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Community Benefits

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By: Jay Fundling

This is a sermon from our Summer “Voices of the Congregation” series.

 

For the first 15 years of my working life, I was an actuary that worked with retirement plans.  I found that job to be exactly as exciting as it sounds. I switched careers when I turned 40, but a bit of my old life sticks with me.

I worked with pension plans. I’m not sure what you have for your retirement, but pensions work differently than a 401(k) that many of you may have.

In a 401(k) or similar plan, you and your employer put money in an account, you have a say in how it is invested. When you retire you have a large account of money to see you through retirement.

A pension, on the other hand, involves a promise from your employer. They say that when you retire, based on how long you worked there, you will get a monthly check. And you will get that check for as long as you or your spouse are alive.

Working with pensions for so long gave me an appreciation for their benefits, and now, I see a lot of parallels between pension plans, and the church community, while a 401(k) plan is life without your community.

With a 401(k) plan, the day you retire you have a pile of money – maybe a big pile of money – and you are on your own.

If you spend it all, too bad.

If you buy a boat and it sinks, too bad.

If you have health problems that eat up your savings, too bad.

Even if you live a decade or two longer than you were expecting to – in many ways that is wonderful – but financially speaking you are stuck trying to make your money pay for many more years of needs than you were expecting.

A pension, on the other hand, says that it will give you the same check every month, no matter what.

If you spend all your money foolishly one month, you get another check the next month.  If you live a long time, there is no expiration date.  If you have health problems, this won’t cure those problems, but it will provide reliable support.

This is how I see the benefits of the church community.

You don’t get a million dollar check when you come to church, but you get what you need.  Being a member of a church will not prevent big disasters from striking your life, but it will support you dependably when those times come.

When you make bad choices – and we all do – you are still welcome here.   As long as you are alive, you are a part of this community. For some that is a very long time, for some it is much too short, but either way you get the support while you need it.

Sticking with the retirement plan analogy, another similarity is how the money is handled.

In a 401(k) plan, you are in charge of investing your money.

No matter what your day job is, no matter if you know anything about investing, you have to manage the biggest block of money you will ever have.

In a pension, there’s an expert investing your money, and if there is a shortfall – if there’s not enough money in the plan – your company makes it up.

When we are outside of church we often think we are going it on our own.

We are in charge and we make all the decisions, whether we want to or not. When we come to church we realize some of the biggest decisions are out of our hands.

We don’t make all the decisions and that’s okay.  We have to learn to sit back and trust.

In the reading today, Paul is talking to the church in Corinth about acting like a community.

I’d like to provide some context, because I know when you hear the reading out of nowhere, it’s not always obvious what point they are trying to get across.

Why is he talking about eating?  Is this a poetic metaphor, or is he talking about an actual meal?

He’s actually talking about a meal

Paul was telling the church in Corinth how they should conduct their religious service, including how they eat their meal, the Lord’s Supper.

Their Lord’s Supper was not just a small bit of bread and wine like we have, it was a full meal.  It was like communion combined with coffee hour in this church.

Paul is telling them how to have a group meal.

When I selected this reading, when it really spoke to me, I did not first find it in the translation of the Bible that Nancy read from.

I found this passage in a book by an author named Mark Russell.

Mark Russell has written several funny, insightful books I’ve enjoyed and I’m a big fan

This one is called “God Is Disappointed In You”

In this book he retells every book in the Bible faithfully to the source material, but in his own tone.  I found his version of this passage was very understandable.

This is how he conveys Paul’s comments on how the Corinthians were

conducting their common meal:

When you celebrate the Lord’s Supper, it needs to be a potluck, and not a brown bag. Last time I was there, everyone brought their own food. And there was some jerk getting drunk on wine and gorging himself with roast lamb, while all the guy next to him had to munch on were a few crackers.  Do you have any idea how bad this looks? If you want to keep your fancy snacks to yourself, eat at home. When we eat together we should share everything like family. What good does it do to celebrate our brotherhood by embarrassing the guy sitting next to you. 

What Paul is saying – either in the traditional translation or the more colloquial one – is about acting like a community.

