Pastors and Teachers: Sermon for the Installation of the Rev. Heidi Carrington Heath

The following was preached on Sunday, March 13, 2016 for the Installation of the Rev. Heidi Carrington Heath as the Associate Pastor of First Parish Church in Derry, New Hampshire:

Installations are oddly named events.

I know this has all been said before, but it bears repeating. We think of “installation” and we think about setting up washing machines or installing a piece of software or going to an art installation. We don’t think about something having to do with an active human being. Even other professions use words like “inauguration” to talk about the start of a new position.

But here in the church world we have stuck to “installation”. No one is exactly sure why, but that’s okay. The good news about church installations, though, is that unlike installing your dishwasher or a new computer program, this is a pretty exciting occasion.

Representatives from all over the Rockingham Association and the greater UCC are here. Heidi’s friends have come to Derry today. The choir is singing special pieces, and there’s a big reception down in the fellowship hall afterwards. We are making a pretty big deal about this installation of Heidi Carrington Heath.

And that’s why I think it’s so important that we remember that today is not about Heidi. Not really, anyway.

165959_10154423704977538_3898712089897527048_nSome of you were at Heidi’s ordination back in December. That was an amazing day, full of celebration. And that day was not just about Heidi either, but it definitely was about God’s call on her. She made ordination vows, and we laid on hands and prayed for her. That day was about who God has called Heidi to be.

But today is about First Parish Church of East Derry, and the chapter of ministry that God is now calling you into together. And that’s why the words we read from Ephesians are so important this morning. Paul writes to the Ephesians that, “the gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.”

You have called Heidi to be a “pastor and teacher” of this congregation. She has been called to the ministry by God, and she has been trained and equipped to do the work that is set before her. But she is not called into this ministry alone. Every one of you who is a member of this congregation is being called into this ministry too.

That is because we are all called to specific forms of ministry by the very fact that we have been baptized into Christ’s body. The calling of pastors and teachers is specific, but it is not any more valuable than any other calling. And in a congregation, if the pastors are the only ones who are living into their call to ministry, that is not sustainable. Each of you has a calling, and by being here today, you are saying you are going to listen to that calling so that Heidi can effectively live into hers as a pastor and teacher of this church.

And that’s why this reminder from Paul is so important here. Listen to what he tells the church in Ephesus about there callings: “I therefore…beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

Unless you are willing to live into that calling together, there is no point going forward in this installation. Unless you are willing to, as Paul says, “live a life worth of the calling” and work together to make this a place of exceptional ministry, you cannot hope to have a vibrant ministry here.

You have stepped out in faith to call Heidi. You have listened for the voice of God and, after discernment, you have created a new associate pastor position. That means that you have helped to create this ministry, and by installing Heidi into this position you are not simply turning it over. You are saying that you will continue to live into your own calling to ministry, and that you will serve with her. You are taking these installation vows alongside of her.

And so, in that spirit, I want to offer a few reminders that I offer at every installation I’m asked to preach at. First, a reminder that Heidi has been called to ministry here. She has not been hired, and she is not your employee. She has been brought by God to this ministry, and you have affirmed that call.

That means that, unlike an employee, sometimes she is going to say and do things that challenge you, or that push you out of your comfort zones. That’s her job. Know that she will never do those things to be unkind or difficult. She will only do them because she truly believes she is doing what God asks of her.

Also remember that just because she is not an employee it doesn’t mean that she is any less invested in her work. Trust me, I live with her. Heidi works hard for you because she is already living into this covenant with you.

That also means that, like every clergy person I know, Heidi is going to overwork at times. And so, if you want to keep her running at her best, make her practice self-care. Make her take time off. Make her do continuing education and professional development. Make her take the time and space she needs to be refreshed so that she can serve you creatively.

Next, remember that while she is “installed” she is different than other things that get installed. She is not a laundry machine or dish washer that you load up, flip on, and walk away from while she does all the work.

Nor is she a software program or an app that has been installed at the church and which will now solve all your problems. Nor is she a piece of artwork whose job it is to remain passively in its place.

Heidi is a pastor and teacher. She is one your pastors and teachers. And the single greatest predictor of great she will be at that role is this: how you choose to minister with her, and how you live into your own calls to ministry.

