As God’s sons and daughters

By Rev. Anne Swallow Gillis —

Before I came to serve as your interim minister over a year ago now, I was leading a United Church of Christ congregation in northern Virginia, in the suburbs right outside of Washington, D.C. One of the members there shared an encounter with me that she had with her grandson who was active in our church ministries. Having received her permission to share this story, I will tell you that this grandmother and her grandson were spending the day together one winter snow day while his parents were at work. Somehow they had gotten onto the topic of “currencies.” An unusual conversation with even a precocious 6-year-old.  After some discussion about how different countries have different types of currencies (dollars, yen, strings of shells, euros, pesos and such), the child decided to create some credit cards and debit cards. Which are often our current currency of choice these days, at least the one obvious to our children. After some mutual play with various pretend credit and debit cards, the boy announced it was time to make a “worship card.” “Hmmmm…that’s interesting,” said Grandmother. “Just what does a worship card do?” “Well, you can use it to get things, like you can buy goats to send for Heifer project like we do at church” replied the child confidently, “You can get food for poor people with it.”  Apparently a loaded “worship card” can make good things happen and it is about getting things for other people.

Hearing this story, I was struck by this boy’s insight into how a “worship card” might function. This 6-year-old, through his few years in worship, hearing numerous children’s messages, involvement in Sunday School service projects, wider church food drives and meal packing for those in need, was on to something important about our life together as a church. He knew that any “plastic” has to have something loaded on it, be it a debit card, a credit card, gift card, for it to be worth anything. I suggest that a “loaded” worship card can do more than we know. It provides certain value: spiritual and emotional currency that, for starters, enables us to make life choices based on our values and beliefs. Might we receive something to draw on, some newly imagined way of being in the world, because of our worship life together? And…is this just about our own individual needs?  Is weekly corporate worship simply a spiritual “7-Eleven” where we dip in for a quart of intellectual stimulation and a loaf of “feel-good” inspiration? Are we just privately “tanking up” here?

Each month in our church newsletter, I describe our weekly worship as “the heart of our life together” here at Falcon Heights Church. What do we receive here in worship? What value loads up for us on our “worship card” that we don’t get elsewhere in our lives? It makes good sense to say that, in worship, we learn more about what God cares about—the hurts and needs of the world—so we can go out and do something about being God’s healing partners. But I also think that one of the most important things that get loaded up on our “worship card” is a deeper understanding about ourselves. And it is that transformed understanding of ourselves that eventually starts to make a real difference in our lives.

Our biblical forbearers spent a lot of time asking God to clarify their current situation: “Are you still with us?” they would demand of God during difficult times. “Things are a mess! Who are we to you, chopped liver?” In their worship and in their sacred writings, the community would recount where they had been and what it had meant: wandering Arameans were our father and mother and we were chosen as God’s own; we were slaves in Egypt and we were released and saved by God’s almighty hand; we were given a new land and taught to become a light of justice and compassion to all nations. As followers of Jesus, you and I stand within this tradition of those who would look back and remind themselves of God’s claim on them. In these words we just heard from the Jewish prophet Isaiah, we have been taken by and kept by God, in spite of our failings. We too have been given a covenant to be that Light and to open the eyes of the blind, release the prisoners. As we join in worship week after week, singing, pondering, praying together, our “worship card” gets loaded up with this deep awareness of who and whose we truly are.

Why does this matter? Because the world so often tells us otherwise. Our media tell us we are important if we look a certain way, are a certain age and own certain things. Bosses tell us we matter based on our productivity. Who are we; whose are we? Are we owned by our work, our hobbies, our debts, our past failures or mistakes? We come to worship and we hear a different message. We are reminded that we are created, formed, redeemed, owned by God. According to the prophet Isaiah, writing during the horrendous time of Israel’s capture and exile to Babylon in the 6th century BCE, we are each called by name: “You are mine,” says God. Whose are you, Anne? Who names and claims you? Well, I come from the Swallow clan, hardy New England stock, married into the Gillis clan, lived in a lot of places, sure do like to think that I own myself, have autonomy over myself, if I’m really honest. Empowered and independent, I am! Don’t nobody own me!

But scripture seems to indicate otherwise: “Anne, you are not your own. You are mine,” says God, “you are my beloved daughter.” All of us: We are God’s offspring, God’s children, sons, daughters of the living God. When we baptize our little babies and our adults, when you and I worship together, Sunday after Sunday, we are loading up this identity awareness on our “worship card.”

Early in the first decade of the first century, John the Baptist invited fellow Jews come to the rural outskirts of Jerusalem. He challenged them to reflect and repent, to turn their life around and be baptized as a sign of the forgiveness of their sins, of the new life they were choosing. We have no idea what suddenly drew Jesus to do this public ritual, to emerge from an obscure youth and young adulthood, and align himself with a radical prophet who was already in trouble with the local authorities. Did Jesus bring a sense of his own shortcomings, his own hesitancies, up to that point? “Who am I, whose am I, why does it matter?” might he have asked himself? Could he have possibly have been feeling spiritually dry himself? Was he seeking to quench some deeper thirst in those river waters, to ritually engage his past and his future as he entered into a dramatically public and dangerous path of teaching and healing? Here is someone who so clearly was able to convince other people of their essential worth and lovableness. This Jesus who, with baptism, knew himself to be worthy, loved and intimately connected to God, as he heard the words from heaven: “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.” Perhaps the question for each of us is similar: Do we know ourselves to belong to God, to be beloved sons and daughters? Do we truly experience that God is pleased with us?

The rigors of Christian life, with the constant call to self-honesty, generosity, openness and inclusivity, can be overwhelming. We load up our “worship card” each time we are together, with the stories of Jesus and the taste of God’s grace that we receive in one another’s’ presence. In worship together, we reimagine another possible world of justice and peace. We hear again that God is pleased with us, just the way we are…and that God desires more from us than to stay just the way we are. In baptism we receive the watery mark of God’s grace and we come to the Table to receive the taste and texture of God’s extravagant welcome. Through these sacraments, these holy acts, we boldly remember we are identified individually, named, by the Mysterious Creator of the Universe, and that this reality lays claim on us. We load up our “worship card” as we remember whose we are. And we once again head out into the world, strengthened and empowered by the value on that card. Thanks be to God. Amen.

