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First Congregational Church of Washington CT, an Open and Affirming Congregation of the UCC
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January 1, 2015, 12:00 AM

Working for Justice

“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3.28

Beginning after Epiphany, we will be honoring the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. this month. Our focus in worship, Bible Study, and Sunday school will be the faith practice of “Working for Justice.”   When most people say the word “justice,” they are thinking of criminal justice – of establishing blame and assigning punishment.  The type of justice that the biblical prophets and Jesus were focused on was economic justice.  When Paul said that there was no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, or male and female, he was calling for justice within the church.  No one was to be excluded, discriminated against, or disempowered; and resources were to be shared fairly.  If Paul were writing today, I am certain that he would say, “There is no longer black or white, male or female, gay or straight, first world and third world; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” 

Working for justice is putting things right in the church and in the world. It is building right relationships with God, each other, and all of God’s creation. The biblical concept of shalom, refers to more than just peace.  It is peace with justice.  It is wellbeing for all God’s creation.   Justice is a universal value that, within the biblical story, is required of people of faith. Following Jesus’ lead, we seek wholeness and reconciliation through both individual and systemic change. Working for justice is a way of life that is different from doing charity. Charity is a compassion­ate response to a need; justice works to repair the root cause of need. Justice is not a one way street; it requires active partners. It heals both the oppressed and the oppressor.      

As we work for justice, we level the playing field, break down walls, and create environments in which all may experience a whole and holy life. This life is free of oppression, degradation, and exclusion.  Working for justice is working to eliminate the causes of terrorism and war. 

Living, as we do, in an affluent and influential country; there are many ways we can work for justice in our daily lives.  Despite what the media focuses on, and regardless of our government’s gridlock; there are many individuals and non-governmental organizations doing remarkable justice work under the radar screen.   Join us in worship this month to be inspired, empowered, and informed about ways to follow Christ and work for justice in our daily lives.

Our Wednesday morning Bible study will be starting a new DVD-based Bible study called “Eclipsing Empire,” which focuses on how Christ’s teachings and Paul’s churches subverted the domination system of the Roman empire.  The group meets Wednesday mornings at 10:00.  If there are enough people interested, we will run the same study on Thursday evenings, so please contact the church office to register.  We will begin the study on Wednesday, January 7. 

On Sunday, January 18, Bryan Nurnburger will be speaking about the work that Simply Smiles in doing in this country and in Mexico, and we will be featuring Simply Smiles coffee from Oaxaca, Mexico during coffee hour.  His wife, Kristen Graves, will be providing the special music during worship.  See you in church!

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December 4, 2014, 1:00 PM

Celebrating the Return of the Light

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined.”  -Isaiah 9.2

All this month, days continue to get shorter and the nights longer until the light begins its return after the solstice on the 21st.   Christians started celebrating the birth of Christ at the winter solstice sometime after the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official Roman Religion.  We don’t actually know what time of year Jesus was born.  Neither did Constantine; but for Christians, Jesus symbolizes the coming of the light into the world.  The gospel writers quoted Isaiah’s prophecy, “The people who live in deepest darkness have seen a great light,” to describe their experience of Christ.   Jesus was a wisdom teacher and a God-person-who-transcended-death so the birth of Christ belongs at this time of year—when the light begins to return and life begins to transcend the death of winter. 

For humans, light often symbolizes the divine.  We use candles to symbolize the presence of God.  The two candles on the communion table every Sunday symbolize the two Sabbath commandments—to observe the Sabbath and to honor the Sabbath.  In our everyday speech we use light symbolism.  As we approach the end of a difficult time, we “see light at the end of the tunnel.”  When we are excited about something, we say that our eyes “light up.”  In cartoons, a light bulb appears over someone’s head when they have an idea.   Brides on their wedding day are always “radiant.”  In tough times, we are reminded that “it’s always darkest just before the dawn” or “it has to be dark to see the stars.”  We all know it is better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness. When we clear up confusion about something we “shed light” on it.  When we understand something in a new way we are “seeing it in a new light.”  So, in addition to light symbolizing the spirit or the divine; light symbolizes hope, insight, joy, wisdom, appreciation, understanding, courage, a fresh start and newness of life.  That is why we celebrate Jesus’ birth near the solstice.

