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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And yet…that was not the last word.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because that is how it’s supposed to go.

Save Us: Sermon for Palm Sunday, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Instead, they got this guy on a donkey.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Millstones and Consent: Sermon for September 30, 2018

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

Summer Sermon Podcast

Most weeks I publish my sermon from the previous Sunday here. This summer, though, I’m preaching in a slightly more informal way for my congregation’s Sunday services, and only publishing the audio of the sermon.

During the late spring I asked members to tell me the big questions they had about faith, the Bible, and church. Throughout the summer I’m answering those questions in the sermons. We’ll be covering the Lord’s Prayer, being courageous in hard times, LGBTQ “clobber texts”, the separation of church and state, and more.

If you’d like to tune in, you can subscribe the podcast on iTunes at: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/sermons-from-the-congregational-church-in-exeter-ucc/id1217918294?mt=2

Calling Out the Called: Sermon for June 3, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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