Friends are Sacred, To Befriend is Divine

Rev. Craig Jan-McMahon
Windsor UCC, 2/14/2021
Transfiguration Sunday
2 Kings 2:1-12 • Psalm 50:1-6 • Mark 9:2-9
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What songs come to mind when I say the following word:  Friend.

Is it: “What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear….?”

If not a hymn, then maybe Simon and Garfunkel.

“When you’re down and out /When you’re on the street/ When evening falls so hard/ I will comfort you/ I’ll take your part/ Oh, when darkness comes/ And pain is all around/ Like a bridge over troubled water/ I will lay me down/ Like a bridge over troubled water/ I will lay me down.”

No?  Maybe the theme song from Friends.

“So no one told you life was gonna be this way/ Your job’s a joke, you’re broke/ our love life’s DOA/ It’s like you’re always stuck in second gear/ When it hasn’t been your day, your week, your month/ Or even your year, but/ I’ll be there for you/ (When the rain starts to pour)/ I’ll be there for you/ (Like I’ve been there before)/ I’ll be there for you/ (‘Cause you’re there for me too).”

It is no surprise that we sing that Jesus is our friend, for friends are sacred to us us–they are like bridges for us, they are there for us and we are there for them.  

Truth is, we can’t get through life without good friends, and hard times deepen the bonds of friendships and clarify the difference between true friends and mere acquaintances.  

We should not be surprised that like us, Jesus needs friends too, nor that God provides friends for him as God provides friends for us. 

And we would do well to look at Jesus’ ministry through the lens of friendship, for friends are sacred, and to befriend is divine.  

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts, be pleasing in your sight, O Lord our Rock, and our Redeemer.  Amen

True friends, more than anything else, are our equals. 

We share our lives with our friends, honest as we can be about our private struggles: celebrating together, making time and plans together, mostly agreeing about what is wrong with the world and with other people, learning how to avoid topics that will put too much strain on our friendship.  

I had a friend who used to say, “The problem with the world is that my perspective is unequally distributed in it.” 

Our friends tend to agree with our solutions to the world’s problems, which is a balm for when we feel bruised and lonely.  

Now more than ever, we are defined by our friends, by the people who are in our safety bubbles–friends are sacred because they make us feel safe and help us to see we are not alone in this wide world.  

Our experience in these hard times might help us to see that Jesus is in need of friends too, equals to him, to help him bridge from his ministry before the mountain top to his ministry after it, from establishing his authority and gathering a following to leading them down the mountain to contend with religious authorities and state power – all for the divine purpose of befriending the friendless.  

With the light of truth shining on the mountain top, Jesus is joined by Moses, the great liberator, and Elijah, the great prophet who escapes death.

They mark a turning point in his ministry as he descends the mountaintop and begins his journey to the next mountain he will climb, carrying a cross to liberate and to set us free once and for all, God resurrecting him after death.

The shining brilliant moment on the mountaintop is a moment of clear vision, when the clouds are lifted and the sun shines and we can see the way forward clearly–it is, more than anything, a moment of clear vision.

We see clearly who Jesus is when he is transfigured on the mountaintop, and we also see clearly that to follow Jesus means descending the mountain into the valley below.

He does not stay on the mountaintop, thank the good Lord, because if he did he we would not sing hymns of friendship, for friends do not hold themselves above us, look down from the mountain and tell us how to live our lives, but rather walk into the valleys with us, serving as bridges through hard times, there for us as we are there for them.  

The light shining from the mountain adds a deep challenge to the sacredness of our friendships, for friends can also hold us back and limit us from faithfully following Christ into the world, for as followers of Christ, our highest calling is to befriend the friendless.

There are times, as on the mountaintop, when this requires us to leave some of our friends behind.  

Moses and Elijah appear, and then vanish, as Jesus descends the mountain.  

Peter and James and John are not yet equals, but they follow after him confused and terrified and gain clarity later, when their eyes are opened, when the Spirit fills them with the power of the light revealed to them that day on the mountaintop.

The highpoint of my week is Thursday evening through Saturday morning, when my two little grandsons stay with us.

By Friday night, my wife and I are pretty well exhausted, so we have moved our normal tradition of having popcorn and ice cream for dinner on Sunday night to Friday night, much to the delight of our little fellas.

One of my jobs is to choose some music for us to listen to while we munch on popcorn. For the past few weeks I have been playing Neil Young for them because he sings as badly as I do, and the boys love my caterwauling:

One of these days/ I’m gonna sit down and write a long letter/ To all the good friends I’ve known/ One of these days, one of these days, one of these days/ And it won’t be long (it won’t be long), it won’t be long (it won’t be long)

This is a moment of clarity for me;  I think of my own grandparents who loved me so well, and though they are gone, I think I am writing them a long letter in how I love our boys.

But the song plays in mind, too, when I come into church to work, and think of all the good people who nurtured me in faith, who loved me enough to tell me when my anxieties were getting the better of me, who taught me to love Jesus and helped me find my way to pastoral ministry.