2016 sermon archive

2016 sermons by the Rev. Anne Swallow Gillis and the Rev. Jacob Kanake

1-10-16 As God’s sons and daughters

2-14-16 The Lord’s Prayer: What’s in a name? 

2-21-16 The Lord’s Prayer: the Kingdom of God’s good pleasure 

2-28-16 The Lord’s Prayer: bread and fish for all 

3-6-16 The Lord’s Prayer: The challenge of forgiveness 

3-13-16 The Lord’s Prayer: Facing evil, making choices 

3-20-16 A provocative entry

3-27-16 Easter message 

4-24-16 Tunes and testimony 

5-22-16 The community of God 

5-29-16 The contour of faith 

6-5-16 New life, new hope

6-26-16 Exploring our expectations of our new pastor

7-3-16 We are the church 

8-7-16 God’s good pleasure 

9-25-16 Seeing the seeds of hope 

10-2-16 Another look at “faith” 

Help provide home-delivered meals

Our Inreach Ministry Team provides home-delivered meals to members of our congregation who are coping with serious illness at home. Several families have needed our help over the holidays, and we would like to grow our list of volunteers. Contact Carolyn Hill of the Inreach Ministry Team if you can provide a meal (651-646-6656 or

Falcon Heights Church Statement of Faith

United Church of Christ Statement of Faith
(from FHCUCC Constitution, Article II –

While granting each member the freedom to interpret God’s Truth as God gives each of them light and wisdom, this church recognizes and accepts as the basis of our common purpose, faith and covenant found in the Statement of Faith adopted at the Second General Synod and revised and affirmed in this form in 1981:

We believe in you, O God, Eternal Spirit,
God of our Savior Jesus Christ and our God, and to your deeds we testify:

You call the worlds into being, create persons in your own image,
and set before each one the ways of life and death. You seek in holy love to save all people from aimlessness and sin. You judge people and nations by your righteous will declared through prophets and apostles.

In Jesus Christ, the man of Nazareth, our crucified and risen Savior,
you have come to us and shared our common lot, conquering sin and death and reconciling the world to yourself.

You bestow upon us your Holy Spirit, creating and renewing the church of Jesus Christ, binding in covenant faithful people of all ages, tongues, and races.

You call us into your church to accept the cost and joy of discipleship,
to be your servants in the service of others, to proclaim the gospel to all the world and resist the powers of evil, to share in Christ’s baptism and eat at his table, to join him in his passion and victory.

You promise to all who trust you forgiveness of sins and fullness of grace,
courage in the struggle for justice and peace, your presence in trial and rejoicing, and eternal life in your realm which has no end.

Blessing and honor, glory and power be unto you. Amen.

“My Kingdom is not from here”

By Rev. Glen Herrington-Hall, guest preacher —

The readings for the final Sunday of this church year, for this Christ the King Sunday (2 Samuel 23:1-7, John 18:33-38a), include one about the end of a beloved king’s life, and one about another who has been called king which leaves us with a profound question unanswered. It is an anticlimactic way to mark what could be an excuse for a big end-of the-year party. No hats and horns, no cake and presents, no royal feast and shiny crown. No, what we have a death and an awkward silence.

But after a couple of weeks like we’ve had, like this broken, hurting, bleeding world has had – bombings in Paris and Beirut; murdered innocents in Kenya and Mali; protests following another death in Minneapolis, a death with unanswered questions and a community grieving again and racial tensions rising – maybe some awkward silence is a good thing. At least, maybe it’s the best we can do.

It’s David who is dying at the end of Second Samuel. He was beloved. He was a hero: mighty in battle, having defeated Goliath the giant as a young man, and rising to power despite his predecessor’s jealous rages and attempts to kill him. He was handsome, a poet as well as a warrior. A man of God as well a flawed husband, father, and friend. This poem is attributed to him, as his last words. He was the anointed of the God of Jacob, the sweet psalmist of Israel, and here he reminds the people that those who would be king after him must be faithful to God for the people to prosper.

David was praised and remembered as a great king, but it was a long struggle for Israel to have kings at all. They had long wanted a king, to be like every nation around them, but God had denied them a king for generations. God knew, God knows, how frail monarchies could be, how terribly human our leaders are, how such power corrupts, how nationalism replaces devotion to the greater good, and how flags and crowns themselves become idols.

But the people of Israel were persistent, and despite the safeguards built in, with the presence of the prophets and the priests advising the king, Israel began a cycle of falling away and returning and falling away and returning to God. Internal division and exile was their fate over centuries. The hopes for a glorious rise, of a king like David, fell time and again, as the kings, and the people, forgot who they were and whose they were, and what ultimately set them apart from all other nations. They forgot that indeed the king was king only by God’s blessing, and that the people were a people in God’s name, in service to the strangers, widows and orphans who lived among them, and not to the glory of the king.

And so it was the time of Roman occupation into which Jesus was born, and the Roman occupation in which he lived, and a people in exile to whom he preached. And it was an agent of the occupation, Pilate, whom Jesus stood before on the eve of his execution, that we read about in John today.

Jesus has entered Jerusalem at the time of the Passover, been welcomed with shouts of Hallelujah, as if he were himself a King, the Anointed One, the Lord himself.

Now we recognize these as religious terms, but these are political titles as well. It was the Caesar who was the Lord, Anointed, the one who who held all power and was the only one worthy of worship. Whatever peace accord the local Jewish leaders had managed to strike with the local Roman authorities was now clearly threatened. Jesus and his followers had been under surveillance for some time, and there had been meetings before, but this was too much. This was more than could be tolerated, more than could be contained. Their greatest fears had been realized. Something had to be

And so when under the cover of darkness, away from the crowds, he was arrested, detained, and brought in for questioning. That’s how he landed before Pilate, Jesus, this pretend King.

Jesus’ teaching, the healings, and other the miracles he perfomed, all pointed to a new reality. For the faithful, they challenged the authority of the scribes and pharisees, those who preserved the tradition, maintaining the peace between the occupied – the Jewish population of Jerusalem – and the occupiers – the Romans.

Jesus’ teaching, the healings and other miracles, went beyond mere religious meddling. Through them, he spoke not only with a new theological voice but offered an alternate political truth. He challenged not only the authority of the temple leaders but of the Roman occupation,and threatened to unsettle the uneasy status quo established between the temple and the palace.

