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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An audio recording of this sermon is available here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Rev. John Wheelwright

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The church in the later 1800’s.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now on iTunes: A new sermon podcast.

A few years ago I podcasted my sermons regularly, and enjoyed hearing feedback from those who listened. Then the podcasting service I was using shut down, and I started publishing my manuscript instead.

Lately I’ve been listening to more podcasts, including sermon podcasts, and really enjoying it. I’ve realized that listening to a sermon appeals to many people more than reading one. (Though, I know that’s not true of everyone, so I’ll keep publishing the manuscripts too.)

Additionally, some of my church members who travel part of the year or who are can’t make it to church due to illness, wanted the church to make sermons available online. So, we did.

The Congregational Church in Exeter now has a podcast on PodBean. The feed is being picked up on iTunes as well, so there are two ways to listen and download. To find us on iTunes visit:

 

https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/sermons-from-the-congregational-church-in-exeter-ucc/id1217918294?mt=2

Or, if you’d rather use PodBean, visit: https://exeterucc.podbean.com

A few notes on my preaching style for those who are curious: first, I preach “on lectionary” about 90% of the time. Sometimes I go off lectionary for a special event, but I like the idea of preaching on the same text as churches across the ecumenical spectrum.

Second, I don’t preach especially long sermons. Some are only about twelve minutes. I figure that’s plenty of time to get to the point, and make it matter for our daily lives.

Third, I start at the Scripture, and not at a theme. I believe in making the Scripture relevant to life. So these are less sermons on a topic, and more sermons on a text. I also usually only focus on one Scriptural passage.

So, that’s my preaching style. I hope that these sermons might speak to others, and convey God’s love and grace. Check it out and let me know what you think!

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

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

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

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

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

No pressure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Magnify: Sermon for December 21, 2014

Luke 1:46b-55

1:46b “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

1:48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;

1:49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.

1:50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.

1:51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

1:52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;

1:53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

1:54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,

1:55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

 

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When Catholic friends of mine come to visit Protestant churches or worship services, they always notice the differences. Most Protestants don’t take Communion every week. And we don’t stand, sit, and kneel throughout the service. But the thing I have heard more often from my Catholic friends than not is this: Where’s Mary?

My grandmother was a first generation Italian American, and a Catholic. Her name was Maria, though everyone called her Mary. Just about every family in her neighborhood had at least one Maria or Mary in it. And when she named her own kids, three have names derived from “Maria”, including my mother. And even when she and a priest had a bit of a theological disagreement, centered around the fact she married my Protestant grandfather, and she left the church, her devotion to Mary continued.

And so, like my Catholic friends, I often wonder why we in the Protestant tradition don’t lift up Mary’s story more often. Because, as one of you said to me this week, “without her, we wouldn’t be here at Christmas”. Mary remains one of many strong women in the Bible who changes the course of our faith and yet, like some of the other women in the Bible, we don’t tell her story nearly enough.

That’s unfortunate because we, and especially our kids, need to hear stories of Biblical women. But, most importantly, Mary’s story is not just one for girls and women. It is a story for people of all genders to remember, because it is a story of strength, of courage, and of choosing to glorify God.

In today’s reading we hear about how the angel Gabriel came to Mary and gave her the surprise of her life. She was pregnant, and not by the guy to whom she was engaged. She asks the angel, “How did that happen? That’s impossible!” But Gabriel just replies, “nothing is impossible with God.”

Mary goes from there to visit her cousin Elizabeth, a woman who was not supposed to be able to be pregnant, and yet who was about to give birth to someone else we know; John the Baptist. And when Mary enters the house John leaps for joy in Elizabeth’s womb. And when she tells Mary that, Mary responds with what we’ve come to know as the Magnificat: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.”

The word “Magnificat” literally means “my soul magnifies”. And when Mary, a woman who was not wealthy or powerful or likely to be chosen for anything that had to do with royalty, really realizes the importance of what she has been asked to do, those are the first words she says: my soul magnifies the Lord. That’s her first response.

It’s sort of an odd turn of phrase in today’s language, though. When you think of what it means to “magnify” something, what do you picture? I can’t help it but I always go straight to a magnifying glass, like the kind I played around with as a kid. Except I wonder what it means to magnify the Lord. Because as a kid I’d use a magnifying glass to make something that was small look bigger. Hold a magnifying glass over tiny writing and suddenly it is readable. Or look at grains of sand through it, and all of a sudden you could see different colors. The seemingly insignificant became bold.

And that’s wonderful, but God’s problem is not that God is too small. God is immense beyond our wildest imaginations, and we only need to open all our senses up to know that God is all around us. But that’s the issue. Because sometimes, despite how big God is, and how much God surrounds us everyday, we just don’t acknowledge that God is present. Because it is our understanding of God is way too small.

