Good King Wenceslas: Sermon for May 14, 2017

An audio version of this sermon may be heard here or downloaded as a podcast on iTunes.

Acts 7:55-60
7:55 But filled with the Holy Spirit, Stephen gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.

7:56 “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!”

7:57 But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him.

7:58 Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.

7:59 While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”

7:60 Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.

When I was 8, I started taking piano lessons. I was given a stack of those lesson books that kids get, with the very simple songs that you can sort of plunk out with one finger. And I remember being very excited about it because it was a Christmas one, and I knew these songs, and so as I was finding the right key with one finger I could sing the words.

So, jin…gle bells…jin-gle…bells. Or, we wish you a mer-ry Christ-mas…

But there was one song I didn’t know, and it had these words I didn’t understand: “good King Wen-sa-les? Wen-ces-las? looked out….on the feast of Ste…phen.”

Who was King What’s-his-name? And what was the “feast of Stephen”? In my 8-year-old mind I thought it was some physical place that the king was looking at out his window. And I had no idea what any of this had to do with Christmas.

My piano aptitude never really progressed much past those books, but my theological training did. So years later I would read the text from today, and I’d learn who Stephen was, and that the Feast of Stephen was actually a feast day that takes place on the day after Christmas.

So, why did Stephen have a special day? Well, you only get a feast day by being a saint. And Stephen is not just a saint, but is also commonly recognized as the first martyr of the Christian faith. He was a deacon in the early church and that alone put him in danger because he was professing a faith that was considered blasphemous. And when he was brought to trial, instead of recanting or saying something to save himself, he instead doubled-down, and gave this long speech to the religious authorities that ended in him accusing them of not following the law.

The court and the crowd were enraged, and they attacked Stephen, and stoned him to death. Deacon Stephen became the first Christian to die for his faith, and in doing so he became a martyr and a saint.

So, next time the nominating committee asks if you might like to be a deacon for this church…just remember that the job has gotten a little less dangerous over time.

The reality is that few of us, especially in our American context, will ever have to die for our faith. But back then, being a Christian was akin to accepting a death sentence. And those who died for their faith became martyrs.

We hear that word now and we probably think of it in two ways: one, as great heroes who die for their faith and beliefs. Those are people like Dr. King, Bishop Oscar Romero, or Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

But we might think about it another way too; a negative way. Maybe you’ve known someone who always seems so put upon and needlessly self-sacrificial, and always seems to be begging other people to notice it. You might roll your eyes and say, “Ugh, that guy is such a martyr.”

Chances are good that you don’t want to see yourself as a martyr in either of those ways. You may love your faith, and work for goodness in the world, but you probably don’t want to end up dead. Likewise, you probably don’t want to be the person that people dismiss as having a martyr complex either. You probably just want to be a good person who gets through life unscathed.

Fair enough. But it’s important to know what that word “martyr” really means. The Greek word the New Testament uses is μαρτυρία (marturia) which literally means “witness” or one who gives “testimony”. A martyr, in the literal sense of the word, is not someone who dies, but someone who bears witness to a greater truth.

For Christians, this means being a witness to the greater love of God. And in a world like the one we have today, where there is so much hatred, violence, and worship of false idols, it means showing the people around you that there is another way to live.

In a real way that is what Stephen was doing in front of the religious authorities. Every religion everywhere has seen corruption and hypocrisy at times, and the ones who were judging Stephen were not immune to that. They were so comfortable in their own understanding of their faith that they heard Stephen’s witness to Christ, his testimony, as a threat. And so, they killed him.

As Christians we, as much as Stephen, are called to witness to God’s love and justice to the world. And, like Stephen, our testimony will sometimes fall on ears that do not wish to hear it. Unlike Stephen, that probably does not mean that we will be in any mortal peril. But, that means that sometimes we will be ignored. Other times we will rejected. And sometimes we will pay a price for refusing to compromise our beliefs and values.

That’s a good sign. Because if your Christian faith does not require you to stand up against the injustice of our world from time to time, something is wrong.

But the good news is that when you are being witnesses to God’s love, when you are giving your testimony, others just might notice. It was that way for a young man named Saul who was at the council that day. Saul was what we might today call a “company man”. He bought into the ideas of the ruling religious authorities, and he believed that anyone who challenged them was dangerous.

That day, as the crowd killed Stephen, they laid their coats at his feet. And Saul just stood there, and watched.

We don’t remember Saul for this moment though. Instead we remember him by the name he came to be known as: Paul. It is Paul who, perhaps more than anyone else, carried the testimony of Christ’s love and grace to others. After his conversion, he became an unparalleled witness to the Gospel.

And while we are taught that Paul’s change of heart came in a flash of blinding light while walking down the Damascus Road, I wonder if maybe it didn’t start on this day, when he heard Stephen, and he saw a man willing to die for what he believed in. Maybe it came when Stephen called out to Jesus to not judge the ones who killed him, and showed Christ’s love and grace to the very end.

I think it might have happened that way, because I think that’s how faith happens for most of us. We come to believe not because we study our way to faith, or even pray our way there, but because people in our lives are witnesses to God’s love, and because we see that witness, and we want to follow along.

On this Mother’s Day I think about that, and I recall some statistics I saw a few years ago. People were trying to figure out why some kids grew up to value their faith as adults, and others didn’t. And what they found was this: the biggest influence in whether a child would grow into a person of faith was not the particular church in which they grew up, or the pastor, or the young group, or anything like that. It was this: the parents.

82% of kids whose parents “talked about faith at home, attached great importance to their beliefs, and were active in their congregations were religiously active as young adults.” By contrast, just 1% of those whose parents attached value to their faith were religiously active at the same age.

In other words, faith starts with mothers, and fathers, and parents. And it continues with every adult who is in a young person’s life. It is the job of those people to be witnesses, and to testify by the way they live to what really matters.

