March 29, 2020 Sermon notes

Because we did the service on Facebook from my home I do not have an auto file to post. You can still see it on First Congregational Church South Paris Facebook page or the text is below.Blessings,

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Title: Living in Hope

So here we are…week two of holding church in this non-traditional way…on Facebook. Two things have changed since last Sunday. As I have already mentioned the local radio stations…to my amazement have closed and will be going off the air and closing their doors as of today and that has taken away an avenue of communication that we have used at First Congregational for the last 19 years. Beyond my sadness of losing that communication route I grieve for my friends and our neighbors that are affected by this move.

As many of you may know before coming to this church I was general manager of those radio stations. They served the community and I was invested in that and was proud of the role they took. Beyond that it was a career that allowed me to live in this community and support our family and so for me…it is somewhat personal. I wish blessings to Vic and the others that are affected by the closing of this local business and also wish blessings to our friend Kathy Gleason the owner. Dick and Kathy Gleason operated those stations for over 45 years and with Dick’s death last year this is another life adjustment for the Gleason family and we send them love and blessings.

This is one more change in an ever changing world. The only absolute constant in this world is the love God sends to us through the life and ways of Jesus as well as the ongoing presence of the Holy Spirit. That is why…faith is essential everyday but especially during these times that are so uncertain.

We are doing our best to do our part for the health of the public as well as our own health and staying pretty much pretty much in hibernation…including the decision to do this service from our home rather than the church. I will tell you…we did do a 6 AM visit to the food store thinking…with the early time and a snowstorm to boot that we’d be the only ones there. Wrong! This was one of Hannaford’s special early opening days especially for…people over 60.

It turns out there are a lot of us and we all seemed to know each other; there were many church family so it was odd working our way through the store smiling at people from a distance but not pausing to get up close and chat…which is my normal M.O..

This coronavirus scare…this new reality is simply put…odd to get your head around but it certainly has given us a very different Lenten experience whether you think of it in those terms or not. In fact…I invite you to at least ponder what we are going through from the Lenten perspective.

The 40 days of Lent are modeled, of course, after Jesus’s 40 days of fasting, prayer and reflection as he went off into solitude after being baptized. As we’ve talked about this it occurred that perhaps Jesus’s experience in the wilderness was the first known example of social distancing. I say that with a bit of tongue in cheek but think about it. Jesus chose for whatever reasons to use his time away from others to think and pray…and to be away from others.

I have always wondered what Jesus knew and when he knew it. Did he know how quickly life can change? Did he know that Palm Sunday would almost immediately turn into Good Friday? Did he think of such things during his 40 days of social distancing?

What about you? The ways thing can change so fast can have an incredible effect on our lives. I know people…actually a number of people that either do not currently have a will or dragged their feet making out their last will and testament because they somehow were convinced that making a will was a matter of acknowledging their mortality and that would somehow hasten their demise. If that were true we would be long dead because we have had a will for a long time.

While I do not want us to dwell on it…the Lenten season should give us a moment to reflect on the wisdom offered in Ecclesiastes about life having a beginning and an ending. That adds perspective; a perspective that falls in the spiritual category.

One way to answer the Lenten question we have been lifting up of “What does it mean to be me?” is to acknowledge a healthy balance of Psalm 118’s reminder “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” and Ecclesiastes reminder that all things come to an end. I hope Jesus knew what we think he knew; that love is stronger than hate; that love is stronger than the cross and that God watches out over our lives.

Any encouragement I offer to think of our life as having an ending is not dark pessimism for I do not deal in such things. Rather it is to see the beauty in the temporal and as we observe the Easter experience of new life coming out of the dark tombs that we encounter along the way.

While I don’t have the blind optimism about this coronavirus episode ending immediately that some people do…in the long run I am a hopeful person and I do remind us “this too shall pass.”

Beyond that I can easily add God is always with us in the storms of life as well as the sunny days. No matter the weather or the circumstances…This is the day the Lord has made and we are well served to rejoice in one way or another and give thanks for it.

And although these are actually scary times…I still hold onto the hope that Saint Paul offered to the church in Philippi “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” In my humble opinion that is a matter of living in hope. Living in hope even in difficult times allows us to be blessings to each other. It isn’t blind hope…it is hope that comes into our lives when we pray more deeply and regularly. Pray any way you like…tears, silence, and your lament. Pray with your words or with your actions; pray for others, pray for yourself…pray.

