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10 Billerica Road
Chelmsford, MA 01824
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  • New stone lighting - part of Living Stones projects

We are a welcoming community that seeks to follow Jesus Christ with all that we are and all that we have. Through worship, fellowship, education, and outreach we open ourselves to God and our neighbor.

Our Sunday Schedule:
8 AM + Holy Communion
10 AM + Holy Communion with music and nursery.
Lower Church School gathers at 9:45 AM
Upper Church School sits together in worship; classes begin at 11:20 AM

Whoever you are, wherever you are on your journey of faith: we invite you to join us!

Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost 10-18-20: Saving Politics from Politics

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In our Gospel reading this morning, we are told that religious leaders set a trap for Jesus, and yes, even Jesus had a small group of people that were out to bring him down. As the crowds gathered around Jesus in the usual way, their delegates approached Jesus with loads of flattery and then asked him an apparently straightforward question, “Tell us what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” (Matthew 22:17). Why was that a trap? It is because there are only two answers, “yes” or “no”, and either one of them were likely to get Jesus killed. His homeland had long been occupied by the foreign power known as Rome with soldiers everywhere. Rome collected taxes from the people it occupied to pay for the cost of their occupation. Many in Jesus’ country greatly resented this arrangement, one that they never consented to, paying tribute to the conquerors (and, arguably, their gods), over and over again.

There was, therefore, an ongoing insurgency, known as the “zealots” who aimed to drive the Romans out of their land. To instruct people to pay their taxes, risked running afoul of them, since it meant recognizing the sovereignty of the emperor and being seen as a traitor. To say, “no, don’t pay your taxes because the only Lord of our land is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” would make Jesus one of the leaders of the revolt that the Romans were determined to stamp out at any cost. The politics were entirely polarized in a way that we can probably recognize. The stakes were high, or better, everything was at stake all the time. Those putting the question to Jesus were not looking for the truth or for understanding. They just wanted to win and bring him down.

Jesus responds, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s.” Not “yes” or “no,” but “both and.” This stopped the conversation because it turned the question back onto those who asked it, “what is it exactly that is Caesar’s political order?” “And what is it that belongs only to God and isn’t political at all?” This was not a conversation that his enemies were ready to have on the record. They only wanted to entrap Jesus, but it’s one that is set before us today by those who remembered this moment in Jesus’s ministry as one for his later follows to reflect upon over and over again. It is easy in our polarized, divisive, times to recognize this “Gotcha moment” for what it was, and we don’t have to imagine at all how there could be people more interested in winning and losing than in solving common problems affecting everyone. But what is hard for us to imagine is the way out of this toxic situation. It may well be that Jesus, in his cryptic answer, provides a way forward, past the stress of that kind of conflict all the time about everything. And I don’t mind going on the record myself saying that what you hear from Jesus about politics is less crazy than anything or anyone else in 2020 weeks before our election.

“Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21). What is really hard in our time is to find the limits of politics, that is, the boundaries of the partisan and the political. Pretty much everything is politicized. [So much so that even now here, with Jesus raising the topic, there is a bit of “Oh no, what is he going to say?”] We have so little experience of speaking about politics when it is only about solving shared problems together. We are, instead, told in many ways on all frequencies that where you shop, what products you buy, what foods you eat, what you wear, how you wear it, and any other of a huge number of lifestyle choices are like daily votes for this cause or that. People move to parts of the country just to live with people whose politics they share. There is even a great sorting going on in Christian denominations, where what kind of Christian you are more and more corresponds with political parties. There is this all consuming quality of our politics. Good luck trying to get news that isn’t political. That being said, how could you not feel the pull of issue after issue and not rail against indifference and call for even greater political engagement, where it is time to pick sides, and the name of victory is “51% not 100%”

In our time, it is hard to understand how Jesus can say “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s” and not have that sound a little irresponsible and unpolitical. The zealots of his day, in between killing Romans one by one, certainly heard it that way too. They could not afford to be indifferent to unjust occupation by an oppressive foreign army. But that we, and the zealots, even hear it that way, says more about us and them, than it says about what Jesus really meant. We may just know a whole lot more about Caesar and politics than we know about God. If that is the case, then Jesus’ saying that there is more to life than politics isn’t going to make much sense to us.

The political story Jesus knew best in the Bible is the book of Exodus. Moses’s life was mostly taken up by politics. Liberating slaves from Egypt and governing them in desert (even with God’s help) is nothing if not political. Multiple stories are about people complaining and coming to Moses with their problems and how he worked for solutions that work for the most number of people. But then he climbs up above all that, goes up the mountain alone to find God. He receives from God the 10 commandments which also contain a good deal of politics, but notice what happened next. He pleads with God for something else, something more than politics, he cries out, “Show me your glory, I pray” meaning “I want to see you God myself face to face.” God replies, “You cannot see my face; for no mortal can see me and live.” But then God makes an extraordinary offer, as if God can’t help but honor the pure hearted desire expressed in Moses’s sincere wish to see him. God says, “I’ll hide you in a cleft of the rock, my glory will pass by, and you will see what it is possible to see from behind” (Exodus 33:18-23). Wow, in that moment, with his heart and mind engaged trying to see from behind what no eye can see or heart fathom, he wasn’t worrying or stressing about who was doing what down the mountain, he was on fire with life, having passed beyond the limited possibilities of political movements, past the narrow shortsighted goals of what can be accomplished with 51%. He found a passion powerful enough to swallow up the 100%.