I wish I could write them a long letter, these good friends.

I hope I am writing a long letter to them in how I live my life and how I serve as your pastor.

And in this empty building on this bitterly cold Sunday, I know sacred friendships are holding us together.

Long lovely letters have been written in the lives of our congregation, in friendships over time that sustain us now and will serve as a bridge as we return to celebrate together, to mourn together, to be there for one another… for this is the sacred gift of friendship.

In all of this, one truth is a brilliant light of shining truth that gives us strength and unites us together.   

We are all called to the divine work of befriending the friendless; we follow Christ down the mountain, into the valley below, trusting always that God will provide friends for us when we walk by faith.  

God bless you and your sacred friends;
God bless you in you in your divine befriending;
And may God Bless Windsor UCC.

O Lord our God: We have followed you up to the mountain, and we have prepared ourselves to follow the way of  your son, but what are we to do and how are we to be?  

People look at us and expect us to be miracle workers, they expect us to pretend we ourselves do not struggle and are not ourselves confused, even as we confess our faith in you.  We long to accept we belong to you, we yearn to believe that you have given us enough to meet the demands of this present moment. 

Let us Pray.

With your disciples throughout time, we travel down the mountain into the valley unsure whether we are equal to the sacrifices you call us to make. With your disciples throughout time, we can look back and see how you have been faithful to us.  

You have given us your word and your law to bring order to our lives and to make of us a community, a people, called and chosen, set free to live and to serve.  

You have given us prophets to challenge us and to remind us that we are to bring good news to the downhearted and set the oppressed free. 

But what is your law for us today?  And what is your challenge for us in our time?

Hear us O God, and answer our prayers.  We pray for you word to inspire us, that we might be ruled by the freedom to which you call us, that we might be formed as a community that befriends strangers and aliens, a people faithful in our compassionate sharing and our willingness to be ruled by your grace.  

We pray for openness to challenge, for your light to shine in the shadows of fears threaten to posses us. 

Protect us from those who claim to be our friends but who hold themselves above us on their high mountains and deliver us from the sin of pretending that we are perfect and do not need to change, and give us courage to reflect your love for the friendless people in our world today who ignored, belittled, dismissed, hated, reviled, shamed, and imprisoned.  

As your Son is transfigured on the mountain, transfigure us also, that we may follow him into the valley without fear, that we might willingly sacrifice on the journey of salvation.

And We pray for those we love and those with whom we struggle, trusting that you hear prayers we do not have words to utter.

We remember today especially Monica Hernadez Sigfried, with prayers for her parents Scott and Charna Kelsey and their family; and we pray for members recovering from surgery.

Hold us with tenderness; grant us strength to endure and faith to thrive; give us courage, resilience, and decisiveness; and fill us with your Spirit no matter where we might travel; and reveal your vision to us, that we might see ourselves and others as your own beloved children, in Christ, united as one human family.

Into your hands we commend all those for whom we pray, trusting in your mercy, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Dreams and Visions

Rev. Craig Jan-McMahon
Windsor UCC, 1/31/202
B Epiphany +4
Annual Meeting; Reopening Survey Underway
Joel 2: 2, 6-9, 15-16, 19, 25-29; After all of this…
Acts 2:1-18: In the last days it will be..
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The prophet Joel speaks of an invading army and plagues assaulting the people of God, sounding very much like the political and social unrest of our day and the plague of this evolving coronavirus.  The prophet’s answer to the prevailing darkness is for all the people to repent and turn toward God, which they do, and God’s answer to them is timeless and changeless: mercy and compassion and inspiration: 

your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men and women shall see visions, and your old men and women shall dream dreams.

 The prophecy and visions and dreams of the people are God’s response to hardship.

On the day of Pentecost, huddled in fear, thinking the powers that crucified their Lord would unleash violence upon them, the disciples gather to pray, and the Holy Spirit rushes in, burning away their fears, uniting them in all of their striking differences, enabling them to understand one another though they come from different places and speak different languages, and in response to the scoffers who say they are merely drunk, Peter rises up to preach, quoting the prophet Joel: 

your children shall prophesy, your young men and women shall see visions, and your old men and women shall dream dreams.

Friends: it is time for prophetic visions and dreams.  

Let us Pray: May the words of my mouth, and the meditation of our hearts, be pleasing to you O God, our Rock, and our Redeemer.   Amen

In the past few weeks, I have endeavored to talk with you about our common calling, encouraging us to hear God calling us through these challenging times, calling us to open our hearts to the light that comes to us in the darkness, in dark times. 

This week, with our annual meeting scheduled to begin in a few minutes, I have been reflecting on the few months we have had together, though we have spent all of this time apart, plagued by the coronavirus.   

I break with my discipline of following the readings assigned to us by the lectionary to share with you my sense of how God is calling us individually and as a church.

We have two questions to answer with our lives and together as a church:

Who are we?

Where are we going together?

