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)


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. 


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

Lasting Love through Loss and Change

Our scripture this morning is about loss and change.  

In it we find both tremendous hope and a powerful love.  

The loss in today’s scripture is the death of a matriarch of the early church: 

Tabitha.  We are also given her Greek name, Dorcas. 

Since we are given two names, in two languages, 

We can surmise that this early matriarch of the church did as Jesus called: 

She built bridges across social and linguistic divides: 

Her death reverberated through the early church; many loved her. 

As we hear the story of her death, 

We may think of those who have died, those we grieve this day. 

We may also think of other losses in our lives: 

The ending of a season of our lives:  

Maybe graduating high school or college; 

Ending our full time employment and entering retirement. 

Maybe we have loss some physical ability: 

Hearing, seeing, walking, driving 

Maybe our children have moved out and the house is empty. 

Or as Rev.Jonathan lifted up last week, perhaps we grieve the loss of how the church used to be, 

Or the way society or our town used to be. (Read Sermon Here)

Loss is all around us in many forms,  

But this scripture offers us tremendous hope and powerful love. 

Let’s listen. 

Scripture: Acts 9:36-43 

36 Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas.[a] She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. 37 At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. 38 Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, “Please come to us without delay.” 39 So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. 40 Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up.” Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. 41 He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. 42 This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. 43 Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner. 

In the midst of loss this scripture lifts up powerful love and tremendous hope. 

Powerful love is seen in the grieving of Tabitha. 

Peter is greeted by a crowd of widows. 

Tabitha had gathered around her quite a community.  

It appears that she had a sewing enterprise going that greatly benefited the widows. 

Remember widows were often quite destitute in this time.  

The widows show us the power of love in grieving. 

First, The widows are gathered in community.  

Grieving often needs company. 

A recent article in the Hartford Courant lifted up the tendency for people to avoid those who are grieving, afraid to get stuck in sadness.  The result is an echoing of the isolation loss can bring.  

The widows model the value of sticking together in the midst of grief. 

Instead of echoing isolation, they echo belonging.  

The widows also show Peter the clothes Tabitha had made.  

“Tabitha is dead, but the evidence of her work still lives.” – Christian Century  

Love often lasts through work left, impact felt. 

The widows remind us to lift up and remember the gifts of what has been loss.  

The widows also weep. 

Today there is a taboo and shock around weeping. 

Yes, our bodies need a physical release to the pain of loss. 

Tears can wash out the heaviness in our hearts. 

 we need somewhere to allow the emotional intensity of loss to flow: 

if not tears, then a good yelling bout with God or a run, 

sometimes even laughter can help us release the physical emotional tightness loss brings. 

The widows model for us powerful love in loss: 

They stick together. They weep. They lift up the blessings of what was loss.  

However, our scripture does not end with their grieving. 

Peter, leader of the church, is called and comes. 

He sends them out of the room. 

The time for grieving is over. 

He needs space for the miracle of new life. 

He prays. Tabitha gets up. News of the miracle spreads.  

I was bothered by Peter sending the widows out, 

But a commentary suggested that the miracle of new life cannot be birthed if the space is crowded in grief. 

There is a time to grieve and a time to make space for new life. 

While grief is necessary and healthy, 

It is not the final word. 

Many have heard of the stages of grief. 

The stages are not meant to be linear, more like cycles or waves. 

Yet, with time and help, there come to be less days of denial, anger, and depression; 

More days of acceptance, the 5th stage.  

Acceptance of the new norm; 

Not replacing or forgetting what was loss, 

But making new in order to grow and live.  

The move to acceptance involves loving the past without clinging. 

The love remains and lasts, but the form changes.  

So Peter sends the widows out of the room; 

He knows the time for grief is over and so he makes space so the new life can emerge. 

Tabitha is restored, rescucitated, although she is undoubtedly changed. 

You don’t survive a life threatening illness without a change in your outlook. 

The miracle reveals to the widows and to many in the town what faith in Jesus can do, 

That there is life after death; a flower from the bulb, spring after winter. 

Moreover, Peter shows us that at the appropriate time we must create space for the new life to blossom. 

What allows us to release our grip on grief is the hope Peter shows us: 

God is breathing new life in the midst of our loss. 

New friendships, new understandings, new connections. 

