On Throwing the Baby Jesus Out with the Bath Water

I love the United Church of Christ.

I do. After growing up a “spiritual but not religious” “none” at the tail end of Generation X, I found my way into Christ’s church at the age of 17 and was baptized. Eight years later I was ordained in the Presbyterian Church (USA), a church I also love deeply. Because I was openly gay, though, in 2010 I felt that I needed to transfer my ordination to a church that could openly affirm all of me.

The United Church of Christ was that place, and for the past six years I have served as a UCC parish pastor, a delegate to General Synod, a member of Association and Conference committees, and as someone actively involved on the national level.

But I’m not writing as any of those things today. Today I’m writing as this: a disciple of Christ who wants to be a part of a church seeking to love God and follow Christ in this world.

The Gospel is radical. It requires us to acknowledge first and foremost not just who we are, but WHOSE. For those who would call themselves Christians, that means acknowledging that we belong to God and that we are claimed by the love and grace of Jesus Christ.

That’s why we call our denomination the United Church OF CHRIST.

Which is why I’m shaken by a recent piece of marketing (I can’t bring myself to call it evangelism) from my denomination. A new meme circulating on social media proclaims us the “United Church of ‘I’m a Very Spiritual Person.'”

12592230_10153339764751787_1236073688534807391_nSo, first of all, I’m not exactly sure what the message is supposed to be in this ad, which is already troubling from a marketing perspective. But I suspect what we are trying to do is reach out to the “spiritual but not religious” folks, or the religious “nones” out there who are numerous in Generation X and the Millennial crowd.

Like I said, that was exactly what I was growing up. And so I think I’m qualified to say that this ad just doesn’t speak to me. In fact, it turns me off now, and it would have turned me off as a spiritually seeking young adult.

Why? Because it conveys the message that the United Church of Christ is a place where nothing will be required from me. I don’t have to believe in God (or even try). I don’t have to develop a relationship with Jesus. I don’t have to be a disciple in the world. I can just say “I’m really spiritual” and that’s enough.

The only trouble is, there are a million places that exist for those who just want to be “spiritual”. You can engage your spirit in a yoga class, book group, therapist’s office, arts class, and more. Those are all great things, by the way. But they are very different than a Christian church.

Another meme recently put out by the UCC asked, “What do you need most on Sunday mornings?” The possible answers: music, community, love, inspiration, donuts. Again, all great things, but none of them are in any way unique to church. In fact, I’d wager you could find just as good or better examples of most of those things outside of the church doors.

12510473_10153296238666787_7321833935111760409_n
I come to church to worship God. I come to experience the awe that comes in knowing of Christ’s grace. I come to hear the Word and receive the sacraments. I come to be better equipped to serve God’s world.

I don’t come for the donuts.

And neither will other Gen Xers and Millennials.

At this point it might be tempting to say, “Hey, it’s just a meme. Calm down.” But this is more than just a meme. This is a prevailing trend in our denomination, as well as other mainline denominations, that has been going on for years. It’s the slow and steady rejection of theological depth and meaning in favor of what is easy and popular.

My concern is that as we try to market ourselves to a sort of lowest common spiritual denominator, we are forgetting that churches are unique places in a culture where commitment is increasingly devalued. In church we are asked to seek not our own will, but God’s. We are asked to serve not ourselves, but Christ. We are called on to receive from a tradition that is radically transformative, and not watered down.

That is counter-cultural to what my generation has heard for its whole existence. It’s Niebuhr’s classic idea of Christ transforming culture. And, if the church is to be “marketed” to the spiritual seekers under 40, this is our strongest “selling point”. The days of obligatory church attendance are over. If people fill our pews again it won’t be because we are offering something they can get anywhere else. It will be because we are sharing a Gospel that challenges and sustains them.

There is a tradition in recovery communities like Alcoholics Anonymous that the program grows by “attraction not promotion”. There are no ads for AA. Instead, people join because they meet others in recovery, see the good in their lives, and decide they want to be a part of something like that.

I think the church needs to relearn that concept. I’m a big believer in social media, but in the end social media doesn’t hold a candle to the power a disciple of Christ has to live a life that witnesses to God’s love and grace.

And so, I have a radical proposal. What if as a church we invested less in ad campaigns and overhead, and instead created resources that helped to raise up a denomination full of Christ’s disciples? What if we invested in developing Christian growth materials that congregations could use? What if we took the theological seriously, and trained our future pastors to talk about their faith, and explain why it matters? And what if we rooted our outreach not in our own anxiety about the church losing members, but in our joy over what Christ has done in our lives and what Christ calls us to do in the world?

I believe God has great plans for the United Church of Christ. But I also believe we can never hope to claim them if we continuously insist on throwing the baby Jesus out with the bath water. Now’s the time to try something new. Now’s the time for us to try something truly radical. And it starts with remembering that we are the United Church OF CHRIST, and that’s an amazing thing.

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

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

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

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

That wasn’t a good idea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Church Matters: Sermon for January 24, 2016

In 2000 a political scientist named Robert Putnam published a book about the decline of social involvement in the United States called “Bowling Alone”.

He wrote that now we “sign fewer petitions, belong to fewer organizations that meet, know our neighbors less, meet with friends less frequently, and even socialize with our families less often.” He went on to say, “We’re even bowling alone. More Americans are bowling than ever before, but they are not bowling in leagues. Between 1980 and 1993 the total number of bowlers in America increased by 10 percent, while league bowling decreased by more than 40 percent.” In other words, even as bowling got more popular, more and more people were “bowling alone”.

The book was about a whole lot more than bowling, though. Putnam showed that from their peak years until 1997 almost every major group you can think of lost significant membership: the Freemasons (-71%), the American Legion (-47%), Red Cross volunteers (-61%), the PTA (-60%), Rotary (-25%), and the General Federation of Women’s Clubs (-84%).