This world is in need of a new generation who can live lives full of God’s grace and love. We need witnesses to a better way. We need morally courageous young people who can transform the brokenness of our world. And our faith can give them the tools they need to do this work. It’s our job not to hide those tools, but to show them how to use them.

I’ll close with this. At the beginning I was talking about the song, “Good King Wenceslas” and the Feast of Stephen. It turns out that King Wenceslas was a real guy, but he was really only a duke in what’s now the Czech Republic. And legend has it that one day he did look out his window, on December 26th, and he saw a beggar, or as the song says, “a poor man, gathering winter’s fuel”.

What the song doesn’t make clear is that the man was very far away, and the weather was very bad. But Wenceslas was a good man, and he wanted to help the man. And so he set off, along with his page, his assistant, to give the man money.

It was so cold and snowy, though, that it was tough going. Wenceslas’s page wanted to turn back and go home. But the king told him, “I’ll walk in front of you and make the path. Just walk in my footsteps. It will be easier, and warmer for you, and you’ll know the way to go.”

That’s the work of a witness, and that’s the work of anyone who cares about who comes after us. We clear the path, and we lead by example. We show by our lives what is important, and we teach the next generation how to walk this path. And we do this because Stephen and Paul and Wenceslas and a host of other witnesses, sometimes known only to us, showed us the way first. And we do this because what was done for us, we are now called to do for others.

Launch: Sermon for Ascension Sunday, 2016

I couldn’t wait to get to college. As much as I loved my parents, like every college freshman I was eager to be on my own. And so we pulled up to the dorm as soon as it opened on the first day, I got everything I could out of the car as quickly as possible, set it up in my dorm room, and told my parents that I was fine, and that I’d see them on fall break.

But as soon as my parents disappeared out the front doors of the dorm, a sinking realization hit me: I was on my own.

I wonder if the disciples were panicking like that the day Jesus left them there at Bethany. Today we read the story of the Ascension, when Jesus is lifted up into heaven, seemingly leaving the world behind, and on its own.

It hadn’t been all that long since Christ has been put to death, and then resurrected. And I wonder if when he rose again the disciples had thought they had him back for good. Were they really ready to be on their own? Were they like college freshmen, eager for mom and dad to get back in the station wagon so that a new life could finally begin? Or were they scared to death?

I was the youngest of my parents’ kids, and born significantly after my sisters, so by the time I went to college they had had kids in the house for 33 consecutive years. I think they had earned a vacation. So they did what they had always dreamed of doing, and they went to Paris.

But this was before the days of cell phones, and I didn’t really have an easy way to reach them. And so a few weeks into my freshman year, when I hit the inevitable point of having some problem I wasn’t sure how to handle, I realized that for the first time in my life I couldn’t turn to mom and dad for advice. I had to rely on what they had taught me, and trust that it wouldn’t lead me wrong.

I wonder how long it took before the disciples had a question they couldn’t answer on their own, and they wished he was back there? And I wonder if like me they realized that they just had to rely on what he had taught them, and trust that it wouldn’t lead them wrong?

That can be a scary thing. Like the disciples, we can feel that void and that uncertainty sometimes. As much as we believe that God is still active in our lives, as much as we believe in the continual guidance of the Holy Spirit, we can feel like sometimes we are on our own.

When Jesus returned to God he did stop being with the disciples in a physical way. But the blessing in that is that this means that he is no longer with just a small group of people in one place long ago. He now is able to be with all of us, all the time.

Christ is here right now in Exeter, and he’s down the road in Boston, and he’s out in California, and across the oceans in every place you can think of. He’s even there at Bethany, where we last saw him 2,000 years ago. He’s with us still.

I believe that. But I also believe this. We have a harder time believing in what we cannot see. And so for those of us who are Christians, we need physical daily reminders of who Christ is, and what Christ desires for us. We need to be reminded that Christ is with us daily, and that God is here.

So what’s the answer? It’s us. You and I. The church. And the world around us.

There are two parts to this, and every one of us has played both roles. First, we have to learn how to see Christ in everyone we meet. And second, we need to learn how to be Christ to everyone we meet.

Maybe you’ve heard it said before that Christ comes disguised as the stranger. Christ is in our midst every day, but he doesn’t look like the Sunday school painting of him with the white robes and long hair and sandals. He might look like a woman who needs money for food. Or a man who is in the hospital, fighting depression He might look like the kid who is getting bullied in high school. Or the veteran returning from war.

Jesus shows up in the most unexpected places. And when Jesus does, I want to be ready. I want to meet Jesus, and love Jesus, and be the person Jesus wants me to be. And so I try to practice. With every person I meet, no matter how they might challenge me, I try to see Jesus in them.
That’s not easy. But it’s the best way I know how to make sure I don’t go through a day without seeing Jesus in the world around me.

But then there’s the next step too. And that’s not just learning to see Christ in others, but also learning how to be Christ to others. Martin Luther wrote that we Christians are called to be “little Christs” to one another. Our job is to imitate Christ in our lives, and respond to those we meet the way we think Christ would respond to them. When we do that well, lives are changed.

But only when we do that well.

Churches, and their clergy, have sometimes been accused of being out of touch with the real world. Karl Marx called religion the “opiate of the people” because he believed it made us ignore the pains and injustices of the world and look to a pie-in-the-sky heaven when this life is over.

They might even say we have our heads in the clouds.

That problem didn’t start, or end, with us though. Because from the very beginning of the church, nearly 2,000 years ago, Christians have had to be reminded that they can’t spend too much time with their heads in the clouds.

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In fact, standing there looking up in the sky after Jesus, the first disciples were doing literally just that.

My guess is that they were all standing there looking up and saying, “Where did he go?” Or, “did that really just happen?” Or, “what do we do now?”

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

Sometimes the church needs people like those two guys in white. We need them to call our attention back from gazing up at the clouds all the time and to the world we are in now. And we need them to remind us that we have a task here as disciples of Christ. Because with the Ascension the baton has been passed, we are left as witnesses to Christ’s life and work, and we are called to be the church.