As I have repeatedly said, I cannot answer these questions for you individually nor for us as a church together, and yet we answer these two questions every day of our lives, either intentionally and purposefully, or unintentionally, dragged through time by fears or busyness or politics or obligations we are afraid to break.  

When we suffer hardships or invasions or plagues, says the Prophet, we are called to turn toward God, who is ready and waiting to lead and to guide us, to restore us with new visions of who we are in Christ, and to inspire dreams of our mission in the world.

As individuals, we experience the intentional answering of these questions as a sense of purpose and meaning, empowering us to move away from relationships and habits of despair that destroy the life within us, and toward the life God intends for us. 

As a congregation, we experience the intentional answering of these questions as an ability to make decisions, to thrive in our diversity, to learn and grow through hard times such as the one we are living in, and also through times when the demanding need for change press us to the breaking point.

Again and again I say: faith does not solve our problems, nor make everything easily work for us; faith is neither simple nor straightforward but is a lifelong relationship with God and neighbor, filled with mountains and valleys, hard times when nothing makes sense, and good times when we can see how everything works together for the greater good. 

Somehow, despite all the opposition prophets face and conflict they heighten, and despite the manifold failings of the disciples, still we see difficulties and struggles as a problem to be managed or solved rather than the challenges through which we meet God, in which we learn about ourselves, and because of which we form new, life giving relationships with our neighbors and also with those we have come to see as enemies.  

This is rather a lot to take in, so let me tell you a story.

Wednesday was a glorious snow day.

I got up early and got to work, so I would have time to snowshoe in fresh snow across lake Monona.

By the time I broke free, it was snowing a little; the wind was from the North by Northwest at about 10 mph. It is always windier on the lake. 

I set out to walk across the lake heading to South by Southeast, the wind at my back. 

I try to walk a straight line across the lake, a mile and half to a park on Winnequah Road. 

In the middle of the lake, the wind was howling. I began to notice open patches without snow, and I was afraid despite knowing better; it looked like open water to me.

I had seen someone riding a fat bike right down the middle of the lake a few days earlier.  I had seen ice fishers out there. In fact, there was a guy parasailing on a snowboard out there while I walked, and yet those patches of ice right out in the middle looked like open water to me. 

I imagined headlines: Local pastor falls through the ice, dies walking into open water….must have thought he could walk on water.  

I kept walking in a straight line as possible forcing myself not to avoid the open patches of ice and soon learned the howling wind had spirited away the snow: the open patches were  ice with the snow blown away.  

When my brain got over my fears, I began to see contours in the snow, high, drifting moguls and slick ice valleys. I began walking the easiest path I could find, slaloming my way on an easy path with the wind at my back, enjoying every minute of it.   

It was such a delight I started laughing right out loud.  

It was an Epiphany: that moment of sudden vision, when we see clearly what has been hidden by fears and habits or traditions or relationships that blind us, that moment of joyful freedom when what we now see is so apparent and obvious and easy.  

When I reached the park on Winnequah, my half-way point, I put down the ear flaps on my hat, put on my hood, zipped my coat up to my chin, and then turned North by Northwest into the teeth of the wind.

It had begun to snow in good earnest, and the wind whipped the snow on the lake into   white cloud slurry. I could not see the other side, and had to walk into the cloud slurry, led by my inner sense of direction.

I knew what direction I needed to go, but I could see only a few steps in front of me. 

My glasses fogged over; I couldn’t see a thing.

If there was an easy path, I couldn’t find it. I stumbled through high drifting snow and across treacherous patches of ice.   

The farther I got away from the shore and thus the closer to where I was going, the more unsure I became of my sense of direction.  

Fear got to me again.  

I began to worry about how close I was getting to where the Yahara river comes into the lake; I regretted not bringing my binoculars, thinking I could look out and find a landmark, though I could see only a few feet in front of me with or without binoculars.  

Finally, I remembered the wind was North by Northwest.  I got my bearings by walking against the wind, making sure I kept it pushing against me in the same place so I knew I was heading in the right direction. 

And then I had a second Epiphany.

It is easy to walk with the wind at my back and follow the path the wind makes across the snow, and it is easy to answer God’s call when things fall together and the way forward is clear and the footing is secure and the path is obvious.

But we also follow the wind by walking against it, the Spirit leading us forward into challenge and difficulty, and though following a headwind is hard work indeed, we sometimes are led by the Spirit to faithfully walk against the prevailing winds, finding our bearings, our sense of direction, by keeping steady against the wind.  

The easy way forward is not always the faithful way forward, nor is the absence of difficulty or challenge proof that we are heading in the right direction. 

I believe in the coming months, we will emerge from this plague; our old and our young will return to this sanctuary of God.  We will all do our very best to ensure all of our people are safe, knowing we will return by different paths and on different timelines, some of us with the wind at our backs, others with wind in our faces, but  all of us following the Spirit.    

It is time for us to do as Joel prophecies and Peter preaches, to begin dreaming together, young and old alike, to be united in a common vision of the Spirit, celebrating life and finding meaning in our diverse ways of living in the world, all of us finding our particular places in the world together.

