Livestreamed service

John 12:24

Mark 4:26-32

A seed is a gift—a tangible symbol, if you will, of grace. While we humans can develop artificial and modified seeds, we cannot, despite all our knowledge and technology, create the real thing. Seeds are the product of a natural reproductive process involving plants and pollen, sun and wind, water and soil, difference and integration.

And, as even the people of Jesus’s time understood, a seed cannot become a plant or fruit until it dies, or, to put it more poetically, until it is cracked open.

And so it is, I think, with our lives. They are pure gift. We did not create them; we did not plan them; and, at least for the first, critical years, we did not sustain them. They were given to us.

And so it is, I think, with our faith community, this somewhat improbable thing we call church. None of us here created the body of Christ in this place; it was handed down to us by the holy interplay of grace, Spirit, love, generosity, and the faithfulness of our forbears.

Along the way each of us—in our own time, for our own reasons, and by our own grace-filled paths—has come to be here, come to be a part of this thing we call First Church Amherst, an almost 284-year-old miracle that is less an institution than a living, growing, ever-changing organism ordained not to endure but to be love and share love. By a spiritual process involving grace and faith, trust and love, Spirit and struggle, hope and joy and mischief, we cooperate in God’s production of new life, abundant life, heart-healing, community-building, world-changing, life-giving life.

We are both a seed and a collection of seeds, wanting with all our hearts to produce long-lasting spiritual and transformative fruit, all the while knowing (even if occasionally forgetting) that we cannot produce such fruit on our own, knowing (even if sometimes unconsciously denying) that our precious seeds cannot reproduce unless they die or, in the words of the poet, are cracked open.

Now, you may have noticed that the Sufi poet Hafiz does not say when or how the seed of his heart cracked open. Did he experience great tragedy or failure? Was the seed cracked open by a mystical encounter with the Holy? Was the seed cracked open by his surrender to God’s love-mischief-making music?

The poet doesn’t say.

Neither does Jesus, really. Oh, he talks about the need for the seed to fall into the ground and die; he speaks of how the transformation of a dead, cracked-open seed into fruit and shrubs and the very realm of God is not of our own doing.

Beyond that, however, he didn’t really leave us clear instructions. And maybe that’s why the capital-c Church, over the centuries, resorted to creeds and doctrines, guilt and obligation, and a glorification of sacrifice and suffering. Maybe that’s how we, too, came to think that the spiritual journey was all about us and what we or the church would or wouldn’t do. Maybe that’s why far too often we forget about grace, joy, love-mischief, and the seed-cracking crucible of life lived in community and covenant.

But that, of course, is the key to the spiritual journey of life with, and in, God: to continually put ourselves in the path of the Light, to routinely and regularly open ourselves to the ways of the Spirit, fully understanding and expecting that there will be times when the journey itself, life itself, the very life of faith and the things we do hoping that we are following Jesus, will crack us open like a seed.

By grace our lives will be cracked open so that they might receive still more grace, love, hope, peace, and joy. In community, our lives will be opened to possibilities we never imagined, to make with God more holy mischief than we knew was possible.

And so it was that 15 years ago, we set out together on a journey to follow Jesus and be the body of Christ in this place. And what a ride it has been!

Within 10 days of my arrival as your pastor in February 2008, we threw out bylaws and structures that were decades and hundreds of years old, adopted entirely new ways of being church together, and began observing the earliest Lent in more than a thousand years. Since that auspicious beginning, we have grown in love, created new ministries and traditions, weathered numerous challenges, and marked momentous milestones.

Among them were the annual youth and family potluck and campout in my backyard, the youth and family retreat at Craigville, and mission trips with the Appalachian Service Project. We adopted an anti-racism covenant and recommitted ourselves to our Open and Affirming and Just Peace covenants. We weathered one crisis at Not Bread Alone that threatened to split the church, and we came through another one that ultimately put our own Bob Stover in charge.

When I started offering blessings and Communion to go at the Northampton Pride Festival (and on the street), and our church’s presence there grew to more than 30 marchers and a well-staffed welcome table, our hearts were cracked open by joy, light, and a holy purpose. Other times when we experienced a shared and wondrous cracking open included Cranberry Fairs, the occasional All Saints Sundays when we dressed up as our favorite saints, and a humid day in August when a visitor from Japan apologized to us for his country’s attack on Pearl Harbor and we apologized for Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

We celebrated our 275th anniversary with a wonderful series of special services and a wildly successful capital campaign to widen the welcome of our building. For several years we deepened our ministry to the unhoused neighbors who spent significant time in our then-unlocked building, and we continued that ministry even after someone hid in the building and then broke into the church offices.

All along the way we have cared deeply for one another, walked with one another through good times and bad, welcomed new members and friends with open arms and hearts, and said painful goodbyes to far too many dear ones. Even as I love you who are here now, I carry those saints in my heart.

When I was hit by a car in October 2014, you blessed me with meals, rides, and dog walks for weeks on end. And when we reached the stage of building renovation when the one restroom on this level had to be ripped out, almost no one batted an eye when I suggested we put a porta-potty in the bell tower.

That, it seems to me, is when you know a church is riding the love-mischief wave: when people are so excited about what Spirit is doing that they’re willing to pee in a bell-tower porta-potty.

As much as we would like to think our heart-seeds are cracked open and our church produces the fruits of the Spirit only during times of joy, agreement, togetherness, and effective ministry, we all know that the cracking is often deeper and the opening even wider during the challenging, difficult, and even painful times.

