Making Community in the Wilderness: A Church Anniversary Sermon for April 8, 2018

This week, the town of Exeter had a birthday. On Tuesday, April 3rd, Exeter was 380 years old. That’s a pretty big celebration on its own, but for those of us who are a part of this church, it’s even bigger. When the earliest towns in New England were being settled back in the 17th century, you could not have a town until you first had a church. This was back before separation of church and state, of course. So back on April 3, 1638, not only did the town have to be chartered, but so to did a church. This church.

new_town_seal_10So, this week, The Congregational Church in Exeter turned 380. That’s pretty amazing when you think about it. To put that in perspective, we’re talking about roots that go back to just 18 years after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. Just eight years after the founding of Boston. And that’s 56 years before the Salem Witch Trials and138 years before the Declaration of Independence.

In other words, we’re old. But, in the scheme of the larger story of the church of Jesus Christ, we’re actually pretty young. And that’s where today’s Scripture comes in on this first Sunday after Easter Sunday. 

Today we turn to the book of Acts. Acts is the book of the Bible that tells about the very earliest church and how they became church. After Jesus’ resurrection, after that first Easter, the disciples started to have to figure out how to live together and share this experience that they had with others. They became the very first church. 

The passage from today tells us a little about how they lived: 

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.

With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.

In other words, they were one body, with one task: share the message of Christ’s resurrection. They lived as one unit, sharing everything they had, and they focused their all on the mission at hand. That was what it meant for them to be church.

So, next week, bring your bank account information and check books, and we’ll get started.

So, I’m kidding about that part. But, I read this passage and I realize there are some things that churches could learn from that first church. First, the ideas, as the passage says, that a church should be “of one heart and soul”. Now, by that I don’t mean that we should all believe the exact same things, or give up who we are as individuals. But I do mean that a church should be bound together by more than the fact that we all come to the same building on Sunday mornings. 

There has to be something bigger than that keeping us together. And I think that thing is the story that we gather around every week, and what it points to, which is the love and grace of Jesus Christ. We may struggle with what we believe, how we believe, or how to live in the world because of it, but at the heart of our life here together is simply that: the Gospel, the good news, of God’s love as found in Jesus Christ. Without it, there’s not much point in us being here. 

Acts tells us that the first church “gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus”. That might sounds like they were a little bit preachy. Fair enough. But I think their task was more than just saying what they had seen. And I think that task is the same one that you and I still have to carry out today. 

21314839_1664971753555416_1075856799694847201_nYou see, I believe that to be a Christian is to be called to testify to the good news of Resurrection. In other words, our job is to tell the Easter story again and again to a world that needs to hear it. Because, like I said last week, the Easter story is this: First, God became one of us and lived as one of us. Second, God’s love and grace were so threatening that the world tried to kill it. And third, God’s love and grace refused to die.

That’s the story that you and I are called to tell, just like those early disciples were. But we don’t tell it by standing on street corners and shouting it. We don’t push it onto others, insisting that they believe as we do. We don’t use our faith as a weapon. Instead, we do this…we live our lives in such a way that we are constantly witnessing to God’s love and grace. We do out best to love others, to stand up for the voiceless and marginalized, to take care of the least of these, and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. That is the testimony our faith asks of us.

It was a testimony the earliest members of this church tried to live as well. See, we would be remiss if we forgot our history, and for our church that means remembering that once this church was a church full of religious refugees.

In some ways that was true of many early New Englanders. They disagreed with the Church of England. Some, like the Pilgrims, were separatists who wanted complete freedom from that church. Others, like the Puritans, true to their names just wanted to “purify” the church from practices they didn’t agree with. That didn’t go over well, so some came across the ocean to Massachusetts, a place where they could more freely practice their faith.

But even in Massachusetts, even in a community of spiritual refugees, there was a right way and a wrong way to believe. And one man, John Wheelwright, ended up on the wrong side of things. He was a Puritan minister, like all the others, but instead of always preaching about the judgement of God, Wheelwright was more inclined to preach about God’s grace. 

That made him some enemies. They thought he was preaching heresy. And so, eventually, the other ministers and the authorities in Massachusetts had had enough. They banished him from the colony, and they sent him out to the absolute worst place they could think of: New Hampshire. 

So, that’s how this church got here. A minister talked so much about grace that he and his followers were forced to move here. Last year I said this about Wheelwright, but it still holds true: “You know that dour looking Puritan in the portrait down in the vestry? He was the fun one.” 

So, that’s how we got here. And 380 years later, despite everything that has happened in our world, and in a country that didn’t even exist yet, and in the walls of this church, we are still here. We are a very old church. But, we are also a very new one. We are new, because you and I are here now, and now it’s our turn to write the history of this place, this church that has been handed down to us by people who dared to testify to God’s love and grace. And this place that we are only temporary caretakers of, that we will one day hand on to others. 

And so, how do we be the church together? How do we remain of “one heart and soul” and work to testify by our words and deeds to God’s love and grace. As I wrap up today, I want to leave you with four ways I propose that we do that.

First, we make church a priority. We come on Sundays, and we worship together. We put it on our schedule, and we give our spiritual lives enough importance that we show up for this the way we would show up for anything else that’s important in our lives. And while we’re here, we get to know each other. We stay and have a cup of coffee. We talk to someone new. We become a part of this place.

That leads us to the second task: we invest in our community. I never want anyone to feel like there are things they have to do at church, but the reality is that there is a lot that we do as a church, and we all have to chip in a little to get it done. And so, we serve on committees. We teach Sunday school. We usher, or serve in the nursery, or greet people at the door. We give financially to the ministries of this church. We make a commitment of our time, talents, and treasure to this place because we believe it matters.

Third, we keep growing. Our spiritual learning does not stop when we are confirmed. We have to keep growing in our faith. And so, we are called to study Scripture, to pray regularly, to think about our faith in new ways, and to stay curious about what we believe and what it means to the world.

And, finally, we take our faith beyond our doors when we leave on Sundays. We serve on a church ministry, like Seacoast Family Promise or cooking dinner for the Salvation Army shelter, for instance. Or, we take our faith into our daily lives, advocating for change in our communities, standing up for those who have no voice. Or we take it into our homes and offices, treating people the way Christ calls us to treat them, living our lives as people of grace and faith. 

In other words, through all we do, we become one heart and one soul, with one another, and with Christ. Make church a priority, invest in church, grow spiritually, and take your faith with you all week long. I’ll be talking about these in the coming months, but today I ask you to reflect on these things. Because the ones who came before us did them, we’ve been here 380 years. Now, I don’t know what the world will be like in 380 years from today, but I do know that this place is good, and I do hope the Congregational Church in Exeter is a part of it. 

Auditing Our Hearts : Stewardship Sermon for November 12, 2017

There’s a story about a small Mennonite church that I recently heard Malcolm Gladwell, the Canadian writer, tell. Mennonites are relate to the Amish, but are usually more comfortable with modern-day innovations like cars and electricity. They share some core beliefs, though, like a commitment to non-violence. They also share a belief that once you are baptized as an adult, and a church member, you are expected to tithe.

Tithing is often understood as giving ten percent of your income to the church. That’s certainly true in Mennonite communities. And Gladwell’s story was about two farmers that were church members. And one farmer looked at the other’s land and business and house, and then he looked at the church giving records, which were open to everyone, by the way, and he didn’t think things added up.

And so, he went to the other farmer and he said, “You know Sam…I don’t think you’re actually giving ten percent of your income to the church.” The other man said, “I am, Jake.” And Jake said, “Yeah, Sam…I’m not sure I believe that’s true. So, I’m going to need to take a look at your finances.”

