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.

Translating the Gospel: Sermon for Pentecost, June 4, 2017

Earlier this year I was researching my mom’s grandparents, my mom’s mom’s family, and I found my great-grandfather’s application for citizenship in this country.

My grandmother’s parents emigrated from Italy in the early 1900’s and they settled in Maine. They had died long before I was born so I never met them. But I found my great-granddad’s citizenship paperwork, complete with this picture of this big, bulky guy, and I texted it to my sister and said “well, I know where I got my build from.”

I then wondered what my great-grandmother looked like, but no matter where I searched, I couldn’t find anything. So I called my mom and asked, “Is there a reason that your grandmother maybe never became a citizen.” And she said, “Oh yes…she never learned to speak English.”

That surprised me because my grandmother grew up speaking Italian, but also spoke English. The same was true for her brothers and sisters. But their mother had grown up in Italy, and in Portland she lived in a community where you only needed to speak Italian. Even at church the priest spoke Italian. She had little exposure to English and never learned.

But my mom had always talked about her grandmother and how she loved her grandchildren. And, none of them had learned Italian. So, I wondered how the kids knew that. But my mom said that even though she didn’t speak much English, there were always other ways she could show her affection and love.

Today is Pentecost Sunday. This is the day that we in the church celebrate the Holy Spirit, and the way it arrived. Fifty days after Easter, and soon after the Ascension of Jesus Christ, the disciples were gathered together. You have to imagine they were a little confused. They’d been through this emotional whiplash. First Jesus was dead, then somehow he was alive, and now he was gone again. Before he left, though, he told them all to continue to tell his story, so they must have been sitting there thinking, “Okay, what now?” and “How do we do this?”

Scripture tells us that just then “a mighty wind” rushed through the room, and “tongues of fire” appeared over each of their heads. And, suddenly, they could speak languages they’d never known.

They went out into the city and met people who had come to Jerusalem from every place they could imagine. This would be like standing in the middle of the international arrival terminal at Logan, hearing all the different languages around you. And they began telling the story of Jesus, and of what had happened. And the people were like, “Wait, they’re all from Galilee. How do these guys know my language?”

A few folks were skeptical. They looked at the disciples and said, “they must be filled with new wine.” The technical translation for that is, “these guys are drunk”. But Peter hears this and says, “hey, we’re not drunk” (actually, he says, “it’s only 9am”, which I’ve always kind of loved”). But, Peter says, something has indeed happened. A new era has begun, and this small handful of disciples, this earliest church, has a story to tell.

What happened to the disciples was that the Holy Spirit had arrived. When we talk about God, or the Trinity, the Holy Spirit normally comes last. We get God who is the creator, the parent, the one who made all of us. And we get God who is Jesus Christ, who lived and died and rose again. But that last part, God the Holy Spirit, that’s harder to explain. It is literally amorphous.

And yet, it’s probably the Holy Spirit that we encounter most in our lives. It’s the Holy Spirit who Jesus promised would be there for the disciples, leading them, supporting them, and guiding them, even after they no longer saw him. And it’s the Holy Spirit who guides us still, and who lifts up our hearts when we need to know that God is still with us.

It’s this first gift of the Holy Spirit to the church, though, that is so powerful, and so important for us still. The disciples get the ability to speak the languages of others. They get a way to tell the story of Jesus, and what they’ve seen. And now it’s no longer just their story, but the world’s.

And the most important things about this is that they were the ones who started to speak other languages. How much easier would it have been for the Holy Spirit to say, “okay, I’ve touched every person in Jerusalem, and now they all speak your language, so go out there and tell them the story.”

But that’s not how it works. Instead it’s the disciples who are changed. It’s the church that has to learn new languages.

That’s a good reminder for us today because sometimes in the church we think everyone just needs to learn our language. You know, if people out there would just get onboard and come through the doors, and make an effort, they’d know how to talk like us.

But in a time when church is increasingly optional, that’s doesn’t happen. For many people, we may as well be speaking a foreign language in here. For some of them that’s confusing, and for others that may be downright frightening. So when people dare to walk through the doors of our church, that’s why it’s so important that we spell out in plain language what we are doing here.

That’s why we write the words of the Lord’s Prayer in the bulletin. That’s why we announce the hymns. That’s why we try to explain the sacraments. We have to be translators because otherwise we may as well be speaking Galilean.

