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?

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?

Marching Orders: Where Citizenship Meets Discipleship

The following was originally preached as a sermon at the Congregational Church in Exeter on July 3, 2016.

I’ve talked before about how much I love genealogy. I also really love American history, and for me researching my family tree is a way of finding where my family’s story intersects with the larger American story.

And so this week I was reading the stories of two men from here in Rockingham County; Isaac Hills and Edward Stevens. Isaac and Edward were from Chester and Brentwood respectively, and they were my 5th great-grandfathers. And I was reading about a document that they had both signed 240 years ago, in 1776. It read:

[Provincial and state papers]“In Consequence of the above Resolution of the Hon. Continental Congress, and to shew our Determination in joining our American Brethren in defending the Lives, Liberties and Property of the inhabitants of the United Colonies : We, the Subscribers, do hereby solemnly engage and promise, that we will, to the utmost in our Power, at the Risque of our Lives and Fortunes, with Arms, oppose the Hostile Proceedings of the British Fleets and Armies against the United American Colonies.”

Unique to New Hampshire, in the days after the Declaration of Independence had made its way here, every man of voting age was asked to sign on to this statement, which was called an Association Test. The idea was to figure out, in the face of a revolution that could cost everything, who was in and who was out.

I take pride in the fact that my family signed. But about now, you might be wondering why I’m talking about it on a Sunday morning, when I’m supposed to be preaching about Jesus, and his commission to the disciples. Jesus told them to go out into the world, two by two, and do the work of spreading his Gospel. He tells them that they will go out with tremendous power, and they will have the power to change the world and proclaim a new way. This passage is essentially Jesus giving his disciples their marching orders.

So, what does text about an entirely different context, long before America was even an idea, have to do with the founding of this country?

It’s a good question. I always hesitate to equate the Gospel with patriotism. I get queasy when I preach around big patriotic holidays. That’s not because I don’t love this country. I grew up in a family with a lot of patriotic spirit and generations of veterans and public servants. But as a Christian, I’m called to remember that God’s creation, and God’s salvation, are far bigger than this country.

That’s one reason why we have to continually emphasize that our ultimate loyalty is to God. We cannot fall into the trap of idolatry and worship anything in the place of God. That’s why we respect the American flag, but do not put it in our sanctuary. It’s why we remember days like the Fourth of July or Veteran’s Day, but we do not make them the focus of our worship. Our ultimate faith is in Christ. Not country.
And yet, this is where we live. It’s part of who we are. And, while the Gospel is not about America, we would not be faithful to the Gospel if we did not try to make this place better. And we would not be Christians if we did not try to improve the lives of our neighbors.

And that’s where citizenship matters. Because while we must never confuse our American citizenship as superior to our citizenship in God’s kingdom, we must also never leave our higher values out of our understanding of what it means to live in this country. We are called by our faith to citizenship.

Let me pause there to say this is not just a Christian calling. This is a pluralistic country and our faith gives us no greater claim on the American name than those any other faith, or those of no faith at all. But, it does influence how we are called to live here.

In fact, John Calvin, the founder of the Reformed tradition from which we descended, went so far as to say that the highest calling a Christian can aspire to was not preaching the Gospel or any other religious pursuit. Instead, it was government service. Our highest calling is to make where we live better.

We are called to citizenship. But, just as Jesus said in this passage, the harvest is plentiful, workers are few.

I often bristle when I see politicians talking about Christian faith. Usually the Christian faith they are talking about seems to have little to do with Christ’s teachings. Especially in election years. And I’m not talking about politics here in the sense of telling you how to vote. There are good Christians in this congregation voting for every candidate who is running.

But I am saying that as Christians, we can change the story. Our faith can make us better citizens, and make better decisions. It can help us change the dialogue. And in a time when talking heads debate “Christian values”, it can help to shift the national conversation away from sound bites, and towards real Christian values.

What would it be like if we held up Jesus’ commandment that we love our neighbors as ourselves as a baseline of how we treated one another? What if we looked at our candidates and held them up against those fruits of the Spirit we talked about last week? What if we looked for those things: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. What if we demanded better of our country, our leaders, and ourselves?

I think that is possible. But I don’t think it’s possible to do it alone.

Jesus knew what he was talking about when he sent his disciples out two by two. He knew they were going to face resistance. He knew they needed one another. And he knew that they would preach a Gospel that would cause them to be rejected.
That’s true even today. And that’s true where we live. In a time where polarization has led those who disagree with one another to the point of outright violence, we need a return to thoughtful citizenship. And in a time where fear is too often defining our dialogue, we have to choose another way.

And sometimes, that is going to mean speaking a hard truth about hatred, or oppression, or evil. Even when we find ourselves speaking that truth to hostile ears.

Jesus said to his disciples that they would be rejected, and that sometimes they would have to shake the dust of the places that rejected him off of their feet. Often Christians live in times and places where people get it wrong. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in the Second World War, lived in one of those places. A German, he decided instead to follow Christ, and he shook the dust of Nazi hatred off of his feet, even as he lost his own life. We hold his story up as an example of choosing the harder right against an easy wrong.

But we would be wrong to think that this is something only those in other countries face. Because sometimes the most faithful thing you can do as a Christian, and the most patriotic thing you can do as an American, is to shake the dust of sinful policies and practices off of your feet.

When Dr. King clashed with law enforcement to walk across the Selma bridge, he was shaking the dust of racism off his feet. When Susan B. Anthony cast a ballot in the presidential election of 1872, and was arrested, she was shaking the dust of second-class citizenship for women off of hers. And when the conductors on the Underground Railroad stashed those escaping slavery in their barns and basements, they were shaking the dust of a country that condoned enslaving others from theirs.

Even as they broke the law of the land, they upheld a higher law. They upheld God’s law, and they upheld Christ’s call. And every one of them was condemned in their own time by those who called them un-Christian, and un-American. But they did it anyway.