And so, as you get ready to start this new chapter of ministry together, I have one piece of advice that I hope you’ll take to heart. And that’s this: pray. Pray for Heidi. Pray for all who serve your church. Pray for your church itself.

I don’t say this lightly. I’m not saying just do it today, or whenever you think of it. I’m asking you to commit to regularly, even daily, praying for your clergy and for this congregation. Pray that God would bless your clergy with insight and faithfulness. Pray that your church would proclaim the Gospel and serve the world. But most of all, pray that God would make clear to you your own call to ministry in this place, and that God would give you the ability to live into that calling every day.

God has great things in store for you, First Parish. Today is just a reminder of that fact. And as you turn the page on that new chapter, I pray that you would keep writing this story with Heidi, and with one another. It’s going to be an incredible one; I just know it. Amen.

Why are we here?: Sermon for January 18, 2015

So, I’m going to ask you a question that is going to sound better suited for a college philosophy course than worship: Why are you here?

I don’t mean in the big, existential sense of why are you alive, or here on earth, or why does any of this exist. I mean in a very simply sense: why are you here at church this morning?

After all, you have other options, you know. You could be home, sleeping in right now. You could be out running errands at the grocery store or doing home repairs. You could be at brunch, sipping coffee and eating Eggs Benedict. You could be in so many places right now other than sitting in the pews at church on a three day weekend. And yet, you are here. Why?

10494762_877906185595314_459548515296640538_nNow, don’t get me wrong…I’m glad you are and no one is asking you to leave. Far from it, because I hope you keep coming. But in this season after Epiphany, this time before Lent when we are still remembering the Light that just came into the world at Christmas, it’s as good a time as any to ask yourself that question: Why am I here?

So, unless choice was taken out of the equation, and your parents brought you here today, take a moment to ask yourself that. Because in an age where no one goes to church simply because “everyone does it” anymore, you choose to come anyway. Something has brought you here today, even if you can’t exactly explain it.

And so I’m going to ask you this question about why you are here a few different ways this morning. But before you answer that, let’s start with the Scriptures.

I normally only preach on one text, but this morning we read two. The first is from the first book of Samuel, and it talks about a young prophet of the same name. He’s been taken to the temple and his life has been dedicated to serving there. And one night it’s growing dark, and he can’t see well, and he starts to fall asleep. And then there’s a voice: “Samuel, Samuel.” He runs to Eli, the priest he works for, but Eli tells him “I didn’t call…go back to bed.” Again, he starts to slip into sleep and hears, “Samuel!” He runs to Eli who tells him, “I didn’t call you this time either.” So he goes back. And then a third time, “Samuel, Samuel.” And this time Eli catches on. And he tells him, if you hear it again, say this, “Speak, God…for your servant is listening.” And God does.

So, that’s the first story. The second comes from the New Testament, and the Gospel of John. In it, Jesus begins to call his disciples. He goes to a man named Philip and he calls to him and says, “follow me”. And he does. And then Philip goes to his friend Nathaniel, and he tells him all about Jesus, and even though Nathaniel doesn’t quite believe it, Philip tells him “come and see”. And he does, and he finds out that everything Philip said was true.

Both stories are about calling. They are about God speaking to people who never expect to be spoken to by God. In Samuel’s case he hears God’s voice directly. In Philip’s he is called directly by Jesus. And in Nathaniel’s, it’s Philip that God uses to call to him.

In the United Church of Christ, the wider church we are a part of, we have a saying. We say, “God is still speaking.” That means that God didn’t just speak to people like Samuel or Philip or thousands of years ago. God speaks to us today. And sometimes our job, as God’s people, is to learn to say, “speak God…for your servant is listening.” And, sometimes, our job is to drop everything when we hear Jesus saying “follow me”. And sometimes, it’s just to repeat God’s call and to tell the ones we love the most, “come and see”.

So this leads me back to the question: Why are you here? First, why are YOU here? We each have our own answer to that question, but I believe each of us is here, in Christian community for a reason. Because just like Samuel, and Philip, and Nathaniel, I believe that God called you. I don’t know how God called you, but I believe God called you.

First, God called you to God’s self. This was not a one time thing. God calls us to God over and over again, and even if we get off the path sometimes, God calls us back to God. You might not hear it the way Samuel did, with a literal voice in the night. You might hear it through the voices of friends. You might hear it in community. You might hear it whispered around you, like a gentle nudge. But however you hear the call, it’s real. And it’s valid. And even if you aren’t so sure what it’s saying, something about it was enough to get you out the door today and here this morning.

And so here’s my next question: Why are you HERE? I don’t just mean here at the Congregational Church in Exeter. I mean here at any church. Because this is the era of “spiritual but not religious”. There are plenty of voices out there telling you that you can connect with God on a hike, or over brunch, or at a party with a bunch of friends.

And I’m not saying that any of those things are false. But I am saying that I don’t think they are enough. Because at the end of the day, the solitary spiritual life is just that: solitary. And I don’t think God calls us out only to leave us alone.

When Christ called Philip, he didn’t leave Philip alone for long. Right away Nathaniel was called too. And then more and more disciples. The church is here today because Christ knew we were better together, and for generations we Christians have discovered the same thing. And something about that appeals to you enough that you are here, in a church.

That’s true for each of us here today. Each of us has come here on our journey, our roads converging together here. And now, as members of this community, we walk the road together. That’s why I am here. That’s why you are here. That’s why each of us is here.

And so here’s the next big question: Why are WE here? Why have we been brought together in this place.

Some of you read in my weekly email on Friday that today we are starting a new, month-long sermon series that will lead us right to the start of Lent by that same name: Why are WE here? And here’s the big question we are asking: What does it mean to be church together?
What we are really asking here is “What’s our purpose? What are we all about?” And to answer that question, sometimes it’s easier to ask the opposite question: What isn’t our purpose?

I have a few thoughts. These are reminders I have to give myself from time to time, because they are easy to default into, but I’ll share them with you because maybe they are helpful. First, the church is not a club. We may have members and membership rolls and a building and all of that, but we aren’t a club. This is a place where we each belong, but remember that this is also a place where anyone who wishes can also belong. There is no exclusivity here.

Second, with all due respect to all the great civic organizations out there, we aren’t one of those either. We can do good works continuously, and we should and must, but at the end of the day if that’s all we do we may as well just pack it in and join together with all the great organizations out there who do good works everyday.

And third, we are not just a place where we are fed, or entertained. Don’t get me wrong. I want us to leave church on Sundays filling spiritually renewed. I want the music to be uplifting, and the sermon to be memorable. But, I want those things to happen because we were worshipping God together. And because we are being prepared so that we can go back into a world that needs people who will lead lives that testify to God’s love.

That’s true of everything we do together. We do not exist for ourselves. We exist for glorifying God, and for loving the world. All the things we do together, worship on Sunday, committee meetings on Wednesday, music rehearsals on Thursday, all of that is important because all of that is part of what it means to be the church, the body of Christ.

And we, you and I and everyone else here, are the church together. Church is not a place we go on Sunday morning. Church is who we are. And we don’t have to be church alone. We are really, truly, better together. And our life together, no matter what comes up, can always be deeply joyful because of that fact.

And so, over the next few weeks, in the course of worship, the most meaningful thing we do together, we will be exploring why we are here. We will be looking at three things that Christ calls us to do together: to learn, to change, and to love. I’m not saying that’s the sum of the Christian life, but those are good places to start. And along the way, I hope you will keep asking yourself the question: Why am I here? And I hope you’ll then ask the bigger question: And what does it mean that I am a part of this “WE” called the Congregational Church in Exeter.

They are big questions, but they are worth asking. And more than anything, they are worth asking together. I’m privileged that my road has intersected with yours, and that we have found each other in this place. And I’m looking forward to asking them together. Amen.

Advent Hope (Or, Why I Quit My PhD Program)

Over the last few years I have written short daily devotionals for each day of Advent and Lent. I enjoyed doing it, but there were times when it felt a bit draining, particularly in the clergy obstacle course that is the season of Advent and Christmas planning.

So this year I am doing something a little different. I am not writing daily posts, but I am committing to blogging. Maybe it will be once a week; maybe more. But, if I miss a day I won’t feel like I’m failing Advent. (Ever feel like you get grades for your liturgical seasons? Just me?)

The sanctuary at The Congregational Church in Exeter. The manger is filled with strips of paper on which the prayers for hope of the congregation have been written.

The sanctuary at The Congregational Church in Exeter. The manger is filled with strips of paper on which the prayers for hope of the congregation have been written.

Today seems as good a day as any to start in Advent because it is a memorable one for me. Thirteen years ago today I was ordained to the ministry of Word and Sacrament. When I knelt in the chapel of Columbia Theological Seminary and my friends and colleagues laid on hands I thought I knew how this journey would go. I was ordained in the Presbyterian Church (USA) to a specific call as a hospital chaplain. I thought I would spend a few years serving as a chaplain, go to graduate school and get a PhD, and then teach in a seminary somewhere. I had hopes, and I was going to work to make those hopes realities.

And for a few years I was on that exact course. I spent hours in a pediatric emergency room responding to the families of children with traumatic injuries. I crammed for the GREs. I earned a second masters degree in systematic theology that would boost my chances of getting into a PhD program. And then, early in 2005, I dropped six PhD applications into the mail and waited.

Here’s the part where you expect me to say I didn’t get in anywhere, and I had to change my hopes. Part of me wishes I had received back rejection letters. But I didn’t. Instead six offers of acceptance came back bringing with them my choice of programs. In the end I picked the one I thought made the most sense and headed off for the ivy tower, ready to join the ranks of the academy. My hopes had been realized.

Except for one thing. I hated academia.

Sure, I’ve never met a PhD student who was thrilled with their life. Graduate work is quiet drudgery. You live in a little apartment while your friends are buying houses. You drink too much coffee and eat too much crummy food. You feel grateful for the meager stipend you are lucky enough to get for being a teaching assistant. And you read. A lot. And you write. A lot. And you try to make your professors happy, but you get a sense that this is going to be a years-long academic gauntlet.

I expected all that. I expected things to be hard, and I was fine with that. But what I didn’t expect was how empty the whole thing would make me feel. I didn’t expect that each class and paper would feel meaningless. I didn’t expect the existential angst that would come from devoting years of my life to a dissertation that would most likely sit in an university library unread. I didn’t expect that I would feel like I was on the sidelines, sitting on the bench, while all my other clergy friends got to play in a game that mattered. And I didn’t expect that I would start to think about how to get through the next 35 years doing something I hated.

It wasn’t until later that I came to realize that, no matter how much we complained, a lot of my classmates actually didn’t hate it that much. I began to realize that they had a legitimate calling to academia. And, more importantly, I did not.

And so, I had to go back to what got me there in the first place. And I realized that becoming a PhD student had little to do with my hopes, and everything to do with my fears.

The reality is that when I was ordained in 2001 the Presbyterian Church (USA) (the tradition in which I was ordained) still prohibited practicing LGBT people from being ordained. (Despite recent news reports to the contrary, this is still the case in many presbyteries.) I had been out since I was 18, a fact that did not change while I was in seminary, and I know my ordination committee was well aware of this fact. (One member pulled me aside to assure me of this.)

And yet, I was never asked whether or not I would abide by the rules as they then stood. It became our little game of chicken. Our own ecclesiastical “don’t ask, don’t tell”.

If I had it to do over today, I might do things differently. But I was 24 when I was approved for ordination, and living in the South. Not even the local United Church of Christ jurisdictions were approving LGBT people for ordination yet. And so, cheered on by professors and well-meaning clergy who assured me I could do more good “inside the system” than outside, I played the game, and I was ordained.

But I knew that there were still things I could not do. I could not pastor a church, because I could not love a congregation the way a pastor must love their church and not be honest with them. Likewise, though I was not yet partnered at the time, I knew in the future that I could not love someone as a partner and ask them in any way to hide who they were in my place of ministry. I knew plenty of clergy who did this, and I saw what it did to them and their families.

And so, even though I loved preaching, even though I loved the parish, I convinced myself that I didn’t belong there. And I instead came up with a new set of hopes; ones revolving around chaplaincy and academia, relatively “safe” places full of LGBT clergy.

But deep down inside I knew it wasn’t my calling. No wonder I was miserable. I had traded in hope for convenience and safety. And hope, real hope, rarely guarantees us either.

I left my PhD program after two and a half years. My only regret is that I didn’t leave earlier. I also left the Presbyterian Church, choosing instead to transfer my standing to the United Church of Christ. And, finally, I went out into the parish, the very place I’d been so terrified to go, but yet the one place I was sure God wanted me.

Along the way I learned something about hope. It’s not about goals or plans or hoping that everything will work out easily and with the least degree of resistance. Instead, it’s about trust. It’s about trusting God enough to believe that God is creating something new and good, and God will make a way for you to do exactly what you are called to do.

And it’s also about knowing that if your hopes aren’t big enough, if they are in any way dictated by fear and not faith, you will end up settling for being miserable.

Thirteen years later, my ministry has taken me to a place I never expected. I’m not at a seminary teaching. I’m also not living with a tacit understanding between self and denomination. And I’m not compromising my hopes anymore.

Instead, I wake up in the morning next to a wife I love dearly. One I will never ask to hide for me. I walk from our home down the street to my study in the church office. I spend my days preaching, writing, praying, talking to parishioners, working for peace and justice, and serving the church and community. But, more than that, I truly believe I spend them (to steal a phrase from the Westminster Catechism) glorifying God, and enjoying God forever. And I am truly, deeply happy.

And now I know. On that day thirteen years ago, I may have had hope, but my hopes weren’t nearly big enough. And so this first week in Advent, when hope is what we think about, that is what I know about the subject: A hope that depends on our fears, and not our faith in what God can do, is no hope at all. And I truly believe that God wants more for us than that.

What God Sees, and What We Miss: Sermon for March 30, 2014

1 Samuel 16:1-13

16:1 The LORD said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.”

16:2 Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me.” And the LORD said, “Take a heifer with you, and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the LORD.’

16:3 Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do; and you shall anoint for me the one whom I name to you.”

16:4 Samuel did what the LORD commanded, and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling, and said, “Do you come peaceably?”

16:5 He said, “Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the LORD; sanctify yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice.” And he sanctified Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.

16:6 When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the LORD.”

16:7 But the LORD said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.”

16:8 Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. He said, “Neither has the LORD chosen this one.”

16:9 Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, “Neither has the LORD chosen this one.”

16:10 Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, and Samuel said to Jesse, “The LORD has not chosen any of these.”

16:11 Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.”

16:12 He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The LORD said, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.”

16:13 Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the LORD came mightily upon David from that day forward. Samuel then set out and went to Ramah.

David Anointed by Samuel, from a synagogue in Syria, 15th Century. (This image is in the public domain.)

David Anointed by Samuel, from a synagogue in Syria, 15th Century. (This image is in the public domain.)

When I was growing up, I was always the youngest. I was the youngest of all my siblings, by far. The youngest of all my cousins. Most of tine time I was even the youngest in my class. I’ve joked that growing up I had a permanent reservation at the children’s table.

I think that’s why I like this story so much. It is a quintessential youngest kid story. Samuel has been appointed by God to go and anoint the new king. And God tells Samuel that the king will come from among Jesse’s sons.

So Samuel goes to Jesse’s house and says, “I need to meet your sons”. And Jesse’s seven oldest sons are brought in. Now, it’s important to note that in these days seven was a very highlly valued number. Seven was the ideal number, the one that signified perfection. So when Jesse had seven sons, that was something to be especially proud of in his society.

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

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

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

I’ve always liked underdogs. When I watch football games I almost always root for the underdog. And this story is about an underdog. In fact, David wasn’t even really an underdog because he wasn’t even considered as a possibility. And yet, he was the only one for the job.

This story reminds me that sometimes we have preconceptions about how God works. We expect that God is going to choose someone who looks a certain way or acts a certain way to do God’s will. And when you think about it, why wouldn’t it be David’s brothers? Older, bigger, stronger…it just makes sense.

But God tells Samuel, “don’t look at their outward appearance…look at the heart.”

And David’s heart was strong. This is the one who would defeat Goliath with just a slingshot. The one who would reign as king. The one who is even an ancestor of Jesus.

What if Samuel had never asked Jesse, “are you sure you don’t have another son”? What if they had left David out in the field tending the sheep? What if Samuel had tried to settle for anything less than what God wanted? My guess is that the entire Biblical story would be very different.

