Link to Service

Genesis 16.7-15

Matthew 5.1-12

Sabbatical Surprises

(Five to Seven for Good Behavior – VI)

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

As I wrote on Friday, there is an awful lot going on in the world these days that seem to cry out for a voice of faith and reason.  You can read the headlines as well as I can.  So at first blush, it seems a little out of touch to spend one more week talking about sabbaticals and study weeks.  But it occurred to me, on my way from the Villager to the church Friday, that this is nearly always true, the church always has something important to say to the things that capture our attention on a regular basis.  My intent this morning was to talk about the week I spent in the Czech Republic in 2016, Istanbul in 2013 and London in 2006.  And as I was wondering how to rejigger today’s service to speak to more contemporary topics I remembered that, just because none of those cities made front page news this week, it doesn’t mean they never did.

When our flight touched down in Prague in 2016, the name of the airport brought a smile of recognition to my face:  Václav Havel International Airport.  Václav Havel, a poet who rose to the Presidency of Czechoslovakia, who indeed was that nation’s last President.   Václav Havel, who was blacklisted for his participation in the Prague Spring of 1968.  Václav Havel, who later led the successful Velvet Revolution against Soviet occupation of his country.  Václav Havel, who oversaw the dissolution of his own nation into its two more genuine constituent parts, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.  Václav Havel, who went from being a political prisoner of the state to a leader in the fight to bring down the Iron Curtain.  It reminded me or our first trip to Europe in 1989 when the bus we were riding was stopped at the border of the former Yugoslavia, to be boarded by multiple armed soldiers with machine guns strapped over their shoulders, carefully examining every rider’s passport.  It was a bit chilling to say the least, but to fly 27 years later into a formerly East block nation where a poet turned president helped to bring down that system struck me as ironic and just.

There were two reasons we were in Prague that week.  Debbie was giving a paper at the European Council for Information Literacy, and, being the tagalong, I decided it would be a good opportunity for me to do a deep dive into the roots of the Protestant Reformation.  Jan Hus lived almost exactly 100 years before Martin Luther.  A resident of Prague, it was Hus who gave birth to the ideas that Martin Luther would call upon a century later as the foundation of his 95 theses.  Hus condemned the practice of indulgences, as well as the use of those offerings to build ornate cathedrals; he condemned the priestly abuses and excesses of the Church; he rejected the Pope’s authority; and, in a move that went further than even even Luther, he advocated for the rights of women in the church.  And so it was more than a little appropriate that when I worshiped on Sunday morning in Prague’s St Nicholas Church, it was a female priest who led the service.

It also occurred to me on Friday morning that the week we spent in Istanbul was a rich resource for events both current and ancient.  Again, we were in that part of the world for another of Debbie’s international professional conferences in the fall of 2013, and I was acutely aware of the global crossroad the city represented.  Long before it was Istanbul the city was called Constantinople after the emperor Constantine who moved the capital of the Roman Empire from Rome to that Turkish city, and before that it was called Byzantium, a strategic city of antiquity due to its location at the mouth of the Black Sea, on the Bosphorus canal.  And you may recall it was just eighteen months ago when Turkish president Recep Erdoğan held some of the western world hostage over his fickle and uncertain allegiance at the start of the war in Ukraine, a war in which the Black Sea remains both strategic and contested.

I had gone to Istanbul thinking I would continue to follow the art of the creeds as I did in Italy.  After all, it was Emperor Constantine who, having moved the seat of the empire from Rome to the city he named for himself, convened the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE to institute Christianity as the official religion of the empire.  The result was the Nicene Creed, codified nearly 50 years later in 381.  And there was indeed plenty of artistic representation of the faith of the fourth century, but my study took a different turn while I was there.  More on this in a bit.

The first of my three European study weeks took place in the fall of 2006.  My older daughter Clare was finishing up her graduate work at University College London, and I flew over for a week to help her get organized for the trip home.  As I prepared for the trip, I wondered what I could study while I was there.  Lo and behold, a little homework revealed that University College London was founded by 19th century philosopher Jeremy Bentham, considered the founder of Utilitarianism, a philosophy of the greatest good for the greatest number of people or, as Bentham wrote, “It is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong.”  I decided to look at the utility of utilitarianism for Christianity, and at first I thought I had come across something in the beatitudes that Daphne read for us this morning, the well-known “Blessed ares…”  Because when Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit… blessed are the merciful… blessed are the pure in heart…”, some interpreters believe we can substitute the word happy for the word blessed, so we could also read them, “Happy are the poor in spirit… happy are the merciful… happy are the pure in heart…”   But after a while I realized that it was too far of a stretch to make a legitimate case for my idea, because I was turning Jesus into a Utilitarian philosopher, and as much as I wanted my time in London to fit into my continuing education, I couldn’t quite make it work, at least from a biblical point of view.

But those three study weeks in London, Istanbul and Prague were not without their surprises.  As it happens, the grand entryway of University College London includes the body of Jeremy Bentham, standing proudly, encased in a glass booth.  And yes, it is the real thing.  Bentham willed his organs to the college for scientific research with the proviso that the rest of him be preserved.  And so as you walk into the university’s vestibule you are greeted by the utilitarian founder himself.  Or most of him, anyway.  While his body is the real McCoy, his head is fake.  It turns out that in days past, students of rival colleges would make their way into the building under cover of night, steal Bentham’s head, and play soccer with it in the university quad.  This happened more than once until the college replaced poor Jeremy’s noggin with a replica, storing the original in a safe place.  When it comes to college pranks, this one has to rank up there with some of the best!