In other words, we have become a society of un-joiners, disconnected and adrift.

That stands in sharp contrast to the message Paul gives to the church in Corinth in today’s Scripture reading. Paul tells them that the church, the body of Christ, is literally like a body. And like a body has many different parts, hands, feet, eyes, ears, heart…so does the body of Christ. And each of us is one of those parts, each of us belongs to that body, and we all have an essential part to play.

That’s why a lot of times this Scripture is read to mean “the church needs you”. We tell people that they play an important role in the body of Christ, so that’s why we need them here. And, that’s true. The church’s body needs you, and the church needs the person who God has created you to be.

But there’s a flip side of that too, one that maybe we don’t hear about as much. And that’s this: we need the church.

That’s counter-cultural, because we may be a culture that bowls alone, but we are religion-ing alone too. Church attendance has dropped precipitously over the past five decades, and I believe that is because church decline is in a very real way associated with social disengagement as a whole.

Today 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’s not true, but 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. What Paul is saying today proves that.

That doesn’t mean that you are no longer an individual. Each of us has come to the church on our own journey, our roads now converging together. But as members of these communities we call church, we choose to bind part of our journey together. That’s why I am here. That’s why you are here. That’s why each of us is here.

And that’s also what religion is all about. But religion often gets a bad rap.

You can hear that fact in the voices of the people who tell you they are “spiritual but not religious”. The insinuation is often that spirituality is good and pure, untouched by the constraints and failures of human organizations (or maybe even humans themselves), and religion is messy.

But the reality is that everyone has a religion, even those who claim only to be spiritual. Whether we admit it or not, has a system of beliefs or values that defines our life, for good or ill. Each of us is tied to either that which lifts us up, or the baggage that pulls us down. In that sense we might do religion by ourselves, but we can never really do it alone.

Our religions are as varied as we are. We can worship in the church of career advancement, or in the tabernacle of addiction. We can devote ourselves to hobbies, or make sacrifices on the altar of beauty. We can serve money as our ultimate god, or even devote our full faith to the idea that nothing exists beyond ourselves.

Religion is everywhere. At its best our religion can make us better people, the kind who serve not just ourselves but the world. At its worst it can make us self-obsessed narcissists.

It’s the communities we are a part of that can make a difference. They’re places where we are bound together with one another. They are also the places where we’re asked to do something quite counter-cultural: make a commitment.

There’s a debate going on in clergy circles about whether we should do away with formal membership in the church. Jesus never required people to sign a membership roll, some reason, and people just aren’t “joiners” anymore anyway.

And yet, community and commitment go hand in hand. Community, at its best, requires something from us. It is not just enough to be consumers, but in a society where consumer culture reigns supreme, that’s a radical idea. Even the church has too often shaped itself around the needs of “church shoppers” and those who seek entertainment first on a Sunday morning.

We’re often wary of asking people to make a commitment for fear that we will scare them off. And so, we trash the membership roll. We sheepishly hand out pledge cards telling people to fill one out if they feel like it. We tell confirmation students that they can skip worship for Sunday morning soccer practice and still get confirmed.

Which is too bad, because in a real way commitments make us clarify our priorities, and our sense of identity.

Recently I realized just how much so when I turned away an opportunity to join a local service club. Not only did membership in this club require attendance at weekly meetings, but members were expected to make up for weeks they missed by attending the meetings of neighboring clubs.

I have to admit I was impressed by the idea that membership required something. In the end, I knew my schedule wouldn’t let me make the commitment. But in an unintended way, the club’s demands for my commitment forced me to clarify what really mattered to me.

I think we’re often reluctant to make similar requests for commitment in the church because we are afraid of rejection. If we ask for people to clarify their priorities, they just may discover that church is not one of them and leave for good. And that terrifies us.

That’s too bad, because community requires the sort of commitment that has the power to deepen our faith in ways we can’t imagine. It can even define us in powerful ways.

Each week, in my weekly email to you, I start with the same salutation: Dear Church. I worry at times that it sounds a bit impersonal. I could say “Dear members and friends of the Congregational Church in Exeter”, for instance. But I believe that “Dear Church” is actually the most warm and personal greeting I can use.

That’s because the church is who we are. Church is not a place we go or a group we join. It is the community that ties us together, and strengthens us for the lives our faith calls us to lead. Each of us is the church. And, paradoxically, none of us can be the church alone.

As Christians we believe that the church is the living body of Christ, active and alive in the world. If you are going to follow Jesus Christ, the one who called his disciples into community, why would you not want to be a part of that body in some form?

But the truth is that hasn’t always been easy for me, and maybe it hasn’t for your either. As an young Christian I wrestled with congregations. They always seemed to be messing things up and making mistakes. They were messy and frustrating. They seemed to be magnets for hard personalities and people on power trips. I truly believed that if Jesus came back the last place he’d be caught dead in was a church.

Things changed for me when I was able to acknowledge that church was indeed a frustrating, messy, diffi10403016_827092474010019_3062638086161016394_ncult place filled with imperfect people. Including me. And so was the first church that Jesus called to surround him. Jesus never planted himself in the midst of perfect people. He always chose works in progress. The key is that he never chose them alone. I think he knew we’d need more than ourselves.

I’ll close with this. I was once listening to Mary Luti talk about how we learn to be followers of Christ. Despite her own deeply academic background, she didn’t tell us to read more books, study harder, or attend more seminary classes. Instead she said this: find someone whose Christian life you admire and study them instead.

I realized in that moment that this simple practice was exactly how I learned what it meant to be a Christian. It didn’t matter how many degrees in theology I pursued. It mattered that I had people in my life who lived their daily lives in ways that glorified God.