IMG_5015And sometimes this goes beyond literal language to other ways of telling our story. As you arrived today you may have noticed that we have a rainbow flag out in front of the church today. Church council voted unanimously to place it there during the month of June. In doing so we are recognizing two things. First, we are remembering what happened in Orlando at the Pulse Nightclub a year ago this month. Second, we are flying it because June is Pride month for LGBTQ people, and we are standing in solidarity with the LGBTQ community.

About twenty years ago now this church voted to become Open and Affirming, which is a term that itself needs translation. Open and Affirming in our tradition means that we welcome and affirm people of all sexual orientations and gender identities. So, you know, and I know, that this is a step this church has taken. And you know, and I know, that it is safe for an LGBTQ person, or their friends, or their family, to walk through the doors of this church.

But here’s the catch. The average person walking or driving by probably doesn’t know that. And if they are a person who is LGBTQ, or who loves someone who is, they probably don’t know that this is a safe place. That’s understandable. Most churches aren’t, so why should this one be any different?

I know that’s a question for some in our community because people have asked me, “Would I be welcome there?” And I’m often like, “Okay, look at me…I’m the pastor.” But even with that…they don’t know for certain.

So imagine this. Imagine you are wondering who we are. Maybe you’re the parent of a gay kid. Maybe your best friend is trans. Or maybe you’re a middle school kid who is figuring out who you are, and who is wondering whether God really loves you. And imagine that you are riding in a car, looking out the window, and you see the big white church on Front Street, and you notice that flag. And imagine that in your heart, in a new way, you know for the first time that maybe God really does love you.

Even if you never come through the doors of the church, you hear that this story is for you too. That’s the power of Pentecost. That’s the gift of the Holy Spirit, and it’s a gift that is given to us not to keep to ourselves, but to use to share the story of God’s love with the world.

We become stronger every time we share our story. And we become stronger every time someone new walks through our doors because they bring their own gifts with them. That church that gathered in the Upper Room at Pentecost, all of twelve people strong, has grown to be a church of over 2 billion people worldwide today.

It didn’t get there by us all sitting in our pews, speaking our own language. It got there because the Holy Spirit taught us new ways to tell the story, and open our doors wider, and to invite people in. And so now is our turn. Let us be Pentecost people in all we do, sharing the Gospel of God’s love and grace in every language we can find.

 

Recognizing Jesus on the Path: Sermon for April 30, 2017

An audio recording of this sermon is available here or can be downloaded as a podcast at iTunes.

I like to think that I’m perceptive. When I was in middle school I had a teacher who would praise me for that. “You are so perceptive…nothing gets past you.”

So I began to think that was true and that I had a gift for recognizing what was around me. And I got to be a little too comfortable with that idea. Surely, if there was something important for me to notice, I wouldn’t miss it.

Except here’s the thing…adulthood has taught me that I’m not as perceptive as I’d like to think. I’ve had a few times where I have failed to even recognize people when they are right in front of me, usually because they are in places where I didn’t expect to see them.

Like the time I was on a quick overnight trip to Washington, DC, and I was riding the Metro thinking about one of my best friends from college who lived there now, and how I should really look her up. And the train pulled into the station, I hopped out, and I walked right past this woman in the crowd going the other direction.

I looked right at her, even made eye contact. But I just kept going. And I got about ten steps past her when it clicked. We turned back around at the same time. And, of course, it was her.

Then there was another time, and I told this story once at a summer service, when I spent an entire breakfast with Aretha Franklin sitting at the next table. I was so engrossed in conversation, though, that I didn’t even know it until she left and the waiter said “Do you know who that was?”

Like, really, how do you miss Aretha Franklin?

I think about those stories whenever I read today’s Scripture. Because this is a story of missing what’s right in front of you. The disciples are walking down the road to Emmaus talking about Jesus. And you have to remember, this was later on the day of the first Easter. They haven’t seen the resurrected Christ yet, but they’d heard rumors.

Then a third person starts walking down the road with them and asks “what are you talking about”? And they say, “you haven’t heard about this?” They tell him about Jesus, and how they had pinned all their hopes on him only to see him arrested, and dead and buried. And they tell him how some of the women had found the empty tomb and how the angel had told them that he was alive, but no one knew what was happening yet.

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Jesus was known in the breaking of the bread.

And when they are done telling the man this, he begins to teach them about faith. And when they get to Emmaus, the disciples beg him to stay for dinner and eat with them. And it is only when they get to the table, and only when the stranger takes the bread and breaks it, that Scripture tells us their eyes were truly opened and they realized that they had been in Christ’s presence the entire time.