Christ calls us to nothing less. This is not a perfect country. We have a long way to go. It never has been perfect, though. I think of 1776, and that document my 5th great-grandfathers signed for instance. They were banding together to say there was a better way. But even then, I can’t help but notice that no one cared much what my 5th great-grandmothers thought about it.

But the thing about this country is that things change. And things change because good people refuse to lapse into nihilism but instead work together to get them changed. That’s why seven generations later, I can vote in this country. And I can get married in this country. And I can stand in this pulpit in this church and preach this sermon.

Jesus sent his followers out into the world, and he sent us together. And some of ended up here.
As Christians, we are called to make it better, not just for ourselves, but for others. But we can’t do it alone. And so, won’t you come with me. Let us shake the dust of whatever is holding us back off of our feet, and let us transform this little part of God’s creation where we live into a more perfect union. 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?

Reclaiming Progressive Christianity, Starting with Remembering Our Values

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post that two weeks later is still getting a lot of traffic. The title of the piece is “I Don’t Think I Want to Be a Progressive Christian Anymore“, and it is an accurate depiction of how I was feeling at the time. After a little time, though, I’m realizing I was wrong: I do still want to be a progressive Christian.

But here’s the challenge; in the very recent past the term “progressive Christian” has come to be conflated with “emergent Christian” and “post-evangelical Christian”. And I’m not saying that you can’t be one of those things and also be a progressive Christian. This is a big tent movement, and you can. But I am saying that it’s not right to co-opt a term that has been used for several generations to define a theological movement for your own benefit. And it’s especially not right to do it when you are not familiar with, or not willing to honor, the values that progressive Christianity has been trying to model for the larger church for years.

10245585_250411955164792_8829165948251833523_nMy elders in the progressive Christian movement, some of whom are now dead and cannot speak for themselves, deserve more than to have their legacies misrepresented by those who never knew them. And those of us who came of age in the progressive movement over the last few decades are now being called on to bear witness to the history and values of this tradition, and to help to articulate a vision for the future for the movement.

So, I think I do still want to be a progressive Christian. But I want to say a little about what I understand that term to mean, starting with a few values I’ve learned along the way. Here is what I think the progressive church is called to be:

– Transparent

The progressive church has taught me again and again that Jesus’ was right when he said “the truth shall set you free”. It has also taught me that “sunlight is the best disinfectant”. One of the Christian men I respect most has a habit of telling organizations with which he works that “I will not be your institution’s secret keeper”. They hire him anyway, and they’re better for it.

– Accountable

We don’t just answer to ourselves (or kid ourselves and others by saying “I answer to God”). We need accountability from our peers. Denominations get a bad rap with some, but a healthy denomination is one of the best ways of making sure that a Christian leader will be held accountable to a high standard. It’s when a clergy person or other leader becomes a long ranger that the trouble happens.

– Prophetic

Wayne Gretzky famously said, “I skate to where the puck is going; not to where it has been.” For progressive Christians that means that we have to be future focused, and innovative. For instance, the progressive church started talking about LGBT rights in the early 1970’s. By contrast, some well-known leaders who are now claiming the progressive labels have just come forward as allies in the last several years. That’s not being prophetic. That’s being popular.

– Repentant

We will make mistakes. We will fail people who could have used our voices. But when that happens, we need to be the first to stand up and apologize. As a former Presbyterian pastor, I often saw people who sat in positions of power never speak as allies. In the past few years many have now come out as allies, which is great. But sometimes I just want a little acknowledgement that they regret not having done so earlier. Likewise, I know there are probably many things I am not doing now that I should be. When I realize what they are, I hope I have the character to confess, apologize, and make amends.

– Humble

True humility is not about putting yourself down; it’s about raising others up. And what I valued most about the progressive leaders in the generations before mine was their humility. They admitted there were things they did not know. They listened to those who were marginalized in some way. And they stepped aside and gave up the mic when they didn’t know from firsthand experience what they were talking about. (And they never drew attention to themselves when they did it.)

– Witness-oriented

The other thing I learned from progressive Christian leaders over the past twenty years is that they were never, ever, interested in celebrity. In fact, they were quick to shy away from the lime-light. They didn’t mind teaching, or speaking, but only if it helped others in their Christian journey. Karl Barth kept a picture of John the Baptist above his desk. In that picture John was pointing towards Christ. For Barth it was a reminder that the task of every Christian was not to gain followers for one’s self, but instead to use one’s life in order to witness to, and glorify, Christ.

– Bold

The progressive Christians I have know are bold people. That’s different than being brash or provocative. Instead, being bold is about being willing to risk one’s status or power for what one believes is right. In the 1990’s and early 2000’s I watched people risk their pulpits and ordinations to stand up for people like me. Some of these same people had done the same thing a 35 years before that when they stood up against segregation. They weren’t fearless; they were scared to death. But they did it anyway. They are some of bravest people I have ever met, and few in my generation can hold a candle to them.

– Non-idolatrous

The progressive Christians who taught me were also well-trained Reformed theologians. They lectured constantly about the importance of confronting idols. And they practiced what they preached. They refused to worship anything other than Christ. They would not worship at the altar of money. They refused to collude with empire, as Walter Wink taught us, choosing instead to confront it. They would not profit on the backs of others, particularly those who have been in any way marginalized. They did not seek power or status or comfort. They sought only God’s will for God’s people.

– Hopeful

When Rev. John Robinson sent the Pilgrims, ancestors of today’s progressive Reformed Christians, off across the ocean he said God had “more truth and light yet to break forth out of (God’s) holy Word”. It was a message of hope. And hope is central to the message of progressive Christianity. Every piece of writing, every sermon, every speech must point to the fact that our hope comes not from our own words, but from the one who is constantly working in this world to create all things anew. And living into that hope means that we get to make the choice to either participate in that work joyfully, or get out of the way.