It’s time for prophesy, for us to see our need to repent and turn again toward God, for courageous people to open their hearts to the truth the prophets have always called us to. to care for widows and orphans, to lift up the downhearted, to put the last first and give a seat at the head of the table to the least, to release the captives, to proclaim God’s favor.

It’s time for vision, for us to peer out into the future inspired by our faith that God has something in store for us so we can make decisions and work together, thriving in our differences, united in our faith that God is making a way for us. 

And it is time for us to dream, friends, it is time for us to dream, to dream Spirit-inspired dreams, not bound by the the narrow customs and traditions and comforts call such dreams drunken foolishness, for Spirit-filled dreams open us to the future God promises us, which always utterly transcends what we have known or can imagine to be possible, and exposes us to the sneering ridicule of sober doubters, which is something like walking into the wind.  

May God bless you, your family and your friends
May the Spirit inspire your dreams and grant you clear vision, 
And may God bless Windsor UCC

Windsor Word, February 2021

Last Sunday, January 24th, we hosted a zoom meeting to talk about our Annual Meeting this Sunday, January 31st. The two items on the agenda for our Annual Meeting–Committee nominations and our 2021 Budget–were of less interest than questions about when and how we will return to worship

The question of “when” will be answered by the congregation’s response to the survey we recently sent you (if you did not receive a survey, please contact the office:; 608-846-5731).  This survey helps us answer two important questions.  First, under what conditions will our members return to worship; second, who is willing to help us reopen our building for worship.  Once we have answers to these questions, then our work really begins.

We will need to create a sustainable system to train and schedule our members to serve God by opening our building for worship.  We will also need to create a system for people to sign up to join us in worship in safe numbers, making sure that everyone has a chance to attend once before anyone attends twice, and also reserving spaces for guests to join us.  This process will also serve as contact tracing.

In addition, we will need to plan for how we will continue to reach members and friends online who will return on a longer timeline, and also continue to reach our shut-ins who have enjoyed the advent of online worship.  I am committed to these members and to reaching out to others online. I hope the congregation will resolve to ensure that our return to in person will not come at the expense of those who are unable, for whatever reason, to join us for worship in our building.

One of the most often asked questions is why we are not yet open while other churches are already open. One answer is that we respect science and follow the advice of experts who have warned against gathering and say that singing is dangerous. 

Another answer to the question is that we currently lack capacity and organization to open our building.  It is hard to see from the perspective of this pandemic, but the congregation went through a significant transition in the process of calling me to serve as Pastor.  We are getting our start in a hard time, and we do not yet have processes in place to make decisions, enlist help, and get moving.  In truth, the informal and personal nature of the congregation, one of its greatest strengths and assets, leaves the congregation ill-prepared for the time we are living through.  We now need to build a sustainable structure for today and tomorrow.

I hope we will all put our energy and passion into creating formal structures and organizations that will sustain us as we move forward together.  When we open our doors, we will all be glad to be back in our church home, and I pray we will be ready to welcome the new people who will join us after this hard time.  

God has given us so much, and we are coming through this pandemic with few losses compared to other congregations. I hope you will join me in asking how God is calling us to serve through the ministry of our congregation.
Pr. Craig

In the Belly of Paradox

Rev. Craig Jan-McMahon, Windsor UCC;
January 24, 2021; B Epiphany +3
First Sunday after the Inauguration; Sunday before Annual Meeting
Jonah 3:1-5, 10: The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time..
Psalm 62:5-12: On God rests my deliverance and my honor; my mighty rock, my refuge is in God.
1 Corinthians 7:29-31: For the present form of this world is passing away.
Mark 1:14-20: And immediately they left their nets and followed him.
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There are many times I wish I had easier things to say… times when I wish my role was only to soothe and comfort and celebrate, but we believe the truth sets us free.

Faith equips us to thrive through challenges we neither invite nor welcome, yet faith in God makes a way for us when we could not make a way by believing in ourselves and having faith in our own power.

Surely living in this pandemic is helping us to understand our faith in new ways; surely social unrest and domestic terrorism present unwelcome challenges to our faith, leading us to ask where is God in all of this, and in all of this how is God calling us to respond in faith?

These challenges are like Jonah’s whale, swallowing us up as we run away from God’s call on our lives only to find ourselves belched upon the seashore of our Ninevahs, answering God’s call despite our efforts to flee it, which, after all, is the story of faith we find again and again in scripture.

So friends, let us discern together what the disturbing and challenging call of God on our lives means for us in this time and this place.

Let us Pray
May the words of my mouth,
And the meditations of our hearts this day, 
Be pleasing to you,
O Lord our God:
Our Rock andOur Redeemer. 

Few writers capture the paradox of God’s call like the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, who says “like [Jonah] himself I find myself traveling toward my destiny in the belly of a paradox.”

In what seems self-contradictory and absurd lies a deeper reality and truth. 

In answering the call of God, Merton says, we discover our true selves, moving away from the false selves that emerge as we protect ourselves from people or social pressures or shame or dis-ease.  