I like this story because it makes me feel better to know that there are others who miss the obvious. My guess is that the two disciples in this story were no slouches either. They knew Jesus. They probably thought they would have recognized him anywhere. And yet, they were looking right at him and missing him. And it’s not that they didn’t see him…seeing is overrated in some ways. It’s that they didn’t recognize him.

I think this happens more that we like to admit. We think we see what’s right in front of us, but our vision is a little off. It takes a little extra nudge for us to really get it. And, we think we would know if God was walking with us on our journey.

That last part is sometimes the hardest. Because the reality is that we are all on a journey. None of us, no matter how much we want to, gets to stay in one place forever. New things happen, unexpected things happen, hard things happen. The disciples walking that road knew about that.

Their lives had been turned upside down, and they didn’t know what was going to happen next. They were afraid, and anxious, and they weren’t sure whether they could let themselves be hopeful. And so when Jesus joined them on the road, they couldn’t, or maybe they wouldn’t, see what was right in front of them.

There’s a story of a man who was blind and who decided to sail across the ocean. And he was interviewed for a news program by a pundit who believed he was foolish and that he was so limited by his abilities that he didn’t even understand what he was doing. And after a while the sailor replied to him, “Wow, for a guy who can see, you sure don’t have a lot of vision.”

I think about the times in my life when my eyesight has been fine, but I have not recognized Jesus. And that’s because Christianity is not about how well we see with our eyes, but how well we recognize God in our hearts.

We Christians call ourselves “Easter people”. Because unlike these disciples walking down the road, we know how the story ends. We know Christ is risen. But that day, on that first Easter, the disciples didn’t have the benefit of knowing that.

But after Jesus reveals himself they say to one another “weren’t our hearts burning within us when he was talking to us”? Only when they went deeper than their sight, and listened to their hearts, did they recognize God among them.

Now, you may be saying “when did I ever physically walk with Jesus, and see him face to face”? The disciples at least got that chance. Why don’t I? And you’re right, I’ve never found myself sitting down to dinner with Jesus there in the flesh right across the table. But that doesn’t mean he hasn’t been there. They key is trusting the burning in your heart enough to recognize it.

And a big part of that, of staying perceptive to the world around you, is about remembering what’s important, and not getting distracted.

This weekend I was keynoting the annual meeting of the Vermont Conference of the UCC. At meal times I’d sit with different groups of people and they’d start to recognize me. “Hey, are you the one whose speaking?” “Hey, are you the one who wrote this book?” And when I said “yes” we’d start talking, and we’d have these great, lively discussions.

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I did not make this.

And then one meal I was sitting next to a six year old. And we were talking a little bit. And then out of no where he asked me this question, “Hey, are you the one who made the chocolate cake?”

And I said, “No, I’m sorry.”

And he said, “Oh.” And then…crickets. He was clearly all done with me.

I tell you this story, though, because I like his focus. He really liked that chocolate cake, and he was going to find the person who could get him more. And if that wasn’t you, he was going to keep looking.

So often in life we get distracted from the things we really want to find. We walk down our Emmaus roads and are so caught up in details and stresses of life, and in just getting to the next destination, that we fail to remember that we are on a bigger journey. And so, when God comes and literally walks next to us, we don’t even realize it.

The challenge is to spend out lives looking for the presence and love of God with the same focus as a six year old looking for cake. And when we find distractions along the way, you know, like boring people who don’t know where the cake is, we have to be able to keep our eyes on the prize, and refocus. We can’t let anything deter us from our vision.

God is not a cake, of course, no matter how great it might be. But God is something even sweeter. God is the one who can give our lives their greatest meaning. God is the one who can love us so much, that we will know how to love one another. And in a world filled with so many distractions, we have to learn to be perceptive enough to recognize God’s presence.

Because what if the kingdom of God is already surrounding us, and we just have to have the heart to recognize it? I believe it is. I believe the kingdom of God exists in many places in this world, and I believe Exeter is one of them. And I believe Jesus is already with us on this journey, and has been for many years. And because of that, I believe that we will never walk alone.

Gradual Transfigurations: Sermon for February 26, 2017

My favorite books of all time are the Harry Potter books. I was an adult when they came out, and at first the idea of reading books that were written for children held no appeal. But over time everyone kept saying to me, “You’ve just got to read these books…they’re amazing!”

