Christ is With Us

Sermon by Rev. Kelly Jane Caesar 

April 26, 2020

When two disciples are fleeing from the chaos and pain and fear of Jerusalem, 

Christ shows up. 

So too is Christ is with us in our grief, in our shock, in our fleeing from pain. 

In the cleansing comfort of tears, 

In the kind listening of a friend, 

In the new understanding gleamed, 

Christ is with us in our pain. 

When the two disciples are on the road Christ shows up even though they don’t realize it is him. 

So too is Christ with us when we don’t even realize it until after the fact. 

When a heartache somehow clears the way for a deeper love, 

When a lost opportunity leaves space for a better one, 

When deep growth and love emerges out of brokenness, 

Christ is with us when we look back and see he has been alongside – or carrying- us all the time. 

When the two disciples sit for a meal together,  

Practicing hospitality, blessing bread and giving thanks, 

They see that the stranger is indeed Christ. 

So too is Christ with us when we extend hospitality, break bread together, give thanks for what we have. 

When we offer what we have to help others, 

Be it time, toilet paper, money, masks or groceries.  

When we connect with one another  

Be it over zoom or telephone or email or FB or handwritten note 

When we give thanks and practice gratitude, 

Be it with a simple prayer or gratitude journal 

When we extend hospitality, connect and give thanks,  

We are bound to something greater, our hearts are filled,  

and we see that Christ is with us in the small great everyday connections. 

When the two disciples return to Jerusalem to tell the others the Good News, 

They learn they are not the only ones who have witnessed the Risen Christ. 

The other disciples quickly tell them,  

“The Lord really has risen! He appeared to Simon.” 

Now, you might be wondering – 

Wait, I thought it was the women who went to the tomb. 

You are right.  

All four gospels report that the women are the first to the empty tomb. 

Jesus appears to Mary and the women on that first Easter Sunday morning. 

Simon Peter sees the empty tomb after the women’s report –  

But the only Gospel account of Simon Peter encountering the Risen Christ takes place days after the first appearances.  

It occurs up in Galilee and includes other disciples too… 

So that doesn’t quite line up with today’s scripture in which the disciples say, 

On that first Easter Sunday, 

“Jesus appeared to Simon” 

However, there does appear to be a tradition that Jesus did appear to Simon Peter on that first Easter Sunday. In the letter to the Corinthians (1 Cort. 15:3-7) Paul states that Simon Peter (called Cepheus by Paul) does see the resurrected Christ – but Paul gives us no details on the encounter other than it came before Jesus appeared to the rest of the disciples – which was the evening of the first Easter Sunday. The tradition that Jesus appeared to Simon Peter makes sense because Simon Peter became the leader of the early church.  

So, if it is true that Jesus appeared to Simon Peter on Easter Sunday – 

As the disciples report in today’s scripture and Paul later points to – 

Then the Resurrected Jesus was doing some serious traveling on that first Easter Sunday. 

First at the tomb and then with the women, 

then with Simon Peter, then with the disciples on the road to Emmaus, 

Then back in Jerusalem in the locked upper room where he shows his wounds to all but Thomas. 

Given the number of reports, 

It is possible the Risen Christ was in multiple locations at the same.  

After all, when the two disciples started their journey to Emmaus,  

They had not heard the account of Jesus appearing to Simon Peter – 

They had only heard of the women. 

This leads me to believe the appearance of Simon Peter was at the same time as Christ was walking with the two disciples on the road.  Perhaps Christ was in two places at once.  

In any case, these resurrection stories highlight that 

Christ’s presence is not limited by time or space – 

Christ is not limited by the time restraints us humans deal with.  

Sometimes people worry that their needs or concerns or joys are too small to  

“take up God’s time.” 

Sometimes people hold back on sharing their joys or concerns with God, 

Thinking they are not as important as others, 

Especially when others are suffering greatly. 

Yet we see in these resurrection stories that the Risen Christ is not bound by earthly rules of time or space…Christ is with us, beyond time, beyond space… 

Christ can hear our little prayers and big heartaches with full attention. 

Christ is eager to hear our prayers – 

Whether they are shared before a meal, 

In the shower, 

Or spoken only in our minds. 

The Resurrection itself shows us that Christ is always with us –  nothing can separate us from Christ – 

Not death, nor life, nor heights, nor depths,  

Nor a cross, nor a government, nor a virus, 

Nor denial, nor fear, nor guilt,  

nor anything else in all creation 

Can separate us from Christ. 

Christ is always with us, always available to listen and sit with us through whatever we are going through 

So let us take comfort, share with Jesus all the ups and downs, all the feelings, big and small. 

Christ will walk with us and help us see. Amen. 

Returning as Resurrection People

Sermon by Rev. Kelly Jane Caesar on April 19, 2020

Denial or doubt is belief in lies; faith in falsehoods.  

Doubt is a form of despair in which we believe the crucifixion is the end – as Thomas originally did.  

Denial a refusal to hope in Easter.  

The question is what do we have faith in. 

Do we have faith in death or life? Despair or hope? Crucifixion or resurrection? 

What we have faith in determines where and how we work, where and how we spend our lives, 

Where and how we move through this “quarantine time”. 

As Christians we are called to be “Resurrection People” – 

People who believe and practice life in the face of death,  

hope in the face of despair,  

new possibilities when everything as we know it has changed.  

There is a temptation to believe this time is temporary. 

At first it was just two weeks, now it’s been a month,  

and at least another month is ahead of us, probably more. 

While I do believe in-person worship and business with return, 

There is no doubt that this time not only will,  

but already has transformed our world.  

To live as a “Resurrection People” is not about believing this will be over soon and  

It is not about believing life will return as we remember it. 

Afterall, Jesus was resurrected, not resuscitated – 

When Jesus rose again on Easter, he was different than he was before. 

He had wounds, but he also passed through walls. 

To be “Resurrection People” is to believe that after this “Good Friday” time, 

We will arise as different, renewed people.  

A Resurrection People.  

So the question is how will we arise? 

Where will we put our faith?  

