Sunday, December 3, 2017


I remember the first time a complete stranger reached out and touched my pregnant belly. I was at Target and a loud voice rang out, “Oh you must be pregnant with twins!” I remember the way I dug down really deep resisting the urge to shove their hand away. I must have forgotten to wear my sign that day, you know,  the one that says, “Please don’t touch me without my permission,” but some would argue these are social norms.

There’s a momentum growing in our time, the calling out of Harvey Weinstein has spurred many women to come forward to declare #MeToo. You may have heard about the many other women in the entertainment industry who have come forward, and subsequently the many powerful men ousted from their positions in   the industry, on account of their patterns of abuse. 

This hasn’t only happened in the entertainment industry, this has prompted women to take their voices to various social media platforms and declare #MeToo sharing their stories of violation and abuse. 
The outpouring of these stories have caused some to respond defensively. Am I not to flirt with women anymore? Such reactivity sadly misses the point, about the difference between propositioning someone and engaging in harassment and non-consensual abuse. 

What one should keep in mind when one considers such situations, is the role of power in determining the degree to which one can consent or not. Our scripture today offers us the most extreme example of a power differential among sexual propositions, among all the possible propositions, God Almighty and a teenager. And our scripture offers an ideal model of how consent works, within this extreme circumstance. 
“In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth,  to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.”And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for  you have found favor with God.” 

When we first meet Mary in Luke, she is addressed by the angel as “the favored one,” not because of what   she will do, but because of what she already is. “You have found favor with God,” says the Angel Gabriel. 
God recognizes something special in Mary. God knows that Mary embodies faithfulness, and hope, and audacious bravery.

My partner who is a member of FCC, though also a lifelong Catholic reminds me on a regular basis how wonderful Mary is. I sometimes find it embarrassing that Protestants do not revere Mary with greater respect. Though, I must say, I do take issue with the image in the Catholic hymn of Mary as “meek and       mild.” She was anything but meek and mild.

I’m reminded of the sermon my dear colleague the Rev. Heidi Heath preached a year ago on this Sunday, at my installation right here at FCC Southington, describing this very scripture. She reminded us that Mary was no shrinking violet. Mary was the loudest, sassiest girl singing at the top of her lungs in the children’s choir… and just a week into our Christmas Pageant Rehearsals, all of us are imaging the Mary’s in our own congregation!

The Angel Gabriel continues: “And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give   to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” How many of us would be ok with our teenage daughters consenting to these terms? 

Whoa! Slow it down here, what now?! 

As overwhelming as the Angel’s message is, we see how God practices “informed consent,” sharing with   Mary not just a part of what her decision entails, but the enormity of the consequences, not just for herself   but for all of God’s creation, the entire world will be changed. 

One way of thinking about this, is when we go to the doctor, a good doctor doesn’t just tell us to take a new prescription, they would first thoroughly describe the benefits and the side effects of the medicine before prescribing the medicine. Before being able to give her consent, Mary has some questions she needs answered. Mary has a very inquisitive spirit and is puzzled as to how she will become pregnant. 
“How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called  Son of God.  And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren.  For nothing will be impossible with God.”  Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

Now, the scripture affirms Mary’s consent to God’s call. Though, it’s important to note Mary’s yes comes with tremendous risk. Informed consent means Mary is aware of the social fallout that she could face, and    she says yes to God’s call in spite of these potential consequences. She is willing to risk her body, and her social status, getting pregnant outside of marriage, and the potential loss of relationship with Joseph, all to   be the one who bears God’s Son. 

From beginning to end this scripture is a model of how to engage with one another especially when it comes to our bodies, in ways that avoid abuse or harassment. God asks Mary first, aware of the power differentials, and waits to hear Mary’s informed consensual answer yes.

Though, as hard as it is to imagine otherwise, Mary could have said no. Imagine how many other Mary’s before her could have said no. And her human decision affected the rest of us…however, Mary was willing to do the    unpopular thing, the dangerous thing. Like many of the women speaking out in the #MeToo movement. 

Mary does the work of a prophet. 

Most people think prophets are like fortune tellers, though biblical prophets were most often people that God called to be speakers of truth, saying the necessary, though unpopular thing to God’s people who had    gotten off track.

Scholars have long noted that the Angel’s arrival and conversation with Mary closely resembles the call narratives of the Hebrew Prophets. Which means that Mary, at least for the community of Luke, was regarded as a prophet. And what was it that she was called to proclaim? That God was entering into the      world to restore justice and righteousness, and that Mary’s very body would bear the evidence.
Mary’s Song, the Magnificat, is this prophetic call to a world that will be utterly turned upside down with the birth of God’s Son.  

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
 Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;”

Mary’s social standing as pregnant, unwed mother, in Nazareth wasn’t likely to be very high. She was among the working poor of rural Judea. However, God didn’t choose a rich, royal, or typically powerful family to select Mary from, and yet the scripture calls her “blessed.”
“His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.