When Jesus stands before Pilate, Pilate wants to know if he is, as he has heard, “King of the Jews.” That is an absurdity, of course. Pilate is mocking Jesus, as well as his accusers. There is no such title; the Jews are no longer a political entity. They have been subsumed by Rome, swallowed up. Jesus’ reply knocks Pilate back to Jesus’ own level: Get real; you only ask that because of what you have been told.

Pilate acknowledges that they are now sparring: Okay, so now you tell me what you have done, who you are, to cause such trouble. Jesus gets to the point: My kingdom is not of this world, he says. It is not like any kingdom you have ever known. It is nothing you can possibly understand. It is not bound by borders, or limited by language, it is not restricted to one land or to one people.

In his retelling of the gospel, Eugene Peterson, in The Message, offers Jesus’ words to Pilate this way: “I was born and entered the world so I could witness to the truth. Everyone who cares for the truth, who has any feeling for the truth, recognizes my voice.”

That is how the realm of Jesus is known, how it is measured, and that is why you can’t find it on a map, and why Pilate can only answer, “What is truth?”

Pilate had to ask that, because he had not seen the truth Jesus had revealed.

He was not there when Jesus washed the disciples feet.

He was not there when Jesus fed the 5000.

He was not there when he saved the woman accused of adultery from being stoned to death by an angry mob.

He was not there when Jesus made the lame walk, gave sight to the blind, and raised Lazarus from the dead.

He was not there when Jesus told his followers to love one another, and that such love would be how others would know that they were followers of the way, the truth, and the life.

And he was not there when Jesus told his followers, over and over again, so they would never forget, that everything he did, he did only because of the one who sent him. “When you see me, you are looking not at me, but at the one who sent me.”

That is the truth Pilate had not seen and did not know. That is who this King of the Jews was who stood before Pilate. And that is the realm of Christ in whom we live today.

This congregation, in this interim time, has a unique opportunity. In this critical moment in your life together, one that doesn’t come around too often, hopefully, you can redefine yourselves. You can take these days to listen to our still speaking God with a future fully open, and ask not with the sarcasm of Pilate, of overly confident or one fearing for his future, but of the grace of community hungry to be faithful, “What is truth?” And hear your Christ say back to you, “I am the way, the truth, the life.” “Love one another as I have loved you.” “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

In the realm of Christ there’s a radical expansion and inclusion. What’s promised in the line of David, the line from which Jesus comes, according to the tradition, isn’t just the restoration of Israel, as the disciples understandably but mistakenly thought, but the redemption of the world. Nothing that God loves will ever be lost. No evil will endure. All that God has created (will be redeemed.) The (realm), proclaimed by Jesus the Son of David, is forever. And it’s for everyone.

The gospel this week records the most dramatic political confrontation in all of Scripture: Pontius Pilate’s interrogation of Jesus… For John the passion narrative in general and the trial before Pilate in particular were political rather than religious crises. Jesus’s trial and Roman execution epitomized a clash between two kings and two kingdoms, and the allegiance that they both solicit from us.

The kingdom of God that Jesus announced and embodied is what life would be like on earth, here and now, if God were (sovereign) and the rulers of this world were not (Borg, Crossan). The political, economic, and social subversions would be almost endless:

peace-making instead of war mongering,
mercy not vengeance,
care for the vulnerable instead of privileges for the powerful,
generosity instead of greed,
humility rather than hubris,
embrace rather than exclusion.

The Lord’s Prayer, then, just might be the most subversive of all political acts: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” People who live and pray this way have a very different agenda than Caesar’s, whether Republican or Democrat, whether capitalist, socialist or communist, whether democratic or theocratic. Why? Because they’ve entered a kingdom, pledged their allegiance to a ruler, and submitted to the realm of Christ the King.

May it be so. Amen.

italicized portion: Daniel B. Clendenin,

What does giving do?

By Rev. Anne Swallow Gillis —

As we approach Veterans Day again this year, I remember that my own father was only a small cog in a big wheel of a huge battle. As I described in my Children’s Message just now, he played a small part in a very big war. Yet for anyone who has worked on a combat mission, sports team or factory division or office work group, you know it takes all the little pieces working together. Families know this, churches know this. It takes everyone contributing his or her small piece.

On this Veterans Day weekend, I imagine some of you are thinking of your own military service, of the men and maybe even women, who served with you. All the small and seemingly insignificant pieces you or they contributed to war and peacetime efforts together. Some of us think about family and friends who are connected intimately to us on this day; we might think of those who currently serve in Afghanistan or the Middle East, or are stationed anywhere around the globe, doing/giving their small parts of a huge effort by our nation to keep the peace, insure justice. They do their part to, yes, enable the continuance of a certain way of life that we Americans have come to expect, with all the freedoms and the privileges that this way of life entails. We might recall that there is not, at present, a draft and compulsory service in this country. A very small percentage of our country actually fights our wars for us now, smaller than any time in our history. Acknowledging of national observances like Veterans Day can get complicated! While my dad’s generation experienced a general, although not full, agreement about “who is our enemy” and the need for our countries fight in both Europe and the Pacific, we really haven’t shared that kind of consensus about going to war as a nation since then. We’ve seen debates about the Vietnam War, Desert Storm, and more recent wars/invasions of both Afghanistan and Iraq divide families and congregations. Many of us want to honor veterans and support current troops, yet few churches have ongoing programs addressing the often nightmarish needs of our most recently returned veterans. How do we acknowledge that Veterans Day is both a happy and sad day, as I described to the children? How might we to respond to the enormous needs of the current group of returning veterans, as we look ahead to Veterans Day on this Wednesday? What are we called to give?

We remember that it was 97 years ago, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month that the armistice with Imperial Germany and the Allied nations went into effect and the killing in Europe stopped. Both my grandfathers, young men in their early 20s, served in the trenches in northern France. When I peppered my surviving Grampy with questions about life in the trenches however, he would only say with a solemn smile: “Well…the trenches of France were where I learned to drink black coffee.” Answering my puzzled look, he continued, “because we couldn’t get cream and sugar in the trenches.” And that was all he would say. I remember pondering over this small detail, really the only child-appropriate detail concerning the hellish conditions of trench warfare, and a whole new world opened up to me. Into my safe, bountiful, post WWII childhood experience of the world came a new awareness about not just wartime, but about less, having little….and learning to appreciate what you had.