And so, that’s when the magnifying glass comes in handy. Not because God needs to be made bigger, but because our attention to, and understanding of, God does. We are the ones who need the magnification that the glass provides, not God. We need help to refocus, and to see things in their proper light. And it is by looking at people like Mary, and what she did, that we are able to understand more about God, and about God’s love for us.

Mary said “my soul magnifies the Lord”, and that’s really true. Mary becomes a magnifying glass through which our focus is changed, and God becomes clearer to us. By magnifying the Lord, Mary also teaches us what it means to be loved by God, and chosen by God to do surprising and amazing things.

And Mary also teaches us that it’s not enough to just see God more clearly. Because God also requires of us action. Because just as Mary had to be an active participation in the story of Jesus’ birth, we too have to be active participants in helping to bring Christ’s light into this world.

And this reminds me of something else I learned about magnifying glasses as a kid, something that I am perhaps glad our own kids are down in church school right now and so will not hear. And that is, that you can use a magnifying glass to set things on fire.

I learned this as part of some sort of lecture given to kids in some youth program I was in about how to survive if you are ever lost in the woods. I’m not sure why they taught us this, because the likelihood we were ever going to be lost in the woods was much less than the likelihood we’d accidentally set our front lawns on fire, but I digress.

And so the teacher taught us that we should always carry a small magnifying glass if we are hiking so that if we get lost, and need warmth, we can make a fire. You just take a bunch of old, dry leaves, hold a magnifying glass over them, and the sun will hit the magnifying glass, and the reflection will burn so hot that the leaves will smolder and you will have fire.

Now I’m not recommending anyone try that, but I think there’s a greater meaning here. Because each of us, like Mary, can choose to magnify the Lord. Each of us can be the lens through which the world comes to see God in new ways. And each of us can let the light of Christ shine through us bright enough that the places in our world that need light and warmth the most can be set ablaze with Christ’s love.

We can make the choice to magnify God in this way with out lives. But in order to do so, we have to look at ourselves, and see what kind of lens we are. Have we covered ourselves so that the light of God cannot penetrate us? Have we shut our souls so that the warmth of God’s love is never reflected to others?

Or, have we cleared off the lenses of our life, and are we letting God’s light shine through them? Have we chosen to live our lives as magnifiers of God’s love?

The literal meaning of the word that the original Greek text uses, the one we translate as “magnify”, is “extol”, or to “praise” or “glorify”. And I like the idea that by magnifying the Lord we are glorifying God. In our historical tradition one of our catechisms even asks what our purpose in life is, and the answer is “to glorify God and enjoy God completely”.

And so, to me, the question is how do we use the lens of our life to magnify and to glorify God?

As we prepare for Christmas Eve, and as we reject today on “love”, the theme for this last Sunday in Advent, I think that’s what it’s all about. We glorify God by loving God, and loving one another, and loving others. And I think that letting God’s love pour through us unencumbered for all to see is the truest way of glorifying God.

Because you can spend your life talking about God. You can tell people all about God and how wonderful God is. But if you don’t live your life with love, nobody is going to believe you. They’re just hollow words, and the world is not any better for them.

But on the other hand, if you love, in every sense of that word, if you even just try…you glorify God, and your soul magnifies the Lord.

And so, today we lit that fourth candle, the one for love, as a sort of prayer. We ask that God will help us to love more this Christmas. We strive to love God, to love one another, and to love the world just a little better this year.

It’s that love that will bring us to the manger on Wednesday night. And it’s that love that we pray will remain with us all year, as we use our lives to magnify the love of Christ that is breaking into this world, and making it brighter.

May your last days of Advent be a blessing, and may we all prepare ourselves for the task of helping the light that shines in the darkness to burn brighter this Christmas. Amen.

You Reap What You Sow: Sermon for October 26, 2014 (Stewardship Kick-off)

2 Corinthians 9:6-15

6 The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. 7 Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. 8 And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work. 9 As it is written,“He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor; his righteousness endures forever.”

10 He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. 11 You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us; 12 for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God. 13 Through the testing of this ministry you glorify God by your obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ and by the generosity of your sharing with them and with all others, 14 while they long for you and pray for you because of the surpassing grace of God that he has given you. 15 Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!

So, today is stewardship kick-off Sunday in the church, which means this is the Sunday each year where I preach about why we would like you to give to support our ministries here. Which means that this is the Sunday where I feel like I am one of those people on the NPR pledge drive, and I’m interrupting the things people really want to listen to and instead asking them for money.

I listen to NPR a lot, and I don’t particularly like pledge season. And yet here I am doing the same thing. Except I don’t even have anything to offer you. No tote bags. No fleece vest with our logo on it. No weather alert radio. Not even a chance to win an iPad.

So, you can see why I don’t look forward to this much. In fact, I’ve long told people that the stewardship kick-off sermon is my least favorite sermon of the year. No one likes to ask for money. And no pastor, at least no pastor worth their salt, likes getting up into the pulpit to do it. It feels too much like a televangelist; too greedy.

