Born Again. And again. And again.: Sermon for March 12, 2017

There are some things that define the differences between generations. There are young adults who have never known a world without the internet, for instance, and others for whom this is still a pretty recent phenomenon. Or, there are those who remember rotary phones, and others who would have no idea what to do if one was put in front of them.

There’s another one, and my generation is sort of right on the dividing line for this: library card catalogs. Do you remember having to write papers using a card catalog? You picked your topic, went to those big wooden stacks full of drawers stuffed with index cards, and you looked up all the different books you would need.

That changed while I was in college. Most libraries don’t have those anymore. Now you can use a computerized system, and maybe even pull up what you need at your home. But I’ll never forget being about elementary-aged and being at the library with my friends. And we had some questions. Questions of the type that our parents weren’t ready to answer.

You get where I’m going here.

Schlagwortkatalog

Photo credit, Dr. Marcus Gossler, wikipedia commons image.

So you could innocently enough go to the card catalog, pretend you were looking for something else, and find that card that would send you to a book that would explain everything. And there’s no shame in natural curiosity, but even still, your heart was pounding the whole time, right?

Library card catalogs answered a lot of questions that we couldn’t ask others back in the day. Today we might turn to the internet. But, what if you were a Pharisee, a religious leader, back in Jesus’ day? And what if there was this guy who kept doing these things you couldn’t explain? And what if all the other religious leaders you worked with didn’t like him at all, but you were curious? And what if you needed to find out who he was for yourself?

That was the situation that Nicodemus was in. He was a Pharisee, a religious leader, and he was expected to toe the party line. And the party line was that this guy named Jesus, who kept doing things like turning water into wine and running money changers out of the temple, was bad news.

But Nicodemus was curious. He thought there might be something more to this. But there was no card catalog, no webpage, for figuring out Jesus. And so, he did the only thing he could think of…he went straight to the source. But, like a kid looking in the card catalog, pretending to be doing something else, Nicodemus didn’t go in the bright of day and just ask. Instead, he snuck out under the cover of night, and went to Jesus while everyone else was asleep.

Can you imagine Jesus? He was probably sleeping himself, and now this Pharisee was waking him up asking him questions. He says, “Jesus, I know you’ve got to be a teacher from God, because otherwise you couldn’t do these things. Who are you?”

And Jesus, as usual, doesn’t answer the question. Instead he starts talking about being “born again” or “born from above”. And Nicodemus is like, “What do you mean ‘born again’?” And he actually asks if he’s supposed to reenter his mother’s womb so she can give birth again.

But Jesus tells him, “that’s not what I mean”. And Jesus explains about being “born of the Spirit” and how we have to have a spiritual rebirth, one that changes us. And Nicodemus doesn’t know this at the time, but Nicodemus himself is in the midst of this second birth. He is having a sort of birth pangs brought about by a curiosity that he cannot ignore any longer. He is being changed.

There’s an old saying: “Curiosity killed the cat.” And I have vet bills to attest to the fact that curiosity can at least cause very expensive injuries to the cat. And we humans sometimes take this saying to heart in order to discourage our own curiosity, and sort of keep our heads down.

And, though he wasn’t a cat, Nicodemus’ curiosity was indeed dangerous. If his friends had known what he was doing, it would have cast suspicion on him. It would have changed the way he was seen. That’s why he had to look for answers in the middle of the night.

But curiosity, while generally bad for cats, is actually a really good thing for humans, especially in our spiritual lives. Asking questions is a sign of deep faith. Nicodemus knows there is something about Jesus, and so he goes and tries to learn more. And that’s what we do too.

We get curious, and when we do we sometimes have these encounters with God’s love and grace. We wrestle. We grapple. We try to work out who we think Jesus is, and what that means for our lives. And that work doesn’t always go quickly, or end neatly.

This text is the same way. Nicodemus just sort of disappears in the end. He doesn’t get this big “aha” moment where it all makes sense. Instead, he probably walked away from Jesus more confused than ever before.

