Wrestling with a God Who Calls Us By Name: Sermon for October 20, 2019

If you would prefer to listen to the audio of this sermon (recommended), please click here: https://exeterucc.podbean.com/e/wrestling-with-a-god-who-calls-us-by-name-sermon-for-october-20-2019/

A lot of times when ministers talk about our relationship with God, our journey with God, we talk about our “walk” with God. Have you ever heard those terms? It sounds so gentle and so nice. Like you’re just out for a walk in the fall leaves. And for some people, somewhere, I’ve got to believe their relationship is like a walk. But for some of us, it’s a little different.

Personally, my life has felt a lot less like a walk with God than it has like a wrestling match with God. Maybe that’s the same for some of you. 

If you’ve ever felt that way, you’re not alone. There’s a story in the book of Genesis, the story that Peg just read for us today, about a man named Jacob, who was one of the great patriarchs of the faith. Jacob was going to another land and one night he was alone and came across this man. And this man just grabbed him and started wrestling with him. 

And all night long Jacob wrestled. They grappled until the morning light. And finally at the very end, right before dawn, the man tells Jacob “let me go”. But Jacob won’t let him go. Jacob holds on and says,“I will not let you go until you bless me.” It’s only when Jacob is blessed that he learns he has been wrestling with God all night, has seen God face-to-face, and has lived to tell about it.

Like I said…a wrestling match kind of faith. Have any of you ever had that? Maybe just for brief periods, even?

So many of us too have fought with ourselves like we’ve fought with God. And we’ve grappled, and we’ve refused to let go, desperate for some sign of a blessing from God. And it has not been easy, but we have found that at the end of the longest night, God has been with us in the morning, still right there with us, still blessing us. In fact, our blessing, like Jacob’s, comes in large part from the fact that we have dared to grapple with God, and when we could have walked away, we have not let go. 

So if we can wrestle God and receive a blessing, what happens when we wrestle with the very real work of loving ourselves? If God can wrestle us all night and bless us, why are we so reluctant to bless and love ourselves too? What would it look like if we stopped fighting ourselves, and started to accept that if God loves us enough to stay connected to us even through the hardest nights, and to give us grace, then maybe that means that we should start hanging on to ourselves too?

You’ve probably heard the saying: “To thine own self be true.” It’s actually from Hamlet, but it works well for Christians. When we say it we are reminded ourselves not to do anything that feels at odds with who we know ourselves to be. Who God created us to be. It’s all about respecting ourselves, and for those of us who follow Christ, it means this: Your true self is the you who belongs to God and is loved by God, so don’t treat yourself as anything less than God’s beloved.

Until we can learn to be true to ourselves, and love ourselves, we can’t do the true work that God calls us to do in the second part of the great commandment. You know the first part is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind, but that second part is this: “love your neighbor as yourself”.  But if we do not know how to love ourselves how can we ever love our neighbor? We will never do it well, we can’t hope to do it well, until we know and love ourselves. 

When a couple comes to me for premarital counseling, intent on getting married, I first ask them something. I ask them if they’ve figured out who they are (for the most part anyway) and if they really are ready to make a lifelong commitment to someone else. 

It sometimes becomes clear that neither party has ever really figured themselves out. The odds of the marriage lasting, and being healthy, are not good. The partners are trying to find their identity rather than intimacy in one another. But when I do premarital counseling with partners who have done their own work ahead of time, and have wrestled with God and themselves, I know that the marriage will likely be a long and happy one. 

I think that’s true of every relationship, including the one between a pastor and a congregation. And so, I’m going to talk a little about myself today, and I’m always loathe to do this except as like a quick story. And I’m doing this not because I want the attention to be on me, but because I want to model something that I think is important. I want to show what it means to be fully ourselves in Christian community. 

I tell people sometimes that I know that at least some of the world wants people like me dead. That might sound stark, but it’s true. I’m female-bodied, gay, and I’m the kind of person who has always felt more at home in bow ties than dresses. That’s been true my entire life. You should see my baby pictures. 

From an early age I knew that the standard boxes didn’t fit me. That’s deeply inconvenient to some, and outright infuriating to others but, it’s who I am. 

It used to bother me. I spent my youth and early young adult years going through life trying to take up as little space as possible. I wanted to change, but not in ways that were true to myself. If I just dressed a little less masculine things would be fine. Or, if I swallowed my words and stood back, then I could rise to a position where I could actually change things. If I succeeded, on other’s terms, then maybe I could love myself.

I tried to love myself right out of existence. That happens far too often. Because the world wants some part of us dead and we too often oblige. When everything around you tells you that you are wrong, you start to believe it, and you start to hate yourself enough to destroy yourself. Shame becomes the constant shackle that holds you back.

In contrast, my Christian faith has taught me taught me that loving ourselves isn’t just a nice thing to do; it’s a radical act. To love ourselves in a world that literally profits off of our self-hatred is an act of resistance to the world and an act of faith in God. 

The poet e.e. cummings once wrote, “To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else – means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.” In other words, to be yourself is to wrestle daily with the world, and to dare to live as a person of God, a person of integrity, the person who God has created you to be.

Now, I want to be a person of integrity. A while back I learned that “integrity” and “integrated” actually come from the same Latin root word meaning “whole”. And so I try to be a person who is whole and presents myself that way. But recently, though I’ve never tried to hide, I have been thinking about something. And I’ve realized that maybe I have been completely honest about my whole self with all of you. 