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

And so here is the reminder of the Ascension: the church would never have gotten anywhere if those first disciples hadn’t stop looking at what didn’t matter, and instead start looking around at one another. That doesn’t mean don’t ask the big questions. And that doesn’t mean get busy and stop taking time to be with God.

On the contrary, I think it means something else. It means that sometimes when we get distracted by the fears, anxieties, or distractions of minor details, as every church does, we have to get our head out of the clouds too, stop being paralyzed by what matters little, and start being the church.

It is a luxury to spend our time focused on things like building and spreadsheets and committee structures and the like. Yes, it’s necessary to do these things, but ultimately we are not here for that work. It’s just cloud cover. These are the things that help us to do our ministry in this world. They are not our ministry. They are tools. They can never become our idols.

Instead, we have to look down, and look at one another. We have to figure out how to be Christ embodied to one another, and to the world.

Today we have a good reminder of why we get our head out of the clouds. Today we are baptizing James, who is all of eight months old. We already know James, and love him. And today we are going to pledge to help to teach him who God is, and what it means to follow Jesus Christ. He is going to grow up in this church, and he is going to learn from us.

And so, what are we going to teach him that church means? What are we going to teach him is most important?

I hope this is what he learns most of all: I hope he learns that God loves him, and that God needs him to be the hands and feet of Christ in this world. I hope he learns what it means to love other people. I hope he learns to pray, to ask big questions, and to serve. And I hope he learns that clouds come and go, but the firm foundation of faith is always there. And I hope he learns that here in this church, and from us. Amen?

How to Be a Pentecost Church: Five Pointers for Congregations

This Sunday is Pentecost Sunday in the church. It’s the Sunday when churches everywhere are filled with the color red, symbolizing the Holy Spirit, and we celebrate a story from the church’s earliest days. On Pentecost we remember how the Holy Spirit came to the early disciples like a “mighty wind” and rested on them with “tongues of fire”. Suddenly they were able to speak in the languages they did not know, and all the people gathered around them in Jerusalem, a host of nations, were able to understand what the disciples were saying.

There’s a tendency in the church to think that everyone is supposed to learn our language. But if you look at the Pentecost story, you find the exact opposite is true. The Holy Spirit could have easily touched everyone around the early disciples so that they could understand the language the disciples spoke. But instead, it was the disciples who were transformed. They were the ones who learned new languages, ones they could use to communicate with people using the words they already knew.

So why does the church sometimes miss the point?

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No, really. This Pentecost stuff is going to be fun.

We often talk about how our church is very welcoming, but new members are few and far between. And often it’s true…many churches are extremely good at welcoming visitors who walk through the front doors. But the first place we should be meeting people is not inside our buildings. It’s out where they (and we) live.

The Pentecost story reminds us that witnessing to Christ is not about our own convenience. It’s about being radically transformed by the Holy Spirit so that we can speak the language (literally and metaphorically) of those God wants us to love and serve. Pentecost reminds us that we cannot sit ideally back and wait for people to learn our ways. We have to be the ones who learn new ways.

So how do we do that? Here are some suggestions:

1. Check out your social media presence.

If this seems like a strange place to start, that might be part of your church’s issue. I’ve heard countless people in churches deride what they see as an over-dependence on social media in younger generations. Facebook, Twitter, texting, and the like are seen as distractions and barriers to community.

But in reality, social media can be a wonderful way to build community. I don’t believe it can ever replace face-to-face interactions, but it can help to spread your message. If you talk to your Generation X and Millennial parishioners, in fact, you might find that a surprising number of them found your church via social media. The days of looking in a phone book for a church, or even just knowing where a church is located, are over. For many a Google search will be their first stop in their search for a new church.

So make it count. If your church doesn’t have a webpage, you need one now. You can get a domain name for $18 a year and build a page on WordPress, so there is no excuse. And, if you do have a webpage, give it an honest assessment. Is it up-to-date? Are your address and service times clearly displayed? Could a visitor determine whether or not they would be welcome at your church? Is there information about programming and what you believe? Is there contact information? Are there pictures of people and not just the building?

And don’t limit yourself to a webpage. A Facebook “like” page is free and a great way to spread the word about your church. Use the page to post updates, photos, reminders, sermon links, and more. Encourage members to “like” and “share” posts on their page. You’ll be surprised how a post can go viral in no time. When the daughter of one of my current church’s members won a silver medal in the Olympics this winter, for instance, we posted a photo congratulating her. That photo was shared by 72 people and reached over 5,500! It was a wonderful way for our church to share our celebration.

The Facebook picture that went viral.

The Facebook picture that went viral.

Finally, make sure that you have a “like” page and not a Facebook group for your church. A group is fine for discussion purposes, but it will not reach new people. They are not going to join a group of people they do not know. Instead concentrate on putting out clear information, inspiring links, and warm invitations on your “like” page. Make sure that your social media presence exists more for others than yourself.

2. Get out in your community.

Like I said earlier, you might be the warmest church in the world when people step inside of your doors. But for the vast majority of your community, you are just another building that they have never been inside. As untrue as it sounds to those of us who are churchgoers, church buildings are often seen as private clubhouses. Others might be curious about what is going on inside, but it’s going to take more than a little bit of curiosity to go in. This is especially true of the growing number of us who are younger and did not grow up in the church.

So instead of waiting for others to come to you, go to them. Get involved as a church in the community. Host events like concerts and lectures. Make your building as accessible as possible to local non-profit groups needing a space to meet. Host AA meetings. Welcome community groups. Provide hospitality to outside youth events. And don’t just be a landlord. Be a host. Consider sharing your building as a ministry to the community.

But more importantly, go outside of your doors. Get involved in community celebrations. Serve lemonade and cookies on the lawn if the town’s parade is going by your doors. Sponsor a Little League team. Volunteer at youth events. Go into retirement communities. Work with other congregations. Whatever it is, find out what matters in your community and then figure out a way to contribute. You can’t serve a community that you don’t know and love.

