Martin Luther and the Courage to Reform: Sermon for October 15, 2017

To read the previous sermon in this series, please click here.

Last week I ended with what I think was my first ever sermon cliffhanger, cutting off right as the action was about to happen. Maybe it wasn’t as dramatic as a tv show during sweeps, but the story I’m telling takes more than one week to tell, and that was the natural midpoint.

This is the second in a four week sermon series on the Protestant Reformation. The actual Reformation took decades to unfold, but we date the anniversary back to one event that happened 500 years ago this very month on October 31, 1517. That was the day that Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg church.

And that’s what our cliffhanger was last week. Just to recap, last week’s sermon was about the young Martin Luther. We talked about how as a boy Luther was scared to death of breaking the rules. He came to see God as a scary and angry figure, as quick to punish as an irate school master. The young man grew up and became a law student, and one day he was caught in a thunderstorm that was so violent that he promised God he would become a monk if he survived.

Luther did survive, and he kept his promise and became a monk. It was in the monastery that he began to read the Bible himself, something that not many people in that day and age had a chance to do. And in the monastery Luther began trying to reconcile the God he knew in Scripture, and the grace and love of God, with what was being taught by the church of his day.

One of Luther’s greatest frustrations was the selling of indulgences. People could buy these for themselves, or for a loved one who had died. They were told that if they paid, their sins would be forgiven. You can imagine how these were abused. If you were scared to death of going to hell, church could sell you forgiveness. Or, if your mother had died, and you were worried she was stuck in purgatory, it was pretty easy to say “you know, if you really loved your mother, you’d pay a little to be sure she went to heaven”.

The church already had quite a bit of wealth, but back in Rome they were just breaking ground on a brand new cathedral, one we know today as St. Peter’s. The sale of indulgences funded that new cathedral’s construction. And so indulgence by indulgence, brick by brick, fearful believers were building a new basilica.

Martin Luther didn’t think this was right. More than that, he didn’t think it was faithful to Scripture and to who Jesus really was. And so he wrote his 95 Theses, his 95 statements about faith and the abuses he saw, and he posted it to the church door. And that’s where we left off last week.

This week we read a passage from 1 Timothy. It’s a letter from Paul, or at least someone who is speaking in Paul’s style, to another young man of faith. Timothy was a young pastor who was just learning what it meant to keep the faith and be courageous. Paul was his mentor. And the words in this letter are ones from a mentor to a timid student who is trying to figure out who they are. Timothy is told, “fight the good fight of faith”.
They are words that could have been said to the young Luther as well. He was now 34 years old, not so far removed from the timid and fearful young man he had been. And I don’t think he wanted to fight. But now he was in the fight of his life.

I use those words cautiously because I don’t like glorifying violence. But there are times when standing up for what we know as true means that others are going to want to fight against us. Being courageous does not mean wanting to fight. Being courageous means telling the truth when something is wrong, even if it means that we will have to enter a fight we’d rather not be a part of.

Luther could have stayed quietly in the monastery, keeping his new found knowledge of God’s love and grace to himself. But as he looked at what the church was doing, he knew he couldn’t be silent. And he knew that as soon as he spoke he would be in the fight of his life. He also knew that the odds were stacked against him.

But he posted the theses anyway. And after they were posted, more people kept reading them. They started to get around. And then the local bishop saw them, and he passed them on to the Pope. And the Pope was not happy, especially because they needed those indulgences Luther was railing on about to build St. Peters.

The next year, in 1518, Luther was charged with heresy. He found protection, for a few years, under a prince called Fredrick the Wise who was sympathetic to his ideas. In 1521, though, the Emperor called Luther to appear before him, and Luther had no choice. And so four years after he had posted those ideas to the church door, Luther was finally called to answer for them.

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Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms by von Warner

You might remember from your history classes an event called the “Diet of Worms”. Funny name aside, this is where Luther takes his stand in the good fight of faith. And there’s a popular version of this story, and then the more likely version. The popular one goes like this: Luther is called before the Emperor and asked to recant, and say he was wrong. Luther refuses to do so, and shouts out “Here I stand! I can do none other!”

It’s a great story. But historians tell us it might not be exactly true. That’s okay, though, because the more likely story is even more powerful. Historians say that on the first day of the Diet, Luther appeared before the council. His books and writings were laid before him, and he was asked a simple question: Did you write these?

The answer, of course, is “yes”. But Luther doesn’t say that. Instead he asks to be given time to reflect and pray. This is pretty far from “here I stand”. But the next day Luther comes back. And he’s asked again if he wrote these books. And this time he says yes. And he is asked whether he will recant. And he says no. In fact, he says this:

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.

In other words, “Here I stand…I can do none other.”

Luther’s words only convince the council that he is a threat. He is declared an outlaw and heretic, which means that anyone was allowed to kill him. And as he leaves the council he is immediately kidnapped. Fortunately, his kidnappers were sent by the friendly Frederick the Wise. They keep him safe, and they bring him to a castle in Wartburg. He grows a beard and assumes the identity of a man named “Squire George”, and goes into hiding.

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Actual photo of Martin Luther translating the Gospels from Greek.

It’s in Wartburg that Luther does what might be the most radical thing of all. He takes the New Testament, a book that your average German has never heard in the German language, and he translates it from Greek. He translates it not into the scholarly Latin which can only be read by clergy and academics, but into German. And for the first time, your average person in the pews could hear the stories of God’s love and grace for themselves, and not just as the church wants for them to hear them.