Where we put our faith determines our actions and how we emerge as individuals,  

as a community,  

as a global society.  

On a very concrete level, I hope we will arise into a physical building. (hold up wooden church) 

I believe our building is a sacred space to gather as a community larger than ourselves.  

It is a shared space – not my living room or Jerry’s den – 

But a space for us all to gather regardless of economic or social status. 

It is a space shared not just in the present, but with the ancestors of our faith. 

Some of your grandparents even worshiped at First Church! 

While most of us don’t have a direct tie – 

to be in a space that has held the faith of people for generations has a power beyond words. 

 I believe our building is a sacred space to gather, 

 and I hope that we will arise into that shared sacred space, 

So I am so very glad that the trustees have continued to not only maintain the building, 

But improve it. 

This past week Valley Restorations finished their work on the front doors

Repainting and repairing this historic and majestic entry-points off main St. 

They also repaired windows and repainted the balcony ceiling where paint had chipped from water damage. 

They accidentally did more work than agreed upon – and donated their extra work to the church.  

The Trustees and Finance committee graciously paid a little more while also receiving the donation of work and supplies. There was good will all around and a God-sighting for sure! 

But I hope that we arise not only into a building,  

I hope we will arise as a more connected people.  

I believe and have faith that technology can connect us through walls and barriers that once divided.  

On that first Easter the Resurrected Christ passed through walls to connect to the disciples.  

Today an awe-inspiring number of church members have overcome fears and technological trials 

In order to stay connected even while walls and social distancing keep us physically apart.  

On Thursday night one person commented that there is more communication now than ever before. 

I believe that is due in large part to each of you taking the initiative to call one another, 

To read emails, attend church meetings, and otherwise keep in touch. Bravo! 

While technology at times can feel like a barrier to overcome, 

At other times it can be a bridge to connection that would otherwise not happen. 

Those who are homebound recovering from surgery are able to join in and be seen and see others. 

Young adults who have moved away are able to tune in. 

Parents with young children are able to join in without the extra stress of corralling energetic young ones.  

Anyone who is home sick can turn over in their bed and listen to the comfort of their faith family worshipping together.  

For many technologies can be a bridge to connect to their faith community, 

 But technology is also a bridge for curious seekers to try out a church family.  

It is easier for people to click a button to log into a worship experience – 

Much easier than getting dressed and entering a place where you don’t know anyone 

 And are unsure about what to expect.  

In fact, research shows that churches with online presence over the last decade found that most new members joined in worship online first. 

I believe and have faith that technology can connect us through walls and barriers that once divided. 

So during this time I hope we will develop these technological tools  

As individuals and as a congregation – 

so that we will arise a more connected people.  

I hope we will not only be more connected to those we already know, 

But during this time connect to other church members we don’t know as well 

And visitors who may log on to check out what an affirming church is like, 

In doing so we will arise more connected in more than one way.  

Not only do I hope we will arise as a more connected people, 

I hope we will arise as a people more connected to our environment.  

I hope we will arise as a more creation conscious people. 

I believe the interconnected environment is God’s sacred way of sustaining life 

“Just as Jesus appeared before his disciples in his resurrected form still bearing the scars of the crucifixion— this world is wounded, deeply, yet at the same time, there is resurrection and transformation. We are called to care for creation in its beauty and in its wounded-ness. The resurrection of Jesus offers hope of new life, for all of creation, and for generations to come.” (UCC Fierce Urgency of Now Environmental Sunday Worship Materials) 

Many of us are going for walks and soaking in spring like never before, 

Embracing the beauty of nature on a personal level.  

On a global scale, this pandemic has allowed the Earth to breathe again. 

Electricity usage has gone down. 

We are tapping less oil and driving less. 

Factories are blowing less chemicals into our waterways and air.  

As a result the air has literally cleared. 

You have probably seen the startling photo of New Delhi, India 

One side is a normal day in the fall of 2019; 

The clear side is in recent weeks. 

Clear air to breathe is not only better for the environment,  

But better for human health – during a pandemic or not. 

As a global or national society we have an opportunity now to choose how we reinvest in the future – 

Do we return to our environment destroying ways –  

excessive driving and travel, excessive meat eating,  

excessive plastics and consumer purchases of disposable goods-  

Or do we reinvest in a more sustainable, greener future? 

As we rebuild our economy, will we invest in jobs that destroy the life-giving earth? 

Or will we invest in green jobs that build a sustainable future for generations? 

Will we invest in wasteful products or quality products that can be reused for years? 

On a personal level we might take this time to look anew at our personal practices in terms of shopping, travel and activities to reassess what is truly needed and how we could cut back on driving, cut back on packaged foods, cut back on plastics, cut back on one-time use products – all of which contribute to the destruction of our natural resources. We might look to how we can re-use products and purchase quality items that won’t end up in a landfill in a short amount of time.  

On a global or national level, we might follow closely where stimulus money goes – and let our representatives know what we think. We might choose to invest our own money in sustainable businesses or encourage our workplaces to do so. For those with any sort of investment accounts – say for retirement – you can request your investments be placed in environmentally conscious companies.  

I invite you to take this time to look at a long view – 

Towards a future you may not see. 

For the changes we make as a society during this time will ripple through the generations – 

Long after all of us have left this earth. 

What do we want to witness when we are in heaven? 

We are a “resurrection people” that will arise different – transformed – from this quarantined time. 

I hope we arise into a physical building  

for I believe in the power of gathering in a shared sacred space. 

I hope we arise a more connected people  

for I believe technology can be a bridge for many to participate in our faith community,  

no matter who they are or where they are. 

I hope we arise more connected to our earth,  

for I believe God’s sacred earth must be treated sustainability, 

 so generations of humans have clean air to breathe and water to drink.  

We are a “resurrection people”, 

Called to believe in and act towards life amid death, 

Hope amid despair, 

Love beyond self. 

May we live boldly into our calling. Amen.  

I would like now to share a prayer I heard from a colleague in the Iowa, South Dakota, and Nebraska Conference. Let us listen together.  