3. Enable your pastor to get out in your community.

The work of representing your church in the community is the work of the whole congregation. It is never just the pastor’s job. But, the reality is that the pastor can be a great ambassador. So, as much as possible you want to make sure they have your blessing to be involved in your community. So don’t keep them locked up in their office! Encourage them to go out in the world.

I am finishing my pastorate in a small community right now. During this time the church has nearly doubled in size. This is not due to me, but I believe it does have a lot to do with our church being more visible in our community. And that has happened in part because my congregation has blessed me by encouraging me to be involved in the community.

For me this has meant being the chaplain of our local fire department, as well as working with Habitat for Humanity, writing an occasional column for our local newspaper, and more. It has also meant holding community “office hours” in a local coffee shop. Once a week I stationed myself at a table for a couple of hours and bought the coffee for anyone who dropped by for a chat. People who had never come through the doors of the church before met me for the first time there. Finally, when a natural disaster came to our community in the form of a flood, the congregation didn’t want me in my office. They wanted me out on the streets talking to people and giving out energy bars and water. (They were there too, by the way.)

Not every church understands this, though. Once when I was in a pastoral search process the search committee ran through their list of questions about how I planned to grow the church. When it came time for me to ask my questions, I led off with what I thought was a softball question: “Do you want a pastor who is going to be actively involved in your community?” The response shocked me. Members hedged their answers, telling me they really weren’t sure. To them the pastor was “theirs” and had enough work to do with current members. It was clear for me this was not the right church for me. But what struck me was that due to their inward focus I was sure it was clear to prospective parishioners that it wasn’t the right church for them either.

Your pastor can be a tremendous gift to your community. Don’t keep them all to yourself.

4. Don’t assume everyone knows your insider language.

So let’s say everything is going right and new people have started coming through your doors. What do you do now?

Well, first, keep doing what you are doing in terms of being hospitable. Welcome people when they walk in the doors. Show them the sanctuary. Invite them to coffee hour. Make them feel at home. But, also, watch the “insider language” and help to translate what might be new.

I did not grow up in the church so when I started attending as a young adult I was keenly aware of what I did not know. Every Sunday we would get to a point in the service where everyone recited a prayer together. I didn’t know it, and I felt like everyone was looking at me as I stood there in silence. It was the Lord’s Prayer, and I had no clue what to say.

I learned it quickly by getting a copy and sitting in the privacy my home and repeating it over and over to myself. I didn’t want to be embarrassed anymore. But I remember that feeling. And so years later, when I heard members of a church talking disdainfully about how visiting younger people didn’t even know the Lord’s Prayer, it hit me hard.

From then on I have always tried to print the words of the Lord’s Prayer in the bulletin for those who do not know it. The same is true of the Gloria Patri, Doxology, and other “well known” pieces. We should not give up these important parts of our liturgy, but we should be aware that as more people grow up as religious “nones” they are no longer a part of the common language.

Likewise, is your bulletin or worship leader clear about when to stand and when to sit? If you are turning to a certain page, do you announce it? Do you clearly state at the communion table that all are welcome, and let people know whether you are using grape juice or wine (an important consideration for many)? Or are your visitors just left on their own?

It’s important to make worship as accessible as possible. No one wants to feel like an outsider. It’s the surest way of making sure that visitors won’t come back.

5. Be willing to keep being transformed.

Here’s the secret no one wants to tell you about bringing new people into the church: they are going to change everything. I actually think more churches realize this than let on, and I believe that, subconciously, a lot of churches have chosen not to grow as a result.

When new people come to a church they bring with them new stories, new gifts, and new energy. They also bring new needs, new ideas, and new perspectives. And your church will be changed by them. Or else it will not be. And they will leave.

We often think of the church as “our church”. But it has never been “our church” It is Christ’s church. We are just the stewards of the church in this time and place. And when new people are brought into the church, they join us in that role. And even though you may have been their thirty years and they’ve been there one, they are equally important. And that can be frustrating.

There is a tendency to fall back on “we’ve always done it this way” in these situations. Resist that temptation. It’s wonderful to know our history (in fact, I think if we all knew more of it we’d find that we haven’t, in fact, always done it “this way”) but we cannot become a history museum. We must be willing to be transformed by the Holy Spirit, speaking in new ways through new voices. That’s what being the church is all about.

So when the young families arrive with their kids, let them teach you about what will keep their kids engaged. The old Sunday School models might not work anymore. When young adults come, let them shape their own programs. Maybe they want to meet for a “faith on tap” discussion at the local pub on a Wednesday night rather that for Bible study on Sunday mornings. And when someone brings that new idea to deacons that makes everyone tense up and want to say “but we don’t do that here”, give it a minute. Hear them out. And ask whether God is leading you into the future. It’s scary, but it’s also full of promise.

Most of all, this Pentecost Sunday, pray that the Holy Spirit will teach you to be a Pentecost Church. Open your hearts to the ways the Holy Spirit teaches us new languages. And then, let yourself speak them. Meet others where they are, and learn what God is already doing in them. And then, let yourself be transformed. You just may find that you, and the entire church, will be blessed.

 

Remembering the Stones: Sermon for May 18, 2014

Acts 7:55-60
7:55 But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.

7:56 “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!”

7:57 But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him.

7:58 Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.

7:59 While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”

7:60 Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (copyright, US Holocaust Museum)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (copyright, US Holocaust Museum)

When I was in seminary the most dreaded class was preaching. Many people have an aversion to public speaking, future ministers included, so that’s not surprising. But the word around campus was that preaching class would rip you apart before putting you back together. There were plenty of stories about feedback and how your sermons would be videotaped and you would be forced to watch yourself as you stumbled over readings or swayed back and forth in the pulpit.