Over time Luther started to find more public support. His ideas were spreading, and he kept writing and encouraging reformation. At one point Luther encouraged all the priests, monks, and nuns to leave their cloisters. One of those nuns who leaves, Katharina, goes on to be his wife. He even becomes a father, having six children. Eventually the Emperor got distracted by other pressing issues, and Luther was left alone. He kept writing and ministering until his death in 1546. And 500 years later, we still remember his life, and his legacy.

Because of Martin Luther, you and I are here today, doing church together in a very different way. We are a member of a Protestant denomination that seeks to understand the Scriptures in light of God’s grace and love. We explore the big questions of faith together, with the church and pastor as teacher, and not tyrant. We do not believe that we are saved by our good works, but that we do good works because God’s grace has already saved us.

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Katharina Luther by Cranach the Elder

And, like Luther, we take up the call to be courageous in our faith. We fight the good fight of faith in our daily lives, not by violence or aggression, but by standing fast in what we know and believe about God. We live out our faith in this world, gratefully serving others with love, because we know already that we are loved by God.

Today we are baptizing the newest member into the faith. They are about to start a journey of their own. Today we will be making vows to support them, and to help them to grow in this faith, so that one day, they too may be courageous. The line from Christ to this font has traveled through so many spiritual ancestors who have taught us what it means to live out the faith. Martin Luther is one of them.

And so, as we come to the font again today, we remember our own baptisms. We remember a God who loves us into courage. And with Luther and all of the others, we proclaim the good news of God’s love and grace saying “here we stand…we can do none other.”

When Walking on Water isn’t the Goal: Sermon for August 13, 2017

You’ve listened to enough of my sermons by now to know the general way I preach. I usually start with a story, and then I talk about the Scripture, and then I tie it back to the first story, and then say something about how it matters for our life now. I’m predictable. So, I wanted to say upfront that today I’m doing something different. I’m starting my sermon by diving right in to the Scripture. I’ll explain why this week was a little different, but first, the story.

The disciples were in a boat together. They had gone on ahead of Jesus who had stayed in their last place to pray. And they look out and see this figure coming towards them, and they think it’s a ghost, because that’s actually probably more likely than what it really was. Jesus was walking on water; walking out to them.

Jesus tells them, “Don’t be afraid…it’s me.” And Peter, who is just so earnest in times like this, says to him, “Jesus, if it’s really you, tell me to walk on the water over to you.” So Jesus says, “come on”. And Peter does it. He starts walking on water too, and he even makes it a few steps, and then he seems to realize what he is doing. And then a strong wind picks up all around him, and he panics.

He falls into the water, and starts to sink, calling out for Jesus to help him. Jesus pulls him up, and says to him, “you of little faith…why did you doubt?” Jesus takes him back to the boat, the wind dies down, and the disciples start to understand, just a little more clearly, who Jesus is.

I knew that was the Scripture for this morning when I went on vacation two weeks ago. I was sort of kicking it around in the back of my mind as I swam in Gosport Harbor, or looked out at the ocean. And I was going to preach a sermon today about how everything had been fine for Peter until he got too afraid. I was going to talk about how our faith lifts us up, and helps us to do impossible things, but our fear drowns us.

And then, I saw the news. Karl Barth, probably the greatest theologian of the 20th century, said that Christians are supposed to read the Bible in one hand, and the newspaper in the other. In other words, we have to watch what is happening in our world, and we have to figure out how to faithfully respond. And yesterday I was thinking about a story I heard recently.

John Martin had stopped in for his music for today. Some of you know that John’s father, Paul, was the pastor here for twenty years, including the time during World War II. John was telling me about how during the war his father had a civil defense assignment, which was to climb to the top of the old Robinson Seminary just down the street, and scan the night skies for German aircraft. He never saw one, but if he had, his job would then have been to warn the people in town that the Nazis were coming.

I was thinking of that story, and of my predecessor, this weekend. I was thinking about what it means to watch out for the people you love, and to sound a warning to them when something dangerous is coming. I was thinking about that because I’ve spent most of the last day watching and reading the news out of Charlottesville, Virginia.

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Photo credit: Washington Post

I’ve been reading about a mob of angry people surrounding a church with torches – literal torches – and intimidating the people inside of it who were praying before a peaceful protest. I’ve watched a video I didn’t want to see of a car speeding down a street and plowing into a crowd. I’ve heard angry mobs shouting their hatred of anyone who is black, Jewish, gay, and…well…in any way not like them.

These were people proudly carrying flags with swasticas. They were using slogans like “blood and soil”, an actual phrase from Nazi Germany. They were sharing the words of Adolf Hitler as though they were the Gospel. And I thought back to Paul Martin’s task, to stand on the roof and warn his neighbors that the Nazis were coming, and all I could think of is standing in the same pulpit today, the one where he once stood, and how my duty is to say to you, “I’ve scanned the horizons, and the Nazis are here.”

The people who gathered in Virginia yesterday, they were literal Nazis. Like, you could call them that to their face and they would agree with you. And it’s tempting to dismiss them as the fringe. It’s more comforting to think, “well, that’s happening down there…things are different here.” But, these people who gathered in Charlottesville had come from all over the country including, I am sure, New Hampshire, and they don’t see themselves as the fringe. They think they are just the first wave of a movement that will not be stopped.

I was thinking about that, and I was thinking about the story of Peter. I was thinking about how I’ve been reading this story, thinking that the problem was that Peter didn’t have enough faith. And I began to wonder if it the point wasn’t so much that Peter could have walked on water if he had been faithful enough, but that, just maybe, the point was that Peter wouldn’t have been so scared of going into waters had he not doubted that Jesus would be there with him.

I say that because, more and more, I think the point of being a Christian is not to stay safe and dry. I think following Christ means getting out of our boat, and diving in, unafraid of the deep waters, and what lies beneath.

