Following the Star in this Messy World

star-and-magiFollowing the Star in this Messy World
Isaiah 60:1-6, Matthew 2:1-18
Jan. 1, 2017  New Year’s Day,                                                     Focus on Epiphany
Sermon preached by Rev. Cynthia Cochran-Carney at Willow Grove Presbyterian Church, Scotch Plains, New Jersey

The big night has passed for Mary and Joseph.  They have packed away the swaddling clothes, cleaned up the stable, and moved into a little house in Bethlehem with their new baby.  They have been there for a while now.

Since the night when the shepherds and angels and everyone showed up in a wild blur of glory and honor, it’s been kind of quiet.  Really, there is almost nobody bringing meals or checking in on the young couple, a friendly hello here or a kind gesture there, perhaps, but they are not living near life-long neighbors, friends of their parents throwing a baby shower or aunties offering advice. They are kind of all alone – maybe seeing relatives of relatives from time to time since Joseph was from the house and family of David.  But this was not the way they had imagined their family life would start – not even once they rearranged their expectations to include God-incarnate crawling across the living room floor.

Joseph rented them a little house with room for a woodworking workshop, not too far from the stable, actually, but near enough to town that he got a little business, enough to keep food on the table.  They sent news back to Nazareth of the child’s birth, a few snapshots and updates now and then, –

“He just rolled over on his own!” “He took his first steps yesterday!” but no grandparents or cousins had yet met the toddler Jesus.  It had been just the three of them, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, in a kind of suspended rhythm of adjustment and happiness, sleep deprivation, an in-between time of sorts, settling into the miracle they shared, getting to know each other, becoming a family.

Until the day the pagans from the East showed up and called their little boy the king of the Jews.

Just when life began to feel rather ordinary,  when this baby had begun to feel like he was theirs, a reminder that he is not arrives in the form of sages from a far-off land, astrologers, mystic-scholars who had been watching the skies for signs of God.

Surprising, perhaps, that those with no personal stake in the story, with no generational anticipation of a Messiah, no claim whatsoever to the promises of Yahweh to the people of Yahweh, are the ones Yahweh sends next.  And their arrival bursts the bubble and exposes the light to all the world.

Epiphany, we call this day of focusing on the story in Matthew 2 celebrated on Jan. 6.  The word means – appearing.   God says – “See that star? – That is light for all people.”   That changes your perspective, and lays opens your life before you differently.

You realize that the Christmas moment was God WITH US, Epiphany is GOD with us.  Suddenly we see that Christmas story is much bigger than we first imagined.  Not just little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay.  Sweet and cuddly though he may have just been, this isn’t your own private Messiah any longer, folks.  He belongs to the whole earth.

I have this crazy, cozy image of Mary and Joseph with these visitors, after their camels wisemen-camelhave been tended to and bedded down, when the strangers had washed up and unpacked a little bit, and the lamps are lit and the table is set. The meal at the table between these people who smell different and look different and wear different clothing and speak different languages and whose paths never, ever should have crossed in any conceivable way, but who were right now breaking bread together, drinking wine together, sharing together what used to be mostly their own private secret that nobody else could relate to but them.

And I almost can picture that star exploding right then. It had guided the Magi to the child, over desert and mountains, through night and day and night and day and night and day they followed its singular purpose, driven by the quest, knowing this is something big, being led right to it.  And then, from the moment they laid eyes on him, and Mary and Joseph laid eyes on them, the secret was out.

Back in Jerusalem, King Herod is now chomping at the bit to stamp out this newly discovered threat to his power, and the news is out, things are not business as usual; God has really come, the world is topsy-turvy.  He is plotting evil.

overview21-600x400And then I imagine the star, it’s purpose completed, shatters into a trillion pieces, filling the sky with scattering shards of radiance from one end of the globe to the other.

I picture the visitors staying for a while. After all, it took many months, maybe years, to get there; they’re not just going to stay one night and leave. At least, I wouldn’t.  I won’t drive 6 hours to my sister’s in Pittsburgh just for an afternoon.  No way. You’ve got to make the visit worthwhile.  Share a few meals, spend a night or three, settle in long enough to catch up over morning coffee and debrief over tea before bed.

So what was it like, adjusting to being next to the miracle for a while?  Was it all the more miraculous for its ordinariness? How did it feel to go from a distant star and a lifelong, theoretical quest for truth to a flesh and blood child who smeared his high chair with carrot mash and falling down exhausted to take a nap?

What was it like for Joseph and Mary and for the strangers from the East, to fall into some daily patterns together, to have almost nothing humanly in common and yet get one another at a level nobody else on earth could, because your very presence represents to the other that this really is real, something really big is really happening.