The experience of opening ourselves to the call of God on our lives and moving away from the known into the unknown most often comes as a response to the personal crises we suffer, to traumas we experience alone and together.  

Merton’s understanding of call is hard won; his experience of depression was for him the belly of the whale; the paradox he names an experience common to us all–when we run away from God, or when we find ourselves swallowed up by the darkness, we find ourselves being carried toward God, though we do not know it at the time, and later come tell the story with wonder and gratitude.  

I often find myself struggling against the notion that the call of God is only about pastors, but this understanding of call is not what God intends for communities of believers, for we are all required to answer the call of God on our lives, to employ our gifts and give our time to the glory of God. Whether we are mechanical engineers or county workers or accountants, we are all called by God, and we are all responsible to struggle with the paradox of call.  

It is neither sufficient nor faithful to say “I don’t have time” or “I am too busy” or “I don’t’ want to get involved in church politics,” for the call of God is given to all of us and is not equal to all the other demands, and the paradox is that we have more time and more life and more of everything important and lasting when we ourselves as individuals and as a congregation accept our responsibility to answer the call of God on our lives.

In 1956, Richard Niebuhr wrote a book called “The Purpose of the Church and Its Ministry.”

In 1956, Ike was President.

In 1956, the South was segregated.  

Way back then, there were four TV networks and families had only one phone number. 

The Korean War had ended and we were just getting involved in Vietnam.  

In 1956, we had yet to witness the assassinations of a president and a civil rights leader.  There were more. 

Back then Watergate was just a building in Washington, DC.

And in 1956 churches began adding on to their buildings for the post-war boom of children and families coming to church; in fact, our church undertook such a building project around this time. 

In 1956 and for years afterward the church as an institution was flush with resources: women who had not yet entered the workplace gave their time and energy to the church, serving on council and boards was a high honor; there were no traveling youth teams; playing sports on Sundays was unheard of, and businesses were closed on Sundays, so owners and employees could attend worship services.  

In short, the church was the center of American life and culture, and here lies the paradox: the world was changing, and the institutional church was called by God to change with it, through social upheavals, through rise of the civil rights movement, in the liberation of women.  The institutional church, however, most often did not find the call of God in these challenges, but rather saw the changing world as a threat to the institution.

The paradox of the call of God back then and today is that God prepares us for and calls us into these challenges at the very same time voices are raised up saying we should hold fast to what we already know and stand firm with what we already love, though to hold fast and to stand firm on what we have known in the past often prevents us from answering the call of God in our lives today.

Take for example the call of two sets of brothers, [Peter] and Andrew, James and John, who are mending their nets, preparing to go fishing.

There they are on the seashore, doubtless a short walk from home and hearth to the boats they have built or inherited that are the means by which they feed their families to earn a living;  

James and John are in fact working with their father, but Jesus comes along and calls them away from all of this into the unknown. James and John abandon their own father; [Peter], we know, has a mother-in-law and therefore a family of his own, whom he leaves behind when Jesus says, “follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” 

We cannot faithfully answer the call of God now or ever without leaving behind people and things we know and love, ways of understanding ourselves and others that have made sense in the past but no longer do, ways we structure our time and organize our lives and our work.

Answering God’s call and moving forward necessarily means leaving behind what we have known and loved and has held meaning for us in the past but have become burdens holding us back and limiting our ability to share the love of God with the least fortunate among us, for whom Christ died.

If I were a psychologist, I would offer a schema to help us see how the trauma and difficulty we are living through may lead us to respond in fear and turn inward and project our anxieties on others by demanding the world and everyone else change to match our longing for a time that is no more, but as a faith leader I have another message of hope to offer.

It is this paradox: within this suffering and within this challenge, inside of whatever hardship each of us may face, God is present calling us forward, nudging us to leave behind past things that hold us back, coaxing us into a future that will transcend what we have known in the past or could imagine for our future.

But this paradox of call is not easy, friends, and I cannot make it easy for us. 

When we say yes to call, when we step forward into the unknown, we discover our truest selves, and then paradoxically we then see the false selves we have put on for others, the ways we have pretended so as to protect false unity, the ways we have held back what we can give because we are worried how others will judge us.

All of these things we are called to leave behind, and when we leave them behind and follow Christ into the world there we find our true selves, who God calls us to be, who by faith we are becoming.  

God calls us away from relationships that force us to sacrifice our true selves; God calls us to leave behind habits that hurt us and those we love; God calls us into new power to love with life-giving integrity, making room for new life to emerge in us and in others;  for this is the structure and paradox of call, the structure and paradox of love, the structure and paradox of faith.  

If there were no paradox, if faith were solely about comfort, then faith would be altogether unnecessary, and we could merely follow the traditions of the past and serve our own comfort and tend to our own families and make time for God when it is convenient and agreeable and easy, 

But as we are more aware now than ever, life is challenging. Loving people when they are struggling and we can’t decide how much to help is really, really hard; and the world is changing in ways that leaves us wondering how we will manage the days ahead.