God is breathing a new church into being, a new society, new life that is beautiful even as it is different than what was. 

If we remain in our grief too long, we miss the beauty of God’s new creation. 

So, may we grieve the losses in our lives with weeping, in community, remembering the blessings. 

In due time may we allow space for God to breathe new life into us and our community. 

May we allow ourselves to marvel at the beauty of the past and also of the future. Amen.  

Sustenance in a Time of Change

Sermon preached May 5, 2019

by Rev. Jonathan B. Lee

John 21:1-14 “Sustenance in a Time of Change”

The post-Easter appearances of the resurrected Jesus continue in this morning’s gospel lesson with that familiar story of that dramatic reversal of fishing fortunes: the disciples have been out in the boat all night but at dawn they still haven’t caught a thing. From the beach, Jesus, who they don’t immediately recognize, calls out and tells them to drop their nets on the other side of the boat, and they’re soon overflowing with fish. Peter recognizes Jesus, they all come ashore and share breakfast around the fire Jesus has prepared.

I come to you this morning as a minister from the wider church, and so as much as this story speaks to you and me as individual followers of Christ, and urges us to faithfully try new things, be open to new perspectives in order to more fully experience the fullness of our connection with God, I also hear this narrative speaking to our church as it tries to keep the faith. The same exhortation by Jesus from the beach to each one of us to see and act in perhaps unfamiliar ways in order to get results applies to the Body of Christ, too, especially these days. So I want to talk with you this morning about the church: about the First Congregational Church in East Hartford, about my home church up in Suffield, about our United Church of Christ as a whole.

You don’t need me to remind you that we live in an age of intense political divide, and social injustice of all sorts, and moral relevancy, and hefty personal pressures—just the sorts of conditions we the Body of Christ are called not only to speak to, but to change, to turn around, to redeem. And yet the church doesn’t seem to have the persuasive moral voice it once did. Yes, you and I still know the story, we continue to feel and experience the good news that comes through discipleship, and we are doing good works that serve others and make a difference, as we are called to. But our compatriots, our fellow disciples in the pews beside us are fewer and fewer, and less of those outside we want to invite in seem to be listening. The culture seems to be moving in another direction and we end up thinking more about survival than transforming the world. Like the disciples in the boat, we’ve been out fishing and the results haven’t been so good lately. We who are the church are at a pivotal moment where the way forward is very unsettling and the way back won’t work. So, what are we to do? For what do we hope?

Let me back up a moment from that glum assessment of the church and tell you more about why I’m compelled to make it. I am a cradle Congregationalist, I grew up down on the Connecticut shore in Stratford, in the First Congregational Church, where I was baptized, confirmed and ordained. As a kid in the 1960s I learned in Sunday school, sang in junior and youth choir, and, in wandering around the ancient burying ground, I recognized my place among the generations of that church family. Church was at the center of my own family’s life, and my parents were not zealots. We went to worship every Sunday we were home; when I was very little, my mother took me to lunches of the Women’s Service League where I discovered my unending enthusiasm for ham salad; my friends and I eagerly looked forward to every meeting and retreat of PF, Pilgrim Fellowship, for all six years of junior and senior high. Church was at the center. As I got older, and came back into the church as a pastor, I looked back and recognized that there had been lots of involved families like mine who were there with that same enthusiastic consistency;

and that people gave money to the church not just out of obligation, but with a kind of joyful loyalty. The ministers back then were pretty much preachers, teachers and pastoral caregivers, and volunteers did most of the heavy lifting without a lot of direction.

As much I loved it, as much as it shaped me and inspired me to serve, that kind of church is no longer the norm. Yes, there are definitely places where the local church remains at the center of the community, where money is not a consuming issue, where membership is growing, and discipleship is thriving, and where mission is clearly articulated and lived out—and this church may well be one of them—but they are fewer and farther between. Currently I’m a member of the national staff of the United Church of Christ working at the Pension Boards in New York. I’m privileged to travel the country and visit pastors and congregations of the denomination promoting support of the Christmas Fund and other initiatives of the Pension Boards’ charitable arm, the United Church Board for Ministerial Assistance. And what I witness is this: many, many of our churches are, one way or another, greatly diminished from what they were 50 years ago, even 20 years ago. Churches are closing right here in Connecticut, the cost of maintaining staff and old buildings is beyond the capacity of lots of congregations, and church life just isn’t keeping pace as a priority for individuals and families. The voice and witness of our local churches to the wider culture is still being expressed, but it sure feels like not a lot of folks are listening.

