Confirmation Rules: Sermon for May 21, 2017

This sermon is available as a podcast at iTunes

John 14:15-21
14:15 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.

14:16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.

14:17 This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

14:18 “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.

14:19 In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live.

14:20 On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.

14:21 They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”

On the first day of confirmation class this year, I asked the students who had gathered to close their eyes. Then I said to them, “raise your hand if you are here today because your parents told you that you had to come”.

I then told them to keep their hands up and open their eyes. Every hand in the room was raised.

We all laughed, and I was neither hurt nor surprised. I remember being a middle schooler and the prospect of spending Friday afternoons after school at church with some pastor I barely knew would not have appealed much to me either. But they were there, and they were open and willing to listen, and so I gave them my two rules of confirmation class:

First, while being here in confirmation class may not be up to you, being confirmed is solely your decision.

In other words, if your parents are requiring you to be here, that’s okay. Come to class as they ask, and keep an open mind. But if at the end of this you do not want to be confirmed, that’s okay too, and that’s your choice.

That’s important, I told them, because your parents brought you to the baptismal font before you were old enough make up your mind about your faith. In doing so they brought you into the community of faith, and we affirmed that you were Christ’s own. But now you are older, and you have the chance to make one of the most important decisions of your adult life. In confirmation we “confirm” what has already been promised for us: we confirm that we accept Christ’s love and grace, and that we will continue to grow in this faith.

So, that’s the first rule. The second is this: your confirmation is not a graduation.

I know what the rule is in some families, spoken or unspoken: get confirmed, and you can choose whether or not you come to church after that. But that’s the exact opposite of what it should be. Because by choosing to be confirmed you are saying that you are committing yourself to being an active part of the community of faith. You are not taking a step back from church. You are taking a step into church. You are saying this matters.

Those are the rules. And I set them out and then tell our youth that if they choose not to be confirmed, that is totally okay. I will not be disappointed in them, and this church will not love them or welcome them any less. The rules are not meant to be restrictive or harsh. If anything they are meant to be loving, and to show where the boundaries are.

But even after all of that, six youth have chosen to be confirmed today. And so I want to hold up to them, and to all of us who would live out our faith, the lectionary Scripture for today. In it, Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” In other words, if you love me, you will follow my rules.

The first question, of course, is which rules?

That’s a question Jesus got asked a lot. In fact, he was once asked, “What is the greatest commandment”, or, what’s the most important rule? And Jesus responded, “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
In other words, that’s what Jesus wants us to do. In fact, Jesus says that if we really love him we will do those things.

But here’s the thing: those things are not easy. First, love the Lord with all your heart, soul, strength and mind. In other words, love God so that you are holding nothing back. Give God all of those things first, before you give them to anything or anyone else.

And then, the even harder piece, love your neighbor as yourself. This is a totally foreign concept to most of us. We are taught to love ourselves first, and those like us second. But Jesus wants more than that. Yes, he wants us to love ourselves, and love ourselves just as deeply as he loves us. But he then wants us to love every other person in this world with the same ferocity and depth. And he wants us to act on that love, and to serve our neighbors first.

So, first, we have to love God with everything that is in us. Then, we have to love ourselves, which is sometimes just as hard. And finally, we have to love the world.

Y’all, that’s not easy. In fact, because we are human, it’s actually impossible to do most of the time. And yet, it’s what Jesus says we have to do if we love him.

And so how do we do it? Well, first, we commit ourselves to it, day after day. And second, we do it together. We do it as people who gather together in a community like this one, and who try, week after week, to get it just a little closer to right.

For those who are being confirmed today, this is the path that you are choosing to take. You are saying you want to try to do these things. And this is too holy, and too hard, a calling for you to embark on alone. And so that’s why I gave you those two rules: first, it has to be your choice. And second, this can’t be the end of your journey…you have to be all in.

The good news is you will have help. You have this church. You have the people who sit in the pews every weeks. You have your families. You have your teachers and youth group leaders and a pastor. And you have a mentor who is going to continue to be there for you.

In the past confirmation mentors have been companions to the confirmands during the year before you were confirmed. But this year we are doing something different. This year your mentors are going to be there for you in the year after confirmation. You’ve already met with them, but you are committing to them, and they are committing to you, to keep this relationship going.

They are going to continue to check in with you, and I hope you are going to go to them as well. Together you are going to walk down this road of faith, and you are hopefully going to teach one another a little more about what it means to love God with your heart, soul, strength, and mind, and what it means to be a part of this church.

And this is also where I want to remind this congregation what we are committing to today as well. Upon their confirmation these six youth will become full members of the Congregational Church in Exeter. Their membership does not come with an asterisk next to their name. They are not junior members. Their standing in this church is exactly equal to your own. They now have full voice and vote in all matters of the church.

As one of you reminded me this week, we ask our confirmands to do more to join this church than we do any adult. They prepare for a year, they wrestle with their faith, and they write a faith statement. These youth are not the future of this church. They are the present, and they carry the gift of a perspective that we need. It’s our job to listen to them and take them seriously. We do that because they have taken this process seriously.

And so, as we prepare to confirm them, and as you prepare to be confirmed, hear the rule of life that Christ has given us all: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and soul, and mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. This is how Christ himself said that he would know we truly loved him.

We all need one another in this work. The good news is that today we gain six more voices to encourage us along the way.

Baptisms of Resistance: Sermon for January 15, 2017

Last Monday I saw an incredible new movie. I’m not much of a movie goer, but I had heard amazing things about “Hidden Figures”, a true story about three African-American women who worked for NASA in 1961 in Hampton, Virginia.

hidden-figures-posterAll three were absolutely brilliant, and they were what NASA at the time called “computers”. We hear that word and think of laptops or the like, but for them it literally meant that they were doing the math, the computing, necessary for the Mercury Seven astronauts to launch and return to earth successfully.

And yet, they were living in a time and a place where even their brilliance could not give them equality. While they crunched numbers for NASA all day, they did so in a separate office reserved for “Colored Computers”. And when they had to use the restroom, they went to one with the word “Colored” written on the door.

I really believe everyone should see this movie, and so I’m not going to ruin it and tell you more than that, but I will tell you that all week I have been thinking about this story. I’ve been thinking of it in light of the Civil Rights Movement, and of Martin Luther King Day, which we celebrate tomorrow. But I’ve also been thinking of it in light of something else. I’ve been thinking about baptism, and about how we live our life.

Today we are observing Dr. King’s birthday, but we are also observing a holy day in the life of the church. On the Sunday after Epiphany, which we celebrated last week, we remember Jesus’ own baptism.

John the Baptist, who we heard about throughout Advent, had gone out into the wilderness and people had started to come to him to be baptized. And this isn’t the kind of baptism that you and I know about today, but was instead an adaptation of a Jewish custom where you would immerse yourself and wash yourself clean in anticipation of a new beginning.

Jesus ended up being one of those people who came to John, and when John saw him dovecoming he said, “Wait, Jesus…I shouldn’t baptize you…you should baptize me!” But Jesus told John to baptize him anyway, and when John did Jesus came up from under the water, and Scripture tells us that you could see the Spirit of God resting on Jesus like a dove, and that a voice said “this is my son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

As Protestants we celebrate two sacraments, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. And we say that we do these two things because Jesus “instituted” them. That doesn’t mean that people weren’t already being immersed in water or eating bread and wine. But that does mean that Jesus himself participated in these things, and made them holy, and told us to do the same. And so today, you and I do these things because we follow him.

Jesus, being Jesus, understood baptism a little better than we do. He knew that he was about to embark on a journey, a new thing, and like the people of his place and time, he went to John to mark it and to prepare. And when he was baptized, Jesus was publicly marked as God’s own.

What was true for Jesus is also true for us. Whether we are baptized as infants, and we can’t remember a thing about it, or whether we are baptized as adults and can remember everything, the real work of baptism is not done by us. In baptism God does the heavy lifting, claiming us as God’s own and strengthening and sealing us for life.