Here Mary acknowledges an understanding of the Hebrew scriptures, and God’s mercy being extended to those who teach the new generations reverence of God.

“He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.”
This part of the prophecy is about folks who believe they are above reproach, who are unwilling to see their own flaws, and their abuses of others. Here we are reminded that the proud too will be humbled.

“He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”These prophetic words are biting. These stories make us feel uncomfortable and yet, that’s what is so hard about listening to prophecies- prophets hold up a mirror to God’s people. 

Mary’s Song makes us feel uncomfortable, and yet we know that God’s vision for the world, of justice and peace is what is intended. And we’ve grown far to used to abuse and violence as the norm. 

Twice a month I attend Southington High School’s Multicultural Student Union Meetings as a community leader who is interested in helping to address issues of racism in our community and schools. This week students were invited to watch a video that helped address the the dynamics of interpersonal racism. And after the video in the midst of dialogue, one student spoke up “I believe the only way that people will change is if we all challenge ourselves to being uncomfortable.”

We have a great opportunity to listen deeply to the prophetic voices in our midsts, of those declaring #MeToo. And we can choose to sit with our discomfort, though perhaps you like Mary will hear a call and deep from your heart and out of your lips will arise a song too powerful to contain.
Perhaps like this poetic song about Mary’s consensual choice to say yes to God...

We know the scene: the room, variously furnished, 
almost always a lectern, a book; always the tall lily.
    Arrived on solemn grandeur of great wings,
the angelic ambassador, standing or hovering,
whom she acknowledges, a guest.
But we are told of meek obedience. No one mentions courage.
       The engendering Spirit did not enter her without consent.
      God waited.
She was free to accept or to refuse, choice integral to humanness.
Aren’t there annunciations
of one sort or another
in most lives?
      Some unwillingly
undertake great destinies,
enact them in sullen pride,
More often
those moments
   when roads of light and storm
   open from darkness in a man or woman,
are turned away from
in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair
and with relief.
Ordinary lives continue.
                           God does not smite them.
But the gates close, the pathway vanishes.


She had been a child who played, ate, slept
like any other child–but unlike others,
wept only for pity, laughed
in joy not triumph.
Compassion and intelligence
fused in her, indivisible.

Called to a destiny more momentous
than any in all of Time,
she did not quail,
  only asked
a simple, ‘How can this be?’
and gravely, courteously,
took to heart the angel’s reply,
the astounding ministry she was offered:

to bear in her womb
Infinite weight and lightness; to carry
in hidden, finite inwardness,
nine months of Eternity; to contain
in slender vase of being,
the sum of power–
in narrow flesh,
the sum of light.

Then bring to birth,
push out into air, a Man-child
needing, like any other,
milk and love–
but who was God. 

This was the moment no one speaks of,
when she could still refuse.

A breath unbreathed,

She did not cry, ‘I cannot. I am not worthy,’
Nor, ‘I have not the strength.’
She did not submit with gritted teeth,
                                                 raging, coerced.
Bravest of all humans,
                            consent illumined her.
The room filled with its light,
the lily glowed in it,
                         and the iridescent wings.
           courage unparalleled,

opened her utterly.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Reformed & Always Reforming
We are finally here! Celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Well technically, it’s Tuesday, but we are celebrating it today! So what exactly does this anniversary mean to us? Well the United Church of Christ as a denomination has this to say:

“The Protestant Reformation began 500 years ago. None of us lived before it. Some of the life-threatening, flabbergasting ideas that exploded out of those years are now a part of the air we breathe. 500 years ago people died for them. But time turns the revolutionary into the everyday. We take key Reformation claims for granted. We can’t even see them, they’re just a part of who are… but the United Church of Christ’s Reformation [lifts] up some of the Reformation’s central claims. There is beauty here. And ugliness too. Inasmuch as ideas can thrill, these ideas are thrilling. Brace yourself…

The Reformation was a powerful movement of church reform and renewal — and a whole lot more. It was both cause and effect of sweeping changes in European culture and society. These changes shaped modern Europe and America and influenced the entire world. The Reformation marked the end of the medieval and feudal world and the emergence of a new world of a rising middle class, greater individual rights and freedoms, the emergence of nation-states, and a worldwide growth of commerce and trade. As with other historical movements, changes in technology were a key part of a cultural shift. In the late 15th century Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press. For the first time something approximating mass production of books, including the Bible, was possible. The Reformation leader, Martin Luther, seized on the potential of the printing press by pioneering the translation of Scripture, previously in Latin, into the vernacular language of his time and place. Ordinary people and church laity, increasingly becoming literate as part of their transition from feudal economies to urban middle classes, could for the first time read and interpret the texts of Scripture for themselves. As a result, the priesthood and church power and authority centered in Rome began to lose some of its control. The Reformation was a forerunner of democratic movements, including the creation of the United States.”