Even long honeymoons end, and when the excitement and energy of having a new pastor and new structures give way to the hard work of making change, some people will resist. I remember getting a phone call telling me that three church members wanted me to leave. I remember having a one-on-one conversation with an elected church leader who asked me how much longer I was planning to stay. I remember coming home one Saturday afternoon from a day-long workshop I and a couple of church leaders had attended on healthy church communication to find in my mailbox a typed, unsigned letter telling me it was time to go.

Soon after that, in a rare meeting with a conference staff member, I asked her what I should do.

“Well, you can’t leave!” she said. “What would that accomplish? Instead of changing and growing, the church would simply continue on with the way things have always been.”

I realize now that was her way of saying that the First Church Amherst seed needed to crack open, that we—you and I—needed to persevere through a painful patch to move from a place of “what am I going to do?” to “what are we going to do together with God?” That we all needed to move from the rigors of duty to the experience of delight, from a struggle for control to the blessing of grace-filled surrender. That only then would we arrive at a new, deeper place of making love-mischief together with God.

It was not too long after that that we were asked to take Lucio Perez into sanctuary. Time prevents me from saying much about that, but those of you who were here for those three years know that along with all the unexpected gifts of that time and the great privilege of walking together with Lucio, Dora, and their family came an operational tension and spiritual struggle with our partners. The stress of that struggle broke me open and almost broke me down. As right and holy as it was for us to provide sanctuary and support to Lucio, my struggle to protect you and this church community from outside political pressures was harder on me than I let you know.

So stressful was it that when we were confronted with the unimaginable realities of the coronavirus pandemic, that challenge felt almost easy. We were all working together, we had no one else telling us what to do, and what needed to be done was clear. Amazingly, we missed only one Sunday of worshipping together, and within a few weeks we had come together to give some $30,000 to our struggling neighbors.

The pandemic still cracked us open, of course. We had to learn to do church in new and different ways, some people left us, and we’re still figuring out how best to be the church now.

Because God is both good and faithful, because you and this church are both faithful and open-hearted, I cannot find the words to adequately cannot what an honor and privilege it has been for me to serve this church, minister with you, and accompany you these past 15 years. And while I cannot count the times the seed of my heart has been cracked open, I trust that each cracking has opened me to deeper faith, truer love, and more joyful love-mischief.

Most of my ministry happens privately, and so I want to close this long sermon with a story you do not know.

One day, back when our building was always open and I had a lot of regular interaction with the patrons of Not Bread Alone and many of our unhoused, addicted, and mentally ill neighbors, a bedraggled 70-something woman I’ll call Gladys walked through the church door pushing one of those rolling walker chairs. On the seat of the chair was a large box and, inside it, another, slightly smaller box.

A simple greeting and a few questions later, I learned that Gladys’s 23-year-old cat, Grace, had died, and Gladys wanted me to baptize and bless her—the cat, that is. The cat’s body was in the smaller box. Gladys had put the small box inside the larger box because the bigger one was from Barnes & Noble, and Grace was nothing if not noble. I gave Gladys a two-sentence definition of the sacrament of baptism, and said that while I couldn’t baptize Grace the Cat, I would be happy to bless her.

“Okay,” said Gladys. “I couldn’t think of anyone else who might do it. I knew you would.”

I told myself to take that as a compliment.

I asked Gladys when Grace had died.

“Three or four days ago,” she said.

Gladys and Grace, the 23-year-old cat four days dead, the two boxes, and the walker chair had come to the church by bus. I began to understand the sense of panic, mingled with grief, that Gladys was projecting.

Gladys asked me to do the blessing in the sanctuary, but first she wanted to move Grace’s body into the noble box. As Gladys wanted a little privacy and I had zero interest in seeing her handle a very dead animal, I stepped inside my office for a few minutes. When I returned, Gladys was spraying air freshener around the box.

We walked (and rolled) into the sanctuary, all the way onto the chancel here. Then Gladys took the large (noble) box down from the seat and put it onto the top step. She and I sat down on either side of it. I said a prayer of thanksgiving for Grace the Cat and the many years of love and companionship she had given to Gladys. I blessed Grace’s body, asking that eternal light might shine upon it, and I blessed Gladys in her grief.

We shared a few moments of silence. Finally I asked, as calmly and dispassionately as I could, “So Gladys, do you have a plan for disposing of Grace’s body?”

She said she was considering a few different possibilities. I encouraged her to choose one and carry it out soon. As soon as possible.

“Why?” Gladys asked. “Does she smell?”

“Oh yes, Gladys,” I said. “Yes, she does.”

It is one thing, beloveds, to travel about town with a smelly 23-year-old cat four days dead. It is another, altogether sadder and more serious thing for a church to be burdened with a pastor who has lost her passion for God, the church, and their shared ministry.

Praise God, the love-mischief in me is still strong, and my passion for sharing it has not faded.

While I will not be your pastor forever, it is quite clear to me—and clearer than ever since my sabbatical—that my love for you, God, and this church still burns brightly. I remain excited about our winding and faithful process to discern’s God purpose for us, and I believe we have much difference-making, life-giving ministry and joyful community-building ahead of us.

For now, I thank God for all the grace, joy, and heart-opening ministry that has brought us this far. Now and always I will give thanks for you and all the ways we continue to learn, grow, follow, and open.

Thanks be to God—for you, for this church, for our ongoing time together, and for seeds cracked open.