Pastoral Prayer for this time: We Are Prophets of a Future Not Our Own (VIDEO from the Iowa, South Dakota, and Nebraska Conference: https://vimeo.com/405885820

Prophets of a Future Not Our Own It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view. The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision. We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us. No statement says all that could be said. No prayer fully expresses our faith. No confession brings perfection. No pastoral visit brings wholeness. No program accomplishes the Church’s mission. No set of goals and objectives includes everything. This is what we are about. 3 We plant the seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities. We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest. We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own. 

Miraculous Nourishment in the Desert

Sermon by Rev. Kelly Jane Caesar

March 22, 2020

Scripture: John 9:1-12

Sermon Part 1: Spit 

As a pandemic sweeps across the globe, we certainly need some healing. 

The lectionary Gospel story this week is one of many Jesus healing stories. 

The source of healing however, is rather gross: 

Spit. Mud and Saliva.  

In the ancient Greco-Roman period spit and clay were actually popular in healing stories, 

But in our modern world we know that spit carries germs and illness. 

Thus we cover our mouths when we cough and may wear a mask if sick. 

Our human spit can carry germs that can make others sick.  

Yet, Jesus uses his spit to bring healing to the man born blind. 

Jesus is God incarnate, the Divine One among us – 

So in an odd way we could consider the spit of Jesus to be Divine Water.  

While spit is usually gross, Jesus is able to use it for good.  

God often takes what is gross or less valuable and uses it for good. 

God called a little shepherd boy to be King of Israel. 

God took the littlest brother Joseph, the one whose brothers all despised him, 

And used him to save the whole family.  

Jesus included prostitutes and tax collectors in his ministry. 

God often takes people or situations that look gross and transforms them into something great 

As we wander through this desert time, God will nourish us and bring healing – pulling goodness out of grossness.

As we seek healing during this time – 

Healing from coronavirus, healing from fear, healing from panic –  

We would do well to look at how God brings healing –  

Healing may come in unexpected and unconventional ways.  

Maybe we find healing in connecting with loved ones in more intentional ways, 

Even if those ways are virtual or on the phone. 

Maybe we find healing in new coping strategies,  

now that many of our “go-tos” are not available. 

Maybe we find healing in a new perspective or view of our lives. 

Let’s hear now what happens to the man born blind when he is no longer blind and certainly has a new perspective on his life after an unexpected healing.  

ScriptureJohn 9:13-34 

Sermon Part 2: How to Spit 

The Pharisees seem to have missed the miracle of the man receiving sight.  

They are so preoccupied by their fear, that they miss the bigger picture of healing. 

The Pharisees discount Jesus because he broke a holy rule to not work on the sabbath, 

And in doing so they seem to miss the point: 

Jesus has done a miraculous healing. 

When the blind man points out the obvious – uh, I can see, this guy Jesus must be from God – 

Well the Pharisees discount the man born blind too – 

They keep to their view that he is a sinner and kick him out. 

The Pharisees are so afraid that Jesus is going to take away their power or change their lives, 

That they latch on to small things and miss the big miracle. 

The Pharisees are not the only ones who act foolishly in fear. 

In fear people are hoarding toilet paper and Lysol wipes. 

In fear people are fighting in grocery stores, forcing police to stay on the scene. 

In fear people are pointing fingers and blaming nations and leaders  

and anyone not responding as they are.  

Fear keeps people looking selfishly, narrowing on their own interest 

And missing the bigger picture. 

During the desert time of this Coronavirus pandemic,  

It is easy to let fear run the race, 

Yet Jesus is nourishing us by asking us to look wider than fear and see the big picture.  

[Add Water to Vase] 

In this desert time I find myself forced to think big picture about essentials. 

What do I really need? Do I really need to take that trip out? 

Is it worth risking my life? Is it worth risking the life of someone I love? 

With so many activities wiped off the table,  

I need to be far more intentional about what I do and who I talk to. 

No one is expecting to see me in yoga on Monday morning – 

So if yoga is important to me, I got to prioritize it. 

This desert time is in fact the perfect time to step back and look at our lives. 

What is important? What is essential? 

Instead of getting caught in fear and nit-picking, 

We have an opportunity to reconsider our priorities.  

More than an opportunity, we are forced into making new decisions about what is important to us. 

I hope each of us will keep our focus wide and not get stuck in the fearful tunnel vision.  

While the Pharisees were stuck in fear, the man born blind was able to see the big picture.  

Let’s listen now to the conclusion of this miracle where the Jesus concludes his response to the question of “who sinned?” 

ScriptureJohn 9:35-41 

Sermon Part 3Why Spit 

In times of great suffering humans tends to look for where to place blame. 

Scapegoats are common and have detrimental impacts on minorities.  

Often we humans wonder, why are bad things happening?  

Who sinned that this would happen? Who is to blame for the suffering? 

At the very beginning of our scripture today, 

Jesus responds by proclaiming that the man born blind was not a result of sin, 

But that God’s glory may be revealed. 

It is not about “who sinned”, not about who to blame, 

But about what God is doing.

In this miracle story, Jesus refocuses the question. 

He redirects our focus: 

Away from the blame game  

And towards God’s glory. 

Instead of pointing blame, 

Jesus points to God’s goodness.  

In this desert time we can be tempted to get caught up looking at all the sand, 

And miss the nourishing water God is providing. 

[Add Water to Vase] 

May our eyes be open to God’s work around us; 

For God has a habit of doing good even when the world is spinning in chaos.  

May we look for God’s blessings in unexpected places; 

For God has a habit of using gross or undervalued people or situations for good.  

May our vision not be fearfully narrow, but hopefully wide; 

For God has a habit of working big miracles.  

Spiritual Challenges of Covid-19 Closures

Sermon by Rev. Kelly Jane Caesar on March 15, 2020


Coronavirus precautions and cancellations have pushed many of us into a desert time. 

Devoid of travels, events, and activities, we are in an open and seemingly barren space. 

The hope is that this time in the desert will lead us to the Promised Land of health and healing for ourselves and our loved ones. 