So I gave them a shot, and I thought they were pretty amazing too. I tore through all of the books that were out at the time, and then I went at midnight on the release dates for the rest of them, just waiting for the moment I could get the next part of the story.

rehost-2016-9-13-4685a819-e442-4e36-af5b-9c8c42bfbf00One of my favorite characters is a teacher at the school Harry attends named “Professor McGonagall”. She is brilliant and stern, yet deeply courageous, and she teaches a subject called “Transfiguration”. Transfiguration is a class all the students take, where they learn to change one thing into another, like a mouse into a tea cup or a match into a needle. McGonagall was so skilled at this, in fact, that she could transfigure herself from a human to a cat and back again.

They’re such great books. But…Jesus never went to Hogwarts. So you might be wondering, “What does any of this have to do with church?” Well, maybe not much, except for this: the only two places in my life I ever recall hearing the word “transfiguration” are in church and in Harry Potter.

Once a year, on the last Sunday before Lent starts, we observe “Transfiguration Sunday”, and we read this story. Jesus goes up to the top of the mountain with three of his disciples, Peter, James, and John. And when he gets to the top, Scripture tells us that he was “transfigured”, and his face “shined like the sun” and his clothes were “dazzling white”. And then, Moses and Elijah, two guys from centuries back, appear too. And a voice booms out from nowhere and says, “this is my son, the beloved…listen to him.”

Peter, James and John, understandably, were a little dumbstruck. At my seminary there was a wooden carving of this moment that showed the faces of the three, and what I remember the most is that the eyes were wide open like this.

Fair. Mine would have been too.

The disciples are, understandably, scared to death. They are on the ground, terrified, but Jesus puts his hand on them and says this: “Get up. Don’t be afraid.”

When they get up Moses and Elijah and the booming voice are all gone, and the whole group starts walking back down the mountain. But, one more thing, says Jesus, “don’t tell anyone about this until after I’m raised from the dead”.

Now, had I been up on that mountain, and had I seen Jesus go all glowy, hanging out with Moses and Elijah, with what was probably the voice of God talking to me, I would have had some questions. I would have at least wanted to check in with the others who were up there to make sure we’d all seen the same thing. I’d need to process this. But apparently the three guys came down and didn’t say a word to anyone else.

But they knew. They had literally just had a mountain-top experience, and now they knew that Jesus was even more unusual and amazing than they had thought. And they were supposed to just go back to the world and live their life like nothing had happened.

But something had happened. And they had been changed.

I wonder what their lives were like in the days and weeks that followed. I wonder how they reconciled what they had seen with their everyday lives. I wonder if they wondered why Jesus hadn’t let them tell the world. It would have been a whole lot easier for them if he had.

But sometimes when we are changed, our world isn’t. And that can feel unbearable. It can even make us forget what we have seen, and try to just go back to the way things have always been.

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John Newton

There’s a story about a man named John Newton. In the 1700’s he was a captain of ships that brought enslaved people from Africa to America. He was deeply complicit in the evil of slavery. But one night in 1748 his ship was caught in a bad storm, and it started with water. He was about to die. But he called out to God, and some cargo shifted in the hull, plugging the holes, and saving the crew.

From that point on he was a changed man. He became devoutly religious. He even wrote a hymn that we still sing today: Amazing Grace. He gave us swearing, stopped drinking, and didn’t gamble again. He had been to the mountaintop, just like Peter, John and James, and he had been changed.

But, here’s the curious part…he didn’t stop being involved in the slave trade. Maybe it was fact that he was living in a world where most still thought this was acceptable. Maybe he didn’t know how to get out. Maybe he didn’t really understand yet the evil he was committing. For whatever reason, he didn’t stop for a few more years. And even after that, he was silent. In fact, it took him 34 years after leaving the slave trade to finally speak out and become a full-fledged abolitionist. That’s 34 years of being complicit.

When we sing his first lines, “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me” we can understand in a real way that he got to a point where he realized what he had done, and he truly repented, and he truly changed. But as much as that life or death experience had changed him, that conversion didn’t come right away, and it didn’t come soon enough.

Peter knew what that was like too. He had seen the Transfiguration of Jesus. And Peter had been changed. Truth be told, it wasn’t Jesus who was changed so much in the Transfiguration. It was Peter. Jesus was just shown more clearly than ever. He was simply revealed as holy, and the son of God. But Peter, James, and John…they got to see it. And they were changed because of it. And even thought Jesus told them not to tell anyone, they could never be the same again.

Even still, it took Peter to really get it. In fact, when the stakes were highest, Peter didn’t stick by this son of God he had seen glowing on the mountain top. Instead, on the night before Jesus is killed, Peter runs away when the authorities come and he denies even knowing Jesus. Not just once, but three times.