Some members of the church were wealthy.

They were enjoying their Sunday night dinner with their nice food and lots of wine.

Their bellies were full, but they weren’t acting as a community.

They were full while others at the table were hungry.

Again, this isn’t a metaphor about world hunger, or hunger of the spirit, these were people in the same room at the same table, who weren’t sharing their food.

Paul says you despise the church – or show contempt for the church – if you show up and do not share your food.

Because the point of coming here on Sunday is not what you get as an individual.

It’s not that you enjoy the music by yourself, not that you hear the prayers by yourself,

not that you get something to eat at coffee hour, it’s that we all do those things together.

I started my sermon by explaining how pensions work.

The reason I felt the need to explain them – and one reason I found a new job – is that companies aren’t offering pensions much anymore.

They have found that, for all the benefits, people don’t appreciate the vague promise as much as they should, and prefer to see a large dollar number in an account in their name.

That’s enjoyable, having this big account. It’s enjoyable in the same way that sleeping late on Sunday is enjoyable.

I have my account with my money.

My time, my Sunday morning.

My decisions, my control

my life. I’m in charge.

It sounds good at first, until you think of what you are giving up.

The community.

The support.

The lifetime bonds.

The knowledge that, while bad times will still come, you won’t face them alone.

Tenured Children of God

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By: Niki Rukstalis

This is a sermon from our Summer “Voices of the Congregation” series.

 

It seems like we’re all searching outside ourselves for something inspiration, happiness,
wealth, validation, fulfilment.

Financial blogger Ben Carlson writes about this noting that according to the Internet, all you need to do to be a billionaire is: sleep 10 hrs/day, read 6 books/week, meditate for 2 hrs/day -post motivational quotes (with pictures of sunsets), wake up before 5am every day, work 14 hrs/day, workout 2 hrs/day (before work), but also have a good work-life balance 

…voila that’s it!!

Obviously, all this advice just makes us more frantic, more manic, more afraid that we are doing something wrong. And likely not more inspired, happy, rich, validated, or fulfilled. Now of course, there are practical reasons to be externally motivated. My experience as a professor speaks to this point.

I must start by saying that I love my job that it is my true calling and that I am blessed.
However, it is not without stress.

Here’s the process. If you secure a tenure-track position out of graduate school you start as an untenured assistant professor with a three year contract. If you make the cut, you get another two to four years as an untenured assistant. Then, you come up for tenure. In academia, tenure is the holiest of the grails. It means job security for life.

If you don’t get tenure, you get fired.You likely have to move, go to a less prestigious school, start over. So how does one get tenure? By publishing original research in academic journals that are reviewed by other professors. Other professors, whom you likely do not know personally,
have complete say over whether the paper is published or not. And… the best journals have 5% acceptance rates.

A paper from start to finish takes 3-7 years, sometimes longer.Sometimes one paper in one of those journals is the difference between tenure and no tenure. 

Talk about pressure. 

Talk about looking outward for validation. 

Whew. 

So, oftentimes, there are good and practical and unavoidable reasons to seek external validation. But too often, we assume that “success” on earth translates to “success” in God’s eyes. Some of us have been seeking external validation for so long that when we experience rejection… 

By a journal editor, in a job interview, by a potential friend, by a current friend, or when we experience outright abuse in an unhealthy relationship that we can’t easily escape …we believe that we are worthless. 

We take something external and internalize it. 

But we are precisely wrong. 

God doesn’t love me more if I publish in the Journal of Finance. God doesn’t love you less if you don’t get that job.

God doesn’t blame those that are rejected or abused, in fact, God has compassion and love for all his children particularly his children that have been rejected or abused. 

God’s love is our inheritance. We do not need to earn God’s love by being successful on Earth. He loves us all the same. After all, he created us in his image. 

From today’s reading: He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing! 

Growing up, my faith felt very transactional. It felt like a ledger. Like good deeds went on one side and sins on the other. And there were people in my life who were also transactional.
They sort of kept a ledger too. As long as the ledger was pretty well balanced, all was fine.
But if the ledger got out of balance in their minds, I owed them.