I think that is part of what we experience as the church – being the ones reminding each other that God has come, that God is here, and that our very lives are part of the wonder and life-giving, love-bringing conspiracy of God.

When they decided it was time for them to leave, the wise ones remembered the dream, the dream warning not to go back to Herod, and the Magi returned home by another road. I am sure Herod was steaming mad because they never swung back by the palace!

Just after the hugs and blessings and goodbyes, the little family turning back inside, sighing, and expecting, perhaps, that life might get back to normal, normal is redefined again. Another road. Epiphany keeps going.

Their road is revealed when, like the one who told him two years ago not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife, an angel messenger invades Joseph’s dreams again, take the child and his mother and flee, right now, go to Egypt. Get up! NOW.  It’s your turn to be the strangers from a foreign land, Joseph. God-with-us, who was born in a stable and is now a homeless refugee, and you along with him; foreigners in a foreign land.fieweb11

So to the land of Egypt they went, (part of the Roman Empire at the time), seeking safety and welcome in the hospitality, hearts and homes of strangers, who are part of the whole story anyway, while back home among the God’s chosen people, the children of Israel, “King of the Jews” Herod’s terrible wrath and fear commanded the deaths of all the male children under two in an effort to stamp out the light of the world before the flame caught and spread.

Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’

I hate that part of the story and will never understand it, and don’t have a whole lot to say about it, except to notice both that God’s love doesn’t keep madness from happening but suffers it with us.  My heart breaks when I am confronted with the Herods today and the realities of evil and violence that erupt when some in authority are threatened.   As sweeping and awful as Herod’s act of terrible evil was, it seemed not to make a dent whatsoever in the God-with-us project; and while Herod himself is long dead and gone, love endures forever, profoundly and mightily in small acts of kindness and care, and the every day, transformative sharing of life by ordinary folks that puncture the darkness with God’s light every moment of every day.

After Herod’s death the little family goes home for the first time, to Nazareth, to raise their first grader in Galilee among their own people, in their own village, with the grandparents, and the lifelong neighbors, and streets they grew up on, and the tiny, provincial world that had cradled and shaped them before their lives were ripped open by the light of the world.

epiphany_4420cEpiphany is our holy invitation to the miracle being revealed in our own lives, and shimmering in all the world.

Whatever this year has to bring, God is here.
Whatever the world goes through in the coming days, weeks and months, nothing can disrupt
the God-with-us project.
This truth does not belong to us. We belong to it.

So friends, let us be light-bearers, hope tellers, star gazers, descendants of the foreign magi who set out in trust that God will appear.

Love has invaded the whole earth and summoned all people to its unquenchable light that shines brightest in the ordinary moments between friends and strangers, in this messy, real, world.  So like the adventurers of old, we will watch together, open and ready, for the appearance of God with us, each and every day.

Star Words

(We worshiped in the Stone Chapel around tables in the round) 15843965_1206094186094846_7414783370418811842_o 15844837_1206094232761508_1738806302323678002_o

And now we are going to start a new tradition.  This practice has been part of Epiphany worship services of many friends and colleagues.  I have a basket of Star Words, words written on paper stars in this basket.  As we remember the wisemen and the star they followed,  we are called to be open to God’s guiding presence in our lives.  The word you choose is your Star Word for the new year.  Place it somewhere where you will see it often – near computer, mirror, refrigerator, car, desk.

Your word hopefully will give you a different way to approach your prayer life. How is God speaking to you through the particular word you got?   How can we keep reflecting on this word throughout the year and notice how God may be helping us grow, reflect, and deepen our sense of God’s presence in our lives?

My Star Word for 2017 is -COMMITMENT.  I am thinking about my commitments of time, energy, devotion, love.  I wonder in this next year how I will need to say “no” to some new opportunities so I can stay focused on my current commitments.  

* Parts of this sermon were adapted from a sermon by Rev. Kara Root, “This Bright, Blessed Mess,”  January 3, 2016


Doing The Hard Thing

175866-we-can-do-hard-thingsIt has been quite a while since I posted on this blog.  I have been writing sermons and reflections, but then I planted them other places and forgot to also plant them here.  It is a hard thing for me to remember all places I want to share my thoughts and the insights of others.

Sometimes a song gives me new inspiration and resolve.

On a crisp Sunday evening in early October, Jeffrey and I attended a concert with one of my favorite singer-songwriters, Carrie Newcomer. She sang a song that was inspired by her (now grown) daughter, who attended a Montessori school. When the children were getting ready to do something new that was going to be a stretch for them, the teachers would say, “You can do this hard thing.” It was a way to remind students that this was going to be a challenging task and that they were prepared to tackle it.