Before he became the current General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, John Dorhauer wrote a book called “Beyond Resistance: The Institutional Church Meets the Postmodern World.” He is convinced that why our congregations are fading is because we’re still speaking in a voice that worked effectively up until the middle of the 20th Century, but that now we live in a postmodern age and haven’t adapted our message or our methods to the new paradigm. Shifting demographics, globalization, new cultural priorities and the rise of technology and social media have revealed more choices, more options for how to live and what to believe than we know what to do with.

In this postmodern generation, there is great skepticism about any claim to a universal truth—like “I am the way, the truth and the life.” Because so many have now grown up with television and the Internet, how we learn has shifted, too, and what definitely doesn’t seem to work anymore is a 20-minute monologue like this sermon. And given the recent mixed record of many institutions that were so fully trusted not long ago—like the government—lots of folks distrust and are less likely to support institutions that claim authority over others—including the church.

The fact is, traditions and practices and social norms that were pervasive even as recently as when I was a kid, don’t hold sway anymore. I’m only 58 but there are times when I already feel like a curmudgeon, cranky that “things aren’t the way they used to be,” actually thinking we’d all be better off if we went back to church life the way it was at the First Congregational Church of Stratford in 1967. But that horse is already long out of the barn, we’re not going back. So, to a postmodern wilderness, how is the God of Jesus Christ calling us, right now, to cry out? How do we find our new ecclesiastical voice, a faithful witness that reaches a postmodern generation?

That is a question custom made for this topsy-turvy season in American culture. And as we remember moments when the church’s efforts filled the nets to overflowing, and then wonder what happened, I see real reasons to hope, hope that the church can and will wake up and live again more fully as the Body of Christ.

First of all, in my travels I witness such diversity of faithful expression, of the ways in which local congregations of the UCC do their thing. Your sister churches in Hawaii and Missouri

and even Pennsylvania look and feel both very familiar and very different. I love our traditions and our history here, but our God moves, thankfully, in distinctly non-New England ways, too. What I see consistently is that our churches share an essential attribute. From the beginning our denomination’s history has been rooted in inclusivity—of women, of racial and ethnic minorities, of refugees, of the differently abled, of the LGBTQ community, and I’m sure is the case here in First Church in East Hartford, of seekers from other traditions. If any church can speak genuinely to the ocean of permutations represented in our postmodern culture, it’s us. So, when opportunities come to welcome those with whom we live and work and socialize, we have to raise our voice. And you here in East Hartford have done that in a big and visible way in declaring this to be an Open and Affirming congregation—never underestimate the welcoming power of that statement. It says volumes about your correct understanding of the gospel.

Another sign of hope: we’re also beginning to recognize that to be agile and relevant, our churches need new kinds of leaders to voice the good news effectively. 20 years ago, some studies were indicating that, across denominations, nearly 50% of all clergy entering the ministry were leaving the church altogether within 5 years of their first call to a local congregation. Why? Because the seminary training that worked 30 years ago isn’t nearly enough to prepare leaders for today’s congregations. I said before that the ministers in my childhood were preachers, teachers, and pastoral caregivers. But today’s pastors really also function as CEOs of nonprofits, community organizers, social media experts, general contractors and organizational strategists managing often dysfunctional systems. Recognizing this, the Pension Boards began a program called the Next Generation Leadership Initiative, or NGLI.

NGLI is all about equipping the most promising ministers under the age of 35 in our entire denomination with skills to be effective, transformational leaders of congregations in a time when local churches are anything but predictable, in an age when what constitutes effective pastoral leadership is shifting dramatically and in a denomination where 80% of ordained ministers are 50 years old or older. NGLI pastors learn things like organizational dynamics, and family systems theory, communications and social media strategies, and how to keep themselves from being sucked into or burned out by the unhealthy situations that sometimes happen in congregational life, especially in congregations that are stressed. I spend time with NGLI pastors and all of them are high-energy, high-competence, high-hopefulness; they have strong voices that reverberate in that postmodern wilderness. The good news is that the Holy Spirit, though efforts like NGLI, is shaping the new kinds of leaders our churches need, and we should take heart.