That’s not surprising…Jesus can be infuriating like that.

Down South where I grew up there were a lot of people who would talk about being “born again” the way Jesus does here. And, for them, it was often this one, shining moment when all of a sudden they believed and their lives changed and everything made sense.

But I never got that moment. I had times when things made a little more sense, and I felt God’s love, but the curiosity and questions never ended. And like Nicodemus I’ve had that same pattern of getting curious, seeking answers, and then ending up with more questions. And sometimes I’ve had to wrestle with faith and doubt, and fight my way out of the safety of the womb and into new life.

I actually think that’s a good thing. I don’t want my spiritual life to ever come to a terminal point where I have all the answers. That would be boring, intellectually and spiritually.

Instead, I like the idea that we are continuously and gradually being born again. We are living lives of change, in a world full of change, and that means we are constantly having to go back to Jesus and ask the questions that keep us up at night. And we have to keep being born again, maybe not just once, but over and over and over again in many ways.

Martin Luther King once used the story of Nicodemus to talk about being born again. He said that Jesus hadn’t given Nicodemus easy instructions or said “stop doing this” or “stop doing that”. Instead, Dr. King said, Jesus told Nicodemus “your whole structure must be changed”. This was nothing less than a total shake-up.

Dr. King was talking specifically about how America had to be “born again” and deal with injustice. And that’s a good example of how we as people, and as institutions and communities, must also sometimes be born again, and do what is right and what is good, for the love of God and for the love of the world.

And it is the love of the world that Jesus is talking about. If you’ve ever watched a football game you’ve seen signs with a verse written on them from this very passage. John 3:16: For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but should have eternal life.

There’s a real irony in the fact that this one line, that comes in this passage about the kind of faith that is not easy or simple, has become emblematic of easy and simple faith. Because he whole story of Nicodemus is a little too long for a piece of poster board. But that’s fitting, because our faith journeys cannot fit onto one sheet of paper, or one bumper sticker. They require nothing less than the full length and depth of our lives.

That’s true of all of us, and that’s true of Nicodemus too. We see him only two more times in the Gospels, but in those two appearances we see a man who is in the process being born again. The next time we see him he is making a sort of tentative defense of Jesus when Jesus is in trouble, trying to save him, trying to keep the religious authorities from killing him.

And the last time we see him, he is one of the two men who takes Jesus’ body after his death, and buries it, putting it in the tomb.

I think there’s something meaningful about that. In mourning Jesus death, Nicodemus was showing that he had been reborn. And when Jesus rose again, that new life took on new meaning.

Sometimes curiosity doesn’t kill the cat. Sometimes it saves him. For God so loved the world, that God would want nothing less for us. Amen?

Martin Luther King, John Lewis, and the Luxury of Hindsight Hope

Yesterday in worship, during our time for children, I talked about Dr. Martin Luther King. The children and youth at my congregation, from pre-K on up to high school seniors, are exceptional in so many respects. Yesterday was no exception. When I asked our elementary-aged students what they knew about Dr. King they told me stories about discrimination, choosing non-violence, working for justice, and about Dr. King’s life in general. The parents of our church have taught them well, and taught them that opposing injustice is a part of what it means to be a Christian. They give me hope.

As I was sitting there, though, I was aware of how easy it is for me, and for all of us who didn’t grow up in the Civil Rights Movement, to know just how wrong the Jim Crow era was, and just how right Dr. King was. Though I am from the South, I was born years after Dr. King’s assassination. Unlike my parents, I went to integrated schools and was taught by them that all people were equal for as long as I can remember. There was certainly racism all around me, but I knew it was wrong.

Dr. King and John Lewis, marching with other Civil Rights leaders.

Dr. King and John Lewis, marching with other Civil Rights leaders.

When I went to college in Atlanta I began to learn more about the specifics of Dr. King’s legacy. I learned the ways that even the street names in Atlanta were shaped by race and who lived where. I read Dr. King’s speeches. And sometimes, when the injustice of the world seemed unsurmountable, I visited Dr. King’s tomb.