Yet, this desert time also comes with some spiritual challenges.  

Today I will talk about three and invite you to share your thoughts in the comments.

For one, we face the spiritual challenge of loss. 

Loss of being able to do what we want to do. 

Loss of control and certainty. 

Potentially loss of income. 

The spiritual challenge of loss is likely familiar to anyone who has had an illness, a surgery, or a body that no longer does what it once did.  

When I suffered my concussion, I could not dance the Lindy Hop like I used to. The bouncing and turns would send my head spinning. 

With the closing of nearly every agency and organization, public and private, many of us have loss the normal in-person ways of connecting and enjoying life. 

When the Israelites were wandering the Desert in hope of the Promised Land, they too felt the sting of loss for what was.  

Exodus 16:2-3;11-15 

The Israelites longed for the food of Egypt, even though going back to Egypt would bring death at worse and slavery at best. God did not give them the food of Egypt, but gave them a new food: manna. Manna would sustenance them through their desert journey. 

So too will God provide “manna” for us in our modern desert time today.  

When I suffered my concussion and could not do Lindy Hop, CJ brought me to Tai Chi – a form of gentle movement that did not give me migraines. I ended up falling in love with tai chi as it sustained me through the time of healing. 

Now that many of us find ourselves in a semi-self-quarantine,  

Let us look for our manna. 

Maybe we will try a new spiritual practice,  

Or call friends we haven’t talked to in awhile, 

Or discover a new game with the kids, 

Or go for a walk around the neighborhood, 

Or do some spring cleaning, 

Or learn how to use technology – I’ve certainly learned a lot in the last 48 hrs.  

Maybe we allow ourselves to slow down into some sabbath. 

Sabbath – or rest with God – is an intentional time to be with God. 

Sabbath can be on our own or “with” others, for example, we might be home with kids – 

Sabbath is about a break from business as usual for some time to focus on God. 

Indeed the spiritual practice of Sabbath can be the balm to the spiritual challenge of loss.  

When we are feeling loss,  

sabbath can connect us to the Divine and sustain us through the desert.  

So take this time to connect to the Divine anew.  

Perhaps you set up an altar space in your home. 

Perhaps you try a new prayer practice. 

Perhaps you relax into a deeper spiritual conversation with a friend. 

Perhaps you and the kids enact some favorite Bible stories.  

The Spiritual Practice of Sabbath can be the balm to the spiritual challenge of Loss.  

May we allow sabbath to be our manna during this desert time.  

——— 

The second spiritual challenge is self-control. 

With meetings, worship, and activities moving online, 

It is so much easier to skip out. 

While you can watch someone on a screen, 

They can’t see you, unless you choose, 

so you can do whatever you want. 

Those who have worked from home may have already encountered the spiritual challenge of self-control. You will know that while your boss or teacher or colleague may not be watching you all day, they will eventually find out if you’ve been playing video games instead of working. 

If you do work from home – maybe you could share some of your wisdom in the comments.  

Self-control is a spiritual challenge because even if others don’t see, in our hearts we are denying our responsibility and respect of God in others and ourselves. 

The Israelites on their desert journey also encountered the spiritual challenge of self-control. When the “boss” Moses went up the mountain and left them to their own devises…

Exodus 32:1-14 

When Moses was no longer present the Israelites strayed from doing what they ought and instead built for themselves a golden calf – a false god to worship. God gets so mad that God considers destroying the people – but Moses implores God to remember the holy promise made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – a promise for a Sacred Land and a people a numerous as the stars.  

Having remembered the promise for a land and a people, God’s anger subsides.  

Remembering our promises – to others and ourselves – may help us to have self-control and focus during more “online” meetings or while spending more time at home.  

Remembering what we hope to gain from this time can keep us on track. 

As Moses reminded God, it is certainly helpful to have a buddy to remind us when we forget. 

So perhaps we tell a friend or colleague our intentions – 

For example I may tell a colleague I’m planning to work on this paper for the next two hours, let’s check in at lunch. 

Or I may tell a friend, for the next two weeks without the evening activities I’m going to have family dinner say grace – ask me how it goes. 

Or I may tell my pastor I intend to read through one of the Gospels. 

A little bit of accountability can go a long way in maintaining self-control. 

Even if you don’t tell anyone, simply writing your intention down can help to jog our memory of where we hope to end up. 

The Spiritual Challenge of self-control can be met by the spiritual practice of remembering with the help of a friend. So in this desert time, let us practice remembering – and helping others remember – where we hope to be in our spiritual or professional or family lives by Easter.  

——–

The last spiritual challenge I will talk about today is the spiritual challenge of caring for the least of these. 

The many closures are hitting hard on small businesses,  

Wage employees without paid sick leave, 

Many of whom already are not making enough to make ends meet. 

First Church is working to keep the Food Bank functioning and the YMCA open, as some of our most vulnerable citizens rely on these services for basic needs.  In addition, I am ready to help church members in need with the pastor’s discretionary fund. 

Many of you diligently volunteer through the church or otherwise to care for those in need.  

Caring for the least of these is a spiritual challenge at this time, 

Because we can be tempted by fear to do nothing at all  

or 

We can be tempted into a “Savior” complex – 

We can be tempted to forgo health advice in an effort to heroically help others. 

In striving to provide services to others, we sacrifice ourselves – 

Running ourselves ragged or simply exposing ourselves to a deadly virus when our immune systems are compromised.  

On the Israelites’ desert journey, their leader, Moses, ran himself ragged trying to care for people. 

Exodus 18:13-23 

To care for all the people Moses selected elders to help him lead. He did not work alone, but in tandem with others. It is similar to how Paul later calls Christians to each excel in the spiritual gifts given to them, but to know that no one has all the gifts – rather we each have unique gifts to share – each have a unique place in the body of Christ.  

Perhaps you have the gift of peace in chaos to share with those worried. 

Perhaps you have the gift of being young and healthy and can do errands or volunteer work for those with more compromised immune systems. 

Perhaps you have the gift of experience – while none of us have been through a pandemic of this size before, you may have been through some trying times and have advice to share. 