Something else hopeful gleaned from my church travels: despite familiar refrains of budget shortfalls and diminished giving, there is plenty of money in our United Church of Christ to support revitalized, relevant mission of effective local churches. The challenge is, first, that we need to speak openly about sharing our wealth as a function of discipleship and an opportunity to experience a joy that comes with investing in mission that really matters, and honestly, most current charitable giving is crumbs in comparison to all we hold; and, secondly, we need to think creatively about the best use of our congregational resources. The mission of so many of our churches is being dragged down by rivers of dollars directed toward maintaining expensive old buildings, and endowments that, while being utilized in fiscally responsible ways, to be sure, really are only enabling many congregations to tread water year to year. There is real urgency for our congregations to revisit and rethink our attitudes about money, but, again, there is reason to hope.

So… as members of local churches, what can you and I continue to do to make our collective voice to the world be heard again? To reveal a resurrected church to a world that needs

us? It begins, and I confess this a particular challenge of mine, with drinking sparingly from the cup of nostalgia. The church of my youth, and probably yours, isn’t coming back the way it was. There is good history there, though, worth celebrating, and for us in the United Church of Christ it is particularly our history of welcome and inclusivity that is the most relevant and meaningful story we have to tell and act out, and one we begin to make through the persistence of our invitations and the warmth of our welcomes.

We can recognize that the demands on our clergy are not only all they were 50 years ago, but twice as much on top of that, and that congregational awareness and expectations of what ministers do need to evolve, and solid leadership in a new wilderness is worth the investment. And we can unclench a bit when it comes to conversations about money and wealth and how sustainable our current financial habits are. Money does not have to be the rate-limiting step in our life together, or in our efforts in getting the good news out to others. If we can do these kinds of things, I am hopeful our churches can become, in new ways, the effective voice of good news for those who need it—a thirst deeper than we know.

But the best reason to have hope for these churches we love, for this congregation, for mine, is that we’ve been here before, and God has found a way. Since that moment in the boat and on the beach so long ago God’s will has continued to be revealed to disciples in new ways, to open eyes and hearts to see and then do what’s most important, to resurrect again and again what is most precious in this mortal life we have been given. And that we are here today, gathered as we are as the church 20 centuries later, wrestling with our own pressing matters of discipleship, is witness that God has pushed us to move when we most wanted to be comfortable, that God has evolving purpose and directions for us beyond the constrictions that can sometimes dominate our local church attention.

So, whether we want churches that live and thrive and change lives, or peace in our nation or the world, or peace in our souls, or cures for all those things that afflict us in this Spring of 2019, we have solid reason to hope. You here in East Hartford are already on your way. By the grace of God, may you continue forward, ready to try new approaches to old fishing habits that fits for this time and place, and may your life together be a witness to others who need to experience that same good news. May it be so, and may it be soon.

A Poem: Follow Thy Path

Church member, Monica Jesensky wrote this poem at a difficult point in her life, as she struggled with depression and loss. After the poem is a special note from the author.

Follow Thy Path

(C) 1992

By Monica Jesensky

One finds that they are on the path to leave,

Yet they wonder where their path will weave.

They have found family in their friends,

Now those single woven threads all are ends.

The sand of time has found yet another path,

To of which the rope of my life now hath.

There is a odd feeling of a sad weak ending,

Even in the time of this threads beginning.

One leaves behind all called as friends,

They find that there are new thread ends.

The rope will continue at one end to thin,

Even as the other end, new threads will win.

One never truly leaves any other behind,

Their path goes on new threads to find.

There will always be change in ones life,

It is never the way, that you miss the knife.

It will stick one with depression and pain,

Yet in the end it is the one who will gain.

The people one will meet are the new thread,

That replace the old in the path you do head.

One finds lack of friends in the path ahead,

Yet one will find them in that path of dread.

The ones left behind are in truth still there,

Though of their presence one is not aware.

One can still in their time visit with them,

The present problem is the question of when.

There is monetary fear present there as well,

But it’s lessened if on it one does not dwell.

There is always a way that the path is made,

One will find their way to life in the shade.

Let the one analyze all that they doth hath,

For the one it will make it an easier path.

There is much less in the path known as old,

Step forth find the new path and be ye bold.