Since I’ve come back from sabbatical you may have noticed that I’ve been a little more serious, a little more preoccupied. This weekend I was writing this sermon and I kept being pulled here, and I kept trying to write about something else, but being pulled back. This is a good way that preachers know that they’re supposed to preach about something. And, truth be told, until about an hour before service I was still going back and forth, but I’ve learned that when I’m wrestling with God that God’s going to win in the end. And I’ve learned that God’s going to bless me. 

There’s a lot of talk in our society about why it’s important to use someone’s correct pronouns. Maybe you’ve heard some of it. For some people it’s he/him/his. For others it’s she/her/hers. And for still others it’s they/them/theirs. Maybe you’ve seen it on name tags and email signatures.

That last one, that singular they, or they/them/their, that’s actually my correct pronoun. Some of you know that. Some of you use that very consistently. And others of you, we’ve never really talked about it and I’ve just kind of figured that it’s fine. 

But I’ve always felt sort of in between. Not a man, but not exactly a woman. I’ve never pushed this, I’ve never had this formal discussion, because I didn’t know how it would go over. I’ve asked others what they’ve thought, and they’ve said “yeah, you know, you’re not transitioning to another sex so just let your church people call you what they want to call you.”

I wasn’t sure if people would be okay with it, and I was content with letting people see me as they needed to see me.

So, here’s the thing, if you don’t get this, if the pronouns don’t make sense to you yet, it’s okay. Take your time. If you accidentally call me by the wrong ones, it’s fine. We’ll be fine. 

But I want you to hear that I have wrestled and I think in my wrestling God has blessed me and given me this name, and I know who I am.

If you ever want to talk about it, my door is open. And if you have to wrestle with it, I get that too. Believe me, I wrestled for years. 

So why am I telling you this now and asking you to do this? It’s because something has changed in the past few years. In our congregation now we have trans and non-binary kids and adults in our midst. People who use all kinds of pronouns. And what I haven’t been modeling for them is that they deserve to be treated with respect and they deserve to be seen in church. 

And a few people have been asking me lately about why I don’t insist on my correct pronouns, and it really made me think what I was modeling, and it finally struck me that I was causing other folks, especially these kids, real harm. 

These kids are so brave, and their pastor should be too. 

So to those people, especially our youth, I owe you an apology. You deserved better. You deserved for your pastor to model this better, and I am sorry. 

I never want this to be the kind of place where you can’t be where you are and be seen for who God created you to be. Because we all wrestle. There’s something in you that you are likely wrestling with right now. Some truth you can’t yet speak. Or some desire to be seen. Maybe something that you know that no one else knows. And maybe you walk in here on Sunday thinking “If you knew who I was, I wouldn’t be welcome here” Or maybe you walk in here, feeling unseen.

But that’s not how it should be. You have wrestled with God, and God has blessed you and given you the name of one who dares to wrestle with God. When Jacob wrestled with God at the end God said “your name is no longer Jacob…now it is Israel.” Who are we to not use the names that God has given us? 

Now I don’t want you to take away from this sermon that “the pastor’s pronouns are ‘they’”. I mean, I do. Please remember that. But I want you to know that I know each of us has wrestled and looked for God’s blessing. We’ve all struggled to speak the truth of who we are, and I want you to hear that whatever is inside of you, whatever you’re wrestling with, this is the kind of place where you can talk about what God has blessed in you. And you will be heard. And you will be seen. And you will be honored. Because this is who God made you.

I want our children and youth and their parents to hear that especially. You can be whole here and you can be blessed. The night is long and dark, but the dawn comes. And God holds on to us even still. Amen?

Georgia, Alabama, and Jesus: Sermon for May 19, 2019

One of the least understood Christian holidays must be Maundy Thursday. Most of it is about the name. People don’t get it. They ask, “What does “maundy” mean anyway?” Or sometimes they think people keep saying “Monday Thursday”, which makes no sense at all.

The explanation of what it really means is actually pretty interesting, but it involves a quick language lesson:

The word “maundy” comes from a Latin word: mandatum. And mandatum means “mandate” or a “commandment”. And when we talk about “Maundy Thursday” we’re talking about “mandate Thursday”. We’re talking about the night that Christ told his disciples exactly what he expected of them.

So, Maundy Thursday was over a month ago…why am I talking about it today?

When I opened up this week’s lectionary, the calendar of readings that we follow in the church, here was that same passage that we traditionally read on Maundy Thursday. It threw me. Why are we reading it again? But then I started to think, “Maybe there’s something here worth paying attention to more than once a year”. 

The passage tells the story of how Jesus has gone to Jerusalem for the Passover. He’s gathered his twelve disciples there at the table. And he knows what is going to happen. He knows that by the end of the night one of them will betray him to the authorities. One will deny him three times. And all of them will leave him alone in his hour of greatest pain.

And yet, there he is. Breaking the bread and pouring the cup. Eating with them. Blessing them. Getting down on his knees and washing their feet, showing them his love and grace and compassion, in a time when we might have better understood his wrath or anger.

In a world where we are often surrounded by messages of retaliation, or vengeance, or eye for an eye cries for justice, it’s a different message. Jesus had done nothing wrong. He’d lived a life of non-violence, he’d healed the sick, raised the dead, and freed the captives. He’d brought hope and life to those who needed it the most.

And in the end, he knew that he was not about to be thanked. He was about to be killed. Because in the end, the goodness, and the kindness, and the compassion he had brought were more of a threat to the Roman authorities than any weapon or any army. He so radically upset the status quo that they decided their only choice was to kill him.