I thought of a mentor of mine who in my 20’s taught me to live in faith and not in fear. I thought about the way she talked about her own faith journey, and about how it shaped her priorities. And I thought about how even things that had seemed insignificant at the time, like the ways she showed up for me when I needed it, or the words she used when she prayed, had taught me powerful lessons about God.

And I realized a simple truth: I’m a follower of Jesus Christ, but I’m also following in the footsteps of a mighty cloud of witnesses who have walked these same roads. So are we all.
Without the community surrounding us, and binding us to one another, we become lost so easily. But when others light the way for us, we find that the paths we can take to follow Christ are all around us, and we have multitude of willing companions on the journey. We are one body. And we need one another. Amen?

Through the Fire: A Sermon on the Book of Daniel, November 8, 2015

Daniel 3:19-27

19 Then Nebuchadnezzar was so filled with rage against Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego that his face was distorted. He ordered the furnace heated up seven times more than was customary, 20 and ordered some of the strongest guards in his army to bind Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and to throw them into the furnace of blazing fire. 21 So the men were bound, still wearing their tunics, their trousers, their hats, and their other garments, and they were thrown into the furnace of blazing fire. 22 Because the king’s command was urgent and the furnace was so overheated, the raging flames killed the men who lifted Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. 23 But the three men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, fell down, bound, into the furnace of blazing fire.

24 Then King Nebuchadnezzar was astonished and rose up quickly. He said to his counselors, “Was it not three men that we threw bound into the fire?” They answered the king, “True, O king.” 25 He replied, “But I see four men unbound, walking in the middle of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the fourth has the appearance of a god.” 26 Nebuchadnezzar then approached the door of the furnace of blazing fire and said, “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, servants of the Most High God, come out! Come here!” So Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego came out from the fire. 27 And the satraps, the prefects, the governors, and the king’s counselors gathered together and saw that the fire had not had any power over the bodies of those men; the hair of their heads was not singed, their tunics[f] were not harmed, and not even the smell of fire came from them.

At the risk of offending our science teachers in the congregation, I was never a good chemistry student. I struggled with the class. For some reason the formulas with the chemical reactions never made sense to me. And the experiments we did in the lab I just never got exactly right. They would work for my lab partner, but they never ended up working for me.

But I remember one thing I learned in the labs. There were these little tiny white porcelain cups that we used to heat things up in experiments. You would put the elements into them, and hold them over the bunsen burner with tongs. And it never seemed like they should be able to withstand the heat, but they always did. Even when whatever was inside of them changed or evaporated, they remained unbroken.

They were called “crucibles”. And they seemed to be able to withstand the hottest of flames.

I think about those crucibles when I read the book of Daniel, and particularly today’s passage. Daniel and his friends had been plucked out of an occupied Jerusalem and taken to Babylon, the home of their occupiers. And in Babylon they are being taught about a culture that is not their own. More than that, they are being taught to reject where they came from. But Daniel and his friends resist; in fact they refuse to even eat the food of the oppressor.

So, as you can imagine, Daniel and his friends sort of developed a reputation as troublemakers. And they go back and forth with the King, Nebuchadnezzar, who can’t decide if he believes in their God or not. And this all comes to a head when Daniel’s three friends refuse to bow down and worship a statue of the king, because to do so would be blasphemous for them. And so the king becomes so angry that he throws those three friends friends, Shadrack, Meschach, and Abednego into a fiery furnace.

So, that should be the end of them, right? You get thrown into a fire that hot, and you are not going to make it out.

Daniel's friends, Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin

Daniel’s friends, Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin

But when the king looks into the furnace the men are fine. They are walking around in the midst of the flames, and they are untouched by it. And a fourth person is walking with them, and Scripture tells us that he looked “like the Son of God”. And so, the king has the men pulled out of the fire. Alive. And even the king changes his mind, and stops forcing them to worship other gods.

So, it’s a great story. But what does it mean for us? I mean, if one of us ever got thrown into a furnace, I think we’d pretty much be toast. But, maybe the truth of this story doesn’t come from the literal, fiery details, but from an even more powerful truth.

Because the reality is that I think each of us has had to walk through a fire at one time or another. And many of us have nearly been destroyed by the flames.

That’s true for me. Some of you know that a little over a week ago I sat on one of the We the People panel discussions on the addiction crisis in our area. And you know that I told my own story, one of a recovering alcoholic.

When I was in my late teens and into my 20’s I drank a little. And then I drank a little more. And then I drank a lot. But I was lucky. I had friends and mentors who loved me enough to tell me I needed to stop, and who helped me to get into recovery, and to get sober.

Because of that, the days I didn’t have a drink turned into months. And the months turned into years. And today, the idea of a drink holds no appeal for me.

But those first days and weeks? That was hard. And those times of having to look inward and face the things that drinking made easier? That was even harder. It was as though I spent each day walking through the flames. But I kept walking, surrounded by others, and the flames never consumed me.

When I became a pastor, people told me not to tell anyone this story. “You’ll never be called anywhere,” they said. “People will think less of you.” “It will make people feel uncomfortable.”

But for me, I knew I couldn’t help but tell this story. I don’t tell it to draw attention to myself or my past, but instead to say, “look, I know what it is like to walk through the flames…and I know what it’s like to survive.”

I’ve always been open about my sobriety because recovery is the best evidence I have in my life that God’s grace is real. Why would I ever try to hide that?

And yet, too often we who are Christians hide our struggles. And the trouble with that is we also hide our victories. And sometimes there are people all around us who need to see those victories, and who need someone who has been through the same thing to walk with them through the flames.

One of my favorite TV shows of all times is West Wing. And one of my favorite characters is the president’s chief of staff, a recovering alcoholic and addict named Leo. In one episode when another staffer deals with post traumatic stress disorder he hides it from the others because he is worried it will threaten his career. But Leo sees what is happening, and gets him help. And he tells him this story:

“This guy’s walking down a street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep, he can’t get out. A doctor passes by, and the guy shouts up, “Hey you, can you help me out?” The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a priest comes along, and the guy shouts up “Father, I’m down in this hole, can you help me out?” The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a friend walks by. “Hey Joe, it’s me, can you help me out?” And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, “Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.” The friend says, “Yeah, but I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out.”