Since people acted that way, I sort of assumed God worked that way too.

But now I’m pretty sure I was wrong, that I had the order reversed. God’s love isn’t conditional on my good deeds, but rather: my desire to be kind or loving or helpful or generous is a direct result of God’s love for me.And not the other way around

Therefore, we don’t have to jump through hoops for God to love us.
In academic language, we are all already tenured children of God. Simply by being born.
This is amazing,
This is humbling,
And this is freeing. 

Our value as humans is not tied up in how much we accomplish on this planet. So what does this mean for us, in a practical sense? 

Well, we know that doing all the perfect things: up at 4, work 12 hours, workout 2 hours, sleep 10 hours, AND have work-life balance… will just make us frantic.

And trying to solve all the world’s problems all at once… will just make us exhausted.

Instead, we must find a way to conduct ourselves as God meant us to; every day, with compassion, generosity, and love.

If we can find a way to do this, and do our best, with open hearts and clear minds, and not at the expense of others. then that is enough. We are enough. No matter the outcome.

We can never be worthless. 

Never. 

And that means that maybe we can stop looking so hard. Stop searching so hard. It’s all here in front of us. And it all matters. And it’s all God. All of it. 

Local Savannah cop Patrick Skinner eloquently describes his job via social media. 

In recent comments, he notes:
“We volunteer for everything that puts us in front of our neighbors;
We clear the 911 call with empathy & transparent justice and move to the next one. Connect. Connect. Connect.”

He also says:
“You’ll go good if you simply approach the challenge right in front of you.
And then do it again tomorrow.”

Finally, Skinner describes an encounter with a neighbor in the local store:
This neighbor says ‘thank you for your service’
which is nice but I always reply
‘thank you for your service, it all matters.’

She stopped & said ‘what do you mean?’
I said ‘what you do matters the same as me.’
She laughed. I said ‘I’m serious’ 

It all counts or none of it does’. It all counts or none of it does. It all matters. We all matter. 

Welcome to the Muddle

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Last week, our congregation voted unanimously to begin a $400,000 capital campaign in order to build a youth center in our basement for the youth of this church and our wider community.

I am proud of our church for taking this bold and faithful step toward the future where God is calling us. I am grateful to be a part of a church that looks at all that we have and asks: How can we share this?

The coming weeks and months will be busy and full with great moments of joy and triumph, and likely some setbacks and disappointments. A mentor of mine, Martin Copenhaver, always said, “Every undertaking has three parts, the beginning, the muddle, and the end.”

Welcome to the muddle.

Last Sunday in my sermon, I quoted our former pastor Jeff Johnson’s sermon from 17 years ago, which was on the morning of the church’s previous capital campaign. “How tempting it would be to want some magical assurances, some guarantees, but ultimately there are none,” he said. “So this is really an exercise in faith, which is what makes it so exciting.”

There are no guarantees. We have done our homework and budgeted for contingencies as best we are able, but nothing is certain. Yet, as a community we have discerned that this is where God is leading us next. And with that confidence, we can take bold and thoughtful steps in a positive direction without needing to know everything the future will hold.

It is also likely that we have only glimpsed in part the dream that God has for this youth center. I suspect there might be possibilities beyond what we have imagined that this new space will open. Our job will be to remain open, creative, flexible, and hopeful.

I—for one—cannot wait to see what God will do next.

Hope in the Christmas Season

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By: Sarah Cambria

On this first Sunday of Advent, John asked me to speak from a minute or two on what hope means to me as it relates to the Christmas season.  I started my reflection with the basics-what is the definition of hope:

The Webster dictionary defines it first as a verb, “To cherish a desire with anticipation, to want something to happen or be true” and then as a noun, “trust, reliance, a desire accompanied by expectation of or belief in fulfilment…ultimately faith.”