So what does Moses do what this experience? He goes back down the mountain to the people he loves and returns to politics a changed man. Would that man have any trouble understanding “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s?” Not at all, but only because he had once pleaded with God, “Show me your glory, I pray.” Perhaps Moses, thereafter, found a kind of balance between his love of God and the world, where his responsibilities down the mountain were always refreshed and enlivened by his experience up the mountain. Did he ever quite looking for God, even knowing that the best he could do was always being behind never quite able to catch the One he was looking for? And maybe in that deeply personal space, in that space reserved only for God, that space beyond the limits of politics, maybe he found that he wasn’t there alone, but that other people were there too, looking and seeking. If that was the case, and I suspect it was, then Moses found a generous welcoming space connecting him with other people that also wasn’t political and partisan, but generous, solid, and true. The fact that there is more to life than politics, takes enough pressure off of politics, that things can get done for the benefit of the most number of people. That is the kind of space that Jesus inhabited, but it was too profound for the superficial politics of winners and losers that his enemies held dear. Jesus explained, “Seek first the kingdom of God and all these other things will be added to you as well” (Matthew 6:33).

One of the perennial lessons of politics is that politics is impossible when there is only politics. The problems then become all-consuming. It is only when politics is demoted and part of each of ourselves is chasing higher loves, that the art of the possible becomes possible.

May All Saints’ Church be to you that nonpartisan space, where politics recedes but only for a moment, and may you be so bold as ask of God, “Show me your glory, I pray.” And be ready to hear, “Oh, no, you can’t see my face and live but you can chase after me with your love.” And may that love for God grow and grow in you to include more and more people, so that you are not engulfed by the trials and tribulations of our day (or this election), but have feet placed on ground that is more solid and firm the more it is shared. Amen.

The Rev. Dr. Paul R. Kolbet

Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost 10-11-20

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We had one of the harder weeks of the pandemic this week, and that is really saying something at this point. The losses continue to mount and the necessary isolation makes them all so much harder to bear. We are in this together, but it does not always feel like it without the personal togetherness, the handshakes, the hugs, and a hundred other small, kind, gestures that we usually rely on far more than we knew we did. I don’t get to talk to nearly as many of you week by week as I would like to, but I am hearing that a lot of us are feeling this heavy cloud these days. It doesn’t help that the days keep getting shorter, darker, and a bit colder.

What does help are the right words, if they can be found. Words can provide a kind of traction or point of critical purchase on feelings that are too often cloudlike and kind of oppressive otherwise. You’ve probably all had the experience of finally being able to name of feeling that you have had but somehow couldn’t locate. Once you have a name, somehow the feeling acts as if it is seen for the first time and becomes a lot more something that can be worked with. If you are feeling things weighing on you, words can help. It is surprising, though, how often we don’t really have the words ourselves for our own feelings. It is often someone else who gives us the word that names our feeling. It is surprising how often the saving word comes from outside ourselves.

One of the reasons that we read scripture together out loud when we gather together is that its words have a way of seeing and identifying our feelings. Not that that solves everything, but it has this immense capacity to make the unbearable bearable, like we are carried along by the words themselves.

Countless souls have received comfort from today’s cherished Psalm spoken by those “walking through the valley of the shadow of death.” I know that many of you are feeling death’s shadow and it–no doubt–has a deadening and depressing feel to it. We have experienced way too much death in 2020 and we are feeling its oppressive weight. Each of us really needs–in the words of the same Psalm– the Shepherd who “revives my soul and guides me along right pathways for his Name’s sake.” A “revived soul” names another feeling, a feeling we need right now, but it is hard to know how to get it.

Someone who knew how to be walked through the valley of the shadow of death to a revived soul was St. Paul. We read a portion of his incredible letter the church at Philippi just now. What wasn’t said in the reading was that Paul wrote this letter from prison and it wasn’t at all clear that Paul was not going to die there. The Philippian church was upset at the prospect of losing Paul. They were feeling the shadow of death and Paul writes a letter from prison to comfort them. (That backwards, right? Paul’s the one in danger here, but the congregation is looking for assurance, and he gives it to them).

Just after the passage we just read, he writes to them about what they want to know. “Paul how are you holding up in prison with the day-to-day possibility of being executed.” He says (Philippians 4:11-13): “for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” The words of a revived soul living under the shadow of death if I have ever heard them! St. Paul we sure could use you right now in 2020!

