Rev. Dr. Martha Jacobs
A Gift that Strengthens Our Community
Lamentations 3: 22-26 and Matthew 5:21-24
Sunday, February 19, 2017
So, there I was, the Sunday before last, on Route 17, that long stretch of road where going 55 miles an hour is the only way not to get a speeding ticket, going up and down and through the Catskill mountains on my way to Syracuse, enjoying nothing in particular. I started thinking about earlier that day and what a great community gathering we had and how blessed I feel to be a part of this community of faith. I thought about how we shared communion and how Matthew Bilodeau and Paul Warren had so graced us with their serving communion as part of Matthew’s preparation for Confirmation.
I also thought about how wonderful the kitchen angels had been who helped make Pastor’s pancakes such a delicious success and, Valerie Heemstra’s terrific presentation about birds. It was an awesome day and gave me so much joy as I thought about it. Suddenly, a hawk flew by. Unfortunately, Valerie he was too fast for me to figure out what kind of hawk he was!! He was surprisingly close to the car, clearly on his way to retrieve his dinner. It appeared that nothing was going to get in his way, not even a car slowly going down that seemingly endless road on the way to Syracuse.
I go to Syracuse every few months because I serve on the UCC NY Conference Personnel Committee, a position I value and am humbled to be a part of. After the hawk interruption, I started thinking about the prior Personnel Committee meeting, when things had not gone so well with two staff people who were being reduced to part-time because of changes in technology and budgetary constraints. Their jobs had changed, and, so, full-time hours could no longer be justified for either position. The Committee had worked to support the two people involved as well as the Rev. David Gaewski, our Conference Minister. This was very hard for him. He liked the two people and yet, knew that changes had to be made.
As we processed this decision with him, I was struck by his humbleness. I was also struck by his strong desire to maintain the community that had been built within the New York Conference office. It was hard, because both of these people had worked for the Conference for many years and David was trying to balance the business aspect of running a denominational office while keeping his personal feelings separate, which is really hard. We tried to help him as well as help the two employees adjust to becoming part-time. It was a difficult meeting, to say the least.
Friends, when we are in the midst of difficult situations and decisions, it is not easy to parse out what is going on inside of us, especially when it is not clear what went wrong, or who, if anyone, was wrong. We often want to find out where the blame lies. Sometimes, it doesn’t matter who is to blame but rather how we deal with the people involved.
As we heard in our reading this morning, Jesus tells his disciples, and us, that if we are angry with someone or insult someone, we need to deal with that! Jesus doesn’t give us the option of figuring out who is at fault and then consider going and reconciling with that person. He tells us that we are to leave what we are about to give to God, and go and find the person. We must reconcile with that person before we give our offering.
These days, that is harder and harder to do. We all have our opinions and our beliefs about how people should be treated, particularly those who are of a different religious belief or culture than we. And, being a congregational church, where all are welcome, some of us find ourselves at odds with what is happening in our country and at odds with those within our own congregation who agree with what is happening in our country. And, in this church, even though we don’t have to agree, Jesus reminds us that we are to be reconciled with each other – even if that means agreeing to disagree. We are still bound together as a community of faith.
Jesus tells the disciples that the community is to do something that was virtually unheard of at that time. Jesus tells them to leave their offering, their hard-earned offering, and go and seek reconciliation and then come back. In itself, that is a remarkable thing for Jesus to have asked them to do. Remember, most of these people didn’t possess very much and so their offering was truly one for which they had worked very hard. So, by this radical a suggestion of leaving their offering unpresented to God, Jesus is trying to tell them the importance of being a healthier community, because when we are able to name things that are bothering us or that we are fearful about, they lose their grip on us. It frees us in a way that nothing else does. Jesus shows us that we have the ability to heal our communities when we let go of things like anger and resentment, because that eats at us. It is hard to give thanks or see something from a different angle when you are holding onto something negative.
God is saying, if you remember that someone has something against you, go and find that person and care for them by helping them. God is helping us to not only care for ourselves by dealing with our own issues with someone. But, by going to the person we are holding something against and talking with them, hopefully they too will be relieved and able to let go of whatever happened between the two of you. That often helps to resolve the issue, even if you then agree to disagree. What a gift that is to be able to give to someone else!
Many of the laws about which Jesus is talking about are for communities, not individuals. Jesus is setting up a new community, one where people care for each other in a different way from what had been the social and cultural norms of the past. For example, shifting the cultural norm included children being considered important and women being honored and included. And, it did not matter from where you came. All people are to be included in this new community; all are equal; all are to be honored as children of God. In the new reality announced by Jesus, life in this community is marked not only by a different way of living, but a different understanding of life entirely. This new community is radically new. It is a reconciled and beloved community in which all people are treated with dignity and with affirmation. This New Community has better things to do than hold onto anger or resentment. What a gift that is! To be able to concentrate on being a loving and caring and healing community led and supported by God.
So, in this new paradigm, the community cares for each other. It is not about meeting our individual needs but rather about creating and sustaining a community in which all of God’s children can find nurture, health, safety, and blessing. If you think about it for a moment, it makes perfect sense. When you are looking out for yourself only, it is you battling the world by yourself. But, when you look out for others, when we look out for each other, together we face the challenges as well as the opportunities that might appear. We give each other that gift, when we are able to face the difficulties in life together.
That was the motivation for Rev. Gaewski asking me to go to Germany. If you had a chance to read my Carillon article, you know that I am going to Germany this coming week to help the clergy there to help their congregants deal with the aftermath of the Christmas Market terrorist attack. David was concerned about the spiritual health of our German colleagues and their congregants. The Germans are facing the challenges of a “new normal” for them – life after such a major human-caused trauma. While I am not thrilled about traveling, especially with all that is happening in our world right now, I felt I could not say no, because we are all bound together as a Christian community, whether we are here in Chappaqua or in Berlin. God calls us to reach out and help others. I am humbled that I have some knowledge that I can share with them, that will hopefully help them to be able to heal and cope with the changes they are facing and the fears they are facing. David offered this German Christian community a gift, and I am honored to be able to help them strengthen their community.
Jesus lays down for us God’s gift to protect and care for all God’s children. Sometimes, it is hard for us to deal with, but our responsibility for our neighbor, whether near or far, outweighs everything because God cares so deeply about God’s children…all of God’s children, and therefore, we too are called to care about all of God’s children. Jesus tells us that we must let go of our judgements, resentments, fears, and hatred. We will then strengthen our community and receive the grace we need to remain faithful to each other and to God.
The reading from Lamentations that Bob read this morning is an important reminder to us as we seek to be a caring, loving, compassionate community like Jesus envisions for us. “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, God’s mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”
This reading reminds us that for each of us, despite our shortcomings, our fears, our distrust and disappointments, God’s mercies will never come to an end. They are new every morning for all of us as we live our life as best we can, being the beloved community, even with our flaws, our fears and our humanness. Dear ones, we do the best that we can knowing that God’s faithfulness is great – beyond our comprehension and is a priceless gift God gives to each one of us and to our wider community which helps to strengthen our community. Great is God’s faithfulness for all of God’s creatures.