And yet, it is unfortunately necessary. And that’s why today, even though maybe none of us look forward to it, we are gathered here as a community, and we are gathered around Scripture, and we are talking about stewardship and giving.

1012068_10152318961546787_4013347830413628686_nAt first glance, today’s Scripture lesson might not sound like it has much to do with that. It’s not about money, or time, or talents at all. It’s about seeds and sowing and reaping. Or, to translate that for those of us who aren’t very good at gardening or farming, it’s about planting and harvesting.

Paul is writing to the church in Corinth and he summarizes what he’s telling them by saying, “The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.” In other words, he is saying “you reap what you sow”.

I don’t know about you, but that always sounded a little negative to me. It sounds like a threat or a warning, the kind we might get as kids from stern adults. “You reap what you sow, so if you don’t study you’re going to fail.” Or, “you reap what you sow, so if you don’t floss you’ll have cavities.”

Now, all of those things are true, but they aren’t exactly inspiring. It’s more like “do this or else this will happen”. In terms of motivating us to want to do something it ranks right up there with its close cousin, “you made your bed and now you have to lie in it”. And when you apply it to giving, it sounds a lot like some stewardship sermons I’ve heard. Ones where the message could be summarized by this: “You reap what you sow, so if you don’t give to this church, we will not meet our bottom line and someday we will have to close our doors.”

I’ve heard that sermon before. Verbatim. And, I’m here to tell you that it has never inspired people to give more. To tell you the truth, I think it does the opposite. Because if I happened to be a church member sitting out there in the pews and people told me that the only way to save a church was to open my checkbook so we could meet some bottom line on a spreadsheet, I wouldn’t feel particularly inspired to give to that church.

And to be perfectly honest, I hope you wouldn’t be either. And here’s why. A church that is just trying to meet a bottom line on a budget spreadsheet does not deserve your money. A church that exists only to fulfill its own needs and that worries only about maintaining the status quo and its own survival? That church doesn’t deserve anything.

In fact, I’ll go a step further. I would say that giving to a church like that is not only not helpful, but it’s actually bad stewardship. Because of all the places doing good work that you could give to that are out there, giving to one that’s just focused on self-preservation runs counter to building up the kingdom of God and doing Christ’s work in the world. Seriously, do not feel compelled to give to a church that cares only for its own survival because that is not a church. That’s just a clubhouse that is making the rest of us churches look bad.

But, if you want to do something else, if you want to be a part of something more than that, then keep listening. Because I think Paul is right. I think we do reap what we sow. But I don’t hear that as a threat. I hear that as a challenge. And I hear that as hope.

Because this is what I believe about giving. I don’t believe people feel inspired to give because they want to help meet a bottom line. And I don’t think people give because they want to sustain the status quo. I believe people give because they see what could be, and they believe that it is possible.

Paul was writing this letter about planting seeds to a church. And, of course, it wasn’t really about literal seeds and harvests. It was about asking the people of this church to support a new ministry in Jerusalem. And Paul knew that he was asking them to step out in faith and to imagine something that they couldn’t see yet. He wasn’t saying, “hey, look we are already doing this and we need help meeting the budget”. He was saying, “I believe God is calling us to do something new, and I’m asking you give not because you have to, but because you believe in it.”

In other words, this letter is Paul’s stewardship sermon. He is telling the people that something great is possible, but he needs them to help him plant the seeds. And the harvest, the tangible results that will come in a later season, will depend on this: what they are willing to plant now.

You reap what you sow. If you plant a few seeds, you might end up with something to harvest down the line. But if you plant an abundance seeds of hope in the soil of a place that is seeking to serve God in new and bold ways? That’s how you end up with a bountiful harvest. But you can’t get to that harvest by holding back.

And so that’s the question we each have to ask ourselves as members of this church community: What sort of harvest would I like to see? And what am I willing to plant in order to help us get there?

Here’s the harvest I envision. A year from now, and five years, and ten years, and many more, I dream of a church that is growing. I dream of pews that continue to fill a little more each week. I dream of our already great children’s program growing and bringing more kids into our church. I dream of vibrant youth ministry with middle and high schoolers. I dream of adult Christian education opportunities out at RiverWoods and here in our vestry. I dream of joyful Sunday worship and meaningful spiritual growth. I dream of all the ways this church can serve our community here in Exeter, and God’s people around the work.

And I know all these things are possible. First, I know they are possible because with God all things are possible. But I also know they are possible because in the short time I have been here with you, I have see how many of you share that vision. And I have seen the hope that so many of you have for this church.

This is a strong and healthy church, but we are not done with our journey. We have so much potential for growth, so much potential for going deeper, so much potential for service. And in an era when too many churches are living in a scarcity mindset, slashing ministries, and fearfully squirreling away every spare resource they can find, we are instead deciding to live in hope and invest in a future where we know God is waiting for us. And we are heading towards what could well be our most abundant harvests.