But I also began to wonder: what would I have done as a white person if I had been alive during the Civil Rights movement?

I’d like to think I know the answer. I hope I would have done the right thing. I hope I would have marched, and been arrested, and stood in solidarity, no matter what the personal cost. I hope I would have been a true ally who stepped aside and gave the mic to people of color. And I hope I would have done all of these things because my faith compelled me to do so.

But the reality is that most white folks in Atlanta, even those who knew what was happening was wrong, did nothing. In Atlanta I learned that when Dr. King returned to the city with his Nobel Peace Prize no one wanted to acknowledge it. (It was finally the Jewish community, shaken by the recent bombing of The Temple on Peachtree Street, that stepped up and threw a dinner for him.) Moments of white solidarity were few and far between. And, decades later, I came to find out that sometimes they were misremembered a bit too favorably.

In Atlanta I went to a fabulous Presbyterian church downtown. It was committed to justice and inclusion for all people, and their social justice work was remarkable. I was proud to be a part of this congregation, and I often pointed to a particular story related to the Civil Rights movement to show exactly why. As the story went, when Dr. King was assassinated, this church, just blocks away from Dr. King’s neighborhood, had opened up its building to students and others who were coming to Atlanta for the funeral and who needed a place to stay. The fact a white church in Atlanta would do that so willingly in 1968 was held as truly remarkable. When I heard the story repeated it was with assurances that the church would have done nothing else except be hospitable

And then one day, a man who had been a part of the congregation for decades told me the real story. “Do you think they were happy about it?”, he asked me. “No one wanted to do it…the pastor had to finally force them to do it by telling them how bad they would look if they didn’t!” It turns out the church, while certainly one of the more progressive of the white mainline downtown establishment churches, had wanted little to nothing to do with the Civil Rights Movement. It wasn’t until the movement literally came to their neighborhood, in a time of national mourning, that they were forced to take a side.

I don’t tell that story to shame that church. The church learned from that experience, grew, and became more prophetic. But the happier, sanitized version of that story is what usually gets told, with more than a little self-congratulation. The reality is a lot more humbling and, in my mind, a lot more powerful.

I think about that story because I wonder what I’m doing now that I’ll look back on years from now and want to remember with a sort of revisionist history. How am I well-intentioned, but not actually willing to act? What struggles for justice am I remaining neutral about, and how to I get myself engaged? What don’t I want to look back on forty years from now with regret and shame over my lack of courage? These are the questions I’m asking myself on this Martin Luther King day.

And on this day, I’m also thinking about the ones who have gotten it right, and who have kept moving forward from one struggle for justice to another. And I’m remembering something I saw in Atlanta when I was about twenty years old. I was marching in the Atlanta Pride Parade down Peachtree street and towards Piedmont Park. As we turned onto 10th Street I saw a man standing near the end of the route, waving at us and cheering us on.

As we got closer I could see it was Congressman John Lewis, Dr. King’s trusted advisor and a man who had braved the worst of the brutality that racism had to offer. Here was a man who had beaten at Selma. Here was a man who had watched his friend die for justice. Here was a man who had nothing to prove, and who didn’t have to be there. And yet he was.

When I think about wanting to be a good ally, I think about John Lewis. He showed me that day how, as Dr. King said, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”. And he taught me that I can’t stay home just because the fight isn’t mine.

I hope I would have done the right thing fifty years ago. But I can choose to prayerfully do the right thing now.

john

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.

Dreading Lent: An Alternative Proposal

IMG_2223A few weeks ago I was standing in the check-out line of our village market. The selection of cards by the cash register had just made their changeover from Valentine’s Day to Easter, despite the fact Lent had not yet even begun. That’s not a huge surprise, of course. The Easter candy has been out for weeks now.

But on this day, one of the cards struck my eye. The front read “The best part about Easter is the Lent is over.” They lost the theologian in me right there because, oddly enough, I’ve always thought that the best part of Easter was the whole Resurrection thing. But I opened the card anyway and found this in the center: “I really hate giving up stuff I love”.