What happens on the day we are baptized is not the end of our baptism. It’s just the beginning of a whole new journey. Because while God claims us in baptism, once we are baptized our job is to claim God’s plan for us in all of our lives.

Our job as Christians is to live the life that God intends for us. I don’t mean that in the sense that some preachers you see on TV do. This is not about being “blessed” by big houses and bank accounts, or about claiming your “best life now”. Instead this is about figuring out what gifts God has given you, and using them not for yourself but to help others. This is about finding your purpose and living out your baptism every day.

Watching “Hidden Figures” I thought about these three women who had been given profound gifts by God. They were amazing mathematicians. And yet, every step of the way they were confronted by barriers, both because they were women, and because they were African-American.

The work load for every employee of NASA was backbreaking, but can you imagine what it was like to have to carry the additional burden of breaking two barriers at the same time? To work the same long hours computing figures that could literally save or take a man’s life, and then to have to drink from a separate coffee pot? To have to claim your place not just by being the best, but by not being silent and by standing up for yourself and for others at every turn?

Last week “Hidden Figures” was the number one move in the country. It even beat the new Star Wars. Can you imagine that? A movie about three African-American women doing math beat a perennial office blockbuster.

I asked myself why that happened, and I think the answer is this. I think we need stories like this right now. We need reassurance that when the world tries its best to hold people down, when it overlooks the gifts that God has given because of the ones who bear them, that does not have to be the end of the story.

The three woman at the heart of the movie were women of faith. Presbyterians, as I understand it. And they understood that they were baptized. And so, that’s why I believe that this was a baptism story. This was the story of three women who knew that they were God’s beloved, and who knew that in them God was well pleased. And they refused to let the world treat them as anything less.

917f3bba67764b291ffc5a59916e6b2bOn Dr. King day we remember a man who lived into his baptism by doing the same. It was Dr. King’s faith that fueled his work for equality. He was first and foremost a preacher, who believed in the Gospel, and believed that each of God’s children deserved dignity because of that. He believed this enough that he could not be silent, even though he well knew that it would likely cost him his life.

That is incredible. And yet, it is nothing less than what God asks of us. That is what our baptism means.

When we baptize someone in this church it is a joyous occasion. Particularly when we bring a child to the font, there is this light and joy. They come dressed in white, with their smiling parents and siblings. We take pictures. We eat cake. We walk the cute baby through the aisles and we smile.

But there’s a part in the baptismal service that reminds us that baptism is the start of something incredibly risky. Whether we make the vows for ourselves as adults, or we make them on behalf of a child, we are committing to a life of resisting the worst in this world.

The baptism vows include this question: “Will you (or will you encourage this child to) renounce the powers of evil and receive the freedom of new life in Christ?”

And a few minutes later: “Do you promise to be Christ’s disciple, to follow in the way of our savior, to resist oppression and evil, to show love and justice, and to witness to the work and word of Jesus Christ as best you are able?”

Those are the words that the UCC uses, but every Christian liturgy I know has some form of the same questions. The implication is clear: if you want to be a Christian, if you want to follow Christ, if you want to teach a child to be a Christian, you can’t do it by sitting down or staying silent in the face of evil or injustice. You have to rise up.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was martyred by the Nazis, once wrote that when Christ calls a

la-oe-lewis-selma-movie-20150119-002

John Lewis’ work in the Civil Rights Movement was inspired in large part by his Christian faith. This is him being beaten by police in 1965 during the Selma march.

person to follow him, he “bid him come and die”. That sounds harsh. And yet, it’s true. People like Bonhoeffer and Dr. King knew that literally.

But in our baptism we too are called to die. Maybe not literally, but certainly in a real way. Because if we are really going to follow Jesus, then we must be willing to let our hopes of always being comfortable die. We must be willing to let our self-protecting silence die. We must be willing to let our neutrality in the face of injustice die.

We must do these things because in the end, it is the only way that we, and the world, may truly live. Amen?

And so, on this Baptism of the Lord Sunday, for those who are baptized, I invite you to join me in reaffirming your baptism. For those who are not baptized, I invite you to reflect on these words and see whether God might be inviting you into baptism. Let us use the words of the baptismal liturgy…

Being One. Being Many.: Sermon on Orlando for June 19, 2016

Last Sunday morning, when we walked into church, we knew that another tragedy had occurred. Our country has become strangely conditioned to the news of mass shootings. Somehow the horrific has become all too commonplace.

We hear the news of another town, Blacksburg, Newtown, Aurora, San Bernardino, and automatically those places become synonymous in our mind with senseless violence.

Last Sunday, as I put on my robe and stole, I knew that my hometown had joined the list.

We didn’t know how bad it was until after worship though. By the time I took that robe and stole off, there was an alert on my cell phone. It told me that 49 people had lost their lives. It was the deadliest mass shooting in American history. In the sickly competitive rankings of death tolls, Orlando was now first.

I spent the day waiting for names, wondering if any friends were there. In the end, none of mine were lost. And I thanked God for that. But then I realized my good news was other’s devastation. Because it’s always someone’s hometown. It’s always someone’s friends.

After church I found your moderator, Alison, and asked if I could have her blessing to hold a candlelight vigil on the front lawn that night. We put out the word and on only a few hours’ notice people came, and spoke, and prayed. We held our candles against the darkness, and proclaimed that nothing, not even this horror, could extinguish their light.

The next day I looked at the lectionary readings for this morning, and found that this week’s came from Paul’s letter to the Galatians. It contains this remarkable line: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

And it felt like somehow the lectionary knew ahead of time. Somehow it knew that this morning we would be doing two things: trying to make sense of a tragedy, and baptizing a child of God.

I carried that passage with me this week. Most of you know that early Tuesday morning I flew to Orlando with my friend and fellow trauma responder Chris. The next day we were joined by three other trauma responders from New England UCC churches. And over the next few days, we were on the ground in Orlando with two missions. First, to be helpful wherever we could. And second, to observe what was happening and to report back.

I am thankful that I went with your blessing. In a real sense, you lent your pastor out to Orlando this week. You shared me with this place. When we went to the vigil sites in our clergy collars, and talked with people who were mourning, you made that possible. When we hugged someone who had lost a friend, you the people of Exeter were there too. And when we stood at a funeral on Thursday, blocking any protestors that may come, you stood with us.

Paul is right. In Christ we are no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female; for all of us are one in Christ Jesus because we are a part of one body. And last week this part of the body shared its resources with another part. That is remarkable, and that is what Paul was talking about.

13466499_10101216654147178_4874541647657160548_nBut I want to raise a word of caution here. Because as much as we are indeed one in Jesus Christ, that does not mean that we are all the same. And though we respond as one body, that does not mean that this body of Christ is not diverse, or that those differences don’t matter.

The reality of what happened is this. A man, filled with hatred or self-loathing or whatever compelled him to think that he should take this course of action, chose deliberately to walk into a club where LGBTQ people were gathered. His father tells us that he had been disgusted by seeing two gay men kissing. And so he took his rage, and he went to one of the safest places that LGBTQ people in Orlando can go. And he took their safety away.

As someone who grew up gay in Orlando, that took my breath away. It brought me to my knees. These were my people.

And yet in other ways they were not. Because the other reality is this: 96% of the people who were victims were members of the Latinx community. This was Latin night, and for many who were there, this was the only place in their lives that they could be fully themselves, both Latinx and gay.

I am not Latinx, and so this week I kept reminding myself that there would be times when I would need to step back, and let others speak. Let others lead the way. Trust others, who were a part of both communities, to know how to respond. Because as much as we are all part of the same body in Christ, our differences still exist.

And they should. They are what make us Christ’s body. Because if Christ is God in human form, then of course Christ’s body should show the vastness of God and God’s people. And this week, the parts of Christ’s body that spoke Spanish and danced to the merengue while loving whomever they loved were the ones who were targeted. We can’t forget that. We can’t fail to name that.

Why? Because right now in Orlando, there are victims whose families refuse to claim their bodies because they are gay. And right now in Orlando there are survivors of the club who won’t go to the places designated for counseling because they have undocumented status and they are afraid of being turned over to immigration for deportation. That has already happened to some survivors, by the way.