So on the first day of preaching class, we all walked in and sat uneasily at our tables. And one of the preaching professors got up and started reading stories like this one from the book of Acts. They were stories about how the early Christians were beaten or imprisoned or even killed for their faith. And at the end he turned to us and said “that’s what they endured to preach the Gospel…I think you’re going to be just fine.”

Today’s story is not an easy one. It’s the story of Stephen, the first Christian martyr, which means the first person to die for their Christian faith. He is called to trial and asked about his faith. And instead of lying or recanting, he tells them about what he believes about Jesus. And they respond by stoning him.

The book of Acts is full of stories like this. It’s a book about how those early disciples in the uncertain days were learning to be the church together, and were facing the very real consequences of what it meant to claim their faith. And it wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t what we’ve come to expect from church.

It’s funny, because sometimes I think the modern church needs to go back and read Acts from time to time. We need to remember our roots. And we need to remember those stones. Sometimes we need to see that stark reminder. Sometimes we need to know that ours is a faith for which peopled died.

The reality is that the faith of the early church was a lot different than the faith of American, middle-class Christianity. No one is waiting at our church doors to stone us. We are not losing anything except maybe an extra hour of sleep by being here. We are under no threat being here. And really, if you want to, you can walk out the church door today and not think about your faith again until next Sunday morning.

That’s our luxury. But sometimes that is also our problem.

We live in a culture where almost everything else is done for our convenience or pleasure. We expect to have things our way. We demand that we be served. We expect that things will be done the way we want. We don’t like being inconvenienced. And we are often all-too-quick to remind those we believe are there to serve us that there are other options down the road.

And sometimes that attitude even finds its way to our churches. We become not disciples, but consumers, looking to be fed, or be inspired, or be made happy. The church becomes a vehicle for meeting our own needs and wants.

But here’s the hard truth that stories like today’s remind us of: the church does not exist for us. This building is not here for us. This worship service is not about us. The committee meetings and decisions we make are not about us.

Instead, the church, and everything about Christian life, is about Jesus and his will for us and for the world.

That’s a little distressing to hear, perhaps. Because it goes against almost everything else we encounter in our culture. This isn’t about us and the way we want it. It’s not about our comfort and convenience. It’s not about whether or not things fit into our schedule or preferred timeline. It’s about Jesus. We are not the served. We are the servants.

And sometimes we are called to make great sacrifices as a result. And sometimes we are asked to put aside our self and find our identity in Christ instead.

Stephen did that in a literal way. The Scripture right before the passage we read today tells of Stephen being on trial, and being asked whether the charges against him, about whether he followed Christ, were true. And Stephen responds with a long speech in which he testifies to his faith in Christ, and even tells those gathered some hard truths about what it means to follow God’s will, and how they had often dropped the ball.

That’s when they decided to stone him, by the way. Even though his words were true, hearing the truth enraged them and they had to literally kill the messenger.

And yet, even in his dying moments, he was a witness to something greater than himself. Scripture tells us that as Stephen was being stoned, there was a young man watching. He was one of the people persecuting Stephen. The others gave him their coats to watch as they killed Stephen. And he stood there, watching what it meant to have faith in Christ, and what the consequences could be.

His name was Saul, but we know him all this time later as Paul, the great messenger of Christ’s life and love. He was not converted to faith that day. That came later on the Damascus road. But before he ever believed, he understood the potential costs of being Christ’s disciple.

Maybe there’s something to that. Maybe we should be more up-front in the church about the potential costs of following Christ. Maybe we should have a sort of disclosure process before someone decides to join, not to discourage them, but to just be honest. Because, if we are all being honest about this, following Christ means that you are going to lose your life.

I don’t mean literally. At least not in the sense that Stephen did. We have that luxury now. But if you are doing this Christian faith thing honestly, you are going to lose your life. You are going to lose the illusion that you are in control. You are going to lose the perception that it is all about you and your needs. And you are going to lose the right to have it your way. You are going to lose the life you know, and maybe the life you have always wanted.

That’s the cost of discipleship. That phrase, “cost of discipleship”, comes from a man named Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was a German Lutheran pastor who managed to get out of his home country and secure a seminary teaching post in New York City when the Nazis rose to power. He was safely stateside, and out of harms way.

And yet, he did not feel that he was doing what Christ had called him to do with his life. And so, he went back to Germany, and worked as a Christian pastor to oppose Hitler and his regime. When he went back, he knew in a real way that he was signing his own death certificate. And yet, he went anyway. Because, like Stephen, he felt like he had no choice. And like Stephen, in the end he too became a martyr.

That’s not a very cheerful story, I know. But, for me at least, it is an inspiring one. It’s good to have examples of selfless faith. And it’s good to have reminders that sometimes our faith calls us to do the things that we do not want to do, even to the point of losing the life we know.

For you and I, hopefully, we will never have to make a choice to literally give up our lives in order to follow Christ. But we will have to make, everyday and in dozens of ways, a choice to give up the life we know, the life we want, and the life we hope for, for something else.

The good news is that the “something else” is something better.

Because Christ doesn’t call us to give up our life and follow him for no reason at all. He doesn’t call us to something hard in order to make us miserable and to hurt us. Christ calls us from the lives we know and imagine to a life that is unimaginable in its meaning and its depth.

No, we no longer get to have it “our way”. Now we get to have it Christ’s way. And, if we really open ourselves up to that, we find that it is more incredible than we could have imagined.

But that day that he watched Stephen die, do you think Paul believed that? Do you think he was saying, “I want to follow that guy?” No. And I wouldn’t have wanted to either.

But when that blinding light finally hits you, like it did Paul, you realize that you can do no other, and that life itself is a small price to pay for a life of meaning.

So, what price are you willing to pay? What is the cost of discipleship for you? I’m not talking about buying grace or anything like that. You can’t do that. But, what are you willing to turn over to God in order that you might live a life of gratitude for the gifts you have been given? What are you willing to lie down on the ground, or cast off like a stone, so that you might follow him into something else?

What are you holding onto, and what are you willing to let go of in order to claim something better? It’s a question worth asking for all who would follow Christ, and it’s a question that can change our lives.

