A Pastoral Letter after Washington

Note: this is the letter I shared with the Congregational Church in Exeter via our weekly e-news. I offer it here in case it may speak to you, or to those in your church.

Dear members and friends of the Congregational Church,

It has been an extraordinary week. In years to come, I believe we will look back on this week as a touchstone for our history. As I write this to you now, on Friday evening, I am unsure what the news will bring in the coming days. By the time you read this email, perhaps a new news alert will have crossed your computer screen and changed everything. 

The other night, after the Capitol building was overtaken by rioters, several dozen of us gathered on Zoom for prayer. We ranged in age from people in their 30s to people in their 90s. There were veterans who have deployed to wars and those who protested the same wars. Citizens who have lived here our whole lives and those who have chosen to call this country home. People who have “Republican” stamped next to their names on the voter rolls and those who have “Democrat”. There were those whose rights have always been guaranteed under the law and those who have only gained those rights in more recent years.

We shared our feelings about the day. People voiced their fear, sadness, and grief. They also voiced their anger. Some shared that they were struggling with their anger, as though they shouldn’t be feeling it at all. 

I confess that since Wednesday I too have been angry. I do not believe anger is a bad thing. I believe that when we are angry it is a sign that we care about something enough that it matters to us when it is under attack. Even still, I cannot remember when I last felt this level of anger. Perhaps on 9/11. Perhaps when the federal building in Oklahoma City was destroyed.

As a college student I served an internship in the House of Representatives. I remember our ID badges, and how they were checked so meticulously before we were allowed in the building. I remember how we hushed our voices out of reverence when giving tours of the Capitol building to constituents from the district back home. I remembered the feeling that, despite the vast ideological differences that have always existed in our country, that building stood as a testament to a greater ideal. Though the union may not yet be perfect, it was a sign that we would still keep working until it was more perfect. 

Every time I see a report of the crowd pushing through those doors, breaking windows, stealing public property, defiling the halls with human waste, and committing countless other acts of violence and degradation, I feel a sense of violation. Perhaps you do as well. That makes sense. The public servants that we and our fellow citizens across the country were attacked in a space that should have been safe, and the electoral votes cast by our neighbors were directly threatened. 

And still, I do not like being angry. It eats at me, and I want this feeling to go away. It is far easier to be just frustrated, or annoyed, or dismissive of the mob as a fringe group. It’s easier to be numb. At least for a little while.

But numbness is the problem. When we become numb we send the message that we tolerate what has happened. Our numbness takes away our voice. It takes away our will to act. It justifies us looking away and hoping others will fix it. As the state of American political discourse has deteriorated over the past five or six years, numbness has been a comfort to us. Unfortunately, that comfort has only led to embolden violent extremists and to allow them to believe they represent us all. 

What I’ve written so far could be written by any concerned citizen, of any faith or no faith at all. So here’s where I want to shift, and tell you why I’m saying these things as your pastor. I’ve always been clear that, while I love this country, my first allegiance is not to America but to Jesus Christ. However, it is that allegiance that informs how we are called to be citizens of this country.

Christ, in his greatest commandment, tells us that we must love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and mind and we must love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Christ also told that we will most see him reflected not in the strong or the violent, but in “the least of these”. Christ makes it plain that our call as his followers is to look after our neighbors, particularly those who are vulnerable. We are not allowed to choose comfortable numbness when there is fear or violence. We must choose to be actively involved in Christ’s good work of transforming the world. 

This is where we come back to anger. Anger is just an emotion, neither good nor bad on its face. How it is used, however, makes all the difference. The kind of anger that desecrates a building where questions of common good are debated is destructive anger. The kind of anger that blames one’s problems on scapegoats who are the “least of these” is too. 

But then there is the other anger. It is the anger that can be found in the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”. It is the anger of Rosa Parks, who decided she had enough of being told to give up her seat on the bus. It is the anger of Harvey Milk who refused to be intimidated into silence. It is the anger of Susan B. Anthony as she was turned away from the ballot box. And, it is the anger of Christ overturning the tables of moneychangers in the Temple. 

Our challenge as Christians, as followers of the Prince of Peace, is to use this anger we might be feeling in constructive ways. We will not choose the path of violence, but neither may we choose the way of numb disengagement. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

Perhaps I am writing this letter more to myself than anyone else, but I sense that there are others who might feel the same as I do tonight. To us I say this: there is hope. There is hope, because there is the knowledge that this is not the way things should be. There is hope because we care enough to not look away. 

Friends, whatever path you choose in the coming days and weeks, may it be the one that Christ would have you trod. May Christ lead you through these days of challenge. May you speak words of truth, even when they do not come easily. May you choose acts of courage, even when you feel afraid. And may you testify, with the very way you live your life, to the way of the Prince of Peace.

In Christ’s grace and peace,
Pastor Emily

Writing again…just not here.

Hi everyone. I used to update this blog regularly. A few things have changed that, though.

First, I’ve changed the way I write my sermons. Instead of being a manuscript preacher, I now preach from notes. COVID has also changed how I preach. So, instead of uploading a sermon manuscript each week, you can now watch my sermons on YouTube, along with an entire worship service. Just click here: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCYM_SB0rvsLml-ZgKe3TB8Q

Second, I have moved my blogging over to Medium. In the coming weeks this site will transition to more of a general personal site. Information on my books and how to reach me will be there. If you want to read my most current writing, though, start with this new piece on Medium: https://ecarringtonheath.medium.com/georgia-is-why-we-leave-no-one-h-b1b541deb57c

As always, thank you for your readership and support.