And then Leo says:

“Long as I got a job, you got a job, you understand?”
Sometimes in the church we worry that if we are honest about our lives, and if we are honest with our struggles, we will not be accepted any longer. For some reason we’ve come to believe that church people are perfect, and holy, and sinless. But that’s just not true, and it never has been. Because church is not about dressing up, and looking holy one hour a week. Church is for people who need God’s grace the most. People like me. And people like you.

Or, to put it another way, “long as I got a church, you got a church.”

At the beginning I was talking about chemistry class, and that tool we called the crucible. It was the container that could literally survive the fires that would destroy anything else.

When the king looked into the furnace he saw a third figure walking with the three friends. There was someone there with them in the midst of their fear, and certain destruction. There was someone there who could help them to survive the crucible that they had been cast into. And I truly believe that was some manifestation of God, walking alongside them in their greatest trials. Standing in the midst of the crucible with them.

We understand crucibles not just as physical objects, but also as experiences which push us to our brink, and transform us. And, while we would never willingly choose them, and while we do not deserve them, they can transform us in powerful ways. But it depends who is with us in those flames.

The comedian Stephen Colbert gave an interview recently where he talked about his faith. And he talked about how his father and brothers were killed in a plane crash when he was young. And he recalled the way his mother’s faith, a faith that never once denied the pain and tragedy, had sustained him in the years to come. He said, “by her example am I not bitter. By her example. She was not. Broken, yes. But bitter, no.”

Hemingway said the world breaks us all, but some become “strong at the broken places”. He was right. But the best strength, the best repair I know, comes from our faith. And that is especially true when we have others beside us who walk through the same flames, who fall in the same holes, and who rise again like Phoenixes from the more hopeless of places and who show us how to do the same.

That’s what church is all about. It’s about the worst the world can do to us. And it’s about our resurrections. It’s about emerging from the crucible, and thriving. I think there’s a lot of poetic resonance in the fact that the very word “crucible” comes from the Latin word “crux”. Or, translated, “cross”. And who better to guide us through the flames than the one who overcame the cross, and the community he has called to be his body?

We will all walk through the flames. We will all face crucibles that will threaten to destroy us. We will all have pain. But because we are the church, we will always have a place to go, filled with people who have been here before.

So, tell your stories. Tell about the times God has lifted you up. Tell of the saints who have walked with you on the way. And walk through the flames, knowing that they will not consume you, and that, indeed, you can thrive. Amen.

Why Do the Hateful Choose Our Houses of Worship?

One day during my first pastorate, back in Vermont, I went to the Post Office to get the church mail. That day there was an envelope with the name of a fake organization on it and no return address. It was addressed to me, and so standing there in the lobby I opened it. For the next five minutes I read about how gays and women like me were destroying both Christianity and the country, and how I was a “pitiful excuse” for a minister and human being.

I had just done work in New York advocating for marriage equality, and I had written some pieces for national outlets that had been widely shared. The letter had been sent from another state and to the church’s box and not my own (a box anyone in the area could have easily known). The postmark was also from Florida, and so I assumed the letter was from someone I had never met, and never would, who simply disagreed with my writing.

At home I laughed it off. I pointed out the irony of the fact the sender had chosen a stamp with the word “Equality”. I joked with my wife about putting it on the refrigerator. I told worried church members who had heard about it that it was nothing, and they shouldn’t be concerned. I’d received anonymous emails, and even texts like this before.

What I didn’t tell them is that they’d never been quite this hateful. I didn’t tell them I’d taken the letter to the police and been told they could do nothing. And I didn’t tell them that on Sunday mornings when I preached I now kept scanning the back of the church, waiting for the doors to open.

One Sunday shortly after a man I did not know came into the church midway through the service and walked to the front of the sanctuary. As he walked down the aisle I kept preaching. But with every word I thought to myself, “This is it…he’s going to shoot me.”

He didn’t. He had no ill intent at all. But that day I realized just how much fear I had been carrying around with me.

I don’t know why that memory came back to me so strongly last night when I heard about the shooting in Charleston at Emanuel AME Church. But it did. It hit me like a ton of bricks, and made my stomach turn. And it made me think of driving through the streets of Atlanta when I was a college student there. It reminded me of driving past Ebenezer Baptist in Sweet Auburn or The Temple on Peachtree and every other house of worship that had been targeted during the Civil Rights movement. I used to think about what it must have been like back in the days that people hated so much that they’d try to blow your church or synagogue apart.

I know now that those days are not in the past. I know the fear I lived with for a few weeks is nothing compared to the fear that others live with all their lives. And I know that for many they would give thanks if their worst experience was a hateful anonymous letter in their church mailbox.

IMG_5845Today at noon I rang the church bells here in Exeter, New Hampshire. It was a beautiful, sunny day; the kind that make me never want to leave New England. And I sat on the front steps of the church afterwards and marveled at the dichotomy between a night of terror and a day of beauty, and between my life of mainline white Christian privilege and the life of constant fear that too many of the faithful face.

I thought about a church gathered for prayer and Bible study last night, and how they had opened their circle to let a stranger join them. And I thought about a mosque in Arizona, and how the faithful walked past angry, mocking crowds with guns in order to worship. And I thought about the temple in Maryland, and the anti-Semitic graffiti they found one morning this spring.

There’s a reason the hateful choose houses of worship. It’s because that’s where so many of us put our hope. You can commit a hateful act anywhere, but if you really want to hurt a community, you choose the place they worship. You bomb the synagogue. You shoot up the church. You point your gun and shout at small children trying to get into the mosque. That’s how you cut the faithful so deeply that their hearts never stop bleeding.

