Nicodemus and Spiritual Curiosity: Sermon for May 27, 2018

A few weeks ago I told you that this is trout season. Most Saturdays this time of year I’m out fly fishing. Saturdays are also the days when I’m thinking through my sermon for the next day, usually looking for that one last sermon illustration. So I told you there might be some overlap between sermons and fishing stories for a while.

Today is no exception. Yesterday I was thinking about what it means to be curious. I meant spiritual curiosity, but I started to think about what I was doing at the moment. So much of fishing involves finding the fish, and that is often harder than it sounds. 

Once they have found a good fishing spot, a lot of people won’t share it with you. And so, you have to find your own. So you look around at these quiet, shallow creeks full of rocks and plants, with not a fish to be seen, and you think to yourself, “there’s nothing there”.

IMG_0511But sometimes, you try anyway. You put your line in the water, and lo and behold, a fish pops up. And you marvel at the fact that the fish was there the whole time, in this piece of water that you maybe drive by every day, and all it took was enough curiosity to try.

I tell you that story because I believe in the power of curiosity, and today’s story is one about what it means to be curious. It all revolves around a man named Nicodemus. Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a religious authority, and Jesus was not well-loved by the Pharisees. They were trying to find ways to discredit him and reduce his growing influence, which they felt was a threat to their own power.

But Nicodemus was starting to get curious. There was something about Jesus that made him ask the big questions. And so, one night he decided to put his line in the water. He had to be careful, he couldn’t let his Pharisee friends see, and so he snuck out in the dead of night and went to find Jesus. 

He probably woke Jesus up. But Jesus, being a better person than I, talks to him. Nicodemus says, “I know you’ve got to be a teacher from God…how else would you know all you know…but who are you.”

And Jesus, as usual, doesn’t give a straight answer. Jesus starts talking about being “born from above” or “born again”. And Nicodemus has no idea what he’s saying. He’s like, “Am I supposed to go back in my mother’s womb, Jesus?” But Jesus starts to explain what it means to be spiritually reborn, to have something new happen inside of you.

Now, where I come from, a lot of people talk about being “born again”. I got asked so many times growing up whether I had been “born again”. And I had friends who had these amazing stories about how they had been born again. They’d tell you the exact moment when their lives had changed and they had quote “accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior”. 

That always confused me, because I never had one big moment like that. Instead, I had a lot of little moments. I had times when I got curious, and I opened myself up to the big questions that were brewing inside of me. Those questions got me into books, and into conversations, and later into church. Slowly curiosity opened the way for me to come to know God. Like Nicodemus in the night, I cautiously approached Jesus, and started to wonder whether he might be worth following.

I think that’s how it is for many of us, especially if we are the kind of people who are cautious but curious. Our particular religious tradition teaches us that it’s not only okay to ask big questions, but it’s actually a good thing. We don’t believe in leaving our brains at the church door.

And yet, I am struck by the fact that if you are here, your curiosity somehow brought you to those church doors, and right through them. That’s not true of everyone. You are here because God is working in you, helping you to be spiritually reborn again and again and again. And so long as you remain curious, so long as you remain open to wonder, your rebirth will not stop.

That’s one reason why our sermons this summer are going to be inspired by your questions. If you are here, in this church, you probably have questions. And so, this is a chance to get curious, to put your line in the water, and to go just a little further in your spiritual rebirth. So please, fill out those forms. Ask the questions that keep you up at night. I’m not Jesus…that’s for sure…but I’ll do my best to be a companion on the journey, trying to wrestle with these questions with you. Because we are all Nicodemuses in some ways.

That’s good news. And that’s also unsettling news. And I mean “unsettling” in the best possible way. Because it means we will be forced out of our settled places – we will be unsettled – and made to evolve spiritually…just like Nicodemus was. 

Martin Luther King once used the story of Nicodemus to talk about being born again. He said that Jesus hadn’t given Nicodemus easy instructions or said “stop doing this” or “stop doing that”. Instead, Dr. King said, Jesus told Nicodemus “your whole structure must be changed”. This was nothing less than a total shake-up.

Dr. King was talking specifically about how America had to be “born again” and deal with injustice. And that’s a good example of how we as people, and as institutions and communities, must also sometimes be born again, and do what is right and what is good, for the love of God and for the love of the world.

On this Memorial Day weekend, I’m thinking about that, and I’m thinking about what it means to be an unsettled American Christian. I grew up in a deeply patriotic family full of people who gave their whole lives to military or government service. I’m in many ways the exception in my family in that I chose to serve the church instead.

But I remain a believer in the American experiment. That doesn’t mean that I’m naive, though. I believe in this country’s potential to be better. I loved my country even when I had to file my federal taxes as a single person despite the fact I wore a wedding ring on my left hand, but I knew that the work of this country being spiritually reborn again and again was not over. 

I’ve been thinking about that this week as we prepare to help welcome a family of refugees to New Hampshire. I am so struck by the courage this family is showing. To be legally designated as a refugee is a high bar. It means that they are fleeing something so horrible that coming to this country, a place where they no know one and have no connections, is worth leaving everything behind.

There are real risks. That’s why it cannot be shared publicly where they are from, how many are in the family, or when they will arrive. Right now they are preparing for an incredibly dangerous journey. And right now, they are probably asking themselves, “Will America be worth it?”

I hope the answer is “yes”. I fear that there will be nights when they question it. We are in a time in this country, this country that is populated by so many of us who are the great-grandchildren of immigrants, where xenophobia is at a new peak. The irony should not be lost on us. 

And yet, there are signs that curiosity can indeed bring change. There are signs of hope.

About eighteen months ago, when it became clear that immigrants and refugees were facing new attacks in our country, people started asking me about whether the church would respond somehow. A few wanted to know if we could sponsor a refugee family. Eventually we got all of the people who were asking in one room, and they started trying to figure out what we could do.

They didn’t know anything about the system. They didn’t know about resettlement agencies or others who might want to help. They didn’t know what it would involve. And yet, here we are, ready to help our first family to move to this state. All because we were unsettled enough to get curious. All because we were willing to throw our line into the water. 

The last time we see Nicodemus in the Gospels is when he dares to help bury Jesus. Nicodemus is there at the end for Jesus, even when Christ’s own disciples had fled in fear. In the end we see that Nicodemus had indeed been reborn. 

On this Memorial Day, I see what our church is doing as an indication that maybe we are being reborn as people and as citizens. I think of our ancestors in this church who took stands like this over the past four centuries, and I think about how maybe their questions and curiosities, their daring, are the things that have kept this church alive and evolving for so many years. 

And I think about us, about our call to be followers of Christ, and about our call to transform not just our own lives but also our communities, our country, and our world. I believe it is possible, but I also believe it will take good, curious people who are open to having their lives shaken up. 

And so, what will your Nicodemus moment be? What big questions or possibilities are keeping you up at night? And how un-settled are you willing to be if it means that you might just be reborn, and the world might just be better for it? Christ is waiting for your curiosity, and Christ is ready to use it. Put your line in the water, and get ready for what’s about to bite.

Translating the Faith: Sermon for Pentecost Sunday, May 20, 2018

About six and a half years ago I was falling deeply in love. I had been dating Heidi for a while, and I knew she was the one I wanted to spend my life with. And, I knew she wanted to spend her life with me. We were already talking about marriage, and so I started to think about how I would propose.

There was one thing I had to do first, though. I really wanted her parents’ blessing. Now, down where I come from it’s not unusual to ask a woman’s father for permission to marry her. I remember this happening when my sisters got married. And even then it struck me as a little troubling. They were adults. They were not the property of their parents, and really the decision to marry was solely their own.

But, even though I didn’t need their permission, I still wanted her parents’ blessing. Now, Heidi’s mom and step-father live in Liverpool, England. Her mom is American and her stepdad is a native Liverpudlian. And he has a very thick Liverpool accent. Think the Beetles when they were first breaking out of Liverpool, and then multiply that by about five. 