Peter wants to walk on water. He wants to do something special, something that keeps him above the abyss. He wants Jesus to do something for him. He wants a power the others don’t have. But the point of being a Christian is not getting something from Jesus. The point is to follow Jesus wherever he goes, even into the deepest waters.

As I thought about what to say today, I struggled with the temptation to stay in the boat, the way most of the disciples did. We have a baptism this morning, and that is always a joyful occasion, and we could have just talked about that. Or, I could have preached the sermon I was going to preach today, about trusting Jesus, and staying dry.

But then I remembered Paul Martin, and how he would climb up to that roof because he loved his neighbors enough to warn them about the dangers he saw, and I knew I needed to say this today, because the point of Christian faith is not to stay safe and dry, but to dare to get into the deep end and swim. And that means telling the truth when the winds are howling around us.

What happened in Charlottesville yesterday was evil, and it was sin. The things they were saying were idolatrous, and contrary to every part of the Gospel. White people are not superior to any other of God’s children. Jewish people are not the enemy of Christians. LGBTQ people are not a threat to this country. Immigrants do not destroy us. Muslims are not terrorists. Women are not inferior to men.

And people of integrity, people who truly love this country and every one of our neighbors in it, will not be silent and allow this to happen.

We think that walking on water is the hard part. It’s not. Walking on water is nothing to

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Vigil at Exeter Town Hall. Photo by Susan Cole Ross

aspire to. It’s just one more way to avoid the real work. Instead, we have be willing to risk jumping in, and diving in to face what scares us. We have to learn to trust that even in the deep waters, especially in the deep waters, God will be with us, making sure we do not drown.

The good news is that others have been in these waters before us. I make it a point to go down into our vault every so often, where we keep all of our church history. This church has been around longer than this country, and there is a lot down there, and just before vacation I spent time reading some worship bulletins from the 1940’s.

I found one in particular from June 4, 1944. It was two days before D-Day, when thousands of Allied soldiers would storm the beaches of Normandy, and begin the liberation of Europe from the Nazis. The people gathered that morning didn’t know when the invasion would begin, but they knew it would be soon. And so printed in the bulletin are these words:

“With all our fellow countrymen we wait the invasion of Europe from England. On the day when that announcement is made, this church will remain open in prayer from noontime until 9 o’clock in the evening.”

I thought about the people who sat in the sanctuary that day, waiting for news and praying for loved ones, and I thought about what they would think had they awakened to the news that we did this weekend. What would they think of young men in Nazi armbands marching triumphantly on American soil? And what would they think of us, if we said nothing?

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Some of the crowd who turned out to support their neighbors in Exeter. Photo by Susan Cole Ross. 

I refuse to try to walk on water anymore, staying safe and dry. Instead, I’m ready to plunge into the waters of my baptism, and resist evil and oppression in every form. This morning we will baptize the newest member of the body of Christ into these same waters. Make no mistake; we are not baptizing her into safety. We are not baptizing her so that she can stay in a boat. We are baptizing her into a life of following a savior who calls us out of silence and apathy, and into the deep end, that we might tell the truth, and love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

As we make these promises to swim these waters with her, let us rededicate ourselves to a life of staying in the living waters, and proclaiming the goodness of Christ over any ideology that would teach us to hate what God has called good.

 

The Fall of a Sparrow: Sermon for June 25, 2017

You can listen to this sermon here or subscribe to the Congregational Church in Exeter’s sermon podcast on iTunes.

Matthew 10:26-31, 38-39
10:26 “So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.

10:27 What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.

10:28 Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

10:29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.

10:30 And even the hairs of your head are all counted.

10:31 So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.
 
10:38 Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.

10:39 Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

In high school, like most teenagers, I had to read Hamlet. And, like most teenagers, I wasn’t so sure about this Shakespeare guy. We read a lot of his plays, and as much as the teachers told us they were relevant to our lives, the language was so archaic that it felt like another world.

In the play’s final act there’s a scene, as the action is about to come to a head, when Hamlet tells his friend, Horatio, that he has a bad feeling about how it’s going to go. Horatio basically says, “if something feels weird, let’s not go through with this.” But Hamlet replies, “Not a whit. We defy augury.” Now, that’s the Shakepearean way of saying, “I’m not superstitious.” And then Hamlet delivers this line: “There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow.”

In college I was an English major, so I had to read more Shakespeare, but I can’t say that I ever really fell in love with it the way my professors hoped. But this week, as I thought about this text, that phrase kept coming back to me. I kept thinking about what it meant.

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A sparrow who really wanted my breakfast.

Shakespeare knew the Bible, and he’s having Hamlet use the words of today’s Scripture passage. Jesus is talking to his disciples about fear and life, and he uses the example of sparrows. Sparrows are little, tiny birds. You could buy two of them for a coin back then. They would seem insignificant to anyone who was listening. But, Jesus tells them, if even a sparrow falls to the ground, God knows about it.

Jesus asks them, “aren’t you worth more than a whole bunch of sparrows?” To put Hamlet’s quote, “there is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow” another way, “If God is paying attention to sparrows, God is paying attention to this moment.”

I’m going to stop here and say that I do remember that Hamlet it a tragedy. It doesn’t end well for him, so you might be thinking “okay, if you are telling us to be unafraid, this is a really bad example.” Fair enough. But I still think there’s a little hope here for us.

Jesus uses this sparrow story when he’s talking to his disciples about fear. He tells them that the hidden things in life, everything that causes pain or destruction, will one day be revealed. For his disciples, who lived with the fear of death, that was powerful. It meant that the whole corrupt system was going to be exposed. To quote a Johnny Cash song, or at least one he covered, Jesus was saying, “What’s done in the dark will be brought to the light.”