– Community focused

Progressive Christians value the life and stories of the individual, but we also highly value the community. Our interdependence on one another is what makes us stronger, not weaker. And so we need the voices of many, and not just a few. And so, because progressive Christianity is bigger than any one of us, this needs to be a group discussion. What values would you add? I’d love for you to tell us all about them below.

Why Are WE Here, Part II: Discipleship – Sermon for 25 January, 2015

Mark 1:14-20
1:14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God,

1:15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

1:16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea–for they were fishermen.

1:17 And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”

1:18 And immediately they left their nets and followed him.

1:19 As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets.

1:20 Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.
Like Cat was just telling the kids during the children’s sermon, one of my favorite hobbies is fly fishing. In the late spring and summer I’m always trying to sneak away for just an hour to fish. And, even when I don’t catch anything, which is most of the time, I just love being there in the stream, casting each fly out like a hope.

So, I like fishing stories in the Bible, and I take special joy in the fact that most of Jesus’ first followers spent their lives fishing. And that still matters to us today because fishing is a big part of the Gospel stories. So much so, that we even talk about how our job as Christians is to be “fishers of people”.

And all those fishing stories start with this one. One day two fishermen, Simon and Andrew, were out on their boat, casting nets out into the sea. And Jesus walked by the Sea of Galilee and said to them “follow me”. And they did. They left their nets right there, and they followed.

A favorite fly fishing stream.

A favorite fly fishing stream.

And then they all walked a little further down the shore and they saw two brothers, James and John, and Jesus did the same thing. And they too left everything behind to follow Jesus. And just like that, Jesus had made a few everyday fishermen four of his twelve disciples. And so all these years later we call this passage “the calling of the disciples”.

Last week we started a new sermon series centered around a big question: Why are WE here? That is, why are all of us, you and I, here together. And the quick answer is that we are here to be the church together. But over the next three weeks I’m going to be talking about three specific reasons we are called here together: to learn, to change, and to love.

So we have this story today, about Jesus and some guys who fish, and you might be wondering “What does that have to do with learning anything?”

The answer, sadly, has little to do with fishing, and more to do with what we call the people who followed Jesus during his ministry: disciples. And it’s important to note that in addition to the twelve disciples we often talk about, there were probably many more, all of whom surrounded Christ. And Scripture again and again uses that word, disciples, to describe them.

Take a minute and think how you understand that word “disciple”. When you hear it do you automatically think “followers of Jesus”? That wouldn’t be surprising. The word has certainly come to take on that meaning. But the reality is that the word has been used for so many others too. In Jesus’ time a lot of religious leaders, and others as well, had a group of disciples. John the Baptist, who was loyal to Jesus from the beginning, even had his own, and they followed him just like the disciples we know who followed Jesus.

Each disciple followed someone attentively because being a disciple, to anyone, had to do with one thing in particular: learning. And they thought the person they were following had something to teach. So much so that the actual word the original New Testament texts, written in Greek, use for disciples is “mathetes”. Now, you don’t need to remember that word, but know that the easiest translation of it is simply this: students, or learners.

Now, I know you all enough to know that this is a community that values learning. We have good schools in our community. We are right next door to the Academy. Many of you are teachers or other kinds of educators. You want educated church leaders. And I would guess that if I asked any of you what you wanted for your children or grandchildren or any other young person in your life, one of the things you would say would be “I want them to get a good education.” Or, “I want them to love learning.”

And that’s a good thing. Because you can’t help but grow when you learn. And when you stop learning, you stop growing. And if we stop learning and growing, then we can’t do any of the work of the church. Learning is the way we prepare to be Christians.

Cat was just talking about this in the children’s sermon. We were showing the children the fishing rod and the flies and the reel and everything else, and we were talking about how before you fish you have to have the tools you need, and you have to learn how to use them. And that’s why a community that teaches you those things, and gives you the tools, makes all the difference.

It’s fitting that we are using my fly fishing gear to demonstrate that, because the first time I tried to learn to fly fish, I didn’t do so well. I like trying to figure things out on my own, and I’d known how to fish with bait most of my life and I thought to myself “how hard can this be”? And so I ended up in a river, slipping on the rocks, not knowing how to tie the knots, getting my line tangled in the tree, and never, ever, catching anything. And after a few months I said to myself “this is boring” and I gave up.

But a few years later, I decided to try again. And this time, I decided that maybe things would go a little more smoothly if I asked someone for help. And so I took some free lessons at the local fly fishing shop. And I asked a lot of questions. And I did a lot of watching. And I even stood on the front lawn with a fly rod casting back and forth, back and forth, until I knew what I was doing. And the next time I went out on a river, everything worked. And I realized I loved it.

Being a Christian is not the same as being someone who fly fishes. It’s much more important than that. But the principle is the same. Being a follower of Jesus is not easy. And it’s hard to do on your own. And it can be so frustrating at times that if you have no one in your life that you can learn from, or ask to help you, you might just feel like throwing up your hands and giving up for good.

But if you want to learn, and if someone is willing to teach, that can change everything.

In the church we sometimes use two words interchangeably: disciples and apostles. This is especially true of the twelve we see Jesus call himself. But those two words don’t mean the same thing. Disciple means student, but apostle means “messenger” or one who is “sent out”. And the Bible doesn’t use the word “apostle” for the twelve until later on because before Jesus set his disciples loose on the world to be his messengers, he first had to teach them. They had to follow him, ask questions, and see how he lived. They had to be disciples. They had to be students of Jesus and his life. Only them could they become the teachers themselves.

Jesus didn’t call them out of the boats and say “now you are fishers of people”, after all. He called them and said “I will make you fishers of people”.

A large part of the Christian life, our life, is doing that same thing: learning to follow Jesus. And, like I said, that’s not easy to do alone. And so that’s one of the things that we in the church have to do well together. We have to learn together, and we have to teach one another.

