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Reflections on Hope: September 12, 2021

September 12, 2021

Staff Sermon Reflections Sunday, September 12, 2021
Isaiah 43:19
“See I am doing a new thing. Now it springs up, do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.”

10:16  Moment/Reflection: Judi Wallace, Director of Children and Youth Ministries

I have a few things to show you,

1) Old ripped sneakers  ~  How do these look to you? They don’t look so good! I kept them as long as I could….but what should I do with them now? I could just keep wearing them, they still have a bottom! I could donate it, but they’re kind of a yucky. Throw them away?  Recycle them?  I think its time to get a new pair so that my toes are protected, so I don’t slip on wet ground because there are no treads, and when I am walking I have some healthy support for my feet!  These will work much better! (holding new sneakers)

Can you think of anything else that needs to be replaced sometimes with something new?  Crayons, pencils, erasers, clothes, furniture, sometimes our attitude need replacing, right?

One more thing:  (Holding a rotary dial phone)  do you know what this is? It’s an old telephone. Anyone know how it works? You have to put your finger in a hole and move it all the way around and let it come back – then do that with the next number. You could only go this far from the wall (stretching out cord), and it had to be plugged into the wall. 

Do you know what this is? (holding up a cell phone) What can it do?  Call people, take photos, you can play games on it, get directions, send emails…. 

God has created us with magnificent minds and we are always discovering, always learning, always trying new things!  Some people used God’s gifts to them to develop a phone that not only doesn’t need to be plugged in, but it can do so many new things that we have never been able to do before!!

God also created us to feel things deeply. Emotions like feeling happy, sad, angry, excited and so many more.  In this time of getting back to school and wearing masks to stay safe and healthy, things can make us nervous and even fearful, but knowing that God created us to do new things and we do!  New things, like wearing masks, allows us to feel less nervous, to stay healthy.  

What has kept me going during this time has been the new things I have learned and shared with others. Things like campfires all winter to connect with friends outside,  recording and editing children’s messages,  being on LIVE Facebook and 100’s of people being able to see the children’s message, even my homebound in-laws in Virginia 6 hours away!!

We are all doing new things,  thank you God, please keep teaching how to think and do new things!!

Reflection:  Penelope Rebuzzini, Office Manager

First Church family- we begin a new program year today and Ginger asked staff to reflect on how we are thriving - what allows us to flourish in this pandemic time.

To flourish we need to know our longings and our limits. This time has taught me a lot about both: about the need to keep a balance between work - whether here at the church or at home- and play.  I need to remember what brings me joy . And I need to keep things simple- there needs to be space and time between activities. My spirit struggles when there is too much to do- even many good things.  

Being in and with nature helps me thrive- experiencing the subtle changes week by week- seeing who frequents the bird feeder, or how our cat stretches out in different places depending on the how the light comes in and temperature, watching the water of Long Island sound, sometimes tranquil, sometimes choppy.  The maple trees in our yard will soon be launching their winged seeds starting the process all over again.  God’s creation does its thing day by day always changing- and helps me do mine.

Witnessing all the acts around me of faith and hope and kindness helps me flourish. And I find I am more aware these days of small gestures, what a huge difference they can make in my life and how I have taken them for granted: a quick text to check in, a phone call, a card, a smile from another person walking, a door held open, letting another go first at a 4 way stop, weeds pulled in the garden, being gathered in worship, every word and act that brings love to a situation rather than rancor or division.

Scripture also helps me thrive.  The book of Isaiah holds many such passages for me - including our passage this morning.  Isaiah offers hope and reassurance: God is about to do a new thing- can I wait in trust?  God says the new thing springs forth – it is happening right this moment. Is my heart open to perceive it… receive it?

This passage brings vivid imagery to mind for me.  I picture God with a machete hacking a path through the wilderness to bring light and a way for us to follow.  God is also creating rivers- not one but multiple-  to water to the wasteland, so it can bloom. This story reminds me of another- in Ezekiel where God gives CPR to the dry bones in the valley and brings them back to life. Those images & stories revive my faith and hope and help me thrive. Thriving is not just about having all the ideal conditions - it is about blooming where we are. 

As we start this new year together, there has been a lot of loss and is much to be grateful for.  Let us help one another and the wider world to thrive: by holding a candle for those in need of God’s light, by offering a cup of water for to someone with parched spirit, by sharing our loaves and fishes… then we can bloom.


Reflection: Rev. Jake Joseph, Associate Minister 

Every time I hear or read this passage, I think of the book and the movie about the complexity of life, religion, family and meaning-making called A River Runs Through It. Some of you may recall the 1992 Robert Redford version. It is not an easy or clear-cut story, but there is meaning in the river. The late film critic Rodger Ebert wrote about the film when it came out, “Fly-fishing stands for life in this movie. If you can learn to do it correctly, to read the river and the fish and yourself, and to do what needs to be done without one wasted motion, you will have attained some of the grace and economy needed to live a good life.”[1] I believe this is how we have learned to thrive in the Pandemic. We have to read the river every day, the fish, the movement, precision matters more than ever… and yet there is so much grace and so much good. I am choosing to remember the grace and the good.