And that’s where that word “maundy” comes in. Because what do you do if you’re Jesus? What do you do when it’s the night before you are going to die? What do you do if  you have to tell the people you love the most, the ones who followed you, the ones who sometimes make big mistakes, how to keep moving in the right direction after you’re gone? What is the one thing you are going to tell them?

The mandate, the mandatory thing Jesus tells us to do in this passage is this:

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

The irony is that sometimes, especially in the public arena, Christians aren’t very loving people. In fact, sometimes those who share our faith aren’t even kind people. 

There are times when people ask me what I do for work, and as soon as I tell them I can see a wall go up. There are a lot of reasons for that, but one of the big ones is that they have been treated unkindly in the name of the Christian faith. I get it. If all I’d felt was pain at the hands of Christians, I wouldn’t want to get to know a Christian minister either.

The reality is that sometimes we Christians are our own worst public relations people. Jesus told us that our love for one another, our kindness, would be the mark of how people would know us. It would be our identification card. And yet, sometimes Christians do just the opposite.

I debated about whether to talk about what I’m about to talk about today, but I know it has been on a lot of your minds this week, and there are times when not talking about the hard things is a form of pastoral malpractice.

Over the last years, some of you have shared old, deeply painful experiences with me related to what I’m talking about. I’m honored you have trusted me. And I know this week has brought many of those memories up. 

Because this week we heard about what is happening in the South, especially in Georgia and Alabama. There the right to choose is being eroded. And in those places it is primarily Christian groups, people using the name of Jesus Christ, who are driving this agenda.

Now, I understand that there are good Christians who are pro-life, and good Christians who are pro-choice – perhaps those two exist even here in our own church. Our own denomination’s stance, along with a number of other denominations, is that everyone should have the right to choose. In fact, ministers in the UCC were active even before Roe v. Wade, helping to connect abortion providers with those who needed them.

But I also know there are those who really believe abortion is immoral. I disagree, but I respect it. And I know people who live out their pro-life commitments by genuinely caring for parents both before and after childbirth. They also don’t end their concern for the child after birth, but advocate for them in every arena.

But these laws in Georgia and Alabama? They’re just plain cruel. In Alabama, for instance, not even survivors of rape or incest are allowed to seek abortions. That means children who have been sexually abused will be forced to carry their pregnancies to term. And survivors of sexual assault can now be jailed for longer than their rapists.

And these bills won’t just stop in the South. They will make their way to every state, including ours. Back alleys will be the norm once again. And, of course, abortions will not stop…they just won’t be safe anymore.

Because this isn’t how you stop abortions. This is just how you make them criminal. If you really wanted to stop abortions you would fund family planning initiatives. You’d teach sex education. You’d make sure people had access to contraceptives. You’d work to stop sexual abuse and assault. You’d make sure that every baby could have enough food, and shelter, and medical care. 

But this isn’t about stopping abortions. This is about exerting control, and instilling fear.

This week I remembered a time about twenty years ago when a friend of mine had to go to one of those Georgia clinics. I have to admit that I was still working out what I thought about abortion back then. I had qualms. And when my friend asked me if I would go with her, I think she saw a split second of hesitation. 

That’s when she said to me the thing that made it all clear: “I just need you not to judge me right now…I need you to support me”

And so, I did. I went with her, and held her hand, and realized that in that moment my calling as a Christian was to be kind to her, and to love her, as she made an excruciating and frightening choice

And it was excruciating and frightening, even for me. Going into that clinic in a city where clinics had been bombed was unsettling. And this was in a Georgia where she had every legal right to do what she was doing. That Georgia does not exist today. And I know that today there are many there who are afraid. 

Right now you might be agreeing with me, or you might not be. You might be saying, “Why are you preaching about politics?”

But I hope you hear me that I’m not trying to preach about politics, and certainly not about partisan politics. You will never hear me endorse a politician or political party at church. Vote however your conscience dictates. But hear me that I’m trying to preach about our faith, and how it tells us to treat others. Because I don’t believe that right now the Christians who are driving these laws in the South are being very loving. 

My friends who live down there, who are afraid? They don’t either. 

Friends sometimes ask me “How can you be a part of the church? How can you be a part of a group that does things like this?” And, I get it. Sometimes it must seem like by staying in the church, I’m siding with the oppressor. And this is just one example out of many of the ways that people have used Jesus Christ to bully and intimidate those with little power. 

But in the end, I remember what Jesus said. “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

And I want to follow that Jesus. I want to follow the one who said that the only identification card we need as Christians is our own loving kindness. I want to follow the one who I think would often be appalled by what is done in his name.

And I want to be a public witness for that kind of love. I want to show our neighbors and our world that the Christ I follow is not one who issues painful, punishing mandates. The Christ I follow had only one mandate: to love

I believe in the mandate. And I believe it’s my job to fiercely love this world enough to want it to be fair, and just, and kind. And I think that sometimes that means that we who are Christians cannot be silent anymore. And we cannot allow our faith to be co-opted in the public arena. Not now. Not when lives are literally at stake. 

In New Hampshire we are in a unique position. Every four years the eyes of the nation turn upon us and we have an early chance to influence the agendas of the people who are running for the highest office in the land. 

So, no matter your party, no matter your political belief, I want to call on you to not squander this chance. Instead, speak about your faith this year. Speak about what you believe. Speak about what you believe Christ would have us do

But as you do it, do this…do it with kindness…do it with fairness…do it with love. 

This is our chance, as Christians, to change the narrative. Moderate and progressive Christians are rarely the ones chosen to be talking heads on the evening news when it comes to matters of faith. That’s because we’ve been too quiet. But that can change. That must change. Our moral voice, our voice of Christ’s love, is needed more than ever.

And may there come a time, soon and very soon, when they know we are Christians not by our laws, but by our love. 

This Isn’t How This Was Supposed to Go: Sermon for Easter 2019

If you came here last Easter, you might remember the children’s sermon.

Let me remind you. I was trying to talk about surprises, and how Easter was a big surprise because Jesus was dead, and then rose again. So, I had these candles. They were just regular birthday cake candles. I lit them one by one, and then blew them out. 

That’s where the trouble began. It turned out that the matches burned more quickly than I expected, and some ashes fell on the floor. The candles did too, and wax dripped everywhere. The end result is that my friends tell me I’m not supposed to use fire anymore in children’s sermons.

But the big problem came during the finale. I had one of those trick birthday candles that you blow out and then they re-light themselves. The idea was that, just as Christ wasn’t supposed to rise again, the candle wasn’t supposed to light itself again.

And so I blew out the candle, and waited. And waited. And nothing happened. 

I always worry about what kids take away from children’s sermons, but I worried about this one in particular. Did I ruin some kid’s faith? Years from now are they going to think this whole Easter thing is a hoax because the candle didn’t come back on?

But that day mostly I just walked away from that whole thing thinking “This isn’t how this was supposed to go.”

That’s actually not a bad place to start on Easter morning. Because this story is, at its core, one about things not going the way they were supposed to go. On that first Easter morning three women were going to the tomb to do what they couldn’t on the day that Christ died. It had been the Sabbath, and so they hadn’t been able to prepare the body for burial until now.

But when they got to the door, and it was open. They heave stone had been rolled away. And when they went inside there was no body. And they were deeply upset because this wasn’t how this was supposed to go

But, they were used to that…because Jesus’ life hadn’t gone the way it was supposed to go. His friends and disciples had thought that he was something special. He was supposed to change everything. He had brought them such hope. They thought he could he be the Messiah who would change everything. And yet, in the end, the world destroyed him. On Good Friday the powers that be killed him, and buried him. That wasn’t the way it was supposed to go at all.

And now all they wanted to do was give him the proper burial he’d been denied, but they couldn’t find his body. They couldn’t even let Jesus rest in peace. And that wasn’t how it was supposed to go either.

But as they went into a tomb, they saw two men in dazzling clothes. Angels. And they asked them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen”.

It was unbelievable. Quite literally. Because when the three women went back to the rest of the disciples, they didn’t believe them. One, Peter, had to go see for himself, and he found the same thing they did And you can almost picture the women being like, “Really, Peter? We already told you he wasn’t there.”

But, that wasn’t how it was supposed to go either. Women weren’t supposed to be trusted with news like that. Surely if Jesus were to come back he’d go tell the men first, right? I mean, they were the important ones. Nothing about this was making sense.

I think about that first Easter morning, about how nothing was going the way it was supposed to go, and I think about this world. Because, truth be told, this world is broken It is not bad, because nothing God creates is bad…but it is broken

The planet itself is in crisis. We are at a critical turning point. The world is filled with war and violence…early this morning attacks on churches in Sri Lanka killed hundreds of people. Meanwhile from Pittsburgh to New Zealand to Parkland, senseless violence and bigotry reign supreme And all around us, unkindness and incivility continue to rule the day, even at the highest levels. This is the example that we are giving to our kids. This is the world that we are happening on to the next generation, essentially saying to them “this is your mess to clean up”.

And sometimes, I imagine God looking down on God’s good creation, full of so much promise and potential, and saying, “This isn’t how this was supposed to go”. 

The reality, though, is that on some level that’s always been true of this world. After all, Jesus was the living embodiment of God’s love and goodness, and look what happened to him? Not even Jesus could escape being broken by this world

And yet…that was not the last word.

Because on Easter morning, when those three women went to the tombs, expecting only to see the broken body of this man they had loved so deeply…he wasn’t there. And these angels were talking about how he was alive. And absolutely none of it made sense, because no one comes back from the dead This wasn’t how it was supposed to go.

But yet, it was true…he was risen…he was alive. The world had done its absolute worst to Jesus. But in the end, God’s love was stronger than that. God’s love was stronger even than death. 

The angels ask the women “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” In their defense, I think they were just doing what made sense. It was the last place they had seen him. I think about that question, though, and I think maybe it was the angels, not the women who didn’t understand.

I think the women, who unlike the angels lived in this world, knew that sometimes you look for the living among the dead because there are so many broken places around us. 

And I think that they were pretty incredible, because they dared to go to one of those broken places and do this small act of kindness, this taking care of Jesus’ body, because they knew it was just a small sign of love, of mercy, and of justice. 

Why do you look for the living among the dead? Because sometimes we have to dare to do so. And because they did, because they were the first who dared to go to find Jesus, they were the first ones to know something amazing had happened

I’ll close with this. I grew up in a staunchly evangelical area. People would often invite others to church by asking, “Have you found Jesus?” And those of us who weren’t really into that would often ask, in fake seriousness,“Why? Is he missing?”

I don’t think Jesus is missing now anymore than he was that first Easter morning. I think he’s still around, showing us that God’s love is bigger than the worst the world can do. I think he’s doing some unexpected things. And I think that if we aren’t careful, we could miss them pretty easily

The reality is that the signs of resurrection are all around us. They’re in the people who know who overcome great obstacles. They’re in the hope that new generations bring. They’re in signs that maybe the world can change for the better. And I believe God is behind that. 

I think God is saying, “This isn’t how this was supposed to go…and so now we are going to fix this”

That’s the message of Easter.  And so the work for us becomes the same as the work for those three women that morning: Go and tell everyone what you have seen. God’s love could not be destroyed. God’s love has won the day. Christ is risen, and so now may we rise.

Because that is how it’s supposed to go.

Save Us: Sermon for Palm Sunday, 2019

Where I grew up in Florida we had palm trees everywhere. They were all around our yard, and all through the neighborhood. In fact, there are twelve different common species of palms in Florida, and you can do different things with each one. Some we used to climb. Others would have big leaves that hung down that you could swing around on. And others had sharp leaves that would leave you bleeding.

My dad waged a constant war against the palm trees, a war that, as you can imagine, was a losing one. He kept his yard very tidy, but the palm trees were always resistant to that. He’d trim them, and they’d grow back bigger and stronger. And one of my memories is of stacks of palm fronds piled up on the curb waiting for the trash trucks. It seemed like there was always an abundance of palms. 

So, every spring when we order a box of palm leaves, I always feel a bit resentful. Because had my dad known that churches needed so many leaves, I think he probably would have started his own mail order business for Palm Sunday. If I ever retire to Florida, that’s my retirement plan, by the way.

But growing up not really in the church, I had no idea what Palm Sunday was. I thought it was just something that people in Florida celebrated, like an orange festival or something. Palms were so ordinary to us, that the fact a whole church holiday was centered around them seemed bizarre.

The reality is that Palm Sunday is, at first glance, a strange tradition. Once a year you come through the doors of the church and the usher hands you not just a bulletin, but a palm frond. If you didn’t know about it in advance, you’d probably think it was pretty odd.

But we do this on Palm Sunday because we are remembering how Jesus finally made it to the big city: Jerusalem. He rode into the city on a donkey, and the crowds were waiting for him. They had heard about him. They loved him. They threw their coats on the ground. And they took the branches of the most common tree around them, the palm tree, and they spend them out on the road to make a path for him. 

All these centuries later we Christians gather in churches and collect these palms and wave them. And we reenact a great parade that took place long ago. 

Along on Palm Sunday we even have a sort of special cheer. We shout this odd word, “Hosanna”. It’s the same word that the crowds shouted to Jesus as he entered the city. Hosanna has come to be understood as a sort of joyful cheer, like maybe you’d hear at a sports event or political rally. A sort of “hurray” or “huzzah”.

So, Palm Sunday is almost like this fun little tradition, a little bit of levity at the end of the heavy season of Lent with things to wave and words to shout. 

But, this word we shout, hosanna, wasn’t just one of celebration. It meant something more to the people who lined Jesus route. Hosanna comes from the Psalms, something the people of Jerusalem would have known well, and it doesn’t mean “yay” or “isn’t this great”. It means, literally, “save us”.

Those people who lined the route to the city and welcomed Jesus in, they were calling out to him, shouting, “Jesus, save us…we need help.”

There was plenty to need saving from for the people who lined the route. They lived under an oppressive Roman empire, one in which their safety and rights were constantly under threat. For some who shouted “hosanna”, they believed that maybe Jesus had come to end all of that. It’s one reason why the Roman officials were so scared of him. They thought Jesus would bring political upheaval.

And for others, Jesus represented another kind of hope. They had something going on in their own lives and they thought maybe Jesus would help them. They were sick, or destitute, or maybe just hopeless. And so they too yelled their “hosannas”…save us.

That’s what happened in Jerusalem almost 2,000 years ago. But, what would happen if Jesus came down Front Street in Exeter, New Hampshire today? What would we be doing if he rode up the center of town on a donkey and stopped there at the bandstand? What would we shout?

The reality is that if Jesus came to town today, he probably wouldn’t be riding a donkey. I’m not sure what he would drive, but maybe a plain old Honda or Toyota, as common and unexciting today as a donkey would have been back then.

And you and I would probably not be waving palms either. They’re not exactly native to our region. Maybe we’d be out there with pine boughs, or the branches of trees that haven’t quite bloomed yet. We would use whatever was handy. Some years we’d probably be waving snow shovels about now.

It would look a lot different from Jerusalem 2,000 years ago. But what wouldn’t be different is this: we’d still have reason to shout “save us”.

The reality is that probably all of us have something from which we want saving. Maybe we are sick. Maybe we are feeling hopeless. Maybe we are wandering and feeling alone. Maybe we are uncertain. Maybe we are worried for our community, or our country. Whatever it is, we know we can’t fix it alone.

Hosanna is the word in which both humility and hope collide. It is simultaneously a confession that we can not fix it ourselves, and that we believe that God can. Hosanna is one of the best statements of faith that we can make.

It’s also a statement that flips everything on its head. And that’s because when we call out to Jesus to save us, we might not expect the way he will do it.

When Jesus came to Jerusalem, the people prepared the road for him. They laid out palms and their own clothing so that he could walk into town. They were trying to prepare a procession for a conquering king who would save them from the hard lives they knew. They were probably expecting a regal king riding in on a sturdy horse with his entourage.

Instead, they got this guy on a donkey.

Today it would be a little like waiting for a liberating army to arrive in a tank and instead seeing one guy roll up the street in a jeep. It wouldn’t exactly be confidence-inspiring.

And yet, Jesus did hear the calls of the crowd to save them. And he did. The next week in Jerusalem would turn everything on its head. That’s what we will be celebrating next Sunday when we gather back here for Easter.

But none of it went down the way that the people lining that street expected. And none of it happened immediately. Even when they found the empty tomb on Easter morning, the work was not done. In fact, even 2,000 years later, you and I are still responding to the calls that Jesus heard that day. You and I are still working as Christ’s disciples to change this world.

And that’s really what the life of faith is like in some ways. It’s acknowledging the cries of a broken world, and it’s responding to them as Christ’s own disciples. 

And the thing is, that’s dangerous. That’s a threat to all that would oppress others and hold them down. That’s why when the people on the street cried out “hosanna” that day, the Pharisees and the religious officials told Jesus to make them stop. But he refused. He told them, “even if they were silent, the stones themselves would cry out”.

That’s true. Even if we don’t shout our “hosannas”, the world already knows what is not right. Even if we don’t cry out in humility or hope, others will. Those same cries for justice, for liberation, for life that were raised from that crowd 2,000 years ago are being echoed today, all around us. The hope comes in the fact that they have not gone silent and underground. They are still being shouted today.

I think we are living in a time when the stones themselves are crying out. What has been silenced for so long is finally being named. From the “me too” movement to hard discussions on race to a frank admission that civility is lacking in our national discourse at the highest levels, we are not keeping silent anymore. We are telling the truth about what is wrong, and we are looking for a better way. And, for those of us who are Christians, this is the same as saying “hosanna”…God save us. Help us to do better.

And the first part of doing better, the first part of getting better, is telling the truth about how things really are.

I was reminded of this last week. Last Sunday we had a great celebration of the church’s 381st birthday. But in our deacons meeting this past week, we talked a little about something that had been missing, and that was acknowledgment of the Native Americans who were here in this community before European settlers, like our church founders, ever came.

And as I was writing the sermon for that day, I was aware that I was leaving our part of the story, but I didn’t know enough about it to tell it well, and, honestly, I didn’t know how to tell it. But that was a mistake. Because part of asking God to save us means being willing to tell the truth about the ways that we too have fallen down on the job, and we too have been unjust at times.

On Easter, we celebrate the fact that God saves us, even still. But on Palm Sunday, we tell the truth. We tell God that sometimes we have missed the mark. And we tell God that we need help, because we know that we cannot save ourselves. We need God’s grace and love. 

And so, hosanna, God. Save us. Save us from the mistakes we have made. Save us from the injustices of the world. But save us, God…save us for the work that you still have for us to do. Save us, that we may be the positive change that our world needs. Save us, that we may be your people, and that you may be our God.

Millstones and Consent: Sermon for September 30, 2018

When it comes to the Jesus we find in Scripture, I confess I have favorites. I like the loving Jesus, who brings the little children close to him. And I like fearless Jesus, who tells the winds of a mighty storm to call down. And there’s celebratory Jesus, who turns water into wine at a wedding. Or even baby Jesus who is cute and cuddly in the manger.
But there’s one Jesus, or one side of Jesus, that still makes me uneasy: judgmental Jesus.
See, I want to pretend sometimes that Jesus is completely non-judgmental, and that he’s okay with whatever we are doing, because a Jesus who thinks we are great no matter what sounds pretty great to me.
But the reality is that Jesus loves us too much to have no expectations of us. Ask any parent and they’ll tell you the same. They love their kids but they expect certain things. Jesus loves us so much, and Jesus wants something better for us, and from us.
And that’s what today’s passage is about. It’s a hard word, but one that in the end even makes me grateful for that judgmental Jesus.
Here’s the context. Jesus is teaching the disciples and he tells them, “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.”
Then he says that if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off? Your leg? Cut it off. Your eye? Pluck it out.
So, that’s a happy passage. Jesus is talking about cutting off body parts so that we don’t go to hell. I want the Jesus from last week, the one who said “let the little children come onto me”, back.
But the reality is that this passage comes right after last weeks in Scripture. These are the very next verses, and I think there’s a reason for it. I think it goes back, in fact, to those children that Jesus wanted welcomed, and what he wanted you and me to do.
Jesus says it’s better to have a millstone tied around your neck and be thrown into the sea. What is a millstone? It’s big. Bigger than this pulpit. And heavy. There’s no way to survive that. But if you hurt a “little one”, someone who is vulnerable, Jesus says it’s better to be thrown into sea with one of those things around your neck.
Did he mean this literally?
Let me be clear…no. Do not cut off body parts. Do not cast yourself into the sea.
But did he mean this seriously? Yes…and I think he meant it seriously because he wanted us to see just how great the consequences are for us if we mistreat the most vulnerable among us.
By that I don’t mean the punishments. I don’t believe God stands by waiting to smite us every time we make a mistake But I mean the consequences…the natural outcomes of our actions
And so today, I want to look in particular about the consequences of what we teach our children and youth, and about what stumbling blocks we put in the way. Because we as a society are reaping the consequences of the stumbling blocks we have faced everyday.
We reap the consequences when a young person feels isolated or alone. We reap the consequences when we don’t teach a child how to be kind and respectful to others. We reap the consequences when we fail to model non-violence when it comes to conflict resolution.
And we reap the consequences when we don’t teach young people that consent matters, and that “no means no”.
How? By becoming exactly the society that we have become lately. We become more like reality tv than Mr. Rogers. We stop valuing honesty and kindness and start being fond of half-truths and mean-spirited slights. We elevate celebrities and not servant leaders to positions of power and prestige. We trample on the courageous and instead allow the triumph of not-so-righteous indignation.We stymie the truth and reward the unrighteous.
It happens everywhere. And the children are watching.
They watch when we do the wrong thing, and they start to think it’s okay. Even worse, they start to think it’s the right thing.
They watch when we make ethical trades, allowing the easier wrong to triumph over the harder right.
They watch when people are victimized, and then victimized again. And they know it’s not right, but they start to believe that that’s just the way the world is supposed to work.
And as we teach them, that’s how they will grow. And they will soon be adults who will act the way that we have trained them. And we, you and I, will soon be watching them take power, and we may not like what we see.
But we will have reaped what we have sown. And it might just be better for us to have put that millstone around our neck rather than have taught them what they are learning.
I was thinking about that this week when I was watching the confirmation hearings for the man who could be our next Supreme Court justice. And I’m not going to get political here, so don’t worry. (The reality is that the judiciary isn’t even supposed to be political, but it is.) But I want to talk about what we saw.
We saw a woman get up in front of a Congressional hearing, and tell them her story of what happened when she was 15 years old.
I feel pastorally like I need to say that when someone tells me they were sexually assaulted, I believe them. I don’t care if it was yesterday or decades ago…I know how hard it is to tell that truth to anyone, let alone a whole country.
But even if you don’t, did you see the way that people reacted? Did you see the names she was called? Did you see the way she was treated on social media? Did you see how before she even spoke her life was threatened? Did you see how scared she was when she took that oath to tell the truth?
No matter what happens now, do you know who else saw it? A whole generation of teenagers, of all genders. And I’m sure that more than a few 15 year old girls saw it too.  And I’m also sure that some of those 15 year old girls have secrets that they haven’t told anyone yet. And I’m sure that now at least some of them never will. They’ve seen what happens.
And I think about our country, and how we handled sexual abuse and assault, and I think, “It would have been better for us to have tied a millstone around our necks that to have hurt them like this.”
I can’t change what happened decades ago, and I can’t really do much about what’s happening on the national stage either. But I can do this. I can get up here on a Sunday morning and ask you, as people of God, to commit in one concrete way to not putting a stumbling block in front of our little ones.
And that’s to talk to the young people in your life. I don’t care their gender; talk to them.
Tell them that they have control over their own body.
Tell them that if someone is touching them, or pressuring them, and they are uncomfortable they have the right to say “no”.
Tell them that it doesn’t matter who is doing it…a teacher, a coach, the cute guy on the football team, their prom date, no matter who….it’s not okay
Tell them that if someone hurts them, they can tell you, and you will believe them.
And tell them this too…tell them that they don’t have the right to touch anyone who doesn’t want to be touched.
Tell them that consent matters, and “no means no”.
Tell them to respect the boundaries that others set on their bodies.
Tell them that this is the expectation you have of them, because you love them, and because God loves us all.
You probably didn’t come to church expecting to hear a sermon about stopping sexual harassment and assault today. I get that. But, as many theologians have said, sometimes we have to read the Bible with the newspaper in the other hand. And it would be pastoral negligence for me not to say something this morning.
Scripture begs us to tell the truth about what has happened to too many people. Scripture begs us to tell the truth about what has happened to too many of you in this church today. And Scripture begs us to tell the truth so that maybe, for just a few people, the conversation I’m asking you to have with the young people in your life will save this from happening to someone else.
My door is open. If you want to talk about anything I’ve said today, or want to tell me about something from your past, I am here as a confidential listener. Legally I must report any current allegations of child sexual abuse, but otherwise what you tell me when stay only with me. And I will believe you.
And if you want to talk about this world, and what we can do to make it a little better, a little less filled with stumbling blocks, I can do that too. In fact, we can talk about these things together. I choose these hard conversations, because I do not choose the millstone. I choose a better way. Lord, may we all, because we cannot afford to keep reaping what we sow. Amen.

Calling Out the Called: Sermon for June 3, 2018

I entered seminary right after I graduated from college, when I was still 21 years old. And that summer I was called to my first meeting with the committee that would later decide whether or not to ordain me as a minster. I was really nervous, because I was sure I would get asked some sort of confusing theological question, or I’d be asked to recite the books of the Bible or something. I had no idea what to expect.

I the end, the meeting went well. No curveball questions. No unfair expectations. But the committee said they had one concern: I was 21 years old. Wasn’t I too young to know that I wanted to devote my life to God?

It was the last thing I expected them to question me on, because I thought a young person who wanted to serve would be greeted with open arms. I had made this decision so carefully, even throwing away my law school applications to apply to seminary. And I left the meeting approved to go forward, but feeling this sense that I wasn’t being taken seriously because I was young. It’s left an impression on me to this day.

It’s no surprise that we sometimes do not value the call that God has on young people. We all have experiences of being told we are too young, or of not being listened to. And as kids and as young adults we hate it, and we say we will never do it to others once we are in positions of power. And yet, generation after generation it happens.

And that’s why sometimes it’s good to remember that God has been known to call the unexpected to do amazing things. Today’s Scripture reading talks about a young prophet named Samuel, who one day even choose the king of Israel. At this particularly time, though, he’s still just a kid. He’s been taken to the temple and his life has been dedicated to serving Eli, one of the priests there. 