And so, picture me calling Liverpool. I get both parents on the line and I start explaining how much I love their daughter, how amazing she is, how I will always do my best to be a good spouse and to support her, and how, before I proposed to her, I would really love to have their blessing to marry her. 

Her mother said, “yes” immediately. And her step-dad said…something. His accent was so thick, and I at that time was so unused to it, that I really have no idea what he said. I think his response was positive, but for all I know he could have been telling me to go to a very hot and terrible place. 

Now, I’m not making fun of him or people with accents. I’m making fun of myself. Here we were, two English speakers, and we were having trouble communicating with one another. At the wedding a year later, my dad and Heidi’s stepdad were in the car together and I was driving. I dropped her stepdad off and my dad turned to me and said, “He is the nicest guy and I have no idea what he is saying.” And I said to my dad, “And he’s probably saying about you, ‘He’s the nicest guy, and I have no idea what he is saying.’”

So I tell you this story because here we are, people who speak English, the same language, people you would think would have no trouble communicating, and we had a hard time understanding one another. It’s a story that reminds me of the story that on this Pentecost Sunday we remember. 

Last week we talked about the Ascension. Jesus rose into heaven and the disciples were left on their own to figure out how to be the church. But, as Jesus was leaving, he reassured them that “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and to the ends of the world.”

In other words, something is coming that will give you strength for what you are being asked to do, which is to share the message of God’s love and grace with others. You are asked to be a witness to that love and grace, and the Holy Spirit is what is going to give you the strength to do that.

And so, ten days later, the disciples are gathered again. And all of a sudden they hear a loud rush of wind, and flames descend and rest on each of them, and they start to speak, not in their own languages, but in other languages, languages they didn’t know before them. 

They happen to be in a part of Jerusalem that is a sort of crossroads of the world. People from all these different places, speaking all these different languages, have come there. And these people start to hear the disciples speaking in their own language. Scripture tells us they were there from parts of Asia, from Rome, from Egypt. And the disciples were able to talk to all of them. 

In other words, the Holy Spirit gives the gift of translation to the disciples. They are given the ability to be translators of God’s love and grace to the world. And for the disciples that meant literal translators. They could literally speak new languages and tell the story of Jesus, and of his love to new people.

For us, though, that means something a little different. For us it’s less learning how to speak a literal new language, and more learning to be translators of our faith to the world around us. We become translators, ambassadors, of God’s love and grace. We learn how to share that love with the world in a number of ways. By the way we speak to others. By how we share what we have been given. Even by how we advocate for those who are in need.

In fact, if you look at what we are doing at church just this week, you might see some Pentecost moments. Today we are recognizing all of our church school teachers, people who translate the faith for our youngest members every week by telling them stories, playing games with them, and doing crafts. And then after worship we are taking the plastic bags that we have been collecting and turning them from environmental hazards that would go into the landfill into mats for those without homes. And all the while members of our church, and the Greenland church, are making plans to welcome a refugee family to New Hampshire.

This is Pentecost work. This is the work of translating God’s love and grace from the theoretical to the tangible and sharing it with others. And when we do this well, the church is really at its best. But it’s not only the work that we do outside our doors that matters; it’s also the work we do inside our church, and inside of ourselves. 

As I’ve been thinking about Pentecost over the last few weeks, I’ve been thinking too about what it means to be the church in a time when church is really foreign to many. New Hampshire has been named the second-least religious state in the country. That means this is the state where the second-smallest percentage of people attend religious services. Vermont is first, by the way. That means that most of our friends and neighbors have no idea what we are doing here on Sunday mornings. 

Occasionally, though, someone gets curious, and they come through our front doors. Maybe not so long ago that person was even you. And they walk in and we look at them and think, “Well, we are all speaking the same language here…everything we are doing must make sense to them.” But that’s a little like me calling Heidi’s step-dad and thinking, “Well, we’re both speaking English…we’ll understand one another just fine.”

The reality is that church can be a daunting place, especially for newcomers. I didn’t grow up in the church, so I know that firsthand. Everyone seems to know when to stand and sit, when to pray, how to sing the hymns. It’s easy to feel out of place.

And so this is when it’s worth noting that it’s always seemed important that it was the disciples who learned the new languages of faith. It wasn’t the people they encountered who had to learn to speak the language of church. The church learned to speak the language of the people. The church learned to translate God’s love into the language of the everyday.

I thought about that recently when I overheard a conversation between churchgoers who were not members of this church. They were talking about their church bulletin and how terrible it was that the Lord’s Prayer was printed inside of it. “Everyone knows it,” they said. When someone pointed out that many people didn’t know it, the reaction was one of shock. “Well, everyone should know it! How do these people not know it!”

I cringed. I cringed because I was once a new churchgoer who didn’t know the Lord’s Prayer. I remember repeating it over and over again, trying to remember it. And I began to wonder, how many other things are we as a church taking for granted that people know? And by people I don’t mean the ones outside our doors…I mean those of us here in the pews.

And so, I have a Pentecost project for us all to participate in this summer. When you came into church this morning you received your bulletin, and you also received two pieces of paper. This first says, “Help Plan Summer Worship… We are going to do some translation…first inside, and then outside. I’m going to ask you to write on these forms the big questions you have had; the ones where you’re looking for a little translation. Then, throughout the summer, I’m going to be answering these questions, and helping us to be able to translate the faith to those who are curious. 

By summer’s end, we will be better translators, and we will be even more ready to share God’s love and grace. 

Getting Our Heads Out of the Clouds: Sermon for Ascension Sunday, May 13, 2018

It’s hard to believe, but Easter was now 43 days ago. It feels like spring just got here last week, so Easter feels like it happened so long ago, at least to me. And yet, here we are, 43 days later. 

I know it’s 43 days because we have a lesser-known holiday in the church called Ascension Day that takes place exactly forty days after Easter. So, that was on Thursday. And you all missed the Ascension Day service!

We didn’t have one, of course. It’s not like Christmas, or even Ash Wednesday, where people come out midweek to worship. Churches traditionally celebrate this holiday on the next Sunday, which is today. 

And, if you don’t know the story of the Ascension, you’re not alone. It’s an important story, but one that’s hard to explain. Frankly, it’s also one that’s hard to believe. And that’s because this is how it goes: 40 days after Easter, after the day we was raised from the dead, Jesus was teaching the disciples, and they were asking him questions. 

One asked, “Lord, is this when we’re going to restore the kingdom to Israel”? What they meant by that was, “So Jesus, we’re about to do this thing, right? We’re about to tell everyone who you are and you’re about to take over and fixed everything here?”

That’s understandable. Here’s Jesus who died and came back to life. It’s amazing, and they know now who he is. They want to tell everyone about him, and they want to show them that they were right, that Jesus was worth following, and that now Jesus was going to fix everything.

So, let’s go Jesus…let’s get started.

But this happens instead. Jesus tells them that they don’t know what’s coming or when, and that all of that is God’s business. He tells them instead that they will be his “witnesses”. And then, while they are still watching him, he lifts up off the ground, into the clouds, and disappeared.

So, I’ve always envied the disciples. They got to know Jesus, to hear him teach, and to see and touch him in the flesh. They never had to ask themselves the questions that we do like “Did he really exist?” or “Did he do all those things the Bible says he did?” or “What was he like?” But this is one time that I don’t envy them, because this must have been absolutely crazy to watch.

I picture them all standing there, with their heads looking up, asking one another, “Did you see that too?” 

And so, they were standing there, with their heads, literally, in the clouds, doing nothing…and that’s when they hear this voice. And there are two men dressed all in white, messengers, saying “Why are you guys looking in the clouds? He is going to come back to you again.”

