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!

11-5 “Word and Work and World”

“Word and Work and World”
A meditation based on
Psalm 107, selections and 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13
November 5, 2017
Community Congregational Church of Chula Vista
Dr. Sharon R. Graff
* * * * *
Years ago, in 2002, the United Church of Christ adopted as its slogan the phrase that
Gracie Allen used posthumously to encourage her grieving husband George Burns. When
George was cleaning out some of Gracie’s personal items after her death, he found a note
tucked in amongst them. Opening the note, he read the following words, “George, never place
a period where God has placed a comma…” Mr. Burns found great comfort in those words and,
though he missed his beloved Gracie with all his heart, he went on to live a vibrant and
meaningful life for another 32 years.
Fast forward with me from George Burns’ death in Los Angeles in 1996 to a hotel room
in the same city in the year 2001. Ron Buford, had just been hired by the United Church of
Christ to create a much-needed advertising campaign, and was checked into a downtown LA
hotel. He was mindlessly browsing in the gift shop. All of a sudden, his eye fell on a postcard
that featured Gracie Allen’s last words to her beloved husband. Ron Buford knew this would
become the hallmark of the successful identity campaign for the United Church of Christ…and it
certainly has!
“Never place a period where God has placed a comma” led us naturally back to our
historic denominational mantra that “God is still speaking.” Friends, this is not simply a 21-
century slogan…it is a invitation to each of us, an invitation that captures the essence of our
17th-century pilgrims forbears who sailed to North America in search of religious freedom; who
are credited with founding this new nation upon values of liberty and justice for all. In the year
1620, as they were fleeing religious persecution, the small pilgrim band listened one last time to
the inspiring words of their pastor, John Robinson. He had given them profound new teachings
about civil government; he had taught them about equal rights and equal duties; he had
convinced them that government should function for the common good. Now, from the deck of
the Mayflower, Pastor John Robinson faced them one last time, and said, “Loving and Christian
Friends, I charge you before God and before his blessed angels, that you follow me no further
than you have seen me follow the Lord Jesus Christ. If God reveals anything to you by any
other instrument of his, be as ready to receive it as ever you were to receive any truth by my
ministry: for I am verily persuaded, I am very confident, the Lord hath more truth yet to break
forth out of his holy Word…” In other words, pay attention, read the scriptures with an open
mind and heart, listen to the wisdom in others, for God has more truth yet to break forth…
“Never place a period where God has placed a comma…God is still speaking…” With
lightness and perspective, that great theologian Gracie Allen joins Pastor John Robinson to
remind us that all truth is not yet known; that the Word of God is alive and dynamic; that the
same Word which became flesh in Jesus of Nazareth lives in our time as we speak and act and
think and heal and teach and minister in the name and Spirit of Christ. Gracie Allen’s words go
much further back in history than to the 1600s. They go all the way back to scripture itself and
we have heard a couple of those passages this morning. The author of the first letter to the
believers in Thessalonica writes also that God is still speaking. “It is God’s word,” the author
writes, “God’s word, which is also at work in you believers.” Word and Work through YOU!
God is still speaking, brothers and sisters, and you are one of God’s mouths.
What message might God want to speak through you? The psalmist gives us a clue:
God gathers people in trouble from the east and west, from the north and the south. God
gathers those who wander. God gathers the hungry and the thirsty. God gathers those whose
souls faint within them. God gathers those who cry out, and those who are distressed. And
God makes a place for all of them—for all of us—God makes a place that is like a pool of water
in the middle of a very big desert. God makes a place where food grows plentifully and towns
provide community and a parched land—outside and within—that parched land becomes a
spring of water. This is what God does. And this is what God wants to do through you.
I love this scripture because it is comprehensive. All four directions are included. All
who are troubled are promised rest and comfort and security. All who are hungry and thirsty
are promised food and water. Comprehensive. No deductible. All. Needs. Met. Period. By a
God who is good and loving and steadfast.
Yet, we know that God isn’t working alone to meet those needs. God has us—and
about 7 billion other people on earth—and our work is to creatively weave together our time,
our talents and our treasure to be God’s ambassadors for good. Word and Work in the World.
That’s our job, friends! Lifelong employment as God’s representatives! All 7 billion of us! God
is still speaking, and God wants to speak through YOU!
This invitation comes today from scripture, from Gracie Allen, from our beloved United
Church of Christ, and from this congregation. Next Sunday, we each have the opportunity to
take another step in becoming God’s words on earth. Through commitment of our time, of our
talents, and of our treasure, we each participate in the ministry of Christ right here. And I
encourage you to prayerfully consider which of these you can commit—time, talent, treasure.
We all have something we can offer to God…we all have something through which God can
speak. As you prayerfully ponder your commitment this week, and prepare your commitment
cards for next Sunday, I invite you to join me in being as generous as you are able with your
time, your talents, your treasure. For God is indeed still speaking, right here, right now,
through each one of us!
Amen and Blessed Be