformation. “Here I stand I can do no other.” Legend has it that these were Luther’s words
when confronted by the Church for his supposed heresy. Shortened to “Here I Stand,” they are
a quick reminder of his courageous witness to his own faith and his willingness to stand up for
what he believed in.
His pathway can become a model for our own. That pathway begins with the personal
and moves to the public… That pathway honors the personal, the individual, but it does not
stop there. It is not enough for you to have a wonderful relationship with God if you shrink
from sharing your witness with others. I’m not talking about street corner preaching. I’m
talking about witness that makes a difference. The type of courageous witness that in Luther’s
day, brought about a whole re-formation of the institution of Church.
Now, Luther did not start from the point that modern-day consultants might suggest.
He didn’t look toward 3-5 year plans, nor did he do demographic studies or collect relevant
data. He and Spirit started with the personal. What does Luther believe to be true of God? Of
Jesus? Of Church? Of the Christian pathway in the world? What does Luther believe of these
weighty matters? And from that core, from that “Here I stand” strong rooted location, Luther
and the other reformers spoke their truths to power. They changed the world, literally! And so
can you, my sisters and brothers. So can you.
Let’s try a little “Here I Stand” exercise this morning. What is one thing that you
believe fully? Luther had 95! We only need 1 for today. One thing that is the core of your
belief system? One belief that is unshakable? I invite you to write that one thing down on your
bulletin… Look at what you’ve written… Ponder that belief. Close your eyes, if you’re
comfortable doing that, or fix your gaze on something besides me. Visualize the words you’ve
written…words that communicate your deeply held belief. Let the parade run through your
mind and heart…the parade of people who encouraged that belief…people who supported
you…people who argued with you, and thereby helped strengthen, clarify, connect what you
really believe…expand that parade of people to those known and unknown—include authors
and teachers and people who lived long ago and larger-than-life personalities and the many
quiet unnamed souls who cross your path…for teachers are all around us and they contribute to
the beliefs we hold dear. You see, looking back, some of the deep roots of your own beliefs.
And this perspective offers you a way forward.
I invite you to bring your thoughts back to this sanctuary, and when you are ready, go
ahead and open your eyes. See your sisters and brothers through the lens of your own deeply
held beliefs, and know that each person in this community also holds a belief or two or ninetyfive
(!) that forms them and informs them and inspires them to move forward on the journey of
faith, right alongside you. Isn’t that wonderful?! It is, and yet, it is not enough. It was not
enough for Luther. It was not enough for all those who just paraded through your heart and
mind. It is not enough for you, Community Congregational Church.
Today, on Reformation Sunday that we also honor as All Saints Sunday, I want to
invite you to move beyond what you believe or what this church believes to be yourselves
inspired to move forward with confidence! For this is the real magic of Luther. His beliefs
propelled him to action. Action that moved far beyond the massive wooden chapel doors in
Wittenberg Germany, to acknowledge a God of absolute and unwavering love…to stand firmly
in that God of love…to speak courageously and knowledgably and consistently…to take the next
best one step forward…and from that step, another, and another. Friends, the magic of this
season of Re-formation, is not Luther. Or Melanchthon. Or Calvin or Zwingli or Hus or Wycliffe
or any of the others. The magic, the miracle, was and is God. The miracle was in how God
spoke to so many in such a concentrated period of time and in such a way that they were
inspired to act as one.
That miracle isn’t just for 500 years ago. For God speaks truth to every single one of
you. And that truth, when you dare to speak it aloud, with love and respect, that truth grows a
confidence in this community of faith that is palpable and magnetic and totally real. Yes, there
is great change going on in this institution we call Church. Every 500 years, whether it needs it
or not! And, yes, this particular congregation has undergone its own deep and sometimes
divisive change. And, yes, God is in it all. God is propelling you forward, from the strong
foundation of “Here I Stand” to the equally strong framework of “Here WE Stand!”
This growth is a process. It happens in marathons, not sprints. It happens in Kairos
time—Spirit time, without clocks and calendars. This growth takes a long and concerted and
faithful effort, from each of you. Yet, I sense that it is not effort for you. I sense that your
growth as a congregation, your growth forward on the journey of faith, is one that, like
Luther’s, emanates from a deep truth within you. You truly believe that God loves everyone,
equally. There are no “innies” or “outies” in your belief system around here. All are equal and
all are loved. Some of you, I’ve heard over the months, some of you take this belief so
seriously that you are truly confused as to why people out there don’t want to be in here. Dear
ones, be confused no longer. God is busy working a new miracle in this season.
God is busy shaking things up; God is busy showering love on so much pain and
sadness; into the chaos of our days and nights, God is busy speaking and acting with love; God
is speaking to you and you and you and me and your next pastor wherever or whomever she or
he might be; and we know that when God speaks so many words into the chaos, what comes
out of it is creative and vibrant and of benefit to all. This every-500-year clean-up—or religious
rummage sale, as one author has described it—it is, I believe, God’s way of asking us “where
do you stand?” … “Where do you want to stand?” … “What’s holding you back?” “What do you
need to let go of?” … and, “What do you need to hold onto, together?”
Community Congregational Church, you stand on the side of love…love of God…love of
self…love of neighbor. You always have. I pray you always will. Your grounding in love is sure
and consistent and historic; this grounding in love is becoming a re-energized magnet for those
who want to love as Jesus loved. You are a part of the long parade that meanders through my
mind and heart and soul when I give thanks to God for those who have made my faith
stronger. You are saints. Not just because you’ve touched my life, but because you continue
to touch and heal and embrace so many other lives. You are family, one to another, in the best
senses of that word. Love is your belief. Family is your mission…where belief hits the road and
becomes real. On this day of Re-formation and All Saints, may God give you courage to take
the next steps forward… Amen and Blessed Be!