Every day people face challenges large and small. I find these words important in my own life, my ministry, and as a parent.  I turn to God for strength and grace so I may have hard conversations, listen to words of sadness, help my sons take on new challenges in school & job opportunities, be willing to risk bold words and actions as a pastor.

What hard thing are you facing in your life?  What have you experienced that may give you some of the tools you will need to face this challenge?  How do you pray to God in the midst of doing this hard thing?

Enjoy this song by Carrie Newcomer.

Worshiping at Home Resources Jan. 24, 2016

Worshipping at Home

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Willow Grove Presbyterian Church

josh snowAfter a historic snowstorm, we are all at home.  Even though we are not sitting together in the sanctuary, we are still the church, the Body of Christ, disciples who are called to respond to God’s amazing grace through loving God, our neighbor and ourselves.  May these materials be meaningful and helpful to you.

Praise Song  –

My Life is in You Lord

Link to video

My life is in You, Lord

My strength is in You, Lord

My hope is in You, Lord

In You, it’s in You


My life is in You, Lord

My strength is in You, Lord

My hope is in You, Lord

In You, it’s in You


I will praise You with all of my life

I will praise You with all of my strength

With all of my life, with all of my strength

All of my hope is in You

Worshipping from Home Prayer

Instead of gathering in the sanctuary, we come together in spirit.

The snow has stopped falling. The sun has risen.

We give thanks, O God, for the beauty of your creation,

gleaming bright in the new light of day.

Help us feel your love today and the love of our church family.

O God, who brought us to the bright light of this new day,

bring us to the guiding light of eternity. Amen.

Hymn  Great is Thy Faithfulness

video link (sing along!)

Great is Thy faithfulness,” O God my Father,

There is no shadow of turning with Thee;

Thou changest not, Thy compassions, they fail not

As Thou hast been Thou forever wilt be.


“Great is Thy faithfulness!” “Great is Thy faithfulness!”

Morning by morning new mercies I see;

All I have needed Thy hand hath provided—

“Great is Thy faithfulness,” Lord, unto me!


Summer and winter, and springtime and harvest,

Sun, moon and stars in their courses above,

Join with all nature in manifold witness

To Thy great faithfulness, mercy and love.


Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth,

Thine own dear presence to cheer and to guide;

Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow,

Blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside!


Prayer of Confession

Wondrous God, we confess that at times our doubts and fears override

our hope and faith.

Forgive us when we lose sight of the joy of Your love

and instead fall into despair or indifference.

Lift up our spirits, Lord, and help us to remember

the promise of new life here and now,

not just the hope of resurrection for the future.

We give thanks for Your Son, Jesus the Christ,

who continues to offer us new life,

who continues to turn us and the world around

and upside down,

who continues to break down the walls of death, evil and hate.

Forgive us, restore us and renew us.

Help us practice resurrection each day.


Friends,  in Jesus Christ you are forgiven.  You are offered healing and hope, forgiveness and amazing grace. Amen.


Psalm 51:1-9  (printed below from The Message)

Luke 15:11-32  (printed below New Revised Standard Version)


Message The Prodigal Son Parable – Insights from Dr. Ken Bailey

video link  –



Most holy God,

you who are our good news,

you who are the glad dance of the weary,

you who are the beginning and the fulfillment;


Our prayers are not celestial hymns or heavenly speech, but

these words bear our hearts, our hopes, our meditations. Have mercy.

You are grace beyond reason, power beyond imagination,

and beauty beyond compare. We worship you.


By your grace, help us love one another.

By your grace, draw close to those who need you.

By your grace, use our talents – use us for your purposes.


By your power, grant us courage to walk the difficult but necessary paths.

By your power, heal us —

for we war and rage.


By your beauty,

overwhelm us with delight.

By your beauty, awe us to humility.

By your beauty, pour your favor over this burdened earth

until all are healed.


In community and in crisis, with words and with silence,

bind us together and bind us to you —

for we are lost without you

and we are broken without one another.

In Christ’s name, Amen.


Prayer of St. Francis set to music

Prayers for each other

Prayers for all digging out and cleaning up today – for safety.

Prayers for communities and businesses with significant damage from the storm



For Children

 Story Video – The Prodigal Son

  The Runaway Bunny, by Margaret Wise Brown, follows a conversation between a young bunny and its mother.  The little bunny describes a series of ways he will run away from his mother.  In reply the mother tells how she will come after him in each case.  Finally, the little bunny decides he might just as well stay home with her.  I once heard this classic read at the end of an erudite sermon about grace.  The preacher concluded, “THAT is grace.”

Compare the journey of the younger son to Dorothy’s journey in The Wizard of Oz. When the tornado blows her away, Dorothy is mad at almost everyone.  By the time she returns she has new understanding and greets people around her with love.


Psalm   1 – from the Message

Generous in love – God, give grace! Huge in mercy – wipe out my bad record.