Perhaps you are a salaried employee and can donate the money saved by working from home and traveling less to wage employees or social services who will surely be tapped more in the months to come.  

To meet the spiritual challenge of caring for the least of these, 

We must identify our particular gifts with humble honesty.  

Humble honesty.  

We must be humble in recognizing that we are not God – 

We are not invisible nor immortal nor all powerful. 

We will not avoid illness because we can’t believe we could get it 

Or don’t want to believe our bodies are weakened in any way. 

We must be humble in what our limitations are.  

We must be honest in recognizing what our specific gifts are at this time; 

They may be different than they were a year ago or even 2 weeks ago. 

Humble honesty is a spiritual practice that allows us to see realistically how we can best help others. 

Humble honesty is a spiritual practice that is often helped by good friends or family –  people who can reflect to you honestly what they see and tell you with compassion. 

The spiritual challenge of caring for the least of these is met when we share our gifts with humble honesty.  

As we wander through this desert time together,  

may we practice humble honesty and share our gifts well, 

so that we may indeed care for all.  

Covid-19 may have pushed us into a desert time.

We can choose how we view this desert time. 

Deserts can be viewed as barren, bleak spaces – 

Devoid of water and life. 

Deserts can also be seen as places of openness and exploration; 

Indeed many mystics retreated to the desert in search of a closer relationship with the Divine. 

Instead of a crowded forest of activities and responsibilities, 

We find ourselves with space to breathe and explore – 

Space to see the Divine anew.  

In this desert time,

may we practice sabbath in the midst of loss,

care for others with humble honesty about our gifts,

and support one another in the midst of temptation,

that we might use this desert time to draw near to God. Amen.

Saved

Sermon preached by Rev. Kelly Jane Caesar on March 8, 2020

The first vase of water in our Lenten desert journey.

These days many of us are praying to be saved from the Coronavirus.  

Stores are selling out of hand sanitizer as people try to save themselves from infection. 

We greet one another with a nod or I saw a video of people in Japan shaking “feet”. 

Cases are multiplying rapidly across the United States and even here in Connecticut. 

Households are stocking up on basic goods in the event of a quarantine,  

Which are happening in more and more areas. 

The fear is fed by great uncertainty and a degree of powerlessness. 

We can, and should, wash our hands more thoroughly  

We can limit contact with others. 

And yet, the rapid spread across the world leads me to wonder  

if most of us will be infected and our bodies forced to fight it off. 

Such prospects strike fear into many,  

especially those whose health is not strong at the moment.  

We can attempt to find the silver lining or look on the bright side – 

The great majority of those infected do indeed fight it off and are stronger for it.  

And yet, who is to say we – or someone we love – will not be able to fight it off? 

Such uncertainty and powerlessness spark panic at worse and anxious caution at best.  

The Coronavirus is not the first thing in our lives which invokes uncertainty, powerlessness, and fear.  

Will I get a job and be saved from poverty or homelessness? 

Will I find a partner or friends and be saved from loneliness? 

Will I have children? Will I have grandchildren? 

Will I have enough resources to retire? 

Will I be cared for when I am unable to do so on my own? 

Where will I go after I die? 

With each of these scenarios, as with so many illnesses,  

We have limited control.  

Our actions can, perhaps, take us part of the way. 

The rest of the way is left up to factors beyond our control. 

At such times we often turn to prayer. 

We turn to one more powerful, one we believe or hope is in control. 

A popular prayer at such times involves a bargain with God – 

I’ll go to church every Sunday if you save me from the Coronavirus. 

I’ll give all my savings away to charity if you get me that job. 

I’ll be really good if you give me eternal life.  

The trouble with bargaining is that God isn’t really that into it. 

Our God is not transactional.  

And it is a good thing God is not interested in a bargain, for  

If God was transactional, we would never be able to pay the price. 

God’s gifts – wholeness, love, eternal life – they are simply too great for us to earn through volunteer hours or acts of kindness or money in the offering plate. 

It’s like being at Chuck E Cheeses or some arcade – 

You know, where you play games and win tickets or points to exchange for prizes at the end.  

As a kid, I would work so hard at those games, trying to win as many tickets as possible.  

But, whenever I got to the prize counter, I would almost always want a prize that was way more tickets than I had earned.  

God’s gifts are like the HUGE teddy bear worth 100,000 tickets at the prize counter. 

All our hard work can get us maybe 74 tickets which basically buys us the cheap temporary tattoos and a finger trap.  

We can’t earn enough tickets to “buy” God’s love or God’s grace or Eternal Life. 

Moreover, there is a huge ongoing debate about how to win tickets anyway. 

Some traditions say you got to pray this way, dress like that, and avoid every vice there is in order to win God’s approval.  

Some say you can’t eat this and others say you should. 

Some say dancing is a sin and others, thankfully, say dancing is a holy endeavor.  

We don’t even agree on how to win tickets to God’s love and eternal life.  

Back in the Middle Ages you could pay money to get your deceased loved one closer to heaven. While that practice of indulgences is no longer a thing, trying to use money to win God’s favor is still a spiritual trap for those with wealth.  

In fact, this idea of winning God’s gifts through proper prayer, proper actions, and the like has a long history. 

So if you find yourself bargaining with God when you are afraid, you have good company. 

However, the father of the Protestant Reformation, the one who ignited a whole new way of thinking that eventually lead to our very own United Church of Christ, spoke of a God that wasn’t into bargaining: a God of grace.  

In the early 1500s Martin Luther read and preached on today’s scripture from Romans (Romans 4:1-5, 13-17)

What he saw clearly was that Abraham was made righteous, good with God,  

Not by his actions –  

not by circumcision, nor by leaving his home, nor by following God’s law  

Abraham was made righteous and saved by God, based on his faith. 

Saved, Justified by Faith alone, not works. 

Martin Luther looked deeply into scripture and saw a God that did not give the gift of eternal life, health, wholeness, or anything else on the basis of works, but on the basis of faith.  