In the part of the letter assigned for today, Paul says, apparently to us, “My brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved” (Philippians 4:1). “Stand firm,” but how Paul? He continues, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” Joy would be great Paul, may I remind you that you are in prison and we’re living under the shadow of your possible impending death? Paul continues, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” I would take not worrying about everything all at the same time Paul. He continues, “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” I recognize those words from the prayer book. It’s the final priestly blessing in many of our services. A peace of heart that exceeds our understanding that is so strong that it guards us. Without hearing about that, you wouldn’t even know that that is a feeling to be had. Seems to be what St. Paul had. He probably got it directly from Jesus. We sure could use that now, couldn’t we?

Thoughts and worries just get in the way, don’t they. They rob us of our peace. Seems like they would have when Paul was in prison too. He addresses that too. He says, “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8). The true, the honorable, the just, the pure, the pleasing, the commendable, the excellent, what is worthy of praise isn’t what is bothering me Paul. In fact, they are so much not the problem, that I barely think about those things. Oh, I heard that, you say that those are the things to think about, to fill my heart and mind with what is “true, what is honorable, what is just, what is pure, what is pleasing, what is commendable, what is excellent, what is worthy of praise.” That’s what you did in prison. That might explain some of your confidence where you can say, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”

In 2020, especially this week, that is kind of a tall order. It was for St. Paul too sitting in chains in his cell looking for the “true, looking for the honorable, the just, the pure, the pleasing, the commendable, the excellent, and the worthy of praise.” Let’s look for those things even in 2020. Maybe its like that line of Psalm 23 where it says, “You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me” (Psalm 23:5). It makes we wonder how their could be both “an abundant table spread” and “ever-present enemies.” It much like wondering how Paul could have prison with its possibility of death and his peace that passes all understanding.

The scripture gives us words for feelings we have and for feelings we have yet to have. If you are feeling the weight of the shadow of death, hear it named by the scripture, see it and add to it other more powerful words for other feelings that are a real possibility for you even in 2020. Paul says, “Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you” (Philippians 4:9). There it is.

It’s a long year that isn’t done with us yet. But we will keep on, we will keep on “doing the things that we have learned and received and heard and seen.” We will keep on, as we always have been, being about “the true, the honorable, the just, the pure, the pleasing, the commendable, the excellent, and the worthy of praise.” And those things will revive our souls, as they always have.

St. Paul has the last word. He ends his letter with the following blessing consoling the Philippians: “my God will fully satisfy every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus. To our God and Father be glory for ever and ever. Amen” (Philippians 4:19). May it be the same for us as well. Stand firm. Amen.

The Rev. Dr. Paul R. Kolbet

Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost 9-27-20

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. At the beginning of the pandemic, six months ago now, we had a reading from the prophet Ezekiel. I remember ruminating on it because it is such a sad, heartbreaking book. It’s a book, of faith and hope though, nevertheless. It is a book for 2020. It rarely appears in our readings so I was surprised this week to see it again. It must be worth paying attention to.

Ezekiel lived in very tense times. God’s chosen people for a century stood between three world powers: Assyria, Babylon, and Egypt. In order to survive, the political leaders constantly made treaties and compromises with their more powerful neighbors. They sought above all to protect that beautiful temple built by King Solomon in Jerusalem. Deep inside the temple, was a room called the “Holy of Holies.” It housed the ark of the covenant containing the 10 commandments given to Moses and his brother Aaron’s rod. To come to the temple courtyard was to come to sacred ground because it was close to the Holy of Holies.

The political leaders, nonetheless, would eventually make a mistake and cut the wrong deal with the wrong people. When they did, the Babylonian army came and burned down the temple and took the Jews they did not kill to Babylon in exile. Families were driven from their homes. The marble walls surrounding the “Holy of Holies” were broken down. There was no longer a temple, the ark of the covenant would never be seen again, and the religion of God’s chosen people was being mocked. After all, the “Holy of Holies” was crushed, and holiness spilled out on the profane ground as the flames burned ever higher. Ezekiel was there as a priest and dragged in exile.

No one even knew if God speaks without a temple in the foreign land of Babylon. In exile, Ezekiel looked up at a foreign sky with different stars; the stench of the burning temple was still in his nose. The opening words of the book of Ezekiel are momentous, they are, “In the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as I was among the exiles by the river Chebar, the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God” (Ezekiel 1:1). Nothing was the same in Babylon, except one thing: the voice of God. Even there God spoke and says, “you say, ‘The way of the Lord is unfair.’ Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way unfair?” I can hear the Israelites saying, Hey, we are God’s chosen people, how can this happen to us? Do God’s people live in exile? That’s just not right.

God says to them, “What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge?’ (That is, the children keep paying for the sins of their parents. The Israelite children were taken captive as well at no fault of their own). “As I live,” says the Lord God, “this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel.” “It is only the person who sins that shall die…. Repent and turn from all your transgressions; otherwise iniquity will be your ruin. Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord GOD. Turn to me, then, and live” (Ezekiel 18:3-4, 30-32).