Jesus of Nazareth seemed to have a preference for little, insignificant things. In his teaching stories he would talk about little lost sheep, small coins misplaced in a house, tiny mustard seeds. And today in Mark, this story of the widow dropping a minuscule gift, roughly equivalent to two pennies, in the Temple offering box. The New Testament Gospel accounts record that Jesus spent a lot of time with the little, insignificant people of his time, the lowly street people, the reviled sex workers of his day, the resented tax collectors, the repulsive folks with leprosy, and all those scrappy bothersome poor people.

We say in the Christian faith that Jesus is the visible sign of “God’s character and passion” (Marcus Borg, “Heart of Christianity,” p. 81). I would guess that God must be pretty interested in little things and insignificant people too. As I read through today’s story from Mark, I would dare say that God has a real passion for the small: God is concerned about the underdog and the weak in our society, those without title or status or education or property, the people who seem “little” to us.

We learn about God’s attention and concern as Jesus points out the widow in the temple in today’s reading. Jesus has been doing some people-watching on the outskirts of the huge Temple in Jerusalem. He notes this sharp contrast between the pompous giving of the scribes and the generosity of the woman with little money. Scribes were not Jewish priests in the temple; they were actually a rich class of educated landowners found in the urban centers, and at that time were often known for their manipulation of the poor, including powerless widows. Lest we think of ourselves as too different from the scribes, we remember that most of us probably live well or even adequately in part from our own efforts, and also in large part, for many of us, because of the accident of our birth into particular skin color, families and communities. We live well in part because others around the world live poorly. This was the case of the first century scribes. They lived well because of others’ poverty. It is difficult for me to remember, as I marvel at some inexpensive item at my local big box store, that imported cheap goods are mostly made by people in factories who are brutally underpaid. So small daily choices I make even in my shopping connects me with the rest of the world.

Jesus wants us to consider the scribes’ disregard for and even misuse of the poor. He also wants his listeners to notice the widow’s confidence, this woman with just a few coins. She boldly walks up to the Temple offering boxes and gives everything she has. She doesn’t hold back, paralyzed by thinking she is too old, too weak, or poor or insignificant to accomplish anything for God. Small things done with faithfulness, with consistency. This is the work of God’s kingdom, says Jesus.

It is important to remember in this interim time, this period between one settled pastor and your next settled pastor, that God can do much with small things. Maybe you have never pledged before to a church, or haven’t pledged your financial support here in a long time. For starters, it may help to remember that the size of a pledge is not the most important issue here. I believe it is the intention, it is the claiming of a hopefulness, a willingness to engage in the unfolding future of this congregation, even if the pledge is for only a few dollars a week. It’s the consistency in fulfilling that intention that begins to shape us through the year, as we commit ourselves to God’s work in and through this church. Some would say it’s a discipline that, when practiced regularly, helps put a lot of things into perspective for us. Our giving makes us more conscious about how we spend our money in general; we watch and are aware of each piece of spending that we do and each intention and value that this spending reflects. Small daily activities, that add up over time and shape us into who God calls us to be.

Perhaps this Veterans Day weekend, it can be the daily small acts of bravery and compassion performed by our servicemen and women that inspires us. What do we do here on the home front that furthers God’s hope for peace and justice in our world? How might this church reach out to both active-duty servicemen and women and to our local veterans? How might our church contribute to peacekeeping in our community? Perhaps we might explore how this church could provide a forum for civil, respectful and peace-filled conversation about the controversial sidewalk issue emerging in Falcon Heights! There are new small things that we have yet, with God’s guidance, to imagine.

Let us not underestimate what God is doing now, and dreaming of doing in the future, through this church. Size doesn’t seem to be an issue to our creative and transforming God. God is simply looking for partners who will side with the vulnerable, the poor, the returning veteran who is struggling, the disenfranchised in our world. Who will do these little but self-sacrificing things on their behalf, like the woman with the few coins? God is asking us to be co-creators in taking little and creating much. And how blessed we are to be invited into this partnership. Amen.

Treasures and generosity

By Rev. Anne Swallow Gillis —

You may have heard about how the popular personal finance expert Suzy Orman begins each of her conversations with a new client. She asks them to think back over their upbringing and youth, their early adult years, and to describe to her their memories about money. She invites people to tell a money story from these years. I might tell a story about learning the value of a few small coins after I had taken some from my mother’s purse at age 5. And then lied to my dad about it! What story would you tell about money in your childhood? Do you remember seeing it or holding some before you knew what it was? Perhaps there was strained money talk between your parents, grandparents. Was there arguing about how it was spent or earned or saved, or was it never discussed at all? What memories about money might shape how you think and feel about money today? If you were raised during or right after the Great Depression in this country, your experience of money would be very different than someone born in the 1980s.

If you were raised in a faith community, what did you learn about money in Sunday school or from your church leaders? What did you think God thought about money? How did your parents and church leaders talk about money? Was it an encouraging message? Or did the pastor or priest harangue folks about giving, giving, giving?! Did large donors to the church get treated differently than the people who gave less?

We each bring different experiences about money into the life of a congregation. And each generation represented in this congregation brings different ideas and attitudes about money, based on when they were born and which generation they identify with. The World War II generation, and those born during World War II, have quite a different perspective on money. They often have stayed with one company or business, eventually paid off their home mortgage and may seldom carry a credit card debt. There is my generation, the Baby Boomers. We have different ideas about savings and debt and compensation. There is my own kids’ generation, duly named the Millennials and born from the mid-1980s up until about 2000. A generation often mired in school debt, with early access to credit cards, and sometimes unable to find adequate work or to buy a home of their own. Perhaps not raised in the church, this generation may have no history or practical knowledge of what it means to support the work of the congregation financially. And oh, yes, how about those kids born in this 21st century? They are not very old yet, don’t hold jobs or credit cards, but their experience of money is already very different. Watching parents pay with debit and credit cards, or the flash of a smart phone, they may not even know what paper money or coins look like! This is getting complicated. Is it any wonder we get all tangled up when talking about money and dealing with finances in the church?