Justified by Faith alone, not works.  

Is the statement that would define the Protestant Reformation 

This truth is proclaimed loudly, although in different words, in the popularized verse of John 3:16 

For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son  

that all who believe in him will not perish,  

but have eternal life.  

The great gifts of God – eternal life, love, wholeness – are given not based on the number of works or tickets we have acquired, but on the basis of faith. 

This is not to say our actions do not have consequences.  

Please, do not go coughing your germs on everyone  

and proclaim that God will save us if we just believe.  

To believe in Jesus Christ is not simply a nice thought that will ward off evil. 

Belief in Jesus is not some magic wand. 

However, when we truly believe in Jesus, our actions will necessarily change. 

To believe in Jesus is to believe that God would come and dwell with us in our human suffering. 

To believe in Jesus is to believe in a Divinity that is not lightyears away, but among us and with us. 

So when we truly believe in Jesus, 

We trust that God is with us and we are strengthened to face the tumult of the world, 

For we have a constant companion and friend who is right there with us.  

To believe in Jesus saves us from isolation and separation. 

To believe in Jesus is to believe that God loves the world enough to be present with us. 

To believe in Jesus is to believe in a Divine love that transcend every barrier – 

Every social barrier, every emotional barrier. 

So when we truly believe in Jesus,  

We are less afraid of reaching out to others,  

Even those across barriers. 

To believe in Jesus saves our world from discord and hate.  

To believe in Jesus Christ is to believe God breaks through not only social barriers,  

but even the barrier of death. 

To believe in Jesus is to trust that God is with us, loving us, through this life, through death, for all time.  

To believe in Jesus saves us from perishing –  Saves us from destruction and death. 

To believe in Jesus is to trust that even when our current bodies no longer breath, 

God breathes eternal life and love into our souls. 

We are saved, here and now and forevermore.  

On one hand it sounds simple – 

Just believe you will be saved! Just believe and you win the huge teddy bear! 

And yet, faith is more difficult to grasp. 

In Mark 9 the father of a boy with an unclean spirit cries out to Jesus,  

“I believe, Lord help my unbelief!” 

Jesus does heal the boy – even with his father’s paradoxical faith.  

Our unbelief – or even simply our shaken faith – can be strengthen with the spiritual practices that have built up disciples for centuries

  • Reading or remembering stories of faithful people in scripture, devotionals, or in conversation with friends 
  • Practicing gratitude and generosity often open our eyes to the work of the Divine 
  • Taking time to pray – sitting or walking, singing or speaking – time to talk with God, even if you are unsure God is listening 

In AA they say all you need to come to a meeting is the desire to be sober.  

I believe the same is true for God – 

We need not be unwavering in our belief in Jesus – I know few who truly are -Rather, we are asked to simply have the desire to believe in Jesus.  

Perhaps that desire for faith in God’s love is the first step, 

 Or maybe our God is gracious enough that the simple desire to believe in Jesus is enough. 

While fear, uncertainty and powerlessness whirl around us, 

May we strengthen our belief in Jesus,  

trusting in God’s presence and God’s love through it all, 

Trusting that we will be saved one way or another,  

For God is indeed with us. 

While we should still wash our hands, let us not be afraid, but rather turn to God in prayer. Amen.  

Into the Desert…Lent Begins

Ash Wednesday Worship 2020

By Rev. Kelly Jane Caesar

To do this worship at home you will need a Bible, paper and pencil. Dirt and a vase help as well. 

Center yourself with some grounding music then read the 2 letter to the Corinthians, chapter 5 verses 20-21-6″11,  

Invitation to Confession 

Tonight we come to be reconciled with God.  

We will take some quiet moments to reflect on what separates us from the Divine, and perhaps even write our sins down to offer to God. 

In our Christian tradition, Ash Wednesday is a time to confess our sins. 

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the season of Lent,  

Traditionally a season of repentance, 

 a time to give up something that is blocking our relationship with the Divine.  

Most churches will give disciples ashes  

– dirt to symbolize our humanity. 

We recite the words,  

“from dust you came and to dust you shall return.” 

The ashes symbolize our mortality –  

the fact that all of us will die and return to the earth. 

The ashes symbolize that we are not God, but humans. 

Imperfect, fallible, mortal humans. 

There is a separation between God and humanity. 

It is as if God is on one side of this vase, [point] 

and humanity is on the other. [Point] 

We are separated from God by our sin – [pour sand inside vase] 

Perhaps fear keeps us from acting in love. 

Perhaps pride blinds us to our faults and sentences us to repeat our failings. 

Perhaps gossip provides a false sense of community as it undercut real connection. 

Perhaps our body image has skewed our idea of God’s goodness. 

Perhaps our addiction to disposable goods is blocking us from God’s lush and good creation.  

Perhaps fear of being authentic and true keeps relationships only on the surface instead of going deeper. 

Perhaps addiction to busy-ness pushes God out of our schedules. 

Perhaps nostalgia is blocking the beauty of God’s blessings today. 

Sin [hold sand] is whatever distances us from the Divine, 

Whatever separates us from our spirituality, 

Whatever keeps us from being our best, most loving selves. 

We all struggle with sin, because we are all human –  

made of dust and fallible.  

Acknowledging our humanity and our fallibility is crucial to understanding Jesus and ultimately the resurrection.  

Without naming our failings or struggles,  

we might begin to think of ourselves as God, 

We might think we are in control and have more power than we actually do. 

Such false divinity sets us up for increased suffering. 

So let us take some time to honestly reflect on what separates us from God. 

What struggles do we wrestle with? 

What vices break connection and distance us from love? 

On your paper you may share your confession with God. 

You may write a word, a phrase, draw a picture –  

However you want to express your sin, 

Your struggles,  

what it is that is keeping you from the Divine, 

What is breaking connection  

and distancing you from love.  

After you have finished writing,  

you can come forward and add your sin to the vase of dirt, 

Add your sin to the sins of others –  

for we are not alone in our struggles. 

You may tear up your sin,  

as a symbol of your desire to be free from the struggle, 

Free from the sin, free from all that blocks you from God.  