My first thought was, “then you’re really going to hate Christianity”. I say that because, as Bonhoeffer and others have reminded us, discipleship is costly. Jesus wasn’t kidding around when he told his disciples to sell all they owned and follow him. Sacrifice is woven into the very fabric of Christian faith.

But my second thought was about how so many people believe that “giving something up” is what Lent is all about. If you are around church folks at all the week before Lent you’ll hear the question “What are you giving up for Lent?” more than a few times. And you’re likely to also hear a list of everyday items: meat, sugar, soda, tobacco, alcohol, chocolate, or even Facebook.

And, if that works for you, go for it. If giving up some sort of indulgence deepens your spiritual walk during these forty days, then no one should tell you not to do it. But, if you’re like most people I know, giving something up for forty days feels more like running a marathon.  For that reason too often people of faith approach Lent with the dread with which most people approach the dentist. By the time they get to Easter Sunday they can’t wait to tear into a Snickers bar or sign back on to Facebook again. And sometimes they have a sense that they’ve run a long race, but nothing has really changed.

Again, maybe it’s different for you, and that separation from potato chips or red meat has deepened your spiritual life in a meaningful way. But, if it hasn’t, I want to suggest that maybe “giving up” is not the only way to observe a holy Lent.

What if instead of giving up you took something on? What if you added dedicated prayer time each morning? Or, what if you committed to reading a couple of chapters of Scripture each day? What if you took on the challenge of going to worship every week during Lent, with no excuses?

And, what if you took something on that could, in some small way, change the world? What if you gave an hour each week to volunteering at the food bank? Or what if you gave up using plastic bottles in order to help the environment? What if you drove less and walked more?

Of course all of these things still require some degree of “giving up”. If you pray or read Scripture, you may have to “give up” some time you’d normally spend online or watching television. If you volunteer some extra hours you may have to give up a few hours of downtime. If you make an environmentally conscious choice you may have to give up the convenience of driving somewhere quickly or grabbing a bottled water.


IMG_2224But you may find you’re giving up other things too. You may find you’re giving up your feelings of hopelessness. You may find you’re giving up your feelings of helplessness. Your feelings of isolation. Your feelings of disconnection. Your feelings of insignificance.

All of those can be pretty incredible things to give up for Lent.

In the end, Lent is not about a forty day marathon of deprivation. It’s about looking inside, finding the places where we feel disconnected to God, and taking up the challenge of going deeper. It’s about walking with Jesus for forty days because we are so overwhelmed by his love for us. And, it’s about preparing for what is next. Because the empty tomb is not the finish line. It’s just the start of a long and wonderful journey. And Lent is a time to get ready.

Hurricanes and Judgement: Thoughts on the One Year Anniversary of Irene

West Dover, Vermont

Tonight I’m watching Hurricane Isaac as it bears down on the Gulf Coast. Seven years after Katrina, Isaac has the potential to re-devastate an area that’s still recovering, and still will be for years.

I’m watching these developments as I read the results of a poll from the Public Religion Research Institute and the Religion News Service which shows that 44% of Americans see an uptick in natural disasters as “evidence of what the Bible calls the ‘end times’.” Narrow that polling body to white Christian evangelicals, and that number increases to 67%.

Right now I’m thinking about those two things as I sit in my living room in southern Vermont. One year ago tonight I sat here and called my congregational leaders and we reviewed the weather forecast and reluctantly decided to cancel church services the next day. By the middle of the next morning, Hurricane Irene had devastated the community where we live.

That night I stood with friends and neighbors and parishioners in a street filled with upended asphalt, twisted metal, and busted glass. I spent two years as a trauma chaplain in a pediatric hospital in Atlanta, but I had never seen devastation like I saw that night. It looked, quite literally, like a bomb had gone off.