But first, we have to plant.

At the beginning of this sermon I told you about how this is my least favorite sermon of the year. I want to amend that. A sermon that asked you for money would be my least favorite of the year. But this sermon is not about asking you for money. Not really. Because this sermon is asking you for something much more valuable. This sermon is asking for your hope. And this sermon is asking you to invest in that hope, and to help plant the seeds we need to plant in order to make our hopes realities.

The reality is that it is up to you and me. UCC churches do not receive funding from the greater denomination like some of sisters and brothers in other churches do. Instead, we sustain ourselves. And so, we each, myself included, receive a pledge card. And we each are called to prayerfully consider what we are going to plant.

I know this is not easy. My family and I are making the same decisions about giving to this church that you are making, and come Stewardship Sunday on November 16th we will be putting our pledge card in the plate too. And I get it. I know what it’s like to pay the bills, and the student loans, and put some in savings, and take care of everything else. And I know what it’s like to voluntarily add something to the list. I know it’s often not easy.

And, it shouldn’t be. Because when we invest in our hopes, that is never an easy leap of faith. When we decide to take that step and plant those seeds, we are stepping out in faith. And for each of us that looks different.

It feels important for me to tell you that I do not know who gives and who does not. I have no idea who the biggest givers are in this church, and I don’t want to know. I also don’t know who is giving an amount that means little to their bottom line, and who is giving an amount that feels big to their modest budget. I don’t know, because that does not impact how I serve each of you as your pastor.

But, I am praying for you as you make this decision. Not because I hope that you will write down a big number. Really, I don’t care much about that. But because I pray you are a person of hope, and I hope that you feel hopeful about our future together. I’m praying that you will find spiritual meaning in your decision to give, and that you will plant those seeds in this good soil. I’m praying that you will sow in faith, and that we will harvest in joy.

We reap what we sow. It’s true. And that is good news. Because I truly believe that we are about to plant something amazing together. Amen?

Ready, Set, Go: Homily for Gathering Sunday, September 7, 2014

If you look in your bulletins this morning you’ll see that where it normally says “sermon” it says “homily” today. People sometimes ask me what that word “homily” means, and I tell them it’s ancient Greek for “shorter sermon”.
That’s not exactly true. That’s not what the Greek means, but a homily is typically a little shorter than a regular Sunday sermon. I try not to be too long-winded on Sundays, because I believe that often preachers can make their point in less time than they think they need. But today I’m going to be deliberately short-winded. And that’s because today we have important work to do here in worship, and so much of what we are doing will preach the message today. And so I’m going to let it.
Today, it’s time to gather. And it’s time to get ready. And it’s time to go.
IMG_3574We are not the first faith community to be in this position. Today’s Scripture from Exodus tells us about another congregation that gathered and got ready and said “go”, albeit under very different circumstances. Last week we talked about Moses’ call from God to go and free the Israelites and lead them out of Egypt. And this week is about what happened when that community got together and got ready to go.
God is talking to Moses and giving him some instructions on how to get the people moving. God gives them all these instructions about getting a lamb and preparing a meal and even putting blood on their doors as a sign that they are the people getting ready to move. And God gives them very specific directions about how to eat the lamb: don’t have a long leisurely meal. Instead, eat it like you are in a hurry. Get dressed, put on your shoes, put your staff in your hand, and get ready. In fact, don’t even let your bread rise. Eat it unleavened. Because very soon, I’m going to call you out of this place, and onto a journey that will change everything.
So, here in Exeter, all these millennia later, it’s our Gathering Sunday. And we are not being persecuted by harsh taskmasters. We do not have lamb dinners to eat quickly, or so little time that we can’t let our bread finish baking. We are not escaping in the dead of night. Our situation is very different from that of the Israelites.
And yet, one thing is the same: we are gathering, and we are getting ready to go on a journey together that can change everything.
On Gathering Sunday things change. Worship goes back to 10am. We come back upstairs. The choir is back. Our summer vacations are over. And we all come home. But the point of Gathering Sunday is not just to say “summer is over”. The point of Gathering Sunday is that we are about to embark on a journey together, as a church, and we want you, and everyone else, to come along with us.
And so some special things are happening today. You already saw our students come up with their backpacks to receive a special blessing as they start a new year of learning. And after worship you can go downstairs to make sure they are registered for Christian education this year. Our Christian growth folks, and all our Sunday school teachers, have made sure that the journey our children and youth are about to embark on is a fantastic one, and we don’t want anyone to miss it.
But this isn’t just the start of a new year of learning for the youngest among us. This is the start of something new for all of us. We never stop growing in our Christian faith, no matter what our age, and we should never stop learning and trying new things. There are adult Christian education opportunities coming this fall. There are options for serving in our community. There are ways you can serve in worship. And, most importantly, whatever else you are doing there are ways to choose to go deeper this fall. Ways to open your hearts up in prayer, and contemplation, and in discernment of God’s call.
Each of us is being called to go on this journey. We are being gathered together here this morning because we are about to be sent out into something new. We are being gathered to re-focus our vision on what matters, to make choices about how to do the work of growing and serving this fall, and then to go out into our world and let our light shine.
You can even see that in our hymns today. We started with “Be Thou My Vision”, then we are singing “Called as Partners in Christ’s Service”, and then we are ending with a song that is far more theological profound than we give it credit for: “This Little Light of Mine”. And that’s what we are doing today: Re-focusing, partnering, and deciding to shine as we are sent forth on this journey..
And, like the Israelites, we are even going to get fed. Our menu is a little different, but the idea is the same: we are eating a meal together before we hit the road and start this journey. In Holy Communion we gather around the table and say “I’m ready…send me Lord”. There’s a reason we do not eat this meal alone in our own homes with no one else around. We eat it together, because one of the most important things we do as a church is gathering, and because being a Christian means being a part of community. And so, we share the meal, because it strengthens us, and binds us together, for the journey we are about to take.
And so here’s my question: Are you ready to go? Are you ready to start this journey? Are you ready to get on the road?