That’s one reason that when we started searching for a new Minister for Christian Growth, the position Cat now fills, we were very careful to say that Christian Growth programming is not just a concern for our children and youth. We have to do those things well, of course, because we are teaching them what it means to follow Christ and to be the church.

But, for those of us who are adults, we can’t stop learning and growing either. We have to keep encouraging one another as we learn how to follow Jesus, whether we are 19 or 99. The task of learning and growing together should never end, because when it does, so does our commitment to the one who calls us to learn, and grow, with him. It’s like we just stop dead on the path and stop following him. And when that journey ends, so does the church, because the church that will not learn, and will not grow spiritually, is not actually being the church at all.

And so here’s the challenge: how do we all keep being learners and teachers together, here in this church? Cat and I, as your pastoral staff, are always going to work hard to teach, and we are also going to work hard to keep learning and growing in Christ. But, this is more than just the job of those of us who work here everyday. This is the job of everyone here. Each of us is called to learn, to grow, and to teach because it’s the best way to be church together, and for each other.

I’ll close with this story. Last Monday, on Martin Luther King day, I went to see the movie “Selma”. And there is a scene early in the film that moved me. (I’m not giving anything away here, so don’t worry.) In it, Martin Luther King is shown in a moment of despair and uncertainty. And he needs encouragement. And we just see him dialing a phone number written down on a scrap of paper.

A moment later the scene cuts away and Mahalia Jackson, the great Gospel singer, is shown waking up in the middle of the night. And she tells her husband it’s Dr. King on the line, and then Dr. King asks her to “sing it”. And so, with this powerful voice, she begins to sing what was Dr. King’s favorite hymn: “Precious Lord take my hand”. And every lines seems to fit: “I am tired, I am weak, I am worn.” “Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me on.”

What does that have to do with church? What does that have to do with learning or teaching?
In my mind, everything. Because when we are at a place where we need encouragement, when we are uncertain about what to do next, and when we need guidance, that’s when we need one another. That’s when we need someone we can turn to who can teach us, and remind us, what it is to follow Christ. That’s when we need someone who will call us back, and walk a path of discipleship with us. That’s when we need church. If Dr. King, who probably “got it” when it came to following Christ more than most Christians do, knew he needed it, that says something to me.

And it reminds me that at its core church is about learning who Christ is again and again, and church is about growing each day of our journey. Church is about never stopping on the path self-satisfied. It’s about knowing there’s always something new to learn. And the only way to do church well, the only way to do it at all, is to do church together. Amen.

How to Pray: Sermon for January 11, 2015

Matthew 6:9-13

9 “Pray then in this way:

Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
10 Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us this day our daily bread.
12 And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one.

Some of the first prayers I ever remember saying were during football games. My dad’s side of the family is all from Washington, DC, and they are all Washington football fans, and my dad in particular takes games very seriously. In fact, on most Sundays in football season my dad and I both watch the game, hundreds of miles away from each other, and we text one another through every touchdown, every fumble, every interception.

I knew football was something important in my family growing up. In fact I remember being about six years old and watching Washington play the Dolphins in the Super Bowl. We were watching them on TV, and I could see everyone was so intent and so anxious. And so, though I didn’t understand much about God or prayer or how to pray, I decided to take action. And through the game I kept praying that the pass on third and long would connect, or the field goal would make it through the uprights.

Washington won that Super Bowl, and the players did okay in that game, but I held myself partially responsible for praying the way to that Lombardi trophy. And I thought I was on to something good with this prayer stuff. But then the next year, my team went to the Super Bowl again. And this time they played the Raiders. And, despite my best attempts at prayer, they were absolutely crushed.

It was probably my first experience of religious disillusionment.

I don’t pray about football much these days, though I still sometimes catch myself saying, “Oh please, God, let him catch it,” and I feel a little embarrassed. I don’t think it’s ever wrong to talk to God, but I still feel self-conscious and like I’m doing something wrong. I still want to know, “Am I praying the right way?”

10403016_827092474010019_3062638086161016394_nMaybe you’ve asked that too. If you have, you’re not alone. Even back in Jesus’ day, people were wondering if they were praying the right way. And one day one of Jesus disciples said to him, “Teacher, teach us how to pray.”

Jesus responds by teaching them a prayer that we recite here every week, and that Christians around the world have recited daily since: “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.”

It sounds a little different than the words we say now, but there’s no mistaking that it’s the Lord’s Prayer. And it’s as close as we have ever gotten to a perfect prayer. And that makes sense, because it came right from the source.

When you look at the prayer, just in those few lines, there is so much there that is so rich. Jesus calls God “Father”, which means he is inviting us to enter into a conversation which is personal, and loving. We ask that God’s reign would come. We ask for our daily bread, trusting for God to provide what we need. And ask forgiveness, and we ask for help forgiving others. And, finally, we ask God to keep us safe, and out of harm’s way.

Really, everything you need is in that prayer. If there is such a thing as a “right way to pray”, this is it.

Now at this point you might be thinking, “that’s all very good and well, but I have prayed before and I don’t think it works.” Maybe you prayed for something you really and truly needed, not just a football game, and you didn’t get what you need. Or maybe you prayed for someone you loved dearly who needed healing, and you ended up losing them anyway. Or maybe you have just cried out asking, “God, are you there”, but you haven’t had any response.

I wish I could give you an easy answer at this point, one that explained all that, but the fact is that I can’t, and it would be condescending for me to try. And at this point a lot of people would quote the words of CS Lewis, a well-known Christian writer, who once said, “Prayer doesn’t change God. It changes me.”

And, he’s right about one part of that. Prayer does change us. If you’ve ever gotten into a regular routine of praying, you know that. Your attention shifts. Your priorities change. You feel your life change in ways that make it better.

Two of my favorite prayers, the Prayer of St. Francis, and the Serenity Prayer, are two good examples of prayer that changes us. They teach us how to order our lives. They remind us of what matters and what we can do. And if we really mean what we pray, they change us.