But the ones who choose to do evil in the gathering places of the faithful forget one thing: These are not mere buildings. They are the symbols of communities, built often in resistance to hate. They are the places first built by new immigrants, or freed slaves, or spiritual refugees, or genocide survivors. They have known pain before. And they know how to survive it, and transform it. They know how to thrive in the face of the worst that the small-minded and hateful can do. And they know how to live with a faith that those who take up violence will never understand.

Today we ring bells. A small, insignificant-seeming act. And yet, there is meaning. The bells are tolled in remembrance for each life lost. And the bells are tolled as assurance that God is always with us, even in the midst of great evil. But we cannot forget the last reason we toll the bells: as a divine wake-up call to ourselves. The bells are saying it is time to do the work of justice. It is time to stand against hate. And it is time to call the evils of racism and bigotry, and the terrorism that comes with them, by name.

The bells cannot keep silent. And if we really believe in this faith we proclaim, neither can we.

Gained in Translation: Sermon for Pentecost, 2015

Before I became a parish minister, I was a chaplain. I was working for a hospice on the South Shore of Massachusetts, and I had one patient down near New Bedford, where many of the older population still speaks Portuguese fluently.

Whenever I went to see this patent at their nursing home, this other resident on her unit would see me in the lobby and start shouting at me in Portuguese. And I had no clue what she was saying, but it was obvious to me that she was upset, and so I always just apologized and got out of there as quickly as possible.

One day I went back and the same thing happened. Only this time there were people around. And one of the aides said, “Do you know what she’s saying?” And I said, “no, but whatever I did I’m sorry.”

And then she told me that the woman was speaking Portuguese, and that she was a little confused. But she thought I was a relative of hers, and that when she saw me she wasn’t mad at all; she was excited. And she was yelling joyfully to me about how glad she was to see me. After that day I would always talk to her, and I understood now that when we talked, though I couldn’t understand her, she was happy.

Pentecost by He Qi.

Pentecost by He Qi.

I learned then that translation matters. It can change everything. Today’s story is about translation too. It’s ten days after the Ascension, when Jesus left this world, and the disciples are together, trying to figure out what to do next now that Jesus is gone.

And all of a sudden a rushing wind, with tongues of fire, fell on them. And suddenly, the disciples, all of whom were Galileans all just speaking the same language, were speaking languages that they had never known before. People from other places were nearby and they heard it and they could understand what they were saying, and they asked “how come we are hearing this in our own language”?

Some didn’t even believe it; they said “they must be drunk.” But Peter gets up and he says “look, it’s only 9am..we’re not drunk”. Instead, something new has come, and everything has changed.

In the church we call this the Pentecost, which is translated to mean “fifty days”, as in fifty days after Easter. And we call that mighty rush of wind that came down the coming of the Holy Spirit. And we call this the birthday of the church. This is the day when the gift of the Holy Spirit was given to the disciples, and the church was born.

I’ve always found that interesting. Because, intuitively, it might not make a lot of sense. Shouldn’t Easter be the birthday of the church? After all, it’s the day Jesus rose again and appeared to the disciples. Maybe you could even argue that Christmas, with the birth of Christ, should be the day of celebration? Or, maybe Maundy Thursday when Jesus tells the disciples how to love one another?

But most believe Pentecost is the church’s birthday. And I think it’s because that was the day the disciples went from being this sort of loose band of followers of Jesus, standing around wondering what now, to being equipped by the Holy Spirit to minister not just to their own, but to the whole world.

And I think it says a lot that on its day of birth, when the Holy Spirit came down, the first gift that the disciples realize they have is the gift of being able to speak in new languages. The ability to translate the message to others.

I told you that story earlier about translation, and how it helped me to know what was being shouted at me in Portuguese. But translation doesn’t always have to be literal. Sometimes we learn to speak, and to understand, the language of others even when we don’t have the words.

One night when I was on call as a hospital chaplain, I received a page, and I was asked to come meet with a man whose wife had just given birth and who now was not doing well. And he was an Orthodox Christian originally from the Middle East. He spoke English fluently, and had been in this country a long time. And we were talking and I asked him, as I always did in these situations, if he wanted to pray.

He said “yes”, and took my hand and I was about to start praying, as I always did, but instead he started. And in Arabic he prayed this impassioned, heart-felt prayer for his wife.

I have no idea what those words were that he was saying. But in that moment, without knowing a word of Arabic, I knew exactly what he meant. And I know that the Holy Spirit was with us in that moment.

If the Holy Spirit were to sweep into this place again today, and give us all a birthday gift, because we are all the church, I think we would get the same gift the disciples got. And I don’t mean by that that we would all be able to speak Spanish or Chinese or Russian or Arabic, per se. Rather, I think we would learn how to speak in new ways to those who haven’t heard yet about God’s love in language that they understand.

And you don’t have to leave the country to find people who haven’t. You don’t even have to leave Exeter. Just look at the news. A few weeks ago there was a poll out talking about how fewer and fewer people considered themselves religious now. It made the front page of major papers. And New Hampshire is the second least-religious state in the country. And “nones”, those who do not claim a religious tradition, are the fastest growing demographic group.

And yet here we are in the church, speaking a foreign language. There was a time when everyone knew what the Lord’s Prayer, the doxology, and all of our other church words meant. There was a time when most people knew our language. But they don’t anymore. And that is new, but it’s also not necessarily bad. Because it doesn’t mean that ours is not a language worth sharing.

For decades now too much of the church has stood still, angry at the world that no one understands us anymore. No one speaks our language. We complain about that fact, and we have plenty of things to blame, everything from parents to over scheduled kids to sports on Sunday morning, but the reality is that few people are going to spontaneously show up at our doors asking to learn our language.