Sometimes the church needs people like those two guys in white. We need them to call our attention back from gazing up at the clouds all the time and to the world we are in now. And we need them to remind us that we have a task here as disciples of Christ. Jesus said that we would become his “witnesses”, the people who could testify to who he was and what he wants for the world. And with the Ascension the baton has been passed, we are left as witnesses to Christ’s life and work, and we are called to be the church.

And we won’t get very far in that work if all we do is keep our head in the clouds.

The Book of Acts, the book we read from today and the one that we will be reading from a lot in the lectionary cycle we are following now, is about what happens next. This is the very start of that book. And it’s what happens when the disciples become the first church. It’s about how they go from this small group of people who followed Jesus to a community that grows and spreads and endures to this day. 

And it’s worth remembering that it starts with this: the disciples looking up in the clouds and getting their attention called back to the world they have been asked to serve. 

And so those of us who are followers of Christ, those of us who are asked to be witnesses, have this big task of showing the world what the love and grace of Christ looks like. We are supposed to live in this world in a different way, one that shows what could be. One of hope. One of promise. One of building up this world. 

But here’s the thing…this is hard work. It’s work that makes us struggle, and work that will sometimes leave us doubting. And it’s work that’s too important to do alone. And so, that’s where the church comes in.

Christianity is a religion that many try to practice on their own. They think that so long as they believe the right things and try to act the right way, they don’t really need a community of faith like this. And, I’m not saying that those people are not good people. But, I am saying that Jesus never meant for us to follow him on our own. 

Jesus called his disciples into community. He taught them together. He gathered them at the table on the night of his Last Supper together. He showed himself to them after his Resurrection when they were together. And on the day of the Ascension, he made sure they were all there together. And that’s because we need one another in order.

That’s where church comes in. Church is the place we come to in order to remember this story, to tell it to each other again, to sing the faith, to share our joys and our pain, and to do the work of making this world a little better….together. 

Church is also the place we come to when we are struggling to be witnesses. Church is where we come when belief feels hard, and when we are filled with doubt. When that happens, perhaps more than ever, that’s when we need the church. Because on the days when we cannot quite believe, the community can believe for us, and can carry us through until we know God’s love in our hearts once again. 

Church is big enough for that. Church is big enough for a lot of things.

I think about that today on this Mother’s Day. Every minister I know has wrestled with how to celebrate Mother’s Day in church. On the one hand there’s this pressure to dedicate the whole day to moms and how great they are. On the other, there’s a lot of pain for a lot of people around the day. 

For some, this is a celebration, full only of happy memories of their own moms, or their own experiences of motherhood. But for others, this is a painful day. It’s a reminder of painful relationships, or of the loss of a mother, or of infertility, of the loss of a child, or of an unexpected pregnancy. 

So, what do we do? Do we ignore it completely? Do we choose celebration or sadness? Or, do we do what the church does, and make room for all of it?

I believe that we do the latter, because I believe in the church as a place that is big enough for our whole lives, because God is big enough for our whole lives. I believe in the church as a place where we can bring all of us. I believe in the church as a place that teaches us to be witnesses, and that witnesses to us when life gets hard. 

Carol

Flying kites together

Next week – story of Pentecost – in many ways a continuation of today – Jesus says Holy Spirit coming

The Widow’s Mite and Our Own: Sermon for May 6, 2018

A friend of mine is really, really good at what she does. The particulars of her job don’t really matter here, but she has this job because she worked very hard to prepare for it and she excels at it. Her co-workers like and respect her, the people she serves love her, and other people in her field frequently come to her for advice. Several times a year, she even gets approached by people trying to recruit her. They ask her whether she might like to come work for them instead. 

In short, she’s a catch. But, here’s a secret…she doesn’t know it.

Instead, some days she goes to her office, one that generations of talented and well-known men have occupied for decades. She’s the first woman to ever have the job, by the way. She sits at the desk, and looks around. And she wonders, “How did I get here?” And every so often she asks herself, “When are they going to find out that I shouldn’t be here…I shouldn’t have this job.”

There’s a term for this. It’s called “imposter syndrome”. People who have it believe that they are some sort of fraud and that it won’t be long until everyone finds out. We often talk about it in terms of women who are breaking glass ceilings but who still doubt that they are good enough. Truth be told, though, anyone can have imposter syndrome. Anyone can worry that they just can’t hack it, and soon everyone will know.

That may sound like a strange way to start a sermon on a poor woman who only had a few coins to her name, but bear with me. The Scripture we read today tells the story of Jesus watching people bring their offerings to the treasury of the Temple. This was an important act. The wealthy would sometimes make a big show of it, trying to get everyone’s attention as they gave their money so that everyone would see how rich and pious they were. 

But as Jesus is watching, this woman comes to the Temple. She is a widow, and Jesus can see that she doesn’t have much to her name. And she takes two small copper coins, two coins that were worth so little that you wouldn’t think much of them, and she puts them in the treasury. Today, with inflation, it might be a little like putting in a dollar or so, if that. 

You can imagine what the people watching might be thinking. Giving was a big affair, and this was giving to the Temple. This was, in a real way, giving to God. All these wealthy folks were bringing their money, money that could actually do something. And this woman comes with the change that they wouldn’t bother to pick up off of the ground, and she puts it in the treasury. What good would two coins do?

But Jesus…Jesus doesn’t see it that way. He watches her and he tells his disciples, “You see that woman? The one with the two coins? She is the one making the biggest gift this morning.” Jesus explains that the rich people who had come before, the ones who made those big, showy gifts, had given just a little of the lots that they had. She, on the other hand, had given a lot from her little. 

Have you ever received a gift like that? I remember as our wedding reception was ending, an older clergy colleague came up to me. She pastored a little church in rural Vermont, the kind that couldn’t pay its pastor all that much. And she pressed $40 into my hand and leaned in and said, “I don’t know anyone who isn’t broke after their wedding…here’s some gas money.”

We’d received a lot of wedding gifts. Well-heeled friends and family had bought out our Crate and Barrel registry and filled our kitchen with stand mixers and baking dishes. But that $40? That’s what I remember, because I knew what it cost her, and I knew what it meant for her to share it with me.

I think about the woman with her two coins who came to the Temple that day. I think about how she probably walked through the crowds, knowing she was being watched, knowing that she would be scoffed at for bringing such a small gift. I wonder if she was embarrassed. And I wonder if she thought about not giving at all. After all, who would really miss her two little coins? 

And that’s where it all comes back to imposter syndrome. I think that when it comes to giving of ourselves we all have the experience of thinking we don’t have anything useful to contribute. I’ve heard people say that they don’t want to pledge to the church, for instance, because they feel embarrassed at how small that pledge will be. And I always want to say, “Give anyway! I don’t care if it’s one dollar. The gift is not how much you give, but that you give.” 

Other times, though, it has less to do with some kind of financial donation or giving, and more to do with believing that we have other gifts that are worth anything. And so, we hesitate to coach our kid’s baseball team because we can’t hit a home run, but we forget that what they really need is the kind of patience and kindness that we have in spades. 

Or, we pass up applying for our dream job because we figure there are a million people out there who are better qualified, not realizing that maybe we are exactly what that company is looking for. 

Or, we shy away from getting closer to God, believing that if God really knew who we were, God wouldn’t want anything to do with us…forgetting that God already knows who we are, and God is already crazy about us.

So much of our life is spent walking to the Temple with our two coins in our pocket, worrying about what everyone will think when we take them out. Too often we don’t finish the journey. We turn back, too scared or embarrassed or uncertain to share our gifts with the world. 

And that’s a shame, because God didn’t give us those gifts so that we would hide them away. God gave them so that we would share them, and so that in the sharing they would be multiplied and used to bless this world. 