May our lives be changed by Christ’s call to discipleship, and may we choose to pay the cost. Amen.

No Longer Lost in Translation: A Sermon for Pentecost, May 19, 2013

Holy Spirit Coming by He Qi

Holy Spirit Coming by He Qi

A few years ago, when I was working as a hospice chaplain on the South Shore of Massachusetts, I had one patient down near New Bedford. And whenever I went to see them at their nursing home, this other resident on her unit would see me in the lobby and start shouting at me in a foreign language. I had no clue what she was saying, but it was obvious to me that she was upset, and so I always just apologized and got out of there as quickly as possible.

One day I went back and the same thing happened. Only this time there were people around. And one of the aides said, “Do you know what she’s saying?” I said, “no, but whatever I did I’m sorry.”

And then she told me that the woman was speaking Portuguese, and that she was a little confused thought I was a relative of hers, and that when she saw me she wasn’t mad at all; she was excited. And she was yelling joyfully to me about how glad she was to see me. After that day I would always say hello to her, and I understood now that when we talked, though I couldn’t understand her, she was happy.

I learned then that translation matters. It can change everything. And today’s story is about translation too. It’s ten days after the Ascension, and the disciples are together, trying to figure out what to do next, now that Jesus is gone.

And all of a sudden a rushing wind, with tongues of fire, fell on them. And suddenly, the disciples, all of whom were Galileans all just speaking the same language, were speaking languages that they had never known before. People from other places were nearby and they heard it and they could understand what they were saying, and they asked “how come we are hearing this in our own language”?

Some didn’t even believe it; they said “they must be drunk.” But Peter gets up and he says “look, it’s only 9am..we’re not drunk”. Instead, something new has come, and everything has changed.

In the church we call this the Pentecost, which is translated to mean “fifty days”, as in fifty days after Easter. And we call that mighty rush of wind that came down the coming of the Holy Spirit. And we call this the birthday of the church. This is the day when the gift of the Holy Spirit was given to the disciples, and the church was born.

I’ve always found that interesting. Because, intuitively, it might not make a lot of sense. Shouldn’t Easter be the birthday of the church? After all, it’s the day Jesus rose again and appeared to the disciples. Maybe you could even argue that Christmas, with the birth of Christ, should be the day of celebration? Or, maybe Maundy Thursday when Jesus tells the disciples how to love one another?

But the tradition of the church is that Pentecost is the church’s birthday. And I think it’s because that was the day the disciples went from being this sort of loose band of followers of Jesus, standing around wondering what now, to being equipped by the Holy Spirit to minister not just to their own, but to the whole world.

And I think it says a lot that on its day of birth, when the Holy Spirit came down, the first gift that the disciples realize they have is the gift of being able to speak in new languages. The ability to translate the message to others.

I told you that story earlier about translation, and how it helped me to know what was being shouted at me in Portuguese. But translation doesn’t always have to be literal. Sometimes we learn to speak, and to understand, the language of others even when we don’t have the words.

One night when I was on call as a hospital chaplain, I received a page, and I was asked to come meet with a man whose wife had just given birth and who now was not doing well. And he was an Orthodox Christian originally from the Middle East. He spoke English fluently, and had been in this country a long time, though. And we were talking and I asked him, as I always did in these situations, if he wanted to pray. And he said “yes”, and took my hand and I was about to start praying, as I always did, but instead he started. And in Arabic he prayed this impassioned, heart-felt prayer for his wife.

And I have no idea what those words were that he was saying. But in that moment, without knowing a word of Arabic, I knew exactly what he meant.

If the Holy Spirit were to sweep into this place again today, and give us all a birthday gift, because we are all the church, I think we would get the same gift the disciples got. And I don’t mean by that that we would all be able to speak Spanish or Chinese or Russian or Arabic, per se. Rather, I think we would learn how to speak in new ways to those who haven’t heard about God’s love in language that they understand yet.

And you don’t have to leave the country to find people who haven’t. You don’t even have to leave the Valley. Some of you have heard me talking about how Vermont is sometimes called the least religious state in the country. And “nones”, those who do not claim a religious tradition, are the fastest growing demographic group.

And yet here we are in the church, speaking a foreign language. There was a time when everyone knew what the Lord’s Prayer, the doxology, and all of our other church words meant. There was a time when most people knew our language. But they don’t anymore. And that is new, but it’s also not necessarily bad. And that also doesn’t mean that ours is not a language worth sharing.

For decades now too much of the church has stood still, angry at the world that no one understands us anymore. No one speaks our language. We complain about that fact, and we have plenty of things to blame, everything from parents to Facebook to sports on Sunday morning, but the reality is that few people are going to spontaneously show up at our doors asking to learn our language. Especially not if we alienate them by judging them.

But do you notice something about the Pentecost story? When the Holy Spirit comes, it;’s the disciples who learn the new language. All the other people there don’t suddenly speak the disciples’ language: instead the disciples learn to speak theirs.

I think maybe the Holy Spirit is trying to tell us something. We can’t wait for others to talk the way we talk. Instead, we have to learn their language. We have to learn what is important to them. We have to be able to communicate in the ways that matter to them. We have to be willing to make the connections. It’s what the church has been doing since its first days, and it’s what we are still called to do today.

And sometimes the smallest points of connection, the smallest shared words, can make all the difference. I’ll give you an example. The other day I was at a meeting and I spent the whole time sitting next to this woman I’d never met before. And after the meeting we were talking, and I don’t think I have much of a Southern accent anymore, but I do have one tell: I say “y’all”. And as soon as I said that she got excited and said “where are you from?” And I told her, and she told me she was from Alabama, and immediately we had this connection.

All it took was one little signal that we spoke the same language, came from the same place, and had the same background. It’s not so different when it comes to faith. We aren’t some forgotten dinosaur speaking some lost language. We’re alive, and we have something to offer. And there are people who want to hear about it. They want us to make the connections, they want to know.