It makes me ask, who are we leaving out in the fields today? Some of you read the story of the eight year old girl in Virginia who was pressured out of her Christian school because she was too much of a tomboy. The school told her grandparents that she couldn’t keep cutting her hair short, or wearing the clothes she wanted to wear. They told them that she had to learn to accept her place as a girl and to be more feminine. Thankfully, her grandparents decided that they weren’t going to subject her to that anymore, but they shouldn’t have ever been forced to make that choice.

This was a Christian school. This is a school that says they want to teach children what the Bible teaches. And that’s what this child of God has learned about Jesus…that he doesn’t like the way she dresses. And when you think about it, that is so different than what God tells Samuel in today’s Scripture: don’t look at the outward appearance…look at the heart.

But the thing is, things like this happen all of the time. Sometimes in ways as blatant as the child in Virginia, but other times in more subtle ways. We stop listening to someone’s voice. We dismiss it because they are too young or too new or too old or too…whatever it is that we can’t wrap our heads around. And slowly, we push them out into the fields.

Have you ever wondered who’s out there? And have you ever wondered what they can offer?

What are we missing out on? Whose voices are not being heard? Who is not sitting at our table? It’s a question we as the church have to ask ourselves every time we make a decision. Not just “what do we want or what do we need” but “what do the people who are outside the wall of this church need”?

Last year a family came to the church for help making ends meet. And we have a pastor’s discretionary fund which lets me help our neighbors who are having a hard time, on behalf of our whole church.

The family sent me a thank you email, and I wrote them back and said we were glad to do it. And I also said, “you know…you would always be welcome at our church if you ever want to attend. No pressure, but the invitation is there.”

The email back said, “Thank you…not every church lets just anyone come.”

It was heartbreaking. Because that’s what some people think that church is; a club that one has to be deserving enough to join. And even though you and I know that we welcome anyone who comes through that doors, the reality is some people truly do believe that that’s what church is about. They believe that the church puts people out in the fields, the same way David was left out in the fields.

You really can’t blame folks for believing that though. Because sometimes Christians are our own worst enemy when it comes to getting our message out there.

This is part of why we voted to become an Open and Affirming church. It’s part of why we decided to go on record as being the sort of place where we can honestly say, “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here”. And, no, that won’t make the front page of the papers, or the news rotation on CNN, but it’s every bit as important a piece of news.

People need to hear that church is where you are not judged on worldly things, but you are welcomed because of your heart.

We all need to hear that. Because there’s another piece to this too. And that is, have you ever left yourselves out in the fields? Have you ever thought maybe there’s nothing about you that God can use? Maybe at some level you don’t feel like you really belong. Maybe you think your voice is not important.

But it is.

That’s especially true in church. Because church is not somewhere you go…it’s who you are. You are the church. And church is not a spectator sport. It requires more than one hour on Sunday morning. It requires your heart.

And so the questions for this church, the questions for every church, are this: Whose voices are we missing? And is one of them yours?

When they finally called for David, what do you think he was thinking? Do you think he was thinking “finally! They finally know what I am!”? Or maybe was he thinking, “there’s some mistake? It’s got to be one of my brothers”?

But it wasn’t a mistake. And in time, David came to know that.

God can do amazing things through you too. And God can do amazing things through the people we haven’t met yet. So, are you out in the fields? Do you know someone who is? It’s time to call them back. It’s time to come home.

And, by the way, there’s no children’s table back at home…the one God invited us to sit at has enough room for everyone. Even you. Amen.

 

Don’t Say I’m Just a Kid: Sermon for February 3, 2013 (Scout Sunday)

2012 Scout SundayI entered seminary right after I graduated from college, when I was still 21 years old. And that summer I was called to my first meeting with the committee that would later decide whether or not to ordain me as a minster. I was really nervous, because I was sure I would get asked some sort of confusing theological question, or I’d be asked to recite the books of the Bible or something. I had no idea what to expect.

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

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

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

The prophet Jeremiah must have known what that felt like. Jeremiah was living in a Judah, a place going through some complex changes. As a people they were deciding what they would worship, and what really matters. And God calls to Jeremiah one day and tells him he is going to be a prophet, which is someone who will tell his people what God wants for them in terms of being just, and being faithful, and turning away from the false things that surround them.