But do you notice something about the Pentecost story? When the Holy Spirit comes, it’s the disciples who learn the new language. All the other people there don’t suddenly speak the disciples’ language: instead the disciples learn to speak theirs.

I think maybe the Holy Spirit is trying to tell us something. We can’t wait for others to talk the way we talk. Instead, we have to learn their language. We have to learn what is important to them. We have to be able to communicate in the ways that matter to them. We have to be willing to make the connections. It’s what the church has been doing since its first days, and it’s what we are still called to do today.

And, more importantly, we have to have something to say. Gone are the days when people are going to come to church out of obligation. And I think that’s a good thing. But what that means is that the people coming through our doors are looking for something deeper. They are looking for community. They are looking for meaning. And, more than anything, they are looking for a spiritual connection.

The Holy Spirit is what we in the church have to offer. We as Christians believe that God speaks to us and leads us through the Holy Spirit. It is our companion and guide through life. It is what gives us comfort when we need it, and courage when we are done being comforted. Jesus called it the paraclete, which means “advocate” or “helper”. The Holy Spirit is our advocate and helper. Why would we not want to claim that and share that?

That’s one reason that we are doing this Natural Church Development process, and we are looking seriously at what it means to reclaim “passionate spirituality”. Because in this world where so many say that they are “spiritual but not religious”, if the church can’t do “spiritual” well, we may as well close our doors. There’s no point unless we are gathered around something bigger than ourselves and led by a Spirit bigger than our own; a Holy Spirit, the same one that came on Pentecost all those centuries ago.

Because so long as we are actually trying to God’s will for us, so long as we are actually following where the Spirit leads us, we aren’t some forgotten dinosaur speaking some lost language. We’re alive, and we have something to offer. And there are people who want to hear about it. They want us to make the connections, they want us to be translators, they want to know. But if we try to hide that light, that fire of Pentecost, under a bushel, then what we have will be lost in translation.

And so, on this Pentecost, on this birthday of the church, we can make a choice. Because Pentecost didn’t just happen 2000 years ago. It happens still. And on Pentecost we are given an incredible gift in the Holy Spirit. It’s one that will never wear out, never grow too small, and never fail to amaze us if we only let it.

But here’s the catch: we can’t hold on to that gift only for ourselves. It must be shared. And if you have really received it, it will be shared through you. In fact, it probably has been already, and with God’s help will be again. You will be the translator of all God has to give this world.

And so this Pentecost, unwrap your gift. Delight in it the way you would any good gift. But don’t stop there. Share it with a world that has a deep spiritual hunger. Learn to speak the language of the ones who thirst for spiritual depth. And follow the Holy Spirit into all the places God has already prepared for you to go. You just may find that behind every corner a never-ending birthday celebration waits. Amen?

There Once Was a House: A Story About Discipleship

There once was a young one and an old one. And there once was a house.

The old one was not so old, but the old one seemed old to the young one. And the old one owned the house. And the young one loved the house.

“Some day this house will be yours,” said the old one to the young one.

10981359_10100810748719908_1680198685706119874_nThe house was big and beautiful and it was home. And the young one imagined what it would be like when the house belonged to them.

Through the years the young one watched the old one work. When the house needed repairs, the old one would repair it. When the house needed painting, the old one painted. When the house needed a new roof, the old one would roof it. The old one was constantly building and trying to make the house even better. It was a big job.

“Can I help?”, the young one would ask.

“No…not until you’re older,” said the old one.

The young one grew older. And the young one watched people building other houses. Sometimes they were allowed to even help others build their own houses. And the young one became very good at building other houses.

One day the young one went back to the old one. “Can I help now?”, they asked.

“No…you don’t know how to do this. Wait your turn.”

And so the young one went out again. They loved that house, and they wanted to do a good job one day, so they decided to learn more. They built new walls, laid new foundations, and raised new buildings.

By now the young one wasn’t so young anymore. And soon the young one was about the same age as the old one had been all those years ago.

One day the not-so-young one came home. “I have learned how to build up this house,” said the young one. “And I know it will one day be mine. Now am I allowed to help?”

“No!,” said the old one. “This is not yet your house.”

And so the not-so-young one went off again. But this time they found their own land, and they laid a new foundation. And they built up good walls, and put on a strong roof, and made it big enough for all who wanted to come inside.

One day the old one was older, and came to find the not-so-young one. “Where have you been?”, the old one asked. “It’s your turn to come and take care of the house!”

And the not-so-young one came back to the house they had loved. But now the walls were falling down, the foundation was sinking in, and the roof had collapsed. And they had loved the house so much that they were heartbroken.

“You have to fix it!” said the old one. “You’ve always known that this would be yours someday!”

And the not-so-young one said sadly, “I’m sorry…but I have my own house. A house that I have built. And I belong there. There’s nothing left for me here anymore.”

The not-so-young one went home. And one day a new young one came to door and asked to learn how to build. And the not-so-young one handed them a hammer and said, “This is not my house. This is your house too…come, learn how to build it with me.”

And the house stood there, generation after generation.

The Church as Enabler: Further Thoughts on Heather Cook, and the Rest of Us

“Did you ever get a DUI?”

“No.”

“Were you ever arrested?”

“No.”

“Did you ever lose a job because of your drinking?”

“No.”

He looked at me confused for a moment, then said, “I don’t think you were really an alcoholic.”

“Really?” I said. “Because I do.”

That conversation could have happened pretty much anywhere. As much as the discussion on addiction has changed in recent years, too many people still cling to the stereotype of an alcoholic as someone who is a falling-down-drunk, lying in the gutter. The idea of a well-educated professional with a retirement fund never crosses their minds.

But this wasn’t just anyone asking me the questions. It was the counselor who was conducting my routine denominational psychological exam when I switched my ordination to the UCC. I had honestly written about the fact I was in recovery in my pre-interview paperwork, and I was prepared to talk about it. But here I was, at the center where prospective clergy for my denomination and several others were screened for red flags, and I was having to educate the one doing the assessment on what addiction looks like.

In my case there was no rock bottom crash. There was just the awareness that I was looking for answers at the bottom of a bottle, instead of from healthier places. Added to that was the knowledge that my extended family has had trouble with alcohol for generations. I was still a young adult when it became clear to me that I could either quit drinking then, with relatively little lost, or I could quit drinking years later, when I had managed to destroy everything.

Untitled copyI consider myself to be especially blessed by the fact that my family, friends, and clergy “got it”, and supported me. But I know that in the stories of others too often those same people become “enablers”. They help the alcoholic to justify their continued drinking by either refusing to admit there is a problem, being too scared to intervene, or, in the worst of cases, actively covering up another’s addiction.

Addiction is a family disease. And when a family member enables an addict, the entire family remains sick. That should hit home for those of us who are church members, because we often talk about the church as a large family. And there’s a hard truth we need to admit.

Our family has an addiction problem,

A few weeks ago I wrote about Bishop Heather Cook and who is qualified to be clergy. In the weeks since I have been struck by what has been revealed about what the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland did and didn’t know. On one hand we’ve been assured that the diocese had no knowledge there was an issue. Given the graphic description of Cook’s first DUI, complete with a blood alcohol level three times the legal limit, a shredded front tire, and more, I don’t know how anyone could say that there was no evidence there was an issue. Add to that the most recent revelation by the diocese itself that other bishops had been concerned that Cook was drunk at a pre-consecration dinner, and it’s clear that the diocese had some inkling Cook had a problem.

Heather Cook is responsible for the death of Thomas Palermo. Nothing I am writing here should in any way be taken as an attempt to excuse her actions. But we in the mainline denominations, with our extensive theologies around systemic sin, must admit that there is more than enough responsibility to go around here, and the church bears some of it. Because far too often we have been enablers.

The research is incomplete, but it has long been acknowledged that clergy have high addiction rates. I believe this is especially true in mainline and progressive denominations that often put an emphasis on not being like “those Christians” who do things like ban alcohol. When I’ve suggested that maybe every clergy event does not need a cocktail hour, I’ve more than once been told, “We’re not like those Christians…we don’t believe anything is wrong with drinking.”

Neither do I. If you can drink safely, and are able to stop, then I say go for it. I don’t even mind being with people who are drinking. I’ve never had an issue with someone having a drink or two while we are out at dinner, or with sitting with someone who is having a beer while we talk theology. But when cocktail hours, or trips to the bar, become the main source of community and fellowship at wider church events, I begin to wonder how many of my colleagues might be walking a fine line between responsible drinking and addiction. And when I go to dinner parties and watch respected clergy drink to excess, and say things I know they will regret in the morning, I feel incredibly sad for them.

I don’t think you have to be in recovery yourself to feel the same way. As the national Episcopal Church prepares to gather this summer for their General Convention, Bishop J. Scott Barker of the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska has made a commitment to not drink during the gathering. Barker writes, “I’m mindful of the recent tragedy in Maryland, and the chance to make a small witness for delight in sobriety as a bishop of the Church. I note that in the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska so many wonderful disciples are in recovery and could use some support – and so many parish churches are hobbled by alcoholic family systems long in place.” (Read more here: http://nebraskaepiscopalian.org/?p=2578)

It should be noted that Bishop Barker’s stand is especially prophetic given the fact that others going to General Convention seem to be a bit tone deaf about the church’s public image problems around alcohol. For instance, the House of Deputies is holding a fundraising competition with a grand prize of a beer tasting: http://houseofdeputies.org/campaign-for-episcopal-relief-development-kicks-off.html Surely, if a denomination can’t take a step back from alcohol for at least a few months after one of their own prominent clergy kills someone while drinking, that is a sign of a problem.

So, how does the church move forward? How do we stop being enablers?

First, there has to be the will to change. And that will not come until people who have been touched in some way by addiction, either their own or that of others, speak up and say “enough”. Then, there has to be a willingness to tell the truth about how we have failed to address the crisis of addiction, both in our own ranks, and in the larger community. And then we have to start the work of healing.

We need to follow the examples of the legal and medical communities who have set up fair and rigorous systems for those who wish to get clean and sober. We need to provide clergy with a way to get help when they need it, without worrying that stepping forward and getting healthy will ruin their careers. We need to educate everyone from parish pastors to denominational execs to those who screen candidates for ministry. We need to talk to our seminarians about what addiction looks like, and how to take care of themselves. And we need to be willing to lovingly intervene when we see someone struggling, no matter how big their steeple may be, or how angry they might get.

Our country is in the midst of a full-fledged addiction crisis. We in the church, with our belief in new life, should be leading the charge for recovery and healing. But we can’t do that if we are too sick to even deal with the addiction crisis in our own house. Now is the time for our whole family to get some recovery. Because if we can’t look at what happened in Maryland and say “we’ve finally hit rock bottom” I am scared to death of what our next family tragedy will look like.

Why Are WE Here: Part III – To be changed. – Sermon for February 1, 2015

It’s been said that the only thing that never changes is change itself. As much as we want things to stay the same, you can’t step in the same river twice, you can’t stop the hands of time, and you can’t guarantee that what is here today will be here tomorrow.

You hear those things and, if you are anything like me, you might feel a little anxious. I think we as humans like routine. We like knowing that everything we expect will be there. And when something changes, even something small, it shakes us up.

Don’t believe me? How many of you have a Facebook account? Facebook is always making changes to its layout and how to use it, and what happens the morning after they make a new change? Every single time, you log on and everyone is complaining about it, often threatening to never use it again.