Transfiguration is hard. I don’t mean the transfiguration of Jesus. I mean the transfiguration of ourselves. We see the truth, and like Newton yet we drag our feet and don’t do what is right. Like Peter we see God’s glory, and we run away. We see something that changes us right down to our core, and is scares us to death.

Jesus knew that would happen, though. He knew it when Peter, James, and John were lying on the top of that mountain, terrified. He knew it when he reached down, and touched them, and said “get up…and don’t be afraid.”

I think that one of the reasons so many people love the Harry Potter books is because they are about seeing the truth, telling the truth, and responding to the truth with courage. They’re about getting up…even when you are afraid. And, at their core, they are about being changed for the better. They’re about being transfigured.

Maybe it isn’t such a coincidence that “transfiguration” is found in these two places: Holy Scripture and Harry Potter. Maybe it’s a word that only fits when nothing less than life-changing transformation, the kind that will ultimately demand courage from you, will do.

Peter ran away. But that’s not the last of his story.

In the Gospels Peter is right there after Jesus is resurrected. He’s there as the early church is built. His very name, Peter, is taken from the word “rock” or “petros”, and as Jesus says, Peter himself becomes the “rock” upon which the church is built. In fact, in the end Peter is courageous even onto death, ultimately becoming a martyr of the faith and a saint.

It was a long journey from that mountaintop to sainthood, though. And for those of us who have not yet achieved sainthood, it will likely be even longer.

And so here’s where Jesus’ words ring true: Get up, and don’t be afraid.

We have all likely experienced God’s grace or love at some point in your life. The transfiguration of our hearts has been begun. But sometimes it goes so slow. And sometimes it demands from us more than we are comfortable giving.

But go ahead and take that next step anyway. Be transfigured. And get up, and don’t be afraid. Amen?

Packing for the Journey: Sermon for January 22, 2017

A few weeks ago I talked about how my parents were selling their house and moving into a new place with my oldest sister, and how I’d gone to visit them to help them with some preparations. I told you the story of my now-worthless baseball card collection. I’m still processing that one, by the way. And today, I have another story about the same trip.

By the time I was done sorting through things, I had a few boxes of stuff from my childhood that I wanted to keep. Most of it I felt fine sending to myself through the mail, but some of it I didn’t even want to risk checking in my luggage. And so, I put it all in my carry-on backpack.

The backpack was heavy. Over fifty pounds. And it contained an assortment of treasures: old photographs, one of my favorite family Christmas decorations, some cufflinks my dad had given me that my mom gave him decades ago, and, the bulk of the extra weight, my childhood coin collection. All of this was carefully backed along with my laptop and charger cords for my various electronics. And it all just barely fit. I zipped up the bag and prayed that it would hold.

I was thinking about that while reading today’s story about Jesus calling the first disciples. He was walking down by the shore, and two fishermen named Simon and Andrew were there. They were casting their nets out into the sea, and they were holding on to them. Jesus tells them, “follow me” and he says, “I’ll make you fishers of people.” And they follow. Right after he goes past James and John, who are in their boat with their father, fixing their nets. And he calls to them. And they leave it all behind too, and follow him.

I’ve always been amazed at that story because of this detail: when the fishermen are called, they drop everything, and they follow Jesus. They literally drop the nets they are fishing with, and they go.

I don’t think I’d have been that quick. Had I been in my boat fishing, and this guy came to the shore and asked me to follow him, I don’t know if I would have. And, I really don’t think I would have just dropped everything and gone. I would have needed to make a packing list. I would have needed to get my backpack and fill it to capacity with everything I could possible need, and everything I would miss. I would have needed some time.

I don’t think that’s uncommon.

Most of us are a little like that. We get very good at keeping the stuff we think we are going to need. We stuff it in closets, and under beds, and some rent out storage units for the stuff they are sure they are going to need somewhere down the line. We don’t want to let anything that could be useful slip through our fingers.

Even the most organized among us do this. My parents had to move every few years during the first twenty-some years of their marriage. They would get a new assignment and they would have to uproot and go. They were always give old clothes and other things to charity because they didn’t need it and didn’t want it sitting around.

But one day in college I went up into the attic to get something. And not much was there, but I saw sitting there this pair of ice skates. And we were in Florida at the time. There was never going to be an occasion where the pond froze over and any of us could use them. But somewhere along the line they’d just become something that got carried from move to move even when we didn’t need them anymore.