It matters who they were. And it matters that we lift them up and love them for who they were.

This week I saw so many slogans. “Orlando strong.” “Orlando united.” But the one I connected with the most was this: “Somos Orlando”, or in English “we are Orlando”.

I have gone back and forth about using it. The part of me that stands in solidarity with the Latinx community in Orlando wants to say “Somos Orlando”. But the part of me that grew up in arguably the whitest, most comfortable suburb of Orlando, speaking only enough Spanish to get through my high school language requirement, wants to be careful not to appropriate what isn’t mine.

In the end, when I say “Somos Orlando” I say it only in this sense: “Somos Orlando” because I am a part of the body of Christ, and last Sunday morning a part of Christ’s body was broken again on a dance floor in Orlando. And I stand with Christ’s broken body today.

But in saying that, I can never forget, can never minimize, the fact that it was bodies that did not look like my own that were targeted. We can never forget that. And we can never allow that to be forgotten by others.

And now we also must now stand up, so this does not happen again. We have to stand up and say whatever part of Christ’s body that is going to be targeted next, in whatever town and whatever place, and for whatever reason…we are going to try to stop it.

That’s why it feels appropriate on this Father’s Day to tell you this story. 22 years ago, my father called my college dorm room from Orlando and told me my mom had told him I was gay. My dad is a Southern man, and a career government agent. And this was 1994. I didn’t know how this would go.

To my surprise, he said this to me: “That’s okay. And let me tell you something; there are going to be people who try to hold you back or target you for who you are. You can’t let them.”

He didn’t know it at the time, but he was giving me words for my Christian journey. Because if we are following Christ, we can’t let anyone hold anyone else back or target them for who they are. We have to work for a world in which we are equally valued and protected as children of God.

And so we are going to work for a world where hatred does not win. We are going to work for a world where violence is not the answer. We are going to stand up against the interests of death and destruction, and call out our love of what can kill us and kill others. We are going to be Christ’s body, a body that has again and again been broken open. We are going to change this, because Christ requires nothing less.

And like my dad taught me, we have to teach the children we know the same thing.

And so perhaps that is why it is so fitting that we are baptizing Trudy today. We are making her a part of Christ’s body. We are taking her to the waters of baptism, and she is receiving this sacrament that will forever change her. And because of that, Trudy will grow up to be someone who cannot be silent in the face of events like this. She will be someone who will stand in the broken places, and help to repair this far-too-often broken world.

Today Trudy remains herself. She is Trudy, a young child from Exeter, New Hampshire. But today she also becomes something more. She becomes one with this body that is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. And a body that is no longer gay nor straight, white nor Latino, Exeter nor Orlando either.

May she, and may we all, love this body enough to fight for every part of it. And may we love, by not erasing but by lifting up, all that makes us different, and all that makes us beautiful. And may we all work to keep this body from being broken again. Amen?

The Character of Hope

This morning we are baptizing six month old twins. It’s a joyous occasion that we have been repeating often lately, because we are in the midst of a season of baptisms in our congregation, a veritable baby boom. Today Melissa and Erica will bring their sons to the font and they will receive this sacrament in which we affirm that they are God’s, and that God loves them beyond measure.

But first, there’s the Scripture we read today. The one that tells us that “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.”

I worried for a moment when I started thinking about this Scripture and about suffering and endurance that after months of middle of the night feedings, sleep deprivation, and more that Erica and Melissa might think I had deliberately chosen this passage to talk about the perils of parenting twins.

Don’t worry, you two. Endurance produces character and character hope. So by the time you get these boys off to school, you will probably be two of the most hopeful people we know.

But the reality is that this passage isn’t about Melissa and Erica. At least, it’s not about them any more than it is about any of us. Originally it was from a letter, one sent by the apostle Paul to the church in Rome. Paul had never been to Rome, but he was planning to go and meet this church. And so, before he got there, he wanted them to know who he was, and what he believed.

And in particular, he wanted to write about what he believed about salvation. He wanted them to understand in particular what it means to be saved not through our works, not by how great we are, but instead by faith and by God’s love and grace.

And it’s in explaining this that he writes these words: “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”

picmonkey_imageIt’s that line, about suffering and endurance, character and hope, that always strikes me. Because, as much as it was meant for a church 2000 years ago, it was also meant for you, and for me.

And there’s so much about that line that needs unpacking, and understanding. Because the idea that our sufferings are the start of this journey to hope is a dangerous one if it is misunderstood.

When I was a college freshman I was in this leadership program where we did a lot of outdoor challenges in order to build leadership skills. One of them was rock climbing where we scaled the face of this cliff in north Georgia. And the motto that we kept hearing all week, especially during this cliff climb, was one you’ve probably heard before: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”.

For a long time I liked that idea and the thought that by challenging ourselves we become tough. Invincible even. Because when you’re 18 and standing on a mountain and the big challenge ahead of you is climbing a rock, it’s easy to look at the world and say “bring it on”.

But all of us reach a point in our life where the things we are facing actually do look like they could kill us. And sometimes, even if they don’t kill us, they don’t leave us stronger. Sometimes they might even leave us broken.

I don’t believe that God makes bad things happen in order to teach us lessons. I’ve never believed that. God is up there throwing down car crashes and cancer so that we can toughen up. God is not sadistic like that.

But the reality is that, as Hemingway said, “the world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.” We are all going to be broken at times. We are all going to suffer. We will lose people. We will be hurt. We will be lost.

But, for some at least, in our weakness we will also become strong. And that strength will come not because we have endured, but because in the midst of the hardest moments we have recognized our limitations, and found that we are being upheld not by our own virtues, or our hard work, but by nothing other than God’s grace.

This passage, with this line that sounds like you could paint it on the wall at a gym somewhere along with other motivational sayings, has nothing to do with how great we are, or how hard we can push ourselves. Instead, it comes in the middle of a passage about grace, and about how God’s love is so great that it alone is sufficient for our salvation, in every sense of the word.

If you have ever had a time in your life when you felt broken, one when it felt like you were at rock bottom, one when it seemed like you had failed time and time again…then you are extremely lucky.

You probably think I have no idea what I am talking about right now. How can pain be luck? But I do know what it’s like to hit rock bottom. And I do know what it’s like to fail, and to fail again.

But the good news comes in this: that also means that I know about grace. I know that in the hardest times, God’s grace is what can lift us up. And, just as I know that light shines the brightest in the darkness, I know that God’s grace is better than anything because it came to me when I needed it the most, and deserved it the least.

On second thought, we aren’t lucky if we’ve known grace. We are extraordinarily blessed.

And so, when we see that grace, when we realize that it doesn’t come from our own work or worthiness, that’s when what Paul is talking about here really matters. That’s when character comes into play. And that’s where hope comes from.
That’s because for those of us who would follow Christ, those who know that we have received grace upon grace, it is how we respond to that grace that comes to define our character.

The truth is if we really have experienced grace, then we cannot help but respond in one way: with gratitude. If we have truly been lifted up, then we cannot remain unchanged. We have to become people of light. People of grace. People of generosity. People of character.

And perhaps because of all of that, people of hope. Because Paul was right about that. In the end, we hope because we have known what it was to feel hopeless. And we have found that it wasn’t true. Because where God is, there is always hope.

And so, as we prepare to baptize these two children, these embodied reminders of God’s grace, that’s what I hope that we teach these boys as they grow. I hope that we teach them to be hopeful.

Because Caleb and Spencer, they are going to grow up. And, as hard as it is to imagine today, they are going to suffer. They are going to have nights when it feels like God is so far away. No matter what the people who love them do to bubble-wrap them and protect them, they are going to suffer. Because they are human. It’s unavoidable.

But today we are affirming that those moments won’t be the end of the story. We are saying through these waters of baptism that there is grace. And along with their mothers, we are going to guide them in their faith journeys to become people of character, because they will know that grace. And they will grow to be men who have hope. And, even better, men who give that hope to our entire world.