As I thought about hope during the season of Advent, I was flooded with images, scents, sounds and feelings of Christmas past and present.  In fact, there are symbols of hope in almost every Christmas tradition.  As a child, the smells of Christmas cookies conjured the feelings of anticipation and excitement. The stars and angels on our Christmas trees remind us of the hope that the star of wonder brought to the shepherds and the wise men and the angels’ miraculous news.  The star also gives us hope that if we follow Jesus and try to live in his example, we can also trust in our own internal North Star and that we’re exactly where we’re supposed to be.  The images of angels evoke feelings of optimism in tomorrow. The candles in our windows remind that even in the darkest time of the year,  the light of love will always overcome the darkness of hate, fear and in the darkest times of our life.  The evergreen reflects that with the birth of Jesus, we also all received the gift of everlasting life.  The images of baby Jesus in the manager and all the carols we sing about that miraculous and humbling scene of baby Jesus in the manger conjures hope in the world we can all create if, like Jesus, we lead with love, acceptance and care for others.  

In these images, scents, sounds and symbols of Christmas, we can reach across the centuries and be present in that manager and feel awe in that baby who came to teach us to love in this life and promised to love us for eternity.  I pray that throughout the next four weeks-when as we know, at times feel hectic and stressful, we all experience moments of hope-individually, with our families and friends, as a community and as a larger world.  It’s the collective hope and faith which makes this time of year so unique, special and powerful.   Wishing each of you all the hope of the season.

Monday Moment: Nancy Barber

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Each month a member of our congregation presents a “Monday Moment,” sharing what difference their faith makes in their life after Sunday morning worship has come to an end. This Month’s Monday Moment comes from Nancy Barber. 

The Monday moments series focuses on how our Sunday worship impacts our lives through the week and outside these walls. This past week trumpeted that to me. It was a week of great tragedy, frightening natural disaster. Muslims across the world began the month of Ramadan with fasting and prayer to be closer to God and, yesterday, the Royal Wedding –a service of union and hope– was broadcast across the world. (Of particular interest to those of us who like the hats and dresses).

Our church has taught me that even when there is pain, disappointment, great sadness or anger, God’s love is still present in the world. I have learned that not only can those things be survived, but God’s love encourages us to respond to them with action. And I have also learned to be grateful for and celebrate the good.

When our membership was dwindling and literally the roof was ready to fall in, this congregation rallied around a capital campaign, repaired the building, and by doing so deepened our commitment to God and each other. Years later when the planes struck the towers the day after we had voted to build our addition, we decided to go forward despite how shaken and tentative the world and its economy had become.

And further afield, In the wake of the extreme damage done to New Orleans by Katrina, members of this congregation raised money and went to help that community rebuild. Most recently, after seeing racial hate and injustice throughout the world, the church’s Racial Justice Committee was born – pushing us to talk, read, understand and take action against racial injustice.

Many of John’s sermons help us to feel the power of God’s love and to see God in our everyday world. Two of them in particular come to mind when I think about my Monday moments. First was the one the search committee heard when John was a candidate. It was called Preparing for Miracles. John reminded us of Miriam and some of the other women who, when frantically packing what they could carry as they fled Egypt, took tambourines. Not extra food or water, but Tambourines – John told us they knew that, dark as things seemed, there would be a time to dance somewhere in the future. And, of course, we read they did dance when the Red Sea parted and they were finally free.

The second sermon which informs my Monday moments was one called “Restorers of the Breach”. John referred to Isaiah 58 where, in the midst of national turmoil Isaiah encouraged people to be “the repairer of the breach, The restorer of the streets in which to dwell”.

So, in a week like this one when we’ve seen the horror of the killings in Texas and the damage wrought by volcanos in Hawaii, the terrible plane crash in Cuba, we can know that God is with us when we cry, and we fume and we are afraid. But, as religious people, we need to take action – fight to prevent further killings, Send prayers, money, whatever might be needed by the victims of tragedy and violence. Learn how we can help in the world and do it.

But I’ve also learned to celebrate the good in the world. In that very hopeful wedding ceremony yesterday, Bishop Michael Curry quoted Martin Luther King, Junior: “We must discover the power of love, the redemptive power of love. And when we discover that, we will be able to make of this old world a new world”.