And that, in and of itself, isn’t a bad thing. But if prayer were only a one-sided conversation with ourselves, it wouldn’t be all that much better than something written by a motivational speaker. We would feel good, but where is God in all that?

Prayer is not just about us. It’s about God, and it’s about a conversation that we are having with God. And time and again in Scripture, we are provided with examples of a God who does listen to us, and who does respond. That doesn’t always mean that we get what we want, and that doesn’t always mean that we are answered with a “yes”, but it does mean that, somehow, we get what we need.

But, on our side, that means that we have to be a part of that conversation too. And sometimes that means that we have to recognize that prayer is more than just words. It’s not just a wish made to God.

Sometimes the best kind of prayer can be our own action. Prayer is a form of action because it is inviting God’s involvement. But good prayer doesn’t stop with words. In fact. prayer cannot just stop with words if it is real. Prayer can take many forms. And actions can be prayers as well.
When you write out a donation to disaster relief, that is a prayer. When you go and help rebuild houses, that’s a prayer. When you give food to those who are hungry, that’s a prayer. When you work for justice and peace, that’s a prayer. And when you get up in the morning, and get out of bed, and commit yourself to loving the people around you as best as you possibly can, that’s a prayer too. A life of action, a life of living out your faith, is the best prayer you can say.

And it’s also the best way you can change the world, and be a witness to what God is doing in it. Because there’s another part of prayer, too, and it’s one I was reminded of in a big way this week, and that’s the way that prayer helps to shape our lives together, and helps to tell the story of who we are and what we believe.

I think that Jesus was trying to tell us something when he said we should start our prayers with “our Father” and not just “my Father”. I think he was reminding us that prayer is better when it finds its home in community. And sometimes it is most powerful there too; more powerful than we could ever imagine.

Many of you remember Jane and Michael Henderson, who were the co-pastors at this church in the 1990’s. And many of you remember their daughter, Abby. She grew up in this church, going to Sunday school, sitting in worship, listening to the prayers, and later joining in them herself.

Abby is now a minister herself. And this past week we were both at the same continuing education event out in Arizona, and we had the chance to share several meals together and to talk about this church, and how it had shaped her, and I was reminded in a profound way about what a community gathered together in prayer can teach. Your prayers helped to shape her.

But you don’t have to just look at someone who grew up in this church twenty years ago to see that it works. Because the examples are all around us. One of the parents of one of our five year olds told me a story about this this week, and she gave me permission to share it with you this morning.

On Sunday mornings, during the prayer of confession and after the time of silence that we keep, I always pray something along the lines of this: “Brothers and sisters, hear the good news, who is in a position to judge us? Only Christ, and Christ came to love us. In Jesus Christ we are all forgiven, Amen.”

I don’t think of those lines as particularly memorable, particularly not for a small child. But the other night at bath time, one of the moms in our congregation walked in to find her five year old looking at her brother and saying “sisters and brothers, hear the good news!” and then talking about the very everyday ways that Jesus loves us.

I was blown away. And I was reminded of how important prayer can be for our community. Because our prayers, the ones we say together every Sunday, are more powerful than we can imagine. Because sometimes prayer is about telling a story, and we tell the best stories when we tell them together. We teach the stories to whole new generations. And those generations will teach those stories to generations after them, and long after you and I are gone, the story we tell in prayer here in our life together will continue. The prayers will go on.

It’s a heavy responsibility. But it is also an unbelievable joy. Prayer is so much more than a set of words on a page. Prayer is a whole way of living in the world. And prayer is the lifeblood of a church, and of the world.

And so, pray. Pray to change yourself. Pray to change things. Pray with your hands and feet and heart. Pray to tell the story. And pray with one another, starting here, so that the story will be told from generation to generation, until God’s kingdom comes, and God’s will is done, on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.

“The Reports of My Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated”: A Letter from the “Dying” Church

To my mourners:

Sometimes the dying are the first to know. While others believe you are invincible, you quietly go around collecting pamphlets from hospice and making final arrangements. But sometimes, more rarely, the dying are the last to know. While they feel alive and vital, others are picking out their headstone. Lately I’m feeling like I’m in the latter camp.

I hear that I am dying. This is a shock to me because I had no idea. I’m a good two millennia old so I think I’ve gotten to know myself pretty well, and I certainly have had tougher times than this. In my earliest days, in fact, my very existence was in question. So picture my surprise when I hear that those who have known me for only a fraction of my days are counting down to my demise.

150400_10100264762650368_2031715009_nI think what makes it all the more surprising is that many of the ones who are saying I am dying are not just observers. They are actually a part of me. A recent part, perhaps, but a part none-the-less. Because I, the church, am more than just another institution. I am, in fact, the body of Christ; the living and continuing presence of Jesus in the world. And all who believe in Christ are a member of this body, just like all believers in the past have been members of this body. To be the church is to be Christ’s body in the world.

With that in mind, let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that I am dying. Let’s say that death is even somewhat imminent. Let’s say that the body of the church, the body of Christ, is indeed about to die.

Well, here’s what I know about Christ’s body. It has died before, and it has risen again. Resurrection. That’s the whole message of Easter. Death occurs, but death does not win. The body rises stronger. And we, who are Easter people, should know that and not fear the end.

But beyond that, am I really dying? Because I’m not so sure that’s true. Yes, fewer people are attending church. Yes, as that happens some churches are closing down. Yes, the church’s influence in society is not what it used to be. But does that really mean I’m dying? Or does that just mean that the church is entering a new phase of life, just like it has before and will again? Maybe, in fact, a better phase?

Here’s the thing. There’s a difference between death and change. Just because I am no longer the way you (or your parents, or your grandparents) remember it growing up does not mean I am dying. Just because you don’t see what you want or like when you look at the church does not mean that death is imminent. Because, and this is sometimes hard to accept, as much as you may like to believe otherwise, the church is not dependent upon your comfort or approval for its life.

