November 30, 2017

Linda and I recently watched an Anthony Bourdain “Parts Unknown” episode set in Manilla. We learned that the Christmas season in the Philippines begins in September with songs and many parties. The whole society enjoys a three month time to get away from seriousness and to share in the joy of recognizing someone and telling them, through a gift, that they belong. Then comes the arrival of gift boxes from the hundreds of thousands of Filipinos who work overseas separated from their families. It’s hard to get a box to arrive a week or two before Christmas when you send it from abroad. Plus, when you see your children or other loved ones only once every year or two you tend to over-buy out of an understandable feeling of sadness at the separation. 

Filipino culture exhibits a different attitude toward gift giving than is typically found in the United States. Their attitude toward gift giving emphasizes a gift as a means to make an occasion special and to show everyone they are included. Especially under the influence of advertising, our gift giving tends to try to reveal how special we are. We give gifts to show that we understand you, the recipient, perfectly, and thus found the perfect gift. Or in the church we hope our giving demonstrates that we are generous and kind to those in need. 

How might Christ’s birth shed a new light? 

The Christmas story tells of the three Wise Men bringing baby Jesus gifts to his birth bed in the stable: gold, frankincense and myrrh. These fancy gifts were meant to show all that the newborn babe born to such poor parents in

Anthony Bourdain at a Christmas party in Manilla  such “mean estate” was to be, in reality, a king. Then I think of the poet Christina Rosetti’s beautiful lyrics in the hymn In the Bleak Midwinter: “If I were a shepherd I would bring a lamb… yet what I can I give him, give him my heart.” The Christ child elicited a response not so much of self-sacrifice but of awe. In him we see the holy. 

Often we give gifts to show who we are. Other, non-Western cultures can show us the joy of giving gifts to include others. But the Christmas story spurs us to make our gifts point to the holy acts of God among us. 

I don’t think this means presents should become “churchy.” But we might want our gifts to capture what seems especially alive with the Spirit of Christ to us today. Are you “coming alive” in a new way? Share that. Do you have a new hope for the world? Tell people! Was there a wonderful experience this past year? Send me a picture. In every case God continues to bring us joy. This Christmas may you recognize anew that you have already received the greatest gift

of all: the gift of the birth of Christ, God-with- us.

– Faithfully and joyfully, Pastor Noel

JULY 26, 2017

A lament expresses our sadness to God.

I can’t wait to get “away” for vacation. Preparing for our trip, I wondered about the small towns we’ll drive through on the way to Vermont. “Hmm,” I thought. “I wonder what houses here cost.” The dream of a country getaway place dies slowly. Sunday, at dinner, I excitedly showed Linda and our daughter Sara an online real estate ad. “Look! This town, Hoosick Falls, has some really beautiful and inexpensive homes!” “Wow!” said Linda, “That’s a pretty house.” “Hoosick Falls?” asked Sara. “Yes, have you heard of it?” She replied, “As a matter of fact I have. Drinking water in Hoosick Falls was contaminated with PFOA, the toxic chemical in Teflon that makes it slippery.” Sara knows her stuff. Water contamination is her field. “The state doesn’t have a plan yet to clean the water. The best they can do is give people activated charcoal filters but that’s only a stop-gap measure.”

“At least now we know why houses there are so inexpensive.” Linda asked, “Is the moral of this story ‘All that glitters is not gold?’ Sarah chimed in, “I have a better one. Some online wit penned this one-liner: ‘Who’s Sick in … Hoosick Falls?’” Linda and I both groaned. “Think about how desperate people must be. You want to move out of town and get your child to clean water… but you can’t sell your home because no one is buying.” “Yes,” I thought, “the family that owned the pretty house would be happy to sell to some big city slicker from ‘far away.’”

