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November 16, 2016, 1:21 PM

My Highest Allegiance is to Love

"For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. 14Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? 18But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20As it is, there are many members, yet one body. 21The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 22On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; 24whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, 25that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. 26If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.

27Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. 28And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. 29Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? 31But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way."

- Corinthians 12: 12-31a

     Leading up to the passage above, Paul introduced the topic of spiritual gifts. He says: 4”” “there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; 6and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. 7To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”

     Paul wrote this letter because he had heard that there was division in the young church.  Cliques were forming and conflict was erupting over a sort of spiritual competitiveness.  Some people thought that their own gifts – their own contributions to the church – were more important or worthy of greater recognition; and that other people’s gifts were somehow less important or even less valid expressions of faith. 

     So after reminding them that all the gifts are given by the same spirit; he compares the gifts to the parts of a human body.  He says that in our baptism the differences of our physical birth are superseded by our rebirth into one spiritual body.  Whether we were born rich or poor, man or woman, or as Paul says here, Jew or Greek, slave or free, we are now one body and no part of the body can claim more honor or value or privilege than any other part.  Every part of the body, no matter how important the work it does, needs the other parts to thrive.

     When you think about it, Paul’s image has a sense of humor to it.  The idea of different parts of your body talking to each other can conjure up some silly images.  I imagined the time I capsized my little sunfish sailboat.  What if my legs suddenly finding themselves in cold water- just got mad at my hands that had been holding the sail and the tiller. “A moment ago we were warm and comfortable basking in the sun and now due to your incompetence we are all in the soup, and cold soup at that.  Well if you think that we’re going to help you get out of this fix, forget it.  We have no intention of treading water, we came here to relax.  This is your fault and it is your responsibility to get us out of this water and back on the boat.”  It sounds silly and farfetched; but when something goes wrong in most organizations – from a church to a town or a nation – isn’t  the first order of business usually looking for someone to blame?  And don’t we sometimes take a certain pleasure in letting things really fall apart so we can say “I knew it was a bad idea all along.”  If my legs refused to help keep the rest of my body stay afloat, they would drown with the rest of the body.  Paul’s image reminds us that we are all in this together and it takes the efforts of every one of us to keep this body afloat.

     Paul’s imagery is meant to tell us that when we are truly functioning as the Body of Christ, the usual human values and measures of status are not so much reversed as totally irrelevant. 

     We see ourselves as we truly are- gifted with a variety of interests, talents, and abilities which all fit together to meet all the needs of the body.  We are inter-dependent.  We can’t afford the cliquishness and spiritual arrogance that Paul noticed in Corinth.  If a church is to thrive, we have to support and celebrate one another’s gifts and make use of them all to build up the Body.  In recent years this church has been especially good at that. And it warms my heart and gives me hope.

     Paul’s metaphor is also true for the world.  The earth is one body.  And it is more reality than metaphor.  Back in 1816 a volcano eruption in Indonesia spewed ash clouds and sulfur dioxide as high as the stratosphere which caused temperatures to drop across the northern hemisphere.  It was called the year without a summer because In New England there wasn’t a single month without a frost, snow fell in June, lakes had ice in July and a killing frost in August destroyed the crops once again. There was famine in North America and Europe, an outbreak of typhus, and mass migration as people fled the famine.  When you think about it, most of the waves of immigration throughout the history of the world and our own country were caused by natural disasters and famine, or the human made disasters of ethnic or religious persecution or just war happening somewhere in the world.

     Modern communications and travel have truly made the one body a daily reality.  When a conflict happens in any part of the world, it affects the whole world immediately now.    When a new bacteria or virus develops in some remote part of the world – it doesn’t take much more than a week to make it here. 

     As much as we might like to build a wall to partition ourselves off from the rest of this global body of humankind; a wall “wouldn’t make us any less a part of the body” as Paul would say.