And here’s the crazy part: Sam lets him do it. Jake looks at all his business transactions and home records, and he finds that Sam is indeed tithing. And here’s the even more absurd part: at the end, there’s no ill will between Sam and Jake. Why? Because this is actually a pretty common practice. If you are a church member this is what you sign up for in the Mennonite tradition.

So, you all brought your financial records to church today, right?

I’m kidding. But next Sunday is indeed pledge Sunday. You received, or should have received, a mailing from the church. In it we included letters from Rebekah, your stewardship chair, and from me, as well as some answers to frequently asked questions about giving and a narrative budget.

We also included your pledge card. And we are asking each household to prayerfully consider how you might be able to financially support the church in 2018 and then write their pledge on that card and turn it in next Sunday. We do this not because we will then hold you to that number, and hector you for payment, but because we are trying to set a responsible and realistic budget for 2018, and it helps to know how people hope to support us in the coming year.

We got one of those cards at our house too, and as we are figuring out how we are getting ready to fill it out, I’ve found myself drawn to the story we read this week. Jesus and his disciples are at the Temple and they are watching people bring their gifts to the Temple’s treasury. Supporting the Temple was an important part of religious life, and some people would make a real show out of giving their gifts. They would show their generosity and importance by giving as publicly as possible.

But in the midst of this came a woman who was a poor widow. She had very, very little. And as she came up to the coffers, she was only able to give two small copper coins that weren’t worth much at all. The wealthy people, and even the not-so-wealthy ones, were probably watching this and scoffing. What good were a few pennies going to do the Temple? But Jesus had another take.

Jesus tells his disciples that the widow has given more than all the wealthy people combined. The reason why? She had next to nothing, and so she gave a gift that was extremely generous given her circumstances. The wealthy folks? They had almost everything, and the gifts they gave, even as big as they were, meant very little to them.

I’m drawn to that story as I am making decisions about giving for next year not because we have little, but because we have much. Our household is certainly not a wealthy one, at least in the American meaning of that word. We still have to be careful about spending, and we still send a significant portion of our money off each month to pay our student loans. But, at the end of the day, we are pretty fortunate.

Sometimes, though, it doesn’t feel that way. Sometimes, like when a pledge card comes in the mail, it feels a lot easier to claim that there isn’t enough to go around, and that we are being quite generous enough, thank you. In fact, it’s pretty easy to tell myself that we are very generous people, supporting not only the church, but also other places we care about, like our alma maters or non-profits.

But then a few years ago, I started to do what that one Mennonite farmer did to the other. Only, I did it to myself. I pulled out my tax returns and I looked at what we had made. And then I pulled out our records on giving, and I looked at how much we had donated. And I was surprised. I didn’t think we were at ten percent quite yet, but I thought we must be close. But the numbers didn’t lie. We weren’t anywhere near ten percent. We weren’t even at five.

Unlike the Mennonites, we don’t talk about giving much in the church. We’re afraid of looking money-hungry or scaring people off. Truth be told, my college asks for my money a whole lot more than my church does. And, though I love my college, they have an over $6 billion endowment. While I’m glad to give, I’m not kidding myself that my small yearly donation is keeping them afloat.

But church is different, not just because we don’t have a $6 billion endowment, but because this is more than just a donation. The church is not an outside institution for which I have an affinity, no matter how great. The church is a group of people, you and me, who are trying to make sure that this community will exist to praise God, teach the faith, and serve others.

Giving to the church is about more than a tax-deductible charitable donation. It’s an act of discipleship. It’s about saying that this is your community of faith, and that you are willing to invest what you have been given back into it.

Since my discovery of my own true giving habits a few years back, we have been trying to be more deliberate about being generous in my household. Each year we try to increase the percentage of what we give away. And what we have found is that this is not just a financial decision; this is a spiritual one. And it’s about a whole lot more than ten percent.

The reality is that the idea of the ten percent tithe sort of evolved over time. There’s nothing in the Bible that says you really have to give ten percent. You could give less. You could also give more, by the way. I find percentages useful because it helps me to judge what I’m giving based on my income level in a certain year, but you might have some other way that works for you, and that’s fine.

But what has become important to me is the idea that not just ten percent of what I have belongs to God, but that one hundred percent does. Deciding how I use my resources, including money, has become a spiritual decision. What I spend, what I save, what I give all have spiritual component for me. I try to be a good steward, a good manager, of everything I’ve been given.

And here’s where I remember that story of the widow, who came to the Temple with her two copper coins, and I wonder about what her own spiritual decisions around having enough, and giving enough, were like. She had every excuse to keep those coins. Some might even say that should should have kept them. Maybe her giving even seems a little reckless for a woman with so little.

But here’s what I think happened: I think that she made a spiritual decision about whether or not she had enough. And I think she thought she did, and so she decided that she could give a little away. And in that giving, I think she found joy.

Her gift was greater than any other gift given that day. Not because it was a large one, but because it was an extravagant one. She gave more extravagantly from her limited resources than those who were able to give without much thought from their own wealth. In the end, she was the most generous, and she was the one who truly understood what it was to have “enough”.

Giving is at its heart about making a spiritual decision about whether or not you have enough. The more I’ve been willing to be honest about what I have, the more clearly I’ve been able to understand that I have more than enough. The more I have understood this simple fact, the more I have been able to give. And the unexpected blessing in that is that in that giving Heidi and I have a sense of greater simplicity and purpose, and of greater joy. And even still, I know that our gifts are nowhere near as generous as the poor widow’s.

I’ll close with this, as I do every year. I do not know who gives to the church, or what they give. I do not wish to know. I hear from pastor friends that this is a rarity these days. You are supposed to “know your donors” so that you can cultivate them. But you are not donors. You are the church. And I trust that each one of you is giving as you are able, and in accordance with what you have been given. No one will be asking you to open up your financial books here at the church.

But this year, as you make a decision about what you can pledge to give, I ask you to let the story of the widow’s extravagant generosity be your guide. And I ask you to remember the story of those two farmers, and to sit down with yourself, open up your own books, and ask whether what you see before you represents your spiritual commitments. And then, make your pledge. Whether it is two copper coins, or something more, make this spiritual commitment with a joyful heart.

50 Theses for a Still-Reforming Church

I’m no Martin Luther. I’ll be the first to say that. But today, on the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation, I set a challenge for myself. Writing is my spiritual practice, so I decided to write my own set of theses. I didn’t go for 95 of them because, honestly, I didn’t have that much to say. Instead I chose 50, one for each decade of the Reformation.

Most of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses centered on reforming the church, so that’s where I focused my own ideas. This is simply a spiritual exercise for me but one that, in the spirit of Luther, I wanted to share with others. I’d love to hear what resonates with you, and what does not. And, I’d love to hear your own theses for a church that is still being reformed.