Now, before you answer that, let me clarify what that means:

Are you ready to be an active part of this community?
Are you ready to join together in worship regularly?
Are you ready to pray and to think and to discern?
Are you ready to learn and ask questions?
Are you ready to tell the story of our faith to the youngest ones here?
Are you ready to sing? Or create artwork? Or use any of your talents?
Are you ready to hang in there during committee meetings, even when they feel as long as 40 years in the wilderness?
Are you ready to serve not ourselves, but our neighbors, and our world?
Are you ready to be a blessing?
Are you ready to be the church?
I believe that together we are. Because I believe this church has been blessed in so many ways, including by each of you individually. And I don’t believe anyone or any church is ever blessed without there also being an expectation. I believe we are only blessed to be a blessing. And I believe that we are only a blessing when we dare to let our light shine.
And so here’s the question again: are you ready for this journey?
I think you are. I think we are. And I think that even on the days when it might feel hard or tiring or tough for us as individuals, especially on those days, that’s when this community will matter more than ever. Because if we make this journey together, God will be able to lead us so much further than if we try to go it alone.
So, why a homily? Why the short sermon? Because we have gathered. And we have prepared for this journey. And now, time is growing shorter…and it’s time to hit the road.
So, are you ready?
Then let’s get going. Amen.

But What Do You Think?: Sermon for 24 August 2014

Matthew 16:13-20
16:13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

16:14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

16:15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”

16:16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

16:17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.

16:18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.

16:19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

16:20 Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart be always acceptable to you, o God, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.

When I started eighth grade my least favorite class was English. And when I ended high school, my favorite classes looking back were English classes. Up until 8th grade English classes had been all about spelling and grammar and diagraming sentences. And that’s important to know, but it was never all that interesting to me.

But in the 8th grade we started to be handed books like “To Kill a Mockingbird” or “Catcher in the Rye” or plays like “The Crucible”. And then, instead of multiple choice questions or fill-in-the-blank tests, we were given these questions that we had to respond to in essays.

ucccommaAt first I thought this was a trick and that I was missing something obvious. Like the test question that asked me about Atticus Finch and whether doing the right thing matters even when you know you’re going to lose. I was sure there was a paragraph in the book that would give me exactly the answer that I was looking for so that I would ace the test.

We all thought that. And so when we didn’t find it we all seemed to write some variation of what the teacher herself had said in class in our essays. Which is why when she handed back our exams and seemed less than excited about them we were confused. We had listened in class. We had taken notes. We had read the book. Why didn’t we get A’s?

But that was the first time I heard a teacher really say, “I don’t want you to tell me what other people think. I don’t want you to tell me what I think. I don’t want you to take the easy way out. I want to know what you think.”

Today’s passage doesn’t take place in an English class, but it’s another that reminds me that Jesus was, among other things, a good teacher. Jesus has pulled his disciples aside and he’s asking them an important question: Who do people think that I am?

And Peter, who always seems to be the first to raise his hand, has the answer. “Well, Jesus,” he says, “some think you’re John the Baptist, some think you’re Elijah, and some think you’re a prophet like Jeremiah.” And my guess is that Peter thought he had covered all the right possible answers there. He had done his homework. He was getting that A.

But Jesus pushes the question just a little more. He asks Peter, “But, who do YOU say that I am.”

Whenever I read that question I think about my English teacher, and the long line of teachers I had after her, and how they would push us to go deeper, and find the answers for ourselves. And in that moment I can picture Peter sitting there, trying to think of what to say, and how the easy or memorized answer was no longer enough.

And then it comes to Peter: “You are the Messiah, the son of God.”