Isn’t it true that when bad things happen, like what happened in Ezekiel’s day, we can say something like “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge?” 2020 continues to be an epic year of upheaval and disasters. It’s easiest to be absorbed by the despair and cynicism of it all. Someone is the blame for the temple burning down, who is it? God says to Ezekiel, “enough of that!” “Why do you have to die, O house of Israel?” There is, instead, new life even in exile for God’s people. God tells Ezekiel, “get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit!”

A profound lesson of Ezekiel is that while good people worked to make everything appear so outwardly perfect and beautiful, God was just fine with a far messier chain of events to get to that “new heart and new spirit” he spoke about. We can spend our lives building a beautiful marble temple with our own hands on the highest hill of Jerusalem, and do it all for God, and God may just let it burn down. God is not nearly as afraid of brokenness as we are. Broken things are in fact something God can work with, sometimes more effectively than when all our efforts are solely focussed on preventing anything from falling apart. There is just a lot more flexibility and resilience to how God works in the world than we believe.

Jesus speaks a message very much like Ezekiel’s in the Gospel reading today. He says to a group of devout observant Jewish leaders, “What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ The son answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second son and said the same thing, and that son answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” Those listening said, “The first,” because he eventually went. Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you” (Matthew 21:28-32). What a shocking statement! What could it mean?

Be certain Jesus is not saying that living a life as a prostitute or a dishonest tax collector that extorts money from needy people is something to imitate. Elsewhere he has plenty to say about why sin is bad for us. So what is he saying? It seems to me that he is likening that group of devote Jews to their ancestors who built this beautiful temple for God to live in among them. They could not imagine that God could speak in other circumstances. Could God speak to a conquered, broken, people in exile?

Jesus says to them, “You have never been broken, how can you enter the kingdom of God? Your religion is so much about your success in holding your life together. You have never been undone by God’s holiness. At least when a prostitute really repents, she knows what it is like to be broken. She knows the God that still speaks in Babylon, the God who promises new life to those who watched the temple burn down. She knows there is no use pretending it never happened.

She knows how hard it is to reject the proverb that God says should never be spoken: “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” Her parents likely did eat sour grapes, and her teeth were set on edge, but she does not keep saying, “The Lord’s ways are unfair.” Instead, she finds God in her brokenness, and it is there that she gains “a new heart and a new spirit.” Although committing her life to God may not have repaired everything, or given her continual happiness, or taken away every regret, in repenting and turning to God she gained that worthy quality of really knowing the truth about herself, a new heart and a new spirit.

So when Jesus compares her to the people who thought they knew what holiness was, but had never been broken, had never been undone, he says, “See, that prostitute, she will enter the kingdom of God before you do.” Jesus questions us, and says, “What is better? Is it that son, that keeps saying yes to his Father, but never goes. Or is it the son, that said no, but went anyway and did his father’s will?”

It can’t be a coincidence that the one speaking this parable would eventually be that Son, in the garden of Gethsemane, facing the cross, praying in the garden to his Father, saying I don’t want to do it, “Let this cup pass from me” (Matthew 26:39). Yet the next day he put his body on that cross to be broken, and it was in this brokenness that new life came to us all. It is his broken body on the cross that is the holiest symbol of our Christianity and the source of life-giving power. As St. Paul reminds us today, Jesus “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death–even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:7-11). 

If you feel your life beginning to crack in this really hard year that is not done with us yet–and I know a lot you are facing really hard things right now–if, like Ezekiel you see the fires burning what matters to you, let Ezekiel remind you that ashes and broken things are exactly what God can work with. If like Ezekiel, you have doubted that God can speak by the waters of Babylon, repent of that lack of faith, and get yourself a new heart and new spirit.

Holy God, whose presence is never confined to even our best projects, help us to hear your voice even in Babylon, forgive us when we have responded to things breaking with despair, and help us to repent of that if need be, and through your Holy Spirit give us “a new heart and a new spirit” to believe in the new life that awaits those who place their hope in you. Amen.

The Rev. Dr. Paul R. Kolbet

Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost 9-20-20

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We meet up with Jonah at the end of the book this morning and not at the more famous beginning where–running from God–he hurls himself off a boat at sea and is swallowed by a sea monster. After all that, God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And Jonah replied, “Yes, angry enough to die.” Jonah was angry at the bush, really angry. To be fair, Jonah had had a really long week. The bush withering and letting him down was just one things too many. He had hit his limit. It is tempting to judge Jonah here and laugh at this comic scene of the man coming completely undone by a bush. Isn’t it? But in 2020 a lot of us have had days that are just one thing too many. There has just been too much disappointment and loss, already. The story of Jonah has had something to say generation after generation and 2020 is no different. From the earliest Christian centuries, we find ancient pictures of Jonah, see here is Jonah on the boat, Jonah being eaten by the sea monster (always drawn more like a dragon than a whale because their knowledge of whales wasn’t great), and Jonah sheltering under his bush.