Let not fear and pain stop the way ye tread,

Let not fear cause you the future to dread.

To stay behind is to stagnate and or die,

Let not your fear of future become this lie.

Background from the author:

At a time when I was dealing with loss over a friend I was close to leaving the state and also my own self moving to a different town … I found depression at first .. then it came to me .. inspiration for a poem that would not only help me but also help others who might read it and whom also had similar issues. God inspired me to use a rope as an allegory to a path lost and gained at the same time. He further inspired me to show in the poem that the Sands of Time can be woven in two ways … an end and a beginning. As a person who sees a rope as an allegory to each of our own lives .. God inspired me to see it had two sides. One loss and one gain. Also the mention of the knife is an allegory to the pain that change will invariably bring to each of us. There is mention of a Path of Dread .. this refers to the dread we may feel at the need to start over .. to seek out new friends at our new location. For many this is a dread they experience .. but find they must .. and they do .. and new friends do result. But are our past friends we have moved away from or whom have moved away from us .. gone .. or just somewhere else more distant where it takes more effort and more time to reach out to them or likewise for them to reach out to us. This brings to mind the word vacation day trips or longer if the situation works out as such. However .. it is true that often we fail to remember past friends from different places as often as once we did. Sometimes we intend to write them art first .. often .. then semi often … then for most of us we do tend to move the contacts to farther and farther apart or not at all or maybe once yearly at holiday card season if even then. The shame is .. often good friends of the past become just that .. OF THE PAST .. because we choose to let this happen by giving in to stress of the new place or work or other factors that rule much of our days .. and this can include the factor of now having some new friends at our new place whom have filled the slot the old friends once did .. did we choose to forget the past friends .. or just sort of let the day .. week .. month .. year and so forth pass before we remember to reach out again. There is mention of monetary fear in the poem as for some that is an issue in a move. But for most of us that fear does work itself out as our lives settle in the new place and we find what we must to get by .. new friends .. new place … new job .. whatever is involved. 

Friendship Resurrection

cat and bunny

For centuries some have wondered if Jesus really came back from the dead.  

Was it just wishful thinking? 

Hallucinations of the disciples? 

A well-organized plot to start a new religion? 

Well, I believe Jesus was physically resurrected, 

But even if you aren’t so sure, 

You have got to admit his friends were really committed to him. 

Afterall, his friends saw him multiple times after he died and  

had the guts to risk execution themselves to tell the world about it.  

The disciples may have abandoned Jesus to be crucified,  

but, remarkably, they came around to support him afterwards.  

So here is my Easter proposal: 

Whether you believe in the physical resurrection or not, 

The resurrection of Christ is the resurrection of friendship.  


Prayer Lord Christ, may the meditations of our hearts and the words of my mouth be acceptable to you – For you are our redeemer who rose up from the dead! Amen. 


While on Earth, Jesus proclaimed the coming Kingdom of God –  

That is a society in which everyone has enough and lives fulfilling lives. Sounds good, right? 

We know how important meaningful friendships are to fulfilling lives, 

Thus strong friendships are certainly part of the Kingdom of God.  

This past season of Lent we have explored the nature of friendship quite a bit. 

[Check out Shasta Nelson’s books on Friendship, from which most of the sermons were based on.] 

We know friendship is key to happiness and a whole life. 

We know friendship is beneficial to our physical health. 

We know the hills we face in our lives seem more manageable with a friend by our side.  

With loneliness and mental illness on the rise,  

Friendship is more important now than ever before. 

Jesus has a lot to teach us about friendship. 

He was a king that did not bring military might,  

but instead taught his disciples how to be in loving community.   

He showed them the way to the “Kingdom of Heaven”, the “Beloved Community”: 

that world in which all have enough and live in fulfilling relationships, free from loneliness.  

Jesus modeled again and again all sorts of friendships. 

We have talked about the many circles of friends we can have. (hulu hoops) 

[contact friends we see and talk to at our shared activity – gym, church, school 

Common friends we might hang out with after our shared activity and talk about our common interest (go out for lunch after church and talk church) 

Community friends who we share more than just a common interest,  

we talk about the other parts of our lives. 

Committed friends who are there through thick and thin,  

who we share our hopes and fears with.] 