Our trip to Istanbul surprised me in a different way.  I said I was interested in the development of the creeds and their art, and being in the same place where Constantine convened the body of church scholars who wrote the Nicene Creed seemed like a good place to begin.  But as we stayed there for the week, I became fascinated by the ways that Christianity and Islam so comfortably coexisted in the city.  As I’ve said before, we saw churches that used to be mosques and mosques that used to be churches, and there was little if any tension evident between the two.  Part of it, I think, is the fact that both world religions – actually, let’s say three of the world’s major religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam can trace their origins back to the same ancient ancestor Abraham.  Both Jews and Christians trace their roots to Abraham through Sarah’s son Isaac.  And as we heard this morning, Abraham’s other wife Hagar also bore him a son named Ishmael, through whom the Muslim world traces its own ancestry to Abraham.  But I thought to myself, there has to be more to Istanbul’s religious peaceful coexistence than this.  It was during a visit to the Agia Sophia that another explanation emerged.  Originally the Agia was an orthodox church erected in 537 CE.  It remained a church until, like so many others, it was converted into a mosque following the Ottoman conquest in 1453.  But then, in the 1930s the secular state transformed it into a museum, and I thought, what a brilliant idea.  This way, no one religion could claim ownership of this gorgeous historic site that dominates the Istanbul skyline, since by making it a public space it belongs to everyone, Muslim Christian, Jew, the faithful and the faithless alike.  This was in 2013.  But then in 2020, President Recep Erdoğan, in a political move intended to shore up his struggling presidency, turned it back into a mosque in a blatant appeal for votes, and so it has remained since.  I don’t know what Christian-Muslim relationships are like in Turkey today, but I am still convinced that it was the Solomonic hand of the state making it a museum accessible to all, that made for healthy relations among multiple faiths from the 1930s until three years ago.

And what surprised me about Prague had nothing to do with my study of Jan Hus, but it is something that I should already have known as a musician.  There was music everywhere in Prague.  Early one evening we attended a 6:00 performance in a historic concert hall.  The program featured the overture to Carmen by George Bizet, some Slavonic Dances by Dvorak, the Moldau by Smetana and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.  Both Dvorak and Smetana are Czech, or at least Bohemian, so those pieces made sense, and both Carmen and the Four Seasons are crowd-pleasers.  But what I couldn’t believe were the tempos – we were in and out of the concert hall in 65 minutes!  I guess it was the musician’s intent to get us in and out of the venue as quickly as possible in order to fit multiple performances in every night.  For while I’ve long known that Vienna is considered the musical capital of Europe, I never thought about the fact that Prague, since at least the 19th century, was never far behind; Mozart visited and performed there frequently and named his 38th Symphony after the city; Dvorak and Smetana not only called it their home but there are two museums, one dedicated to each composer, in the city.  And both Leos Janacek and Gustav Mahler are associated with Prague as well.  There was music everywhere, and it was delightful.

  I could keep going about my study weeks to the three cities, but will just make one more observation about their age and their history.  Before I came to Chester, I lived for seventeen years in a city that was settled a mere six years after the pilgrims landed in Plymouth (after they stopped in Provincetown).  I thought it was pretty cool to live in an area with such deep history.  Then I went to Europe.  In Prague I tossed back a pint at the city’s oldest brewer, U Fleku, established in 1499.  I did the same in London’s Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, a pub that I thought rather pretentious for its use of Ye Olde (that’s Old with an e at the end), until I saw the sign, “Renovated in 1666.”  Turns out Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese was established in 1538.  But what really took me back in London was an old, nearly unremarked dock on the Thames that was built by the Romans in the year 73, right around the time that Matthew and Luke were writing their stories about Jesus.  And of course, to stand in Byzantium / Constantinople / Istanbul, whose heritage reaches back 700 years before Jesus, well all of a sudden 1626 becomes recent history.  And to be immersed in it, to be surrounded by antiquity while grounded in the present is the kind of education and experience that lasts a lifetime.  I have long believed that travel is the best education one can get, and I am grateful to this congregation and all my congregations for providing the opportunity to do so.

Uniter 2

 community 2

Current Events Button

 donate 2

Join Us!

Sunday worship

is at 10 a.m.

In-person &

online on our





Handicapped Accessible 



United Church of Chester, 29 West Main Street, Chester, CT 06412. (860) 526-2697


From the North: Take CT Route 9 South to Exit 8 (old exit 6) (CT 148). Turn left; we are 1 mile on the right.


From the South: Take CT Route 9 North to Exit 8 (old exit 6) (CT 148). Turn Right; we are .8 miles on the right.

Office Hours

Church Office:

Tuesday - Friday 9-1


Minister's Hours:

Wednesday  - Friday



Mailing Address:  

Post Office Box 383, Chester, CT 06412


Physical Address:  

29 West Main Street, Chester, CT 06412





Email Address: