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.

 

Our National Wilderness: Sermon for February 17, 2018

Wednesday night a group of us gathered here in the sanctuary for a strange annual ritual. On Ash Wednesday the burnt remains of palm leaves are taken and rubbed onto the foreheads of Christians in the shape of a cross. They are meant to be signs of both our own mortality and our own imperfection.

As you can imagine, the sanctuary was packed.

So, actually, no it wasn’t. And it’s okay. I get that this is not everyone’s favorite Christian observance, and that for many of you it sounds like a pretty depressing way to spend a Wednesday. But the hope of Ash Wednesday, the good news in the midst of all that talk of death and sin, is that we belong to God, no matter what. As Scripture tells us nothing, not even death, can ever separate us from the love of God.

It’s a good message for the start of Lent, a season when we are called to journey with Christ through his last days, through the cross, and, finally, out of the tomb on Easter morning. And on this first Sunday of Lent we hear the Scriptures that were just read, and we remember that even Christ himself needed that reminder.

Scripture tells us that Jesus went out into the wilderness where he wrestled with temptation, doubt, and fear. Before he began to go from town to town, gathering followers and spreading his message, he spent forty days getting lost, and going deep inside of himself.

But before he did that, he did something else. He went out to John the Baptist, and he asked to be baptized. And as he was coming up out of the river after being dunked in, a voice came down from the skies and, the Spirit came down “like a dove” and said, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

I was thinking about Jesus baptism, and I was thinking about the baptism we had here last week. We brought a child to the font, made promises about how we would support her as she grew, sprinkled her with water, and then we happily welcomed her to this family of faith. She now shares in Christ’s own baptism, and she is now marked as God’s own just as surely as Christ was too.

When we baptize someone, it’s always fun. The families come and take pictures, there’s usually a cute baby, we feel happy, and we make the baptismal promises joyfully and willingly. But Jesus own baptism is a stark reminder of the fact that living out our baptism won’t always be easy.

The Scripture tells us that as soon as Jesus came up out of the water, the Spirit, the same one that just a minute ago was saying “with you I am well pleased” then “immediately drove him out into the wilderness”. No one even got to take Jesus out to a baptismal brunch…it was just straight out off into the desert for forty hard and horrible days of doubt and pain.

I’m glad that doesn’t usually happen when we baptize someone. But, there’s something about the fact that before Jesus was going to face this great trial, he heard exactly what he needed to hear. He heard that he was loved by God. He heard that he belonged to God. And he knew that even out in the most unwelcoming of wildernesses, he would not be alone.

I was thinking about the day I was baptized. I was older, 17, and a senior in high school. I was baptized on Easter morning at the sunrise service. And right after the service, I felt so incredible. I felt special, holy, and like my whole life had changed. I felt forgiven, and I vowed to go from that place and do everything right from then on. This was the start of a whole new me.

One of my best friends from high school was with me, and he got into the car with me after the service. I was driving, and I was still so excited. It was the ultimate spiritual high. And I was so caught up in it, that I didn’t even see the stop sign that I ran right through. My friend yelled out just in time, I slammed on the breaks, and the driver who had the right of way rightfully said a few choice words to me. And all of a sudden I realized that just because I was now baptized, it didn’t mean I was now going to be perfect, and it didn’t mean that I could stop looking at the road in front of me.

After his baptism, the Spirit led Jesus out into the wilderness. After mine, my inattention to the road almost led me into an accident. Hopefully the events following your own were somewhat less exciting. But the reality is that all of us, whether a few minutes, or many years after our baptism, will face our own moments of reckoning. We will be confronted with the fact that our baptisms, while holy and beautiful and from God, are also calls to engage in this world, and especially to go out into the wilderness places.

I was thinking about that this week. Wednesday afternoon, as we were getting ready for the Ash Wednesday service here, the news started to come in about yet another school shooting, this time in Parkland, Florida. And by the end of the day we learned that this was the deadliest school shooting since Sandy Hook. Seventeen people lost their lives in this attack.

I was thinking this week about how many times, in the eight years I’ve been a parish pastor, I’ve changed what I was going to say on Sunday because of a mass shooting. Newtown, Orlando, Las Vegas, now…and there are others. I don’t think that there is one other issue or kind of news that has anywhere as frequently made me go back and look at my sermon for the week.

And I’d like to hope that this is going to be the last time, that there won’t be any other shootings, that children won’t be scared to go to school and parents won’t be scared to send them off anymore, but the reality is that I’m not so sure that’s true. If Newtown didn’t do it, if 26 small children and their teachers didn’t stop things, I’m not sure what will.

One of the most provocative images of the day for me was of a woman at the school, likely a parent, clutching another parent, and waiting to find out that their children were safe. On her forehead was the sign of the cross, there in black ash. Earlier that day a clergy person had intoned the same words we say on Ash Wednesday: o mortal, remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. And then they had put that symbol of God’s eternal claim on us on her forehead, and sent her off into a wilderness of horror that she could not have imagined.

We, as human beings, we choose what we will tolerate. We choose what is okay to us. And I don’t know if there’s a foolproof way to make sure that no child will ever again be hurt at a school. But I do know there are ways to make that possibility much, much less likely.

And I also know this. I know that stopping violence is our job as people of faith. I know that sometimes it is easier to just keep driving along, thinking spiritual thoughts and feeling good, but if we don’t look up, if we don’t see what is coming and make adjustments to the way we are driving, we can end up completely wrecked.

When we baptize a child in this church, we make promises to them. We say that we will teach them about the faith. We say that we will teach them about courage. We say that we will help them to grow. In a real way, we say that we will protect them. But at the end, we send then back out into this wilderness world where not even school is safe.

If we baptize children and do nothing to help them outside of the church walls, we fail in our vows to them. And if we come to church on Sunday, and we do nothing to live out our own baptisms in the week between, then we fail our own baptisms too.

You know that I don’t preach politics from the pulpit. How you vote is between you and God and your conscience. And I’m not going to tell you what to do or how to do it. But, I am going to say this: we can’t ignore this any more. Because there are times when I believe our faith calls us to look for solutions, and not just keep driving straight ahead. I don’t think that as people of faith we can ignore dead children anymore. So whatever you do now, whatever action you take, all I can ask is this: don’t be afraid to look up, look around, and do something to stop this.

Lent is about learning how to go into the wilderness, the place we do not want to go, and wrestling with who and whose we are, and what we can do in this world. If nothing, not even death, can ever separate us from the love of God, and if we believe that, then we should be people of immense courage. Even when we are afraid, we have this promise. We are in a wilderness time and the Holy Spirit has called us out into the midst of it. May we never be too afraid to go.

 

Our Transfigurations: Sermon for February 10, 2018

I’ve said before that sometimes the church uses fancy words for things that don’t need fancy words. Today’s a good example of that. Today is Transfiguration Sunday in the church, and if you’re wondering “what is that?” You are not alone. Transfiguration is one of those fancy words that we use for something that really isn’t that fancy.

I’ll explain why, but first, the story. Jesus took three of his disciples, Peter, John, and James up onto the top of a mountain. I don’t know what they thought was going to happen there. They probably thought they were just going on a hike or something.

But at the peak, suddenly something happens to Jesus. He appears to be filled with light. Scripture says he glowed a “dazzling white”. Strange enough for the Peter, John and James, but then Elijah and Moses appeared there with him too. And a voice rang out, “This is my son, the beloved…listen to him.”

So, this is what the church calls “The Transfiguration”. I assume we went with that because, “That time Jesus glowed like a ghost on top of a mountain and two dead guys showed up” is a little long.

Transfiguration literally means “a change in form or appearance”. If you’re a Harry Potter fan, think of Professor McGonagall, the transfiguration professor, and how she could change from a person to a cat and back again. I’m not saying that Jesus was an animagus, but I’m saying the same basic root is there: he changed his appearance in a profound way.

Transfiguration, really, is just a fancy word for change. And change is at the heart of today’s Gospel. Because Jesus physical change in appearance is striking, but I’m not really convinced that’s the point of today’s passage.

I say that because I don’t think Jesus was the only one changed up there on that mountain that day. He took three disciples up there, and he did it because there was something he wanted them to see. He wanted to show them something that would change their lives. And when Peter and John and James saw it, things changed.

They already knew that Jesus was something special. And when they got to the top, Jesus showed them who he was. Jesus didn’t change in any real, fundamental way. Only his appearance did, and for the first time they looked at him and they were able to see him as he had always been. For the first time they understood that this was the son of God.

There are times in our lives when something so profound happens to us that we are never the same again. We fall in love. We lose someone we love. We welcome a new child to our family. We step out into the world on our own. We suffer from a great unfairness. We receive a diagnosis. Or we celebrate a great victory. From that point on, our life changes. We can never go back to life beforehand. We can only decide how we will live now.

For the three disciples, something profound had to change in them right about then. They had to know in that moment that the course of their whole lives was about to change. It must have been incredible, and terrifying all at the same time. Because once they saw Jesus change, once they understood who he was and they realized that they couldn’t help but follow this man from now on, they must have realized that the world as they knew it was all about to change.

Now maybe that has happened to you. We all have different spiritual experiences. Some have top of the mountaintop moments where they really see who Christ is for the first time, and they are amazed. And they stand on that mountain and they know that everything has been changed.
Others of us don’t have that big, dazzling experience with the light and the voice from heaven. But we have a still, small voice that speaks to us and gradually pulls us in the right direction. Maybe over the course of years, we come to be convinced that we can do no other than follow the path of Christ. We become changed people.

So did Peter, John and James. Do you wonder what they were thinking about on the hike back down? Do you wonder if they were trying to figure out how to go back to the day-to-day life they had after knowing that everything had changed? After knowing who Jesus was and knowing that that was all that mattered?

Maybe you have had the experience of having some kind of spiritual experience that stirred you so deeply that you have left thinking everything made sense for the first time, and everything in your life was about to change for the better. And then you went back to your house, and there was still laundry to do, and bills to pay, and the car still needed an oil change, and gradually that mountaintop feeling slipped away and things felt just like they always had. In the back of your mind you remembered, but the change didn’t seem to last long in the real world.

I believe I’ve shared the Buddhist saying with you before about what happens when you finally achieve enlightenment. It goes like this: Before enlightenment – chop wood and carry water. After enlightenment – chop wood and carry water.

 

I think that’s what the spiritual life is for most of us. We have our mountaintop moments where we feel God’s love and have the best of intentions. And we have our time in the valley of the day-to-day where we sometimes act like we’ve never known Jesus a day in our lives. But when we are given reason to hope again, we come running because deep down we believe.

In other words, it’s not the world that changes, it’s us. We are transformed, and we meet our days as transformed people. And while our daily tasks may not change, our way of facing them just might. And because we have been changed, because we have been transfigured, we might just change the world.

Every year we read this same story on the Sunday before Lent begins. Ash Wednesday, when the season begins, is just three days from now. After that, for forty weekdays, we will be on a journey with Jesus first to the cross, and then out of the tomb.

When the disciples came down from that mountaintop, completely changed by what they had seen, they were about to begin a journey of their own. They would see the man they now knew to be the son of God persecuted, killed, buried, and then resurrection. And then, the greatest challenge of all: they would become the ones who would tell the stories about Jesus, and what they had seen. They would build the church that you and I know today. But none of that would have happened, had they not once see change on top of a mountain, and been changed by it. After that, they could never be the same again.

Later in the service, something is going to happen that will leave one of us never the same again. A new baby, five months old today, is being brought to the baptismal font. Her parents are going to make promises, as are we, and we are then going to splash water on her head, and name her as Christ’s own.

This child will not remember her baptismal day. But, rest assured, she will never be the same again. Christians believe that you only need to be baptized once. No matter what happens in your life, there is never a need to come back to the font. Once this happens, once Christ claims you in the waters of baptism, there’s no going back. You can never be unbaptized. You are changed.

Our job, as people who share in this baptism, will be the same as it is with every child who comes to this font. We will teach her what it means to live our this baptism in the world. We will be her examples when she wonders what a Christian life looks like, we will be examples of transformed people transforming the world. We will be agents of change, because we have been changed.

And then, after the joy of the baptism, we will go down to the vestry, and do something a little less dramatic. We will sit in rows, focus on a powerpoint presentation, and vote on things like the church budget. Because, after enlightenment, we still chop wood and we still carry water. In fact, after enlightenment, we understand just a little more clearly why those things matter too.

And so, having been changed, let us head back down the mountain, to a world so in need of change. And let’s get to work.

With Authority: Sermon for January 28, 2018

When I was a hospital and hospice chaplain, I would wear my clergy collar a lot. I don’t feel the need to wear it often in the parish because we already know one another. But in hospitals, when time is short and no one knows who I am, it’s important that people be able to understand why I’m there. The clergy collar becomes an automatic signal.

But, like any uniform, it also becomes something that people project their own meanings on to, for good or for bad. And they will tell you all about it. When I was a hospice chaplain, for instance, I was going into areas around Dorchester and South Boston where most people were raised Catholic.

Many hadn’t had exposure to Protestant ministers and, I mean, the haircut didn’t help either. So there were a number of situations when I automatically became “Father” to someone. Once I was eating lunch in a restaurant. As the waiter handed me the check he said to me, “Father…my mother’s sick. I wrote her name down on the bill. Would you pray for her please?” It didn’t seem like the right time to correct him, so I told him that I would of course pray, and I gave him my credit card. I’m not sure why he thought the Father had the card of someone named “Emily”, but if he was suspicious, he didn’t ask.

I tell you this story because it goes to show how much authority people automatically give to religious figures sometimes. I was always amazed about the authority people automatically gave me, just because of one piece of clothing and what it symbolized. I was also always a little disturbed by it.

I think Jesus would have been too. The Scripture reading today talks a little about Jesus and the religious authorities of the day. Jesus had gone into the a temple, a seat of religious power, and he had just walked in and started teaching. It would be sort of like any of us walking into another church and starting to preach. But that wasn’t even the most astonishing part. What was most astonishing was that he was teaching, Scripture tells us, is how he was teaching. “They were astounded,” it says, “for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes,” who were the regular teachers.

The story tells us that that’s when a man came into the synagogue, and he had an “unclean spirit” which was a sort of demon. And Jesus healed him, sending the spirit away. And the people are even more amazed and say, “What is this? A new teaching–with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”

In other words, “Who is this guy? Where does he get off teaching in the synagogue and casting out demons?” And, even more perplexing, “Why does it seem like he knows what he’s doing?”

Jesus had real authority. It wasn’t the kind that came with a clergy collar or any other kind of uniform. Walking in that day, he probably looked like your average Joe. Nothing special. No one was coming up to him, calling him “Father” or asking him to pray for their mother. But he didn’t need those things. As soon as he started to talk, and to minister, people knew he was the real deal.

The people said he had “authority”. I hear that word “authority” and I assign a certain meaning in my head. I think about whether someone has the “authority” to do something or not. If we go somewhere we aren’t supposed to go someone might ask, “Do you have the authority to be here?” Or, we might call customer service and ask for help, and the person on the other end of the line might say, “I don’t have the authority to do that”.

Authority, the way we usually use it, is about permission and power. You with have it or you don’t.

But when you look at the root of the word “authority”, there’s something interesting there. It’s not important to remember this, but the Latin root for authority is “auctoritas”, which is the same root as for the word “author”. In other words, one who is an authority, or who has authority, is one who is an author.

Now, being a writer, that makes sense to me. The author is someone who sets things in motion on the page. When I decide I have something to write, I sit down, and start to map out my ideas. I usually get a sense of where I am heading. I come up with an outline, I put the chapters in the right order, and then…I write. A lot. Day after day, and things are always shifting under me. But, eventually, I write the last words, and I am done. I have authored something.

An author is a creator. We take pieces of what we know, and we knit them together. Our identity as an author, our authority, comes not because we are brilliant or particularly interesting, but because we dare to participate in the process of creating something.

That’s an important lesson for Christians. We are not all called to be writers, but we are all called to be authors. We are called to create something in this world. More than that, we are given the authority to create something in this world.

And here’s where it’s important to remember that authority is not a badge or a symbol of power. Authority is something entrusted to us, an obligation that makes us no better than others. Authority, in fact, is what calls us to serve others. Our authority does not allow us to control others…it only allows us to participate with God in the transformation of the world.

Christianity is not a passive faith. It is a faith for authors. It is a faith for creators and doers. Following Christ means following his example. It means claiming the authority to do the work that needs to be done. For Jesus that meant walking in and teaching. For us, that means figuring our where our world needs us, and taking responsibility to author a new way.

But sometimes walking into the world and claiming our author-ity, our call to author something new, is as radical as Jesus walking into that temple…and as scary. Sometimes we are wary of claiming that authority. But sometimes, we take a risk, and we do it anyway.

This week I was reading about a childhood classmate of mine who has made a decision about what she wants to do with the next chapter of her life. She is leaving behind a comfortable life in our hometown, and she is moving overseas to help with an international faith-based refugee organization. She will devote herself to easing the suffering of displaced people, and helping them to recover.

She does not have to do this. She could stay back in the states, pray, and send money. But she is claiming an authority that has been given to her by her faith. She is becoming the author of the next chapter of her life. And she is authoring a story that will intersect with the stories of untold others. And ultimately, she will be a part of the greatest story, which is the story of God’s love and grace; the story authored by God, in which we all play a part.

My friend proves that the authority of a follower of Christ does not come wrapped in a clergy collar. It comes in the way that we act. It comes in the way that we respond to the author-ity, the responsibility, that God has given to each of us. When we were baptized, or when we confirmed our baptisms, we received this authority. We received the charge to help write this story. Living into our baptisms means becoming authors, active creators, of the next part of the story.

You and I don’t need to board a plane to do that. We have the chance to create something right here. Two Sundays from today we will have our annual meeting here at church. Once a year, for about an hour, we have an all-church meeting. Every member of the church is asked to attend. Together, in that hour, we become the authors of all this church will do in the coming year. Over the next year we will author a new story. Every day we will write the pages, but at annual meeting we will set out our plan, decide on our table of contents and our chapters, and make sure that we have everything we need, from the right people in the right places, to enough tools in enough hands.

I know that on Sunday mornings after church you are eager to get to a long list of things to do before Monday rolls around. This year I hope you’ll give us an hour. The story we are writing together is a story where each of us has some of the words. Without you, the story will not be complete. But if each of us brings our piece to the table, if each of us claims the authority to create something new, we can author something beautiful, and something that can change our world.

Learning to Fish: Sermon for January 21, 2018

When I was back in high school I saw a movie called “A River Runs Through It”. If you’ve seen it you know it’s about two brothers who live in Montana in the 1920’a and the story of their family. And you know that it’s all told through the lens of fly fishing. The brothers, and their father, are shown in shot after shot, knee deep in a river, casting lines against a beautiful backdrop.

It always looked so peaceful to me; almost Zen like. And I decided that if I ever lived in a place where you could fly fish, I would learn. So when I found myself living in the mountains of Vermont, I decided to give it a try. I went down to the fly fishing store, brought a fly rod and reel, took a lesson on land, found a river.

I confidently waded in, and cast my line. The fly fell right on the surface of the water, the trout rose up immediately to take it, and I reeled it in all set against the backdrop of beautiful green mountains and a blue sky.

No, not really. Everything up to the point where I found the river is true. What really happened is this: I stumbled my way down the bank, half fell into the river, saved the cell phone I had somehow thought it was a good idea to bring at the last, finally found a place to stand in the river, tried to cast, got my line stuck in a tree, fell in the river again, and finally, cold and wet, gave up for the day.

The next time wasn’t much better. Neither was the next, or the next, or the next. Fly fishing went from the relaxing hobby I had imagined to a vexing fixation that frustrated me every time I tried to the point where I nearly gave up. What was the point in learning how to fish, anyway?

It’s fishing that I think about when I hear today’s story. At least four of the twelve disciples were fishermen, after all. One day two of them, the brothers Simon (later Peter) and Andrew were out on the water casting the net. Jesus said to them “follow me and I will make you fish for people”. Immediately they dropped the nets and followed. And then just down the road they met another two brothers, James and John, who were out fishing with their father. Jesus called to them, and immediately they followed too.

I’ve always been struck by how readily they did that. All of a sudden, just like that, they dropped their fishing nets and got out of the boat. I would like to think I would do the same if Jesus came to town and said “follow me”, but the reality is I’m not so sure. I think it would take some convincing for me to leave everything I knew and loved. I’d have to know that this was the real deal.

But then I remember that these four fishermen, they got to see Jesus there in the flesh. They experienced him in a way that you and I do not. They were told directly by him that now they were going to be doing another kind of fishing, not for what lives in the water, but for other people.

Meanwhile, you and I, we get asked to do the same thing, only without the benefit of having Jesus walking right there with us in the flesh. And, if you’re here, some part of you wants to follow him. Some part wants to put down the nets and get out of the boat, and do what he asks. But unlike those disciples, we have to learn to do that in the lives we already know, without the benefit of being able to turn to Jesus and say “what do I do?”

That can be hard. A friend of mine told me a story a few years back. He was in a job where he was highly valued; one he liked a lot. He knew that he was on his way towards a promotion. But one day, his boss asked him to do something that was unethical. For a few days he wrestled with it. He told himself that everyone did it. He reasoned that he probably wouldn’t be caught. He rationalized that doing it would get him the promotion, and that once he got it, he would have more power to change things for the better.

And maybe all of those things were true. But on the other hand, he knew it was wrong. He knew that doing it would eat away at his sense of integrity, and self-respect. And he was also a person of faith, someone who wanted to follow Jesus. And he knew that in that moment he was called to do the right thing, the hard thing, and to let go of the nets and walk away.

That was a hard call. Because we all hold onto our own nets and fishing lines. We all clutch tightly to them, and the promise they hold. These are the tools of our trade, the things that can bring fish into our boats, and money into our pockets. But there are times when Jesus tells us to drop them, and to follow him instead

The theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer left a safe and comfortable teaching job in an American seminary to go back to his native Germany. Bonhoeffer helped to lead the resistance to Hitler, and was later martyred for his role. Before that, though, he famously wrote that there is a “cost of discipleship”. Following Jesus means that sometimes we have to let go of what feels comfortable, or secure. Being a disciple means making a choice every day about what you will hold onto, and what you will leave behind

It also sometimes means making a choice between being comfortable, and being uncomfortable. That’s what it means to be courageous: to choose the harder right, even when it feels hard.

I was thinking of that yesterday. I know from your Facebook many of you attended a women’s march. And marching for what you believe in is an important act. For many of you, it is even an act of faith. You are speaking out because this is what it means to you to follow Christ. But what happens when the crowd is gone, the signs and pink hats are put away, and it’s just you, standing in a boat, holding on to nets that offer you a sense of security?

What happens on Monday morning, when you are back in the office, standing alone and not in a supportive crowd? What happens in the moment when you hear someone say something that is unfair, or bigoted, or untrue? What happens when you have the option to stay silent, and just ignore it, or to speak up, and confront it?

The moments when we are asked to choose between comfort or action? Those are the moments in our lives when we are called by Jesus to follow him. What we do next, whether we drop the nets or we hold on, will tell us whether or not we are willing to be disciples.

I think back to learning how to fish. I kept trying for a couple months, and I got nowhere fast. And then one day I went back to the store where I’d bought my equipment. I asked for help, and a very kind guide showed me what I was doing wrong. I practiced. I spent a lot of time in my front yard, practicing casting, and drawing strange looks from every car that drove past.

But then, one day, I went back to the river. I waded in without falling. I cast without getting tangled in a tree. My fly hit the water, and a trout rose up to take it. I reeled it in, surrounded by the most beautiful backdrop, took it off my line, and let it swim back out into the current. Somehow I had gone from a splashing, bumbling mess to someone who actually looked like they knew what they ewer doing.

I think about those four fishermen, those four disciples, whom Jesus called that day. They knew how to fish, but did they know how to follow? Scripture tells us that for quite some time, they were splashing and bumbling messes too. They got it wrong. They felt fear. They ran away when things got hard. They even pretended they didn’t know Jesus.

But then, later, they got it right. They kept trying. They kept learning. They kept practicing their casts and wading into new rivers. And in the end, those disciples, those messy and clumsy followers, they became the ones who kept the faith alive. They shared it with others who shared it with others who shared it too. And because of them, today here we are.

Later in the service we are baptizing a new baby. He is going to have his splashing and bumbling days too. So are we, by the way. But it’s our job to teach him how to fish. It’s our work to support him as he learns. And it’s our duty to teach him how to be courageous. We start with this: by teaching him that some nets are worth dropping, and some adventures are worth going on.

Common Epiphanies: Sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany, 2018

In the whole story of Christmas, the wise men get a bum deal. There’s a tradition that if you have a Nativity set, you aren’t supposed to put your wise men out until today, which is when we celebrate the feast of the Epiphany. But the other tradition is that on Epiphany, you’re supposed to put your Christmas decorations, including that Nativity set, away. And so, every year the Wise Men make a whirlwind appearance before we forget about them for an other year.
But today is there big day, and so let’s give them their due. Epiphany Sunday, is the day when we commemorate the three magi, or wise men, making their way to Bethlehem. It is essentially the end of our retelling of the Christmas story. After the twelve days of Christmas, the magi finally make it to the manger, and see Jesus for the first time.
Their journey started long before they finally reached their destination, though. And through the centuries the story has been somewhat embellished. For instance, the three wise men have been given names: Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar. Tradition also holds that they came from distant lands, but no one really knows which. Maybe one was from Persia, maybe one from somewhere on the Arabian peninsula. Maybe another from India, or even China.
But the reality is that the Biblical account doesn’t tell us any of this. It doesn’t even tell us there were three of them. It only tells us that wise men came from “the east”, and they started to ask about this new king who had been born, and they were telling everyone about this star that they had seen. And they followed it to the manger’s edge, and brought the gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Scripture also tells us that King Herod, the king over the region, heard that these guys were in town and they were looking for a newborn king. And this must have been very surprising to Herod because he was the king. And he didn’t know of any others. So he called the wise men to him and tried to find out what they knew. And he asked them to go find the newborn king and report back to him. But the wise men saw through it. They knew that Herod was up to no good. And so, as Scripture says, the magi went home by another road.
So, that’s the story of the Epiphany. And it might not sound all that momentous. We tell this story, and then we sing “We Three Kings”, and then, after one day out of the box, we pack up the wise men, and the rest of the nativity, for another year and we go back to what the church calls “ordinary time”.
I think that’s too bad. Because I think there’s more to the story of the magi than we give credit for. Because even though the wise men only pop up on one Sunday, their story is in so many ways our own story. And that’s because, we’re all looking for a sign. We’re all looking for a moment of revelation. We are all, in some way, waiting for that moment that will make everything crystal clear, and give us all the answers we need. That’s what an epiphany is after all, and my guess is we all want one.
The Wise Men were the first of a long line of people who would seek out God’s love and find it in Jesus Christ. They were the forerunners to you, me, and millions of other seekers. They got there first, but they didn’t get there last. We are on the same journey.
The trouble with that, though, is that we rarely get bright stars in the sky leading the way for us.
That’s something I say most Epiphanies: you don’t get a shining star or angels singing or a loud commotion that gets your attention. And then one year, on Epiphany Sunday, I was in the pulpit in Vermont talking about how I never got the bright lights or big signs. I had just said I have never had an epiphany like that.
And honest to goodness, right at that moment, all the snow that was on the top of the church’s roof thundered down off of it and landed right next to the church windows in a loud avalanche. And we were on top of a mountain. There was a lot of snow. It took a good while for it all to fall, and it was so loud I couldn’t even preach until it was all done.
So, you can view that two ways. One, it was just a coincidence. Or, two, it was a sign that God has an incredible sense of humor. I think both could be true. But regardless of what happened that morning, it made me think. And I began to wonder, what if maybe the signs are actually all around us, but we just keep missing them?
Or, more likely, what if we aren’t missing them, but we just aren’t taking them seriously. And maybe that’s because we aren’t willing to do what it takes to take them seriously?
I think about the wise men, and I think about what it must have taken to see that star, and decide to set out on that journey. Did they look up one day and just know what it meant? Or did they ponder it, and research it, and then decide “this makes no sense whatsoever, but that star means something and I’m going to follow it?” And once they started out on that journey, once they were on their way, sometimes lost, sometimes hungry, sometimes unsure, did they doubt? Did they ever want to just go back home?
And I think about King Herod too. What was it like when his peers, the other kings, came to him asking about the new king that had been born in his own kingdom? What was it like when he knew absolutely nothing about it? And how had he somehow lived under that very same star, and never realized what it meant?
I think that’s the question. Because, whether we realize it or not, I think we all get stars. Some are truly more subtle than others, but I believe God does give us signs. Sometimes they are as obvious as bright stars in the sky, but more likely they come in everyday clothing. The words of a friend. The nudge that comes to us in prayer. The urge we have to open our hearts in new ways. Maybe even the rock bottom we hit when we finally realize we can’t keep doing what we are doing and hope to truly live.
We have a choice when things like that happen. We can shrug them off, and ignore them. Or, we can take them as what they might well be: moments of revelation. Little epiphanies all around us.
But here’s the catch; once you get a little taste of the revelation, once you finally realize why that star looks so bright these days, that means that you are different. And it also means that you will continue to be asked to do something different. And that can be frightening.
When the magi realized that the star meant something big was happening, they couldn’t just sit around at home anymore. They knew they had to start the journey. And they knew they would never be the same.
But Herod, instead of joining the other kings, and making what would have been a very short journey for him? He just stayed home. He chose not to take the journey that could have changed everything, including him.
We get that same choice. When we finally sense what God is doing all around us, when we finally get a taste of revelation, we can set out on a journey that will change us. Or, we can just stand still, and refuse to be changed.
When the wise men finally saw Jesus, they set off on their way home. But, they would never be the same again. They had taken a journey that had changed everything, and had changed them. And when they left, instead of going back to tell King Herod about it, instead of aiding him in destroying the new king who frightened him so much, they instead went home by another road.
Epiphanies, revelations, new ways of understanding things, mean that we are going to out on see amazing things. But they also mean that we are going to have to learn new roads too. Not even the wise men could be guaranteed an easy journey, not even after seeing Christ himself in the flesh. So why should it be any different for us?
But here’s the good news. And that’s that the wise men found each other on the journey. When you think about that, how incredible if that? They didn’t have texts, or email, or phones back then. A letter wouldn’t have made it in time. Instead, they somehow found one another out on the road. And together they made the journey to Bethlehem.
I think that’s good news for those of us who gather back here each week together. Scripture does not speak of one wise person coming to the manger. It doesn’t even speak of people coming on their own, separately. It speaks of people finding one another, and then, quite literally, finding God.
That’s not to say the journey will always be easy. But that is to say that maybe it will be better together. Maybe there’s something about what we are doing here that’s more than just getting together one hour every Sunday morning. Maybe this is the start of an amazing journey, and maybe, just maybe, we are on our way to seeing God together. Amen?

After Christmas: Sermon for December 31, 2017

It was a really great Christmas Eve here at the church this year. At the 4pm service the youth and college-aged adults led an unrehearsed Christmas pageant featuring angels, shepherds and their sheep, and a real, live baby Jesus.

At the 8pm service the choir sang and the hand bells played and I preached a sermon about keeping Christmas in your heart all year by letting the light of Christ shine each day. At the end of both services, as always, we dimmed the light, lit our candles, and sang “Silent Night”. Then we walked out into the night and found the streets lined with luminaries.