It’s Foundation Sunday, a long-standing tradition in this particular congregation. Not a bad time to do some reflection on money, stewardship and generosity. It’s a day to welcome the annual gift, which comes from a portion of the interest earned on the balance of the church endowment funds that are held in trust. Funds accumulated over the years from gifts received. Gifts from Falcon Heights Church members and friends who affirmed the founding vision of this church, and were hopeful and trusting about the evolving ministries of this congregation. Gifts given out of a deep desire that the giver’s own positive experiences about God’s power and the blessedness of community could be extended to others, long after he or she had left this earth. Legacy gifts, given to signal what was most important to the givers. Gifts that were a sharing of treasure, which give us an idea of where their hearts were at the time of the giving. This is a good Sunday to think about what we each treasure and how this connects with our spiritual well-being.

“Where your treasure is, there you heart will be also,” said Jesus. I love the fact that Jesus often talked about money, because it reminds me that Jesus was always practical about the life of faith. He knew where to touch people, where they were most needy, bringing comfort to the discomforted. He also knew where to nudge or poke people where they were most stuck, bringing discomfort to the comfortable. People in his time would often store their treasure in the purchase of extravagant and costly garments; women’s headdresses might be woven with coins. Not unlike today, with our homes, cars and clothing, you could tell who was of a certain means. We “store” our treasure in all kinds of places besides banks. Jesus not only called people out on not giving to the poor, a supreme value and mandate in their Jewish religious tradition. He also knew that how we “store” our treasure has a lot to do with our spiritual health. Not whether or not you get into the afterlife, but our spiritual well-being in this life. How attached am I to my possessions, to my stuff?

Perhaps you have heard the story of his interaction with a young rich man. This man approaches Jesus and asks about eternal, abundant life – Jesus, how can I live most fully, most abundantly, both now and in the life to come? Jesus patiently walks him through the basics of their Jewish faith: are you loving God with your whole heart, mind, body and soul? Are you following the Ten Commandments? Are you acting with love toward your neighbor? Yes, yes, says the young man. Well, says Jesus, and you can imagine him eyeing this young man very closely then—had news of this inquirer’s wealth reached Jesus, or perhaps it was obvious in his dress? Well, first, sell all you have and give it to the poor….and you will have treasure in heaven….then come and follow me. But “when the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” (Matthew 19:23).  What was the extreme loss this young man was grieving? He didn’t want to let go of something that he treasured. But something grieved him in the holding on. What did he recognize in that moment, with his hands and his heart full of attachment to his possessions?

The apostle Paul later wrote to the church at Corinth, as he implored them to give generously to help people in need in faraway Jerusalem: “Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” It’s a wonderfully ambiguous phrase in Greek: God loves a cheerful giver. It also can also be translated: a cheerful giver loves God. Jesus knew that the rich young man’s love of God and giving away of his possessions were intimately related.

Give away your possessions and “you will have treasure in heaven,” said Jesus. Is this about accumulating brownie points with God, which add up to a certain amount, the scales are tipped and we have access through the pearly gates when we die? I do not think so. But what? It may help to remember that Jesus was constantly reminding people that not only is there an unseen world all around and within us, but the Kingdom of God, God’s reign here on earth, is somewhat obscure. He knew we have a “default mode” where we tend to think that what we see, feel, taste, touch, measure is the totality of the real world. Like a default setting on our consciousness (see commentary by Matt Skinner, Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary, February 25, 2009, on Working <>).
Jesus was always about confronting and shifting our attention, altering our perceptions.

Jews in his time were not preoccupied with the afterlife, certainly not in the manner that we Christians became myopically focused on heaven and hell beginning with European medieval times. When we hear Jesus talk about “heaven” we need to pay attention. He is referencing the Kingdom of Heaven, the Kingdom of God, God’s reign of peace, justice, mercy and compassion here on earth and within each of us. Generosity with our money, addressing the needs of the poor, is about something much more basic than heavenly brownie points. It enables us to put our “treasure” – what is most important to us – in God’s hands. We make our relationships, our bodies, our families, our possessions, our money, all that we treasure, available for the work of God’s reign among us.

Since you and I live in a money economy, where almost every day we are making some kind of transaction that involves our accumulated money treasure, we have many opportunities to engage this spiritual practice. And it’s a balance, isn’t it? We each have responsibilities and obligations related to our money. Few of us can give it all away. Somehow we must be fed and sheltered, and do that for our dependents. But Jesus would say, where is your treasure? Where is your heart this week? As we reach for the plastic credit or debt card this week, write a check, perhaps look over our investment portfolio, finger some dollar bills, rattle some change in our pockets, and make the exchange to purchase some additional something…where will our treasure be?

Thanks be to God for those who have gone before us in this congregation and who have generously shared of their treasure through the Foundation Trust fund. As the Apostle Paul declared: “…the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints (the church), but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God.” Amen.

Living waters

By Rev. Anne Swallow Gillis —

Once upon a time there were two young fish swimming along together in the ocean. They passed an older fish who called out to them, “How’s the water, boys?” The two young fish kept swimming and looked at each other. “Huh?” said one of them. And the other one replied, “What the heck is WATER?”

Water is all around us every day, it’s all inside of us…it’s easy to become unaware of water. To take it for granted. That’s one reason we celebrate water from so many different places today, gathered together in this big baptismal bowl.

But back when we were little tiny babies inside our mothers, our first sensations were of the floating in the water of her womb. We heard the watery whoosh of her heartbeat. The gurgle of her tummy after she ate her dinner. As we grow, our body continues to be mostly water. Even our brain is 80% water and rests in a watery cushion that protects it from getting jostled around too much inside our skull. Our planet Earth is covered with a lot of water, so much so we should probably call it Planet Water instead of Planet Earth! Astronauts have looked back at Earth from space and told us it looks like a blue marble hanging in the sky. And scientists tell us that a long time ago, our ancestors actually lived and breathed in the water….Only recently, 375 million years ago, did they evolve and grow arms and legs and were able to crawl up on dry land.

When Jesus walked around on Earth, about 2,000 years ago, he showed up in a place that didn’t have a lot of water. It is different than Minnesota; in the Middle East they don’t have 10,000 lakes like we do, and rivers and streams that flow big and wide through every season. The land where Jesus lived is dry and deserty. During his time, water was mostly found in springs that came up out of the ground, wells that people would dig—the water was mostly underground. People would save it in cisterns and big stone jars. But the tastiest, freshest water was water that was moving, flowing, which they all called “living water.” Did you notice in the Bible passage that Jesus talks about “living water?” “Out of the believer’s heart will flow streams of living water.” That sounds kind of strange. What can this mean?