When things in the world feel wrong, when it feels like things are being done behind closed doors that will hurt us or others, it’s a good reminder that God knows those things, and God will not let them go unexposed and unanswered.

But this is also a good reminder that sometimes we are the ones called to do the work of confronting the injustice in our world. When we stand in the face of what is wrong, and wonder “where is God”, often the question we should be asking ourselves is “what does God want me to do about this?”

That can feel scary, but more than that, it can feel hopeless. We are one of billions. None of us have endless assets or mighty armies at our fingertips. We may feel like we can’t change things in our own neighborhoods, let alone the world. It may seem that the risk we have to take to stand up to what is wrong is more likely to backfire than to succeed.

pexels-photo-326642Our lives can feel so small. And the irony in that is that if we do nothing, they are indeed. But if we choose to resist our fear, and do what is hard, they become larger than we can imagine. Jesus tells his followers to take up their cross and follow him. He says that if you want to save your life, you have to lose it, and if you lose it for his sake, you will find it.

In other words, if we do nothing, if we try to lay low and protect ourselves, the counterintuitive truth is that we will lose our lives. I’m not saying by that that we will stop living, but we will lose the reason that we live. We will start to lose our very souls. But if we step up, and take the risks that Christian life calls us to take, we just might find new life. In fact, we just might thrive.

There is a story about Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church. Before his consecration, he received a number of threats on his life, so much so that he wore a bullet-proof vest under his vestments for the ceremony. His family was concerned, and so he calmed them by telling them about all the preparations that had been made to ensure that he would stay safe. After telling them this, though, he said this: “I need you to hear, I believe that there are things in life that are worse than death.”

Living a life full of fear is worse than dying. And we are all going to die. The question is, “how do you want to live?” Or, as the poet Mary Oliver writes: “Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. And if that’s true, then there is a special providence in the rise of one too. Today we are baptizing Charlotte, not yet 8 months old. She’s not quite as small as a sparrow, but she’s close.

Today we bring her to the font, and in the waters of baptism she will be claimed as one of Christ’s own. And all of us, her parents, her godparents, and we her church community, are claiming her too. And we are saying that we are going to teach her to follow Christ, and to resist fear, and claim the life that God is calling her to claim. And if we do this well, this will be a courageous child. She may be afraid sometimes, as all of us are, but she will have the courage to do the work of healing and justice that this world needs. We are going to get her ready for that work. We are teaching her how to live.

And so Charlotte, today I say the words of Jesus to you: “Do not be afraid…you are worth more than many sparrows” God’s eye is on Charlotte, and it is on us all. In the face of that, our fear cannot win.

Thoughts, Prayers, and the Widow’s Mite: Sermon for November 15, 2015

12249738_10153171783211787_8883653876062982129_nPeople sometimes joke with pastors that we only work on Sunday mornings. Like we preach for an hour each week and then go golfing every other day. To be honest, even I think it’s funny.

But the reality, of course, is different. During the week, along with all the other things ministry entails, we get ready for Sunday morning. And by midweek the service is starting to be prepared in the office. Sermon titles, hymns, prayers, and more are chosen. And by early on Friday a stack of bulletins is ready to go for Sunday morning.

That’s what happened this week. Today is pledge dedication Sunday, when we ask you to bring your pledge cards for 2016 in, and when we dedicate them for next year. It’s the official end of our stewardship campaign. And as you can see in the bulletin, today’s sermon was entitled “Budgeting for Gratitude”. I was preparing a sermon that was about generosity, and how giving is a way of expressing our thanks for all that we have been given.

And I was sitting down on the couch on Friday night, about to write that sermon, when it became clear that something really terrible was happening in Paris. And so for the rest of the night, we watched the news, and prayed for those who were still in danger, and hurt for a beautiful city. And the next morning, like many of you, we asked “Is this what our world is now? Is the world always going to feel this unsafe?”

And then, I thought about this morning. And it just felt wrong to be talking about our stewardship season here when terror is holding so many captive around the world. And I wondered if I should change the text this morning from the story that we just read, to something new.

But, in the end, I didn’t, and it wasn’t just because the bulletins were already printed. This morning the deacon read what’s commonly called the story of the widow’s mite, a mite being a very small amount. And that was what this woman put in the treasury: two small copper coins that didn’t really amount to very much.

Jesus was watching as she did this because all of the people would all come and put their money in the temple’s treasury, and anyone could watch. And so, for some it could be a bit of a production. You could get noticed for your large gifts. And some people, particularly some of the religious officials, made a show of their giving and their piety. And so they also got the place of honor at dinners and events, and they always commanded respect, even if they did not treat others well.

But this widow who is barely scraping by comes into the square, with her two little coins. And she puts them in the treasury. And Jesus says to his disciples, “that woman has just given more than all the others put together”. Because the others had given what was just extra to them. They didn’t even feel it. But she had invested greatly from the little that she had.

The implications for stewardship season are clear there. It’s why churches don’t name their biggest donors. Because this is not a contest to see who can give more. There are no tiered giving societies here. No Pastor’s Circle or, if you really give a lot, Jesus’ Circle. And it’s why I don’t know, and do not want to know, who gives what. That’s because each of us has to figure out what faithful giving looks like given what we have. For some that might be $1 a week, for others that might be a $1000. And those gifts, though vastly different financially, are worth the same to God if they truly come from the right place.

To me, the right place is from our gratitude, and from our hope and courage. Are we giving for recognition? Or are we giving that others may be seen and loved and lifted up? Are we giving to say “thank you” for what we’ve already received, or are we giving to say “I’m important, and you should thank me.” Are we giving from an abundance so big that we don’t even notice the gift is gone? Or are we giving from faith, and are we feeling it just a little when we put our pledge in the plate?