Caleb and Spencer, you are beloved children of God. And you are the hope of the world. Amen.

Love is Patient, Love is Kind…and Love is Not Control

“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.Love never ends.” – 1 Corinthians 13

From the time I graduated from college, until the time I was married, I lived mostly on my own. Even when I had roommates early on, we had separate rooms and our own personal space. And I really liked my space. I was very particular about it. Which is why, when I found myself engaged and about to be married at the age of 36, despite all the love and excitement and certainty I was doing the right thing, I wasn’t so excited about sharing my space.

But, I believe in love, and so I told my spouse, who was moving into my house, this is our home. I don’t want you to feel like it’s mine. So make yourself comfortable, and do whatever you need to do to make it feel like home.

That wasn’t a good idea.

Only a few days after living together, I was at a daylong meeting, and I got home tired and hungry. I walked into the kitchen and opened the cupboard for a coffee mug. And my coffee mugs were not there. And then I opened THE silverware drawer. And the silverware was nowhere to be seen. And then tried to find a bowl, and the coffee mugs were where the bowls had been.

FullSizeRenderNothing was where it was supposed to be. And I made mention of that fact to my spouse, who quickly reminded me of what I had said about it being OUR house.

And that’s when I got, in a very real way, that as much as I was madly in love, marriage was going to be a whole lot different than living alone. It was going to be wonderful and exhilarating and fulfilling, and it was also going to mean I couldn’t find a thing in my kitchen.

I think about weddings and love and the marriage that comes after the wedding every time I hear this passage. Most of us have been to a wedding where these verses, “Love is patient…love is kind…” are read. And they’re very nice, very pretty words about love.

The problem is, they weren’t written for a wedding. In fact, I think if most would-be newlyweds knew where these words came from, they might be a little reluctant to use them in their wedding. Because, far from advice to new couples, this was Paul’s letter to the church in Cornith, and he was telling a bunch of church people to stop fighting with each other.

This isn’t about romance at all…it’s about churches behaving badly. And that’s probably not the vibe you are looking for at your wedding.

And yet, there is some good advice there for us all. Corinthians acknowledges the hard truth: to love somebody, or something, means that they are going to challenge your way of thinking. They are going to shake up the calm and complacency of your life. They are going to make things complicated.

But if it’s really love, romantic or otherwise, they are also going to make things better.

And that’s where the “love is” statements come into play. Listen again, because this isn’t just about how you treat your spouse. It’s also about how you treat your kids, and the rest of your family. It’s about how to treat your neighbors and your fellow church members. It’s about how to treat the world.
“Love is patient, love is kind, love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

I think you can sum these words up in another way too. And that is that if you truly love someone or something, you cannot control them. Love and control are not the same thing. Instead, you can only control your actions and reactions.

We all need that reminder at times. I do too. Just like getting married taught me that my life was in very real ways about more than just my preferences now, even if that just meant where things went in the kitchen, being a part of any relationship or any community teaches us the exact same thing. It’s always bigger than us.

This is especially true in the church, where it is never just about us, but is always first and foremost about God and God’s will for us.

And yet, we are human. And that means sometimes we struggle to love God, and to love one another. And Paul knew that when he wrote this letter to a church in Corinth, and reminded them what love looked like.

Now, I’m aware that me saying all of this on our annual meeting day might have some of you curious right now. “Uh oh, is something wrong?” “Is there some sort of controversy about to come up?”

Not that I know of. (And now would be a good time to say so if you do.)

But this is annual meeting day for a lot of congregations today, and I am praying hard for a lot of churches and colleagues today, because I know that this is going to be a rough afternoon for them.

That’s to be expected, because love, even in the church, is not always easy. And sometimes we love something so much that we try to control it. But that’s not real love. And that’s why even God in God’s perfect love, who could control this world, refuses to do so. God loves us too much for that.

Three and a half years after getting married my kitchen still looks very different from the way I used to set it up. But here’s the strange thing: I’m okay with that. Heidi’s the cook, not me. And she should be the one who sets up that space, because she’s the one who uses it. So now, I’m content to just know where things were moved to, and to eat all the delicious meals that she makes.

When I got married, I gave up some control of my life, right down to my kitchen cabinets. It wasn’t just about me anymore. But what I get in return from loving someone, is so much better, and so much more incredible.

Likewise, when I confessed my faith in Christ as a young adult, I began to let go of some my own ego and my own desires, and I put them back in God’s hands. I said, “God, show me your will for me…and help me to love you enough to follow.”

That’s what each of us does when we confess our faith. And that’s what each of us does when we become members of a church. Together we say that we will put the big choices in God’s hands, and we will love one another and love God enough to patiently try to figure out what God is asking us to do next. Patiently. Kindly. And lovingly. Because love is always worth it.

I’ll close with this. In a few moments, we are going to baptize a new baby, a new child of God. And I cannot tell you what her life will look like 20 years from now. I cannot tell you who she will become, or what she will believe, or how she will live.

We cannot control who she will become. Not even her parents can. And we shouldn’t. Because that’s not love.

But I can tell you this: God already loves her. And today we will literally pour the waters of that love over her.

And so our responsibility as the church is the same responsibility that we have for anyone who walks through those doors, and the same responsibility we have for one another: guide her, help her discern God’s will for her, and remind her that God loves her, and that her greatest calling in life is to love God, and love God’s world.

We will teach her this because God has taught us that love is always, always, worth it. Amen?

Called Into the Waters: Baptism of the Lord, 2016

When I was a senior in high school I was in this European history class, and we spent a lot of time studying the Protestant Reformation. One afternoon the teacher was trying to show us how the Reformation still shaped us all these centuries later, and so he went to the blackboard and he wrote a list of religious traditions and denominations. And then he turned to us, and one by one, he asked each of us to tell him our faith.

There were a lot of Methodists, Catholics, Baptists, and Episcopalians. A few classmates were Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim. And then there was me. Because he got to my row and called on me, and asked me the question: What religion is your family? And of the entire class, I was the only one who couldn’t answer.

I stammered something about my family being a blend of Catholics and Presbyterians and Congregationalists, but the teacher said I had to give one answer. In the end I think I blurted out “Presbyterian” because we had at least gone to that church a few times on Christmas.

I had been waiting for, and dreading, this day for a long time. I grew up in a place where no one I knew didn’t have a faith tradition. Most were Christian, and they talked about their churches, confirmations, youth groups, and more. But I never said very much, because the truth is of all my classmates whose family was not some other faith than Christian, I was the only one I knew who didn’t have a church. I hadn’t even been baptized.

After school that day, I decided I was never going to be in a situation like that ever again. I was going to have an answer the next time someone asked. And so I drove to a church downtown, and talked to the pastor about being baptized. And I figured that by the time I went off to college in the fall, and I had to fill out demographic forms, I’d have this whole religion thing figured out.

That’s how I got baptized. In retrospect, I don’t think that was exactly what Jesus was looking for back when he told his followers to be born again in the waters of baptism. True, my baptism did not come from an empty place – my faith was real – but it was provoked, quite frankly, by my own embarrassment. And when I received the sacrament later that spring I told very few people about it. Most of my friends had been baptized as infants; I didn’t know what kind of ribbing I’d get as a 17 year old who was doing what babies normally do.

IMG_3213So, that’s my baptism story. I’m telling it to you today because we are hearing two other baptism stories too. The first is the story of Jesus’ own baptism, in which he went to John the Baptist and was baptized by him in the Jordan River. Like John said, Jesus did not need this baptism. But Jesus received it anyway, and as he came out of the river, a voice called down from heaven, “this is my son, my beloved…in him I am well pleased”.

Today is the day that the church remembers Jesus’ baptism every year. And in doing so we are asked to remember our own baptisms, because what Jesus began by receiving his own baptism is what we too are called to receive. All of us who would follow Christ are called to follow the leader into these baptismal waters together.

And today we also tell another story too, that of Lydia. As you know, whenever our church school starts a new unit, I talk about the story in the sermon. And Lydia, coincidentally, is also a compelling story about baptism.