Each one of us has gifts inside of us. Each of us has something that we are called to use to serve God and serve our neighbors. And the challenge for each of us is not only to find those gifts inside of us, but to have the courage to bring those gifts out into the world, and use them. And that starts by refusing to believe that you are an imposter with nothing to give. You could never be an imposter because God has given you those gifts, and they don’t deserve to be hidden away in your pocket anymore. It’s time to take them out, combine them with the gifts of all the others who have come forward, and use them to bless the world. 

Today we have a group of people who are bringing their gifts front and center. Today they are deciding to become official members of this church. They each come with their own story, their own offering, and their own gifts. And they each come with courage, because it takes an act of courage to join the church, and to call yourself a follower of Christ.

Because of their courage this church will be stronger. And because of this church, they will be stronger too. Together we will bring our gifts, and together, with all we bring to the table, they will be more than enough. Together, we may just find that we have been blessed with abundance. 

The Vine, the Branches, and the Fish on the Line: Sermon for April 29, 2018

Yesterday was one of my favorite non-church-related high holidays. Yesterday was opening day for trout season here in New Hampshire, which meant that I was out fly fishing most of the day. 

Fair warning; when it’s trout season, I do a lot of my sermon writing in my head while out by the water, which is why you get a lot of fishing metaphors this time of year. But bear with me; some of them make good sense.

Like yesterday, I tied on a fly, and then cast my line out in the water. Nothing, not even a nibble. So, I kept casting and reeling the line in, casting and reeling, over and over. And flies are very small, and my eyes are getting older, so I just sort of go on faith that the fly is landing where it needs to land, and everything is fine on the other end of the line.

But after a while I decided that fly wasn’t working. I reeled it all the way in only to discover something that shouldn’t have been a shock at all. Can you guess it? The fly, of course, was long gone. It looked like the knot hadn’t been properly tied, which meant that for a good chunk of time there I was just standing by the water, with no way to make a connection.

That story made me think about the big story we are looking at today. Jesus is teaching the disciples and he calls himself “the true vine”. He tells them that he is the vine and they, we, are like the branches that grow from it. 

And the purpose of the branches is to bear fruit. Jesus tells them that a branch alone can’t do that work. You have to be connected back to the vine in order to produce something. Put in a more local context, in order for a branch of an apple tree to grow an apple, it has to still be connected to the tree. You can’t cut something off from its source of life and expect it to be productive. Without its life source, it will wither and die.

And so, Jesus says, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”

Without God, our creator and redeemed and sustainer, we are a lot like a branch that has fallen off the tree. We are called to bear good fruit in this world. Our good fruit is whatever we do to bring joy and grace and peace into the world. But if we are no longer connected to the tree, that which gives us life, if we are not being filled up by God’s love and grace, we cannot hope to survive, let alone to grow something new.

But when we are connected back to the source, then we have the chance to get better, to get stronger, to be healthy enough to survive. And, not just to survive for our own sake, but to create new life. To grow something that can help to transform this world.

And so the question for all of us is this: are we on the vine? Or are we off the vine?

In other words, are we connected to the source, connected to God, or are we broken off, hurting and alone?

When we are on the vine, that’s where growth happens. When we are connected to God, and actively working to maintain that connection, our life is transformed. We find ourselves more able to be the kind of people we want to be. When we receive love and grace and forgiveness from God, we become more able to give love and grace and forgiveness to others. When God creates newness is us, we become able to create newness in the world. When God gives us peace, we become people of peace.

But the opposite is true too. Because when we are off the vine, when we neglect our spiritual lives and don’t tend to the connection, we stop being able to see the gifts that God is trying to give us. Like a dying branch we become brittle, easy to snap, quick to burn up. 

To bring it back to trout season, when we are on the vine it’s a little like we are the fly that is tied to the fishing line. We are not adrift on the waters by ourselves, powerless to do much good. Instead, we are tied to something that can pull us back in, and we are able to reach out and hook others, to make the connections with others, that give us life. (Okay, that’s where the fish might not like that metaphor, but you get the point.)

But if we’ve slipped off? Then we are just alone. We don’t connect with God, and we don’t connect with others. We just sink.

So, to ask again, are you on the vine? Or are you off the vine? Are you tied to the line? Or have you untied yourself? 

Truth be told, I think that we all have experiences of being both on and off the vine. There have been times when I’ve really worked on my spiritual life. I’ve been diligent about praying, meditating, reading, thinking, and connecting with God every single day. And in those times, I’ve felt solidly on the vine. I’ve been like a branch of an apple tree in the fall, growing good fruit all the time.

But there have been other times, too. There have been times when I’ve felt so distant from God that I’ve felt like I haven’t had much life in me even for myself, let alone for others. Sometimes that’s been because of outside factors, but sometimes I’ve found myself in those times, and I’ve looked around, and I’ve realized that I’ve been the one to put up barriers between God and me. I’ve stopped putting my spiritual growth on the top of my priorities. I’ve started to think there were more important things to do. I’ve gotten too comfortable with doing the bare minimum to connect to God.

I found myself starting to drift that way a while back. I pray every night before bed, and I realized that my prayers each night had become almost identical. I had slipped into a pattern that allowed me to reel off a bunch of words in the five minutes before I feel asleep, say “amen”, and then close my eyes. But I was praying out of obligation, not out of a desire for real connection.

And so, I started to change that. I stopped just saying the same words every night. I started to pray more deliberately about the day, giving thanks for the good things I had seen in it, asking for God’s help with the hard things, acknowledging my own part in the tough things. I began praying more deliberately for the people I loved who were in times of transition. I began praying for God’s guidance in a more sincere way.

And, a funny thing happened. I started to feel myself being renewed. I slowly went from that dying branch to one that perked back up, and started to bear the blossoms that would soon become fruit once again. 

And here’s where I think that vine and branches metaphor doesn’t really work all the way. Because once a branch falls from a tree, you can’t really put it back. But I know something that does work that way. 

And that’s where we go back to the trout stream. I was like that fishing fly that had come undone, and was drifting off on the water. And in a moment of realization, I was able to call back to the great fisher of all of us that I was ready to be tied back on. 

Unlike those of us who fish for trout, I think God knows when we have fallen off. And I think God waits for us to say we are ready to be tied back on, and reeled back home. God is always ready to put us back on the line, and connect with us once again.

And so, here is your invitation. How are you feeling spiritually these days? Are you bearing good fruit? Or are you feeling as burnt out as firewood? Are you tied to the line and catching good fish? Or are you sinking to the bottom of the river?

God only wants connection for us. God doesn’t want us to be isolated and overwhelmed. And so now is the time. If you’re ready to stop going it alone, God is ready to tie you back on, and bring you back in. 

The Good Shepherd, Sermon for April 22, 2018

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

You don’t have to be in church or synagogue every Sunday to know those words. Even the least religious Jewish and Christian people I know somehow know those words. Whenever there is pain, whether the loss of someone we know personally or grief about a national tragedy, we turn to the 23rd Psalm again and again.

These readings about sheep and shepherds come up every four weeks after Easter. And last Monday I was thinking about what new and novel things I could say about this really well-known text today. And at the same time I was watching the Boston Marathon live on television. I was thinking of these runners slogging through 26.2 miles of cold rain, and marveling at their determination. And as they got closer to the finish line, I started to think about another time I’d preached on the 23rd Psalm, and what it had meant then.

Five years ago, at that same race, two brothers had decided to unleash their anger and hatred on an innocent crowd. By the time their violence was over, they had killed five people and physically injured over 260. They psychologically traumatized countless others. For days they held the city of Boston hostage.

That week, by chance, the lectionary passage was the same as it is today.  And there was Psalm 23, with those words: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…” It almost seemed too easy. Deep pain, and those familiar words. It was as if it couldn’t be any more simple. Like a band-aid that we could just easily put over the pain.

But life’s not like that. And neither is faith.