Time for Private Confession  

In silence or with reflective music, write your sins on paper, tear up and sprinkle into ashes/sand 

Unison Prayer of Confession (Psalm 51:1-17) 

Whether we have written a book, a word, or nothing at all, 

We are all human, all fallible, all capable of sin. 

Like people throughout time,  

we have fallen short of what we could be. 

Faithful people throughout the centuries have confessed their sins with the words of Psalm 51. 

Tonight Christians across the globe will be reading and reciting the words of Psalm 51. 

So, let us join with disciples near and far to confess our sins with the ancient words of Psalm 51. 

Hymn 212 What Wonderous Love is This (v1-2) (Listen Here)

Words of Assurance 

Read 2 Corinthians 5:20b-21 

Jesus is the one without sin who took on our sin that we could become the righteousness of God. 

Traditional atonement theory professes a God that required sacrifices for the people to be forgiven their sins – a ram for this, a sheep for that.  

The burnt offerings were a means to cover our sin and reconcile us to God.  

When Jesus died on the cross,  

he was the ultimate sacrifice, the sacrifice to end all sacrifices.  

(press little cross into sand to create bridge across the open vase) 

The cross was the final sacrifice, so no longer were ram or sheep needed.  

All humanity’s sins were atoned for on the cross.  

The cross, crosses over our sin and connects humanity to God.  

We are no longer separate.  

This is traditional atonement theology,  

upheld by many Christian traditions. 

When we have a heavy burden or a great sin upon us,  

When the weight of our wrongdoing bears heavy on our hearts,  

the idea that Jesus has paid the cost can be a truly liberating experience. 

However, there may be times when we struggle to believe our loving God would require such a bloody sacrifice.  

At such times, we can imagine the cross to be a bridge –  

For on the cross, Jesus, God incarnate,  

experienced the worst of humanity. 

He suffered betrayal, desertion, physical agony.  

Whatever suffering we are going through;  

we can trust that Jesus can understand. 

He too has suffered and can be with us in our suffering – 

Such that in our suffering we are not separate from God, 

But God is there beside us,  

bringing us healing and comfort.  

What’s more is that Christ’s actions show us how to bridge across our sin: 

Eating with strangers, practicing hospitality,  

Living simply and giving generosity, compassion, service, 

Time for prayer and communion with a diverse group of friends.  

These acts of love connect us to God –  

the bridge across the divide of sin. 

Jesus crosses over our sin and connects us to God – 

Jesus bridges the divide by being the ultimate sacrifice. 

Jesus bridges the divide by walking with us in our suffering. 

Jesus bridges the divide by showing us how to live with love.  

We enter these 40 days of Lent  

as a time to journey with Jesus across the bridge, 

A sacred time to release what keeps us from the Divine (lift up sand) 

A sacred time to walk the bridge to closer union with God.  

As we depart this night, we know where these 40 days will end – 

We will find a cross that will, one way or another, bring us closer to God – 

So close that not even death can separate us. 

So may we go into this night,  

Forgiven and made righteous in God.  

May we walk into Lent,  

Humbled by God’s grace and free to draw near to the heart of God.  

Hymn 542 Near to the Heart of God, all verses (Listen Here)

Benediction 

May you go forth in peace to draw near to the heart of God,  

this night and in the days and nights to come. Amen.  

Christmas Tree Finds Home

An innocent mis-communication resulted in an additional Christmas Tree being set up in the church dining room over a month ago. We wondered from where it came and what its purpose was. Then, a few weeks ago the Woodward House mentors learned that Megan did not have Christmas Tree. Aha! The Holy Spirit had placed a Christmas Tree in the church dining room for Megan! So the house meeting shifted gears. We gathered the tree, found some ribbon, stumbled across some decorations and made one Woodward House resident very merry. 

Pottery Night

If God is the potter, then God must be REALLY patient. With gentle, but firm hands. Willing to re-mold and start again. Using all the elements to form us into loving creatures. And a rather fun-loving creative and forgiving God. There were parts of my clay cross that I wanted to erase, but couldn’t do so without ruining the rest. So my cross is a bit imperfect, but I suppose that gives it character. Thank you potter Jamie Fitzgerald and all who participated in pottery night at #firstchurcheasthartford. A fun and heartwarming time on a cold and rainy night. #Godisthepotter#claytripperct

Holy Pride

Pride, the personal characteristic, can often get a bad rap (I.e. too full of one’s self),  

But today I propose the power and holiness of pride. 

Pride can inspire others to faith. 

Pride can transform a society. 

Pride is the practice of standing firmly in God’s love.  

In today’s scripture, Acts 16:16-34, Pride is key to why the jailer comes to believe in Christ. 

The jailer was a Roman whose life was entirely changed so much that he brings his whole household to be baptized. 

What happens to so transform the jailer? 

It probably was not the cries of the slave girl saying they were Holy,  

since Paul rids her of the demon crying out from her. 

the jailer probably did not come to believe because of the singing of Paul and Silas in prison, 

since the scripture tells us he was asleep and awaken by the earthquake.  

So Did the jailer come to believe because an earthquake threw open the bars of the jail? 

Probably not, since his job was to keep the prisoners confined. 

In fact, the earthquake and freedom of the prisoners was so terrifying the jailer sought to take his life. 

What saved him was the presence of the prisoners, still in the jail, despite the bars flung off.  

Against their own self-interest, the prisoners remained. 

Perhaps there was something in the songs of Paul and Silas that motivated their odd stance. 

Perhaps they were too shocked themselves to flee. 

In any case, the prisoners remain and thus the jailer need not fear for his job or his life. 

In this moment The jailer experienced grace: 

That is, the jailer experienced love and blessing beyond reason or cause. 

There was no logical reason for the prisoners to stay, but they did. 

They sacrificed their freedom so the jailer’s life would be spared.  

Perhaps the prisoners were practicing a type of sacrificial love they heard about in Jesus 

Jesus suffered and died even though he was innocent. 

Being mighty, Jesus could have overtaken his captors, but chose not to. 