     And the same is true within this nation.  We are one body and even if we say “I am not Republican” or “I am not a Democrat” – that doesn’t make us any less a part of the one body.  I remember years ago, bumper stickers that said don’t blame me – I voted for (whoever the other candidate had been).  It might as well have said “Don’t blame me. I am not part of the body.”  If I were to say, “I am not black.  I am not lesbian or transgender.  I am not Muslim. I am not Mexican; therefore I am not part of the body or they are not part of the body;” that would not make us any less a part of the same body.  We need one another.  Like a human body, our nation is an ecosystem.  The diversity of gifts and abilities, the diversity of viewpoints and personality types, the diversity of worldviews and religions, is essential to stimulate new ideas and growth, to create cures for diseases and sustainable ways to power it all. The contrast built into the diversity gives us all something to work on and to work for

     This year’s election was all about pushing against what we don’t want.  I have the sense that everyone voted for what they feared the least.  And it is time now for us to turn and focus on what we do want and work together for something rather than against something.  

     In the wake of the election there has been violence on both sides. There was violent protest and personal attacks. There was copycat harassment and physical attacks popping up, all over the country, on the day after the election. The reports included a Muslim woman having her hijab ripped off on the street, and being told to strangle herself with it. There were reports of boys grabbing little girls' between the legs, as they walked in the hall at school, saying "if the President can do it, so can I."  Swastikas were painted in school bathrooms and on billboards. A Mexican-American middle school student quietly recorded on her phone a scene in the school cafeteria, of a group a students chanting “build that wall,” to intimidate the Latino and Latina students.  There were reports in many different parts of the country, of school students or adults yelling at Latinos to "Go home to Mexico. We're getting that wall now." The N word and gay slurs were shouted hatefully at shocked strangers on the streets around this country.  

There is a movement afoot to invite those who want to be allies of the vulnerable in public places to wear a safety pin clearly and visibly wherever we go.  I plan to do that.  And in the coming year, I plan to lead a class in non-violent communication, and I will be looking for opportunities to use my training in leading structured conversations to get diverse people to talk about our shared dreams and desires. 

I know that God is love.  The opposite of love is not hate.  It is fear.  And fear ran the election this year.  But, as a Christian my highest allegiance is to Love.  So compassion and reconciliation and wellbeing for the whole body that is this nation is what I plan to focus on and work to build in the coming year.  And I hope you will join me.


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February 1, 2016, 3:25 PM

Love and Ashes

Lent begins, this year, with Ash Wednesday on February 10.  The season of Lent is the 40 day preparation for Easter.  The name “Lent” comes from an Old English word for spring, when the days “lengthen.” Lent is about the return of light and life to the earth.  It culminates with the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection to new life on Easter.  

The Christian focus for Lent has traditionally been repentance.  The word means to turn in a new direction.  As the days lengthen, and the sap begins to run again in the maples, we examine our own lives to see what we need to let go of and what new thing might be bubbling up within us.  In Lent, we open our minds and hearts to the new life that God is always offering us.  

Some people observe Lent by giving up something; but I always encourage everyone, instead, to turn in a new direction and do something new that will enrich your spiritual journey and help others.  The first Sunday of Lent falls, this year, on Valentine’s Day.  It inspired me to focus throughout Lent on Love.  The central teaching of Christ is that fulfilling the commandments to love God and to love our neighbor as our self, fulfills all the other commandments in the Bible.  So our scripture readings, sermons, and Sunday school lessons, through Lent, will focus on different aspects of love and the ways that Jesus calls us, as his disciples, to express God’s love. 

On Wednesday, February 10, I will be offering ashes and an open morning meditation time this year, from 8:00am until 10:00am in the church.  There will be meditative music playing for the two hours.  People can come briefly just to receive ashes, or stay longer for a time of quiet reflection.  There will be candles to light for prayer intentions, and handouts with prayers and readings to prompt your Lenten reflections.   Everyone is welcome.