Lydia isn’t a story we tell much in church, which is too bad. Not only is she an example of a powerful woman in Scripture, she is also an example of a person hearing the call to follow Jesus, and responding with an open heart.

The Apostle Paul and his cohort came to Turkey and preached the Gospel, and Lydia heard it and was the first one baptized. Some say that Lydia was the first convert to Christianity in all of Europe.

That’s noteworthy for many reasons, not the least of which is that she was a woman who made this decision for herself. Lydia was in a unique position as a woman who had somehow garnered enough independence that she could make that choice, and she could then even invite these men into her home, something most women would never have been allowed to do.

Lydia had made a living for herself as a merchant who sold purple fabric. And from what little we know we can assume that she was doing well. She had her own money, she had independence, and unlike many women of the era, she had the power to decide who she would follow. She was like a Beyonce song; she was the very definition of an “Independent Woman”.

And so that makes it all the more incredible that she, and she alone, made the decision to be baptized by Paul. She had what she needed, but she still responded to the Gospel in a powerful way. By being the first to step forward and say “this is who I want to follow…baptize me” she became a leader of the growing Christian community. Orthodox Churches have even come to call her the “Equal to the Apostles”. That’s pretty high praise when you think about it.

Lydia’s baptism reminds us that from the very beginning the Gospel has not been restricted to anyone, or withheld from anyone. It’s always been for everyone who has ears to hear it. And the same is true of baptism. It’s there for anyone who wants to share in the sacrament. Even if they are a woman 2000 year ago. And even if they are a 17 year old who is embarrassed in history class.

The truth is that whatever brings us to the baptismal font, no matter whether we were brought there as infants by our parents, or whether we bring ourselves there as adults, the sacrament is the same. And the journey does not end in the waters of baptism. Instead, in those waters we are claimed. We are called God’s own. And we are come to know who we truly are, and whose we truly are.

That’s worth repeating. We learn in baptism whose we are. When Jesus was baptized, God claimed him as he came up from the waters. And when Lydia was baptized, despite all she had accomplished in her life, she truly learned whose she was.

And when I was baptized, even with intentions that weren’t quite right, I was set on a path that has continued to teach me who and whose I am all these years later. And the same is true for every child we bring to this font. Even then, even long before they can understand why we are putting water on their heads, God is claiming them, and we are proclaiming that they are God’s beloved.

In the early church, those who wished to be baptized spent Lent preparing for that baptism. And then, on the night before Easter, at the Easter Vigil, they were baptize and were welcomed into the congregation as full members. That period of preparing was called the catechumenate, and it was a time of learning and getting ready to respond to the Gospel message.

This year Lent begins on February 10th; that’s just around the corner. And this Lent I would like to take a page from the early church. Many of you, particularly many of you who are around my age or younger, grew up in a time when church was optional, and baptism was too. That’s okay. I know what that feels like. And I know what it’s like to wonder what it will feel like to be baptized when all you’ve ever seen are children at the font.

And so this Lent I want to offer a new opportunity for those of you who are interested in baptism, but aren’t sure how to start preparing for it. So, if you are an adult or an older youth who has not been baptized, I’d love for you to join us on this journey by coming to a class each Sunday in Lent, and exploring what baptism might mean for you. And at the end, we will celebrate the baptisms of those of you who would like to receive the sacrament on the evening before Easter, in the tradition of the ancient church.

And, if you have already been baptized, you are not excluded. We do not re-baptize people in the church. Once is sufficient for God’s grace. But, if you would like to take the step of re-affirming your baptism I’d love for you to join us as well. In a way, this formation process will be a little like an adult confirmation class that will end with you renewing your baptismal vows during the Easter vigil and claiming it as your own. It’s a chance to go a little deeper this Lent.

You do not need to make your decision now, but I invite you to open your heart to how God might be speaking to you. Are you being called to even consider baptism? Are you at a place in your life where reaffirming your baptism would have spiritual meaning? Are you at least curious? If God’s love is somehow nudging you right now in your heart, listen to what it is telling you. And join us.

Baptized or not, you are God’s beloved. That’s already true. You are God’s own. The choice you are left with is how to respond to that great love. Like Lydia, at least go hear what the Gospel has to say to you. Because like her, you can make a good life even better. Amen?

Stumbling Blocks and Stepping Stones

The following was preached on Sunday, September 27, 2015 at the Congregational Church in Exeter.

Mark 9:38-42
9:38 John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”

9:39 But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.

9:40 Whoever is not against us is for us.

9:41 For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.

9:42 “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.
In seminary we were taught to never preach a sermon that didn’t give the people who heard it reason to hope. In preaching classes we would preach, and then we would subject ourselves to a sort of “brutal grace” in which our classmates and professors would all tell us what we could have done better. The one question that seemed to come up the most was, “But what hope will people take from that sermon?”

What’s true of young seminarians is also true of just about all of us. We sometimes struggle to find, and talk about, hope. And when people do talk about it, it sometimes sounds a bit disingenuous. It becomes the stuff of commercial sound bites and political campaigns. Buy this and you’ll be a better person, or vote for me and you’ll have a better country.

And so it sometimes sounds naive to talk about hope. We probably talk more about false hope on a daily basis than we do about hope, and that’s sad. But maybe we do that because along the way we have had too many experiences of putting our hope in the wrong places and we are all a little more streetwise for it. We start to believe more in the inevitability of everything going wrong than we do in hope. And gradually, we become people of fear.

Today’s Scripture text puts, quite literally, the fear of God into us. And yet, at it’s heart, I believe it’s one about hope.

Jesus is teaching the disciples and he says something that has always struck me with fear: “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.”

That’s a frightening visual. Have you ever seen a millstone? They are huge and heavy, and no one could help but sink if they had it around their necks. And yet, Jesus tells us that that would be better than what would happen if we put a stumbling block before a child.

Now, it’s never said explicitly that he is talking about children there. In face, he may well have been talking about all believers, but I love the idea that maybe Jesus was talking about children. This was, after all, the same Jesus who told his disciples to let the little children come onto him, something so remarkable for a time when children were treated as little more than property.

And it’s fitting for today too. Because every time we baptize a child in this church it’s a tremendously happy occasion, and our joy today is literally doubled as we baptize twins. Today their parents are making vows to raise them in this faith, but we also once again make the vows as a congregation to help them do just that. They become, in a very real way, our spiritual responsibility.

And so, that line from Jesus might be hitting a little close to home right now. Because the hard truth is this: at some time or another, with these children or with others, we are all going to take our turns at being stumbling blocks.

We won’t mean to, of course. But we will indeed mess up. Every parent does. Every grandparent does. And every loving adult in a child’s life does at one time or another. We use harsher words than we mean to. We make light of something that is important. Or we fail to make time when it’s needed the most.

I remember when I missed up like that once. Earlier in my ministry I was working with a young child who had been through a series of foster homes and had lived through trauma and losses of trust that no child should. And he kept trying to use my computer while we were supposed to be working on something else. I was trying to redirect him but he kept asking me for the password. And finally, without really thinking, I told what I thought was a little white lie, meant to divert his attention away from the computer and back to the task at hand. I said I didn’t know the password.

And that was fine. For a while. Until he saw me log in. And he looked at me, and I could see how upset he was, and he said “you lied to me!” And I knew that he had been lied to so many other times in his life, and I had just become one more adult who did the same to him. And I felt like that millstone that Jesus talked about had landed right on top of me.

He forgave me. But I never forgot that. And I came to understand that messing up was inevitable. We are all going to do it. But in the end, what matters most is that we never destroy a child’s hope. Because when we do that, that’s when Jesus says it would be better for the millstone to be around our necks.

Now, for most of us here, more mainline and progressive Christians, that might be hard to hear. We don’t really talk about any kind of divine punishment or “hell” in our tradition. And when we do it’s not a lake of fire like you may hear about in other churches. Instead, hell is the absence of God. It is the absence of hope. And in in so many ways, that’s the worst sort of hell imaginable. And I often wonder whether hell isn’t as much a place of this world as it is of the next. Because far too many people live without hope. It’s like a millstone around their necks.