Jesus said this about himself in the middle of a big festival at the Temple in Jerusalem. It was a celebration of the fall harvest of fruits and vegetables, and people came from all around to go to the Temple and thank God. They would remember how God provided for them, both food and water, when they fled slavery in Egypt and wandered for years in the desert before finally arriving at their new home in Israel. Musicians, people singing, processions with flaming torches. Very exciting. The Temple priests, their ministers, would go to a special pool of water in the city and fill big gold pitchers with fresh water. They would bring these back into the Temple and pour them into huge silver bowls, saying prayers thanking God for the water that brought the harvest, and asking that God’s spirit would pour down on them. In the middle of all this worship hoopla and commotion, Jesus cries out: “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink!” Huh? What did he say? Isn’t that the preacher guy from Nazareth?” Jesus continued, “And out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water!” The work translated “heart” actually refers to a person’s belly, their gut. “Out of my follower’s gut, the seat of emotions in our Jewish culture,” Jesus is saying, “will flow rivers of living water!” What on earth could this mean?

I’ve been reading a neat book recently written by a marine biologist named Wallace Nicols, and it is all about water. He is famous for helping revive sea turtle populations down in western Mexico. But more recently he has been talking to brain scientists about how being around water affects how our brain works and how we feel. He calls his book “Blue Mind.” The author says that often we run around with our brain all fired up with stress. All these chemicals called hormones get released in us and we are ready to fight or run away. Just like our ancestors long ago when faced with a mountain lion! The author calls this our Red Mind. When our brain acts that way it can help us get out of immediate danger. But let’s face it, most of the time we’re not stressed about a mountain line. We’re stressed about traffic or a church argument or our jobs or difficult homework or our pesky little brother. The problem with being in Red Brain Mode is that it can get pretty exhausting and we often don’t make good decisions about what to do next.

The author says we need a lot of time in Blue Brain mode, and water is just the thing to help us. Jesus spoke of himself as “living water” – what is the connection here? It seems that part of how our brains have developed over the years to solve big problems and be really creative has been because of our contact with water. And that water may be the most important thing in nature that helps us stay connected to the natural world. Water has long been a symbol in many world religions for a source of blessing, for the presence of the divine. Jesus seemed to understand this intuitively, and he uses this festival ritual of pouring water on the altar as an opportunity to talk about God’s presence pouring into us…and pouring out to others.

Water can sometimes be scary—crashing wave knocks you over, pool water goes up your nose. The waters of a flood or storm can be dangerous. But brain scientists are reminding us that we need a number of things from water besides drinking it: Why is the ocean so beautiful to look at on a sunny day? We need to see the color blue of water because they have found looking at blue soothes us and inspires confidence. Why do I sleep better if I hear a river rushing over rocks or the sounds of waves crashing on the shore? We need to hear water as it moves rhythmically, because this moves our brain into a relaxed state. Watching fish swim in an aquarium or fish bowl, watching sunlight dance on top of the water or along the bottom of a pool….Brain scientists say all of these experiences rest us, calm us, bring us an increase in our happiness and sense of well-being. I don’t know about you, but I make much better decisions when I feel rested and calm. If I’m paying attention, I also feel more open to God, not as tight and well defended as I struggle on my own to fix my life and those around me!

Jesus said that “out of the believer’s heart will flow streams of living water.”  He said out of your heart, your gut, the center of your being, will flow positive emotions and sustained attention. Maybe he meant if we lean into our partnership with him and his teachings, amazing things will flow into us and out of us. Love, respect, peacefulness. All the things our world needs more of.

Being near water, touching water, being in water is something most of do every day. How might we be more intentional about these connections? Indians from the Yakima Nation in Washington State live along the Columbia River, and have long known the power of water in their lives. When they wake up they take a sip of water. When they go to sleep at night that is that last thing they do: take another sip of water and say of prayer of thanks for this gift.

I have started to do this simple practice, morning and night. I take a sip of water and thank God for water. I imagine God pouring the spirit of the living Jesus Christ into my own heart center, and I imagine that living water flowing out in love and compassion to others. A small sip here. A small sip there. Maybe you would like to try that as a daily practice with spiritual intent. What other simple water rituals might become part of something you do each day and affirm the presence of this “living water” of God’s spirit in your life? Are there paintings or photographs on your walls at home of water, the ocean, lakes or rivers? Bless yourself with water as you wash in the morning or before bed. Turn on the tap and feel the rush over your hands. Imagine God’s loving spirit pouring living waters into your heart, you pouring living waters of hope and love out to others.

Out of our hearts, out of our very centers, shall flow rivers of living water! May it be so. Amen.

Considering scripture’s promises

By Rev. Anne Swallow Gillis —

We had a major collision on our streets yesterday, right here in our own Falcon Heights backyard. As hundreds of people marched toward the Minnesota State Fair Grounds under the banner of Black Lives Matter, no vehicles were reported damaged and no one was physically harmed. But it was a collision nevertheless: a collision of expectations about a Saturday at the State Fair. Was it to be a day for accessible and happy visits to the beloved State Fair? Or was it an opportunity to call attention to painful realities that plague black communities, to raise awareness of race issues ranging from policing to alleged disparity at the Fair regarding minority vendors or patrons? Could it be a day for both? I would suggest that it was also a clash of experiences and histories about race, and of perspectives and opinions on where we are as a community when it comes to racial justice. As I read the Facebook postings about this event, both Friday night and through the day on Saturday, I wondered: How might all these expectations coexist in some inconvenient and discomforting way that might develop greater empathy, deeper conviction about fighting racial injustice? The Bible tells us God’s priority is with the poor and the oppressed; God’s plan for humankind is justice and peace. Were these priorities at odds yesterday? Where was God in all this, I have found myself asking.