I remember back to how that week five years ago felt. That week Heidi was preaching in Boston and we walked down to the barricades that blocked off Boylston Street. At each intersection police and National Guard stood by. Flowers and flags and notes were left. Chalked messages to a city in pain lined the roads. And crime scene investigators dressed in white suits still combed every inch of the street.

And it was so quiet. That’s what got to me the most. Those Boston streets are normally so busy and loud, but that day the only sounds at those barricades were muffled whispers and the noise that empty water cups still on the streets from the Marathon made as they were blown down the street by the wind. It took my breath away.

I think in times when that happens, in times when we are asking why, in times when nothing makes sense, the words we have relied on in our hardest times come back to us. Words like “the Lord is my shepherd”.

And that’s a gift. We need that assurance. We need to know that God is here with us, and that God will comfort us, and that we will “dwell in the house of the Lord forever”. We need to hear those words, because they are true. And they are true especially in our hardest times.

We need to hear about that Lord who is our shepherd. But, especially when things like this happen, we also need to hear that we are more than sheep.

Now, not to be mean to sheep, but they aren’t the smartest animals. They sort of just follow the herd until they’re scared, and then they’re known to panic and run away. Really, if you’re trying to find an animal to emulate, sheep aren’t the way to go.

Instead, we are called to follow God, to follow the true shepherd, in a different way. Not as a part of a scared flock that reacts with panic to what frightens us, but as a group of beloved children of God who keep our focus on that shepherd. Who keep our focus on the teachings of our faith, and on the one who truly wants for “goodness and mercy to follow us all the days of our lives”.

And sometimes that’s hard. That was hard in the days following the Marathon bombing, but it’s hard whenever something happens that scares us. Times when we are afraid of the way the world seems to be going. Times when acting out of our fear and pain and anger, all of which are justified, is easier than acting out of our faith.

Back in 2013, before we had any inkling who the bombers were, a medical doctor in Boston was physically attacked by a man who screamed obscenities and hate at her. The reason? She was Muslim and to him that meant that she must be a terrorist.

Later that week, after an outpouring of anger and profanity directed towards them, the Embassy of the Czech Republic down in Washington actually had to put out a press statement clarifying for that Czechs and Chechens, the country the bombers were from originally, are in no way the same thing. In a haze of anger, a lot of people apparently hadn’t stopped to make the distinction. My guess is that they also hadn’t stopped to think that attacking a whole country as somehow responsible for the actions of two young men wasn’t so helpful either.

I remember five years ago preaching on those things, and knowing that incidents like that happen whenever there is fear or confusion. Whenever we are afraid, whenever we are hurt and anxious, whenever we are walking through the valley of the shadow of death, we are not at our best. We become reactive, suspicious, and closed off. But it’s that fear and anger that makes us forget who our true shepherd is. We begin following not the shepherd, but our worst instincts, putting the teaching of our faith on the back burner.

The other piece of Scripture traditionally paired with the Gospel and the Psalm is from First John, a letter to the early Christian community. The writer tells those earliest followers of Jesus that “God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them…There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”

It’s good advice to us too. As we stand at our places of greatest fear and questioning and pain, as we stand with our pain and anger, those words tell us what to do. They tell us the answer. Christianity is not an easy religion to follow, and this passage reminds us of what Christ told us: choose love. Choose the way of the shepherd.

For me, that means learning that my fear can’t be in the driver’s seat. It doesn’t mean being unafraid, because fear is a natural and sometimes even helpful part of our lives. But it does mean refusing to let unjustified fear take the place of Christ. And it means getting out of my comfort zone, reaching out past the lines that divide us, and letting Christ lead me into new places, and new relationships.

I’ll close with this. When the world feels like a place of misunderstanding and suspicion, when I’m despairing of our chances for peace and I’m looking for hope, one of the places where I go is over to Phillips Church on the Academy campus on Fridays. Phillips Church is a church, in fact it used to be the old Second Parish which split off and then reunited with this church. But the building itself holds more than church services.

On Friday afternoons the Muslim students on campus go to their mosque which is in a room downstairs in the building. Right across the hall is the Hindu Puja, where a small altar is filled with offerings of fruit. Later on Friday afternoons the Jewish student community begins to filter in, cooking food for dinner. That night as the candles are lit, and the Shabbat prayers recited, they gather together for fellowship. And once they are done, the Buddhist meditation starts upstairs, on the top level of the building. All the while, a Christian minister flutters from group to group, seeing what they need, asking how she can be helpful.

One night as Shabbat dinner was winding up, the Muslim students came in around the same time the Christian fellowship and Buddhist meditators did too. There was food left over from dinner and, as anyone who has ever been around teenagers can tell you, they are always hungry. And so, they shared. Jews with Muslims. Christians with Buddhists. Hindus with kids who aren’t so sure what if anything they believe. And there was no fear, and no hate. They were not all the same, not by any means, but they were there together. And in their holy differences, they were beautiful. 

Our shepherd does not lead us away from what is new and different, and into a place where we are all the same. Instead, our shepherd leads us through the unknown, and the frightening. And with that shepherd beside us in all of these places, we find that what once made us so afraid, can instead make us love more deeply. If those of us who try to follow the Good Shepherd could do so with our hearts open, our hands ready to share, we might just find that there’s nothing to be afraid of in those darkest valleys at all. In fact, maybe joy is even waiting for us there. 

What if God Didn’t Mean it at All?: Sermon for April 15, 2018

Many of you know that before I was a parish pastor, I was a chaplain at a children’s hospital, working mostly in the emergency room. I spent a lot of my time sitting with parents who were scared and waiting for some good news. And while I as there, I heard people, people who were trying to be helpful, say some of the most amazingly thoughtless things.

“God has a plan,” they’d say to these parents. Or, “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.” Or, “this is God’s will…we can’t understand it.”

I would hear these things, and I would always tense up and try to keep quiet until the “helpful” friends were out of the room. Then I’d tell the parents that I was sure God had not meant for their child to get hurt or sick or abused, and I’d explain that sometimes when friends don’t know what to say they say the first thing that pops into their head and makes themselves feel better. 

One day I was sitting with a mother whose child had been injured by a stranger who had broken into her school. She was distraught, and her friend kept saying to her, “It’s okay…it’s okay…it’s okay.” Finally she broke, and yelled out, “It’s not okay…it’s not okay…it’s not okay.”

I was pretty proud of her. She was telling the truth, a truth that I believe God would have believed as well. God does not will bad things to happen to children, and God did not think this was “okay”.

It’s because experiences like that that I have trouble with today’s passage. In particular, I have trouble with one of the last lines we read today: you meant it to harm me, but God meant it for good.

This comes from the story of Joseph, which the elementary students have begun reading in church school. As you know, I like to preach on whatever they’re studying so that we will all know the story, and can all help them with it. And it’s this part of the story in particular that I want to talk about, because I don’t want us as a church to create another generation of people who witness tragedy and call it God’s will. I think we can do better than that.

But first, to remind you of the story, Joseph was the son of Jacob and Rachel. He had ten older half-brothers, all of whom thought their father loved him most of all. Jacob didn’t help to reassure them when he gave Joseph a special coat of many colors, either. The brothers grew more and more jealous, and after Joseph had a series of dreams in which they were shown bowing down to him, they decided something needed to be done.

At first, they decided to kill their brother. But one brother, Reuben, said “no, let’s not kill him. Let’s just sell him into slavery instead” And so that’s what they did. They sold him off  and they brought back his coat covered with goat’s blood, gave it to his father, and said he had been killed.