So here’s my question: Do you want to continue to sit and mourn around a death bed that I do not inhabit? Or do you want to be Easter people, and live in the Resurrection? If it’s the former, fine, but don’t call that church. Call it what you want, but don’t put the words “body of Christ” on that funeral.

But if it’s the latter, if you want to live as a Resurrection people, here’s a few thoughts on what you can do:

1. Read Scripture: I know, I know. There are many forms of revelation, the Bible has been used to justify some terrible things, etc., etc. But the Bible is the story of communities of faith learning how to live, and change, and grow together. And when we lose Biblical literacy we lose our story, and we lose our hope. And too many Christian have given up on really knowing the Bible.

We need to be able to talk about Moses and the Israelites taking the risk of leaving Egypt, getting lost, and then finding the promised land. We need the early Christians of the Book of Acts to tell us what it meant to be the church together in those early days. We need Paul’s letters to small local churches struggling to figure out who they are and what that means. We need it all.

2. Take risks:

Every local church I’ve known that has died has one thing in common: for too long in their lives they were risk averse. Maybe in the last years of their lives that changed and they were willing to risk everything, but they didn’t get to that place without years of choosing “safety” over choosing a bold witness to Christ’s love. No one wanted to rock the boat. No one wanted to risk losing a few members. No one wanted fail. And so, slowly, the local church became so afraid of making a move that it just withered in place.

But every local church I know that has thrived has one thing in common: they took risks. Not reckless risks. But risks. They took financial risks to expand growing ministries. They took leaps of faith when calling pastors and other staff, and did not try to find a candidate who wouldn’t make waves. They took risks when it came to social issues. And, most of all, they took these risks without sabotaging themselves because they feared their own success.

3. Reject negativity:

No one likes to be around negative people. (Well, possibly with the exception of other negative people.) And yet, the church is often a negative place. Church meetings are filled with anxiety about money or arguments about bylaws. Community life is uninspiring and tedious. And gossip and “parking lot meetings” are far too often the rule of life in the church. Who wants to be a part of that? Anyone who doesn’t enjoy drama won’t stay at a church like that for long.

More importantly, who is going to believe we are being honest about saying we have faith in Christ if our churches are like this? Because if someone says that Christian faith is all about redemption and new life and hope, and then turns around and shows someone a church that is full of pettiness and negativity, no one is going to buy it. Yes, Christians are human and make mistakes, but our default mode should be about living in God’s grace, not living in fear.

4. Recognize grace and practice gratitude:

This follows on the last point. Christians are called to recognize God’s grace in their lives. It’s sort of the point. It’s why you all sing “Amazing Grace” so much. But understanding grace on an intellectual level, and really knowing you have received grace are two different things. And here’s how you know that you really understand God’s grace: you can’t do anything but say “thank you”. Gratitude is the most natural response to grace, and it’s what the Christian life is all about. Christians do what they do not to earn their way to heaven, but to say “thank you” to all of the grace that God has already provided.

So why don’t churches live that way? Why is so much of Christian community life about the anxiety of not having enough? Why is it about mourning what we don’t have instead of celebrating what we do?

People in recovery, perhaps some of the most aware people in the world about the grace they have received, have a practice called gratitude lists. When everything looks like it’s going to hell, they sit down and write down what they are grateful for in their lives. Sometimes it starts small (I’m alive, I have enough to eat, I have enough for today) but often it grows into something more (I have more than I need, I have a community that loves me, I have meaning). What would it look like if your church made a gratitude list? Could you do it? If not, that may be part of the problem. Help those in your community to cultivate grateful hearts, and you will transform your local church.

5. Live for others, not for yourselves:

When you talk to churches in transition I ask them about their greatest challenge. “We need more people,” is what you will hear a lot. Some go further and are a little more blunt: “We need more people to join so we can pay our bills.” For some churches, too many, bringing new people in is not about welcoming them to a community of faith. It’s about ensuring the local church’s survival. And the reality is that people can see that desperation from a mile away. And no one joins a church, or any other organization, just to be another name on the books or another pledge card in the plate. And no one should.

What if instead of asking people to build up your church, you asked how your church could help build up others? What if the focus wasn’t so much on healing yourself, but on helping those who need it the most? What if your greatest priority wasn’t saving the church you know, but instead sharing that church with others and giving them the freedom to help change it?

And what if we lived together like the Resurrection is real, and is happening still? Because it is. And because we have work to do.

With love from the empty tomb,

The Church

P.S. – Of course one person cannot speak for the church. But if we believers are really the church, each of us can speak as a part of the church. So what do you have to say, church? Are you dying? Or are you ready to live?

The Good Shepherd: Sermon for May 11, 2014

Scripture: Psalm 23 and John 10

If you ask people to tell you their favorite Scriptures, or even just list a few Scriptures they know, there’s one that always seems to come up: Psalm 23. You likely know the words: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

We read it at funerals. We read it to give us comfort in anxious times. We read it when we are sick. In fact, more than almost any other part of the Bible, we read it so much that we might even have it memorized.

533999_485840638098085_190703679_nSo when it comes up in the lectionary, as it does today, there might be a tendency to gloss over it. What more can you say? The Lord is my shepherd…everything is going to be okay, right?

But to think of this Psalm as simple, to underestimate it because of it, it to miss just how radical a statement of God’s love and concern it really is. That’s why it’s important that it’s paired with another reading today, this one from the Gospel, and this one containing the words of Christ himself.

Christ is doing a lot of talking about sheep and gates and how the sheep will follow the shepherd and how the shepherd is unlike a sheep thief. How the shepherd guides us, and does not devour us. Christ is talking about how the shepherd will save the sheep. And Christ goes on to all himself “the Good Shepherd”.