Jonah was really upset because he had in his mind a pretty clear idea about the way things ought to happen. Ninevah was the capital city of the ancient Assyrian Empire. Ninevah was one of the first cities that realized it had the power of enslaving all of its neighbors simply by having the most powerful army. Jonah happened to be one of those neighboring peoples forcibly subjugated to this empire. Out of his deep faith in God, Jonah believed Justice would prevail and really wanted to live long enough to see Ninevah finally get what it deserved. He was waiting for the reckoning. Jonah is one of the good guys and a much-heralded prophet according to the Bible.

Jonah’s real problem was that God didn’t agree with Jonah’s plan, no matter how good it was. As the Bible tells its readers all the time, in the words of the Jonah’s fellow prophet Isaiah, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (55:8). Jonah was angry at the bush, but he was really disappointed and sad that God had failed to punish the Ninevites according to Jonah’s notion of what is right and wrong. As Jonah complained to God, Jonah explained how much he did not want to give the citizens of Ninevah even the opportunity to change their ways. He said, “I fled [because] … I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” It’s a hard story for any of us that happen to be too attached to what we think should happen in the world.

For those of us who really want our ways to be God’s ways and our thoughts to be God’s thoughts. Anger–like Jonah felt –is such a powerful emotion, that much of the time we don’t realize that it is really a kind of substitute emotion, or a kind of stand-in for something else that is underneath it that we don’t have to feel if we are angry enough. Usually, anger, in its own destructive and primitive way, is doing its best to protect us from disappointment, powerlessness, or sadness. Anger may protect us temporarily, but it doesn’t heal us.

Jesus may well have been thinking of Jonah when he tells the story of the landowner who early in the morning agrees to pay a group of workers a certain amount to work in his vineyard all day. A few hours later, he hires more workers to work the remainder of the day. He does the same again a few hours later and finally, with just about an hour left in the workday, he hires yet another group to work the final hour. At the end of the day, the landowner pays every worker the same amount, the amount that those who started earliest in the morning had agreed to. Of course, those who worked the longest cried unfair and were no longer happy with the amount they had earlier thought was just about right. Jesus’ landowner responds saying, “I chose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” “Are you envious because I am generous?” Like Jonah, I’m sure they answered, “Yes.” And they had good reason to be angry. They worked from sun up to sun down and didn’t get any more than the ones that just worked the last hour.

Jesus’ landowner doesn’t feel obligated to explain anything. It could be that like most small business owners, he didn’t want to spend more than he had to, but needed to hire workers because the fruit needed to be harvested before it went bad. And as the day went on, it wasn’t clear that the job was going to get done, so it became worth it to pay whatever it took to get the fruit harvested, especially when they were still working that last hour. I can see the landowner– as that last hour approached–deciding to overpay because that was the only way to get the job done. But that explanation wouldn’t have helped those who labored all day.

“Unfair” is so powerful and feels so bad. It feels bad when we’re children on the playground, or when we’re adults in the workplace, or sitting next to Jonah, doing all the right things, while watching evil doers seemingly go unpunished, or not be able to hold our annual September “welcome back” picnic last Sunday at the church in the sunshine with the children running around giggling for no fault of our own. And God says, “Paul, you’re not angry about all that, are you?” It feels not fair.

There is the “unfair” we feel from other people’s action or inaction, but Jonah and Jesus’ parable are not really talking about that. The “unfair” they are talking about is–like nearly all the stories in the Bible–about God. They are talking about when you get past everything else that might be bothering you, and you get to the very Source of the universe, you get to the heart of the matter, and Jesus says there, “The last will be first, and the first will be last.”

It is good Jonah at the end of the book, really angry staring down his God, knowing that God was going to do whatever God was going to do. After three days in the belly of the sea monster, and more time in Ninevah with people he hated, and finally, alone hiding under a bush that feels like his only shelter from the bad mean world, the bush withers suddenly, and he is completely exposed and left with nothing but God. As readers, we travel so far with him and then we’re never told what he decides to do. Who does he decide to be? In the same way, Jesus doesn’t tell us what the disgruntled workers do when it’s time to show up for work again the next day? Of course, we’re not told, because both the stories are not about them. They are about us and the fundamental decision we make, over and over again, about who we are, in the world we have, in relationship to the Source of all of it, the God that is ultimately bigger than every one of our understandings (the understandings that we are so attached to, but are no more permanent than Jonah’s bush).

Jesus and Jonah offer us a connection to life that isn’t constrained by our constant need to explain everything and put everything in boxes labeled “good” and “bad,” “right” and “wrong.” At the end of his unhappy week, Jonah may well have laughed not knowing why, and put one foot in front of the other, not alone, but in the company of a God he didn’t understand at all. Because he finally saw that God was God and he was not, and that that is a perfectly fine way to make one’s way in a world where most things are beyond our control. He may well have felt a bit lighter, unburdened by the weight of his own convictions about the way things ought to be.