And so often that millstone weighs so heavily around us that we can’t help but let it get in the way. And we teach our children that hope is indeed absent. We don’t think that’s what we’re doing. We think we are teaching them to be tough. We talk about the real world. But so often we cross that line, and teach them to be cynical and jaded way too early.

IMG_2511We take their hope away. We become stumbling blocks on their paths. We take away what they think is possible. And in doing so we shape what they believe is possible and impossible in their future, just a little at a time. And we make the world just a little less bright both for them and for us.

And so I think about those words from seminary; “Never preach a sermon that leaves people without hope”, and I realize that the same could be said for all of us, for the ways each of us preaches the sermon of our lives, especially to the young people around us: never do anything that takes hope away from them.

The biggest mistakes we make are the ones that take hope away from the young. And I don’t just mean in our daily lives, and in our own interactions with young people. I mean in all of our lives.

Look, for instance, at what we are doing to our very planet. Look at the ways generations have used it unwisely, and with thought only for themselves. And look at what we are preparing to hand over to the ones who will follow us. Will they receive this world with gratitude and hope? Or with fear, and resignation?

I hope it’s the former. I hope that they will hope in a better future. And I hope that they will live as people of hope.

But hope is more than just wishful thinking. Hope is a form of action. And we must hope a better future into being for the ones who shall inherit the earth. Because the children of today are the keepers of the promises and possibilities that will shape our lives.

And so we, you and I, must also become people of hope. We must become not stumbling blocks but stepping stones. We must become teachers of hope. Because if we want these children to live in hope, then we must become ever-present examples of hopeful people.

We can become the biggest cheerleaders to our young people. We can become the ones who encourage them to do the things that are hard. We can be consistent in our encouragement, and our prayers for them. We can be loving and honest, even on our hardest days. And we can make this world the sort of place that they will inherit with hope, and not fear. And we can start today.

Because today we are making hopeful promises. We are telling the two children we are baptizing today, by this action that they are too young to understand, that there is hope in Christ. We are telling them that even though they don’t yet know what it will look like, there are lives ahead of them that are worth putting their hopes in, because they will be filled with the hope of Christ and because we cannot yet know how good that will be. And we are telling them, as Christ’s people, as the ones who have been claimed by God, that we will work to build a world for them that is full of hope.

That is what baptism is about. It’s God’s claim of hope on our lives. That is what those waters symbolize today for our newest brother and sister in Christ. And that’s what our baptisms symbolize in all of us.

Before I came here, I lived in the mountains of Vermont. And I learned something watching the rivers there. I learned about how slowly, over hundreds of years, water can wear away stone, carry it out to sea, and form a new landscape.

That’s even true for millstones. As big and cumbersome as they are, in the end they are no match for relentless waters. And what better water to wash them away, then the waters of baptism. The waters of hope. They are washing over me, and they are washing over you. And they are taking away the stumbling blocks, renewing us and giving us hope. And it’s that hope that we can give to the next generation. Amen?

Magnify: A Sermon on Baptismal Promises for May 31, 2015

We usually hear the story of Mary around Christmastime. On the third Sunday in Advent we read about how the angel Gabriel came to Mary and gave her the surprise of her life. She was pregnant, and not by the guy to whom she was engaged. And she asks the angel, “How did that happen? That’s impossible!” But Gabriel just replies, “nothing is impossible with God.”

Mary goes from there to visit her cousin Elizabeth, a woman who was not supposed to be able to be pregnant, and yet who was about to give birth to a baby who would grow to be John the Baptist. And when Mary enters the house John leaps for joy in Elizabeth’s womb. And when she tells Mary that, Mary responds with what we’ve come to know as the Magnificat: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.”

An icon from the Taize community.

An icon from the Taize community.

And now, here we are, in the end of May, reading what may sounds a lot like a Christmas story. And it may feel out of place. But in truth, this story comes up twice a year in our lectionary, once near Christmastime, and once in late spring, right about seven months before Jesus was born, and about the time when Mary would have been figuring out that something was up. And so today, on the day when we in the church remember the Visitation, we read the Magnificat again.

That word “Magnificat” is Latin and it literally means “my soul magnifies”. And when Mary, a woman who was not wealthy or powerful or likely to be chosen for anything that had to do with royalty, really realizes the importance of what she has been asked to do, those are the first words she says: my soul magnifies the Lord. That’s her first response.

It’s sort of an odd turn of phrase in today’s language, though. When you think of what it means to “magnify” something, what do you picture? I can’t help it but I always go straight to a magnifying glass, like the kind I played around with as a kid. Except I wonder what it means to magnify the Lord. Because as a kid I’d use a magnifying glass to make something that was small look bigger. Hold a magnifying glass over tiny writing and suddenly it is readable. Or look at grains of sand through it, and all of a sudden you could see different colors. The seemingly insignificant became bold.

And that’s wonderful, but God’s problem is not that God is too small. God is immense beyond our wildest imaginations, and we only need to open all our senses up to know that God is all around us. But sometimes that is difficult. Sometimes for as much as we want to see and feel and hear evidence of God’s love, we just can’t. And that’s when we look for signs of God around us. And, often, we find them in others.

That has often happened to me. Times in my life where I have felt lost or uncertain or wrestled with doubt, I was able to look to other people and see God’s love in them. It was life changing. And it taught me that the way we live magnifies the Lord, not just for ourselves, but for others.

And so, that’s when the magnifying glass comes in handy. Not because God needs to be made bigger, but because our attention to, and understanding of, God does. We are the ones who need the magnification that the glass provides, not God. We need help to refocus, and to see things in their proper light. Because it is by looking at people like Mary, and what she did, that we are able to understand more about God, and about God’s love for us.

Mary said “my soul magnifies the Lord”, and that’s really true. Mary becomes a magnifying glass through which our focus is changed, and God becomes clearer to us. By magnifying the Lord, Mary teaches us what it means to be loved by God, and chosen by God to do surprising and amazing things.

And Mary teaches us that it’s not enough to just see God more clearly. Because God also requires of us action. Because just as Mary had to be an active participant in the story of Jesus’ birth, we too have to be active participants in helping to bring Christ’s light into this world.

We can make the choice to magnify God in this way with out lives. But in order to do so, we have to look at ourselves, and see what kind of lens we are. Have we covered ourselves so that the light of God cannot penetrate us? Have we shut our souls so that the warmth of God’s love is never reflected to others?

Or, have we cleared off the lenses of our life, and are we letting God’s light shine through them? Have we chosen to live our lives as magnifiers of God’s love?

I ask you those questions today because I am going to ask you some other questions later in the service. After the sermon, and the hymn, we are going to be baptizing our newest brother in Christ. Gavin’s parents are going to bring him forward, and they are going to make promises about raising him in the faith, and teaching him about God. And Gavin’s godparents will also do the same thing. But it won’t stop there.

And that’s because we, the gathered congregation, are asked to make promises too. Because baptism is also about community. It’s about a congregation saying, “yes, we will love this child and teach him and help him to grow in love for God”. Those are serious promises. And they are promises that ask you to live your life in a way that will magnify God for Gavin as he grows up in this place.

And that’s true not just for Gavin, but for every child and young person who comes through our doors. The job that each of us has, not just the parents, is to help to teach the children and youth in our community what it is to be a Christian, and what it means to live your life in service to something greater than yourself.

Parents are such an important part of that. Church community is so important, but children learn even more about faith at home than they do at church, because they are with their parents so much of the time. And how their parents live out their own faith, how they magnify God, will shape their childrens’ spiritual lives for as long as they live. The choices they make about faith will never be forgotten.

But parents can’t do it alone. I recently read an article about children and youth in church that told me something I’d never known. It said that a child or a youth needs at least five interested adults in their church community in order for them to really connect with their faith and feel a part of the church.