It was my turn to be witty. “I think the one-liner for this story was coined by Anna Giordano.” Linda’s eyes widened, “That garbage recycling lady who came on so strong when she spoke at church?” “Yes, the very one,” I replied. “But she made a point that hits home. There is no longer an “away” in “throw it away.” Sara nodded: “Everything comes back to bite us. We think it’s going away someplace else and we don’t have to think about it anymore.” “But,” I interrupted, “There’s no longer an ‘away.’ All the systems are collapsing into one another.” “Right,” she interrupted me in turn. “Here’s another example. When we take antibiotics, we excrete it in our urine. Now they’re in all our water supplies and we can’t filter them out.”

Who’s to blame? Well, you can blame me. I once used a frying pan coated with Teflon. Anyone else want to raise their hand? Remember how Pogo told us years ago: “We have met the enemy, and he is us"?

My lament: O God, our actions bring us pain we do not anticipate, and we end up hurting others unintentionally. Forgive us. Heal your world. We pray it’s not too late.

Faithfully yours, Pastor Noel

March 27, 2017

We knew hosting the soup supper for the ecumenical Lenten Bible this past March 22 would prove challenging since our stoves in the kitchen are gone, and new (used) ones haven’t been purchased yet. I am so grateful to Margi and Ralph, Angela, Ana, and Austin and Gennette for bringing soups they cooked at home.

But I wanted to make soup, too. Cooking Tuesday at home got away from me, so Tuesday night I called a grocerey store and put in an order. I stopped by first thing Wednesday to talk about details. The best price I could get was $80 to feed twenty persons soup! So I said "No Thanks" and called some friends in the church.

Thank the Lord, Ana Pacheco was home. She had the cooking utensils and wasn’t going anywhere. So for $16 worth of ingredients we made enough to fill two big pots. It was a minor miracle of loaves and fishes.

We are trying out a new "Purpose Statement" as a congregation: Our current draft of it is: "Courageiously serving, as Jesus does, those iin jeopardy." Along the way to becoming a more "activist church" that genuinely wants to courageously serve those most in jeopardy in our world, we will need to sometimes say "yes" to a request before we know how to actually do what is asked. This can feel uncomfortable but the truth is churches today must skip ahead at least a generation in their decision making skills. Gone are the days in which an urgent decision can be put off to the monthly board meeting. The need and the opportunities to really make a difference don't wait any more. A great value in the secular world in which most people live is "nimbleness" in decision making. That means learning to become quicker, more flexible, and adaptive. Or, with my soup as an example, being willing to improvise sometimes when plan A doesn't work out.

This Easter we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus the Christ who brought to the world a "New Covenant" for salvation. But I believe the world had to say "yes" to God's plan. Mary had to be willing to carry God's child. Disciples needed to say "yes" to Jesus' "Come follow me." As so often in life timing is everything.

Let's celebrate Christ's resurrection by looking for his active presence in the world. Most often we encounter him where there is great need. Let's practice saying "Yes!" and give glory to God. It feels really good when we do.

With resurrection joy, Pastor Noel

Dec. 22, 2016

I find myself ranting and railing at the way we have commercialized Christmas. But perhaps I’ve grown too jaded. Mary Luti, my favorite devotional writer for the UCC’s online Still Speaking Daily Devotional, tells this story:

“On a visit to South India, the Archbishop of Canterbury was asked to bless the Hindu kitchen staff of a big hotel. The occasion was the annual mixing of the batter for their famous Christmas cake. So, as instructed, he poured honey into an enormous trough of fruit, said prayers, shook hands, and walked out into the searing heat with "Joy to the World" blaring over the loudspeakers. Christmas, it turns out, is one of the West's greatest exports.”

People all over the world, Christian or not, get the message: in the face of a helpless child we see the face of God, the hope of nations and the wonder of life. Baby Jesus makes you just want to reach out and touch him… and if not him, then someone you love or could love. Christmas increases our gratitude quotient.

That’s worth celebrating. So whether we mark this special occasion with a Christmas cake, go shopping, put Santa in bright lights on our front yard, attend a holiday bash with our co-workers or sit quietly through our favorite

Christmas cantata really doesn’t matter.