Christmas Eve Homily, 2018

If you were here last year, you might remember what I preached about. I started out by saying this. I told you that ministers hate preaching the Christmas Eve sermon. See every year our churches fill up on Christmas Eve, we sing the most glorious music, we light candles, and then comes the moment when everyone looks at us and expects us to say something interesting. 

And it’s not that I don’t like Christmas, or preaching. But, like I said last year, there’s not much new that can be said about the Christmas story. I preach on a different Bible story every weekend, but here’s the secret…no one remembers those. You, on the other hand, know this story.

You know it because you’ve heard it your whole lives. And, you know it because you have heard Linus tell it year after year during “A Charlie Brown Christmas”. And here’s another secret: I can’t do any better than Charlie Brown. When Charles Schultz made that special fifty years ago he basically set up every preacher for failure on Christmas Eve.

But here we are anyway. The sermon. And, like I said last year, I have three Christmas sermons.

1. Don’t be like the innkeeper. When the love of God comes to your front door, don’t say there’s no room at the inn.

2. Don’t limit Christmas to one day a year, or even one season. Make Christmas a year round affair.

3. Don’t extinguish the light. Christmas is about the light of Christ coming into this world, so let the light burn bright. 

So there you go…you can say you heard three sermons on Christmas Eve. Tell people that and they are going to think you are super holy. 

But this year, I started thinking maybe there’s a fourth sermon too. And here’s what it’s about: fear. Actually it’s not about fear so much, as it’s about the overcoming of fear, and the triumph of God’s love. 

Throughout the Christmas story, every time someone hears from an angel, the angel says the same thing: Do not be afraid. When Mary finds out she’s pregnant? Don’t be afraid. When Joseph finds out Mary’s pregnant? Don’t be afraid. When the shepherds are visited by the angels? Don’t be afraid. Again and again, every time the angels pop up they say the same thing.

That can’t be a coincidence. 

See, I think that every time the angels told people something they knew it was terrifying. Mary was a young unwed woman who was being told she was pregnant. Joseph was her baffled husband-to-be. The shepherds were just out in the fields minding their own business when all these angels popped up all around them. And they were, as Linus says, “sore afraid”.

And yet, every time, the angels say “don’t be afraid”. 

I don’t think it worked. If an angel told me that kind of news, I think I would still be pretty afraid. But the thing is that even in their fear, despite the fact their whole worlds were being turned upside down, they dared to be courageous too.

Mary, the unwed young woman becomes the mother of God. Joseph, who was really having to take a lot on faith here, became a good father to Jesus. The shepherds, who had been happy just to watch the sheep, decided to leave the safety of the fields and go and find the baby. And the three kings had the courage to worship a king that was greater than them. 

There’s nothing wrong with being afraid. If anything, to be afraid and to choose to do something that terrifies you anyway makes you even more courageous. The ones who do that, the Marys and Jospehs and Shepherds, they are the characters we want to be. But the ones who don’t, like the inn keeper who turns the holy family away? We know we want to do better. And so the question left for us is this: do we trust our faith more than our fears? 

We live in a world that tells us to be afraid. Be afraid of unknown danger. Be afraid of people who come from other places. Be afraid that there’s not enough for everyone, so do all you can to make sure you get yours. Fear and bunker mentalities sell. Big time.

But the message of Christmas is the exact opposite. It’s what the angels told everyone they met: do not be afraid, Something amazing is about to happen. Open your heart. Let the light in. 

At Christmas that’s our choice. How will we greet Christ’s challenge to us? Will it be with fear? Or will it be with faith?

I’ll close with this. In 1818 a new Christmas hymn was played for the first time in Austria. It had been a rough year. There was a famine, and a war was just ending. Even the old organ at the church had been eaten through by mice, and there wasn’t any money to repair it. And so a priest and a musician came up with a new song that could be played on a guitar, the only instrument they had.

The song endured, and about a hundred years later, in the thick of World War I, across British and German lines, the first lines rang out in German: Still nacht. Heilige nacht. And then, from the same German voice, they came in English: Silent night. Holy Night. 

That was the start of the Christmas Truce. Both sides stopped the fighting. Not only that, they began to sing carols back and forth to one another. And, finally, slowly, they began to emerge from their separate trenches, and to meet one another in the space between.

Can you imagine being the first guy who dared to do that? Who popped his head out and stood up? Can you imagine the fear? But, oh, can you imagine the faith, and the desire that, on the night that the Prince of Peace was born, God’s children should live in peace. 

It takes courage to open your heart up to what, or who, you’ve been taught to fear. But more than anything else, that is the work of Christmas. If we cannot do that with one another, then we cannot do that with Christ. 

But if we dare to rise above the places where are hearts are entrenched, we might find a peace we never knew could exist. And we might find that Christ’s light is burning so brightly that we can no longer be too afraid to love. 

And so, that’s my fourth Christmas sermon. So now you can tell people you heard not three but four sermons on Christmas Eve. Now you’re super extra holy.

But whatever else you are, know this: you are loved by God, and God is calling you out to love others this Christmas, because God is calling you to follow this newborn Prince of Peace. I can’t promise you will never be afraid, but I can promise that God will always be beside you, no matter what. Because, as Linus might say, that’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown. May it be so for you this year and always.

A Bidding Prayer for Advent

Merciful God, in these Advent days, teach us how to love. May we never close our eyes to the goodness of the world. May we never close our hearts off to joy. May we never close our hands and fail to reach out to others. May we never close our ears and refuse to listen. May we never close our minds and fail to learn. But may we love. May we find wonder and mercy once again. And may we love this child of yours into the world, and follow him, not just at Christmas, but always. Amen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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