This is precisely the time when we become ready to answer the call of God on our lives.  

Yes, yes: I know what I am saying is completely paradoxical, it makes no sense except by faith.  

To accept what I am saying means admitting to a level of human vulnerability that terrifies us all, but in these challenging times–in the world, in our homes, at work, in the church–God is calling us to follow, to leave behind what limits and burdens us, and to move forward in faith that God will not merely make a way for us, but we will make us thrive and we will be renewed and through us God will provide hope for us and others, healing for us and others, reconciliation for us and others, because we are all part of this broken and hurting world.

May we all be open the paradox of God’s call on our lives, I pray, 
And may God bless you and your family and friends,
And May God bless Windsor UCC

2020 Annual Report

Pastor’s Annual Report to the Congregation
Windsor United Church of Christ, 2020

When I first saw this lovely building and talked with the Search Committee about what God might have in store for us, I was convinced that 2020 was going to be a very good year indeed.   

We made plans for the weekend of March 22nd–time for our families to meet, time to sit together and to share a meal, time for questions and answers, time to get to know one another–but then the pandemic disrupted our plans and not for the last time. 

We rescheduled for the weekend after Easter, April 19th, planning to meet outdoors so at least we could be together in the same place at the same time. Alas, COVID-19 disrupted these plans as well. Undeterred, the Search Committee arranged for us to meet online and the congregation worked together to conduct a vote on-line.  

It’s startling how faith works, isn’t it?  How God’s timing defies our plans and how the Holy Spirit calls us into unexpected and uncharted territory. It was an amazing thing for God to call us together in 2020. We are all wondering what God has in store for us in 2021.  

We hope and pray the vaccine will reach us so we can safely congregate again (and for the first time :-).  When this time finally comes, it will be time to celebrate. There will be babies to baptize, loved ones to mourn, a Sunday School to reopen, new people to welcome, and new opportunities to serve God by taking care of our neighbors. 

I continue to be amazed by the strength and resilience of the congregation.  These hard times have not shaken our belief that our congregation is a light in dark times, nor diminished our commitment to minister in Christ’s name. 

I would like to especially thank Roger Stoltenberg, Chair of  the Search Committee, and Terry Anderson, our Moderator, for their tireless and faithful work; Aaron Lissowe for his technological skills and generous support of the worship life of the congregation; and our staff, Barb Varner for her brightness and know-how, and David Schipper for his nurture of the music ministries of the congregation.  Thank you also to the members of the Search Committee and their families for the extraordinary effort that went into bringing us together during these unprecedented times: KJ Busse, Denny Dobson, McKenna Kelsey, Karen Meylor-Miller, Jon Rouse, Matt Sutherland, and Kit Thomsen.  

Yours in Christ,
Pr. Craig Jan-McMahon

Can We Tell the Truth about Call?

Rev. Craig Jan-McMahon
1/17/2021, Windsor UCC
Year B, 2nd Sunday after Epiphany
National Guard in Capitol; Threats of Violence in State Capitols; Inauguration in three days
1 Samuel 3:1-20 The word of the LORD was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.
Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18 You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways
1 Corinthians 6:12-20 But anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.
John 1:43-51 He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.”
Download PDF | Watch Video

Here we are again.

We are here recording on Thursday, not knowing how the world will change and change again before our words and music and prayers reach you on Sunday morning.

And yet we hear in our readings timeless words and stories, the lovely and rich call story of the last great prophet-leader of Israel, Samuel; the beautiful, poetic psalm of the inescapable love of God, the call of Philip and Nathanael, who are eager and primed and ready to answer the call to follow Christ.

Nothing I can say can speak more truth than the truth we find in these lovely stories, and yet these stories help us open ourselves to how God is calling us in these tumultuous times.  

We must protect ourselves from the delusion that serving God and answering the call of God on our lives solves all of our problems and allows us to stand apart and above the complex and endless troubles the human family ceaselessly makes, and so for a few brief moments, let us open our hearts and minds to the Spirit as we seek to answer the call of God on our lives in this time and place.

Let us Pray: May the words of my mouth,
And the meditations of our hearts this day, 
Be pleasing to you,
O Lord our God:Our Rock and Our Redeemer. 

In 2005, my last year in Seminary, I served at Samuel UCC in Clayton, MO.

It began at an Evangelical church, populated by German immigrants who came to America and built churches and orphanages and hospitals, and seminaries.  

Above the balcony, facing east so as to capture the light as sunrise, was a stained glass window of the call of Samuel.

The German Evangelicals who built the church and chose this story to inspire the congregation and to tell the world who they were as a people chose these words from the text we read this morning, for these words are the heart of this story:

Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.

This is, after all, the part of the story we most fondly recall, the part of the story where we say yes, the beginning of the journey, that moment of certainty and clarity when we see the truth and hear God’s call, a time or an event we look back on, turning points in our lives when we were forever changed.  

We often forget the struggle and difficulty that opens our hearts to the call of God on our lives and disremember how easy we thought our lives would be after that stunning brilliant moment.