I tell that story because we all have some sort of ice skates in the attic. We all have things we just hold on to without thinking about it. They take up space in our homes, and in our heads, and in our hearts. And we sometimes don’t realize how much effort we spend carrying them around.

Now I don’t just mean material things. I also mean the emotional things. The outdated ideas. The stubborn, angry, resentments. I mean the things that, like those nets the fishermen left behind, tie us up and trap us. There are things we cling to so tightly that we can never pry ourselves away from them.

Think of those things, and then think about the nets that the fishermen left behind. When Jesus said, “follow me”, do you think for a split second they looked down at those nets and said, “Do you think we’re going to need these?”

And when you think about it, the nets probably weren’t all that heavy. They could have thrown them into a backpack and carried them around. They may have thought, “well Jesus said we’re still going to be fishing” and decided they needed to keep them to be on the safe side.

But if they had, somewhere, a few days down the road, those nets would have started to feel heavy. They would have gotten frayed. Or they would have started tripping over them. They would have stopped being resources, and started being burdens. One more thing tying them down on the journey.

When I got to the Richmond airport I staggered to the security checkpoint with my backpack, and put it in the scanner. And here’s the thing about getting a bag x-rayed that contains a lot of wires, like the ones for my phone and computer, and a lot of metal objects, like a coin collection. It doesn’t look good.

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My bag, as unpacked by the TSA.

A minute later I had been pulled to the side, along with my backpack. And as a TSA agent very firmly told me to not touch my own bag, he got to work pulling each and every object out. There, laid out on a desk in the middle of the airport, were all the objects I had so carefully packed. The cufflinks and the silver dollars. The photos and the laptop. The book I meant to read on the trip but never did. The Christmas banner with bells that my mom had always hung by the front door.

And as I looked down, at all these memories of my life, all I could think about what this: How am I ever going to get all of that stuff back in that bag?

I got it back in. But standing there stuffing a bag in the Richmond airport while the TSA watched suspiciously was not my finest moment. And at the end of the day, I had to laugh at myself, and at my fear of letting go, even for a brief flight, of things that I’d lived quite happily without for years.
I think about the disciples and how all of them had to leave something behind in order to make their journey. They had to decide what they wouldn’t need anymore, and set it down, or give it away, or leave it for others. And so they learned to stop carrying what was holding them back.

Last week just before middle school youth group somehow this story somehow came up, and one of the youth said something profound that I had never really thought about before. What if Simon Peter and Andrew hadn’t been the first people Jesus had asked to follow him? What if there had been others who just couldn’t manage to drop their nets and leave it all behind? And what if we didn’t know their stories because, in the end, there wasn’t really all that much to write about?

Those aren’t bad questions. I suspect they could be right. And, truth be told, that terrifies me. Because if Jesus Christ himself appeared and said “follow me” and people didn’t do that, it makes me wonder whether I might do the same thing. Would I be so tied up in what doesn’t matter that I missed my big chance to do what God asked me to do?

More importantly, what if we, not just as individuals, but as the church, missed that chance too?What if somewhere in that holding on to what we thought mattered most, what we thought we really needed, Jesus called to us to follow, and we were holding on to so much fear and baggage and hesitation that we couldn’t?

I ask that because I think we are approaching a time in history when it’s going to be important to respond quickly to Jesus’ call and to travel lightly enough to be able to move. And so it’s time to look into our backpacks, both as individuals and as a community, and clear out what’s weighting us down. Things like the ice skates in the attic. Things like the fishing nets on dry land. Things like the spiritual clutter of debilitating fear and an overabundance of caution. Things we don’t need.

Christ still calls people. He still comes down to the shore of our lives and tells us to “follow him”. But he moves fast. He’s got a lot of work to do. So when Christ comes to us and tells us to “follow him” to the next thing he has in store for us, will we be ready? Will we be able to drop the nets and go? Or will we be left standing there, holding on to what cannot save us? The choice, literally, is in our hands. Amen?

The Joy of Not Knowing it All: Why Christian Education in the Church Matters

The following was initially delivered as a sermon on June 12, 2016 for Christian education recognition Sunday at the Congregational Church in Exeter, but it’s relevant for your church if you are starting a new year of Christian education soon!

The Pew Research Center found in 2014 that only 14.7% of American adults are a part of a mainline Protestant denomination. That’s a church like ours, as well as Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, and the like. Membership was down 3.4% in only seven years.

And numbers get worse when you look generationally. Only 11% of Millennial young adults identify as mainline Protestants, compared to 26% of their grandparents’ generation. Our own denomination has gone from over two million members in 1957 to less than one million today. And each of the other mainline denominations can tell a similar story.

We also have the worst “retention rate” when it comes to our young people with 45%, less than half, of our youth continuing to claim our tradition into young adulthood. That number dips to 37%, or just over a third, when you look at Millennials. More and more of our youth are graduating from high school, stepping out into the world, and becoming “nones”.

So what does that have to do with Christian education? And what does it have to do with this story we read today, the one where Jesus tells his disciples that if they want to enter the kingdom of heaven, they have to become like little children?

First, I think this story reminds us just how important children are, and just how much of our ministry has to be focused on them. We have to do the work that allows our youngest to get to know Jesus. They need to know that they are loved beyond measure by God. They need to know what Jesus taught about being good and kind and loving your neighbor. And they need us to make sure there are no barriers in their way as they do.

We work very hard to do that. We have a fantastic group of adult volunteers in this church. You teach Sunday school, you chaperone youth events, you show our youngest how to make music. From the very start of my ministry with you I’ve been so impressed by the way you take education and formation seriously, especially with our children and youth.

But that’s not all this text teaches. Because as much as Jesus was turning the culture of the times, and not so long ago times, on its head by saying children were supposed to be both seen and heard, he was also teaching the adults an important lesson.

Because not only was it their job to let the children come, he was telling them that they themselves had to become like children. They had to let go of their self-assurance and of appearing like they knew it all, and they had to remember what it was like to be young again. Only when they did that, could they really have a relationship with Christ.

And so what is it like to get to know Jesus the way that a child would?

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Apples for teachers at the Blessing of the Backpacks last September.

I was thinking about that this week and I was thinking about how our youngest learn. I was thinking about this at the 5th grader barbecue on Friday night when we were making s’mores over a fire. The conversation moved quickly from “how can we best toast marshmallows” to “what else can we burn in the fire”?

Don’t worry…nothing burned down. But as the questions came, as well as the limits, and a few well-supervised experiments happened, I realized something: more than anything else, the youngest among us are curious.

It doesn’t matter if we are talking about campfires, or Christ. They want to learn. They want to get to know more. They are not afraid of asking questions.

That’s a gift. Because for adults asking questions often feels like a sign of weakness. Not knowing it all is a red flag to others, we think. And so we grow incurious. And we don’t grow at all.

But that’s not what Jesus asked us to do. Jesus never told us to become mindless. He never told us to stop exploring. He never wanted a church of know-it-alls who stopped learning.

He wanted the curious. And he wanted disciples.

Take a minute and think about how you understand that word “disciple”.

When you hear it do you automatically think “followers of Jesus”? That wouldn’t be surprising. The word has certainly come to take on that meaning. But the reality is that the word has been used for so many other followers too. In Jesus’ time a lot of teachers and leaders had a group of disciples.

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

Many of you are teachers or educators of some kind. You want well-educated church leaders. And I would guess that if I asked you what wanted for their children or grandchildren or any other young person in their lives, one of the first things you would say would be “I want them to get a good education.” Or, “I want them to love learning.”

That’s a good thing because you can’t help but grow when you learn. Conversely, when you stop learning, you stop growing.

The same is true for Christians. If we stop learning and growing, then we can’t do any of the work of the church. Learning is the way we prepare to be Christians. But even in churches that are filled with highly educated people, we sometimes forget that.

In order to become disciples, simply reading and listening is not enough. One can devote hours to the academic study of Christian faith without any real desire to be a disciple. In order to be that, you have to take it one step further; you have to be willing to grow. And there is no growth I know of that does not demand change.

And spiritual growth starts with knowing your purpose, and knowing who and whose you are. A church culture that encourages this growth acts like oxygen to a fire. The flames are fed, and the fire blazes. But a church culture that dismisses faith development and spiritual growth, and that fails to cultivate a sense of purpose, acts like a natural damper. The fire will burn out, one log at a time, until all you have left are ashes.

I believe that’s one reason that the statistics aren’t looking very promising for mainline churches. Because, historically, we haven’t emphasized discipleship at every age. And if we aren’t fostering curiosity and growth for adults, they will find it elsewhere.

That’s one reason I asked everyone to read the New Testament this summer. Because you can’t read the Bible and not get more curious. This is not a book of easy answers. It’s one that invites us into a relationship. It’s one that reminds us that we don’t know everything. And it’s one that, if we come to it with the hearts of children, makes us go deeper, and grow.