The next Sunday I told my congregation that, contrary to what 44% of Americans think, God did not send the flood to our town as a punishment, a warning, or a judgement. I still believe that. Others do not. We’ve had our fair share of bad theology here in Vermont. Missionaries disguised as trauma counselors. Judgmental Christian “leaders” calling us to repent for the sins that caused the flood. Even the Westboro Baptist Church had us in their sights.

What’s sad is that some folks, the ones hardest hit and looking for answers, believe this Gospel of Wrath. Bad theology is often the second wave of trauma. And the Christian leaders who perpetuate these ideas move from natural disaster to natural disaster, tragedy to tragedy, spreading the same rhetoric of judgement. From Vermont to Aurora, Colorado to western wildfires, to Oak Creek, Wisconsin, to midwestern droughts, to every other place you can name where blood was shed or destruction widespread, those voices of warning have followed, jockeying for airtime. They have somehow become the predominant public voices of Christian faith.

It’s really too bad they don’t stay around long in one place. Because if they did, they might actually catch a glimpse of God.

Those of us who stuck around past the news cameras and soundbites saw incredible testaments to the love and grace of God. We saw it as good people took seriously the idea that one should “love their neighbor as themselves” and got to work. Some were Christians. Some weren’t. But all behaved in a way much closer to the way Christ commanded us to live than anyone on TV talking about God’s judgment coming in the form of a hurricane.

The people here wasted little time before rebuilding. The next morning they donned masks and bandanas, picked up cleaning buckets and got to work. They cooked meals for the shelter in the high school cafeteria. They gave hours as volunteer firefighters and rescue personnel. They staffed the food pantry in town every day for weeks. And they gave and gave of every resource they had until it hurt.

They didn’t do it for a day. Or a week. Or a month or season. They kept doing it, day after day, no matter what was happening in their own lives. People I knew who had lost almost everything came asking who had it worse, and what they could do for them.

That’s where I saw God this past year. That’s where I saw grace. And that’s where I saw hope.

Tomorrow we will gather at that same place we did last year, at the same time, as the sun goes down here in southern Vermont. But this year the road is repaved, the glass is swept up, and the river has contained itself to its banks once more. We will light candles, and we will offer our memories. But more that that, we will offer our gratitude. Gratitude for strangers, gratitude for one another, gratitude for grace. And more than all of that, we will offer our hope.

I know God will be there tomorrow, because I know that wherever there is hope, there is God. And while the flood “was”, God “is”, and God will be.

God will be there on the Gulf Coast tomorrow too. And God will be there if that storm makes landfall. Not because God wills our destruction, but because God does not abandon us in the storm. And no matter what happens, God will be there in the aftermath.

My hope is that wherever the news cameras flock to next, whether it’s in the wake of the storm or, God forbid, the aftermath of another act of violence, that we will look for testaments to God’s love and grace, and not the destructive voices of those who would use Christ’s name to spread their own judgements.

You know that old song, “They will know we are Christians by our love?” It’s still true. More than ever, and especially in times of destruction or pain. And if you can’t hold the statements of a Christian talking head on TV up to that standard, then don’t allow them to be the only voice out there that is speaking for God. Lives, and hearts, depend on it.

The Religious Right (Side of History)

For Christians in the mainline Protestant denominations, this has been an interesting summer. First, the Presbyterian Church (USA) rejected an amendment which would have opened the church up to blessing same-sex marriages. Then, less than a week later, the Episcopal Church approved a new liturgy to bless same-sex unions and also affirmed the ministry of transgender clergy.

 

For the rest of us mainline folks (members of the United Church of Christ, United Methodists, Lutherans, Disciples, and others) it has been both fascinating and heart-wrenching to watch. Regardless of the outcome, the emotion has been clear. After the PCUSA vote, youth cried on the floor of the General Assembly. The day after the the Episcopal vote, one diocese walked out.

 

Many speculate that some mainline denominations may be headed for an ideological schism. The narrow margin of the Presbyterian decision, just 30 votes, is one indication of just how split that denomination is on major issues of inclusion and Biblical interpretation. Other denominations face similar quandaries. It’s clear that mainline Christians of all stripes are at a watershed.

 

It helps to remember that we have been here before, and more than once.

 

I was ordained in the PCUSA (before having my own departure over LGBT inclusion and becoming UCC). I was always struck by the fact that the denomination had split in two during the Civil War over slavery. The same happened in many of the other major churches of the day. For some, the split was temporary. Methodists rejoined one another in 1939. It took the Presbyterians until 1983. Some never reunited. (Which is one reason the North is filled with American Baptist congregations, while Southern Baptists prevail in the South.)

 

You would think American mainliners would have learned their lesson, but they didn’t. Further splits occurred over the ordination of women, desegregation, Biblical inerrancy, and more. And now, the splits are coming over LGBT inclusion.

 

We’ve known this for years. One of the reasons LGBT inclusion has not yet occurred is that we are so afraid of what a schism will mean. We want to preserve the body of Christ, because that is what we are called to do. But, if we are honest, we also want to remain relevant. Relevance is the catch-phrase in the shrinking church, and a denomination half its size is seen as even more irrelevant.

 

Except, here’s the rub: size does not determine relevance. Doing the right thing does.

 

When I was in the PCUSA I often heard straight allies decline to push harder for LGBT rights for fear it would “split the church”. No one wanted that, but the reality was that the church was already splitting. LGBT people, and their families and friends, were walking out the door. This was true of many churches, and the irony was that each time they failed to do the right thing, the prophetic thing, for fear of losing relevance, they lost it even more.

 

When Jesus told his disciples to go out two by two he gave them clear instructions: Preach a prophetic truth.  If you are rejected, if your message is not heard, move on. Shake the dust from your feet and keep moving.

 

I don’t think Jesus was telling his disciples to not care about the people who rejected them. I don’t think he was saying “give up hope that they will change their minds”. I think he was saying this: sometimes you won’t get everyone one board, but the train has to keep moving forward. Otherwise it will derail.

 

We talk a lot about the power of the religious right to negatively influence the fate of LGBT civil rights, but we are talking about the wrong religious right there. What LGBT people need now is not more of the religious right. We need more religious and on the right side of history. We need more Christians ready to stand up for the right thing no matter what, even if it means some won’t follow them. We need religious folks ready to shake the dust of fear and rejection off their feet and follow Jesus anyway. People who are willing to take the big risks their faith demands no matter the cost.

 

This will not be the last issue to divide the church. Give it thirty or forty years and something else will come along. By that point the country as a whole will have evolved and moved on and non-inclusion of LGBT people will be an embarrassing chapter in our history, just like all the others through the years. My hope is the mainline church will be re-united by then, but history tells us it may well not be.

 

That’s okay. Because the mark of faithfulness is not found in our membership numbers. It’s not found in a commitment to an non-controversial faith that never makes anyone uncomfortable. It’s found in how well we follow Christ, who taught us to love one another and work for justice. The only fate worse than schism for the church is being lukewarm when it comes to issues of justice. Jesus never accepted us being lukewarm. For those of us who want to be standing on the religious right side of history, that’s a good reminder.

How Not to Be an Ally: 5 Reminders for Christian Clergy Working for Equality

  1. You don’t understand.

This is not meant in a hostile way. It’s just a reminder. If you are not LGBTQ, you have not lived the reality of being LGBTQ. You may empathize, but that’s different than being LGBTQ. Here’s a parallel. I’m not African-American. I may work tirelessly against racism, and do my best to understand the African-American experience, but I will never fully understand what it is to grow up as anything other than white in this country.

You may be the best ally in the world, with all the LGBTQ friends you could hope for, but until you are the 13 year old kid who gets beat up for being gay, or the 22 year old who has to leave their church, or the 40 year old who is denied a marriage license, or the 50 year old who can’t afford top surgery, or the 65 year old who can’t collect a partner’s Social Security, you will never understand exactly what it is to be LGBTQ.

2. You will sometimes pay a price for doing the right thing. We pay a price everyday.

Yes, it’s true. Your support of us will sometimes cost you. You might not get the big steeple church. You might not be able to serve as a church official. You might even end up in jail from time to time. The blessing is that these will be occasional situations for you. They are daily realities for us. When something like this happens, it will feel tragic. But for perspective, put it in the context of the greater, even more tragic, reality of the inequalities in our country.

There’s a story about this. John Lewis once was working with a group of white clergy who were going to be arrested for civil disobedience in the Civil Rights movement. His job was to bail them out immediately upon arrest. The ministers would then be heroically received. Except he didn’t bail them out. He decided to wait a while. He wanted them to truly understand their privilege and the fact that their jail cell was temporary. The jail cell of racism never opened. Remember that what you are doing is right. Maybe even brave. But it’s not heroic. Virtue is its own reward.

3. Let us define ourselves.

Please don’t put your labels on our reality. Two women who are together are not necessarily a “lesbian couple”. A man who has sex with another man may not identify as gay. Someone who is gender non-conforming might identify as trans. Or they might not. We might proudly claim words you don’t feel comfortable using: queer, butch, femme, etc. Those words come from our struggle and our reality. When you say, “oh, don’t call yourself that” we hear it as “I am not comfortable with you”. When you call our marriage a “union” we hear “separate but equal”. Words matter, and letting those who are not as privileged as you choose their own words matters more.

Here’s another example: When you lead worship, do you ever divide the voices up into the “men” and the “women”? Recently I attended a church with an active outreach to the LGBT community, and a few trans members, some of whom were still not out about the fact they were considering transitioning. When we were asked to sing along gender binary lines, some of them were put on the spot in a highly uncomfortable way. Try not to box us in using your understanding of sex and gender. Talk to us. We’ll tell you what works.

4. Whenever possible, listen…don’t talk.

Which leads me to my next point: listen. We have spent much of our life not being able to speak our truth. Now that we can, please let us do it. That’s not to say that we don’t want to dialogue with you or listen to your journey about how you became an ally. It’s just saying that we are often the best ones to speak to our realities.

Recently I was sitting at a table with clergy members, all of whom were allies. One ally was talking about what LGBTQ’s wanted around gay marriage (mainly just civil benefits). Not only did I not agree with him, but most LGBTQ people would not. Another ally graciously interrupted and pointed out that since there was a LGBTQ person at the table, perhaps that person could speak to what marriage meant to us better than an ally. It was a great moment of grace that doesn’t happen nearly enough.

5. Remember we are not a monolithic group

There are so many different identities in the LGBTQ alphabet. There’s a beauty in that diversity that doesn’t come out when one person is chosen to represent us all. A gay man does not understand what it means to be a lesbian. A lesbian does not understand what it is to be trans (unless they are trans themselves). A trans person doesn’t understand what it is to be bi (again, unless they are themselves). Each group has specific concerns and realities. Resist the urge to lump us together as one.

Likewise, remember that we don’t always have the same ideas on how the LGBT community should achieve our goals. Many clergy allies proudly show me their HRC t-shirts and equal stickers, for instance. I really appreciate the fact they are trying to visibly show their support, but I wonder if they realize that many LGBT people, particularly trans folks, would rather gnaw off their right arms than give to HRC? Other LGBTQ folks love them. But ask us who, and what, we would support, and why. It will tell you more about our community.

Finally, remember we love you. Every civil rights movement needs allies, and we are grateful for you. I only mention these things because there are times when well-meaning allies can become roadblocks on the path to the full equality of LGBTQ people. They’re principles I try to put in practice when I advocate for groups that I am not a member of, and they’ve served me well. I hope they might serve you as well. Until all children of God are equal, peace be with you.

The Love Mandate – Homily for Maundy Thursday

The most common question I get asked during Holy Week is about this night, the Thursday before Easter. People get Palm Sunday, and Good Friday, and Easter, but tonight, Maundy Thursday, is unclear. And the one thing people want to know the most, is this: what does “Maundy” mean?