Here they are:

Basic affirmations on church:
1. That wherever two or more are gathered in Christ’s name, he is present, and therefore Christ is present in the church.
2. That “the church” may refer to local churches, as in the case of congregations, to the “wider church, as in the case of denominations, or to the “universal church” as in the case of the entire body of Christian believers.
3. That the local church is at the heart of our faith. Without strong local churches, denominations and movements cannot hope to survive.
4. That the purpose of the local church is to equip those who would be Christ’s disciples to live out their faith through worship, formation, and encouragement.
5. That local churches possess the best understanding of their community and its needs.
On clergy:
 6. That pastors are called first and foremost to be “pastors and teachers”, capable of equipping others to understand and embody the faith.
7. That pastoral ministry is a calling that demands adequate preparation, including in-person intellectual and spiritual formation in a community of learning.
8. That pastors should be able to use wisdom from other disciplines, such as administration or marketing, but should be encouraged to develop theological and Biblical depth first.
9. That candidates for ministry should be given support, including financial support, in order that they may better prepare for their calling.
10. That seminaries should be upheld as the standard for ministerial formation, and should be invested in by local churches and the wider church.
11. That the local church deserves nothing less than well-trained ministers who are committed to serving as pastors.
12. That clergy should be the first to affirm that our calling does not make us special or unique, and that the calling of every Christian to discipleship, lay or ordained, is equally important and challenging.
On the need for the wider church:
13. That even churches with a strong congregational polity need the mutual support and fellowship of other congregations.
14. That covenantal relationships between congregations strengthen all involved, and provide a way for local churches to share resources and engage in impactful ministry and social witness.
15. That when the wider church is empowered to do ministry, in local judicatories or national denominations, the wider church exists to serve the local churches, and not vice versa.
On the administration of the wider church:
16. That wider church administrators at all levels are called to be servant leaders.
17. That these leaders should constantly discern the will of God and the spiritual needs of the people they serve.
18. That the wider church must be on guard against being so excessively influenced by corporate culture that it becomes something that is no longer church.
19. That when wider church bodies become divested from their concern about local churches, they have strayed from their mission.
20. That when the wider church experiences serious disconnection with local churches, attention must be made to repairing that relationship.
On the transparency and accountability of the wider church:
21. That given our covenantal relationships, it is fitting that wider church ministries should be financially supported primarily by local congregations.
22. That local churches should support the wider church generously.
23. That any setting of the wider church should be answerable to the congregations which support it.
24. That full transparency around financial and budgetary matters, or the stewardship of any other resources, should be considered normative.
25. That while confidentiality must and should be preserved around certain matters, a culture of secrecy must be avoided at all costs.
26. That when choosing leaders, the people of God should feel confident that a fair and transparent process was used, and that the discernment of God’s will was at the center of that process.
27. That the wider church may speak on behalf of local churches but must also be willing to listen to the will of those it represents.
On always being reformed:
28. That the “freedom of conscience” valued in Protestant traditions be upheld, along with the right of individual Christians to raise concerns or critiques.
29. That those who seek reform should be able to speak freely, without fear of intimidation or retribution.
30. That the unity of the church should be preserved, but that true unity requires space to be made for faithful dissent.
31. That debate and dialogue is not an affront to church unity, but rather a tool that may be used for communal spiritual discernment.
32. That no setting of the church should ever believe itself to be infallible, or beyond dysfunction.
33. That the spirit of continuing reformation should be nurtured, inconvenient though it may sometimes be, and be allowed to flourish in our life together.
On equipping disciples:
34. That education and formation are essential for the faithful continuation of any church tradition.
35. That a major priority of the wider church should be to support local churches as they form disciples.
36. That wider church settings should cherish the legacy of the Reformation and make available and accessible resources that will help Christians to understand their faith.
37. That the promotion of Christ’s love and grace should be more important to the wider church than the promotion of itself.
On the wider church’s mission in the world:
38: That Christ has called us to three great tasks: to love God, to love ourselves as God loves us, and to love our neighbors.
39. That this witness must be deeply rooted in our belief in Jesus Christ, and in his call to us to be disciples.
40: That the wider church is called to serve our neighbors through the generous sharing of resources.
41. That we must strive for the equality of all people without asking for assimilation.
42. That we must appreciate the beauty of diversity without appropriating what is not ours.
43. That we must be a witness for peace and justice both globally and in our own backyards.
44. That we must first mirror the justice we hope to see in the world within our own organizations.
On courage:
45: That the church is called into a future in which God is already waiting.
46. That true discipleship means that we who are the church must follow Christ into this future, and be willing to lose everything.
47. That unless we are willing to lose even our own life, the church can never hope to be reborn.
48. That if a church is truly the body of Christ, that body can live in the certain hope of resurrection.
49. That the church’s resurrection often comes in the form of reformation.
50. That God still has a use for the church, and that we are being re-formed today that we may endure for the next 500 years, and beyond.
If you’re interested in what it means to live our faith courageously, you might be interested in my next book. Courageous Faith: How to Rise and Resist in a Time of Fear, is available for pre-order now:
https://www.uccresources.com/products/courageous-faith-how-to-rise-and-resist-in-a-time-of-fear-heath

Good King Wenceslas: Sermon for May 14, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our Story: Sermon for the 379th Anniversary of the Congregational Church in Exeter, April 2, 2017

An audio recording of this sermon is available here.

When you’re telling a story, there are two ways to do it. One is that you can focus on a very short period of time, like a year, or even a week. Those can be great stories. James Joyce’s Ulysses might just be the best work of Twentieth Century fiction and that takes place entirely in one day.

But on the other end of the spectrum, there are the stories that take not just years, but generations, and centuries, to tell. We read from a book of those stories every Sunday. The Bible spans centuries, and we can never forget that some of the central characters were separated by long spans of time. From Moses to Paul, for instance, was probably about 1300 years.

So that’s a really long story. And near the end of the story told in the Bible, there’s the start of a new story. The passage from the book of Acts that JD read this morning is about how the Christian faith started spreading and growing, and how Christ’s disciples and new converts to the faith began to form into a community.

The passage tells us that the believers “devoted themselves” to the teachings, and to praying, giving to others, sharing fellowship, eating together, praising God, and growing in number. In other words, they became the church.

That’s the larger story that we are a part of today. Because nearly 2000 years ago the first Christians learned that community mattered, we know to gather in this community, and to live out our faith with one another. This is the story of the church in every age and in every place.

But every church that has ever been formed, every community that has ever gathered around the story of Christ, has its own story too. And it’s the story of this community, and what God has done in it, that I want to talk about a little today.

exeter church logo triple vertical-1A few years ago a pastor friend down in Florida was talking about old churches. He was saying to a group of New England pastors, “You know, they’re really old…they’ve been around since the 1800’s!”

There was a little suppressed laughter and he was like, “wait…I forgot…how old are your churches?”

And then the roll call started. Late 1700’s. Early 1700’s. Late 1600’s. And I very humbly said, “Oh, you know, 1638.”

People are always surprised to hear just how old we are. We’re not the oldest church in continuous existence in New England. The first comes from 1620. But we are close. 379 years ago tomorrow, our church, and by extension the entire town of Exeter, was founded.

It’s worth noting that this story does not start joyfully. The people who came here to Exeter were in a real sense religious refugees. The Rev. John Wheelwright had been kicked out of Massachusetts for the heresy of being too focused on the love and grace of God.

So, that dour old Puritan in the painting down in the vestry? He was the fun one.

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Rev. John Wheelwright

Around the same time Wheelwright’s sister-in-law, a woman named Ann Hutchinson, was also kicked out. So, Hutchinson went south to what is now Rhode Island and Wheelwright and his band of followers came here to a place no one back then wanted to go: New Hampshire.

They settled on the banks of the Squamscott and they started to build a new community. And back in Puritan times, if you wanted to have a town, you had to have a church. There was no separation of church and state back then. They were essentially one and the same.

That’s the start of our story. A few years later this area came under Massachusetts’ control, and Wheelwright, still persona-non-grata, had to move on. But the church stayed. And even though it had some rocky years at first, it took root. And so did the town. And because of that, 379 years later we are still here.

Think of those 379 years. Think of everything that has happened in that time. This parish predates American independence by 138 years. A signer of the Declaration of Independence was a part of this very church.