I encourage you to find new ways to express love in daily life as your Lenten observance this year.  A web article on the benefits of hugging is posted on the church website – www.firstchurchwashingtonct.org – for inspiration.  Tell us how you are planning to observe Lent this year by posting a comment.

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January 6, 2016, 12:00 AM

Complaint Free World Challenge

The theme of God doing new things—is often repeated in the Bible.   “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth,” says John about his revelation.  Isaiah was writing around 500 years earlier.  God says, “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth”  and “new things I now declare.”  God’s continuing creativity is a theme that runs through Isaiah’s prophecy: “See I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth. Do you not perceive it?”  “the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind…”  And the Psalms call upon us to “sing a new song to God.”   

These passages express a truth that everything changes-God is always doing a “new thing.” The only constant in life is change.  In nature, everything is either growing or decaying.   Those are the two choices.  There is no such thing as stasis. Constant change is bad news if we are attached to “the way things are” or “the way we’ve always done it.”  But God always doing a new thing is good news if things aren’t going well or we aren’t happy with something as it is. 

Another truth of these scripture passages is that we CAN change—that it is never too late to change what is.  We are never truly stuck with what is because God is always doing a new thing. 

When we are children, everything is possible to us; in our youth, we believe that we can do anything and we can change the world; and it seems that as we get older, the realm of what we believe to be possible for our lives seems to contract.  Growth and change seems to become more difficult.  We say things like, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” or “that’s the way it’s always been and always will be,” or “that’s just the way I am.”  Some of us finally even give up making New Year’s resolutions figuring that we are stuck with things the way they are.  There is a sort of despair that sets in about things happening that we think we have no control over, and rather than making an effort to change things, we mostly just complain about them.

I have preached many sermons about how our thoughts create our reality… how learned beliefs and habitual attitudes can either empower us or attract into our lives the very disasters we are worrying about.  Well, our words are even more powerful than our thoughts.  The act of forming words focuses and clarifies our thoughts, which makes them even more powerful and convincing.  In the story of creation, God speaks things into being.  So do we.  In this New Year, I challenged the congregation to join me and support one another in making a change that can improve your life and improve the life of your community.

Almost 10 years ago, I gave out Complaint Free World purple silicone bracelets one Sunday.  I had read the book A Complaint Free World, by Rev. Will Bowen, who was a Unity Church pastor in Kansas City, Missouri.  Back in the summer of 2006, two weeks into a “summer book club” discussion series at the church, Reverend Bowen had a moment of inspiration.  The book the group was reading had reminded him that our thoughts create our experience; and that it’s important to focus on what we want in our lives rather than giving our attention to what we don’t want.  It occurred to him that complaining—talking about what we don’t want—strengthens the negative focus even more.  When we complain, we are using our words to focus on things that are not as we would like.  So he came up with this gimmick to help people stop focusing on the negative.

Rev. Bowen ordered purple silicone bracelets for his whole congregation; and he challenged everyone in the congregation to wear one.  Every time they caught themselves gossiping, criticizing, or complaining they had to move the bracelet to the other wrist.  He knew that it takes 21 days to break a habit or create a new one.  So the challenge is to go for 21 days without having to move the bracelet—to break the habit of focusing on unwanted things. 

As people heard about it, more and more people requested bracelets.  Will Bowen’s challenge became an international sensation. His church, Christ Church Unity had so many requests for bracelets that they started having their own manufactured for them, with the web address of the movement, “A Complaint Free World.org”, embossed on them. 

Back at the beginning of December, as I was thinking about my inner peace sermon series, I ordered another package of bracelets for our church.  I had noticed that I had fallen back into some old habits.  I caught myself complaining about my mother, criticizing presidential candidates, and even gossiping about a colleague. Since I put on a purple bracelet again, I have done pretty well – I have only had to move it every couple of days.  The first time I did it, I had to move it several times a day- which wasn’t so bad.  Some people have reported having to change wrists 20 times a day and have ordered a second bracelet when the first one finally broke.  The bracelets now come in packages of three.  The book includes testimonies from people who took five months or more to get to 21 days complaint free. 