We’re not sure exactly how old he was. Probably a teenager. He was young that when the call from God came, Jeremiah’s first reaction was this: I can’t do this. I don’t know how to speak. I am only a boy.

God answers him, “do not say that you are only a boy, because I am with you.” God goes on to tell Jeremiah that he has been chosen to speak to entire nations, and “to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant”.

My guess is that his entire life up until that point Jeremiah had been told he was too young to really matter. He might have ideas and opinions, but he had to get in line and wait his turn. He had to be old enough for them to be listened to. So when God told Jeremiah, “I’ve got a job for you”, it’s little surprise that Jeremiah’s first answer was “oh, no God…not me…I’m too young.”

But you can’t say no to God. At least, not for long. And in the end Jeremiah went on to be one of the greatest prophets of the Bible. So important that he is recognized today by followers of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam for what he had to say, even though he was “just a boy”.

I was thinking about this reading this week and I was thinking about why it was so perfect for this morning. For those who are visiting, I’ll tell you what I’ve told the congregation before, which is that our readings on any given Sunday are not picked by us. Instead we follow a calendar of readings called the lectionary, which is shared by most Catholic and Protestant traditions. And this week’s story is about a child being asked by God to do great things.

And it just so happens that today is Scout Sunday. Today we invite the Boy Scout Troop and the Cub Scout Pack that this church serves as the charter organization for to join us in worship for a blessing. We also invite others who are involved in any Scouting organizations, Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, Brownies, Girl Scouts, to join us as well, and we celebrate them and ask God’s blessing upon them.

We have all of these young people here, as well as their parents and their Scout leaders and the adults who sit on their Scouting committees, and we have this story of God telling a young person that he is being chosen for something big and something important.

Maybe God is trying to tell us something. Maybe God is saying, “you know, I have some big plans for these young people”. And maybe God is telling us that we should listen to them.

The young people who are here today are sooner than we think going to be responsible for the world that we are creating now. They will be the generation to deal with environmental problems. They will wrestle with war, and with peace. They will decide whether or not to work to end discrimination in every form. They will try to find ways to make sure that their neighbors have enough to get by. They will inherit the world that we leave to them.

Which is all the more reason that we who are adults have a job to do. Not only do we have to help to create the best possible world for them to inherit, but we also have to prepare them for their place in it, and for the hard but good work that they are going to be asked to do.

The Cub Scout pack that we sponsor has been having a lot of fun, but they’ve also been learning a lot that will prepare them for the time when they are called to be leaders. They’ve been learning about what it means to be a good citizen. They’ve been learning how to treat others with respect. They’ve been learning, at a very young age, what leadership means and how to be leaders. And we as a church are supporting them in this work because we believe it matters.

My hope is that the boys who are in our Cub Scout pack now will go on to be Boy Scouts. But, more importantly, my hope is that they will go on to be young people who are filled with confidence in their own abilities. My hope is that when later in their life they get some sort of a calling, some sort of a nudge in a particular direction, they will feel ready to accept it, and they will draw upon what they are learning here feel confident.

That’s my hope for all young people, boys and girls, Scouts or not. That we who are adults would be finding ways to empower then to answer their calling with confidence. That we would teach them what matters. That we would give them the skills that they need for a lifetime. And that we would understand that when we hand them something like a pine box derby car, we’re not cut teaching them how to sand wood or put wheels on a car, we’re teaching them that God created them to do the things they never knew they could do before.

In a few minutes we will be saying a blessing for our Scouts, and for their parents, and their leaders. We have Scouts from a variety of religious traditions today, and so we will honor those differences in the blessing. Whatever they believe, today we are going to ask that they will be blessed them and prepared to serve the greater good in their communities.

But if you offer a blessing to someone, that means you have to take part in it too. So for those of us who extend our hand in blessing, we are also making our young people a promise. We are telling them that we will help them to grow. We will provide the resources they need, within our ability. And, most of all, when God calls them to do something new, we will listen to them and we will support them. Not just because they are our Scouts, but, more importantly, because they are children of God. And God calls even the youngest amongst us to do the greatest things. Amen.

The Unexpected Pastor

When I graduated from seminary eleven years ago I did so proclaiming that I would never serve as a parish pastor. I, arrogantly I now see, proclaimed that “real ministry” wasn’t done in churches. It was done in hospitals, schools, battlefields, and the streets. I then headed off to a pediatric hospital where I spent the bulk of the next two years with the families of traumatically injured children.