I have come to realize that, all too often, I just don’t want my personal peace disturbed. I find I don’t want someone else to inconvenience my day with the facts about the tough realities that are happening outside of my immediate perceptions. Please don’t inconvenience me with your request for spare change, or with one of those cardboard signs asking for help! And for goodness sake, don’t stop traffic with another one of those 4.5 minute die-ins where everyone lies in the road in memory of the 4.5 hours that Michael Brown lay dead on the street in Ferguson! A part of me is reluctant to face that there have been more deaths since then of people of color in police custody or that systemic racism just isn’t going away. It is difficult it is to hear about all kinds of things these days, isn’t it? My imagination gets overloaded, exhausted; I get compassion fatigue. It’s difficult to hear about yet another Syrian refugee being interviewed on Minnesota Public Radio. Because it hurts to listen, I’m not sure how to respond, and I feel powerless and frustrated. And sometimes I begin to feel hopeless that God’s promises of a whole new world of justice and peace might be even possible. Was yesterday’s march on the Fairgrounds disorienting and irritating for some of us because it was yet another reminder of promises broken among us? Promises of peace, justice, equality and freedom for all?

In so many ways, we Christians are people of the “not yet.” Over and over we are challenged to lift up dreams and visions of God’s promises being fulfilled, in a world where they are not…yet. This is not easy when there is such rancor and divisiveness over how to fix what is wrong and hurtful in our communities. The vitriol and the death threats sent to the Facebook page of Black Lives Matter Twin Cities these last few days has been chilling. We claim we are people of the promises of God. Are we naïve or prescient when we speak of God’s promised actions? Are we stuck in wishful thinking or prophetic about a possible new world order?

Through the Sundays of August, our congregation has been exploring and testifying to ways God has touched our lives. We have used the different parts of the United Church of Christ Statement of Faith, which is addressed to God and celebrates God’s deeds among us. It was written not as a creed to test faith, but as a testimony to our denomination’s founders’ experience of God. We have added these hangings each Sunday, lifting up the words in our midst. The Statement is included in the Falcon Heights Church Constitution as the basis of the “common purpose, faith and covenant” of this church. Today, we have reached the last portion, which is about the promises God has made to all who trust God. Promises described over and over in our holy scripture.

But who says these things are promised to us, we might ask. Written in the Bible? Well, excuse me….but so what? For many people the phrase “the Bible says so” just doesn’t carry the weight it once did. A passage like this one from the Book of Jeremiah, where the Hebrew prophet extols the wonder and beauty of God’s law, God’s holy word, sounds strange to us. The writer talks of finding God’s words and eating them! They become a joy to him and the delight of his heart. The Rev. Dr. Roger Shinn, who taught Christian social ethics at Union Theological Seminary, was part of the crafting of this Statement of Faith in the late 1950s. He wrote that it’s natural for us to “wonder how men and women of the Bible knew and verified God’s promises.” We want to be able to “trust but verify” a promise, as former President Reagan used to say to his negotiating partners in the Soviet Union. You and I have a post-Enlightenment, scientific perspective on things, and we want quantifiable, verifiable truth! But Roger Shinn challenges us: “Surely they (people in Biblical times) reflected upon their experience as intensely as we do on ours. But when they talked of God’s promises, they were less inhibited in their imagination than we….they took their visions and dreams more seriously than we.” (From the Rev. Michael W. Lowry,

Let’s read today’s portion of the Statement of Faith together, which is addressed to God, as printed on the front of our service bulletin. I invite you to try the words on as you read them, even if this isn’t your inclination or your faith tradition. See how they sound in your head as you speak the words; listen to the words flow around you as others speak. Let’s read together:

You promise to all who trust you
forgiveness of sins and fullness of grace,
courage in the struggle for justice and peace,
your presence in trial and rejoicing,
and eternal life in your realm which has no end.
Blessing and honor, glory and power be unto you. Amen.

As we consider this portion, what’s your own understanding about trusting God? Does it mean you have to try really hard to literally believe each and every Bible story and teaching? But in this portion, the words are not, “You promise to all who believe in you.” It says trust. I find this helpful. Some days I’m not quite sure what I actually believe about Jesus’ resurrection, what happened, how or if. But I can tell you, I have come to trust the reality of resurrection in my life, in the life of others, in communities. I’m learning to trust in this idea of new life coming out of death; I lean into it. For me, it’s an act of leaning into the possibility of resurrection, of transformation, and not thinking a thought or forcing a belief about something that defies modern-day physics.

What’s your dream about forgiveness? Can you trust it as a process? What’s your hope about being loved and accepted in spite of your mistakes and the ways you have hurt people or stepped away from responsibility?  What’s your vision of God’s fullness of grace being extended to you… openly, steadily, quietly, powerfully?

Do you imagine, do you dream, of having more courage? What would that look like in your life? Do you yearn to better understand black experience in this country but feel confused and hopeless about where to start? As a white person grappling with my part in the struggle for racial justice and peace, I have to be accountable for my part in systemic racism. Since I heard that she spoke at the Annual Meeting of our Minnesota Conference of the UCC in June, I have wanted to read Jennifer Harvey’s book Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Racial Reconciliation. She is a young white American Baptist minister and professor of religion at Drake University in Iowa. I have a vision of reading that book with some of you, to continue the conversation on race that some of you started with me last winter. Do you share this vision? Shall we explore her work together?

Sometimes I really have to stretch my imagination to sense this biblical promise of God’s presence in trial and rejoicing that the Statement claims. I literally have to picture it in my mind’s eye, sense it in my body, speak it in my head. Biblical people were way better at this than most of us. As I soak in scripture I learn how to sense God’s presence better. “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work,” we just read from the second letter to Timothy, 3:16. Myself, I long to be taught; I know I need some loving reproof. I hope to be more proficient and equipped to do good work on God’s behalf. I yearn to embrace eternal life in this moment, to live abundant life with each breath I take, and when breath leaves me in the mystery of death. I imagine you do, too.

I invite you to join me in stretching our imaginations this fall. Let’s dream some dreams and share our visions about the promises of God being fulfilled in our midst. Let’s read and talk together about our hopes for a more racially just society. Let’s imagine what our roles as followers of Jesus might be in making these promises come true.

Blessing and honor, glory and power be unto you, O God. Amen.