This may seem like an odd transition but I promise to connect it to the Lenten season as well as to these unusual times we find ourselves in. Here is a declaration about Bob Dylan; a favorite songwriter for so many people in fact we could easily say he is a master song writer. While we can agree he has written many iconic songs we’d also have to admit unraveling some of his song lyrics can be quite a challenge. But one of his songs that I particularly enjoy is simple and straight forward. It is a blessing. In fact the opening words are “May God bless and keep you always.” Each line has something good to say, a blessing offered, they are words of encouragement.

May God bless and keep you always
May your wishes all come true
May you always do for others
And let others do for you
May you build a ladder to the stars
And climb on every rung
May you stay forever young

I have used that song in many ways…singing of course but also in preaching. I have lifted it up on a Sunday morning or two in the past. Judy and I along with our son-in-law Mark sang it when we baptized our grandson Cash…in fact we often think of the line “may your feet always be swift” when now at 5 years old he runs by at top speed declaring “I’m Sonic the Hedgehog.”

I recall using this song lyric as a prayer once when I spoke at a baccalaureate service one year at the high school. It isn’t truly a children’s song…but I will tell that I like to sing it or recite it to kids and parents and anyone else that will let me…because it is so hopeful and shines such a beautiful light. Quite honestly we do not bless each other enough.

Those beautiful words “God bless you” flow most easily from our lips when someone sneezes. It’s true! Think about it for a moment. When was the last time you looked someone in the face and said “God bless you?” I bet a sneeze was involved. Go figure! Of course now with the coronavirus if someone sneezes near us we silently ask God to bless and save us.

But in normal times for some odd reason that particular bodily function; the sneeze often is followed by someone offering you the hope that God will bless you.

The folklore on that is kind of interesting not to mention silly. Apparently it comes out of a time when we thought that a sneeze could allow your soul to be at risk…that the little void when you sneeze and nearly, for a split second are in nowhere land…it was feared the devil would enter in…so a blessing was offered to stop that from happening. It is such a silly thought that it makes me not want to say “God bless you” when someone sneezes since I don’t want to play into such hocus pocus thinking.

But I don’t want anyone to think I am slacking on the pastoral care job. So…if you sneeze in my presence…even now during these days of virus filled worry most likely you’ll hear me mutter a blessing your way.

More seriously…in a bigger sense…I can tell you I ask blessings on you often…even without being prompted by a community sneeze. I pray blessings on the kids at this church; on the people of our congregation especially when we are unable to “congregate.”

I pray for the presence of the Holy Spirit among us…but there is more. I pray for the members of this larger community that we share as well…the homes we live in; the families we are part of and the jobs we have and the various churches in which we worship. I want all of our churches to be blessed and to places of many blessings.

McDonalds and Burger King compete and want all the business…but in the case of our churches in this community…we are not in competition…we all need God’s blessings and we all need to be encouraging ongoing blessings of one another now more than ever. Of late I have found myself praying for our school teachers and the students and their families as they are also unable to gather.

I also pray for the poor and the hungry and the homeless in our community…and although it doesn’t look it…we have lots of hungry and frightened people living among us and they need God’s blessings now more than ever. More often than not God’s blessings come through us.

Amazingly it seems that Maine is the 2nd hungriest state in the nation. That means that we have on average more hungry citizens than 48 of the 50 states. Many of the area children get the biggest bulk of their daily food through the schools and having the schools closed caused a lot of concern. I am particularly proud of the ways schools are delivering meals using the school buses to become a delivery service. If you are hungry you don’t focus on learning. It may seem extraordinary to do such things and it is…but these are extraordinary times so I say “blessings to all who work to serve each other.”

I offer those things to you to ponder during this Lenten season. More important than saying “God Bless You” when someone sneezes…is the need to feed the hungry and be sure that our neighbors are warm in the winter; to reach out and fight isolation and to bless each other.

The Bob Dylan song, even though it is saying “may you stay forever young” isn’t speaking only to the youth…but to the youthful place within each of us…the hopeful place. It also speaks about growing up…in “May you grow up” to be this and that. It is a good hope that we will all build a ladder to the stars and climb on every rung, that each of us will grow in righteousness and courage. May our hands always be busy…and our feet always swift…and may we have a strong foundation when the winds of changes shift. Those are good things at any age.

There is a wonderful paraphrase of scripture that is very instructive of how we live together. Ephesians 5 says “Watch what God does, and then you do it.” It goes on to add some detail by saying “Mostly what God does is love. Keep company with him and learn a life of love.” Amen.