2 Scrub away my guilt, soak out my sins in your laundry.

3 I know how bad I’ve been; my sins are staring me down.

4 You’re the One I’ve violated, and you’ve seen it all, seen the full extent of my evil. You have all the facts before you; whatever you decide about me is fair.

5 I’ve been out of step with you for a long time, in the wrong since before I was born.

6 What you’re after is truth from the inside out. Enter me, then; conceive a new, true life.

7 Soak me in your laundry and I’ll come out clean, scrub me and I’ll have a snow-white life.

8 Tune me in to foot-tapping songs, set these once-broken bones to dancing.

9 Don’t look too close for blemishes, give me a clean bill of health.

10 God, make a fresh start in me, shape a Genesis week from the chaos of my life.

Luke 15:11-32

 11 Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them.

13 A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16 He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17 But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” ‘

20 So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21 Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.

25 “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27 He replied, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28 Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29 But he answered his father, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’

31 Then the father said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’ ”


God on Broadway – The Lion King – Answering God’s Call—Family, Tribe and Community

Answering God’s Call—Family, Tribe and Community    god on broadway header final (1)
Summer Series – God on Broadway
The Lion King
I Samuel 3:1-9
Galatians 1:15-16
August 9, 2015
Rev. Cynthia Cochran-Carney,
Willow Grove Presbyterian Church,
Scotch Plains, New Jersey


1 Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. 2 At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; 3 the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. 4 Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” 5 and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down. 6 The Lord called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” 7 Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. 8The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. 9 Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’ ” So Samuel went and lay down in his place. ( I Samuel 3:1-9)

The Lion King.  Like most parents, we bought the VHS of the movie and watched it many times with the boys.  One of the greatest experiences we had as a family was going to see The Lion King on Broadway in 2008.  We knew the boys would enjoy it because they knew the story.  I was so moved by the production – the costumes, the puppetry for the animals, the sets.  It was magical.  After intermission actors came into the audience with beautiful bird kites on long poles and the birds flew above us.  I think I will work on creating that for Pentecost Sunday for next year!

Opening song: Circle of Life…  Baptism
The opening scene of the movie and musical is rich with Christian symbolism.  I see an expression of Baptism.   An anointing of a child.  The child is presented, the clouds open reminding us of the story of Jesus’ Baptism where the heavens open and the voice of God speaks; “this is my son, my beloved.” That’s how we come into the community of faith.  The community celebrating and giving thanks for the gift of this child.

Clip – Opening Scene

It is the story of paradise.  That is what the savannah is at the beginning of this movie.  The order of everything is as it should be.  It is the story of a father and a son.  In one of the opening scenes, the protagonist Mufassa (the Lion King) tells his son that, as the future King, he will have limitations and responsibilities. Mufassa is shaping his son…his identity, his awareness of his calling to be the next Lion King of the Pridelands.

The goal of  a parent and as a church family is to help our children know they are loved, and to let them know they are children of God and loved by their God.  We shape them.  We teach them will have limitations and responsibilities.  And we help them discover their calling, their purpose.   For some the calling may be clear.  Most of us need to discover our callings.

Samuel was called by God. He was called by God to be a priest.  To serve in the temple.  He was only a boy.  Not really expecting this word from God so early.

Paul said he was called by God.  He is not a leader because of his ego or popularity

But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased  to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being ( Galatians 1:15-16)

Sometimes we looking ahead to a future hope and dream and calling.  Sometimes only by looking back can we see how God called us.  Role, sometimes work, sometimes a way to use our gifts.

As the story unfolds, Simba is excited about being king.  He can’t wait.  He is called.  Simba was anxious.  Even bragging.

Song – Just Can’t Wait to be King

Mufassa tells the young cub, Simba, there are some things to do and some things not to do. And what does Simba do?  Exactly what his father tells him not to do.  A familiar story in the Bible and life.

Scar tells Simba of the elephant graveyard…
Scar tells Simba of the elephant graveyard.  Simba was told by his parents never to go there, but he goesScar represents the shadow side.   He is jealous, has a lust for power and control.  He wants to be king and he will pursue at any cost.  Maybe he is meant to show us a little bit of ourselves…what happens to us when our desires are not checked by God’s call to love Him and love others.  Scar is tempter, the evil one, the one who tricks and deceives.

There is some guidance for us in I Peter 5:8-9.  Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith.”    Resist, stand firm in the faith.  Are we being alert?  Are we resisting forces that lead us away from God?  How does Scar show up in our lives?

Mufasa is upset and angry that Simba disobeyed him. Simba says that he was only trying to be brave like his father. Mufasa explains that he is only brave when he has to be, and that bravery does not mean recklessly seeking out danger. Simba asks whether he and his father will always be together, causing Mufasa to look up to the night sky and tell Simba about the Great Kings of the Past and how they guide and watch over everything. Mufasa tells Simba that he will always be there for him.