Think about that for a moment. Five adults. So maybe one could be me, and another could be Pastor Cat. I hope we are both that for our youth. But what about those next three or more? Who will they be? A Sunday school teacher? Their handbell or choir director? A volunteer youth group leader? Maybe an adult who always takes the time to ask about their week? Or the one who sleeps on the hard vestry floor overnight when there is a lock-in, or cooks breakfast the next morning?

Who will be the adults who will magnify the holy for the next generation? Will you be one of them?

You don’t need any special training to do that. You don’t need a seminary degree, or one in early childhood education. And you don’t need to be versed in the latest music or trends. You simply need to care about the children and youth in our church enough to embrace what it means to be an intergenerational church, and to live your life as a magnifying glass for God’s love.

When people ask me what our goal is here with our children and youth, and what we want them to learn, I think they expect a list of things. Learn the Lord’s prayer, learn about the Bible, learn the stories of Jesus by heart.

None of that is a bad idea. I hope that by the time our youth graduate from high school they will know all that and more.

But more importantly than that, these are the two things I hope the young people in our church learn first: 1) That God loves them, and 2) That we love them too. If they take nothing else away from a children’s sermon or a Sunday school lesson, I hope it’s that. The rest will come in due time, but it will only stick if they know those two other things first.

That is something to remember on baptism days especially. Because there is a long line of children that have been brought up to this same baptismal font, including some of you decades ago who still sit in these same pews. People who are not still with us made promises to them too. And because of that, they sit here today, and they sit in other churches elsewhere, ready to make promises to another. There’s real beauty in that.

And today we will join our promises with them, and we make the promises again with another beloved child of God. We make the promises to support Gavin and his family. And in a real way we tell Gavin that we already love him, and that God loved him first and will love him all his days, and even beyond. That is the promise of the font, and it is one that we all can magnify in our lives together. Amen.

Joy in a One Star World: Sermon for October 19, 2014

Philippians 4:4-9

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

One of the wonderful and yet challenging things about the internet age is that anyone can share an opinion online. That can sometimes be wonderful. We get to hear a lot of new perspectives that way. But, sometimes, there is a lot of perhaps less-than-helpful stuff to wade through too.

A good example of that to me are online reviews. There are a lot of online review sites where you can go and rate things and experiences, usually by doing something like leaving one to five stars. Maybe you’ve heard of a site called Yelp? It’s a site where if you go to a restaurant you can then go there and rate it with, say, “four stars…pretty good”. Or “one star…I got food poisoning”.

I’ll admit, I read those reviews before I go to a new restaurant. But, slowly, a whole lot of other things have started to be reviewed. Like churches. We don’t have any reviews…I checked, but Old South Church in Boston, a church that has existed over 300 years and whose history is tied up in our very country’s has some. In fact, Old South, got a one star review recently. The reason why? A would-be-bride, who was not a church member or attendee, couldn’t have her wedding on the Saturday she wanted. Sorry, Old South…you get one star.

I like reading about other places, like the Grand Canyon, which also has Yelp reviews, including this one star review: “As amazing as the views are, it’s really kind of boring. Every 500ft a new vantage point of the same thing: a really big hole in the ground.”

I mean, technically, I guess that’s true. Sorry, God…good try, but not your best work. One star for the Grand Canyon.

10403016_827092474010019_3062638086161016394_nBut, what does this have to do with this 2000 year old letter written by the apostle Paul to a church he had visited? I was thinking about one star reviews while reading this week’s passage from the Letter to the Philippians. And it’s not because I’m about to give it one star, don’t worry. But it reminded me of those Yelp reviews because I believe it speaks to a tendency that exists even to this day: the tendency to choose the negative over the positive. The tendency to choose complaining and fear over grace and abundance and joy. Or, put simply, the tendency to be a one star voice.

Paul tells the church, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice…Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God…(and) whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

In other words, you can be a one star voice. You can choose to be a voice of negativity, or doom and gloom. You can complain constantly without trying to change anything.

Or, if you really believe this Gospel stuff, you can choose another way.

That’s not easy. How often do we not say what is going right? How often do we focus on what is wrong? How often do we choose to magnify what we don’t like, and not lift up what is going right? How often do we choose to be voices that break others down instead of building them up? And how often do we just stand by and not say a thing as we watch someone do that to others?

It’s probably more than we realize. And what we don’t realize is that it doesn’t just impact us. It slowly infects the ones who are gathered around us. And negativity attracts more negativity until all that is left is the negative. So, there is a question for us to ask ourselves as individuals, and also one every church should periodically ask itself: With all the choices people can make with what to do with their time and resources these days, who would want to be a part of something negative? And how much more attractive are we when we are positive? And how much more powerful is our witness to Christ when we rejoice?

So, about right now you might be thinking, well, that’s all well and good, but it’s naive. I mean, someone has to play devil’s advocate. Someone needs to think of the worst case scenario. Someone has to snap us back into reality. You preacher types like Paul, you just don’t get the way the real world works.

Except, Paul did get it. He got it more than we realize. When Paul wrote this letter, this exhortation to a church to “rejoice” and lift up what is good, how do you picture him? At a comfortable desk somewhere? Sitting down with a five year plan that spelled out everything that was about to happen with great confidence and excitement? Relaxing?

Those are fair assumptions. It’s pretty easy to say “rejoice” when things are going well for you. But that’s not what was going on. When Paul wrote this letter about joy, he was in prison. And he was waiting for his sentencing. And he knew it might well be death. He literally was facing losing his life. Nothing was good or comfortable or happy. He was having a one star kind of day.

And yet, he was full of joy. How can that be?

Here’s what I think. I think it’s easy to be a one star voice in this world. It’s simple. It doesn’t take much effort. You can lob your thoughts out like reviews on the internet and you feel better and you don’t really have to do anything constructive after that.

But it is a whole lot harder to rejoice. Why? Because joy is hard.

Now that may sound like an oxymoron. Joy is joy. Shouldn’t joy be easy? I don’t think so. Because I think joy is deeper than that. Joy and happiness are two different things. Happiness is easy, but it’s fleeting. You can find happiness in everything from a stiff drink to a big paycheck. A nice meal to a new car. You can get happy pretty easily. At least for a little while. And you can lose it just a quickly.

But joy. Joy is hard. But it’s also deep. It’s rooted. And it’s the thing that remains in you even when everything else around you is crumbling down.

Joy was there that day with Paul in that prison cell. And that wasn’t an accident. It was there because Paul had chosen the places where he would put his trust and his faith. And they weren’t in the fleeting things of this world. They weren’t in the things we can hold on to or lose. They were solely in this: God’s love, and Christ’s grace. That’s where his heart was. And so even when everything else in the world was taken away from him, no one could touch his joy.

And so, when he tells us to rejoice, I think he knows what he is talking about. And I think it gives us a pretty good reason to do the hard work of starting to think about how we rejoice, both as individuals and together, and to look at what we lift up as worthy of rejoicing about.

It just so happens that today is an easy day to be happy. We are baptizing a beautiful baby and starting her on her journey of faith. And we are also welcoming eleven new members to our church. I’m happy. I’m thrilled. And, if I might be so bold, I am joyful. I am rejoicing. And I hope you all will join me in that rejoicing.

But, before you do, I want to offer this caution: Choose joy carefully. Because joy isn’t cheap.

Because joy requires something of us. It requires us to constantly re-root ourselves in our faith. It requires us to part and to have a relationship with God. It requires us to stop putting our faith in earthly things and to let go and trust the Holy Spirit. And it requires us, as the church covenant we are going to recite together as we welcome new members states, to “hold fast” to God and to Jesus Christ. Nothing else.

Joy requires faith. And faith is not easy or comfortable sometimes. And, honestly, you can choose happiness instead, and it will come at a much cheaper price.

But here’s the thing: joy trumps happiness every single time.

Remember at the beginning when I was talking about Yelp and that one star review for Old South Church? I’ll let you in on a secret that the bride who posted it probably doesn’t know: They don’t care. (By the way, I’m pretty sure that if the Grand Canyon doesn’t care either, by the way.)