In the end, Christmas isn’t about “good taste.” There is no universal when it comes to taste. But let’s all “keep” Christmas well. Keep it attached to the story of the Christ, keep it attached to joy, and keep the spirit of his birth attached to what we do in his name.

Here’s what I did in the spirit of his name last week. On Dec. 13 I was one of 300 at a rally in White Plains sponsored by the Westchester County coalition United Against Hate. We protested recent outbursts of hate symbols appearing on the campus of SUNY Purchase and on a bridge on the Bronx River Parkway. About 300 of us listened and applauded while politicians as diverse as Rob Astorino and Nita Lowey denounced hate speech. This event was a part of the growing national “No Hate Speech in Our Towns” movement whose purpose is to combat the growing number of attacks on minorities in the past few months. I’m glad to say we counted senior citizens, members of the LGBT community, African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, Muslims as well as lots and lots of white people in our numbers. The message is simple: when you attack one, you attack us all.

In no way do I suggest that how I celebrated the birth of Jesus Christ should be your way. But I implore you. Find a way, find your way, to celebrate Jesus. Our new Christmas banner proclaims: “Glory to God.” Let your celebration give glory to God. Don’t be shy. Light up the lights, bring out the songs, and share your gifts with all who need them!

With deepest gratitude for the baby in whom I see the face of God,

Pastor Noel

August 5, 2016

I’ve been noting the growing negative passion erupting in our presidential election race. It seems that about ten years ago some wag determined that every negative aspersion thrown at a candidate had to be immediately refuted, usually with the implication that the opponent is an idiot. I guess this is unlikely to change, although I do think both Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton might do better to turn the other cheek sometimes.                                                                      

What alarms me, however, is the growing anger I sense among us. We have picked our favorite and increasingly see the other candiate as the embodiment of all that’s “wrong with America.“ This kind of thinking isn’t healthy, and... it isn’t Christian.

Neither Mr. Trump nor Mrs. Clinton, neither Republicans nor Democrates, will likely move us much closer to the ideals of Jesus and the biblical portrait of the will of God which we’ve come to call “the Kingdom.“ Moreover, when we angrily come to see the wrong all on one side, we are in danger of projecting our own blindness and, yes, sins, onto others.        

Recently some colleagues asked me to read a pamplet by the great Christian spiritual guide and Franciscan priest, Richard Rohr. It’s called The Eight Core Principles. I highly recommend it. His first principle is “The Teaching of Jesus is Our Central Reference Point.“ Rohr looks at how Jesus confronted things around him that were wrong, even evil:     

"Sin, for Jesus, in not found in any kind of where I can point to it, punish it, and try to change it. That is too easy, and thus is locatlization of evil outside or over there, religion’s constant temptation....Sin, for Jesus, is the very act of accusing itself – whenever you try to expel and accuse evil groups, nations, religions, or people, and somehow leave yourself out of the equation, you end up “sinning.“ It is rather shocking that Jesus is never actually upset at sinners, as we are, but he is only upset at people who do not think they are sinners....Jesus would never deny objective evil, but he knows that any human attempts to conquer it, or control it, can only be done according to the pattern of the crucifixion itself.“

What do we do, then? Rohr notes that what Jesus did was to stand in solidarity with the outcasts, the poor, the marginalized, the so-called "bad people“ in his society. “Jesus stands with the demonized until the demonization stops.“ This, I think, is a pretty good model for us in our Christian outreach. In truth, no matter how much we talk about justice, we don’t “fix things“ (as if we’re not a part of the problem.) But following Jesus, we do try to “stand with" those who are hurting, ministering and listening and sharing with, placing ourselves in solidarity with those at the margins, and so work for healing.  


And this leads me to try to bite my tongue a bit and reserve judgment on the politicians whom “I don’t like.“ Angrily accusing them of all sorts of evil makes me part of the problem, not part of the healing we so desperately need. Jesus taught that without healing of relationships there will be no long-term creation of justice.

Prayerfully yours – Pastor Noel