Our call as church

By Rev. Anne Swallow Gillis —

A big part of an interim period between settled pastors is reimagining “What are we doing here?” What’s the “why” behind being here at church in worship on a Sunday morning, when you could be communing with God in nature, mowing the lawn, reading the paper, sleeping in, getting a jump on your work week, or having a family brunch together? Today’s portion of the United Church of Christ Statement of Faith pulls us into the thick of this question, in this era when the institution of the church is rapidly changing. You might notice that the two scripture passages that were just read do not even mention the word “church.” This is not a word you hear coming out of Jesus’ mouth, as he stays focused on calling people to discipleship, a radical way of being in the world. “Spread the message and cast out demons….get on with it,” he tells his inner circle of followers. Spread the message about what? Cast out what?

The piece from the early missionary Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth doesn’t talk about “church” in this instance either. Instead, Paul rattles on about how they no longer regard other people from a “human point of view,” but now as being new creatures in Christ. They are to be part of a “ministry of reconciliation.”  Messaging, casting out evil, reconciling. But wait, what about the August food drive and the stewardship campaign and fall clean-up day and youth group mission projects and choir rehearsal and the September newsletter?  What is church to be about in the 21st century?

One of you handed me a local newspaper clipping during after-worship coffee hour last Sunday that has me wondering about the purpose of church. I looked down and read the by-line: “Want sustained happiness? Try religion” – a copy of a recent Washington Post article by Sarah Pulliam Bailey. When I first started hearing “happiness studies” and “positive psychology” research a decade or more ago, I felt a bit irritated. As a Christian, is it my life goal to be happy? Jesus spoke about coming so that people could have “abundant life.” I don’t think God particularly likes it when I am suffering, but is happiness God’s goal for me? Was it Jesus’ goal to be happy himself or make other people happy? While I have appreciated how much of this happiness research has identified particularly actions we can take in our lives to be more joy-filled, instead of just passively waiting for circumstances to make us happy, something always irked me a bit about the whole venture.

Since we are looking at the part of the UCC Statement of Faith that talks about the church this week, this particular newspaper clip about church involvement re-engaged me in this whole happiness debate. How does this idea of “going to church to be more happy” resonate with what our Statement of Faith actually says about being “called into the church?” The article described recent research by the London School of Economics and the Erasmus University Medical Center in the Netherlands. Researchers considered four areas of social participation that can lead to “sustained happiness.” Volunteering with a charity; taking educational classes; participating in a religious organization; participating in a political or community organization. Conclusion? “The secret to sustained happiness lies in participation in religion.” It didn’t specify which religion, or what “participation” might look like. Important to note also that this was a study of 9,000 Europeans over the age of 50. How might the results be different for the 20-40-somethings among us? For teenagers? Also interesting was the researchers’ finding that “benefits could be outweighed by other negative impacts of volunteering, such as stress.” Don’t we know it!  Sadly enough, participating and volunteering in the life of a church can be stressful, it can be hurtful, it can challenge rather than support your sense of connection with God. You have experienced this in this congregation, and we continue to be faced with unresolved hurts, resentments, frustrations, and lack of accountability… not just in recent events but going back decades. This is not unusual in congregations, but we are finding it is problematic to this church moving forward into the future God plans for you.

One final piece from this European research. The newspaper article concludes: “Researchers noted that it is unclear whether the benefits of participating in a religious organization are connected to being in the religious community, or to the faith itself.” These two aspects of being the church are closely intertwined: being part of a congregation and experiencing/believing/trusting the faith. But the researchers are on to something, and that distinction between the two might help us as we consider this fourth portion of the UCC Statement of Faith today about the church.

Let’s read this portion about the church together, as it is printed on the front page of your service bulletin. As I have for the last several Sundays, I urge you again to join in even if you are uncertain as to whether or not you actually agree with every piece of this. Hear yourself voice it; listen to the voices around you; try it on:

You call us into your church
to accept the cost and joy of discipleship,
to be your servants in the service of others,
to proclaim the gospel to all the world
and resist the powers of evil,
to share in Christ’s baptism and eat at his table,
to join him in his passion and victory.

Like the rest of the Statement, each section testifies to the deeds of God: from calling the world into being, to Jesus Christ sharing our common lot and conquering sin and death, to bestowing the Holy Spirit upon us. In this section, God is described as calling us. Calling us into something, the church, in order to… in order for us to do some things. This is the section where we become deed-doers. Where we become partners with this God, Eternal Spirit.

Anthony Robinson, the UCC minister and author who works with congregations in times of transition, has written about a shift in our deed-doing in church. In “What Has Theology Got to Do with It,” he describes how “the central challenge facing many congregations today is to shift their dominant paradigm from being cultures of membership to cultures of discipleship.” Churches have come to reflect a wider culture that encourages us to be consumers of goods and services. Church decisions are driven by individual preferences, and for some people, if they don’t like what’s going on, they withhold giving or simply disappear. Robinson states that the point of church is not membership, but discipleship. “The church exists to form and sustain individuals and a people who are followers of Jesus Christ…the church does more than meets customers’ needs…the church redefines our true needs…the church transforms people according to the life and pattern revealed by God in Jesus Christ and unites them with others who are committed to this way of life.” (p. 162-163) Perhaps church is supposed to be a place where we makes mistakes, hurt one another, and are uniquely encouraged and supported in the forgiveness and reconciliation process. Could church be a safe place where we could learn to do this? Not silencing the hurts and frustrations and making nice to one another, but bravely and compassionately engaging in a ministry of reconciliation? Could this lead to true happiness?

My hunch is that the happiness, not just a fleeting feeling but a sense of contentment and fulfillment, is not just about membership in a like-minded, polite religious group. Our statement speaks of discipleship entailing both the “cost and joy” as we do things that will change us. Serving others, not just helping people because they need it, but because we need to do it; we are transformed in the serving. Speaking truth to power, daring to name and resist the powers of evil in our day that invariably will seem “political” because it has to do with life in the polis, in community. Our choices and actions in the world affect the whole of our being together as the wider community; it’s all political! And this discipleship changes us to speak up and work for justice. Coming together to share at the baptismal font and around Christ’s table. Reconciling with one another so we can do that coming together with integrity and hope. Because it transforms us into more whole and joy-filled people.

I find this to be the most challenging section of the Statement of Faith. It pushes me, holds be accountable. It has the potential to stir deep happiness and satisfaction within us. What does it stir in you? Let’s begin talking together about why God calls us into the church. Join me after worship in the sofa area of the Gathering Room, and let’s keep talking into the fall. What do you each believe about what it means to be “church”? Amen.