“Here I am Lord. Speak for your Servant is Listening” are words we say when we encounter the end and limit of ourselves and experience the truth and the light of God, and what lies ahead of us when we open ourselves to the call of God on our lives?

Everything falls into place?

Everything just kind of works out without much work, without any conflict or difficulties?  

Pardon me, but where do we find such an easy road in scripture?

Certainly not in the story of the disciples when they answer Christ’s call to serve?

Nor the prophets who are harassed and dismissed and persecuted, whose prophetic vision is celebrated after they are dead and gone.  

And not in the story Samuel, his peaceful sleep disrupted by a voice he does not know how even to answer.  

Again and again he goes to the God he knows, Old Eli, and finally Eli understands this young and tender soul is himself hearing the voice of God calling him for the first time, the time has come for Samuel to answer for himself.

Let’s not pass over this moment too quickly, this transformation, for Eli tells Samuel to wait alone in the dark rather than running to him for guidance–the lamp of God had not yet gone out on Eli’s watch, we are told, as we see when Eli moves Samuel from depending on him to answering for himself to God who calls him in the night.  

And here we find the great danger and challenge of the call of God on our lives we prefer to forget, for the message given to Samuel is judgment against Eli and his house, an irrevocable judgment because he has allowed his sons to abuse their office and has failed to restrain them.  

Samuel hears God speak for the first time, and lays in bed through the night worrying about what to do next, afraid to tell Eli his vision, hoping he can just put it behind him and forget it, that Eli won’t remember to ask about it….

He rises in the morning to do his morning chores, opening the doors of the house of God, perhaps praying there will be a throng of worshippers to sweep in and distract Eli from talking with him.

We don’t often talk about the fear and regret that goes along with the call of God on our lives, when we see what sacrifices will be demanded of us, how our relationships will change, when we may well wonder, like Samuel, whether Eli will throw him out of the temple and disown him to protect himself and his sons.

How many times has someone we loved been trapped in addiction or abusive relationships or destructive patterns of behavior and are afraid like Samuel is for what happens next? For surely the devastation of addiction on lives is a form of God’s call for change. Surely the physical and emotional havoc of abuse is a form of God’s call for change. Surely the despair of being trapped in endless patterns of destructive behavior is a form of God’s call for change. Yet what comes next is always a step of faith into the unknown, and what comes next will surely be a feeling of fear and regret.

Friends, we have such a clear record in scripture.

Can we agree to tell the truth?

The Call of God is never easy on us, and it always demands just a bit more than we ourselves have resources to meet, 

It moves us toward rather than away from challenges.

But the truth is also that in these challenges God meets us and provides for us and makes a way for us. We later look back and tell the story of how God disrupted us from spiritual sleep and gave us a vision that challenged us to live by faith in God.

Like Old Eli, my message for all of you Samuels is to struggle with your own sense of call rather than depend on me, for God does not just call pastors but God calls people, and we together are called to discern how God calls us in these challenging times.

Human suffering and political foment are a form of God’s call: challenges rousting us out of our comfortable sleep and demanding so much of us we are afraid to take the first step.  

For this reason, we pray for courage. For this reason, we remember Samuel’s courage in telling the truth to Eli. For if we answer the call of God our lives, we become courageous enough to welcome challenges, and in these challenges God makes a way for us.

And so dear friends, for these challenging times we are facing together,

May God bless you and your family and your friends and neighbors,

And may God Bless Windsor UCC

Epiphany 2021, Part 2

Matthew 2:1-12, 16-18
Reader’s Guide: Adult Sunday School Class
Windsor UCC, 1/10, 1/17, 9:30apx
Zoom (please email me for Zoom invite to class)
Resources: Herod the Great | Infancy Narratives (Star, Magi)
Everyone is Welcome!

Immediately following worship (apx 9:30) this Sunday, January 17th, we will continue our study of Epiphany, three foreigners traveling from the East following the star to find the Christ child.

To deepen our conversation and study of this text, I have invited some of our members to study and prepare for me to “interview” them and for us to ask questions together:

Bob Mutton: Herod the Great.
Carol Barth: The Star and the Magi
Gretchen Lord Anderson: Massacre of the Innocents, Jeremiah (Matt. 2:18)

Returning with New Perspectives: Reread Matthew 2:1-12, 16-18 in whatever Bible you are accustomed to using or read the text online here

  • What do you see after our discussions that you didn’t see before?
  • What ideas stuck from our discussion stuck with you through the week?
  • What new questions emerge as you reread the text? 
  • What  understandings are confirmed as you reread?

Interpreting the Story: The practice of our tradition is to open our hearts to the inspired word of God–the Spirit animating stories and teachings and events (actions, movements). These discussion prompts are offered to help us talk about what the Spirit reveals to us today and for our world through our study of scripture together.