How do I know this? Because neither a church nor creation draw their value from what is easily given or taken away. And, if we are functioning at our best as children of God, neither do we. Instead, we draw our meaning, we draw our joy, not from what we are or what we have or by what others say about us, but instead from whose we are. And the more we remember that God alone is both the source and focus of our rejoicing, the more we find that we can never again settle for anything less than to rejoice.

And so, let’s turn our hearts to the next part of our worship today, the part when we respond to the Word of God. And let’s welcome those eleven new members. Let’s baptize that beautiful baby and let’s make our promises as a congregation to her. Let’s celebrate.

But first, ask yourself this: as we celebrate are you going to be happy? Or are you going to rejoice? I hope it’s always the latter. Because you are a beloved child of God, and you deserve nothing less. Amen.

Safely through the Waters: A Baptismal Sermon for September 21, 2014

Exodus 14:19-31
14:19 The angel of God who was going before the Israelite army moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from in front of them and took its place behind them.

14:20 It came between the army of Egypt and the army of Israel. And so the cloud was there with the darkness, and it lit up the night; one did not come near the other all night.

14:21 Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided.

14:22 The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.

14:23 The Egyptians pursued, and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and chariot drivers.

14:24 At the morning watch the LORD in the pillar of fire and cloud looked down upon the Egyptian army, and threw the Egyptian army into panic.

14:25 He clogged their chariot wheels so that they turned with difficulty. The Egyptians said, “Let us flee from the Israelites, for the LORD is fighting for them against Egypt.”

14:26 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea, so that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and chariot drivers.”

14:27 So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at dawn the sea returned to its normal depth. As the Egyptians fled before it, the LORD tossed the Egyptians into the sea.

14:28 The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not one of them remained.

14:29 But the Israelites walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.

14:30 Thus the LORD saved Israel that day from the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore.

14:31 Israel saw the great work that the LORD did against the Egyptians. So the people feared the LORD and believed in the LORD and in his servant Moses.

How many of you have ever seen the movie “The Ten Commandments”? The one with Charlton Heston? It has been years since I have seen it, but I watched a short piece of it this week in order to prepare for this sermon, so if you haven’t seen it or it’s been a long time, don’t worry…I’ll remind you.

Charlton Heston, Moses, is leading the people out of Egypt and to the promised land. And over the last few weeks we’ve heard some of this same story from Exodus. Moses speaks to the Burning Bush, Moses goes and tells Pharaoh “let my people go”, the plagues come, Pharaoh reluctantly agrees, and Moses gets the people ready to move. And so they start on their journey. But they don’t get very far before Pharaoh changes his mind. And Pharaoh and his army take off after Moses and the Israelites.

Finally they all find themselves on the shore of the Red Sea. And water is in front of them, and Pharaoh and his army are behind them, and things look bad. A man yells out to Moses, “Why did you bring us out here to die in the wilderness? Just to drown in the sea?”

How it probably didn't happen...

How it probably didn’t happen…

Moses steps up and yells, “The Lord of hosts will do battle for us!” And he turns and stretches out his arms and shouts, “Behold God’s mighty hand!” And suddenly there are these really bad 1950’s special effects and the waters peel back on both sides and Moses and the people can see clear across to the other shore. They all look amazed and start shouting “it’s a miracle” and they run through the waters before they close back up again and save them from Pharaoh’s army.

So, that’s the way it happens in the movie. But I’ve always believed that the book is better than the movie. And I think a big part of why books are better than the movies is that they go deeper, they’re more complex, and they tell the story a whole lot better.

The Bible is no exception. The passage we read today from Exodus tells us about a people who are hopeful enough to start out on a journey, but realistic enough to be scared. They have left behind all the knew, which wasn’t good, but was a whole lot better than this new reality where they are in the wilderness and facing certain death. So it’s understandable that they were starting to wonder why they ever followed this Moses guy anyway.

I’m sure that if I were there, I’d be doubting all of this too. And I’d be wondering whether it might be better to give up hope and to just go back to what I’d always known. Because hope can be dangerous sometimes. It can put us in situations we never dreamed of, and it can make us wonder why we ever dared to think we could do something new.

That’s what was happening that day as they stood on the banks of the water. The loss of hope, the triumph of doubt, the fear. They were all there.

In the movie version, that all only lasts a few seconds. Moses turns around and parts the waters and it is so breathtakingly awesome that doubt vanishes just like that. And the people crossed over. And they knew, for at least a little while anyway, that God was with them. How could they doubt after seeing something like that?

But have you ever wondered whether that was how it really happened?

Rabbis have a tradition of Scripture study called “Midrash”. It’s a way of taking a particular story from the Biblical text and thinking about and wondering over the meaning, including those things that are left unspoken. And there’s this wonderful tradition about this text which, in my mind at least, is ten times better than the movie.

In this interpretation, there is a man who is mentioned in the Book of Exodus who is named “Nahshon”. And when Moses calls on God to part the Red Sea, as this version of the story goes, it doesn’t automatically part. Instead, everyone stands there wondering why nothing is happening. But then, Nahshon steps out into the water. First one step. Then another. The water gets up to his ankles, up to his knees, up to his hips and shoulders. And finally, when it is up to his nose, the water finally parts.

I like that telling of the story. Because I believe that God could have parted those waters in one fell swoop, and that the Israelites could have seen the shore and known that they were going to be safe from the get go. But I believe that sometimes God asks us to show a little bit of faith, and a little bit of commitment.

Sometimes God wants us to be a Nahshon and so God lets us get nose-deep in the waters. And that’s not because God is toying with us, or being sadistic. That’s because God is preparing us for something better. God is using our faith and our hope to shape us, and to teach us that our actions, our responses, matter too.

The name “Naschon” is sometimes used to mean “an initiator”. That’s what he did that day. He took the initiative and started the crossing. And there are some who push this text even further and say that even after he got nose-deep, and even after the sea started to part, it was a gradual process. The people took one step, and a little more of the sea parted. And then another, and it parted more. And another, and another, trusting that if they just took the next right step, God would show them the next place after that. And eventually, God would lead them to dry ground.

When you think about it, that’s what the journey of faith is like. We don’t get to see the end. We don’t get to see dry land on our first step. But sometimes we get to see just enough to see the next right step. And we step out in faith believing that God won’t leave us stranded, and that the waters will not overpower us. We step out believing that God will make a way.

Today in worship we are baptizing a child we know. And this church knows her story, and her parents have given me permission to say a little about it here today.

On the day this child was born, the parents she would come to know weren’t there. Neither were her brothers and sisters. She had not yet met this family. But God was there. And God was with her in the deep waters, carrying her safely towards the shore.

One day when she was 16 months old that child wound up here in Exeter, at a new home, and everyone thought it would only be for a little while. This was a foster care placement, and they believed that one day it would be time to bless her on the rest of her journey and send her onward.

They took that first step, not just her foster parents, but the whole family together, to welcome a child into their home and to love her. But step by step, day by day, it became clear what God was calling them to do next. And when it became clear that this child wasn’t going anywhere, they took that next step out in faith too. And what God showed us once through Moses, another adoptee, God is showing us now through her. God parted the waters, and God made a way.

And so, today her parents bring their daughter, and her brothers and sisters bring their sister, to the water. They are bringing her to the font. And today as a congregation we baptize her.
And in baptism this is what we are saying: this child belongs to God, and she has all the days of her life. And in baptism she is entrusted to her family, and to all of us now, to help her to learn how to step out in faith until she can do it for herself.

We are going to teach her how to be a Naschon. We are going to teach her how to be an initiator. We are going to teach her how to turn to God even when hope seems foolish, and to trust that the same God who brought her family together, will continue to carry her through the waters. We are going to teach her to step out in faith. And she is going to teach us too.

And so in the waters of baptism today we are responding to what God has already initiated, and we are wading in, and saying we will walk with her on this journey. And so now, let’s gather at the edge of the water. And let’s wade in together. Because I truly believe that if we make a start, God will make a way. Moses and Naschon and and this beloved child we baptize today have taught us that much. Amen.