Song –  They Live in You

As Christians, we remember the image of the Cloud of Witnesses – those brothers and sisters in Christ that have gone before us.  A sense of their influence.  We are not alone.  We draw from their wisdom and faith.

The situation is set up where Scar plans to kill his brother and Simba and become king himself. Scar begins a stampede of wildebeest.  Simba is almost killed.  Mufassa is killed in the stampede.

Death of Mufassa…
The Father gives his life for his son.  Scar says to Simba, “You did it…’s your fault.   Run away.  What would you say to your mother? You can never be forgiven.”

Simba runs into two characters, a Warthog and a Meerkat who give Simba a new way of looking a life.  Don’t worry….be happy.  Forget your responsibilities.  A bit like the prodigal son. There is a song: “Hakuna mattata”…  They sing about just be happy, a worry-free philosophy.  Worrying is not good for us, but maybe these are not such great friends.  Never take responsibility.  Don’t worry about anything.  Do worry about your calling.  Just live today.

Eventually like the prodigal son, Simba, comes to his senses.

Then he Remembers – Scene with father…
The story is about the maturing of Simba, the young prince . In a crucial conversion scene, he realizes  his negligence and chooses to return and face his fate. The conversion scene is brilliant. When Simba is confronted with his father’s ghost, he isn’t convicted of any specific wrongdoing. Instead, Mufasa confronts Simba with the state of their relationship.  Adult Simba is alone at night.

Adult Simba: Father?

Mufasa’s ghost: [appears among the stars] Simba, you have forgotten me.

Adult Simba: No. How could I?

 Mufasa’s ghost: You have forgotten who you are and so have forgotten me. Look inside yourself, Simba. You are more than what you have become. You must take your place in the Circle of Life.

 Adult Simba: How can I go back? I’m not who I used to be.

 Mufasa’s Ghost: [Now fully formed in the sky] Remember who you are. You are my son and the one true king. Remember who you are.

Remember who you are – made in the image of God.  Baptized. We were made to be God’s sons and daughters, and when we act from that identity, we act in accord with who we were made to be.  Simba’s greatest failing is not that he fled, but that in doing so he failed his father and turned his back on who his father shaped him to be.

Simba’s character echoes biblical characters

Moses – Both Simba and Moses run away, they run away into a desert like area, and then they both return to save their people.

Samuel – They are both called.  They both have a higher purpose of leadership.  God speaks to Samuel at night.  Simba – his father speaks to him at night.

Jesus -In some ways Simba is a hero, even savior.  His community is suffering.  Their communities are on the wrong path.  He comes back to show them life and hope and to lead them.

Finale of Lion King
Scar wanted Simba to live with guilt and regret.  Scar represents the Evil One  whose job is the accuser……..he accuses us too….you are unredeemable, unforgivable.  But that’s not what God says.  God says your worth is immeasurable and forgiveness is yours when you ask for it.

Simba comes back home and takes his place, fulfills his calling and restores life for his community.  The mystery of Circle of Life continues.

Clip – Closing scene from stage version

In the church when we gather on Sundays and live each day, we can be aware of God’s presence and power, comfort and challenge.

We help the children and young people know God’s love and calling.
We discover and rediscover our callings.
Remember who you are.
Be careful who your friends are.  Your tribe.
Know that leaders who are courageous, compassionate and wise are to be valued.
Pay attention to what are you being urged, called, or summoned to do that builds up a person and  our community of faith of Willow Grove.

Being called by God, a God who knows our name, is a mystery. One thing I know about the human psyche: we don’t know what to do with mystery.

Much of the last five hundred years, we have lived through a continuing effort to remove all mystery from human life. We analyze everything scientifically. We work to remove all ambiguity. We develop technology that we can put in our cell phones, to know precisely where we are located and how long it will take to drive to Trexlertown, PA, or wherever else we want to go. In some ways it has been a vain attempt to control life, and overlook the truth that life is largely uncontrollable.  (1)

But our faith and the arts, shows like the Lion King, point us toward mystery and awe.  When I listen to people, I sense all have a deep hunger and thirst for holy mystery,  a longing for a living experience of God in their lives.

Jesus speaks in metaphors and stories that point to the mystery and power of God’s love and God’s invitation to abundant life.

The heart of the matter is that Jesus Christ is our life. He is risen and alive, for God is alive. His invitation is to take part in his life. It’s what he calls “the life of eternity.” (zoe aionios) in John’s Gospel.

A lot of times we translate this phrase as “eternal life.” I believe that is a flat translation. That, for many people, is a life that goes on and on forever. When a lot of folks hear about “eternal life,” they think only about the next life, about heaven.