So, what languages are we speaking well? And which could use a little tutoring? What languages do our neighbors speak that we don’t speak quite as well? We live in a ski town. Should we learn to speak “ski” a little better? Our church’s front door is literally on one of the major motorcycle routes in the northeast. Should we be able to speak “biker” a little better? We live in a time when youth and younger adults are tied to their Facebook and Twitter accounts. Should we speak social media a little better? What other languages could you and I brush up on?

That’s the question that the church needs to ask itself today. Because Pentecost didn’t just happen 2000 years ago. It happens still. And that gift is our to receive. You and I can speak in more languages than we realize. So, happy birthday, church. It’s time to unwrap our present and share it with the world. Amen.

Getting Our Heads Out of the Clouds: A Sermon for Ascension Sunday, May 12, 2013

Benvenuto Tisi da Garofalo, Ascension of Christ

Benvenuto Tisi da Garofalo, Ascension of Christ

Churches, and their clergy, have sometimes been accused of being out of touch with the real world. Karl Marx called religion the “opiate of the people” because he believed it made us ignore the pains and injustices of the world and look to a pie-in-the-sky heaven when this life is over. And even today you hear plenty of people talking about how Christians are too focused on the next life, and not focused enough on this one.

They might even say we have our heads in the clouds.

Sometimes they’re right. I’ve talked before about how after seminary I did some coursework to get a PhD, and how I ultimately left that program because I felt like I was gazing into the heavens, doing nothing, while the real world, full of real needs, was all around me. And as much as studying theology at the next level had felt noble at the beginning, by the end it felt like I was really missing the point.

The problem didn’t start, or end, with me though. Because from the very beginning of the church, nearly 2,000 years ago, Christians have had to be reminded that they can’t spend too much time with their heads in the clouds.

The first disciples were doing literally just that. On the fortieth day after Easter, after weeks of Jesus appearing to them after the Resurrection and telling them how to be his disciples, he told them that he wouldn’t be physically with them anymore. Instead, he would always be with them, but in a different way. He was returning to the Creator, and speaking through the Holy Spirit.

And after he told them this, Scripture tells us that he was lifted up into heaven and “a cloud took him out of sight”.

In the church we call this the Ascension, which is a fancy way of saying that Jesus is preparing a new place for us now, and has gone before us. But, fancy theological terms aside, can you imagine what the disciples were thinking that day? My guess is that they were all standing there looking up and saying, “Where did he go?” Or, “did that really just happen?” Or, “what do we do now?”

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

Sometimes the church needs people like those two guys in white. We need them to call our attention back from gazing up at the clouds all the time and to the world we are in now. And we need them to remind us that we have a task here as disciples of Christ. Because with the Ascension the baton has been passed, we are left as witnesses to Christ’s life and work, and we are called to be the church.

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

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

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

It’s really fitting that this passage happened to come up in the lectionary today because today after coffee hour we are starting phase two of our visioning process. This is the part where we sit with each other for the next six weeks and we have discussions about what we believe God is asking us to do, and how God is asking our church to exist in our community.

Our church has had some good things happen to it in the last few years. We are bigger, and we are increasingly connected to both mission and the larger church, and we are looking ahead to a future that I believe will be very bright. But that also means that we are on new ground. And we are having to learn how to be the church together in new ways. And sometimes that can feel confusing and daunting, and we feel better looking up in the clouds and asking, “now where did that guy with all the answer go?”

Those first disciples knew what that was like. Because on that day they were standing there, looking up, and going, “What now?” “Where do we go from here?”

And the answer they got, was “don’t look up in the clouds. Look around you.”

And that’s what we get too. In this visioning process, instead of just looking to the clouds for answers, we get to ask the question, “What is clouding our vision?” We get to ask, what is happening here all around us, in our community and in our world? And then we get to ask, what is our role in it all?

Today’s discussion is about “purpose”, as in “what is our purpose here as a church?” And I’m not going to give you all the “right answers” here about how why our church exists in our community, or how our life together should unfold, because I don’t claim to have all the “right answers”.

But I will say this, our purpose has to do with something more than looking into the clouds and longing after Jesus. And it has to do with more than being a clubhouse for people who believe and act the way that we do. Instead it has to do with helping one another to live out the sort of life that Jesus asked of us, and serving our neighbors in love because Jesus first loved us. It’s a very down-to-earth purpose that we are called to gather around, and that means that it is also a very possible one.

It has to start with pulling our heads out of the clouds, and looking around. We live in what has been called the “least religious state” in the country. We live in a small community that has fewer and fewer year-round jobs and that means a lot less young families. We live in a place where many, if not most, people have to work on Sunday morning in order to provide for their family. And we live in an era where compulsory church attendance has vanished. We live in a challenging time to be the church.

But it’s not the first challenge. The Scripture passage today proves that. But even if you want to get a little closer to home, in both time and place, there are other examples too.

Last fall I was given an excerpt from a letter written by a “George Mann” to his friend “Rice”. The date was August 6, 1858, 155 years ago. And the place was West Dover, Vermont. That summer, the church, this building we are sitting in now, was being built.

And I don’t know much about Mr. Mann, but he didn’t have a whole lot of faith in either the future of this church or of Dover in general. He wrote to his friend,

“The meeting house advances towards completion slowly – the steeple is on it looks majestic – they have money enough subscribed to purchase a bell I think – os you see we shall soon be cheered weekly by the tones of “Sweet Sabbath Bell” – but I fear it will not have the power to bring out to church all the wicked, hardened “non church going” sinners of this wicked place”. He underlined that last part for emphasis.

Mr. Mann, whoever he was, was wrong. Because 155 years later you and I are sitting in this sanctuary. And the community outside our doors is not full of “wicked, hardened” people, and it is not a “wicked place”. It’s a good place, filled with good people, church-goers or not. Everything else has changed, except that, and except the fact that our church bell still tolls every week, not just welcoming our neighbors, but reminding us to serve them.