But Joseph wasn’t dead. He ended up in Egypt where his ability to interpret dreams gets the attention of the Pharoah. He predicts a coming famine, and so the Pharoah begins to store up grain in advance, which no one else does. So when the famine comes, people come from other lands looking for food. And one day, Joseph looks out and sees his own brothers there. He’s no longer a boy, though, so they don’t recognize him. And for a while he pretends not to know them

It goes on like this for a while. Joesph even sets them up to look like thieves, and tricks them into bringing their father and youngest bother to Egypt. But when they are finally all there, Joesph tells them who he is. And he feeds them and keeps them safe during the famine. And his father is overjoyed, and before he dies he blesses Joseph.

But now, the brothers get scared. They knew Joseph wouldn’t do anything to them while their father was still alive. But what about now? They beg Joseph not to harm them, the way they harmed him. And that’s when Joseph says these lines: “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you meant to harm me, God meant it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.”

Joseph is a good person. A forgiving person. I wrestle with whether or not I could be that forgiving. But more than that, I have always wrestled with that line: “God meant it for good”. It sounds too much like those people in the hospital.

Photo_of_The_Rev._William_Sloane_Coffin,_Jr._(1924-2006),_Senior_Minister_of_The_Riverside_Church,_New_York,_NY_(1977-87)

Rev. William Sloan Coffin

And I remember a story that William Sloan Coffin, a minister who was once the chaplain at Yale, once told. Coffin’s son Alex was killed in a car accident at the age of 24. A week later he got up into the pulpit and told the story of people who had tried to comfort him. In particular he recounted how one woman, loaded down with quiches she had brought, off-handedly said to him, “I just don’t understand the will of God.”

Distraught and heartbroken, he lit into her. “I’ll say you don’t, lady”, he told her. He went on to say that God was not some sort of “cosmic sadist” who makes these things happen. Instead, he said, when his son died, “God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break.”

I think that’s true. I believe that when we are hurt, God hurts with us. And that’s why I don’t believe that God wills bad things to happen to us. And I don’t believe God wanted Joseph’s brothers to sell him into slavery.

If you go back to the original Hebrew of this text, you find that what we read as “God meant it for good” actually translates more accurately to something like “God devised it for good”. I hear that as “God used if for good”. 

I don’t believe God ordains bad things to happen so that later on more bad things won’t happen. I don’t think we are chess pieces being moved around without free will. Joseph’s brothers had complete control over what they were doing. But I do believe that, no matter what, God can meet us in our suffering, and God can transform it for good. 

That means that God does not give us cancer, or crash cars, or make the people we love betray us. But it does mean that God can be beside us in even the worst of situations, and God can help us find a way through. God can bring new life after destruction. That’s literally what Easter, this season, is all about. 

Now, I don’t mean that in a naive way. Joseph’s brothers should never have done that to him. And especially when what has been done to us intentionally, we have to be allowed to name that. But in the aftermath, we can become hard, bitter, and hateful people, slow to forgive and quick to lash out. In other words, we can become exactly like the people who have hurt us, which means that we will likely become people who hurt others.

Or, we can accept that what was done to us was wrong and, knowing that God is with us, knowing that God can help us to transform even the worst of it, we can choose to be better. We can become Joesphs in a world of jealous brothers, finding ways to transform the trauma into hope and new life. 

We will all be Joseph from time to time. But, truth be told, sometimes we will also be the brothers. Truth be told, I’d rather be the noble Joseph even with all the pain than the conniving brother. But none of us is perfect, and so there’s also the question of what to do when we find that we ourselves are the brothers. And I’ll leave you with this story. 

Alfred_Nobel3

Alfred Nobel

In 1867 a man named Alfred Nobel patented his new invention. It was a a mix of nitroglycerin and explosives that came to be called “dynamite”. It was a new, more deadly, way to make war, and Nobel’s invention would bring him plenty of money.

But then, in 1888, his brother died. And the newspaper, thinking it was Alfred who had died, ran an obituary for him instead. The headline, translated from French, was this: “the merchant of death is dead”. It went on to read that, “Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday.”

Nobel was horrified that this was his legacy. He realized what he had done. And so, he took the money that he had made from his weapon of war, and donated it in order to form a new series of prizes for contributions to humanity. The greatest of all of these awards we know today as the “Nobel Peace Prize”.

When it comes to metaphorical “brothers of Joesph”, Nobel took the cake. And yet, even he could change his legacy. Even he could transform what he had done into a small source of hope for a broken world.

That’s true for me, and that’s true for you. Whether you are Joseph, a brother, or a little bit of both, God is not done with us yet. What ever has happened to you, whatever you have caused to happen, it does not have to be the last word. As long as we breathe, God can always help us to turn things for good. 

Making Community in the Wilderness: A Church Anniversary Sermon for April 8, 2018

This week, the town of Exeter had a birthday. On Tuesday, April 3rd, Exeter was 380 years old. That’s a pretty big celebration on its own, but for those of us who are a part of this church, it’s even bigger. When the earliest towns in New England were being settled back in the 17th century, you could not have a town until you first had a church. This was back before separation of church and state, of course. So back on April 3, 1638, not only did the town have to be chartered, but so to did a church. This church.

new_town_seal_10So, this week, The Congregational Church in Exeter turned 380. That’s pretty amazing when you think about it. To put that in perspective, we’re talking about roots that go back to just 18 years after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. Just eight years after the founding of Boston. And that’s 56 years before the Salem Witch Trials and138 years before the Declaration of Independence.

In other words, we’re old. But, in the scheme of the larger story of the church of Jesus Christ, we’re actually pretty young. And that’s where today’s Scripture comes in on this first Sunday after Easter Sunday. 

Today we turn to the book of Acts. Acts is the book of the Bible that tells about the very earliest church and how they became church. After Jesus’ resurrection, after that first Easter, the disciples started to have to figure out how to live together and share this experience that they had with others. They became the very first church. 

The passage from today tells us a little about how they lived: 

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.

With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.

In other words, they were one body, with one task: share the message of Christ’s resurrection. They lived as one unit, sharing everything they had, and they focused their all on the mission at hand. That was what it meant for them to be church.

So, next week, bring your bank account information and check books, and we’ll get started.

So, I’m kidding about that part. But, I read this passage and I realize there are some things that churches could learn from that first church. First, the ideas, as the passage says, that a church should be “of one heart and soul”. Now, by that I don’t mean that we should all believe the exact same things, or give up who we are as individuals. But I do mean that a church should be bound together by more than the fact that we all come to the same building on Sunday mornings. 

There has to be something bigger than that keeping us together. And I think that thing is the story that we gather around every week, and what it points to, which is the love and grace of Jesus Christ. We may struggle with what we believe, how we believe, or how to live in the world because of it, but at the heart of our life here together is simply that: the Gospel, the good news, of God’s love as found in Jesus Christ. Without it, there’s not much point in us being here. 

Acts tells us that the first church “gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus”. That might sounds like they were a little bit preachy. Fair enough. But I think their task was more than just saying what they had seen. And I think that task is the same one that you and I still have to carry out today. 

21314839_1664971753555416_1075856799694847201_nYou see, I believe that to be a Christian is to be called to testify to the good news of Resurrection. In other words, our job is to tell the Easter story again and again to a world that needs to hear it. Because, like I said last week, the Easter story is this: First, God became one of us and lived as one of us. Second, God’s love and grace were so threatening that the world tried to kill it. And third, God’s love and grace refused to die.

That’s the story that you and I are called to tell, just like those early disciples were. But we don’t tell it by standing on street corners and shouting it. We don’t push it onto others, insisting that they believe as we do. We don’t use our faith as a weapon. Instead, we do this…we live our lives in such a way that we are constantly witnessing to God’s love and grace. We do out best to love others, to stand up for the voiceless and marginalized, to take care of the least of these, and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. That is the testimony our faith asks of us.

It was a testimony the earliest members of this church tried to live as well. See, we would be remiss if we forgot our history, and for our church that means remembering that once this church was a church full of religious refugees.