Later in 1781 John Phillips and other church members took seriously the need for education and founded what is now Phillips Exeter Academy. And in the next century this church took a stand against slavery, and committed itself to abolition.

In the 20th century this church sent young people off to World War I and World War II. Later it sent its pastor off to march with Dr. King at Selma. It watched the Cold War come and go, and society rapidly change. And all the while, it endured, here at the heart of Exeter. And the story went on.

But that is only part of the story. Because this church has survived a lot of change inside its doors too. First, there’s the physical change. For instance, did you know that we are in the “new building”? This is actually the fifth church building, built recently, in 1798.

This church has also seen its fair share of changes involving clergy, and their role. When this building was first built, there was no second floor sanctuary. Instead, you came in the front doors and sat in pews in what is now the vestry. But the pastor would stand about where I am now. And he, always a he, would look down on his congregation, and preach to them for hours.

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The church in the later 1800’s.

Sometime in the 1800’s things changed and the sanctuary was moved upstairs, and the pastor rightfully was brought to the same level as the people, both physically and symbolically. (The sermons became a lot shorter too.)

In all this church, excluding interims, has had 38 senior pastors. Each has had their own style, and each has influenced the direction of the church. And no matter whether they were beloved or their tenures were rocky, they were not the church. And when they left, the story went on.

There have been challenges too. Like the fact that or a large part of our history this church was supported by the taxes people paid to the town. We were the only church, and you had to belong, so everyone was taxed and that’s how the pastor got paid and the building stayed open.

But in the 1800’s, when there were more faiths in town, that ended. And the church was absolutely panicked about it. They thought for sure that this would be the end. But instead, people dug deep, and gave. And in the end they gave more willingly in gifts than they had ever given grudgingly in taxes. And the story went on.

There was also the time this church split it two. In 1748, in the heart of the Great Awakening, theological differences were so great that this church split into First Parish, which was more orthodox and remained here, and second parish, which was just down the street by the Academy.

They remained separate for 170 years, not rejoining one another until 1918 or, as I like to think of it, until everyone who remembered why they were fighting was dead.

That’s one reason that we have our name. Once the churches rejoined, we became one. And so was no longer First Congregational Church of Exeter, or Second Church, but only The Congregational Church in Exeter. And the story went on.

Later we added the initials UCC, for United Church of Christ. The Congregational Churches merged with another denomination in 1957 to form the UCC. But there was plenty of debate. New England Congregationalists have a healthy suspicion of hierarchy, and cherish independence. Still, we joined, and became connected with another larger story.

1473964586467In recent years, this church has been called to take other stands as well. Like in 1996 when the question of whether we should become an Open and Affirming congregation, one which welcomed people of all sexual orientations or gender identities, came before the church. You have to remember that this was truly a different time. The decision to become ONA led to some leaving the church. And yet, sometimes you have to move forward and do the next right thing, even if not everyone is onboard. Because that’s the work of faith. And even then, the story went on.

And so, this morning we sit here in this place, and we remember that the story did not begin with us. We are here because generations of faithful people tried their best to be God’s church here in Exeter. We are here because a cast of characters we will never know wrote a story that was rich enough to last centuries.

But hopefully we are also here because we want to be a part of the story. We are here because in some small way we are hoping to write our own sentences and paragraphs into the story of this church.

You and I get to write this chapter in the story of the Congregational Church in Exeter. And, God willing, long after we are gone, others will be writing this story too. Because this isn’t just our story. It’s the story of John Wheelwright, and it’s the story of John Phillips. But it’s also the story of unnamed women who kept the doors open. It’s the story of children who were raised in this church, and in the faith. Children whose names we will never know, and children who grew up to be men like Harry Thayer.

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Singing “Happy Birthday Dear Church” before cutting the birthday cake.

And it’s the story of generations left to come. My hope is that generations from now another pastor will be standing at the pulpit of this church and preaching about this church’s birthday. Neither they nor the people they serve will probably know our names. But they will know us. They will know us by our works, and they will know us by the story that, with the help of God, we have written for them. The one that they will then take their turn writing.

I pray that the story we leave to them is one worth reading, and one worth telling. And I pray that what we do today will make it possible for them to truly write a masterpiece. We are so very fortunate to be a part of the story of the Congregational Church in Exeter, because long after we are gone, the story will go on.

And so, Happy Birthday, Congregational Church in Exeter. And may God bless us with many more.

Good Seeds. Good Soil: Sermon for October 30, 2016

Note: This is the second installment of a sermon series on stewardship. For last week’s please read: https://emilycheath.com/2016/10/23/why-did-the-samaritan-cross-the-road-a-sermon-for-stewardship-kick-off-sunday/

I know nothing about gardening. Years ago when I was moving from Atlanta my mentor gave me a plant that she had kept alive in her office for years. It was a really beautiful Easter lily that I had watched bloom year after year, and she wanted me to have it.

And so, I took it, and I remember holding it and thinking, “you are beautiful…and I am going to kill you.”

I did. Not maliciously. I did what I thought I was supposed to do. I watered it. I put it in a window where it got sunlight. But I was in graduate school and working and I was barely home, so I kept forgetting to water it, and one day I looked and it was clear that there was just no way life was coming back from the now-dusty soil.

My ancestors were farmers, and I’m sure they would probably be mortified to know I share their genes. And even now people give me plants and they say “oh, these are so easy to take care of…you’ll be fine” and I’m like “you have no idea what I’m capable of”.

So, when it comes to gardening, farming, or planting, I have very little real world experience and even less success. But it’s the language of seeds, and soil, and growing that Jesus often uses when he’s teaching his disciples.

That’s not surprising. He was speaking the language of his time. The people listening depended on the land for their food and survival, and they were more intimately connected to it than those of us who can just walk into the grocery store and fill our shopping carts.

And so he told them two stories that they would appreciate. The first was about a farmer who went out to plant. He took seeds and scattered them. Some of the seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it before it could even take root. And other seeds ended up in the rocks, but still managed to bloom. The only problem was that the soil was too rocky for the plants to get rooted, and so they withered and died. And other seed was thrown into the weeds, and so as soon as it grew the weeds choked it and it died.

But some seed…some…fell on good soil. This was rich, well-cultivated, nourishing soil. And it put down good roots, and it blossomed and thrived. In fact, Jesus said it grew to over 100 times its size.

So what’s the message? If you try to plant something that you want to grow and flourish, you have to put it in good soil. You don’t put the seed in with rocks, or weeds, or dusty roads…you save it for the good earth that will nourish it. That way it will thrive. Even I, in all of my gardening ineptitude, can understand that.

That’s the first part of the story. Later in the same teaching Jesus tells another story, also involving seeds. Jesus says that “the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed”. Now, a mustard seed is a tiny little seed that you wouldn’t think much of. You wouldn’t think it could grow into anything. But when you plant it, it becomes a thriving plant. Jesus says it’s so big that even birds come and nest in it. It’s amazing that something so inconsequential could grow into something so mighty.

So, if the first story was about the power of good soil, this one is about the power of good seeds. And Jesus is telling us that if we have good soil, and we have good seeds, we can grow incredible things.

This is the second week of our stewardship sermon series and, like I told you last week, this isn’t about why you should give to the church. I made my case about that last week. But I wanted to preach this series because I believe stewardship is the greatest outward manifestation of our faith.

I’m not just talking about how we use our money there, though that’s part of it. Instead I’m talking about stewardship like I explained it last week, which is about how we use, how we manage, every good gift that has been given to us. That can be money, but it’s also about our time, our abilities, our presence, and more.

All of these things are limited. None of us is given an unlimited supply of money, or hours, or talents. And so every choice we make in life about how we use these precious resources is an act of stewardship. Every single choice.

To put it another way, God has given each of us packets of seeds that only we get to choose how we plant. And these seeds may not look like much on their own. Maybe they’re no bigger than mustard seeds. But when we choose to plant them in good, rich soil, they can grow into something incredible.

But, how do we decide where to plant? And what if we doubt that our seeds can really grow into something worth planting?

About a year ago Heidi and I decided to look at our giving in a deliberate way. We both feel incredibly grateful for certain people and places that have changed our lives in real ways through the years. And I believe gratitude is one of the most life-changing attitudes we can adopt. It can completely transform your life. And part of being grateful is learning to say thank you.

I wanted to say thank you to the places that had shaped me, particularly when I was younger. And so I decided that I would make small monthly gifts to my college, and my seminary. We also wanted to support other things we loved, like public radio, and Star Island, and so we set up monthly automatic giving for that.

Lastly, I wanted to show gratitude to that mentor I had in my twenties, ironically the same one who gave me that plant. Don’t worry…my thank you did not involve any living thing. Instead, I make a small monthly gift to the non-profit where she works, one whose work she believes in deeply.

Sometimes I look at my bank account, and I feel badly that I can’t give more. I look at those monthly gifts and I think “that really won’t buy them much…maybe some copier paper…maybe a book.” It’s easy to ask, “What’s the point?”

But then I remember the mustard seed, and how something so small can grow and flourish. And I think about how my seeds are just a few scattered with so many others. And I give thanks for all the planters who have found this good place, and chosen to commit what they have been given to the soil. Together we are growing something great.

On another note, I also look at what fields need more seeds, and which are already well-seeded. I’ll give you an example. I absolutely love my college. I am so grateful for what I learned there and who I am because of it. So I show that gratitude with my monthly gift. But here’s the catch…my college has a $6.6 billion endowment. It’s one of the largest in the country. I’m happy to give what I can, but I know they’re going to be okay no matter what.

My seminary, on the other hand, does not have a multi-billion dollar endowment. They do okay, but they depend on individual alums and others to give generously in a way that my college doesn’t. And so, though I value both schools equally, I feel like giving a little more to my seminary is the right thing to do. Both schools have good soil, but one is already heavily planted and the other needs good seeds. And so, I feel like I can make a real impact.

I’ve been talking about money here, but this is about more than just our financial gifts. This is also about where we plant the other seeds we’ve been given too. Where do we invest our time? Where do we put our talents to good use? Where do we plant our very hearts?

The places where we plant these things, these good seeds that we have been given, they say more about us than we know. The soil we choose to work in tells the world what we value, and who we are. And most of all, it says that we believe in the potential of every good thing that God has given to us, no matter how small, to grow into something incredible.

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About a week ago I was given a visible reminder of how true this can be. I was standing in the parsonage driveway, looking at the large chestnut trees that hang over it. Tootie Cole, who holds a lot of institutional memory of this place, happened just then to walk up. And she said to me “these are George Booth’s chestnut trees”.

George Booth was the pastor of this church from 1956-1967. And sometime in his tenure, 50 or 60 years ago now, he planted some small chestnut trees at the parsonage. Today they are tall, and strong, and every fall they drop their chestnuts onto the cars of the pastors who now serve here.

George Booth is gone now, but this church remains. And so do his trees, which still bear good fruit. He planted other good seeds here too. But that’s not just true of pastors. That’s true of every person who in the past 378 years has passed through the doors of this church, opened their hands to reveal the good seeds God has given to them, and then decided this was worthy soil in which to plant. What they sowed, we harvest. And what we sow will be enjoyed not just by us, but by generations untold.

That’s true for this good soil, and it’s true of every other place that your life touches. And so, look at the seeds that God has given to you. Give thanks for each one. And then, find places that are worthy of them, and, with hope and faith, plant your seeds and your heart in that good soil. Amen?

Why Did the Samaritan Cross the Road? A sermon for Stewardship Kick-off Sunday

About a month ago I was listening to an NPR pledge drive. And Ira Glass, one of the hosts, took it in a unique direction. He was asking people to call in, not to pledge themselves, but to essentially tell on someone they knew who listened to public radio but who had never pledged.

This one woman called in and turned in her husband. She said he listened to public radio all the time. He loved all sorts of different shows. But there was just one problem; he had never actually given a dime to the station.

So, the poor guy. This is bad enough. But Glass takes it one step further. He calls him, and gives him a good-natured hard time about never giving. And the husband was actually incredibly good-natured about it too, and by the end he not only agreed to pledge, but was quite generous, saying that he was making up for lost time.

So, if about now you’re worried that this will be our new stewardship program here at church…let me ease your mind. There will be no turning your spouse in. There will be no phone calls, radio broadcast or otherwise. Giving to church should never be a shame-based affair, even when lighthearted.

But I did laugh, because when you’re asking people to give, it’s tempting to try just about anything.

You probably already know we are in the middle of our annual church stewardship campaign because you received your pledge packet at home. And every year around this time I preach a sermon about stewardship and why supporting this church is important. And every year I try to make it interesting, so, I’m always looking for good ideas.

Ira Glass’ method is out, so we’re going to have to settle for a sermon.

So, first, what is this word “stewardship”? It’s kind of archaic sounding. It sounds extra “churchy” and serious. Like, this is something that you need to do or God will be like a really mad Ira Glass, calling you up and demanding more.

But the truth is nothing like that. The word stewardship itself comes from the idea of “stewards”. These were people who were appointed to look over and manage prominent people’s property or money, like a king or a lord.

It applies to the Christian practice of giving because, at the root of it, Christians believe that all we have comes not from ourselves, but from God. And because we ourselves belong to God, we believe that all we have also belongs to God.

A friend of mine, Quinn Caldwell, is fond of taking up the offering at his church by saying this: “I’m not saying you’re a thief, but the money in your wallet isn’t yours.” In other words, what we have is not ultimately our own. It belongs to God too. But how we use it, that is our choice. And that is stewardship.

This morning we begin a three week sermon series on stewardship. This isn’t a three week series on why you should give to the church. I’ll only be talking about that aspect today. But this is an exploration of what it means to be a good steward, or good manager, of all that God has entrusted to your care, like money, time, abilities, and more.

We are using the Biblical texts that the UCC picked out for this year’s stewardship inserts. You have one in your bulletin today. And the overarching theme of their campaign this year come from the story of the Good Samaritan which we read today.

Layout 1I love the story of the Good Samaritan. It’s one of my favorites. But when we got the sample material for this fall, for the life of me I couldn’t understand why this was a stewardship text.

And so here we are wrestling with this story where a man is robbed and is left for dead on the side of the road. And as he lays there, people from his own community walk by. Religious leaders. Powerful men. They all stay on the other side of the road, avoiding him.

But one man doesn’t. He’s a Samaritan, a member of a group that was usually looked down upon. But he crosses the road, and bandages the man’s wounds. And then he takes him to the inn, and he gives the innkeeper money and says “take care of this man…I’ll be back to pay whatever it costs”.

Jesus tells this story to his disciples and asks, “Who was a true neighbor to this man?” They answer, “The one who took care of him”. And Jesus says very simply, “Go and do likewise.”

It’s a beautiful story, one at the very heart of our faith. But what does this have to do with stewardship?

I wrestled with that until one of you, unknowingly, gave me the answer in our Wednesday book group recently. You were talking about an experiment where seminarians, students preparing to be ministers, were asked to quickly write a sermon about the Good Samaritan. After they did so they were then sent to another building to preach it.

There was a catch. Some were given adequate time to write and get to the other building. But others were given short periods of time, so the scientists knew they’d be stressed out and hurrying.

What the seminarians didn’t know was that along the route from the first building to the second, they had an actor play a man in distress. He would ask the seminarians to help him. Keep in mind, these were people who had just read and written a sermon on the Good Samaritan.

What do you think happened? It’s not so surprising. The ones who had plenty of time stopped to help the man, the way the Good Samaritan did. But the ones who were rushed? They walked on past.

I don’t think that the second group was filled with bad people who wished ill on the man. Rather, I think something like this happened. I think they knew the man needed help, but they were counting on someone else, someone with more time, to do the helping.

And here’s where the Good Samaritan story makes sense for stewardship. When we are pressed for time, when we are pressed for money, when we have so much going on, we want to give, but we think and hope that the next guy will do it.

That’s human. I’ve done that. We all have. Even the guy that Ira Glass called on the phone. He said he had always just counted on other people to pledge, saying to himself that he would do it some day when he had more time, or more money. He had good intentions, but he never quite got there.

I think that’s true in churches, too. We have good intentions, but we depend on others to do the giving. And, they will. We have generous people in our midst. And we might think that the little we could give wouldn’t make much of difference.

But here’s the question: What if we all gave anyway?

I titled this sermon, “Why did the Samaritan cross the road?” The answer is, in fact, “to get to the other side.” But why did he want to get there? And I think the answer to that is because he knew he could make a difference.

And so, in the context of stewardship, what if we all crossed the road?

If you’ve ever tried lifting something heavy by yourself, and then tried lifting the same thing with others, you know that many hands make light work. The work of upholding this congregation and our ministries is heavy. A lot of good people hold it up. But can you imagine if we all lent a hand? How much higher could we be lifted?

And so how do we cross that road? And what keeps us from crossing it?

I think the biggest thing is our fear of not having enough. That’s acutely true around money. It’s not about our desire. We want to do the right thing just as much as those seminarians who were rushed for time probably did.

But when we are afraid of not having enough, our stress becomes very real. A few years ago the American Psychological Association did a study and found that 64% of Americans said that money is a “somewhat” or “very significant” source of stress. Additionally 31% of partnered people said it was a significant stressor in their relationship.

I’ll give you another statistic. I would wager that just about 100% of clergy would say that the stewardship sermon is a “very significant” source of stress for them.

I’ve told you before that stewardship season feels a little like the NPR pledge drive. And I don’t have Ira Glass to make calls for me. But the reality is this is about more than paying the bills. This is about more than money. And this is about more than even this church.

This is about investing in a life that is congruent with our faith. Billy Graham, as I’ve told you before, once said that if you want to see what you really worship, look at your check book. Update that today, and log on to your bank account, check your credit card statements.

How we spend our money is an act of our faith. And that’s why I’m crossing the road to have this conversation with you. Because this is about more than giving. Because overcoming the fear act holds us back, and aligning our values with our resources is all about faithful living.

I would be remiss to not ask you now to think about how you will cross the road to support this place that we all love. I’m not asking you to stress you out or shame you. There will be no Ira Glass phone calls. And who gives what is a closely guarded confidence at this church; not even I know, nor do I want to.

But I am inviting you to take a risk, and to cross the road. And if you already have crossed that road, I’m asking you to go a little farther. I’m asking you to be one of the hands that works together to lift us up so that we can thrive.

We have amazing things happening right now at church. We have a Christian growth program that continues to be strong, and grow. In Allan and David we have tremendous commitment and talent. We have monthly dinners for younger families, and weekly church school for elementary kids and youth groups for middle and high schoolers.

We have a mission and action committee that never rests, giving generously of their time, and also of our funds. We have Kim, our choir director, and voices that help us weekly to praise God. We have worship that gathers in an increasing number of friends and neighbors every week. We have a well-maintained historic building that houses not just us, but community events like blood drives and AA meetings, lectures and open houses. We have people like Mary, Jim, Faith, and Sharon who help this church keep running. And we have been blessed with so much more.

And all of these things are free to all who wish to enjoy them. Like public radio, they are just there for those who need them. The bill is not in your mailbox. But like public radio, this doesn’t just happen, and it doesn’t just happen for free. The responsibility falls on the gathered body of the church. They happen because we work together as a community to lift them this church up.

And so, don’t give just to pay the bills. You should never give to a church just to pay its bills. Instead, give because you believe good is happening here. Give because you see a bright future. Give because you are ready to cross the road. And give because God has made it possible for you to do so.

This week as you ponder how you will give, I leave you with this question: Why did the Samaritan cross the road? And why, and how, will you? Amen?

Lost and Gathered: Sermon for September 11, 2016

We’ve all been lost before. I don’t mean that in a metaphorical sense. I mean, we’ve all been literally, physically lost.

The first time I remember being lost I was about six. I was at the grocery store with my mom, and I must have gone down one aisle while she went down the next. And if I had just stayed where I was, I’m sure she would have circled back in about five seconds to get me.

But of course I didn’t do that.

Instead, I started a pilgrimage. I went everywhere trying to find my mom. Dairy, produce, the cereal aisle. But I never found her. And, in my six year old mind, in this huge store, I resigned myself to the fact that I was now permanently lost, and I would never see my family again.

I apparently had a really vivid and tragic imagination for a six year old.

Obviously things turned out okay for me that day, but I learned then that being lost can be terrifying.

You probably know that too. So did Jesus. And so he told two stories about being lost.

People were questioning why Jesus spent so much time with the tax collectors and other outcasts. The good religious folks didn’t like that, and thought he was wasting his time. Why pay attention to these unworthy people instead of the more deserving?

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Fiber artwork by Kathy James.

And so Jesus tells this story about a shepherd who has 100 sheep, but who loses one. He asks them, what kind of shepherd wouldn’t leave the 99 together and go to look for the one that’s lost? And Jesus says that when the lost sheep is found, the shepherd will be so happy that he will celebrate.

He tells another story, this time about a woman with ten valuable coins who loses one. He asks them, who wouldn’t go looking, high and low, for that lost coin? And who wouldn’t rejoice when they found it?

That feeling of joy when the sheep is found, or the coin retrieved, says Jesus, is how God feels when someone who was outside the community is brought back in. And that’s why Jesus goes out and finds the people at the margins. People who were “lost”; people no one tried to find.

That time I was lost in the grocery store my mother was, of course, trying to find me. I just kept moving, so I made it a lot more difficult than it needed to be. I was good at that.

But, finally, I remembered something she had told me, which was that if we ever got separated, I was supposed to go to the front of the store, and tell them I was lost.

So, I did that. And the manager got on the overhead speaker that covered the whole store, and announced, “Will the mother of Emily Heath please come to the front of the store?”

I’m sure my mother died a little of embarrassment. But, she did find me. And once we were reunited, everything was okay again.

That day being lost was scary to me. But as I grew older, it wasn’t so frightening. Now I see it as an adventure. I actually like getting lost on backroads because I get to see things I’ve never seen before, and then I can try to find my way back. I feel like I’m sort of getting lost on my own terms, and learning new paths.

This drives Heidi crazy. She and my mother have a lot of empathy for one another.

But there are times when we get a kind of lost where not even a GPS can help us out. There are times when we might know exactly where we are physically, but when our hearts and our minds feel so far away from God, and from God’s love and grace.

When that’s happened in my life it’s felt far scarier, and far more hopeless, than even that day when I was six.