Are we giving like the scribes? Or are we giving like the widow?

These are all the questions that guide my giving. But about right now you might be wondering, what does this have to do with Paris?

To me that all comes back to Jesus line about giving from abundance, versus giving when times are tight. Because I think that same thing could be said about love, and about loving when it is easy for you to do so, and loving when it is tremendously, tremendously difficult.

It is easy to sit here across the ocean, and to say “our thoughts and prayers are with Paris”. And they are. And they will continue to be in the coming days. And then one day, far too soon, something else is going to happen in this world filled with violence. And our thoughts and prayers will be with the next place.

I’m not saying that we are being insincere. But I am saying that for those of us who are not directly affected by the things that happened, it’s not that difficult to say “my thoughts and prayers” are with you. It’s one reason why when people say “we are Paris” I hesitate a little. Because we may love Paris, and stand by Paris, but we are not suffering the way they are. We are not Paris.

And so, it’s okay to say you are praying for Paris. It’s fine to change your Facebook profile picture to the French flag. It’s normal to feel sad and afraid. But in a sense we are giving all of that from our abundance, as people who are relatively untouched.

But looking at Paris on Friday night, I was amazed at some of the ways Parisians, people who like the widow had so little emotionally to give in that moment, opened up and found generous hearts. In one example, Parisians on social media started posting and tweeting that if anyone was stranded and needed a place to stay, they would open their homes to them. And I thought, “how extraordinary…because if there were ever a time for Parisians to fear the stranger it is right now” and yet are choosing to live in abundance instead.

That is what it means to give, and to act, like the faithful widow in the world. To hold nothing back out of fear, but to choose to invest all of yourself, even your heart, in the work that is yet to be done. Because saying “you’re in my thoughts and prayers” without actually intending to do anything is a little like the scribe who has all the money in the world making a sizable deposit in the treasury. It looks good, but you don’t really feel it.

And that is what it should mean when we say a place, or a person, or anything is in our “thoughts and prayers”. It’s not just about thinking about those things for a moment. It’s not saying a quick prayer to God the way we might send an email or something, getting it off our desk and onto God’s. It’s about joining ourselves with the cause, and choosing to invest in it with our lives. Especially when we feel like we have nothing to give.

And that’s because prayer is more than words. Prayer is not something that is over the moment we say “amen”. Amen means “truly” after all. As in “I truly mean this God”. And so, in a profound way, I think that when we say “amen” that means we are just getting started with the praying.

And so, if your thoughts and prayers are with Paris, how will you truly mean that? Will you work for peace in this world? Will you live in hope, and not in the fear that the terrorists hope that we will embrace? Will you stand up in the coming days to the Islamophobia that we will doubtlessly hear all around us?

And I want to say something specifically about that. Because those refugees in Europe who are now being looked at with suspicion came there because ISIS was doing these same things in the places they are fleeing. And ISIS is as much a Muslim organization as the Klan was a Christian one. They weren’t burning those crosses because they wanted to destroy them. They burned them as symbols of their faith. Thank God we Christians are not judged by them. So let’s make sure our Muslim neighbors aren’t judged by the actions of those who would sully their faith.

In all these ways and more, how will you pray for Paris? And how will you pray for all the other places where terror reigns? For Beruit. For Iraq. For Syria. For those places in our own country.

I’m of the mind that terror wins when it forces us to live in fear. It wins when we are no longer generous people, but instead live with closed and suspicious hearts. And it wins when a night of horror halfway around the globe can dampen the basic faith in humanity of people here.

And so I’m reminded of the old bumper sticker phrase, that despite its brevity actually has a lot of truth in it: think globally, act locally. We are not in Paris. But we are here. And we can choose this day, and each day, how we will live in the world. And we can choose how we will give of ourselves in every part of our lives.

We can choose love. We can choose understanding. We can choose generosity. And we can choose to invest all of us in the people and things that we believe in.

But more simply, we can choose to live like scribes, with closed hearts, and actions that cost us nothing. Or we can choose to live like the faithful widow, who believed God would bless even those two small coins she put in the plate. We can choose to live with our fears in charge. Or we can can choose to love with our hearts wide open. The choice is ours. And the prayer that is our lives starts now. Amen?

“Your Silence Will Not Protect You” – A Sermon on Esther for October 11, 2015

I’m often asked why there are so few women in the Bible. Sure, there are some. There’s Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Mary Magdalene. There’s Eve, of Adam and Eve, and Martha who cleaned the kitchen while others surrounded Jesus. There’s Sarah and Abigail, Hannah and Elizabeth, and more.

There are actually a fair number of women mentioned in the Bible, but the tricky thing is they are usually not at the foreground, and sometimes they don’t even have names. They are mentioned in passing, or as someone’s spouse, but rarely in their own right. And so when I hear people, especially our younger girls, ask me where the women in the Bible are, it takes some explaining.

When the books of the Bible were written society was, of course, very different. Women were not their own people. They did not have the rights that women do today. And when they did act with agency our courage, it wasn’t always treated as a good thing. And even though it is very likely that Jesus’ disciples included more than just the 12 men he gathered around itself, the Bible doesn’t tell us much about them. It took something incredibly huge for a woman to get her due in the Bible.

Scroll of the Book of Esther, Royal Ontario Museum

Scroll of the Book of Esther, Royal Ontario Museum

But there are two books in the 66 book Protestant canonical Bible where that pattern is reversed. Both are named after women. One is Ruth, a book about a woman who converts to the Jewish faith. Ruth later refuses to leave her new beliefs behind when her husband dies. She is an unlikely hero, a convert who upholds the law with a vigor most born into the faith do not.