On the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, we remember a time when it was radical to say that God is still speaking, that God does new things, and that the Holy Spirit may be moving among us to transform our world and our church. Today, 500 years later, this is still radical. In the eyes of God, 500 years is like a blink of an eye. God is still speaking. God is still doing new things. God is still with us, telling us through the spirit and the scripture, as we hear today, about all that God has in store for us, our church, and the world.
In today’s passage from Isaiah, the prophet is addressing the issue of fear, specifically the fear of abandonment, specifically, abandonment by God.  Israel, was in exile in Babylon. And she was afraid. Afraid that God had forgotten her. Afraid that he'd abandoned her as a people. God promises to rescue Israel. They are longing for home, and the way things were back in Israel. The good old days when they were not living as refugees in a strange land, when they were not separated from their families, where they could worship God and go to Temple. And God responds with these beautiful promises...

You are mine. I will be with you. I will give everything in exchange for you.  And in verse 4 we hear these beautiful words, “Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life.” I am your God, and you are mine. I claim you.

Then we hear God say “Do not long for the ways of old, I am about to do something new…”now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.”

This is a statement for Reformation if I ever heard one. A close reading of our scriptures from Genesis until Revelations, especially highlighted in Isaiah, we see how God is constantly breaking into our world to remind us that we are free. We build these rules, walls, and chains around ourselves which confine us. These relics become old so those who made them are no longer around. Our children think these confinements have always existed. They teach their children, this is the way things have always been and always will be. Over time, we forget that it was not God who put us in bondage, but ourselves. And so God breaks in, time and again, to liberate us. God breaks down our walls and dysfunctional rules, reminding us that we are free, we can change, we can grow. God has to teach us again and again to be creative and to try new things. God is the original creator. God is creative. God is not afraid of new things. God is a creator, a redeemer, and a reformer. In God’s holy spirit, in the mind of God, the body of Christ, we too learn and remember how to be brave, to be creative, to try new things, and to reform what is broken.

Let’s do a quick review:
Martin Luther’s own call for change in his 95 Theses wasn’t exactly seen as a blessing by those he was critiquing. Though Martin didn’t get his idea to write the 95 Theses from hours and hours of pouring over social media. It turns out that writing Theses and hammering them on the doors was very common in the university setting. However, there was something that happened that caused Martin to write his list...There was a priest who was well known for the selling of indulgences- and what are indulgences? Ok, well-known priest the next town over starts an indulgence selling campaign saying “I could even assault the Virgin Mary, and get pardoned by the Pope and go to Heaven.” And this priest even had a robust road show, and was very good at selling indulgences in new towns with this message. And of course where was the money going? To Rome, to the Pope.
Clearly, a priest joking about the sexual assault of Jesus’ mother was a hard line for Martin Luther. Priests committing sexual assault, and selling God’s grace in forgiveness...Mmmm, I don’t think so! ML started drafting his 95 Theses-He felt the Pope and priests were so corrupt, that things needed to change.

So on October 31, the eve of All Saints Day, 1517 he posted his 95 theses on the church door of Wittenburg Church, and the theses focused on three main points,
Point 1- An objection to spending money on indulgences
Theses 46) Christians are to be taught “Unless they have more money than they need for their own family, they are by no means to squander it on indulgences”
Point 2) A denial that the Pope has authority over purgatory
Theses 26) It is good that the Pope intercedes for souls in purgatory, but he has no authority over purgatory just because he is the pope
Point 3) A consideration for the welfare of sinners
Theses 36) Every truly repentant Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt even without indulgences.
Many of his ideas came in direct reaction to what ML considered issues of justice. The poor were less likely to be able to afford bailing out their dead relatives for their sins, or if they did they were left destitute and unable to care for their families. What if you couldn’t afford indulgences?
Well, purgatory for eternity!

ML gets to writing. He wrote not only to reform the church but to teach us to write and reform the church in our own time and place. The five hundredth anniversary of the reformation invites us to pause for a moment and wonder together how God is calling us to live into greater faithfulness? What are the issues of justice we need to see in and from the Church? What is one thing that God is calling us to be faithful in this next era of the church? Break-out into groups of 3-4 and share your idea….[Break-outs/Share-backs]

I know I titled my sermon Reformed and Always Reforming, but I definitely have a better title now, “Nailed it!” Maybe it can be a sub-title, because Reformed and Always Reforming is the point of what we are doing together as people who are striving for greater faithfulness to the gospel. Historians have searched for the origin and give different views both of its origin and original intent. Most of them agree that the first use was in the 1670s by Jodocus van Lodenstein, a Reformed preacher in the Netherlands, although even he did not speak of it as an aphorism, or use the precise words we are familiar with. Various forms of the phrase were used by other Reformed men, until the full expression, most agree, came to be ecclesia reformata et semper reformanda secundus verbum Dei.That is, the church, having been reformed, must continue to be reformed according to God’s Word.  

In the spirit of the anniversary of the Reformation, may we pledge to make the next 500 years embracing these tenants, ready to transform and be transformed!