As my friend and colleague Rev. Bill Carter wrote –  Jesus spoke of something far greater. He is speaking about this life, the only life we get. When he points to “the life of eternity,” it’s a way of referring to “the life that God lives” or “the life of the Risen Christ.” It’s a way of being and doing, serving and loving, forgiving and rejoicing, here and now. Certainly it continues into the future for into  God’s eternity. But it starts here and now.  (2)

The scene at the beginning of The Lion King reminds me of baptism.  We are going to baptize Libby in September.  When we baptize a child in worship we are saying she belongs to the Risen Christ today and forever. His love embraces her and her family. His justice sets a plumb line for her life.

In the years to come, if we all work together to tell her what the mystery of Christ is all about, she can be shaped in his image. She will not grow up to be a racist or be swayed by demeaning strereotypes. She will never walk by a hungry neighbor. She won’t ever demean somebody with whom she disagrees. She will find her strength in the living words of God.

That is the life of eternity.  Let’s imagine Jesus calling each one of us to that life as we sing “Circle of Life.”

Sing  Circle of Life

From the day we arrive on the planet
And blinking, step into the sun
There’s more to see than can ever be seen
More to do than can ever be done
There’s far too much to take in here
More to find than can ever be found
But the sun rolling high Through the sapphire sky
Keeps great and small on the endless round
It’s the Circle of Life
And it moves us all
Through despair and hope
Through faith and love
Till we find our place
On the path unwinding
In the Circle, The Circle of Life

1)  Rev. William G. Carter, Wonder Bread and the Life of Eternity, August 9, 2015.  The Sermons of Bill Carter

2)  Carter

God on Broadway – Man of La Mancha – Is God’s Dream the Impossible Dream?


Is God’s Dream the Impossible Dream?      
Summer Series – God on Broadwaygod on broadway header final (1)
Man of La Mancha
Joel 2:27-28,
Matthew 5:1-11
August 2, 2015
Rev. Cynthia Cochran-Carney,
Willow Grove Presbyterian Church,
Scotch Plains, New Jersey


1 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.  2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.                                             Matthew 5:1-11
Who has seen Man of La Mancha on stage?  The movie with Peter O’Toole and Sophia Loren?  Jeffrey and I saw a performance  a few years ago at Shawnee playhouse.  The production that sticks with me though is the one when I was on stage.  The church I grew up in had a theater company.  One year we performed Man of La Mancha.  There was a large cast.  I remember looking forward to being part of the production.  During the rehearsals the music, the message, and the characters resonated with me.  Main character is Don Quixote.  I listened every night on stage.  It was easy since I was playing Don Quixote’s horse.  I was the front in case you were wondering!  Ever since then this musical has been one of my favorites and one of the most personally meaningful.  I will tell you more later.


Man of La Mancha is a story told by a man named Cervantes– an old story about a medieval knight with a glorious vision, a dream. He is surrounded by people who criticize and mock him and his dream.  This musical has a ring of reality and authenticity about it.  It  has enabled me to understand more clearly the wisdom to be found in the Kingdom of God and God’s vision for each of us and for all creation.

Set in the Spanish Inquisition, the play opens in a dark dungeon surrounded by locked bars in which prisoners were passing judgment on each other while waiting to be judged themselves by the authorities.  On the dark stage you can see a staircase.  And then there is a loud bang.  A prison guard roughly slammed the metal door closed and shoved a new resident into this dark place of misery. Strangely a plump little man accompanied this new captive, appearing to be his servant.

The new prisoner identified himself as Don Miguel de Cervantes, a poet of the theater, Immediately the intimidating leader of this gang of criminals informed Cervantes that all new inmates were immediately placed on trial and that he was no exception. “For what?” Cervantes asked.

The ruffian leader of the prison crowd responded: “I charge you with being an idealist, a bad poet, and an honest man. How plead you?” Immediately Cervantes said, “Guilty!”

But then, in the same breath, Cervantes explained that he pleaded guilty so that he would have an opportunity to defend himself. At that point, the poet prisoner proposes to cast his defense in the form a drama about a man.   He takes on the identity of a medieval knight who embarked upon a mission to right all wrongs. As the play within the play gets underway, the knight insisted his name would be known as Don Quixote de La Mancha.

Don Quixote’s vision and dream were sacred,. But the appearance of this man was   ludicrous. In the play he puts on some make up and powder in his hair – looks gray and disheveled. He proudly held in his hand a twisted piece of a tree limb that served as his glistening metal spear and on his head he wore a common barber’s shaving bowl that he saw as a golden helmet.  He will go into the world the right the wrongs, to fight evil, to be an honorable knight.   His looks and his vision seem foolish.  A madman.