But as much as I like the story of Ruth, it’s the other book named for a woman who never fails to capture my imagination and awe. And that’s the story of Esther.

Esther was an orphan, a Jewish girl growing up with her cousin Mordecai in exile in the Persian empire. And the king at the time gets frustrated with his queen, who won’t do what he says. So he gets rid of her and looks for a new queen. And Esther is just the woman to fill the role. But her cousin tells her, whatever you do, don’t tell him you are Jewish. That will put you in danger.

About that same time Mordecai uncovers a plot to kill the king, and foils it, and Mordecai is made an advisor to the king. But the king has another advisor too, a man named Haman. And Haman loves power. He expects everyone to bow down to him. But Mordecai, Esther’s cousin, refuses. And this enrages Haman so much that he decides to kill not just Mordecai, but every Jewish person.

When Mordecai discovers this he goes to his cousin and begs her to get the king to intercede. But the wife of the king can’t just go to her husband. She has to be summoned first. So she has Mordecai tell all of the Jewish people to fast and pray for her for three days. And on the third day, she takes a risk, and she goes to the king and invites him to a feast. And he accepts. And at that feast she invites him back again to a second one.

In the meantime, Haman is still angry. Mordecai still won’t bow down to him, and so he is so mad he starts to build the gallows on which to hang him. And that same night, the king can’t sleep. And he’s looking for anything to put him to sleep. And so he has the court records read back to him. Anything to sleep right? And he discovers that he had never rewarded Mordecai for helping him.

And so everyone ends up back at the second feast. Esther, the king, Haman, and Mordecai. And at that banquet, Esther tells the king the truth about who she is. She tells the king that Mordecai is her cousin, and like her he is Jewish. And she tells the king that Haman wants not just to kill Mordecai, the man who had saved him, but all of the Jewish people as well.

And the king, knowing now who is wife is, and knowing that he still owes Mordecai for saving his life, decrees that the Jewish people can now stand up for themselves against attacks. And Mordecai takes a prominent position in his court. And Haman, the man who would have killed an entire people, ends up suffering the same fate he wished for Mordecai.

That’s the story of the book of Esther. It’s one that every year our Jewish brothers and sisters celebrate during the festival of Purim. Purim is a festive day. It’s when the faithful throw feasts, dress up in elaborate costumes, and drink. In some cases, a lot. A Jewish friend of mine in college told me once that Purim was the only day of the whole year when it was considered acceptable to get drunk.

We don’t have a holiday like that in the church, if you were wondering.

But, the fact the story of Esther is celebrated with such joy and celebration is something that should not be overlooked. Because Esther, is about as close to a female superhero as we get in the Bible. She not only saved herself, and her cousin. She saved her entire people.

And she did it in the most amazing way. She didn’t do it with fancy weapons. She didn’t do it with an army. She didn’t do it with a costume or a cape. She did it by doing this: standing up and telling the truth.

Esther told the truth to a king that she knew did not want to hear it. She told it knowing that it could have gotten her killed. She risked everything to tell it.

And the most amazing part is that she didn’t have to.

Esther had all that she needed. She was the queen. She had wealth. She had relative safety. She had the protection of the king. All she needed to do was keep her mouth shut, and she would have guaranteed that safety for herself.

But Esther couldn’t do that. She couldn’t see her cousin killed, and she couldn’t see her people exterminated. And so, even though it was a risk to even go into the king’s presence and invite him to that feast, she did. She took her own life into her hands and dared to stand up and in front of the powers that be in order to save others.

And then again at the feast, Esther stands up and tells the king, tells the world, her truth. And once again she is taking her life into her hands. But she manages to save her people. And all these centuries later, her people still celebrate her.

But when her cousin had first come to her and asked her to do this thing, when she stood trembling in front of the king, when she opened her mouth to speak those words, she didn’t know how things would turn out. Not only did she stand to lose her life, but she held the lives of her people in her hands.

So why did she do it? Why not just be quiet, and let someone else be the hero?

Audre Lorde, the poet and civil rights activist, has an often quoted line: “Your silence will not protect you.” That has become a sort of rally cry for many different movements over the past few decades. Your silence will not protect you, so refuse to stand down, refuse to be quiet, and refuse to hide.

I think that her quote could use one qualifier. I think the truth is closer to this: your silence will not protect you…for long.

Because we have all been silent sometimes when we have wanted to call out our truths. We have all seen something unjust without speaking up. We have all, at times, waited for others to be the hero. And in those moments, we have been safe.

But if we are honest with ourselves, that safety does not last long. It lasts only as long as it takes for our conscience to catch up with us. And only as long as it takes to see the toll that our silence has taken on others. And then, we really understand, that our silence will not protect us, just as it will not protect others.

Pastor Martin Niemoller, who lived in Nazi Germany, once wrote a statement about his own silence in the face of the

Pastor Martin Niemoller

Pastor Martin Niemoller

atrocities he was seeing:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Niemoller ended up spending seven years in a concentration camp. In the end his silence did not protect him. But he survived the camps, and he became reflective about his silence. And part of his legacy became regretting that silence, and apologizing for it. In fact, after the war, he wrote that whenever he met a Jewish person, he said this: ‘Dear Friend, I stand in front of you, but we can not get together, for there is guilt between us. I have sinned and my people has sinned against thy people and against thyself.’

Downstairs this morning our elementary-aged children are learning the story of Esther. They’re learning it in a fun, age-appropriate way with crowns and costumes. But I hope that, at some level, they’re learning more than that. I hope they are learning that in the end, God made them for more than silence. God made them for courage.