Plot and Characters: Herod: Last week, much of our attention focused on Herod. We found the causal link between events–the plot–defined Herod’s reign.  Our conversation began by asking why all of Jerusalem would be frightened (verse 3c) by strangers looking for the child who had been born king of the Jews (verse 2a).  We saw that the fear of the people was explained by Herod’s fury at being tricked, resulting in the massacre of innocent children.  

  • What does this story help us to see about God?
  • How does this story help us to understand human tendencies: in this instance, we might talk about Herod’s sinful use of power and authority, the effect of this power on people, how Herod serves as a counter-example of what God intends for humanity, as revealed in Jesus Christ.    
  • Why does Matthew allude to Jeremiah and Rachel’s unconsolable lamentation for her lost children? 
  • What does the prophetic lamentation of Jeremiah help us to see about God’s response to injustice, suffering, and despair.  

Plot and Characters: Magi: We noticed different names given to these figures depending on which translation or interpretation of the story we read.  We found that the name “Wise Men,” describes their decision to go home by another way rather than foolishly returning to report to Herod.  

  • What significance do we find in the foreignness of these characters?
  • How do these characters deepen or diversify or challenge our understanding of the birth of Christ and how we and others follow the light outside of ours

Windsor Word, January 2020

I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; 
moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil –Ecclesiastes 3:12-13

This week I learned from Facebook that two of our members have received the first dose of the coronavirus vaccine.  As health care workers both are in the 1a category, first in line to be vaccinated.  

This is glad news.  We are all grateful for our healthcare workers, and we understand that we wear masks, practice social distancing, and wash hands not only to keep ourselves, families, and friends safe, but to protect healthcare workers and the capacity of our hospitals. 

This glad news also suggests that this time of isolation will end in 2021.  Most people I talk with hope the vaccine will reach us by middle to late spring, in time for children to return to school in fall.  

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven, says Ecclesiastes.  We are learning through this season of pandemic how very hard it is to trust ourselves to God’s time–we desperately want to this season to end, our desperation making us vulnerable to the illusion that we are in control of time, or that we need not live in time with others, or share with them our mutual, human vulnerability to time.  

And yet we are also likely to miss the resolution of the problem of time; God wants us to be happy and enjoy ourselves as long as we live and take pleasure in food and wine and companionship, for our lives are not merely about toil and sacrifice and waiting for a better time.  

Surely, 2021 will be a better year; we all pray that it will be.  But no matter how time is shaped by vaccine distribution, one thing I know for sure: when this time comes at last, we will experience what God intends for us; it will be time to celebrate, and we will experience pleasure unlike any other time in our lives.  

God bless you in 2021 and keep you safe until we can at last be together again for the first time :-).
Pr. Craig

Epiphany 2021, Part 1

Matthew 2:1-12, 16-18
Reader’s Guide: Adult Sunday School Class
Windsor UCC, 1/10, 1/17, 9:30apx
Zoom (please email me for Zoom invite to class)
Resources: Herod the Great | Infancy Narratives (Star, Magi)
Everyone is Welcome!

First Impressions

Read Matthew 2:1-12, 16-18 in whatever Bible you are accustomed to using or read the text online here.  Take a moment or two to consider your first thoughts:

  • What words, phrases, names, ideas jump out at you?
  • What impressions arise within–memories associated with this story from any context?
  • What new things (people, places, story events, etc)  do you notice that you have not noticed before?
  • What most interests you about this story?  What would you like to learn more about?

Reading Story

This text is a story.  We will first make sure we understand the basic sense of the story.  These ideas will guide our discussion of the story:

  • Plot: What are the causal links between the events that happen in the story?  
  • Characters: What characters appear in the story?  Which characters seem central to the story, and which marginal to it? 
  • Setting: What do you notice about the setting of the story?  Where do events take place? What do you understand about the sense of time in the story?
  • Narrative: What events or stories precede and follow this story? How is this story connected to the Gospel of Matthew’s narrative of the Good News of Jesus Christ?

Next Week

After we discuss the story of Sunday, we will identify themes, characters, ideas we will discuss next week.  A second reader’s guide will be sent.

Ready for Riding Help

Dear Windsor-UCC-Person-Whose-Name-I-Forgot,

You called and we talked soon after I came to the church in July.  

You are a retired teacher, a lover of books and words.  We talked about teaching and writing and you said you were keeping safe during this pandemic. We wondered when we would have the chance to meet, and agreed we just didn’t know. Meantime, you said that if there was anything you could do, any help I needed, to just let you know.  

I promised I would get back in touch with you because I would surely need your help, once I got settled into a routine and got organized a bit.  I explained that I write a lot,  often on short deadlines, and their are tines eye kneed riding help because I tend not to have time to edit out embarrassing mistakes :-).

You said you would be glad to help. When our conversation ended I was relieved to have found a person I could call on at the last minute to help with this work.

But then forgot your name. 

I know; I know:  I should have written it down!  Maybe I did write it down? 

Anyway, I am sorry to confess that though I remember you, I can’t recall your name.

If you would kindly call again, or send me an email, I promise I will remember your name this time, because I am ready for some riding help.

Yours in Christ,
Pr. Craig