Here at FCC Milton I’ve learned the redemptive power of love and heard the challenge to make this a new and better world and that with God there will always be a time to dance.

 

An Image of God

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It is nearly impossible to describe what happens on a retreat to someone who wasn’t there. On the surface it all sounds simple enough. We talked about God. We played games. We shared meals. We walked on the beach.

Yet. a retreat is so much more than the sum of its activities.

Last weekend, our confirmation class traveled to Craigville Retreat Center on Cape Cod. The best way I can describe what happened in that time is that we formed a beloved community. We put our cell phones away in a box for the full two days. We took time to connect with each other a little more deeply then we might on an ordinary day. We laughed together. We were open and honest with each other. We prayed together, and we strengthened the bonds of trust that connect us.

One of the activities that is always a part of our confirmation class is discussing how we imagine God. We explore the images we have in our mind’s eye about who God is, and we try to learn new ways to see and understand God. We look at pictures of nebulas, forests, sunsets, and cities, and wonder how God is present in each one.

The wisdom and depth of thought of our teenagers never fails to astound me. It shouldn’t surprise me anymore, but somehow it always catches me off guard. Along with the other leaders, I can attest that more often than not all we need to do is offer a circle of sofas and a good question, and our youth bring the insight. They bring the connection to their experience and their lives. They bring the wisdom, the beauty, and the hope. They challenge us to dream bigger for God’s world.

On the last night of our retreat, the youth were adamant that we go to the beach. Their buzz-kill pastor wouldn’t let them go swimming in the 39-degree ocean, but they still wanted to at least visit the water’s edge. When we got to the beach, they ran. They ran together toward the water under the star-soaked night sky, and very quickly I lost sight of them in the dark night.

Walking after them, I eventually came to where they stopped, lying in the sand gazing up at the sky together. They were talking, laughing and full of love and joy.

That sight was an image of God for me. I saw God in them. I saw God in the moment. I encountered God in whatever it was in the ocean air, the starry sky, and the human heart that seemed to pause time and create the connection.

It is among the most precious things I know.

No More

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Yesterday being Ash Wednesday, I spent the morning in the sanctuary pressing burnt ashes onto foreheads as a reminder of our mortality. I always find it particularly poignant marking the foreheads of children. Everything in me wants to deny it, but the ritual reminds us, that even our littlest ones share in life’s vulnerability.

Walking out of the sanctuary and opening my computer that afternoon, I was met with another stark image of the frailty of our children’s lives.

I ask you to join me in prayer for the victims of yesterday’s mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. I ask you to pray for families encountering staggering grief. I ask you to pray for those still clinging to life. And, following Christ’s command to pray even for our enemies, I ask you to pray for the shooter.

I also ask you to pray for our nation and our community, that we might summon the moral courage to examine ourselves honestly enough to discover the twisted roots of this all-to-common violence. I ask you to pray that we will find the will to face hard truths and make difficult changes to solve this national crisis. There will be varied ideas about what those solutions should look like. These can be engaged in good faith.

But our faith does not permit us to simply give in to an unacceptable status quo. Our prayers alone are not enough if we do not take our part in God’s work of healing, hope, and justice.

Whenever I learn of a shooting like this, I am always reminded of Jesus’ words at the moment he was arrested in the garden. One of his companions drew a sword and struck a servant of the high priest. Jesus cried out, “no more of this!”

That is the call I hear from Christ, standing in thick of this pain, and in the presence of these latest wounds, and in the company of these beautiful souls.

No more of this. No more.

 

Christmas Message

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This story will never get old.

It never loses it’s power. It’s beauty.

No matter how many times we hear this tale it will never fail to shimmer, to glow with radiant light.

The truth is the story doesn’t change. Each year, the same angels make the same announcements. The same shepherds journey down from the hillsides into the same sleepy town, to meet the same child in the same manger.

The same kings see the same star, and follow the same road, to the same place, where Jesus lay with is mother.

And as for our part, we remember this Holy Night with a service that doesn’t change much year to year, same candles, same Carols…

But we are not here because we forgot the story.