I think our Jewish friends are right when they throw a party every year and retell this story. And I pray for our kids that if only they can learn what Esther learned. If they can learn to be people of courage and not people of silence, then I think that means today’s lesson will have been learned. that means we are raising children who will make this world a little better. If that happens, then surely that is worth a celebration. Amen?

Becoming Goliath

The following was originally preached as a sermon on September 20, 2015 at the Congregational Church in Exeter.

I’ve talked before about being a football fan. Not just football; I also follow the Red Sox and in terms of that other kind of football, I’m a Liverpool fan, but football is the one sport that I’ll watch even if I have no stake in either of the teams that are playing.

And I have a process for determining who I’ll cheer for. I’m a lifelong Washington fan. My mom is from up here so I’ve also always followed the Pats. And I married a Buffalo Bills fan. But if they aren’t playing, then I pick the team I’ll cheer for with one question: who’s the underdog.

I love rooting for the underdog. I love the come-from-behind, against all expectations wins. But even if they lose, I love teams that play with heart, even when they are desperately overmatched.

I don’t think I’m alone in that. I hardly ever hear people say “I really want to root for the team that crushes everyone”. It’s like rooting for Darth Vader or Voldemort. The ones who have everything just do not inspire us. We love the little guy, against all odds, winning.

And that’s why we love the story of David and Goliath. Because it is the ultimate story of the triumph of the underdog.

Goliath, we’re told, was a giant. Maybe not a literal giant, but a huge warrior. He was a Philistine and the Philistines hated the Israelites and wanted to destroy them. And the two armies met and were at a sort of stand off with a no-man’s land in between.

And for forty days, every day twice a day, Goliath came out into the no-man’s land and challenged the Israelites to a fight. Send me one Israelite, he said, just one and I’ll fight him, winner takes all, to determine who wins this battle.

Well, no one is crazy enough to fight Goliath. No Israelite steps forward. So finally Saul, the king, who doesn’t know what to do, offers a reward to anyone willing to fight Goliath. But it’s a fool’s errand, and everyone knows it, so no one does it.

King David Playing the Harp by Gerard Van Honthorst

King David Playing the Harp by Gerard Van Honthorst

No one until David. And even Saul thinks he has lost his mind. He offers him his own armor, and David won’t even take it. Instead, David takes a sling shot, and five stones, and he walks off to face Goliath.

So, that’s remarkable enough. David is taking his very life into his hands, and the odds do not look good. And it’s important to note here that David wasn’t even a warrior. It’s not like the Israelites found their best guy and sent him up front.

Instead, he was the youngest kid in his family. An eighth son in a culture where seven sons were valued. He was like the kid who is always picked last in gym class. In fact, when God had sent Samuel to his house as a boy to find the one God had chosen to make king, David’s father hadn’t even bothered to bring him into the house. He just naturally figured it would be one of the seven older boys and he left David out tending the sheep instead because he was the ultimate underdog. And no one expected anything amazing to come out of him.

Have you ever been the underdog? Have you ever had people think or say that you weren’t up to something? Have you ever had your abilities doubted? I sure have. I think that we all have.

So when David was walking across the battle lines that day, into that no man’s zone, can you imagine what his friends and family and even the strangers who were watching him were thinking?

“He’s crazy.”

“He’s going to get himself killed.”

“He’s not even wearing armor?”

“I can’t bear to watch this.”

“He can’t be our best hope.”

It must have felt like watching a man walk to his own execution. And yet, he walked anyway, of his own will. And when he got to the place, when the fight was about to start, even Goliath was in disbelief. He was offended that the Israelites would send someone so small and helpless and young.

But David said this, “you come to me with weapons, but I come to you in God’s name. And God does not save by the sword or spear.”

This enraged Goliath and he rushed toward David, but before he could do anything, David pulled out a slingshot, and one of those five stones, and he slung it at Goliath. And the giant fell.

The giant fell.

Unbelievable. And this is how we remember David, as the man who made the giant fall. As the underdog who stood up for his people. As the little guy who overcame impossible odds with God.

It’s a great story. It’s like every come-from-behind football game, every Harry Potter book, and every Star Wars movie rolled into one. The good guy wins. The bad guy loses. And no one doubts the underdog again.

It would be great if that were how the story of David ended. A happy ending, for everyone except for Goliath. But that’s not the end of David’s story.

Have you ever wondered about what happens to the underdogs who stop giants?

In David’s case, life got pretty good. Saul, the king, made David a commander of his armies and David even married his daughter. And then, after the fall of Saul, David became the king himself. And he was such a mighty king that in the Gospels the writers make sure to tell us that Jesus himself was a descendant of David.

But that doesn’t mean he was perfect. And that doesn’t mean he always did the right thing. In fact, it wasn’t long after Goliath’s fall that David forgot what it was to be an underdog.
One day David saw a beautiful woman named Bathsheba on a rooftop. And he decided he wanted her to be his. The woman’s husband was a soldier, and so David used his power to get the man sent to the front of a battle line where he knew he would be killed. And he was, and David then married his wife.

It turns out the good guy wasn’t always a good guy after all.

And that’s important to remember, because most of us probably think of ourselves as the underdog. Most of us probably think of ourselves as the “good guy” fighting against the odds. And, chances are at times in our lives we have been. But David’s story reminds us that we aren’t always. And it reminds us that we have to ask ourselves from time to time, “Have I, in some ways, become the giant?”

That’s what David was to that man he sent to the front of battle. A giant, with the power to destroy him. And he did. And it wasn’t until his friend Nathan told him the brutal and honest truth about himself that he realized it, and regretted it. Because he realized he had become the same kind of Goliath that he had sought to destroy.