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Road sign in Dover, Vermont.

Even worse, there are times in our lives when we don’t even know we’re lost. We keep going down a path that is wrong for us, one that leads us further and further away from who we are meant to be, or what we are meant to do.

Sometimes we don’t know how lost we are until we’re standing in the middle of the wilderness, we don’t know north from south anymore, and we’re sure that we have somehow gone too far for even God to find us.

I’ve been there. Maybe you have too. Maybe you’re there now.

It’s tempting in those places to try to find a way out by ourselves. It’s like six year old me running around the grocery store. But sometimes the best thing we can do in those times is to stop running, and to go to the front of the metaphorical store, and to call out to God that we are ready to be found.

Just like any other good parent, God’s not going to leave us there. But unlike any other good parent, God’s known where we were the whole time, and God’s just been waiting for us to be ready to come home. God wants nothing better than to gather us in.

That’s a good reminder on this gathering Sunday. Because today we are gathered back at church after a summer in which we have been spread, literally, across the globe. But today we have been brought back.

Now, the church is not God. It’s not to be worshipped like God. But Christians do believe the church is the body of Christ on this earth. We believe that together we are Christ’s hands and feet and heart. And we can’t fully be that until we’re all here.

That’s why it matters that you have found your way back here this morning. You are not lost. And that’s good news. But it’s also a challenge. Because sometimes, we are the missing. We are the lost sheep and coins. We are the ones who get to get found, and get rejoiced over.

But sometimes, we aren’t the missing. Instead, we figure out that we are missing something. And in those times, we are the ones who have to go out and do the seeking.

I’ve been thinking a bit about what is missing in the world. Lots of things, of course. But what, in particular, have we lost that we can now find?

And as I was thinking about these two stories Jesus told about the lost being found, I realized something. Jesus is talking about community here. He’s showing us that community matters. And community is in short supply everywhere in our world right now.

We see it when we look at our nation, increasingly polarized. We see it when we are so busy with our long list of commitments that we start letting the things that matter most take a backseat. We see it when we don’t know our neighbors, and we don’t work together for the good of the places where we live.

We see it when we become so focused on our individual ambitions and pursuits, that we forgot that God calls us together, and not apart.

And that’s why church matters. And that’s why church is completely countercultural.

You’re not here because you are going to get something tangible in return. There is no reward to be had, no trophy to be won. It won’t do you much good on a resume or college application. It can’t make you any money.

Instead you’re here for community; with God and one another. You are here for what might very well be the lost sheep of lives in which we have 99 or more other very good things, but we still miss this one thing the most.

We are here because we are the church, and you cannot do church without being a part of community. Following Jesus is not, and never has been, a solo pursuit. And while that is somewhat inconvenient at times, that is very good news. Because when we have no community around us, we are far more lost that we will ever know.

And so, here we are, at the start of another church program year. We are gathered in. We are gathered in to worship. We are gathered in to learn and grow. We are gathered in to love and be loved, by God and by each other. And we are gathered in because God is also going to send us out into the world. We are going out to be the leaven in the loaf, the ones who can help make our communities and world better.

That’s why coming here every week matters. Think of it, on this football opening Sunday, as the huddle before the next play. You gather together in order to get ready to go out and execute the next big play: bringing God’s love a broken world. And then, next week, you huddle up again. That time, that space and that community…that is church.

I sometimes wish that God had an overhead speaker like that grocery store did when I was six. One that could get our attention and call us back. But the reality is that God does have one of those. It’s you, and it’s me, and we take turns calling one another in. That, too, is church.

And so, come home. Not just today, but every week. You don’t have to be lost anymore, and neither does this world. Amen?

In Defense of the Building: A Case for Not Selling Your Church Property Just Yet

It seems like every week I hear someone in the wider church say, “You know, the church is more than the building.”

This is often said in a rather condescending tone, with the sense that the speaker is delivering some novel piece of wisdom. It’s often followed with a line like, “I mean, Jesus never had a building.” Or, “Think of all the ministry we could do if we just sold our buildings and gave the money away!”

I always want to say, “Do you honestly think most Christians don’t know that?”

True, we are often a little too fond of our buildings. We are willing to wage million-dollar capital campaigns to fix aging structures while at the same time letting the associate pastor go for lack of funds. Or, we treat them like our own homes, locking them up tightly, except for a few hours on a Sunday morning.

I have known of many churches like that. Churches that, frankly, do not deserve their buildings. Because if a church is using the building only for themselves, and if they have made it the modern equivalent of a golden calf, they really have little business calling themselves a church.

I know congregations hanging on with ten people in the pews on Sunday morning and another church just down the road. They pump their money into the building and wonder why no one ever comes.

You probably know of them too.

Please hear me; I am not talking about those churches. Those buildings could often see more ministry by being better used as housing for the homeless, offices for nonprofits, or meeting spaces for 12 Step groups.

But I’m worried that in our quest to rid ourselves of buildings, we are throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
We need to be in right relationship with our buildings. They should be tools, not false idols.

I pastor a congregation with a beautiful, historic building from the late 1700s, one that inspires people to walk in off the street to explore it.

While we value our history as a congregation, the members of my church have been adamant about this building being more than a clubhouse for ourselves. We have our Sunday services of course, all held in a sanctuary that is both beautiful and functional.

But we also open our doors to AA three times a week. We host community lectures and events. We open our columbarium for all who wish their ashes to be buried. We grow vegetables in our community garden. And we host whiffle ball games out back in the summer and pass out candy from the big front doors on Halloween.

I will never willingly pastor a church that loves its building more than it loves Jesus; but I will always jump at the chance to serve where the people are willing to use every resource they have in creative ways to serve God and their communities. Including their building.

I don’t believe that this is going against Jesus’ will for the church. However, I do believe Jesus was pretty clear about using the house of God for the wrong purposes.

When the moneylenders set up shop outside the doors of the Temple, Jesus cared enough about the Temple to flip those tables over. The Temple, in and of itself, was not a bad place. What was happening in and around the Temple was what desecrated it.

And so, I take caution from that story. I know that a building is only as useful to the people of God as what we are using it for. If it becomes a place where we fulfill only our own needs, or where we mistakenly focus our worship, it is an albatross around the neck of our faith. We would do well to rid ourselves of it and look seriously inward.

But if we live in right relationship with our buildings, we can use them as incredible tools for ministry. We can use our buildings as signs that we are rooted and planted in our communities, and that we are not going anywhere. We are committed to our neighborhood because we are built into the neighborhood’s own streets. And we exist not just in our towns but for our towns.

So look again at your church’s building. And now visualize all the ways it can be used.IMG_5845

Could that same room that holds coffee hour on Sundays host 12 Step meetings? Could the Sunday school rooms host after-school programs? Could the basement host free washing machines for those who can’t afford them? Could the sanctuary double as a space for free lectures? And could that big piece of land out back be made into a community garden for the food pantry?

As Christians we are called to be good stewards of everything we have been given. Sometimes, that may mean letting go of it. But other times it just takes looking at all we have been given in a new way, and being open to use these tools for good.

Five Things Mainline Christians Need to Stop Doing

1) Running churches and denominations like businesses.

I’ve been told that if I really want to be a highly-sought after pastor I need to get an MBA. First, I’m very happy right where I am. Second, even if I happened to be looking for a new call, no thanks.

There’s nothing wrong with having an MBA. There’s also nothing wrong with pastors learning from the field of business management. I do some reading in the area from time to time myself, and appropriate what works for use in the church. But I’ll never get an MBA.