I recently bought a new pillar candle and the label on the bottom warned “never to leave a lit candle unattended.”  Good spiritual advice.  Always attend to the light and carry it with you wherever you go.  In the midst of this busy “holiday” season, I invite you to attend to the light by joining in worship on Sunday and taking home an Advent devotional which are available in the office or at the back of the church.  Carry the light with you to join in our intergenerational “Wrapping for Humanity” volunteer effort at the Danbury Mall on December 7th.  We will, again this year, offer an evening “Service of Comfort and Peace,” on December 21st.  If you know someone for whom the holidays will be difficult this year, bring them to this peaceful and hopeful candlelight service.   At our 5:30pm Christmas Eve service this year, the children will once again help us tell the story through lessons and carols and lighten up as we distribute the Christmas oranges.  At the 10:00 service we will once again pass the light from candle to candle as we await the coming of the light of Christ.

Advent begins on November 30th this year. Each week, we will be lighting one additional candle to symbolize the hope, peace, joy, and love that the “coming one” represents.  I hope you will join us and bring a friend.

~ Pastor Cheryl


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November 6, 2014, 1:00 PM

Exercising Radical Love and Welcome

“Then Peter began to speak to them: ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.’” Acts 10:34

The overwhelming message of the Bible, in story after story, is that of God's radical love and welcome. Every time we think we know who's in and who's out, God does something to challenge those assumptions, to unbind our hearts and minds from old ways of understanding, and to draw the circle ever wider.  Every Sunday, I begin the worship service with a statement of welcome to all: “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey; you are welcome here.”  That is spoken by the pastor, but assumed to be the sentiment of

the entire membership of the church.  For some people who have been marginalized in our society because they are “different” in some way – including lesbian, gay, transgendered, and bisexual individuals – it has not been safe to assume that they will be welcome in every church.  Uncertainty about the acceptance of others keeps many of them from making that first visit to worship.

Open and Affirming (ONA) is the United Church of Christ's designation for congregations, campus ministries, and other bodies in the UCC which make a public covenant of welcome into their full life and ministry to persons of all sexual orientations, gender identities, and gender expressions.  When a church votes to become an ONA congregation, that designation goes on the UCC website and the church’s website.  The ONA designation tells everyone who is looking for a faith community to join that they will, indeed, be welcomed when they walk through those ancient doors.

An ONA designation means that LGBT individuals will be welcomed and included by everyone, not just the pastor.  For that reason, every member of the church needs to be involved in the process.  In a Congregational church, the locus of authority is not the pastor or even the denomination.  The locus of authority is the Holy Spirit moving in and among the gathered congregation.  Together, we must discern whether the Spirit is calling us to declare ourselves Open and Affirming.   The deacons of our church have appointed a task force to lead our congregation through a process of exploration and education.

One of the stumbling blocks to full inclusion in the minds of some Christians is the concern about what the sacred scriptures say about homosexuality.  On Sunday, November 16, your Deacons, the ONA Task Force, and I will be hosting Dr. Uriah Kim, professor of Hebrew Bible at Hartford Seminary.  Dr. Kim will give the sermon and lead a discussion during coffee hour about what the Bible says and doesn’t say about homosexuality.  Please come and be part of the church’s discernment process.  Doubts, questions, and disagreements are all part of this process of discernment.  So, no matter where you are on this question, you are welcome here, and I hope to see you on the 16th.

Pastor Cheryl

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October 2, 2014, 11:36 AM

Welcoming the Invisible People

30There were two blind men sitting by the roadside. When they heard that Jesus was passing by, they shouted, ‘Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!’ 31The crowd sternly ordered them to be quiet; but they shouted even more loudly, ‘Have mercy on us, Lord, Son of David!’ 32Jesus stood still and called them, saying, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’” Matthew 20:30-32

A friend of mine recently told me about a homeless man that she used to see on her way to work.  He sat near the busy subway entrance that she used every day; and people dropped change in the can he set on the pavement in front of him.  People never spoke to him and seldom looked at him or acknowledged his presence.  My friend felt bad that she couldn’t offer much financially, but she realized that she could offer conversation.  So one afternoon, on her way home from work, she sat down with him and introduced herself and asked about him.  He shared his story, about losing his job, and his wife leaving him, and finally not being able to pay the rent. 