The reality is that we are all Davids. And we are all Goliaths. We are all, in at least some parts of our lives, underdogs. But we are all also people of great privilege and power.

I remember the first time that really struck me. I was 17, and I had just graduated from high school, and I went to Washington, DC for the summer to do an internship in the House of Representatives. And CSPAN was playing in the office where I worked, like it always was, and a member of Congress was speaking on the floor.

I can’t remember who it was, or what the issue was, or even what party they were, but all of that doesn’t matter. Because as I was half-listening, I heard something that would stick with me. The speaker quoted their favorite verse from Scripture, “to whom much is given, much is to be expected”.

Jesus said that. I had never heard it before, but I heard it then. And at that moment I knew that I had more privilege than I had ever realized before.

Here I was, getting ready to head off to a great college in the fall. And I was standing in a building literally down the street from where my father had grown up the son of a machinist. His family hadn’t been able to afford college, so he was at boot camp that summer after high school. But I was standing in an air conditioned office in Congress, not worried at all about how I would eat, or pay the rent, or take classes in the fall. And I heard those lines, and I realized in a deeper way than ever before how privileged I truly was.

Now, I think I’ve worked hard in my life. And I know what it is to be an underdog. But that realization I had that day has never left me.

I think most of us have more privilege than we realize. We have our Goliath moments when we think we are really David. But I think that when we see clearly how much we are given, and how much God has lifted us up, we can’t help but realize what we have. And if we are being faithful, we can’t help but ask, how can I use what I’ve been given?

I truly believe that character is revealed in what we choose to do with our power. Character is revealed in us becoming like David in a Goliath world, and stripping off our armor and standing in faith. And character is revealed in using our privilege and strength for the good of others.

I’ll close with a story about that. Today we are dedicating our new pulpit Bible. It’s been coming to us for a while now, and the Deacons received it a few months ago. And today, we are dedicating it to the memory of the man whose memorial funds allowed us to bring it here today: Donald Cole.

Don left this world in 2013, shortly before I joined you. But I’ve heard a lot of stories about him as a scholar and gentleman, and about the way he mentored his students at Phillips Exeter Academy. But this is my favorite.

Fifty years ago, when Don was a deacon here, he noticed something strange: all the deacons were men. And that didn’t sit right with him. And so this man asked an obvious question, “Why aren’t women deacons?” And he didn’t stop there. He used his influence in order to advocate for women to become deacons, and he ushered this church into a new error of inclusivity.

Fifty years later, it is not lost on me that I’m able to stand in this pulpit. And I give Donald Cole some of the credit for that. He was a giant, in the best sense of that word. And when you become a giant, you have two choices. You can use all the strength you have to strike others down. Or you can use it to lift them up. It’s clear which he chose.

We are all constantly choosing which David we are going to be. The one who fights giants. Or the one who becomes one without even realizing it. On those days when we are towering over the earth, may we remember what it is to stand alone on the front lines, willing to give of ourselves for a better future for others. And in that moment of remembering, may we look around, remember all that we have, and choose with our next move to lift up the world. Amen?

Bravery is Not a Contest.

This week Caitlyn Jenner’s picture appeared on the front cover of Vanity Fair. Immediately people online began to juxtapose her photo next to photos of veterans and first responders, saying that “real bravery” looked like the latter, and that Caitlyn was not brave.

The cover in question. Copyright, Vanity Fair.

The cover in question. Copyright, Vanity Fair.

I reject that false dichotomy. Bravery is not something that only those who have been in certain experiences can claim. Rather, bravery is the manner in which we respond to situations that occur in our lives. Some make the front pages. Most do not. Here is where I have seen bravery in my life and my work as a pastor:

Bravery is my father putting his family on a plane in Saigon in 1965, while he stayed behind. And bravery is my mother, 26 years old with two small children, waiting in the aftermath of an explosion in Vietnam for a call that took days to come telling her that her husband was alive.

Bravery is the police officer who walks the streets everyday. And bravery is the police officer who turns a partner in for brutality.

Bravery is the person who finally stands up to a bully. And bravery is the bully who faces who they have become, and chooses to change.

Bravery is walking into your first AA meeting, and saying “I’m an alcoholic”. And bravery is the family member who finally refuses to bail someone out again.

Bravery is the politician who votes for an unpopular bill, even though they know it will cost them the election. And bravery is the citizen who lobbies for a bill they know will never be passed.

Bravery is the woman who gets up, and goes to work, despite the crushing depression. And bravery is the man who goes to the ER after days of a manic episode and says “I need help”.

Bravery is going to war when asked. And bravery is saying your conscience will not let you do so.

Bravery is a bunch of gays and trans folks seeking shelter together in a bar named “Stonewall” in 1969. And bravery is the young man who tells his evangelical parents “I’m gay”.

Bravery is the woman who lives everyday fighting PTSD from that time she was assaulted. And bravery is the man who talks about how once he was raped.

Bravery is allies standing up to bigots. And bravery is walking past armed men with guns so that you can pray in your own mosque.

Bravery is coming home from war. And bravery is the veteran who fights everyday to stay alive.

Bravery is the firefighter who walks into their first burning building. And bravery is the family who picks up the pieces when their house burns down.

Bravery is watching your loved one’s coffin being lowered into the ground. And bravery is saying you will try to keep other families from ever facing the same kind of loss.

Bravery is the trans man who injects testosterone into his thigh for the first time. And bravery is the trans woman who says “call me by my name”.

Bravery is not a contest. Bravery is a choice. True bravery is often hard to find. When we see it, no matter where, it should always be applauded.