As much as those two men reminded the disciples to take their heads out of the clouds, that bell reminds us to stop looking up, and start looking out. To keep serving our neighbors, and to keep spreading God’s love to our community. We’ve been doing it for 155 years. But we’re just kids, in the big scheme of things. The church has been doing it for nearly 2000 now. And somehow, by the grace of God, it’s still going. I think that means that God has a purpose for us yet. Amen.

“What We Share” – Sermon for May 15, 2011

Acts 2:42-47
2:42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

2:43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles.

2:44 All who believed were together and had all things in common;

2:45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.

2:46 Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts,

2:47 praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

I sometimes get asked how I choose what I’m going to preach about on Sundays. Sometimes folks think I pick a topic first and then select the appropriate Scripture. But that’s not what actually happens. Instead, I let the Scripture pick my topic. I preach using the lectionary, the calendar of readings I’ve told you about before which most mainline churches follow. Each week I’m given an Old Testament, Psalter, Gospel and Epistle reading.

On most Sunday mornings I preach to you from the Gospels. The parables of and stories about Jesus are usually a little more interesting, and more fun to preach about. But today I’m preaching from Acts. The book of Acts is the story of the earliest church and the way they lived together in the first years. This is a sort of “next chapter” of the Gospel stories. This is how this band of believers began to become something greater than just themselves

This morning’s reading from Acts talks about how they sustained themselves in the earliest days: All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

I really resisted preaching about this passage this morning. I hate preaching about money and about how you should be using the things you have. I make it a point not to know who gives what to this congregation. I don’t want to. And I make it a point not to harangue you to put more in the collection plate. Some weeks you just can’t, and there is absolutely no shame in that. I don’t tell you to give. It makes me feel like a televangelist. And so I say, in the end, don’t listen to any preacher who tells you what you should do with your money.

But as much as that is true, I remember something one of my seminary professors used to say. If you are scared to preach on a particular text, if it makes you uncomfortable, it means you probably need to preach on it.

The Bible says more about the correct treatment of money than it says about a lot of other things. More than it says about heaven. Far more than it says about sex. More than a vast majority of topics. In the end, the stewardship of money, which is how you use it, seemed to matter a lot to the people who wrote the Bible.

The interesting thing is not that they are saying “turn over all your money” to the church. If I said that, I hope you all would walk out the sanctuary doors and find a new pastor. Instead, we are told in this passage about what the earliest believers did. We are told about how they as a community survived in the hardest of times.
They took what they had, and they shared it with one another, and they shared it with those who needed it outside of the church, and they gave thanks for all that they had been given. In a very radical way, they cast their lots in with one another so that they could do ministry to those who needed it most.

There is a church in Washington, DC that takes up an unusual offering on Sunday mornings. They still have a collection plate, but people don’t just put something in. They tell the people that come to worship that if they are in real need, they are free to take something out.

You might think that would make the church and easy target. You could come and just sit on the back row and take everything out when it gets to you. But that’s not what happens. Rarely does anyone take more than they need. And usually, those who you might thing have nothing to give, give something instead of taking.

I’m not suggesting we start that here. But I do think there’s something to be learned there. The people give fearlessly. They give because others need. They give because they receive. They give because they believe something good is happening at that church and they know that they have to be the ones who ensure that it’s there for the people who need it the most. And they give without fear.

It’s hard to give without fear. Especially in this economy. I know how hard it is out there right now.I know there is a lot of anxiety.I know that the impulse is not to give now more than ever, but to try to keep as much as possible for ourself in case of emergency. My friends at non-profits tell me that they are having a particularly hard time making ends meet. People aren’t giving the way they used to even as more people are losing services that they depended upon. They are struggling to do more with less and often turning people away. In the end, the need is becoming greater and greater.

And I think about how the way we give is sometimes so different that was in this earliest church. I think about how when things were so bad for them, far worse than they are for those of us nowadays, they reached in a little deeper and gave to one another and the ones they didn’t even know.

And you know what happened? They didn’t go into the red. They didn’t lose everything. They didn’t die.

Instead they lived. Scripture tells us: the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

They grew.

Yesterday I was helping a friend move. We were nearing the end and she cleaned out her refrigerator. She threw out the products that were opened or about to expire, or already expired. I went and took them out to the dumpster and came back from more trash. When I went back there was a woman, probably in her 80’s, digging through the dumpster and pulling out the expired food. She spoke only Russian, but I could tell what was happening. This was the only way she would eat. I gave her some money, something I rarely do, and I went upstairs to try to get her some more food. When I came back she was gone. But soon another elderly couple appeared in her place doing the same thing.

I remember how that morning I had been looking at my bank account and getting frustrated that I wasn’t able to afford a minor want. It made me feel pretty ashamed that I was so worried about that, than about the woman downstairs who would dig through bags of trash to eat.

And I thought about how that was my work, because I was a Christian. And about how it was the work of the churches. And I thought about that neighborhood. So many churches. Churches I knew. Churches that held on to everything they had out of fear. Churches that thought they couldn’t help her because their membership was dwindling and so were the reserves. Churches that, unless something drastic happens, will be dead in twenty years.

And I read this passage. And I read those lines about what happened. About how they gave, not until it hurt, but until it felt good. And how they grew. The church as we have known it for centuries would never have existed without that first church making the decision to be fearless with what they had, and with the love that Christ gave them.

And so, that is my challenge to you today. How will we cast aside our fears and be fearless in Christ? How will we be owned not by the demons of “do we have enough” but by the love of Christ? How will we show the world outside these doors that grace is real, and that we can be God’s agents of it?

This morning the Psalm was Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.” If we really believe that, if we really believe it when we recite it, then we have to believe that it’s true when it comes to stewardship. And we have to believe that in the end we are all here because someone in the church showed us grace of one kind or another. And in the end, it is not our fear, but our joy and our hope and our generosity that help us grow. Amen.