So, by this point you might have noticed that today’s Scriptures say a whole lot about sheep, and you might be wondering about that. That’s fair. And it might not surprise you to know that in the life cycle of the church year, this is called “Good Shepherd Sunday”.

The metaphor of church people being sheep has always bothered me a little. I don’t know much about sheep, but they don’t seem all that bright to me. They seem more like animals that follow the leader, and do what they’re told. I don’t want to be thought of as a sheep. I don’t want to be part of a mindless “flock” that follows along and does what it is told.

And another part of this has always bothered me too. And that’s because Christian ministers are often referred to by this title of pastor. And if you go back to the roots of that word, “pastor” has a very particular meaning. It’s a derived from this Latin word: pascere, which means to shepherd. In other words, in a congregation that pastor is the shepherd and the people are the sheep.

You might be feeling a little offended by that right now. That’s okay. I would too. You probably don’t want to be sheep anymore than I do.

But here’s the thing that has always made me most uncomfortable about this: the idea that somehow the pastor takes this role that really is only supposed to belong to Jesus. Maybe that point is hitting me a little extra hard today.

Now as I’m up here preaching today, you might be thinking about the news I shared with you this week. As you know, I have been called to serve another church. At the end of June, Heidi and I will be moving to New Hampshire.

I believe this is a true call. I believe that we are following God’s will for us. And yet, making the decision to leave was incredibly hard, and incredibly sad. We love this community, and we love this congregation most of all. I’ve been very blessed to be your pastor.

And so as I begin to take my leave, I know that I am handing off the role of pastor to someone new. Someone else, an interim pastor, is going to fill this pulpit very shortly. And not long after that a settled pastor will be with you for a longer period. And I pray that they will be exactly the pastor you need. And I pray that you will continue to grow and to minister to your whole community.

But here’s the spoiler. One day, hopefully years down the line, they too will be called to move on. Not because there’s a better congregation out there. That’s not why pastors have to leave. But because God will call them to the next thing, and will call you to the next thing as well. God is going to call you into the next phase of your life together, a place where God already is, and where God will bless you.

And that’s because it is God, and not the pastor, who is ultimately the “Good Shepherd”. It is God who leads us through the valley of death to safety. It is God who makes sure our cup runs over. It is God who brings us into green pastures and leads us beside still waters. And it is God’s house, not the pastor’s, in which you will dwell forever.

In other words, it’s not about the pastor. It’s about God.

When our conference minister, Lynn Bujnak, was called to Vermont she wrote something interesting in her candidating material. She wrote that she didn’t see herself as a shepherd, because in Christ we already have one of those. He is the Good Shepherd, in fact. But she did see herself as a pretty good sheep dog.

A sheep dog can do a good job gathering us in. They can find the ones around the margins, and help lead them back to crowd. They can guide the way. They can push us forward. They can sound the alarm is something is wrong. And they can pretty useful and helpful.

But they aren’t shepherds. And, as good as they are, they are replaceable. And they should be.

And that’s because if you are here today at this church, if you are at any church, the pastor shouldn’t be what makes you stay or go. Sure, you might like your pastor, you might feel like the pastor “gets you”, you might feel a sense of connection that helped you feel comfortable here, but in the end, hopefully, that’s not why you stayed.

My hope is you stayed because you felt a connection with the Good Shepherd. My hope is something about these Scriptures every week caught you, and connected with you, and you felt led to go deeper. My hope is you found Christ, or at least a glimpse of him, in prayer. And my hope is that this community helped you to find Christ’s love in a new and uplifting way.

This church has had literally dozens of pastors in its over 150 years. But it’s only had one Good Shepherd. And that Good Shepherd is why this church has lasted, and why it will continue to last. Christ will be the guide through whatever comes next. And Christ will make all things into a blessing for this church, no matter who your particular sheep dog happens to be.

In a few minutes, we are going to be baptizing Annie. We are going to be welcoming her into this holy sacrament as a community. And, even though I will be the one sprinkling the water on her head, I won’t be the one baptizing her. And even though you will be the ones making the baptismal promises to nurture her, you aren’t baptizing her either. We aren’t the ones doing the lifting here.

That’s because Annie is about to be baptized into something a lot bigger than all of us. And above all else, in this act, the Good Shepherd is claiming her.

That’s good because Annie is probably going to be around a lot longer than most of us. And when we are gone, God’s love will still be there. The same God who claims her in baptism today will claim her in her golden years. And the same God whose name we bless her with today will call her name throughout her life. Because the Good Shepherd never forgets any of us, and never lets us go.

What’s true for Annie is true for us all. Even, and especially, when we are on the move to our next green pasture. The Good Shepherd will go with Annie all her life. And will go with me to Exeter. And will go with this congregation wherever you are headed. And we will all dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Amen.

Shaking Up the Living in the Valley of the Dead: Sermon for April 6, 2014

Ezekiel 37:1-14

37:1 The hand of the LORD came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the LORD and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones.

37:2 He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry.

10003447_10151948032596787_1474327605_n-137:3 He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord GOD, you know.”

37:4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD.

37:5 Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.

37:6 I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the LORD.”

37:7 So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone.

37:8 I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them.

37:9 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.”

37:10 I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.

37:11 Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’

37:12 Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel.

37:13 And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people.

37:14 I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the LORD, have spoken and will act,” says the LORD.

A few years ago, when Heidi and I got married, we had a little logistical problem. When I had been the only one living in the house, there had been plenty of room for my clothes in the closet and in the one dresser. But when Heidi moved in that changed, and we started needing more space.

So we did what any newly-wed couple did in the aftermath of the big day: we went to Ikea and we bought some dressers. Many of you have probably been to Ikea, but if you haven’t let me explain. The idea is that the furniture is fairly inexpensive, in part because it comes unassembled. You load these flat boxes in your car and drive them home and find yourself faced with dozens of pieces and bags full of nuts and bolts and washers.