Have any of you ever been fly fishing? It is, in my own personal opinion, far less exciting and somehow concurrently far less relaxing, than Deep Sea Fishing on Long Island Sound. I also happen to love boats and company. That said, it is also far more artistic and meditative. Fly fishing, especially in the mountains of Colorado and Montana, unlike our coastal fishing is more art, religion, and meditative spiritual practice than it is a competitive sport. With fly fishing one trades tranquil drop of a hook, bait, and weight to the sea floor for quick, artistic quick lashes at the water to mimic the landing of bugs. One trades a boat for heavy weighted pants and then you stand in the middle of the river. You share the water with the fish. We try NOT to do this in the Sound. The flies are handmade works of art in themselves. The whole experience is deeply solitary and personal.

After seminary, as I pastored in Colorado- Dr. David Petersen, one of the foremost experts in the world on the Prophet Isaiah and the author of my seminary textbook on the subject, The Prophetic Literature, retired to Fort Collins and became one of my members because he loved fly fishing in Northern Colorado. Fly fishing brought the expert on Isaiah and my former Dean at Emory to my pews. I was terrified to preach for him! David writes about our passage today in his book that, if we consider the context, and the back and forth of history in Isaiah—the old things and the new things have a unity about them… a wholeness—and so, “Those chapters that follow Isaiah 39 attest to the new thing that Yahweh is doing. Since both the former things and the new things belong to God’s intentions, the book testifies to the deity’s sovereignty [or presence in] all history.”[2] This is called the grand “diptych” of Isaiah—the backwards and forwards feeling of the text.

Dr. Petersen joined my church to fly fish (to stand in the waters of change) and was even chair of council when I told Plymouth I was leaving. He relied on his research on the backwards and forwardness of God in all of it to help the congregation process. Whenever I saw him, I thought of two things—the Prophetic Literature of Isaiah and fly fishing centeredness in changeable rivers. 

As we start our goodbye, we also remember the art of fly fishing—as God sends rivers to run through life. “Fly-fishing stands for life... If you can learn to do it correctly, to read the river and the fish and yourself, and to do what needs to be done without one wasted motion, you will have attained some of the grace and economy needed to live a good life.”[3] In Isaiah, we feel the flow, the completeness, the gentle flow of history (back and forth)… around boulders, smoothing rocks, down cascades, through alpine grasslands and marshlands… and we know that God is in all of it. 

As it turns out, the past two years, even with the pandemic, were not all bad. They were simply us learning to go from the fast paced, communal Deep Sea Long Island Sound fishing to the meditative, attentive, artistic fly-fishing. I think we are getting pretty good at it. Amen.


Reflection: Clara Sims, First Church Ministerial Intern

Hi everyone! My name is Clara Sims, I am in my second year at Yale Divinity School and I will be the seminary intern working with First Church for the year – I am delighted to be here in worship with you for the first time. Last August I moved from the enchanting, brilliantly blue-skied desert of New Mexico, which is my home, to the lush green forests and fields of Connecticut. Though technically I left the desert and came to a place of less wilderness and more rivers, in the midst of a global pandemic, unexpectedly starting my seminary education online, I felt emotionally and spiritually that I had entered a desert territory like nothing I had experienced before. Existing on the other side of my computer screen I had never felt so disconnected, alone, and lost, so much so that I was simply surviving day by day. But thank God, God makes roads in the wilderness and rivers in the desert, and in my case, poets in pandemics. A poem that became a life-line and friend to me through the pandemic was Everything Is Waiting for You by David Whyte, a part of the last stanza reads:

“Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into the
All the birds
and creatures of the world are unutterably
themselves. Everything is waiting for you.”

Clinging to these words, even when they didn’t feel true, slowly, day by day, I began to bring into my conscious awareness that on this God given, spirit-infused planet, there is nowhere I can turn where I am truly alone. Every day, the trees and birds outside my window greet me, and I them; I greet them in wonder over the mutual entanglement of our lives with God. I thrive when I remember to remember to join the conversation, when I remember who I am, and who we all are: a part of everything, a part of God.