10494762_877906185595314_459548515296640538_nBut of course, everyone does keep using it. They grudgingly adjust. And then another change happens. And the same outcry happens again. It’s like a fascinating little window into how we don’t like change that plays out every few months on the computer screen. But, it’s important to remember, this isn’t a digital age issue. It’s one that I’m betting has been there since the dawn of time.

It was certainly there back in Jesus day. Today’s story tells us that. Jesus walks into the synagogue and starts teaching and he is already under suspicion because he’s challenging and changing what it means to be a religious authority. He is not an insider. He is not a scribe or a pharisee. He has no formal training. But he walks in and talks like he has authority. So, he’s already a threat to the way things have always been.

At that point a man also walks in who has what Scripture calls an “unclean spirit”, or a demon. He’s agitated and yelling and calling out to Jesus, asking if he has come to destroy the demons. And it should be noted that the man does not seem excited about that possibility.

Jesus says to the demons, “be quiet, and come out of him”. And they do.

And that’s when everyone gets really scared. Because not only does Jesus teach like he has authority, but he can do things, he can create change, that no one has ever seen before. And change, real change, is scary. It’s not just the inconvenience of your Facebook being different when you log in in the morning. It’s the kind of change that takes everything you have known about yourself and who you are and shakes it up.

And Jesus was all about change. He was changing everyones’ understanding of what it meant to worship God. He was changing peoples actual lives, like the man he healed in the synagogue. He was changing everything.

But, more than that, Jesus was the change. Everything about him and his life meant that nothing about us or our lives were, or are, safe from change.

And so this is what I want to say today: following Jesus is not safe. It is not comfortable. And it is not something you can do if you really just want everything to be the same as it has always been. Because being a follower of Jesus means that you and your life are going to be changed. And sometimes, that change is not going to be all that convenient.

Scripture doesn’t tell us what happened to that man Jesus healed that day. All we really know is he had been changed in a profound way. And we know it was for the better. But in that moment, and the ones that followed, do you think he was scared? Do you think that for just a moment he wished that he had never met Jesus? Do you think that he almost wished he could go back to the life he knew, the one where he had learned to live with his demons?

I think he probably did. I say that because all of us have had our demons. All of us have had our battles, and our moments of having to fight them. And all of us, if we have made a decision to overcome those demons, have had to say “I’m ready to be changed, not matter the cost.”

And if you’ve ever done that, my guess is you’ve also had a moment where you’ve said, “Is all this really worth it? Were things really all that bad before?” And maybe you’ve wished, for just a second, that you never had believed change was possible.

Because change is hard. And the harder news is that Jesus is all about change. But the good news is that Jesus is also all about new life, and sometimes we need to let Jesus change us in order to get us there.

For the past few weeks we’ve been going through this sermon series and we’ve been asking “Why are WE here?” Or, “Why are we the church together?” The first week we talked about how we’ve been called here by God. Last week we talked about how we are here to be disciples. And this week we are talking about the next step. We’re talking about how we are here to be changed.

That means, first, each of us individually. Because a big part of the Christian life is about being transformed by the fact that you are a follower of Jesus Christ. That word “follower” is more important than it may sound. Because to be a follower of Christ, you have to actually follow. You can’t just stand still. You have to be willing to move with Christ.

And if you are moving with Christ, following him, then you cannot help but be transformed by who he is. You cannot help but be changed. And sometimes that is going to be wonderful. And sometimes it is going to be staggeringly inconvenient and difficult. And it’s going to happen again and again and again.

And even when you think, “I’ve reached the summit…there’s nothing more God can do with me”, you are going to be changed again. It’s just part of what it means to follow Jesus. But the good news, is that it is that if that transformation really is about, and comes from, Jesus, it is always going to be life giving. It can’t help but be.

So, the first big question is this: are you going to go along for the ride? Are you willing to commit to this journey? And the second big question is what happens when a whole church full of people all make the same decision to really follow Jesus, even if it changes everything for them?

Whatever happens, I know it has happened before, and it will happen again, and the church has and will survive. This church has been here 375 years. And as historic as we are, and as much as we rightly value our history, we have also changed mightily during that time. In it’s fundamental form this is the same church that Rev. John Wheelwright founded in 1638. And yet, we have again and again been transformed by the grace of God.

And we have not just survived. We have thrived. Take a walk down Water Street and look at the names of the former tenants set in stone right there on the sidewalk. They came long after this church came to Exeter, and we are here long after. Why? It’s not because we are better people, or better at managing our finances, or better at taking care of our building. It’s because we are following after something greater than ourselves. And because we are willing be be changed by the one we are following.

Because through the centuries, if this church had not been willing to change because that’s what following Jesus demanded of us, then we wouldn’t be here anymore. We’d just be another historic building on Front Street.

But instead, we and all of our ancestors have been transformed. We’ve continually been transformed from what we were, and into something new. And we haven’t just been transformed from, we have been transformed for. We have been transformed for the work that needs to be done in our world. We have been transformed for Exeter. We have been transformed for each new generation that has heard the Gospel in these pews. And we have been transformed for such a time as this.

Today we have our annual congregational meeting once again. It is one of probably hundreds that this church has had. And, as usual, we have some small changes on our agenda. And we have already made some other changes in the past year. And the good news is that things are going very well.

But put it in perspective. Because how many other times has this church met when the change they were being asked to make didn’t feel so easy, or so clear? Like the time they had to decide whether or not to support a young cause for independence in the colonies? Or the time they had to build yet another new building? Or the time they had to deal with the parish splitting in two? Or the time they decided to work to help abolish slavery in this country? Or the time those two parishes decided to come back together? Or the time they voted to become Open and Affirming?

Those are just a few of the transformations this parish has gone through in nearly four centuries. And each one has been a change from something, and a change for something. And there will be many more.

And our only job as a church is to keep moving. Keep following Jesus. Don’t stop. And when we look back, we will see that he has only changed us for the better, and that he has never failed to give us new life once again.