In some ways that was true of many early New Englanders. They disagreed with the Church of England. Some, like the Pilgrims, were separatists who wanted complete freedom from that church. Others, like the Puritans, true to their names just wanted to “purify” the church from practices they didn’t agree with. That didn’t go over well, so some came across the ocean to Massachusetts, a place where they could more freely practice their faith.

But even in Massachusetts, even in a community of spiritual refugees, there was a right way and a wrong way to believe. And one man, John Wheelwright, ended up on the wrong side of things. He was a Puritan minister, like all the others, but instead of always preaching about the judgement of God, Wheelwright was more inclined to preach about God’s grace. 

That made him some enemies. They thought he was preaching heresy. And so, eventually, the other ministers and the authorities in Massachusetts had had enough. They banished him from the colony, and they sent him out to the absolute worst place they could think of: New Hampshire. 

So, that’s how this church got here. A minister talked so much about grace that he and his followers were forced to move here. Last year I said this about Wheelwright, but it still holds true: “You know that dour looking Puritan in the portrait down in the vestry? He was the fun one.” 

So, that’s how we got here. And 380 years later, despite everything that has happened in our world, and in a country that didn’t even exist yet, and in the walls of this church, we are still here. We are a very old church. But, we are also a very new one. We are new, because you and I are here now, and now it’s our turn to write the history of this place, this church that has been handed down to us by people who dared to testify to God’s love and grace. And this place that we are only temporary caretakers of, that we will one day hand on to others. 

And so, how do we be the church together? How do we remain of “one heart and soul” and work to testify by our words and deeds to God’s love and grace. As I wrap up today, I want to leave you with four ways I propose that we do that.

First, we make church a priority. We come on Sundays, and we worship together. We put it on our schedule, and we give our spiritual lives enough importance that we show up for this the way we would show up for anything else that’s important in our lives. And while we’re here, we get to know each other. We stay and have a cup of coffee. We talk to someone new. We become a part of this place.

That leads us to the second task: we invest in our community. I never want anyone to feel like there are things they have to do at church, but the reality is that there is a lot that we do as a church, and we all have to chip in a little to get it done. And so, we serve on committees. We teach Sunday school. We usher, or serve in the nursery, or greet people at the door. We give financially to the ministries of this church. We make a commitment of our time, talents, and treasure to this place because we believe it matters.

Third, we keep growing. Our spiritual learning does not stop when we are confirmed. We have to keep growing in our faith. And so, we are called to study Scripture, to pray regularly, to think about our faith in new ways, and to stay curious about what we believe and what it means to the world.

And, finally, we take our faith beyond our doors when we leave on Sundays. We serve on a church ministry, like Seacoast Family Promise or cooking dinner for the Salvation Army shelter, for instance. Or, we take our faith into our daily lives, advocating for change in our communities, standing up for those who have no voice. Or we take it into our homes and offices, treating people the way Christ calls us to treat them, living our lives as people of grace and faith. 

In other words, through all we do, we become one heart and one soul, with one another, and with Christ. Make church a priority, invest in church, grow spiritually, and take your faith with you all week long. I’ll be talking about these in the coming months, but today I ask you to reflect on these things. Because the ones who came before us did them, we’ve been here 380 years. Now, I don’t know what the world will be like in 380 years from today, but I do know that this place is good, and I do hope the Congregational Church in Exeter is a part of it. 

Risen Together: Sermon for Easter Sunday, 2018

On very rare occasions, Easter falls on April 1st. Or, as we often call it, April Fool’s Day. So, as we were preparing for worship today many of us who are clergy wondered if that meant we needed to make our sermons funny. 

My spouse is a pastor as well so we started to tell each other bad Easter knock-knock jokes as a way of preparing. Mine was this:

Knock knock.

Who’s there?

Not Jesus!

Yeah…they groaned at the sunrise service too.

So, don’t worry, I’m not going to tell any more of those, but I’ve heard a lot of people saying this year that Easter is an April Fool’s story in the sense that when everyone thought Jesus was dead and buried and that hope was gone, God’s love and grace had the last laugh. It’s as if Jesus jumped from the tomb with confetti and yelled “April Fools”!

But the Gospel story we read today reminds me that it didn’t happen quite like that. You see, that first Easter, Jesus wasn’t playing a joke on his friends, hiding out in a tomb, waiting to surprise them. Jesus was plain and simply dead. The worst that the world could do had been done to him. He had been betrayed, abandoned, beaten, and crucified. 

On Friday night they had hastily buried him before the Jewish sabbath began, which is what his faith required. It had needed to be done so quickly that they hadn’t been able to prepare his body fully before the sun set. And so on Sunday morning, after the sabbath had ended, three women, three friends of Jesus who had loved his dearly, went back to his tomb to finish.

As they were walking there, they thought about the big, heavy stone that had been rolled across the entrance to the tomb, and they asked themselves, “who will roll it away for us”? It was far too heavy for them. And as the tomb came into view, they saw something that only compounded their grief and fear; they saw that the tomb was open. And looking inside, they couldn’t find Jesus. And they assumed that something even worse had happened, and that his last resting place had been disturbed. They wondered why, even in death, Jesus couldn’t find any peace.

But then, they saw a man sitting there dressed in white. And he said to them, “Do not be alarmed!” 

Now, that’s probably the most unhelpful thing you could say in that situation. “Do not be alarmed.” And yet, the man knew why they were there. He said, “you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”

Scripture tells us that the three women were “seized” by “terror and amazement”, and that they ran from that place. 

That’s fair. If I went to my friend’s grave and someone said, “oh, they’re not dead anymore” I think I might be running too. At the very best, I might think that someone was playing a particularly cruel April Fool’s Day joke on me.

But this was no joke. There was no prank. This was something different entirely. This was Resurrection. The world had done its best to destroy God’s love and grace, embodied in Jesus Christ. But God’s love and grace refused to stay in the ground. God’s love and grace triumphed over even death. 

That was the first miracle. But the second was this; the second was getting the world to believe it.

Like the three women at the tomb, we hear a truth that we can’t yet fully process or believe. A hope rises in us, and we begin to wonder, “Can this possibly be true?” “Can what was once destroyed live once more?”

It’s no wonder that the three women had trouble believing. And it’s no wonder that we sometimes do too. Because though we live nearly two thousand years later, though we know what our faith teaches, though we know that the stone was rolled away, and Jesus was not there, sometimes that is still as hard for us to believe as it was for those women at the tomb. 

That’s no surprise. That’s no surprise because we live in a world that is sometimes so broken. We live in a world where children are afraid to go to school, where neighbors distrust neighbors, and where corruption and abuses of power speak louder than kindness and understanding. 

It has often been said that Christians are Easter people living in a Good Friday world. We are people who believe in the promise of new life, but we live in a world where we are surrounded by pain and suffering. 

I get that, but I wonder if the truth isn’t closer to this. I wonder if we don’t live in a Good Friday morning so much as we live in a very early on Sunday morning – before anyone has heard the good news – world. I wonder if we live in a world much like those women did on that morning, when they had heard an unbelievable story, and were running from the grave terrified and amazed, and yet, they dared to hope that maybe, just maybe it was true.

I think that for those of us who want to follow a Resurrected Christ, we live like Jesus’s friend did in those earliest hours. We live in the hope that these rumors of Resurrection are true, even as we acknowledge the reality of the world around us. We live as people who come at dawn, prepared to weep, and yet who are met with the baffling evidence that perhaps something amazing has happened. 

And so, we start to spread the news. Tentatively at first, and to one another.

“Christ is risen?” We ask, in hushed tones. 

“Could it be true? Is Christ risen?” Our friends whisper back.

And later, dumbfounded, the first ones to see him would begin to tell one another. “It’s true. Christ is risen.” 

And slowly, the news begins to sink in. “Christ is risen. Christ is risen! Alleluia! Christ is risen!”

And we respond to one another, “Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!” 

And then we begin to tell the world, “Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!”