Nor do we gather for the easy comfort of a familiar service.

We gather on Christmas each year to tell the story, the same way because Christmas is not just a faint memory of something that happened long ago.

It is a story about what God is doing now. Even this very night.

Christmas is not the anniversary of a great historical event.

It is a yearly witness to God’s ongoing presence in the world.

This night is our reminder, that God’s love for us is so great, so powerful, so edgeless, that nothing, nothing not even the glory of immortality, was too much to give up in order to come into this world and live as one of us.

That is true now. Even tonight.

This night is our witness that when God steps into the world, it happens in surprising places. Unexpected places. Through the lives of the poor and the outcast. The over-looked and cast aside.

And that is happening now. Even tonight.

This night proclaims that the presence of God in the world comes to kings and peasants alike.

This night humbles us with a reminder that barn animals are the very first witnesses to God’s redemption of the world.

This night is our reminder that God’s activity in the world makes the most powerful tyrants tremble in their throne, because the simple power of love will prevail against their might no matter how many times it must.

So with all that going on. With God doing all that. Tonight. And every moment of our lives.

The call of this story is not to reminisce about Holy Night long ago.

It is to find your place in God’s story which is unfolding this Holy Night.

Has a star arrived on the horizon of your life, beaconing you in a direction you never dreamed you would travel? Could you join the journey of the magi and learn that true wisdom sometimes means doing something as foolish as following a star across the wilderness?

And what if at the end of your journey you met something as unexpected as a holy king in the body of poor infant.

Could you kneel and witness the work of God?

Has a voice whispered that you, yes you, have a part to play in the healing of world? Can you summon the courage of Mary to say “here am I, the servant of the Lord?”

Have you been as disappointed as Joseph, wondering what people will ever think of you if they find out your family secrets? Can you find the peace to rest in the mess and trust God’s unfolding work usually makes us pretty uncomfortable?

That is the call of Christmas.

To walk out into the world, and see it as the very world that God is coming to make anew. To expect angel songs. To welcome the gifts that come to us from people who are nothing like us.

To know in your bones that God is here. Here with us. In the midst of it all.

The call of Christmas is to lift the small light of our candles into the darkest night, illuminating the world with the joining of our light. To sing, not of a Holy night long ago, but to sing of this Holy night.

The presence of God in this world. In this moment.

And to know. To remember. To feel. That that light is love. That light is peace.

That light will not leave the world unchanged.

That light will breaks forth for us and for all people.

Across the ages. And throughout the world.

Not just long ago but now.

Not just for kings and shepherds, but for you and me.

A light, for all people.

Emmanuel.

God.

With us.

Our Kids

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Last evening I attended a meeting of the Milton Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition for a conversation about teenage drug and alcohol abuse in our town. Among the presenters were four High School students. They were there to offer their candid assessment and to help us older adults better understand the world of our town’s youth. Two of the four were youth from our church: Arielle Solomon and Alyssa Foster.

Throughout the evening our youth spoke eloquently about the stress and depression so many of their peers face. I was really impressed with these young women who are offering leadership not just among their peers, but to this whole community.

When someone asked what the community could do practically, the first thing our youth lifted up was our church and our youth programs. They talked about what a difference the support and love of this community made to them, and they lifted up our emerging programs as a model of the sort of resources this community most needs.

I share this with you so that you can join me in witnessing the kind of impact that our ministry here has on the world beyond our walls. These kind of stories are certainly an occasion for celebration. But these kind of stories also offer inspiration. They inspire us to dig deeper, work harder, love bigger, and grow together so that we can continue to offer this community an ever-bolder hope.

I am grateful for this church, for all it is, and for all it can be.

Narrative Budget

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Our budget is an expression of our values. We use the resources of this congregation to bear beauty into the world, to tell God’s story to a new generation, to serve our neighbors, and to care for our community.

Our budget tells a story. The story of a community living out God’s call for this time, and in this place. A story of people committed to making God’s love unmistakable.

Our budget aspires. Our budget expresses our hope that what we do here together matters, it makes a difference. Our ministry is worth growing, and we can only do that together.