One night it’s growing dark, and he can’t see well, and he starts to fall asleep. And then there’s a voice: “Samuel, Samuel.” He runs to Eli, but Eli tells him “I didn’t call…go back to bed.” Again, he starts to slip into sleep and hears, “Samuel!” He runs to Eli who tells him, “I didn’t call you this time either.” So he goes back. And then a third time, “Samuel, Samuel.” And this time Eli catches on. And he tells him, if you hear it again, say this, “Speak, God…for your servant is listening.”

 

In the United Church of Christ, the denomination that both of these churches belong to, we have a saying. We say, “God is still speaking.” That means that God didn’t just speak to people like Samuel thousands of years ago. God speaks to us today. And our job, as God’s people, is to learn to say, “speak God…for your servant is listening.” And then, we have to listen.

So, what does it mean to listen to God? Very few of us ever have the kind of experience that Samuel had. Most of us don’t get the literal voice of God telling us what to do. So, that means our job is a little harder. We have to seek out what God might want for us, and we have to discern, to figure out if our interpretation is right, through prayer and conversation with others. 

But before we even get to that stage, we need to believe that God might indeed call us, and that God might have something big for us to do. And that might be the hardest step of all. It’s hard because most of us believe at some level that we are not worthy enough or holy enough or experienced enough for God to use. We think God will use other people, people who are saint-like or incredibly talented, to do the important work. And so, we stop listening, and we stop being available to God.

But one of the things I love about this story is that everyone who knew Samuel, this man who this boy who God talked to, would go on to do amazing things.And a big part of Samuel’s story comes from what he did when he was an adult. Having learned as a boy that God speaks to and uses the unexpected, Samuel becomes open to how God may be using others. 

As an adult, Samuel is appointed by God to go and anoint the new king. And God tells Samuel that the king will come from among a man named Jesse’s sons. So Samuel goes to Jesse’s house and says, “I need to meet your sons”. And Jesse’s seven oldest sons are brought in. Now, it’s important to note that in these days seven was a very highlly valued number. Seven was the ideal number, the one that signified perfection. So when Jesse had seven sons, that was something to be especially proud of in his society.

But the thing is, Jesse also had an eighth son. David. David was the youngest, and the smallest, the unexpected one, and no one really expected much out of him. So when Samuel came to anoint the new king, they didn’t even bother bringing him into the house. They just left him out in the field to watch the sheep.

But when Samuel starts to look at Jesse’s sons, God makes it clear that none of them is the king. The first one comes, and Samuel thinks, this has to be the king. But it’s not. And then the second. And then the third. Again and again until none of David’s brothers has been chosen. And that’s when Samuel asks, “Are these all your sons?”

And Jesse tells him about David. And someone went out to the fields to get him, and as soon as Samuel sees David, he knows. This is the king.

Now, truth be told big part of why I love this story is that when I was growing up, I was always the youngest. I was the youngest of all my siblings, by far. The youngest of all my cousins. Most of tine time I was even the youngest in my class. I’ve joked that growing up I had a permanent reservation at the children’s table. And this is a quintessential youngest kid makes good story.

But the hero of the story isn’t David. Not yet. This time it’s Samuel, the man who dared to believe that God just might use the most unexpected person. 

I was thinking about that yesterday. Some of us gathered first here at the church to load up a truck, and then in Manchester at an apartment downtown. We were preparing it for the arrival of the family of refugees who are arriving this week. 

I thought about the story I told you last week, about how a number of people felt called to do something to welcome refugees as a church, and how we got all of those people in the same room, and they figured out exactly how to do it. I thought about what it took for them to not only listen to that call from God, but to tell others about it, and to then act on it.

There were a million reasons for that not to have happened. It would have been easy for any one of them to have said “I don’t know where to start” or “It won’t make a difference” or “It will be too hard.” And it would have been easy for this church to say “We don’t want to get involved” or “It’s too controversial”. But instead, we all listened, and we all felt like this is what God was calling us to do.

And so yesterday, a new home was established in Manchester. Furniture filled the rooms, floors were scrubbed clean, soccer balls and stuffed animals were placed on kids beds. Lots of people did a lot of hard work. 

But in the midst of that, I started to think more about those kids who were going to fill those bunkbeds in those rooms. I thought about my own great-grandmother, who was born to the Irish immigrants who lived in Manchester and worked in the mills. I went home and pulled up the census records, and learned that she lived just two streets over. 

I thought about the world where she grew up…one that didn’t like immigrants much, even ones like her family who were the same color and spoke the same language as the other New Hampshirites. I thought about the poverty she faced, and the struggles. And I thought about what she might think about her great-great-grandchild, who was able to go to college and grad school and pastor a church that was doing what we did yesterday. I hope she would be proud.

And I thought about those kids again, and the lives they will lead in this country. I thought about how some will dismiss them. And I thought about how God will call them to do great things anyway. I thought about how our job, as Christians and as citizens, is to pave the way for others to listen to them and embrace the gifts that they are bringing to us. Because this is more than us giving them the gift of living here…they have gifts for us too. And so will their descendants.

We are called to be Samuels in a world of doubters. We are called to listen to God’s call on our own lives, but more than that we are called to listen to God’s call on the lives of others. And them, we are called to tell others about God’s call to the least expected. We are the translators who can help the calls on others to be heard. That may be our particular work in this time and place. May we do it well, and may God’s gifts to us not be ignored. 

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.

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 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.