Jesus had his 12 close, committed friends (small hulu hoop circle): 

The friends he shared nearly everything with, 

A couple of whom he even let eavesdrop on his prayers to God before he died.  

Jesus also had a wider group of “community friends”: 

The crowds that followed him, many of whom were women. 

They had meals together and traveled through life together.  

Jesus encouraged his disciples to make friends across divisions: 

A prostitute was a regular in his community friends,  

some speculate she was even a committed friend. 

Jesus crossed ethnic and gender lines to offer compassion to the Samaritan woman at the well. 

Jesus touched lepers and had mercy on those cast aside. 

Throughout the gospels we see a Jesus who encouraged friendship across division. 

This is why the bulletin covers throughout Lent have featured “friendships across differences” in the form of unlikely animal friends (a dog and an elephant, hen and puppies)….thus the bunny-chick and bunny-cat pictures on the back of your bulletin today.

cat and bunny

Jesus was so keen on friendships across differences,  

because they are key to building the Kingdom of God:  

That blissful society where all are nourished in body, mind and soul. 

Friendships across differences are necessary, because none of us are exactly the same 

Even twins have different personalities – right from the get go. 

Some times we falsely seek to find “our people” or  

bff who is exactly like us and gets every part of us.  

No one is exactly like us, not our spouses, not of bffs, not our committed friends.  

That’s a good and powerful thing. 

The differences between us help us to grow by showing us another perspective, in love.  

The differences between us provide balance and understanding. 

A really organized person benefits from having a more spontaneous person around. 

The organizer learns to relax a bit and have fun, 

The spontaneous person gets something done.  


Because we are all so different and no one person can be everything to another,  

We have these different circles of friends: 

Our gym friends make working out not so painful, even fun. 

Our long-distance, long-time friends remind us of who we were and how far we have come  

Our committed friends hear our worries and help us through, as we help them through as well. 


Most friendships go through a Good Friday before the Easter. 

With common or contact friends it might be rather small –  

He makes an off-comment or she doesn’t email back right away.  

With closer friends, there can be betrayal, hurt, wrongdoing,  

Or fear of being too vulnerable or simply miscommunication.  

In Christ’s life and resurrection, he helps us move our friendships from Good Friday to Easter resurrection.  

Openness and consistently trying is required for a friendship to get off the ground. (a March sermon) 

Vulnerability is needed if a friendship is ever going to blossom – 

Vulnerability risks the possibility of hurt in hope for Easter love.  

Trust is needed to create a safe space for vulnerable and honest sharing. (Palm Sunday’s sermon). 

Forgiveness is needed to move forward into a healthy future. (Maundy Thursday’s sermon). 

Positivity is needed – we can’t stay stuck on Good Friday either. (March sermon) 

All together these qualities strengthen and deepen our friendships. 

Jesus was a master of them all.  

So, when it looked like his friendships with his disciples was severed for good – 

Not just because he died, but because of their betrayal and dissertation. 

Peter denied Jesus 3 times before the cock crowed. 

Judas handed him over for silver. 

The crowd cheered, “crucify him”, 

When it looked that the friendships were over, done for, 

Something happened.  


The disciples report that Jesus returned, physically returned, to bid them peace.  

Even if he only returned in the hearts of the disciples, something happened. 

Something happened to keep the love going. 

Something happened to keep the rag-tag bunch of tax collectors and prostitutes together. 

Something happened for the disciples who denied their connection one day, 

To a few days later go forth, risking persecution, to proclaim that Christ is Risen. 

Something happened for the disciples to travel sea and land, go to jail, be thrown to wild beasts, and be utterly ridiculed by both their own community and the Romans alike.  

Something happened.  

Friendship was resurrected. 

Love prevailed. 

That’s the point of the story. 

Whether Jesus returned in body or not, 

His love and teachings bore new life again and again, 

For disciples thousands of years ago and still today. 

In his resurrection we get the ultimate lesson of friendship: 

Love will overcome. 

Love will overcome fear.  

Fear of not being enough.  Fear of being too much.  

Love will overcome betrayal.  

Forgiveness will clear the way.  

Love will overcome dissertation.  

Healing and hope will be found.  

Love will overcome death. 

New life will come.  

Page Break 

So, whether you believe Christ rose in body or spirit or simply in the hearts of his friends,  

you can celebrate his resurrection this Easter. 