Jesus teaching on the mountain

After teaching on the mountain, Jesus would be called the same.  Foolish.  A madman.   This is not how the world works.  This is not what those who came to hear expected.

This scene in today’s passage was familiar to people living in Jesus’ day. Frustration with Roman occupation, the advance of pagan culture, and oppressive living conditions had fueled the fires of messianic expectation. To the average observer, Jesus was another in a long string of people claiming to be the Messiah in a politically turbulent time when anti-Roman violence was deemed acceptable, necessary, and even righteous.

However, Jesus’ audience was about to have every expectation challenged. Their ideas concerning kingdom, power, and glory were about to be turned upside-down. Jesus’  kingdom manifesto, his vision, his dream, has a surprising series of blessings,  Upside down kingdom.  Not how the world works.  But as Jesus’ words and actions show us his love and power and salvation turn individual lives around and the whole world.  This is his ministry, his quest.  Crazy?  Foolish?  Faithful?

1) One lesson of Man of La Mancha offers is that life is a quest to live with honor, with kingdom values.

Don Q. fights the evils as a knight.  He thinks the windmills are the enemy, the evil one, so he goes after them with his sword.

Here is clip of Don Q and Sancho Panza.  Watch 1:20 – 2:18

Life as a quest is to seek what is good, what is loving, what is right in God’s dream.  That keeps us hopeful and open to the blessings God offers. Jesus reminds us that our life is one of blessing, of being open to God’s blessing of love and sharing and compassion.  To see that kingdom values move away from evil.  We conquer evil with good , with God.  Jesus taught that.  Don Quixote said that.  But others could not see.

2)  Another lesson is to see the best in people.  Don Quixote sees the best in people.  He sees with God’s eyes.  And he sees the world with God’s eyes.

Jesus saw with God’s eyes and teaches that way of seeing life in the passage from Matthew 5.  The beatitudes reflect the primary theme of  and a way of seeing reflected in  Jesus’ life and ministry – the kingdom of God is present and available to all! In contrast to the Pharisees’ expectations, the blessed ones of the kingdom are not the most religiously devout, but rather, are the poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek, those hungry and thirsty for righteousness. In opposition to the Zealots who used violence to advance God’s kingdom, Jesus announced that God’s blessed ones are the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers – people who refuse to return evil with evil.

Don Quixote meets a tough woman named Aldonza.  She is the waitress  at the inn where he and Sancho were staying. The woman’s posture, voice, and attitude were  giveaways of her history of being abused and used by men.

No sooner had Don Quixote seen Aldonza than he addressed her with love and adoration. Never before had she heard such words. “My lady .” Don Quixote described vividly all that Aldonza felt she was not. But the knight continued his remarks, “I dare not gaze full upon thy countenance lest I be blinded by beauty.” Aldonza’s deep, justifiable distrust of any man exploded in bitterness as she lashed out at Don Quixote. She thought he was just another man mocking her thrusting himself on her.   But he continues to speak to her with love, with tenderness.  He sees her with the eyes of God.  He calls her Dulcinea – sweet one.  He treats her like royalty and sings to her.

Clip – Dulcinea

At first she is in disbelief.  No one has ever talked to her like that.  But it does start to change her.  Don Q vision changes her.  Jesus vision’, the Beatitudes offers new life to those who thought they did not matter.  It changes people.  God’s love can change us like that.  Change the way we see ourselves.  We have regrets.  We have made bad choices and we have hurt people.  It is  hard to forgive ourselves and yet God offers a new life.  and forgiveness.  It is hard but it is possible.

Don Q sees the best in people.  One reason this musical has been so meaningful to me is I think about the people who taught me this lesson – to see the best in people.  First church Mary Lou Miller, who taught children in Bloomington, IN that they could be peacemakers.   In the   CA church there was Tracey Freeman.  We had so many kids in our new church and not enough space.  She saw each child as precious and made each one feel special.  My dad was like that.  He always saw the best in people.  So many people have told me that through the years.  He was my Don Quixote in many ways – positive, optimistic, hopeful.

Reality in the play

Others see what exists, but The Man of La Mancha sees what can be.  There is a vision of goodness and honor but the harsh reality of the world is also evident in the play. Don Q says, “Yes, you are My Lady, and I shall give you a new name. I shall call you Dulcinea. You are My Lady, My Lady, Dulcinea.”  “Dulcinea” means “sweet one.”

Once, in distress, not comprehending him, when they are alone, Aldonza says, “Why do you do and say these things? Why do you treat me the way you do? What do you want from me? I know men. I’ve seen them all. I’ve had them all. They’re all the same. They all want something from me. Why do you call me Dulcinea? Why do you call me your Lady? What do you want?”  He says, “I just want to call you what you are .. you are My Lady, Dulcinea.”