One great thing is that you only have to move the bracelet when you voice a complaint—critical or dissatisfied thoughts are free.   One thing that the bracelet made me aware of was how often I berate myself out loud—even when no one else is around.  Many times I have forgotten something or made a mistake when I’m alone and said (out loud) “you dope.”  And catching a cold is tough, too.  How can you not complain to your spouse about your sore throat or your sinus headache?   The bracelet also made me aware of how often our casual conversation with coworkers or friends is gossip about other people – or other churches in my case. 

Let’s be clear about what is and what isn’t a complaint.  Webster defines a complaint as an expression of pain, grief, or discontent.  If you go directly to someone who has the power to help you, or fix the problem; then describing the problem to them does not count as a bracelet moving complaint.  Describing a symptom to your doctor is not a complaint, but grousing to your spouse about your head cold is.

I’ve known for a long time that keeping the focus on the positive creates a positive future, but Will Bowen’s book, and the purple bracelets offer us all a physical reminder that can help us change our habits of negativity.

The subtitle of the book is “How to Stop Complaining and Start enjoying the Life you Always Wanted.”  Those who have succeeded in making it to 21 days report wonderful improvements in their overall happiness and health.  The idea is to consistently think and talk about what you want rather than what you don’t want, so you will attract more of what you want into your life… rather than creating more of what you don’t want.  A complaint is talking about something you don’t like or don’t want.  Complaints include criticism and gossip.   Keep in mind that even when there is something wrong that needs to be fixed, you can ask for what you want rather than complaining about what is—which automatically requires that you speak only to the person who can fulfill your desire, rather than just grousing to someone who can’t fix the situation. 

I encouraged everyone to take the 21 day complaint-free challenge with me—partly because I want to share something that I believe will improve your life and the life of my congregation—and partly because I have realized that I need a support group to help me succeed with this.  I believe it will be easier with companions for support. 

In this New Year, we can invite God to do a new thing in our lives and in our church.  We can create a new world by speaking it into being. 


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November 24, 2015, 1:36 PM

Spiritual First Aid for the Holidays

Sunday, November 29 begins the season of Advent this year.  There is a wonderful short video about Advent on YouTube that reminds us what the church season before Christmas is really about.  It encourages us to change our focus from shopping, planning, buying, baking, parties, dinners, cookies, eggnog, Santa, cards, gifts, decorating, caroling and general stressing…

 …And replace it with expectant waiting… and hopeful anticipation… of God breaking into our lives in all moments and places. 

Advent is about more than getting ready to celebrate the birth of Jesus 2015 years ago.  It is also about preparing for Christ’s return and about hopeful anticipation of God’s reign of peace.  Advent is a time to open our hearts to welcome God into our every-day lives. 

Starting four Sundays before Christmas, Advent is a time of joyful waiting.  It begins the church year, so it is a time for starting fresh.  Unlike the Lent season before Easter, which focuses on repentance; Advent focuses on hope.

The end of the video says: “If you are sick of Christmas by December 25th, then you haven’t done Advent correctly.” 

One way to “do Advent correctly” is to light candles on an Advent wreath – one candle for the whole first week, two for the second week, three each day for the third week, and then four each day until you light the final Christ candle on Christmas Eve or Christmas day.  Each year, our church has an Advent-wreath-decorating workshop during Sunday school on the Sunday after Thanksgiving so that each participating family has an Advent wreath for their kitchen or dining table.  The wreath goes home complete with a booklet with readings and instructions for each candle.  Unlike my illustrating photo, most people use a white candle for the Christ candle in the middle instead of a cat however.