Celebrate the friendships that pass through Good Friday and into joyful depth. 

Choose love. 

Believe love will overcome.  

Recommit to doing the work to help friendships make it Easter: 

Trust. Vulnerability. Positivity. Forgiveness.  

It’s messy and chaotic,  

It takes work and perseverance, 

But from all that comes  

incredible growth. 

Powerful love. 

Resounding joy. 

Not just for you, not just for your friends,  

but it echoes out and together we create the Kingdom of Heaven Jesus preached about  

– a world in which none are lonely and all have enough.  

Celebrate the resiliency of friendships and seek out their resurrection. 

Celebrate the resurrection of Christ who has showed countless people how to love, 

How to be a friend, and how to transform the world to bring heaven to earth.  

Christ is Risen! 

Christ is Risen Indeed! 


 “Forgiving Friends: Kneeling into the Zimzum” 


This night is called “Maundy Thursday” because “maundy comes from the Latin word meaning commandment.   

On this night Jesus gave his disciples the commandment: 

John 15:12 “Love one another as I have loved you.” 

Throughout Lent we have explored friendships; indeed, friendship is Christ’s call this night. 

Nearly all deep, close friendships travel through a “Good Friday” on the way to Easter joy.  

At some point, a friend will disappoint or fall short – or we will. 

In such a time, forgiveness will be needed for the relationship to move forward.  

Jesus shows the disciples how to love by kneeling and washing their feet. 

Before he forgives his disciples for the betrayal and desertion later that evening,  

Jesus kneels and washes their feet and  

In doing so he shows us the key to forgiveness and lasting love. 

What Jesus does is Divine: 

In his power he makes space to serve and love his disciples. 

Jesus zimzums 


Has anyone heard of the term “zimzum”?  

It comes from the 15th century Jewish mystic, Isia Luria (Spelling?), in Jerusalem. 

I learned about it from Rob Bell on his podcast about Christianity and faith.  

(Listen Here)

Zimzum is a verb to describe what God does at the beginning of creation. 

I propose Jesus does the same on this night when he washes the feet of the disciples.  

The mystics believed that in the beginning there was only God. 

So, for there to be creation – plants, birds, humans – God had to create space for the other; 

Create space for that which was not God. 

God zimzumed: pulled into God’s self and made space for creation.  


Jesus’s act of kneeling and serving echoes the divine act of creation,  

in which God limits God’s self to make space for creation.  Zimzum. 

When Jesus kneels to wash the feet of his disciples, he, the Son of God,  

limits himself to honor his disciples. Zimzum. 


Modern theologians Rob and Kristen Bell propose that, in a way, we humans can zimzum too. 

In our relationships we can zimzum to create space between us and another. 

When we are born it is all about us.  Babies get all the attention and aren’t interested in sharing. 

As we get older, our center of gravity doesn’t shift too much – it still centers on ourselves. 

Until we meet someone we care about or realize we love someone in our lives – 

Maybe a parent, a sibling, a romantic partner, a friend – 

We zimzum and make space for the other to be in our lives.  

Instead of it being all about us, we care about the other. 

Simultaneously, the other does the same: 

They zimzum to make space for us. 

Thus, an energetic space is created between us. 


You. Me. The Space Between Us. Zimzum. 

The space between us is not static; it is dynamic, always changing and shifting; 

In relationships,  

We are always creating space for the other. 

What we put into that space impacts both people. 

Zimzum is this twirling energy between us. 

So, what we put into it will boomerang back to us, amplified.  

Have you ever noticed how fights often start with a small off-hand comment? 

That off comment gets put into the zimzum, the space between us,  

Gets whirled around, amplifies and escalates. 

Likewise, a small gesture of kindness can stick with us for days,  

Whirling around and growing in fondness every time we remember it. 


What we put into the zimzum impacts the health and joy of our relationships. 

On this last night, before Jesus is to die, he teaches, he shows, his disciples  

what to put into the zimzum; how to increase love in the space between them.  

How to fulfill the commandment to love one another.  

By kneeling down and washing the feet of the disciples, 

Jesus puts humility instead of boasting into the zimzum. 

Jesus puts grace instead of grudges into the zimzum. 

Jesus puts forgiveness instead of resentment into the zimzum. 