And here’s the difference between a high school English student and Peter. In high school the right answer can get you an “A”. But with Jesus the right answer gets you something more. It gets you a new purpose and a whole lot of other questions.

Jesus says to Peter, “blessed are you” and he tells him that Peter is going to be the rock that Christ’s church will be built on. In that moment Peter goes from a guy who knew everyone else’s answer, to a guy who had his own and who would become a teacher in his own right.

After high school I went to college and, much to the chagrin of my parents who were pulling for law school, I became an English major, and then I went to seminary. I’ve always held the English major partially responsible for that. Because throughout college I ran into professor after professor who didn’t want to know what some critic thought, or even what they thought. They wanted their students to wrestle with the texts, to think for themselves, and to find the truth not in cliff notes or lectures, but in the process of truly trying to understand something complex.

And when you think about that, that’s pretty similar to what we as Christians are asked to do. Or, at least, we should be. Because Jesus, as you may have noticed, was rarely in the mode of handing out answers. He was much more the kind of teacher who gave his followers questions. In fact, I think that at times it must have been pretty infuriating to be a student of Jesus.

And yet, do we really want someone who just gives us the answer key? Do we really want to be able to just turn to the back of the book and find it there? Okay, maybe sometimes we do, but in the end do we really want an easy, simplistic faith? Or do we want one that forces us to go deeper, and that transforms us?

There is, as is fitting, no right answer there. And if you do want all the answers there are plenty or pastors and churches and people of faith who will purport to have them. But I’ve always been a little wary of those who claim to have all the answers about God, and who are unwilling to tell Christians to keep asking the tough questions. I guess that’s because I’ve always been careful of anyone who gives easy answers…because I’ve often found they won’t hold up in the hardest of times.

So, what does it mean to have a faith that embraces that question Jesus asks us: “Who do you say that I am”?

For starters, I think it’s about not being afraid to ask questions. Somewhere in so many of our faith upbringings we were been taught that it’s somehow wrong to ask questions, or to wonder. But Jesus was all about the questions. He was all about making people think. Just going through the motions of acting faithfully meant nothing to Jesus if there wasn’t true meaning behind it. And I don’t think there can ever be true meaning behind it if there is no depth. It’s like a plant that’s put into shallow soil. It may bloom for a little while but it won’t last for long.

So instead, what does it look like to not be afraid of knowledge? What does it look like to ask the big questions not in spite of the fact you are a person of faith, but because of it? This isn’t a new concept, just a somewhat lost one. Colleges like Harvard and Yale and Dartmouth were founded by our Congregationalist ancestors. So was Phillips Exeter and a host of other schools. There was an assumption that education, and asking questions, didn’t hinder our relationship with God. It brought us closer. And it deepened it.

And here’s why I think this is. I don’t think Jesus was just asking Peter what Peter thought. I think that Christ continues to ask us all what we think. And in that, I think Jesus is asking us to go deeper. Not just into the questions and into the possible answers, but deeper into a relationship that demands more than us just repeating what we have heard from others. And that invitation, like any invitation to think for ourselves and experience something for ourselves, can be anxiety producing at first.

I didn’t really grow up in the church. My parents left it up to us to decide. But I had a lot of questions. So when I was 17 I decided to start going to church on my own. And the deeper I went in search of answers, the deeper my relationship with God became, and the less I was able to ignore it.

One morning towards the end of senior year I was driving to school with a good friend of mine who had grown up in a very fundamentalist Baptist family. And while I was finding faith, she was finding her way out of the church. But we were close, and I wanted to explain to her what was going on with me and I talked about how I just had this feeling and the more I explored the more I just felt this closeness with God that I couldn’t explain.

And I grew up in the South, you may remember, so about half way to school she sort of looked at me and rolled her eyes and said, “Emily, are you trying to tell me that you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?”

I was so surprised, and so afraid of what my friends would think, that I said, “no, of course not, I’m just saying I’ve been thinking about some things, that’s all”.

But while that’s not the language I would have used for it either then or now, the reality is that, yes, there was a relationship there that I had never had before. It didn’t look much like what I thought it was supposed to look like. There were more questions than answers, and sometimes more doubt than faith, but taking someone else’s word for it, and using their answers wasn’t cutting it anymore. It was time to at least start to answer that big question for myself. It was time to ask who I said that Jesus was.

Through the years the people of faith I have respected the most have been the ones who have asked that question themselves, no matter how messy the answers seemed. Their lives have proven to me that our personal faith stories, and our relationship with God, matter.

There was the friend who grew up in a church where he was always given easy answers, and who left it, and God, behind. Or so he thought. But now, he asks those questions again, and this time he doesn’t settled for what others say. He’s finding out for himself.

There was the friend who went to Iraq as an Army medic and came back questioning everything, and why God allowed the suffering she saw. In her darkest moments she wondered if God even cared. But she kept wrestling, through good and bad.

