The People of the City on a Hill: Sermon for October 9, 2016

Note: this is the second in a three part sermon series on “Prayerful Citizenship”. To read the first sermon, please click here: https://emilycheath.com/2016/10/02/when-all-is-not-well-where-you-live-sermon-for-october-2-2016/

In 1630, John Winthrop stood aboard the ship Arbella and addressed the people of the ships that would become known as the Winthrop Fleet. They were Puritans, arriving ten years after the Pilgrims of the Plymouth Colony, to form the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Before they went ashore, Winthrop preached a sermon to them about what they were about to do. He told them that the new community they would form would be a like a City on a Hill, one that would be looked at by the whole world. He saidpablo that because of that they needed to be careful that the whole experiment not end in what he called a “shipwreck”.

Today we would say “train wreck”, but they didn’t have trains back then, but you get the idea. In other words, “don’t mess this up because everyone is looking at us”.

No pressure.

Nearly 400 years later Americans talk about how we are called to be a shining city on the hill, or an example of what a good society can look like. And 400 years is a long time for an idea to live. But it’s not even a quarter as long as the idea of the “City on a Hill” has been around. For that you have to go all the way back to Jesus Christ himself.

And so, as we begin this second week in our sermon series on “Faithful Citizenship”, that’s where we are heading. Jesus was giving what became known as his Sermon on the Mount, and he had just finished teaching the Beatitudes: Blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are you who are persecuted, and so on.

He immediately tells the people, “you are the salt of the earth”. Salt was rare and highly valued in those days, so this was high praise. Then he tells them, “you are the light of the world and a city built on a hill cannot be hidden”. Just like that old song we sing sometimes, “this little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine”, he tells them that they cannot but a basket over their light and hide it. They have to let their light shine, not so that they would be praised, but so God will be praised.

This is the passage that John Winthrop was talking about when he preached that sermon. They were about to go ashore, not so far from here, and build a city that the whole world would be watching. And so, using Jesus words, he told them “don’t hide your light”; make sure that this place we are going to build together will shine so brightly that people can’t help but see it.

All these centuries later, in an era of global 24 hour news and the internet, the country that grew from that City on a Hill cannot help but be noticed. We live in one of only a handful of countries that is consistently on the global radar, perhaps more than any other. We are watched, and analyzed, and both loved and hated. And at our best, we are a country that shines our light for good. We are a place of hope and freedom. One that still draws immigrants to our shores because of those promises.

But that doesn’t mean that our light is always shining. This country has had times when that light has been obscured by the baskets that we ourselves have put over it. Baskets like hatred, inequality, violence, systemic poverty, and more. In our worst moments, we are a shining example of what not to do. That’s what we talked about last week, when we admitted that sometimes not all is well where we live. We have to tell the truth about that before anything can change.

The good news, though, is that by telling that truth, we have a chance to kick over the baskets that hide the light, to change the story, and to make this City on the Hill shine as it never has before.

But that starts with us. Because that City on the Hill must be filled with People on the Hill. And the city will only be as good as the people who build it. And so, like Jesus said, we need to become like the salt of the earth. And for those of us who are Christians, that means we need to draw upon our best values, the ones given to us by our faith, and use those things to inform the way we will be citizens in our country.

John Winthrop himself had an idea of where to look for those values. In his sermon that day he quoted an Old Testament prophet, Micah, whose words we read before the sermon. Speaking to a city in distress, one that had lost its way and was trying to get back on track, Micah asked rhetorically, “What does God require of you?” And the answer wasn’t burnt offerings or sacrifices or anything like that. Instead if was just these three things: do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.

csp_zhgwiaepitiDo justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly. It almost sounds too simple. But it is harder than it looks.

Because what would it look like if we all demanded those three things of ourselves in our daily lives? How would we do justice? Would we seek to be more fair to the people we deal with in our businesses? Would we look at people who weren’t treated as equals and advocate for them? Would we speak up when we hear someone use words that demean others?

And what about kindness? This same word is sometimes also translated as “mercy”, so would we be kind and merciful? Would we hold the door open? Would we let that person merge in traffic? Or, more seriously, would we stop withholding words that would heal? Would we look at those who suffer, and choose mercy over words of blame?

And what about humility? By this I mean real humility, which is understanding that none of us is any more or less beloved by God’s than others. If we walked through the world with that kind of humility, how would it change us? Would we be less judgmental of differences? Would we be more apt to value character over celebrity? Would we be more aware about what was good for all, and not just good for us?

Micah gave us a prescription for what ails us. He told us clearly how to get better. But as much as those three things sound as simple as an episode of Mr. Rogers, that is hard medicine. Justice, kindness, and humility are wonderful things…and they all take work. Every day we have to recommit to them. And every day we have to use them to kick aside the baskets that cover our light.

But more than that, if we want to be a City on the Hill, it is not enough that we ourselves commit to these things. We must also demand them from our leaders. “Christian values” is a phrase that gets tossed around a lot in election years. It often comes to mean a very specific set of beliefs and priorities, one with which only some Christians agree. But what would our national political stage look like if we took this bedrock of our faith, these real Christian values, and demanded them of our leaders? What would happen if we refused anything less than real justice, real kindness, and real humility?

That may sound naive, especially in a year like this, but if enough of us demanded it, things would start to change. And so would our leaders.

I’ll close with this. I’ve talked a lot about John Winthrop in this sermon. He would go on to be the Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and a very powerful man. He would also become one who didn’t always live up to Micah’s call to justice, kindness, and humility. Because of that, real people’s lives were affected for the worse.

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Rev. John Wheelwright, who was not beloved by John Winthrop

One of those people was a Rev. John Wheelwright. You may have heard of him, because in 1638 he founded our church and the town of Exeter. He had crossed Governor Winthrop, and he was banished from Massachusetts into what was then the frontier of New Hampshire. (His sister in law, Ann Hutchinson, was banished to what would become Rhode Island, by the way.) We’re here today, in a real way, because John Winthrop got it wrong.

A lot of our leaders get it wrong sometimes. And in the face of that, it is easy to feel powerless. I’m sure that John Wheelwright did. But we are not powerless. We have the ability to continue to build up our City on the Hill, and to transform it for good. We have the ability to become the servant leaders who make sure that light shines, even when others would obscure it. To be a Christian and a citizen is to never be without hope, and to never be without responsibility.

When I think of the man who founded this church, and this town, I remember that. 378 years later, I hope when people look at us as a church and as a town they see light. And I hope that we, as Christians and as citizens, will only do the things that would help that light to shine, here in our city, and far beyond. Amen?

Donald Trump and the Gratitude Gap

The realization came to me while watching the “Mothers of the Movement” speaking at the Democratic National Convention. These mothers of children who had died too young and too violently, Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, and more, had come to Philadelphia to speak. Sandra Bland’s mom was leading them off with words of faith and grace.

And that’s when I thought about Donald Trump’s speech at his own convention last week, and about the overarching message of fear, intolerance, and negativity that has come to define his campaign. I thought about his calls to “make America great again” and the implied message there that this country is not great, and about how he said that only he alone could fix it.

What a contrast to these women on the stage, mothers who have suffered the deepest of losses, who were expressing gratitude to God and hope for their country.

That’s when I realized what has made me most wary of Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency.  Never have I heard him express any gratitude for anyone other than himself, and his immediate family. None for God’s grace, none for this country, and none for other people.

Donald Trump is a man who has just about everything he could ever want. Born into wealth, the breaks have always gone his way. Even when he has failed tremendously, he has walked away none-the-worse for it. He has had every privilege, and every advantage of a well-born American.

And yet, he believes only he is responsible for his greatness.

That should not have been surprising to me. This is a man who, despite his professed Christian faith, when asked about whether he ever seeks God’s forgiveness for his sins stated, “I am not sure I have. I just go on and try to do a better job from there. I don’t think so. I think if I do something wrong, I think, I just try and make it right. I don’t bring God into that picture. I don’t.”

Donald Trump’s faith is his own, and only he and God know its depth, but as a Christian that is stunning to me. My own understanding of Christian faith is rooted in the fact that we are God’s beloved children, and yet time and again we mess up. The good news is that God acts through Christ to forgive us, turn our hearts back around, and set us back on the right path.

This is called grace.

picmonkey_imageI also believe that the only proper response to grace is gratitude. The only way we can possibly begin to say thank you to God is by living lives that reflect that gratitude. And so, we seek to love others and to make this world better for all not because we are great, but because God is great.

But if you have never acknowledged that it is God’s greatness, and not your own, that is amazing, then of course you will not be grateful. If you believe every good thing in your life has come to you because you are special and talented, and that grace has played no part in it, then how could you be?

You’ve never been repentant. You’ve never known what it is to be aware of your own failings. You’ve never understood that only God alone can fix it.

That’s when we fall into the most damaging of spiritual conditions: staggering narcissism, unquestioned entitlement, and belief in our own ability to do it alone.

Those are spiritually dangerous places for all of us, but they are even more destructive when they exist in those who would be leaders. The ungrateful leader is not aware of their ability to be wrong. They lack the wisdom that grace brings, and the sense of purpose that is tied to gratitude. They approach their work not with the humility that it demands, but with a cocky self-satisfaction that has the power to destroy those they lead.

There is a saying that those of us who are in recovery from addiction often repeat: a grateful heart will never drink. That means that a person who wants to stay sober must be aware of the grace they have received, live with real gratitude, and always give thanks to God for what has been done for them.

For one who seeks a position of leadership, that saying might read something like this: A grateful heart will never take for granted those whom I serve.

This country needs leaders who know that they have received God’s good grace. We need the launch codes to be in the hands of someone who is humble and wise. We need budgets that are written by just and merciful people. We need leaders who can speak with kindness and strength in the same voice.

We need leaders who live lives of gratitude.

I cannot tell you how to vote come November. That is your choice. But I can say that where there is gratitude there is neither intolerance nor mockery, fear nor exclusion, rage nor violence, grandiosity nor idolatry. Gratitude leaves no room for those things.

Note: All opinions on this blog reflect only my own thoughts as a private citizen, and not those of the institutions which I serve. 

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.

What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger?: Sermon for May 26, 2013

Text: Romans 5:1-5

When I was in my freshman year at my college, I was in a leadership program. It was a little like Outward Bound, we climbed rocks, and did high ropes courses, and pushed ourselves past what we thought that our limits were. And the joke throughout the whole trip, whenever we were about to do something that seemed dangerous or impossible, was that someone would say, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”.

It was a good joke for the weekend, but for a while after that trip I began to really embrace that way of thinking. Young adult years are often full of change, and it seemed like a good life outlook because it meant that everything was an opportunity for growth. Whenever I faced something difficult or challenging I just shrugged and said, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”.

And then I finished college, and then seminary, and took a job as a chaplain at a children’s hospital. And all of a sudden things got a little deeper and a little more real. I spent a lot of time with parents who had lost, or were loosing, children. And I saw their utter devastation. And all of a sudden, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” sounded pretty trite. Because these parents, they were alive but, at least in the aftermath, they weren’t any stronger. In fact, the exact opposite was true. This wasn’t the challenge of a rock wall set up to build character. This was something far more devastating, and far less deliberate.

At first reading, today’s passage from Romans sounds sort of live that motto I heard back then. Paul gives us this sort of chain reaction where he tells us that suffering leads to endurance, and endurance leads to character, and character leads to hope. And this passage could be mistaken to mean, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. Just live through something tough, and you will be better for it

But the meaning is much deeper than that. Paul is writing to the church in Rome, where he has never visited before, and he is telling this community about himself. And he is talking to a divided people. Some members of the church there come from the Jewish community and believe that the law they have known their whole lives most be upheld. And others are Gentiles, and they don’t understand why they are being told that they have to get circumcised and keep certain commandments. And the community is divided, which means that is is susceptible to false teachings. And so Paul writes this letter to the Romans to talk about grace and how we are not saved by what we do, but instead by what God does for us. And he writes this particular part about hope.

Now, hope is something you can’t buy, and yet hope sells like nothing else. The people who write ads know this, and so we will buy anything that promises us a sliver of hope from a new medication to a new laundry detergent to a political candidate. But Paul is talking about something deeper here. The sort of hope you can’t buy. Authentic hope, which comes from God.