You can find the “Advent in Two Minutes” video at: www.youtube.com/watch?v=S02KOlw7dlA 

Another traditional custom is an Advent calendar that has a little surprise of some sort hidden behind a door for each of the days of Advent.  There is a wonderful on-line Advent calendar that offers an inspirational quote and a daily challenge at www.bustedhalo.com/Advent  

Do you have an Advent practice that helps to keep you centered during the noise and commercialism of the holiday season?  Share it here!



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October 27, 2015, 9:47 AM

Telling Our Stories

Up until I attended my first contemplative retreat, I tended to keep my own spiritual explorations and insights to myself.  But at that first retreat, we were assigned things to contemplate as we went for silent walks and we were to bring back some object that symbolized an answer that we had received.  Back in the group, sharing what had come to you was optional; and that first day, I seldom did.  But, other people’s sharing often resonated so strongly with me, that it felt as though their insight had actually been intended as a divine message for me.   By the second day, I was feeling a responsibility to share my insights because I realized that they might be useful for others in the group as well.

The Christian faith practice of witness and testimony is based in the understanding that we are all companions on life’s journey and we can help one another by sharing our stories.  Witness and testimony is about telling about your own experiences for the purpose of raising awareness, empowering, or encouraging others.  Telling about our experiences in order to complain, criticize or gossip throws stumbling blocks onto the path.  But telling our story in order to encourage someone who is walking the same path we are walking helps us both make progress on the path.

This morning, a friend who is trying to make a regular habit of meditation called me.  I have practiced meditation since 1972 and find daily meditation essential to maintain equanimity and compassion in my work as a pastor.  So she was calling me for encouragement.  She told me that she had started her day with meditation three days in a row; but her mind felt like ping-pong balls bouncing everywhere.  I shared my experience that every session is different, and most mornings, there are plenty of ping pong balls bouncing around in my mind as well.  She had assumed that with all my experience, I must just immediately go into deep contemplative awareness and bliss out when I meditate.  I reassured her that when I was in college, with no responsibilities beyond my studies and summer job, my meditation was often deep and quiet and I had interesting spiritual experiences.  But, as my responsibilities have multiplied over the years, so have the monkeys that plague my “monkey mind.”  However, the beneficial physical, mental, and emotional effects of meditation are the same no matter how many times I have to gently redirect my mind to my breath.  My friend was relieved and encouraged to know that she hadn’t “failed” meditation.

I was encouraged recently by the testimony of the Reverend Sally Bingham, Episcopal Canon for the Environment and founder of the Interfaith Power and Light movement.  She spoke in our Meeting House and shared her story of how she went from housewife to environmental activist and priest.  Rather than just scare us all with statistics on global warming; she bore witness to the work that congregations all over the country are doing to cut their carbon emissions and educate their communities.  Her testimony impressed upon us all the moral responsibility we have to protect the poor and powerless of this world from the global effects of unchecked pollution and climate change caused by the rich and powerful of this world.  Her story encouraged and empowered her listeners to be part of the solution.

In worship recently, we heard testimony from three transgender individuals about their life journeys and their experience of welcome (or not) in Christian faith communities.  Their witness made us aware of the depth and breadth of the extravagant welcome that we are called by Christ’s example to offer to the marginalized people of our day.

On All Saints Day, we share our own stories of the people in our lives whose witness has been influential in our journeys of faith.  Sharing our own testimonies deepens our connection with one another and reminds us of the influence we can be in the faith lives of others. 

Who has encouraged or empowered you on your journey or embodied the love of God in your life?  And who have you encouraged with your testimony?


11-26-2015 at 9:59 PM
Sari Max-Fiss
You, Cheryl, have inspired me. My dear, departed (almost one year ago) spiritual director, Susan Jorgensen, embodied love of God in my life - and continues to do so.
I have encouraged many with my testimony. - students, friends, strangers. I put it out there all the time. It's where I "live".
Thank you for sharing your journey, Cheryl.
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