And there was the friend who narrowly escaped the Twin Towers on 9/11 and, for the first time, asked questions about faith. A few years later he left his law office and went to seminary.

When I think about what it means to answer “who do you say that I am”, I think of them and so many others like them. And that’s what faith looks like to me. Not easy answers. Not being so self-assured that yours is the first hand up in the classroom. Not belief that tries to answer for others. But faith that would answer the old question of “but what do you think” well, and that never settles for an answer key that someone else wrote. Faith that settles for nothing less than a relationship, and life of searching. That’s the faith I hope you always feel like you can have here, and that’s the journey I pray we can go on together. Amen?

Nothing: Sermon for July 28, 2014

Romans 8:

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?…No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

"Paul Writing His Epistles"

“Paul Writing His Epistles”

So, when I was growing up, I was pretty sure I was going to hell.

It’s sort of funny now, given my profession, but growing up in the South hell got talked about a lot. There were billboards and t-shirts that people used to scare you into faith. And my fundamentalist friends taught me that if you even did one thing wrong, you deserved hell. And I wasn’t a bad kid, but I knew I did a lot of things wrong, every day, so surely I was heading right to hell.

So I decided I would look for a solution that would keep me away from eternal damnation. And I asked my friends what I needed to do. And some said I needed to join the Baptist Church and get baptized in the lake and Jesus would forgive me. And others said I needed to join their church and learn to pray the right way, and I’d be fine. And others said I had to convert to a very strict sect of Catholicism or else I was a goner. And I remember them saying only members of their particular denomination would be saved.

I finally snapped out of it when I realized that everyone I talked to thought that everyone else I talked to was going to end up in hell.

But those questions about God never really went away, though, and when I got to be a little older, I started to read the Bible for myself. And the Bible, to me, was a scary book. I’d heard it used in ways that made it clear that God didn’t love certain kinds of people. I’d heard people say it told women that they were inferior. I heard it used to justify the horribly anti-Semitic things said to my Jewish friends. And I really didn’t want to read it for myself because I was scared to find out that maybe it really did say those things, and maybe God really was ready to damn us all.

And above all, one part of the Bible scared me to death. The letters from Paul, or the epistles. Because where I grew up, whenever someone was saying that God hated something or someone, they seemed to be quoting the apostle Paul.

Which is why it’s surprising that it was in reading’s like today’s from the letter of Paul to the Romans, that I learned not to be afraid of God anymore.

Paul is writing a letter to a church he has never been to before, the church in Rome. And he is introducing himself and telling them what he believes. He is trying to tell them who God is, and how to be the church together. And, we can’t forget this, he is writing to people who are afraid.

They are afraid of what it means to be followers of Christ in a time when that was not considered a good thing to be. And more than that, they’re afraid of getting it wrong. They’re afraid that they are not believing the right way.

It’s to this very scared church that Paul writes this letter, but he could be writing that to any of us who have ever wondered about where we stood with God. And he asks, “if God is for you, who can be against you?” And, “who can condemn you?” And, “what can separate you from God’s love?”

And his answer is this: nothing.

Nothing can separate you from God’s love. Paul writes, “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Nothing. You may have noticed in the bulletin that that was today’s sermon title. “Nothing.” So, that’s not a typo, or a sign I didn’t get the title in on time. It’s the take away.

And through the centuries people have taken that message away from this text. Martin Luther, centuries ago, was a man who was terrified of God’s judgement. Even though he was a monk, he struggled to believe that God really loved him. And then he read the Bible for himself, a revolutionary act in those times, and he read this letter from Paul. And some say this very passage helped to spawn the Protestant Reformation.

Later on others like John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, and Karl Barth, deep in the turmoil of World War II, would read this passage and find God’s love and assurance. This is a passage that changes something. It’s a passage that changed me, and maybe it changes something for you too. Maybe it makes God’s love a little more sure.

Last week in my sermon I talked about “thin places” and “thick places”. Thin places are the places where we feel God and God’s love very close to us. Thick places are the ones where God feels so far away. I believe both of those places exist for all of us.

But here’s what I believe does not exist: disconnected places. Because even in the thickest of places, God remains with us, and nothing, as Paul would say, can separate us from God’s love.

My cousin told me a story recently about her father who was a front-lines infantry soldier with the 10th Mountain Division in World War II. That particular division saw some of the worst fighting of the war. And, like most soldiers, he was not a man who went into the Army because he liked war or what comes with it.

And he told her that as he was fighting on the front lines, he would keep repeating the Lord’s Prayer over and over to himself. “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name…” Over and over, in what was surely one of the thickest places imaginable. And even as horrible as it was, he knew God was still with him, and still loved everyone there.

Our circumstances do not make or break our relationship with God. Whether they are in our control or not, God never leaves us. And no matter what, God’s love, and nothing and no one else, gets to have the final say.