And we have this very brief passage about hope that out of context is misleading. It seems to say that you will be better for your suffering. And on some level, ultimately, that may be true. But we have to be careful not to reduce it to “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” And we have to be sure that we are not saying that God wills suffering upon us to teach us lessons or to make us better people

In the wake of the tornado this week in Oklahoma, it’s important that we make that distinction. After every disaster, natural or human-made, there are always a few voices that pop up in the media saying that God did this and that this happened for a reason. Usually they say it’s because God wants to teach us something. That’s always rubbed me the wrong way.

One of the best sermons I ever read came from a minister named William Sloane Coffin. And he was preaching the Sunday after his beloved son was killed in a motorcycle crash. And he tells this story about the first days after the crash and how a woman he didn’t really know came in carrying these quiches she had baked for him, and she sighs and says “I just don’t understand the will of God.”

He was grieving, and it rubbed him the wrong way, and he got up and flew after her and said, “I’ll say you don’t.” And he went on to say that God doesn’t go around causing accidents and crashes because it’s God’s will. Coffin says God doesn’t go around with a hand on a trigger waiting to inflict pain. And he says finally that when his son’s motorcycle went into the water, “God’s heart was the first to break”.

It’s a good reminder. God does not make tornados hit Oklahoma. God does not give children cancer. God does not will us to kill one another. God does not cause car accidents. Instead, diseases happen, wars are fought, and accidents occur. And in the midst of it, God cries with us.

At this stage in Paul’s life, he had suffered mightily. He had lost everything, been imprisoned, and been beaten. And yet, he had found hope. Not through his suffering, but through the knowledge that God had upheld him in the midst of it. And it was that knowledge that made him such a convincing advocate.

It is because of what he had endured that he was able to talk about how suffering had transformed him, and had shaped his character, and had given him hope. It was not suffering for suffering’s sake. It was instead a place where God’s grace became most real to him. Strength did not come from pain, but from an experience of finding hope in that pain.

I don’t believe that everything on earth that happens is God’s will. I’ve stood in too many Emergency Rooms with grieving parents to believe that. But I do believe that nothing happens in God’s world that God cannot transform in some way for good.

When I was in seventh grade, a neo-Nazi subculture began to flourish in the area I was in school. It was sickening and it was deadly. And I had an English teach who announced one day that we would have a guest speaker. That day a woman with a slight accent came to speak to my class, and she told us the horrors she had seen in her life and about what the reality of human evil can do. And she rolled up her left sleeve, and showed us all that tattooed numbers that had been given to her on the day she arrived at a concentration camp

God did not will the Holocaust. God did not will her suffering. But in the aftermath of what was then unchangeable, God’s grace worked through her to give her strength, and to testify to what unchecked hatred could do. To show those few who embraced a movement they did not really understand what its logical end was. God had not willed her suffering, but God had transformed her character and used it to give the world hope.

The same is true in many of our lives though, thankfully, usually less dramatically so. Think of the people you most respect. Do you respect them for what they were easily given in life? Or do you respect them because there is something in their life that they overcame and were so transformed by that it affected who they were?

The people I respect most, have not had easy lives. They are the people who have faced adversity, and have been transformed by grace.They’ve overcome injury, or addiction, or hatred, or fear, or pain. And have tried to share the hope they received with others.

My dad would be embarrassed if I told you this story, because he’s not the kind who tells stories like this, but it’s Memorial Day weekend, and I just spent a week with him, and he’s on my mind.

Growing up I knew my dad had been in Vietnam during the Vietnam War. I had always assumed he had a desk job. Only in last ten years or so I learned that wasn’t the case. And sometimes he was really in the thick of things.

I asked him once, “Were you scared”? Because as far as I knew at that point my dad had never been scared of anything in his life. And he looked at me and said “of course I was scared”.

I realized then that this man who had always taught me to stand up to prejudice, to be myself, to forge ahead even when I was scared, who had taught me about hope, actually knew what he was talking about.

I think that’s what Paul may have been talking about. Because the people who have walked through the hardest things in life, the people whose characters have been tested the most, and the ones who ultimately emerge with hope, are the ones who manage, by God’s grace, to bring hope to the world.

What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.

No.

What doesn’t kill us, simply doesn’t kill us.

But God’s grace in the face of our struggles is what ultimately makes us stronger. And through that grace, in the most difficult of times, we find endurance. And in that endurance we find character. And it is that character that gives the world hope. Amen.

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