So may the God who always surpasses all our efforts to understand, who alone laid the foundation of the earth, whose wisdom far exceeds even our most thoughtful notions of justice and fairness, liberate us from the burden of our own thoughts, free us from all anger, and make us inwardly strong and able to face the challenges yet to come. Amen.

The Rev. Dr. Paul R. Kolbet

Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost 9-13-20

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The pandemic has not only threatened our physical health. It has taken away from us things that were essential to maintaining our mental and spiritual health. One of those things is what the Book of Common Prayer calls, “the principal act of Christian worship” (BCP p. 13), that is, Holy Communion. We have so far faced the pandemic without it. We have been fasting from Holy Communion because the very communion we experience risks spreading the virus. This fast has been a testimony of the love we have for one another. Jesus has been present with us these months in new and interesting ways.

That being said, there has been no more dramatic change in our worship life than displacing the central act of Christian worship. I know many of you miss it like you miss life sustaining food. We have been weaker without it. We have been weaker when we need to be strong. It has bothered me a lot.

Like many things though, we have discovered we can accomplish most of what we need to during this pandemic if we pull together, use our collective intelligence, skills, and imagination, to find a new way forward. Today, therefore, is our first Holy Communion service in six months. We’ve done it without changing any of our cherished norms governing the sacred. Many of you know that under normal circumstances, Holy Communion is brought from the church with great care and reverence to those who–due to illness, age, or circumstances–could not be present to receive it. It’s an ancient practice that goes back to the earliest centuries. Christians in prison awaiting martyrdom would receive Holy Communion from visitors. Churches would send the consecrated elements to others churches affirming the communion they had with each other. What we have done today is send communion out to the whole congregation because we are all in need and can’t participate in the ordinary gathering. If you have one of these bags it itself is a sign of your communion with us and God. If you don’t have one and are within driving distance of Chelmsford, look for the next sign-up and sign-up!

It is my hope that the restoration of Holy Communion to our shared life will be a source of strength and spiritual power. It always has been and will again be as we, starting today, chart a new path. Since it has been absent for half a year, it is worth spending a few minutes reminding ourselves what it is. It is the central act of Christian worship because it is charged with meaning. It has layers of meaning that are all true at the same time. We don’t always talk about all the layers. There is no way we could, but it is a profound sacred act instituted by Jesus himself to be frequently repeated by his followers to nourish their souls and guide their growth.

We talk most about the most obvious, outward, and elementary aspect of Holy Communion (as we should). That is, that it is shared around a table. Of course, outside the church we are all very different people. We disagree about many things as people do. But when we gather here at this table, those differences are overcome, as we eat the same food together. As Jesus said, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:20). In 2020, where American divisions are so deep that we as a country are having great difficulty pulling together to defeat this virus, it is so hard for us to set aside our differences even in the face of death, the most obvious and outward meaning of Holy Communion could not be more relevant. Listen to a sentence from the earliest Eucharistic Prayer that we have that is not in the New Testament. It is likely more than 1,900 years old now and it instructs the priest to say, “As this fragment of bread was scattered upon the mountains [as grain] and was gathered to become one, so may your church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into your kingdom” (Didache 8:4). If a message of gathering and uniting what is otherwise scattered and divided is appealing to you, this is an act of worship for you. We need it and we need it badly.

The spiritual resources of Holy Communion, though, are way more than that. You likely have noticed that the table we gather around is also called an altar (that is the place of ritual sacrifice, eek!). And here’s where it gets really serious, but at this point in 2020 it is time to be serious. Is it a table or an altar that we gather around? It’s both at the same time. Who made the friendly meal table into an altar of sacrifice you ask? Jesus himself did. He did when he gathered with his closest disciples and took the bread in hand and said “This is my body given and offered up for you.” He took the wine and said, “This is my blood shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” Tables don’t have bodies and bloodshed. Altars do. Why would Jesus transform the table into an altar?

He was thinking of a very identifiable Old Testament story. There we are told about a lamb without spot or blemish whose blood is shed so that everyone else may live (Exodus 12:1-14). Its blood was to be spread on the doorposts and then it was to be eaten by those safe inside the house. When Jesus read that story, he said, “That is me. I am the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” The night before he was crucified Jesus told his followers to commemorate him with a meal with bread and wine that they understood to be his body given for them and his blood shed for them. Like that ancient Passover lamb, Jesus became the sacrificial offering. He voluntary took upon himself the guilt, pain, or suffering of all. In this way, his blood was shed for the forgiveness of sins.

You might ask of both stories, of Exodus and Jesus, why does there need to be any sacrifice at all? Couldn’t God just forgive everybody? After all, if you are really omnipotent and good, it should be within your power to forgive without the shedding of blood (I told you we were getting serious!). Of course, God could just forgive everybody, give out grace on the cheap like Mardi Gras beads. If that were the case, what about the victims? What about any sense of justice? Would there be any meaningful moral order in the universe if God shredded it with pardons?

God honored and upheld the moral fabric of the universe by becoming the sacrifice himself. Without ceasing to be who he is eternally, he suffered what justice demanded for wrongs past, present, and future. The ark of the universe bends toward justice only because the Creator chose to uphold the demands of justice at unfathomable personal cost.