He told her about the network of homeless people who took turns begging at various places in the city.  They established a rotation so that the “choice” locations were shared fairly. 

My friend continued to stop and chat with him every week until she moved out of the city.  She described him as a “regular” guy, and she realized that many people are only a few paychecks from homelessness.  Because she no longer passes that way, she doesn’t know what became of this “regular guy” who became an “invisible man.”  

The gospels have many stories of “invisible” people.  The widow with her offering of two copper coins, the Samaritan woman at the well, the lepers and blind men that Jesus healed, the paralytic who was lowered through the roof to Jesus, and the man with a withered hand begging at the temple were all “invisible” people in the society of the day.  Because of their poverty, illness, or disability these people were disregarded, marginalized, and reduced to begging for their daily bread.  In the healing story at the beginning of this article, the crowd following Jesus considered these two beggars a noisy nuisance.  Jesus’ disciples considered the children people were bringing to Jesus a bother.  But Jesus saw the “invisible” people, conversed with them, sometimes healed or blessed them, always treated them with respect, and invited them to join his little community of disciples.  All through September, we have focused on the faith practice of hospitality.  We have read stories of Jesus and the early church welcoming, baptizing, and including the marginalized – the invisible people.

On October 12th, we will have an opportunity to meet two invisible people, when Logan Singerman and friends, from “Hands on Hartford,” join us to share a presentation: “Faces of Homelessness.”  We will hear one of the stories in worship and a second during the coffee hour presentation.  There will be time for questions and conversation about homelessness during coffee hour.   Please come and stay for the coffee hour presentation.  It will be eye-opening.

Blessings, Pastor Cheryl

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September 1, 2014, 12:00 AM

Rebirth and New Beginnings

36"As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” 38He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him.” Acts of the Apostles 8.36-38

Even though Christianity started out as a Jewish sect, it expanded very early to include Gentiles and others who, for reasons of physical disability or gender, would have been excluded from full religious participation in the Judaism of that day.  Jesus’ practice of “extravagant welcome” and full inclusion of anyone who wanted to follow him became the practice of the early church as well.  So baptism is not only the “sign and seal” of an individual’s participation in the grace of God.  It is also the way we are welcomed (at any age) into full participation in this community of faith and empowered to minister in Christ’s name.  Baptism is a symbolic washing away of the past and a rebirth into a new life in Christ, and a new way of being in the world.

In our denomination, the United Church of Christ, we practice baptism at any age.  We commonly baptize infants, whose parents take the baptismal vows for the child.  But it is especially dear to my heart when youth and adults ask to be baptized.  At our annual “River Service” on August 3rd, we had planned three river baptisms of young people who had asked to be baptized.  Due to the weather we had to move back to the Meeting House and two of the girls were baptized at the Baptismal Font. The third decided to wait until she could be baptized in the river; which will happen this month.    On September 14th, our worship service in the Meeting House will be followed by two baptisms in the Shepaug River, at Mitchell’s Hole.  We can carpool down to Steeprock.  There is a small parking area right across from Mitchell’s Hole.  In addition to our youth group member; we will also baptize a young woman whose wedding is planned in our church next year, and who asked to be baptized by full immersion.

Many people have found our river baptisms very meaningful and for the past few years, we have done at least one baptism at our out-door service.   Most of us were baptized as infants and so we have no memory of our baptism, and several people have expressed a certain regret that they didn’t get to make the decision themselves.   In the UCC, you can’t be “re-baptized;” but you can reaffirm your baptism, and that can be very meaningful; particularly when you want to rededicate yourself to the path of Christ.

When we reaffirm a baptism, I say different words.  Instead of “I baptize you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit;” I say “Remember your baptism.  You are a beloved child of God.”   And then, instead of, “receive the Holy Spirit;” I say “walk in the light of the Spirit.”  If you would like to reaffirm your baptism on September 14th, either by sprinkling or full immersion, please let me know.  My email is pastor.cheryl@firstchurchwashingtonct.org and the phone number is 860-868-0569.  I look forward to worshipping with you this month!


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