Why? Because it’s not my call. My church is filled with well-educated people, including MBAs. They use their gifts in our church all the time. But even if we didn’t have a single MBA in my congregation, I still wouldn’t need one.

The church is an organization. That is indeed true. We are a collection of human beings trying to build, plan, and use our resources well. But, unlike businesses or even non-profits, we aren’t here to sell a product or fix a problem. We are here for the worship of God, and for the service of God’s people.

We don’t do our work in isolation. We do it by being led by the Holy Spirit.

True, we can use things like budget spreadsheets, revised organizational structures, and every physical resource we have to work towards that mission. But if we are spending more time thinking about how to use those things, and how to manage the people who are doing so, than we are about discerning God’s will for us, we are utterly lost.

It gets worse when the most unhealthy aspects of corporate culture make their way into our life together. In my larger church life I was once ruled out of order when I called for a prayer of discernment before a major vote. Other times I’ve seen transparency go out the window, or a small minority make decisions without consulting a larger group.

Check out what the Bible has to say about the qualities needed for pastors and for overseers (or “bishops”). None of them would make for great corporate leaders. But they do make for good enough church leaders. When we function as business executives, rather than church leaders, we not only disenfranchise one another, but we say we know what God desires better than the gathered church does. That is hubris at its worst.

2) Neglecting evangelism and church growth.

I’ve heard pastors say that they devote a set amount of their pastoral time every week to advocacy around one particular concern. It could be 10% of their time is spent on the environment, or 20% on LGBTQ inclusion. Those are certainly worthy of concern. But when I ask them this, I’m often greeted with a blank stare: “And how much time do you spend on evangelism and church growth?”

Usually none. Not unless you count the evangelism that comes as a by-product of advocacy. That’s surely important, but our advocacy work should not be undertaken as a means to increase our membership. That’s disingenuous.

Instead, what would it mean for our clergy leaders to actually take 10% of their ministry time and to engage in the work of proclaiming the Good News, and inviting people to discipleship? What would it look like to invest in growing our churches by encouraging life-transformative programming that proclaims God’s love? What would it look like if we could positively describe why we are Christians without first saying how we aren’t like other Christians?IMG_8457

Billy Graham once said that if you want to figure out what you worship, look at your checkbook. If I were to update it for today I’d say that if you want to figure out what you worship, just look at your planner. How you spend your time in ministry will tell you what you worship. If you, your church, or your denomination isn’t spending much of it telling the story of God’s love in some way, that’s deeply troubling.

This is the one thing the church can do that no other organization can. We have a commission to spread the Gospel by proclaiming the love and grace of Christ. Can you imagine how the mainline could be renewed if we focused our attention on reaching out to those who are hungry for spiritual depth and discipleship that requires something of us? Our churches would be growing spiritually by leaps and bounds.

3) Paying little attention to faith formation.

Does your denomination have concrete resources for faith formation? Is time and energy invested in curriculum development for children? Are youth learning what it means to be a disciple?

In Glorify I quote a sobering statistic: only 45% of the youth who grow up in mainline congregations continue to claim our tradition as adults. That doesn’t mean practice our tradition; that just means that they will admit they are one of us.

That number dips down to 37% when we are talking about Millennials. These are the kids who were raised in our churches, and they don’t want anything to do with us. They are either disengaging altogether or finding new traditions, often in Christian traditions with deeper formation programs. What does that say about our effectiveness at making them disciples?

Add to that the fact that we’ve all but given up on our college students. Every mainline denomination used to have an active college fellowship program. You could step on campus and easily find Canterbury, Westminster, Wesley Fellowship, and more. Now college ministry is dominated by well-funded programs from conservative and fundamentalist churches.

True, you don’t make any money supporting college students. They are a really bad investment from a financial sense. But the churches that are succeeding in college ministry care enough to spend that money anyway. They are planting the seeds that will yield a great harvest in coming years. Meanwhile, we mainliners are so short-sighted that we are slashing funding for our young adults who need support.

Finally, we don’t do the work of helping adults to keep growing as disciples. This is especially true of the former “nones” who come through our doors. For those of us who were raised outside of the church formation is essential. As a new Christian I had no idea how to say the Lord’s Prayer. I needed someone to help teach me the faith in a non-judgmental fashion. But even if you have gone to church every Sunday of your life, if the last time you learned anything about discipleship was high school Sunday school, then we are failing you.

4) Engaging in interfaith dialogue without doing our own work first.

I love interfaith work. I think it’s absolutely crucial in our world. We need to be addressing our historical relationships to Judaism and Islam. We need to be standing against religious oppression of all faiths. We need to learn from one another. And we need to be hearing from those who are atheist and agnostic too.

But we can’t do this honestly until we know who we are, and whose we are.

You know how you can’t really love someone until you know and love yourself? No one should get married, for instance, until they know who they are and what they stand for first. Otherwise they will just become enmeshed with the other. That’s never healthy.

And yet, well-meaning mainline Christians will often engage in interfaith dialogue without first knowing what we ourselves believe. In that case we do a disservice not only to ourselves, but to those we meet who genuinely want to know more about us. If they ask us what a Christian believes, or what our own denomination believes, and we can’t give an answer, then really we aren’t there as equal participants. We’re just asking them to teach us.

At the same time, we also risk becoming appropriative. Just like Christians who appropriate the Jewish Seder for our own reasons, without full understanding, we risk appropriating the traditions of other religions and cultures as well. When we meet our siblings from other traditions on the path we should do so with both self-knowledge and generous spirits. And when they teach us about themselves, we should use that new knowledge in order to better understand them, not to make what is theirs our own.

5) Dismantling seminaries.

Seminaries have seen better days. Once communities of formation and learning, they’ve become optional in some mainline traditions. While some never receive any educational formation for ministry, others take their entire course of study online. After all, many say, I can’t be expected to quit my job and move my family.

IMG_8461Except, Jesus was pretty clear about leaving everything behind and following him. Over half my seminary classmates packed up families, took out student loans, and left lucrative jobs to do so. Is it convenient? No. Is it easy? No. But, it’s faithful. And it’s worth it.

Seminary is more than an academic experience. It is a place where a community is formed by worship, learning, and living together. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his words to a seminary that still formed during the rise of the Third Reich, wrote to the students about the importance of living in community. He believed that it would transform both their faith and their ministry to come. (See Life Together for more.) Surely, if any generation had an excuse to skip the spiritual formation of seminary it was German seminarians in the 1930’s. And yet, they not only formed an underground seminary, many also eventually went to prison for being seminarians.

No one is asking you to do the same. But perhaps making the small sacrifice of giving three years of your life in order to be formed as a pastor is worth it. Yes, you might have to change everything in order to do so. But if you think that ministry is going to allow you the luxury of staying in one place or doing things your own way, then you are in for a disheartening shock.

That’s why denominations, and their churches, have to support their seminaries and their seminarians. This means both financially and in terms of encouraging attendance and demanding rigorous preparation. The church needs clergy who know who they are, and what they believe. We need clergy who can live in community, and wrestle within it. And we need clergy who take the call seriously enough to know they are not yet prepared to undertake it.

Without clergy who understand that enormity of this call, we will never have leaders who understand the enormity of what God has called the church to do next.

If you found meaning in this post, you’ll love Glorify: Reclaiming the Heart of Progressive Christianity. There is hope for mainline renewal, and this book can show you how to claim it for your local congregation, your denomination, and beyond: http://www.amazon.com/Glorify-Reclaiming-Heart-Progressive-Christianity/dp/0829820299/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1453486699&sr=1-1&keywords=glorify+emily+heath