We return again and again to that table that becomes an altar. Any and all of us who have ever been victims, any of us who have suffered at the hands of another, see none of that as overlooked, undervalued, or set aside. The blood sacrifice is to be offered. Any and all of us who have victimized, who have wronged another, identify with those who crucified our Lord, and voluntarily relive the guilt and the crime and hear then Jesus say what he said on his own cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Grace is offered there, but requires a lifelong returning and returning again and again to the altar confessing and being forgiven. This grace is not cheap. Its precious. It is nothing less than the renewal of a moral order that loses all credibility apart from our devotion to it. I kneel before this altar seeing my incapacity (and our social incapacity), but also get to see that incapacity overcome by God for me and for us. Forgiveness is not the elimination of our responsibility for our own choices but is its elevation and healing. Thanks be to God. Those wronged and those who have wronged gather before the same altar forgiving and being forgiven, again and again. The central act of Christian worship is powerful stuff.

Peter asks Jesus in today’s Gospel, “Lord if someone sins against me, how often should I forgive? Once, twice, or “as many as seven times?” Oh Peter, Peter, it is time to lift your heart, and understand mysteries exceeding your elementary counting. There is a forgiveness more powerful than you know to be offered wherever 2 or 3 will gather in the name of the lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.

We welcome Holy Communion back with joy and awe! It is also called “The Great Thanksgiving” (or Eucharist in Greek) for a reason. We are thankful. There are furthers layers of its power and mystery that will have to wait for another day. In the meantime, may the God whose goodness upholds the moral fabric of the universe yet wonderfully is also the source of both justice and mercy, give us the power to forgive ourselves and other people of the wrongs we have done and the sins we have unjustly suffered, so that we might be worthy followers of Christ, who on his own cross prayed for the forgiveness of those who crucified him, and now lives and reigns with the Holy Spirit, for ever and ever. Amen.

The Rev. Dr. Paul R. Kolbet

Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost 9-6-20

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Jesus gets really personal today. Jesus says, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone…. if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you.” The Epistle of James echoes Jesus’ admonition from the other side of the relationship, from the perspective of the one confronted. James says, “Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed (5:16).” Jesus talks about this sort of relationship conflict because well … it isn’t something any of us wants to talk about. People, including me, don’t tend to look forward to conversations about how their behavior may have harmed another person. Few of us ever want to say, “Yes, let’s talk about how I’ve hurt you.”

In fact, many of us have developed elaborate techniques to avoid having that conversation. James says simply, “Confess your sins to one another.” He doesn’t suggest that if you explain in great detail how you only had the best of intentions, and didn’t mean to hurt anyone, maybe you’re not to blame. Or, there is a much more difficult maneuver. It is expert level, but quite possible to achieve. You can withdraw and act so hurt that the accusation was ever brought up in the first place, that the whole situation gets turned around so that the person who initiated the conversation is the one who ends up apologizing. I’m not going to continue down that road, but I don’t think I am wrong that human beings tend to rely on some serious defenses to avoid having the very conversation that Jesus commends to us this morning when he says, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault…” One of the effects of the pandemic is that it has put extra pressure on the people we live with as we have been forced to do more and more from our homes. That’s likely what any of us are thinking about when Jesus discusses the periodic need to have sometime yet truthful conversations with those we depend upon.

Part of the reason why so many of us avoid these conversations is that we’ve learned somewhere along the way in our lives that conflict in relationships is bad and always destructive. And if that is what we think, and that is what our experience is, then we would have good reason to go to great lengths to avoid conflict and just not talk about what needs to be talked about. But, I really don’t think Jesus would encourage us to do anything that is bad for us. I personally have had plenty of arguments with him, where I was pretty sure that his advice was wrongheaded, but, every-time he has turned out to be right about what is good for me.

It may be that we think that these confrontational conversations that Jesus talks to us about this morning are bad and too hard, because we just haven’t learned how to have them. Frankly, anything seems impossible when you don’t know how to do it. Even a new remote control for my television, can push me to the breaking point of frustration, because I don’t know how to use it. But once I figure out that the more important the button is, the smaller they make it, then I’m eventually ok and I wonder what was so impossible about it in the first place. There is a lot more at stake in a conversation with a loved one, friend, or church member that begins, “You hurt me.” If our experience of those conversations is bad, it may just be that some of the people in that conversation were just lacking skills needed for the conversation to be healing, and even life-giving.

How to have that conversation is so important that it is part of the Christian faith and something to learn, and practice in church, so that we can have those conversations in a truthful healing way outside of the church. Critics of Christianity often put our emphasis upon sin and confession of sin in a negative light. They say that what we teach people is that they are bad and that is why they need to confess, over and over again, that they are bad and guilty. I’d like to suggest to you that these critics don’t understand the purpose of our language of sin and confession at all. Its purpose is exactly what Jesus says it is: it is to transform conflict into creative, positive energy in all of our most important relationships. In other words, confession leads to communion in our church services, but also in our personal lives.