When my cousin’s father got older he began to show signs of dementia. And when he got the most confused and scared he would start reciting the Lord’s Prayer again. And sometimes he couldn’t remember the words. And so my cousin wrote them down for him, and he carried them in his pocket, and even when he couldn’t say them, he knew they were there. And he knew God was there too. (Note: I’m thankful for the permission my cousin Gail gave me to share this story, which she also previously shared in Guideposts.)

Nothing, could separate them. And this is true for all of us. There will not be a moment in our lives, or in what is to come, when anything or anyone or any circumstance can separate us from God’s love. And that is good news.

But as good as that news is, that doesn’t mean we are off the hook. Because that news means that God’s grace is real. And grace is scary. Because being loved by God, no matter what? That means that there is some part of your life that you have no control over at all. You get grace, whether you want it or not.

And so here’s what comes next. You have you have to decide what you want to do about it. And I believe the Christian life is all about that choice. It’s not about being good so that you get into heaven. It’s not about being scared into faith by people preaching a fiery hell. It’s just this: knowing you have received God’s love and God’s grace, and deciding what to do next.

And here’s what Martin Luther and all the others throughout the centuries who have read this passage and been changed by it have said: I choose to live my life in gratitude. And I believe they are right. I believe that the Christian life is all about our gratitude for what we have been given. It’s about living our life as a “thank you” to God. And it’s about choosing to live focused on the abundance that God has given us, and not on our fears or insecurities. Because not even those things, as big as they may be, have the power to separate us from the love of God.

So, when you walk out the doors today, how will you live in gratitude this week? How will you respond to the “nothing” which changes everything? And how will you share that love with the world? What will you give back out of what you’ve been given? What can you do with your life to say “thank you.”

It’s a question we all have to ask ourselves individually, and then we have to ask it too as a church. How will we live in gratitude for God’s grace? As a community, how will we say thank you to God in our life together? And how will our gratitude serve to bless our community and our world.

That’s the question that will determine the kind of church we will be for years to come. And that’s the one that we have to continuously work together to answer. Because when someone looks at us and asks, “What kind of church are you?” we want to know how to answer that. We want to be able to say, in our words and in our actions, “we are a church that knows God’s love and shares it”.

And when they ask, “What keeps you from living into God’s grace?” and “What stops you from sharing the abundant blessings that God has given you?” this is the only answer we should ever allow ourselves to give: “Nothing”.

Amen.

The Next Part of the Journey

The Congregational Church in Exeter, NH

The Congregational Church in Exeter, NH

Over the past few weeks I have shared this news elsewhere, but now that the news has been shared with my current congregation, I want to share this here for those of you who follow my blog.

On Sunday, May 4th, I was called as the new senior pastor of the Congregational Church in Exeter, a United Church of Christ congregation in New Hampshire. The Congregational Church in Exeter was founded 375 years ago, and has a rich history of witnessing to Christ’s love in southern New Hampshire. The congregation continues to be vital, and is an important contributor to the Exeter community. This, along with their Open and Affirming commitment, their Eco-Theology covenant, and more drew me to prayerfully consider this call. But it was my meetings with their search committee, and the deep faith and passion for a strong future for the church that they exhibited, that helped me to know that God was calling me Exeter.

Heidi at her seminary graduation.

Heidi at her seminary graduation.

Earlier this month my family had another celebration as well. My wife, Heidi Carrington Heath, graduated with her Master of Divinity from Andover Newton Theological School. After years of coursework, internships, worship services, and ordination interviews, it was a day of profound joy and blessing. And it was also a day of commissioning. God has great things in mind for Heidi. I’ve known that since I met her. And now it will be my turn to stand beside her as she sees where God is calling to her next.

My last day at West Dover Congregational Church will be June 22nd. We will be moving to Exeter the next day, and I will begin ministry at the Exeter church on July 15th. Heidi will be searching for her first ordainable call in the surrounding area as well. In all of this we have both felt extremely clear that we are being called together to make this step in faith, and we are confident of God’s grace.

Signing the pastoral contract after the congregational vote.

Signing the pastoral contract after the congregational vote.

But to be clear, leaving is not easy. For the last four years I have been deeply blessed by the congregation of West Dover Congregational Church. In that time we have nearly doubled in size, we have had a successful Open and Affirming process, we have reached out further to our community, we have maintained the legacy of a sister church who closed, and we have undertaken major capital improvements. It has been an incredibly busy few years. But, more importantly, we have had moments together where I know that Christ was present, and where I know I saw God.

But there comes a time for every pastor when they are called to something new. When that call came for my family it was indeed joyful, but there was plenty of bittersweet there too. We love Vermont, and we love our church. But we also know that God is calling us to the next step. And God is calling West Dover Congregational Church on to the next step too. And for the next part of the journey they will walk with someone else. And for the next part of my journey, I will walk with someone else too. And soon, I know Heidi will walk with a congregation on their journey as well. And God will be with all of us along the way.