It was one of those quintessential Christmas moments. Leaving church that night it felt like the world had changed a little. It felt like maybe this year would be the one when the light and meaning of the season would feel close all year long. The next day, Christmas, felt like that too. And the next day after that as well.

But then late in the week, we had to go to Target to pick a few things up. And as we walked through the front doors, I expected that all the Christmas decorations would still be there. The trees would be up, the carols would be playing, the lights would be on. But I got about five feet into the store and realized that it wasn’t still Christmas at all. In fact, four days after Christmas, they were setting up the Valentine’s Day displays.

So much for the twelve days of Christmas. The retail world will go on no matter what, and it won’t be too long until Christmas is out of our minds for another ten months or so, too. And by the time we make it to next Christmas Eve, the whole cycle will begin again.

Some of that’s natural. We can’t stay stuck in one season all year long. But I’m always a bit unsettled by how quickly we shift out of Christmas and on to something else. And that’s why I love the tradition of the church year, and how no matter what is happening outside the church doors, inside the church we celebrate this full season of Christmas. We keep singing carols, we keep the wreaths up. We light the Christ candle.

And we keep telling the story too. Today we read a passage from Luke that talks about Christ’s birth. In particular it talks about some of my favorite characters from the Christmas story, who are also perhaps the most overlooked of all of them: the shepherds.

The shepherds aren’t as impressive as the angels. They don’t come traveling in on camels with gifts in hand like the wisemen. They’re not even infamous like the inn keeper who had no room for Mary and Joseph. They’re just a bunch of regular Joes who were out in the field, trying to work and sleep and keep the sheep from being eaten.

And yet, when Jesus was born, they’re the ones that the angels come to tell about it. Not kings. Not priest. Just a bunch of shepherds who are both terrified and amazed. When the angels leave, they decide to go see this Jesus for themselves. And they find him just as the angels said they would, just born, and wrapped up in the manger.

And when they meet Mary and Joseph they, the lowly shepherds, tell them everything that the angels had said. And everyone who heard them speak was amazed by it. And Mary heard their words, and Scripture tells us that she “treasured them in her heart”.

It must have been an amazing moment. It was the sort of encounter that would be a hundred times more amazing than the spiritual high of leaving church on Christmas Eve, carols sung and candles lit. They had seen actual angels in the fields. They had gone and met this new born baby. They had experienced it all for themselves.

And then, Scripture tells us that they went back out into the fields, and kept on being shepherds. Yes, they were also praising God and giving thanks for it all, but at the end of the day they were right back there with the sheep. They had seen the most amazing things, felt the greatest joy of their lives. They had been fundamentally changed by it all. But out in the fields, the sheep still needed tending, and life still went on.

It’s sort of like how today, no matter how great Christmas might have been, you’re still going to need to restock the paper towels and the laundry detergent a few days after Christmas. And you’re still going to walk into Target, feeling the joy of the Christmas spirit, and you’re going to walk right into a wall of pink cards and red candy hearts.

And shepherd or shopper, you’re going to wonder how you carry the wonder of what you have seen into a world that seems unchanged.

But, that’s the challenge on the life of faith. We have these moments of absolute joy, or light, or understanding. We recommit ourselves to the journey. We say we will carry the light of the Christ candle all year. And then, we meet the world, in all of its mundane busy-ness. And we figure out how to live as transformed people within it.

There is a saying in Buddhism: before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.

In other words, in the aftermath of even the most amazing experiences, you still have to keep doing what you have always done. You still chop the wood. You still tend the sheep. You still buy paper towels in a store covered in pink and red hearts.

It’s not the world that has changed. It is us. In Christmas, if we open our hearts wide enough, we are transformed by the love and light of Christ. If we are lucky, we have twelve days to really celebrate that before our world goes back to normal. If we are realistic, we have two or three. But that doesn’t mean that we have to go back too.

Instead, we can be the changed people who now change the world for the better. I don’t know what the shepherds did when they got back to their sheep, other than I’m sure they kept on being shepherds. But I do wonder what else they did. Did they tell others what they had seen? Did they share the light of Christ by sharing the story? Did their lives change just a little? Did the small daily acts they had always done take on deeper meaning?

My guess is that they did. I believe that because I don’t believe you can experience God without being changed. And when you are changed, your world is as well. When you are changed, you become a force for good in a world that needs that goodness right now.

Because you and I are Christmas people, we have been transformed…and so now we transform the world. Tonight, ring in a new year. Celebrate. Enjoy yourself. But tomorrow, remember the light that you held on Christmas eve. Remember your promise to let it shine all year. And then, let it shine. Shine it in the darkest of places. Shine it for others who need to see it. Make the world a little brighter, and a little warmer. That’s how you will know that Christmas has changed you, and that is how Christmas will change the world.