If, as these critics suggest, we teach that the proper response to “You hurt me,” is to say, “you got me, I’m a sinner, you’re right about me, I’m guilty, I’m a bad egg,” then we’re not helping anyone. No one saying, “You hurt me” needs to hear that. That is not the healing they are seeking. And if we hear it that way, if we hear it only as blame and not as a desire for connection, then, no wonder, we feel compelled to muster all of our defenses. But that is not what Jesus’ language of sin and confession is about.

To confess, is most fundamentally, about understanding how one’s actions, or inaction, have affected other people. Or, more specifically, about showing another person that you understand what it is like to be them in relationship to you. “What it is like to be them in relationship to you.” It is that act of deep understanding that is healing, it is that that is called for by Jesus, not dramatic declarations of how terribly wrong or bad one is. It is out of that experience of feeling understood that forgiveness comes and relationships repair and deepen.

And it’s a conversation, to be truly had, that happens more than once. Notice that Jesus anticipates, on the one hand, that you may not be heard the first time, or, on the other hand, you may not be able to listen at first. No one is going to get this right the first time. Anything worthwhile takes time. It is not, “I said ‘I am sorry’ so I shouldn’t ever have to talk about this again. It looks more like, “yes, we are continuing to talk about this because this is a healing conversation. It’s a conversation that brings us closer together. It is not one that pushes us farther apart.”

When my daughter was quite young, after one of her early birthdays, I ate the rest of her birthday cake, the leftovers as it were. The next day, apparently, following the words of Jesus, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault.” She informed me about how wronged she felt by that. I confessed to her that it was me, “yes, I ate your birthday cake.” (That still sounds bad after all these years). What she wanted wasn’t for me to confess to her what a bad dad I was. She didn’t want to have a bad dad! What she wanted to know was that I understood what it was like for her to live in the world of birthday cakes that would disappear anytime she fell asleep. And insofar as I was able to show her that I understood what it was like to be her, and not defend my right as Dad to eat all leftover birthday cake, that this conflict was transformed into an opportunity for greater love, trust, and finally, forgiveness.

In the push and pull of human life, with all the demands placed on us, and our all-too-human limits, needs, and desires, we’re bound to hurt one another. That is why it is so valuable to develop the skill of how to offer the experience of understanding of the other rather than defending oneself. But in concrete situations, when our very selves feel accused and in jeopardy, it is surprisingly difficult to get out of one’s own way. We need help and we have it ready at hand. Notice how Jesus concludes his teaching saying, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” It is his presence, if we can be open to it, that can give us the strength and assurance to set aside the current version of ourselves, and its justifications, and instead be open to the presence and experience of others even when it leads to confession and change.

When we are children, we learn right and wrong as a set of rules and believe in a world where it is those standards that are the source of the bond between human beings. As adults, rather than that sort of justice, we come to see that the real world is about the messy business of loving, understanding, and changing, about forgiving and being forgiven, and that forgiveness is a stronger bond than fragile notions of justice. As St. Paul says in the passage from his letter the Romans that we just read, “the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Romans 13:8).

It is about forgiving the world for not being all that we wanted it to be; it is about forgiving ourselves for falling short of those standards of right and wrong; it is about forgiving those who have wronged us; and its about accepting the forgiveness of God and others when it is offered. Forgiveness is never deserved; it can never be demanded. It arises out of shared understanding and is always experienced as a gift.

All Saints’ is a safe community in which to learn skills that are utterly necessary everywhere else. Oh there are occasional conflicts, misunderstanding, and hurt from time to time, but this is a place where through Christ confession leads to communion and where we discover that it is Christ’s presence with us that gives us the strength to be open to a love and a connection with other people bigger than any of our own defenses. May we all experience Christ’s love for us as one that enables us to lower our defenses, confess our sins to one another in such a way that it leads to an experience of greater understanding, so we are free to love others as they are, and accept ourselves as forgiven and loved all the same. Amen.

The Rev. Dr. Paul R. Kolbet

WEEKDAY FUN for KIDS!

All Saints’ Kids Club meets every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday for kids to connect and have fun! Monday and Tuesday are SHORT 30 minute meetings- Game Night on Wednesday starts at 6:30 and runs until 9pm- with different ages meeting at different times.  Our NEW OFFERINGS ARE:
 
Monday’s meeting is What BOOKS! A chance for kids to talk about the books they enjoy reading, and hear about books they might like to try. Meeting is facilitated by Maggie Marshall. All readers are welcome! At this time they are not reading a book together, though they may decide to do that at a later date.
 
Tuesday’s meeting is What FUN! Games and activities led by kids for kids. Join Jayden, Maya, Kiley and Cameron for a half hour of hanging out and playing games! Each week a different Youth leader will run the meeting!
 
Email Laura at churchschool@allsaintschelmsford.org to get on the zoom link mailing list!