But two years ago the winding course of my vocation brought me to the front doors of not one, but two churches nestled in a small community in the mountains of Vermont. Here I was, an urban, Southern, gay minister in my early 30’s whose most recent address had been Provincetown. I think my friends may have been taking bets on how long I would stay.

There was good reason. By the time I arrived in town I had been well Googled. Despite the fact I was met with a congregation of parishioners who are immensely good and fair people, there were plenty of occasions for self-doubt. One local clergy member refused to co-officiate at a service with me. A local supporter informed me of an angry Scripture-quoting man who had been yelling about the new gay minister in the 7-11. I began to wonder if my presence in the community was an unnecessary burden upon my congregations.

On the darkest nights I told myself, “I think I made a mistake.”

I didn’t leave, though. In the church we believe pastors are called, not hired, and we believe the process of uniting pastor and congregation is vastly different than a secular hiring process. By the time a pastor starts serving a congregation an intense period of discernment has taken place with the church, pastor, and denomination all affirming that it is God’s will for these parties to join together in ministry. I trusted that faith, and I stayed.

I’m glad I did. Because in the past two years I have seen God’s love become incarnate in more ways than I could have believed. And along the way I’ve learned that real ministry does in fact take place in the church too. The young seminarian who saw parishes as the territory of the privileged and comfortable is gone, replaced by a pastor who understands that crisis and pain know no boundaries. I’ve learned to look out on Sunday mornings and understand that everyone in the room is facing something they’d rather not. Doctors call with bad news. Loved ones die. Kids fight. Marriages get rocky. And in the midst all of these things, those who come and fill the pews on Sunday mornings look for God. Every week. The reality of that is sobering for a preacher who once thought they’d learned all there was to know about pain in a trauma bay.

I’ve learned about pain, but I’ve learned other things as well. I’ve learned that congregations are full of human people with human faults. The stained glass can hide the very real pain inside a church. And yet, they are also places of celebration and life. A few months after I arrived, I baptized a baby. During the service I felt joy welling up inside of me. I didn’t understand why it had affected me so much until later when I realized I’d never baptized a child who was not actively dying. That made sense. I figured that I’d find the pain when the funerals started coming. But to my great surprise, even in the midst of very real mourning and grief, I saw the promise of the Resurrection in families’ laughter and the triumph of goodness in the hope of friends. My parishioners have taught me to find joy even in the darkest places.

They’ve also taught me to find grace. I’ve learned over the past two years that no matter how deeply I may disagree with someone in the most fundamental of ways, there is always a place for us to connect. I’ve played golf with people whom I’m quite sure have never voted the same way as I do in November. I’ve learned to appreciate the self-sufficiency of hunters despite the fact I’ve never picked up a gun. I’ve come to respect the honesty of those who can’t quite wrap their heads around the fact a pastor is gay, yet who still love me and try to understand anyway.

I’ve even come to love Yankees fans.

But more than anything, I’ve learned this: being a pastor means finding the holy in the most unexpected places. I’ve done ministry at the counter of the local diner. I found grace while blessing a parishioner’s 900 lbs. pig who was about to be euthanized. I’ve witnessed new life in the stories of people in recovery. And I’ve seen resurrection happen in a town that was devastated by a flood and that, through the efforts of a community united, rose again.

It sounds cliche to say that being a pastor is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but it’s true. Physically, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually, I’m challenged everyday. The calling requires sacrifice in every sense of the word, and pastors are not immune from the proverbial “dark night of the soul”.

And yet, I can’t imagine doing anything else. Not because I couldn’t do anything else, (clergy generally do not embrace the calling due to lack of other options) but because I can’t imagine feeling right doing anything else. Two years ago I never imagined how hard parish ministry would be. And I never expected how much I would love it.

I suspect that if I went back in time and met that newly minted seminary grad from eleven years ago, they would never have believed they would end up a small-town pastor in Vermont. But that’s the beauty of calling. The holy is often found in the unpredictable. Every day I get to serve I’m thankful for the divine nudge that calls us out of the places we think we belong, and into the places that have already been prepared for us.