Jesus practiced a sacrificial love: 

A love that refuses to destroy another for one’s own gain. 

Sacrificial love is at the core of the Christian faith. 

We believe that God incarnate, Christ, showed us how to love by sacrificing his life. 

This core tenet of sacrificial love has, unfortunately, been twisted or misunderstood by some. 

Some have urged people in abusive relationships to stay, 

Sacrificing themselves, their physical and emotional safety, for “love”. 

Such an interpretation misses the mark entirely by ignoring the requirement of mutuality and care in love.  

Some use the theological tenet of sacrificial love to argue that various groups ought to remain subservient, submission to injustice, weather inequality for “love” or just because that is the way the world works.  

Such reasoning ignores the profoundly liberating equity Jesus proclaims is the kingdom of heaven and are call as disciples.  

These two wayward interpretations have caused such great harm,  

That some swing the pendulum the other direction, 

Pushing for no sacrifice at all in the area of love and justice. 

The result is selfish boasting that puts down others in order for one to stand.  

What we see in today’s scripture is the center of the pendulum. 

We see Paul and Silas confident in who they are, beloved of God, followers of Christ. 

They do not proclaim their status with annoying cymbals and shouts –  

In fact, they rid the girl of demon who is doing so. 

Neither are they silent and subservient to the status quo. 

They sing praises to God in jail. 

They speak their truth. 

They do not run away, even when the bars are gone. 

By standing proud, the jailer is blessed and comes to believe. 

The ability to stand proud and sing the truth, even when confined, takes great faith and courage.   

Here is how Paul and Silas are like some certain drag queens.  

Fifty years ago a line of drag queens formed a kick-line and sang out with pride as the New York City police tried to arrest them for the “moral indecency” of being men dressing in women’s clothing. 

At that time, cross dressing was illegal.  You had to have at least three gender conforming articles of clothing, or you could be arrested. 

In the 1950s and 1960s people lost their jobs if they were suspected of being homosexual. 

The US Postal service tracked where mail of a homosexual nature was sent. 

Police worked undercover to entrap gay men. 

Homosexuality was illegal in every state but …. anyone have a guess?  Illinois.  

Vigilantes beat up, name called, and killed homosexual people. 

Police sought to cleanse cities of homosexual people by raiding gay bars – 

Which were basically the only place gay people could go. 

They were not welcome in parks or book stores or dances.  

It was a crime to be gay.  

The mafia ran gay bars to make an extreme profit.  The mafia would pay off the police, but still 

The raiding of gay bars was common. 

On June 28, 1969 the police raided the Stonewall Inn, a popular gay bar in NYC. 

Except this time it was different. 

The police came later than normal and were determined to close the bar down. 

However, the gay community had had enough. 

They did not submissively bow their heads and quietly go into the police wagon. 

They fought back and stood their ground. 

That night and in the nights to follow the people pushed the police out. 

Some call it the Stonewall Uprising: 

For the people rose up. 

They would not be silenced. 

They sang out. Literally. 

In a chorus line.  

Powerful things happen when people stand proud of who they are. 

When Paul and Silas proudly sang and stood their ground,  

The jailer came to believe in Christ; and the fellow prisoners probably did too. 

When the drag queens and gay community proudly sang and stood their ground, 

The gay liberation movement ignited.  

A year after Stonewall, thousands of people participated in the first Gay Pride March. 

The participants were so nervous that they practically ran the route: 

They were justifiably afraid of being attacked. 

Instead they were met by smiles and cheers.  

This year, 2019, marks 50 years since that march/run. 

Gay marriage is the law of the land. 

Gay-Straight Alliances are in many high schools. 

Many churches now openly welcome gay people. 

Yet, the fear of rejection, the fear of exclusion remains. 

Heterosexuality is still assumed on most government forms, work forms, medical forms; 

In conversations at the store, social events, and churches individuals and couples are most often assumed to be heterosexual, unless they look a certain way. 

As the pastor of one of the few churches explicitly open to GLBT people, 

Too often I hear the trauma young and old GLBT people experience. 

Some came to the church, some during worship, others during the week, to share their story and hear they are loved as God made them. 

Many came because we had a rainbow flag out front, so they hoped this place could be a haven.  

Pastor Kelly Jane opening doors under the first rainbow flag.

People who were not GLBT came to the church because of the rainbow flag. 

The rainbow flag is a symbol of acceptance. 

It originated in 1978 in San Francisco, at the request of Harvey Milk,  

for the purpose of creating symbol of pride for the gay community.  

It was used that year in the pride parade.  

Our first rainbow flag was donated by Peg Spiller and after a few years got a bit raggy. 

So we have a new flag, generously hung up by Erin Cattanach. 

We also have these rainbow magnets you can stick on your car. 

Put one on your car or fridge to lessen the fear that still permeates our society. 

Maybe someone will ask you about it and give you an opportunity to share about God’s love for all.  

Both are symbols of support and pride in the wide diversity of people God has created. 

The white comma is a symbol of the United Church of Christ, where “God is Still Speaking” and so instead of a period, we place a comma and continue to listen to how God is speaking today.

Let us take a moment to call upon the Holy Spirit to come and bless these symbols.  

Would you join me in blessing these symbols of love, acceptance, and pride, by stretching out your hands in blessing – one towards the window where the flag hangs and another towards the magnetics.  Notice in stretching our arms we create a circle of embrace. 

Blessing of the Rainbow Flag and Magnets 

God send your Holy Spirit to bless these rainbow symbols! 

May they be symbols of your radical love for all people, especially people belittled or harmed because of their sexual orientation and gender identity or gender expression. 

As the rainbow after the great flood bore the promise of your everlasting love, 

May they be symbols of your promise to be forever present.  

As we strive to learn and grow in our understandings and acceptance of others,  

May these rainbows be symbols of our commitment to extravagant welcome and loving embrace of all your beloved creation. 

Amen.  

Details about the Stonewall Uprising from the PBS Documentary “Stonewall Uprising” which can be viewed for free online by clicking here.