And, I like to think I’m pretty handy. I have helped to build actual furniture, and I know my way around a toolbox. But this took forever. There was a lot of try to bang things into place, a log of getting frustrated, and a lot left over pieces. And I’m still not sure where those were supposed to go.

I was thinking about that because while I was reading today’s Scripture. The prophet Ezekiel was a priest who had been exiled along with many of the rest of his people to Babylon. And people would come to him and he would share his prophecies.

And these were a people who needed two things: honesty, and hope. And in his prophecies Ezekiel brought both. First he told the truth. He talked about the exile, and he talked about the ways that the people had fallen short of God’s expectation. He talked about how they were in a place that they never expected, and about how everything had changed.

But then he also talked about hope. He talked about how one day they would return to Jerusalem from Babylon, and the temple would be rebuilt, and they would find new life. And he had this vision that is perhaps his best known: the valley of the dry bones.

Ezekiel is led by God to this valley that is filled with bones. Layers upon layers. And there is no sign of life anywhere. And it looks like the epitome of hopelessness and death and destruction.

And God says to Ezekiel, “do you think these bones can live again?” I would probably have said “they look pretty dead, God”. But you should probably never count God out in these things. Even still Ezekiel doesn’t say, “yes, of course, you are God, anything is possible for you.” Instead Ezekiel just says “oh God…you know”. Hardly a ringing endorsement, but a start.

God tells Ezekiel to start to prophesy. In other words, start talking about the future Ezekiel. And as he does, God starts working too. The bones come together and connect again. And then they become flesh and blood again. And then, God tells Ezekiel to keep talking, and something incredible happens. They are filled with breath again, and the ones that moments ago had just been bones stand up and breathe, and are filled with new life.

God tells Ezekiel that the bones were symbols of the people of Israel, who had fallen mightily. And God shows him that they will be brought back to their feet. They will find new life. They will live again. God promises that. God gives them hope.

Now it’s hard to compare my little dressers to an entire people. But here’s what both stories tell me – putting things together is hard work. Sometimes you get stuck. Sometimes you don’t think there’s much of a chance to get things right. Sometimes you get frustrated and wonder if it is all worth it.

But sometimes, despite all of this, you know that you have to keep trying. And you have to keep putting all the pieces together. And that’s what I want to talk about today, because I believe that every Scripture we read has insights for our lives, and this is no exception. And I think this passage could be used to teach us about a lot of things: our personal lives, our families, our friends. But today I want us to think about what it means for those of us who are trying to be the church.

I’ll say this first: church is sometimes hard. Community is hard. Learning to live together and work together and serve God together is sometimes hard. It’s true in every church I know. There are good times when everything seems to be going well. And there are tougher times when it might feel like we are all trying to assemble the same dresser together, and nothing is coming out right.

And those are the times when you wish that God could just say the word, and all the pieces would come together like those bones in that valley, and new life would be breathed into all of us. Well, here’s the reality. I think we can. I think we can ask God to do all those things, and I think God will do them. But I think God needs us to do some work too.

God didn’t tell Ezekiel “just stand there and watch this”. God said to Ezekiel, “prophesy”. And, like I said, God was telling Ezekiel to talk about the future. God was telling Ezekiel to tell the truth, but to also tell the hope. Only when that happened did God start to show him what was possible.

And so, I want to ask those of us who love this church, those of us who love this church, what does this have to do with being church. Because I’ve said it many times, as have many others: church is not something we do one hour a week. Church is who we are every hour of every day. We are the church.

And with that in mind, I want us all to think about this question together: what’s the difference between being a church-goer, and being a disciple?

Think about that for a minute…how are those two different? Let me start by saying this…there’s nothing wrong with being a person who goes to church. I’m glad that you all do, and I’m glad you are here. And, really, to be a disciple, I think you need to be a church goer because I think that we who would follow Jesus all need a community of Christian faith.

But being a church-goer is not the same as being a disciple. Anyone can come on Sunday and sit in the pew for an hour and then leave. And that’s fine. But being a disciple is a whole lot harder.

I used to be a church-goer. But later on, I tried to become a disciple. I don’t always do it well, but I try. And here are just a few things I have learned in my own walk about being a disciple, and not a church-goer:
When I was a church-goer, it used to be about going to church. Now it’s about being the church.
When I was a church-goer, it was about how the church was spiritually feeding me and meeting my needs. Now it’s about how the church can feed and meet the needs of others.
When I was a church goer it was about seeing how others in the church weren’t measuring up to my expectations for them. Now it’s about seeing how I can help be the church with them.
When I was a church-goer it was about being with my friends. Now it’s about being a part of communities where not everyone gets along but we work together anyway.
When I was a church goer it was about how the church could pull together enough resources to fund a building and a budget and a bunch of line items so that we could sustain ourselves. Now it’s about how the church can use those resources to build a thriving ministry that reaches everyone.
And when I was a church-goer, it used to be my church. Now it’s God’s church.

Those are just a few. Maybe you can think of some of your own as well. And in all these things, this is what I have learned: being a church-goer is a lot easier than being a disciple. But being a disciple is the most rewarding thing I have ever tried to do. I say tried there, because I’m still stumbling along…and I’m not getting it right even half the time. But then again, the original disciples weren’t either. And yet, they kept trying.

I’ll close with this. In a few moments we will be receiving Communion together. And Communion is really about community and reconciliation. Our reconciliation with Christ, and our reconciliation with one another. We all sit at the same table, and we are all lifted up by Christ to sit at a much larger table with believers we do not even know. And, sometimes, we even sit at that table with other disciples with whom we might rather not sit. But like those bones in the valley, God sometimes joins us once again. God somehow calls us into new life. God puts us back together. God brings hope.

As we who would be disciples approach the table today, may God lift us up the way God lifted up those dry bones. And may we be knit together and stood up on our feet and given the breath of life. Because we are disciples. And we have work to do. Amen.