Later in the musical there is a horrible scene backstage.   Aldonza may be changing and believing and seeing herself differently, but world around her is not changing.  The audience hears screams. She is being raped. when Aldonza comes back on stage, she is crying, hysterically. Her blouse and skirt are ripped. He opens his arms to her and says compassionately, “My Lady, Dulcinea. Oh, My Lady, My Lady.”

She cries. “Don’t call me a Lady. Oh God, don’t call me a Lady. Can’t you see me for what I am?

“I was born in a ditch by a mother who left me there naked and cold, too hungry to cry. I never blamed her. She left me there hoping I’d have the good sense to die. Don’t call me a Lady. I’m only a kitchen slut, reeking with sweat. I’m only a whore men use and forget. Don’t call me your Lady. I’m only Aldonza. I am nothing at all.” She runs into the night as Don Q calls, “But you are… my lady.”

Is he foolish?  Unrealistic?  Insane?  Dreamer?  What will happen to Aldonza?  What happens to us when reality sets in?  When we thought we had a new vision of ourselves but the world comes back to tell us – no, you are not a good person, parent, employee, husband or wife.  You are not valuable.  You are not important.  You don’t matter.

Like Don Quixote, God says – Wrong!  False!  You are precious, beloved, forgiven, you are saved.  You are not Aldonza.  You are Dulcinea.

3)  Finally there is the lesson of God’s dream of wholeness and redemption for all creation is possible.

Jesus’ vision, dream reflected in Beatitudes,  is God’s dream for the each of us and all creation.  God has and will bring it to reality.  Even when we think it is impossible.

Don Quixote did not believe in the best without knowing the worst. He offered these words.

I have lived nearly fifty years, Don Quixote said. Pain, misery, hunger . . . cruelty beyond belief. I have heard the singing from taverns and the moans from bundles of filth on the streets. I have been a soldier and seen my comrades fall in battle . . . I have held them in my arms at the final moment. Now, listen carefully. When life seems lunatic , who knows where madness lies?” Perhaps to be too practical is madness. To surrender dreams– this may be madness. To seek treasure where there is only trash. Too much sanity may be madness. And maddest of all is to see life as it is and not as it should be.

 He offered a different dream, his dream for the world.  What would it mean for us to have this kind of dream and this willingness to fight for it in a world that says it is foolish?

clip – The impossible dream

Today we will gather around this table, the Lord’s table to proclaim that we will follow Jesus and the dream he offered.  Maybe impossible by the world’s standards, but it is God’s dream. We will follow Jesus the one we follow and who taught, preached, fed, healed people.  He looked at them with God’s eyes.  He told them they were loved.  He told them to repent, to turn around.  He told them about his vison of the Kingdom of God.  The bread and the cup strengthen us.  His dream did not died on the cross.  The Risen Christ proclaimed the good news of hope and overcoming death and sin and despair.  We can live as those who know the dream is God’s dream and is alive today.

Are we like Aldonza coming to the table?  Are we a doubter?  Are we one of those who hears Jesus words in the Sermon on the Mount but wonders if they can be trusted?

Near the end of the play Cervantes Dr and family have an intervention.  They hold up mirrors.  Look at reality.  Look at yourself.  ….. He is crushed and one of the last scenes he is dying.

Clip – end

So who are the crazy, foolish, mad ones in the play?  In the world?  Jesus was considered a madman by many, a threat by others.

In life we see what is real.  And then there is the ideal.  Real is sane and Ideal seems insane. There is a barrier between the real and the ideal.

But in Jesus Christ, the Ideal became Real.  Jesus, fully God was fully human,  He smashed a hole in the barrier and came into the real.  That is Christian faith.  We don’t have to simply have beliefs.  We have a person who lived, and taught and died and was resurrected.   And his presence, his dream, changes us and the world.

Where are you on your journey and quest?  Seeing yourself as God sees you?  Seeing others as part of God’s family?  Are you willing to see the world as it could be and follow Jesus? May we be dreamers and fools together.

Sing  “The Impossible Dream”

 To dream the impossible dream
To fight the unbeatable foe
To bear with unbearable sorrow
To run where the brave dare not go

To right the unrightable wrong
To love pure and chaste from afar
To try when your arms are too weary
To reach the unreachable star

This is my quest to follow that star
No matter how hopeless, no matter how far
To fight for the right without question or pause
To be willing to march into Hell for a heavenly cause

And I know if I’ll only be true to this glorious quest
That my heart will lie peaceful and calm when I’m laid to my rest

And the world will be better for this
That one man, scorned and covered with scars
Still strove with his last ounce of courage
To reach the unreachable star

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