For Christians, the work of our life is to live in such a way that we witness to the victory of God’s love and grace, even in the face of the brokenness of the world. We spread the good news of resurrection not by what we say so much as by how we live, and how we work for new life in this world. We live in such a way that even on the hardest days, we can proclaim through our every action that “Christ is risen” and that there is hope.

A funny thing happens when you live that way. You start to see hope and resurrection everywhere you look.

Last night I went to a meeting held in a nondescript room here in town. A friend of mine just celebrated one year of sobriety, and she was celebrating by speaking and getting her medallion. And as I listened to her speak, all I could think was “Alleluia! Christ is risen, and she is risen too.”

And then about a week ago, I watched some high school kids do some amazing things, standing up for themselves and for their classmates in the face of violence, and all I could think was “Alleluia! Christ is risen, and they are risen too!”

And so often I sit in my office talking with someone who has survived something unimaginable, someone who is still fighting day to day to believe that the Resurrection is true, even for them. And though they might not yet believe it yet, I can still see it, and I think to myself, “Alleluia! Christ is risen, and they are risen too.”

Recently someone who has found their way out of their own metaphorical tombs, told me this: “Resurrection is real and can never be taken away.”

That’s true. That’s true for me, and that’s true for everyone. Even you, the person who might be sitting there today, wondering if it’s even true for you. It is. “Christ is risen, and you are risen too.” It’s not an April Fool’s joke. Just like Christ, your resurrection is real, and it can never be taken away from you.

Thoughts, Prayers, and Palms: Sermon for Palm Sunday, 2018

So once again it is Holy Week in the church. Once again we have come to the last days of Lent, and we stand on the verge of the holiest time of the entire church year. And today is Palm Sunday, the start of a week that will include the beautiful intimacy of Maundy Thursday, the sorrow of Good Friday, and finally, the joy of Easter morning.

And this day, is so odd when you look at it from the outside. On the Sunday before Easter Christians go to church and they get palm leaves that have been shipped in from out of state, and they wave them in the air and shout “Hosanna” and if this is your first time in church on Palm Sunday, the whole thing must just look bizarre.

Canon 70D 1101That’s fair. This is one of those church traditions that requires some explanation. And so, we go back to the Scriptures, back to the original story of Jesus and the palms. Jesus and his disciples had been ministering in the countryside, in the smaller towns and villages, for awhile now. And people have started to talk about this Jesus guy, and how he teaches, and how he heals, and how something is special about him.

But now, they are heading to the big city: Jerusalem. Jesus sends a few of his disciples ahead of him and asks then to bring back a colt. And Jesus rides on this colt, through the streets of Jerusalem, and the people who have heard about him, they run out into the streets and they spread their coats out in front of him. And they take palm leaves, and they put them on the road too.

Palm leaves were symbols of victory and triumph, and so the fact the people wanted to lay them in front of Jesus means that they knew something was special about him. Because life in Jerusalem at that time, especially if you were just an ordinary Jewish person, and not a Roman citizen, was not good. You were oppressed. You were treated as lesser-than. You were despondent.

But then, here comes this guy, one that everyone has been talking about, one that brings a hope you have never known. And you wonder if maybe he’s the one. Maybe he is the king, for the messiah, or the savior that you’ve heard about your whole life long. Maybe he is coming to make everything better.

And so, you take these symbols of victory, these palms, and you line his path into the seat of power, this Jerusalem, this Washington or New York or what have you, and as he rides into town, you shout out your hope. Hosanna! Hosanna! And what you are literally shouting is this: “Save us. Help us. Rescue us.”

We tell this story now and sometimes we think this was a parade of some sort, but if it was, it was different than any we’ve seen. It was not a celebration so much as it was a statement, and a call for change. It was the people going out into the streets and saying “change is coming….change has to be coming….and maybe it’s this guy.” It was the crowd saying, “this is our new hope.”

I was thinking about that yesterday on the streets of Portsmouth. This year Lent began with a horrendous tragedy. On Ash Wednesday we learned that a gunman had killed seventeen people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Florida. That night, at our Ash Wednesday service, we prayed for the victims, and we prayed for a world where children did not have to be afraid anymore.

And, I confess, as I prayed, I was feeling incredibly cynical. Losing 13 people in Columbine, Colorado hadn’t changed anything. 26 first graders and their teachers in Newtown, Connecticut hadn’t changed anything. 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando hadn’t changed anything. 58 in Las Vegas? Nothing. This wouldn’t be any different either.

But, these kids at Parkland? These kids proved me wrong. Because these kids? They’re not sitting idly by. They’re not shutting up. They’re refusing to be seen and not heard. And it’s amazing.

One of these young people, a survivor of the shooting named David Hogg, was describing the role that he and his friends were now playing. And, to paraphrase, he talked about how country was broken. Because it has to be if we allow children to be gunned down in schools. And he said that we adults don’t know how to use our democracy.

And then he said it was like when your parents couldn’t figure out how to use their iphone…and you try to tell them how to do it. You coach them through it and say “now do this”. But finally, they’re not actually fixing the problem and so finally you just say, “Give me the….phone and let me handle it.”

29512296_1864634403589149_4241526480576250524_nThat’s what’s happening. They’re handling it. And so yesterday, around this country, students let us out into our houses and into the streets. News reports indicate that yesterday’s march in DC may have been the largest of all time. And across the country, smaller marches took place everywhere. In fact over in Portsmouth, Market Square was so packed that I couldn’t even make my way from the back of the crowd to the front where the contingent from our church had landed. That was okay, because blocking my way was a crowd of high school students, packed in too tightly for us to move.

It was awesome. These kids are awesome. And they are rightfully getting a lot of credit for what they are doing. They are heroes.

But, they aren’t the ones to save us. Nor should they be. Because we failed the kids, and they had to do this for us. But, as David Hogg said, “I shouldn’t have to! I’m 17.”

He shouldn’t have to. No kid should have to. They should be planning their prom and thinking about college. This work of keeping the world safe for them? That should be the work of adults. The kids shouldn’t be saving us. The kids shouldn’t even be having to yell to us “save us”. The kids should be kids.

And so, how do we let them be? How do we let them be not just when it comes to this particular kind of destruction, but to all the ways our culture of death and pain reaches them all to young? How do we proclaim another way to them? How do we proclaim another way to us?

I think it starts with this. I think it starts with us holding our palms up, and shouting out to God that ancient word: Hosanna! “Save us…rescue us…help us.”

Because here’s the thing. I know that right now it is very popular to dismiss the phrase “thoughts and prayers”. And, I get why. After a tragedy too often we hear talking heads sending “thoughts and prayers” to those who were impacted without doing anything else. Those thoughts and prayers help nothing.

But, “thoughts and prayers” get a bad rap sometimes. Because if we want to change the world, it’s going to take thoughts and prayers. But the trick is that it’s going to take the kind of thoughts and prayers that require something of us. A thought with no followthrough is just half a thought. A prayer that things would change without any intention to help make them change isn’t a prayer at all.

Thoughts and prayers are not the problem. Meaning what we think, meaning what we pray, that is.
On Palm Sunday, we are invited once again to choose what, and who, we believe will rescue us. And we are invited to lay down our palms, our symbols of victory, in front of him. And when we have put down our signs of readiness, when we have lined the road with them, then we will show him the path that we have made for him into our hearts, and into our towns, and into our world.

Our palms are our invitation to Christ to come into our hearts, and use us to be a part of the healing of the world. They are our signs that our faith will be put in a savior who taught a Gospel of love and peace, change and non-violence, and who asked us to follow. They are symbols of readiness to be people of true thoughts, true prayers, and true actions.

And so, once again, I raise my palm, and I say “hosanna”. Rescue us, Jesus. Save us. Help us. And know, Jesus, know that this time we are ready to work alongside of you.