It’s a good question. Who uses the term “maundy” in their daily life? For those on the outside of the church, and even for those of us inside, it might just sound like a church service where we know we should want to go to it, but we have no idea why.

But before I talk about what the word means, I want to go back to that story we read from the Gospel. In it Jesus has gone to Jerusalem for the Passover. He’s gathered his twelve disciples there at the table. And he knows what is going to happen. He knows that by the end of the night one of them will betray him to the authorities. One will deny him three times. And all of them will leave him alone in his hour of greatest pain.

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

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

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

The night before, he wasn’t running away. He wasn’t preparing for a battle. He wasn’t plotting his revenge. Instead he was with the ones he loved most. The ones who loved him, but who weren’t perfect. The ones who knew who he was, and what he had done, and who would be the witnesses to his life after he was gone.

And that’s where that word “maundy” comes in. Because what do you do if you’re Jesus? What do you do if you know you are not going to be around much longer, and you have to tell the people you love the most, the ones who followed you, the ones who sometimes make big mistakes, how to keep moving in the right direction after you’re gone?

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

And if you read a book or watch a movie about almost anyone else, you might think the lead character right about now would be saying something like “avenge my death”, or “make sure there’s payback”, or “don’t let them get away with this…strike back”.

But this isn’t any other story. This is a story that turns everything on its head. The mandate, the mandatory thing Jesus tells us to do in this passage is this:

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

It probably wouldn’t do well at the box office. It wouldn’t get Nielsen ratings. The story wouldn’t soar to the top of the New York Times bestsellers list today. But it’s a story that transcends all of those things. Because it’s the beginning of a story about what happens when the world does its worst through violence, and hatred, and fear, and yet love wins anyway. It’s a story of love that was rejected and buried, and yet was still too strong to stay in the ground.

It’s not my job to rename Christian holy days. But if it were, I might change the name of Maundy Thursday. I might change it from this word that none of us really know anymore to something we would all understand. Something like “Love One Another Thursday”, or “The Last Thing Christ Really Wanted Us to Know Thursday”.

Because this is a message we Christians all need to hear. We don’t need to hide it behind fancy terms. We don’t need to just check it off as another night in holy week. We need to hear that this is how Christ said other people would know us: by how we love one another.

Maybe it would help us remember. Maybe it would help us remember not just what this night is about, but maybe it would help us remember what it means to be Christians. And maybe if we always had that reminder, if we always had that commandment to love in the front of our head, Christ’s dream for us would come true.

Maybe we wouldn’t be known as Christ’s disciples by the fact we put a Christian fish sticker on our car. Or wore a cross around our necks. Maybe we wouldn’t be know by what we said about what we believed. Maybe we wouldn’t be known by our what we voted for, or against.   Maybe we wouldn’t be known by the anger some Christians express on the evening news, or the mean-spiritedness others show in their day-to=day lives. Maybe instead we would just be known by the one thing Christ wanted us to be known for: by how we love.

In a few minutes we will be celebrating Communion together, and you’ll hear me repeat the words of institution, the phrases we are told Christ used as he broke bread and gave it to his disciples for the first time, on this same night many years ago. I’ll say to you that “on the night Christ was betrayed he took bread, and blessed it, and gave it to his disciples.”

You hear that all the time here, and if you are like me, you are uplifted by it.

But what if you heard this just as often too? “On the night Christ was betrayed he turned to his disciples and said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

We don’t say that often in service. Not in so many words. But I think we try to say it in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup. It’s no coincidence Christ said these things on the night of his supper, but we sometimes forget the say the words.

This year, let’s not forget. Between this Maundy Thursday and the one next year, let’s not forget what the mandate is. It’s so simple, and yet it demands our whole lives and our whole attentions. But here in the church, we can give Christ nothing less. Tonight as we eat this bread and drink this cup, as simple as it seems on the outside, know that we are choosing no less than to feast upon Christ’s love for us, and to bring that feast out to others. If every Christian would do that, no one would ever have to ask us who we follow. By our love, they would already know. Amen.