Reflection: Bill Speed, Director of Music Ministries

Last week, we heard in worship a scripture from Mark that used the word "Ephphatha", an Aramaic word that means "Be opened!", a word used by Jesus in an act of healing. I remember as a kid loving this 'magic word' in the Bible, kind of like "Open Sesame!" or "Abracadabra!"  There's another mystical Aramaic phrase in the New Testament, in Paul's letter to the Corinthians, the phrase "Maranatha", which scholars can't agree on how it's translated. They believe "Maranatha" was used by early Christians as a greeting to each other, or perhaps was used as a phrase in early worship liturgies, or even a code word during time of persecution.  It either is two words that mean "Come, Lord," as in "Come, Lord Jesus – Return to us, Jesus, as you promised you would!"  Or Marantha is a word that means, "The Lord has come," as in "Jesus is the Messiah; Jesus is Lord." 

I prefer to believe that both interpretations are simultaneously true: that Maranatha evokes both past and future.  And that magic word "Maranatha" has kept my spiritual energy alive and thriving during pandemic.  Oh, look, another COVID variant!  Marantha: Jesus is Shepherd: I'm not going to worry as we walk through this valley in the shadow of pandemic; Our God has been “our help in ages past", and I've got faith that God is with us now.  Oh, look, a big hurricane is coming!  Marantha: Jesus is the Savior: "Take courage my soul, and let me journey on: the storm is passing over, Hallelujah!"  But Maranatha is not a word I'm saying by myself: it was said by early Christians one to another, it represents a belief that congregated the people who built this church, it's the centering belief of the people who worship here now: our lives are shaped by the teachings of Jesus, who came to a people in need and brought a gospel of love, the Jesus who continues to come to people in need and bring a gospel of hope.  Marantha is our team song; in a cheezy analogy, it's our seventh inning stretch "Sweet Caroline" if you're a Boston fan or "Start spreading the news" if you're another kind of fan. 

It is a song, it is a 'magic word' not only of identity but of hope. And after songless months of wallowing in despair and dread and pessimism, I was able to rediscover the faith that keeps hope and music alive: the season of Advent, the season of expectation, the season of preparation. We are in a holding pattern of Advent: awaiting and expecting the homecoming, the return to the sanctuary, the restoration of health, when God will wipe away the tears of social isolation and COVID fear. . . .but like Christians awaiting the return of Jesus, for us in this pandemic seems like it’s lasted 2 millennia, we believers had to learn to live, to live a life of expectation rather than just sitting around waiting.  So, in the words of the Advent carol, "make your house fair as you are able, trim the hearth and set the table."  I've been making new friends on the internet for First Church through weekly broadcasts on Thursdays, I've been discovering new composers and compositions that will become new favorites of the Cherub and Junior and Adult Choirs, I've been cleaning up files in the choir room, I've asked the Senior Choir to listen to a youtube playlist I made of 421 recordings of anthems we've sung over 12 years and choose the ones they're most looking forward to sing again.  And, yes, we've found new ways to make music safely during pandemic, yes, I've been able to make new music with a bunch of different soloists during this pandemic, but the true thriving and growth for me and my music ministry at First Church has been in focusing on the new things yet to come, the preparation.  The Maranatha: living in a community that together cries in hope and in expectation "Maranatha!  Come, Lord Jesus!”  

Reflection: Rev. Dr. Ginger Brasher-Cunningham, Lead Minister

Talitha Koum in Aramaic means - Get up! After leaning into and trusting God, we have to get up, too.  How?  How are we not just surviving but thriving?  Today’s reflections help put words to actions, a sampling of how to thrive. One of my friends speaks of writing gratitude lists, reading meaningful books, and exercising to keep going. Another said that he bakes and paints. For me, like others have said, days vary. On some I have thrived, and others I too feel like I am treading water.  For me, prayer walks and snapping photos bring some comfort.  However, the changes in our lifestyles continue.  Albeit we are more familiar with masks, distance, and air flow. Our options are limited, and our choices are clear.  We must learn to do new things and thrive even when we are no longer living in the illusion of control.

Poet Mary Oliver wrote this, "Because of the dog’s joyfulness, our own is increased.   It is no small gift.  It is not the least reason why we should honor as well as love the dog of our own life, and the dog down the street, and all the dogs not yet born. What would the world be like without music or rivers or the green and tender grass? What would this world be like without dogs?"

My friend Jay and I often reflect that empowering joy to thrive has been through the antics and love of furry, little, funny, demanding dogs. Our eldest pup Ella asked me to remind you that of course dog spelled backward is God. And what is God if not unconditional love, springing up doing new things, and making a way for us to endure difficult times

Theologian William Barclay penned:  “Endurance is not just the ability to bear a hard thing, but to turn it into glory." 

One of our town historians sent me a letter from Phebe Woodruff who died in Guilford June 20, 1790.  Phebe reminded people that we do not save ourselves. Only through God (and I would add intentionality and community) can we be saved. I imagine she too would agree with Barclay.

May the love of God surround us all as we go out to make glorious moments of thriving and living life to the fullest. Amen.

[2] David Petersen, The Prophetic Literature (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 63.

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