Jesus puts service instead of selfishness into the zimzum. 


Humility. Grace. Forgiveness. Service.  

Each of these are intimately connected. 

Grace is God’s forgiveness. 

Service requires humility. 

Humility is key to forgiveness. 

Humility is key to forgiveness.  


On the cross Jesus will forgive us all for our part in the crucifixion of God. 

On this night, kneeling at the feet of the disciples,  

Jesus shows us the foundation of that forgiveness on the cross: 

Kneeling in humble service.  

Kneeling is an act of humility. 

Not only does he kneel, he wraps a towel around him, a symbol of being a servant. 

He who is great, humbles himself to the place of a servant.  

In his action we see humility as foundational to forgiveness and lasting love. 


Humility is about acknowledging our full selves 

Humility requires us to take an honest look at our own faults 

Without diminishing our worth or goodness 

Humility is not self-hatred or shame, 

But an honest acceptance of our strengths and weaknesses.  

When we can be honest about our own failings,  

We are far more capable of forgiving others their faults.  

We might not be at fault in the situation at hand, 

But we have likely been at fault in some situation in our lives.  

When we realize we need grace and forgiveness, 

We are more willing to offer grace and forgiveness. 

If you are seeking to forgive, take some time to name your sins. 

Let your heart be humbled for 

Humility clears the space for forgiveness.  


Humility is also about acknowledging our privileges. 

Jesus, being Divine, had no failings, no sin,  

“a perfect sacrifice” a “lamb without blemish” to use some theological language. 

He had no reason to kneel.  

Yet, Jesus still bent down in humility, maybe acknowledging his privileges as Divine. 

Perhaps we haven’t committed the same crimes as others,  

But with humility we can acknowledge that our lack of criminality 

May be impacted by the home we grew up in,  

the resources we had, 

 or the mental or physical capacity we were born with.   

When we can acknowledge that our position and wellness is impacted by factors outside of our control, humility ensues, and forgiveness follows. 

When Jesus kneeled, he showed us the power of humility. 

Humility brings compassion into the zimzum. 

Humility brings understanding and perspective into the zimzum.  

Humility brings forgiveness into the zimzum. 

The zimzum, that energetic space between us,  

circles round so that forgiveness and compassion come back to us.  


When we withhold forgiveness, boast in our goodness, seek favors instead of service, 

We essentially put obstacles into the zimzum, 

Blocking the energy of love flowing between us; 

We limit our ability to love one another.  

Friendships fall. Relationships disintegrate. Community crumbles.  

However, when we add humility, compassion and forgiveness to the zimzum,  

We encourage a spiraling of love and joy – 

We take down the obstacles.  


The relationship is free to move into the future. 

Forgiveness is all about moving a relationship into a more fulfilling future.  

Forgiveness is not a quick excusal of wrong-doing,  

But rather an effort to remove the obstacles that block the positive energy between us.  

To withhold forgiveness is to allow the past to block the future. 

To forgive is to let the past inform a loving future. 

To use a banal example, if a friend is always late, to withhold forgiveness would be to shame or resent her every time she is late.  To forgive is to humbly acknowledge that we have shortcomings too, and simply bring a book and enjoy the time of waiting.  

If a friend makes an ignorant comment, to withhold forgiveness is to let that comment cloud out the positive and refuse to speak or engage with them or to speak with anger and blame.  To forgive, is to humbly acknowledge our privilege of knowing, share our perspective, and move forward engaging in topics of mutual understanding.  

To use a serious example, if one has been abused, forgiveness uses the past to inform a more fulfilling future – so one might acknowledge the mental or emotional limitations of the abuser and as such instill boundaries of physical or mental space or time that allow one to live without fear. 


Forgiveness removes the blocks in the space between us – sometimes by reformatting the space. 


Jesus forgave on the cross. 

On this night, the night before Jesus died, he knew what was to come. 

So, he knelt down and showed his disciples the foundation of forgiveness and lasting love. 

Jesus shows us that forgiveness and love begin in humble kneeling. 

He showed us what to put into the zimzum: 

Grace instead of grudges 

Forgiveness instead of resentment 

Humility instead of boasting 

Service instead of selfishness 

What we put in will circle back, so  

May we follow Christ’s example, and love one another as he has loved us. Amen.