If we are going to teach our children and youth well, then we have to become like them. Our own Christian growth cannot end with our last youth group meeting or Sunday school class. To be a disciple, you have to commit to growing. And you have to be as curious as the youngest among us.

Thankfully, looking around at our children and youth, we have some pretty good teachers in that respect.

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By the way, is your church looking for a new book for your adult Christian education program? Want something that a reading group could devour? Check out “Glorify” here: http://www.amazon.com/Glorify-Reclaiming-Heart-Progressive-Christianity/dp/0829820299/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1453486699&sr=1-1&keywords=glorify+emily+heath

Heart, Treasure, and Procrastination: Sermon for August 7, 2016

Luke 12:32-40
12:32 “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.

12:33 Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.

12:34 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

12:35 “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit;

12:36 be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks.

12:37 Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them.

12:38 If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves.

12:39 “But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into.

12:40 You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

When I was in college I was a seriously epic procrastinator. If I had a paper due for a class, I wouldn’t even think of it until a few days beforehand. And, to be honest, I wouldn’t start it until the night before. Okay, honestly, sometimes I didn’t start it until the morning of.

It’s not that I didn’t care. It’s just that there were things that I cared about even more. Like hanging out with friends. And concerts. And parties. And, well, just about every other aspect of college life that didn’t revolve around the classroom.

This is not an academic plan that I would recommend to any of our youth, but I did well enough to get through college and on to seminary. And over the years I transformed from a first-rate procrastinator to someone who actually writes voluntarily. I think my 20 year old self would have a good laugh at that today.

I was thinking about my old habits of procrastination while reading today’s Scripture. Jesus is talking to his disciples and he tells them two things in particular that I want to look at today. First, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” and second, “be dressed for action and have your lamps lit”.

In other words, invest in what you love, and stop procrastinating about it.

I write these days not because anyone is telling me to do so, but because I feel this deep joy in writing. It feels like a place where I can use my gifts, and find my voice. And, unlike in college, I can pick my topics. I’m not writing about T. S. Eliot and some obscure stanza of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” anymore.

Instead I’m writing about what it most important to me, and about what I feel like the world needs to hear. That’s how I got out of bed a couple of hours early when I was writing my book. That’s why I was willing to invest far more energy in writing it than I’ll ever get back in royalties. It wasn’t about the external rewards of a good grade or money. It was about something much more motivating than that.

Today I only write about things I feel some urgency about. I am, at my core, and introvert. But after a lifetime of keeping quiet about what mattered most to me, I decided about six years ago that I wasn’t going to do that anymore.

I knew I was a decent writer, but I had never used that gift much before. I always thought to myself “someday”. But if finally became clear that “someday” may never come unless I did something about it.

And so I started blogging and, though it scared me to death, I started putting things out into the world. I decided I couldn’t sit back and hope other people would do the right thing anymore. I had to start standing up and saying what was on my heart.

In other words, for me, writing is a way of putting my treasure, a skill that has been given to me, where my heart is, and it is a way of lighting my lamp and being ready.

Now, that’s just my journey. I share it as an example from my own life. But I share it because I think all of us wrestle with two things: putting our treasure where our heart is, and not procrastinating about it.
That first part, about our treasures, is a constant challenge for all of us. I’ve quoted before the Billy Graham line about how if you want to know what you really worship, you should just look at your checkbook. I’ve added my own amendment, which is that you should also look at your planner.

We all are given gifts by the grace of God. We are given time, we are given resources, we are given abilities. And we are also given the free will to choose how and where we will use them. We can choose to totally squander them. Or, we can put them to use in order to further what we believe in.

Jesus asks us to take our treasure, and invest it in the places it is needed the most. Don’t horde it up for yourself. Don’t hide it away out of fear. Don’t waste it. Instead, put it to work. Put your very heart in Christ’s mission in this world, because as Jesus tells us, that’s the only way to keep it safe. “Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.”

In other words, you cannot hold on to the things you love the most without destroying them and yourself in the process. They must be shared with the world.

This week on Star Island reminded me of the importance of that. Star Island is a very special place. Over the past hundred years generations of people have given of their time and talents and treasure to keep it going. I was keenly aware this week that I was benefitting from the generosity of people who had died long before I was born.

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The front lawn on Star Island.

I want Star Island to be there for the next generation too. And so every month a small amount of money comes out of my bank account and goes to support the island. The same is true for my college, my seminary, public radio, my mentor’s ministry, and a few other places. These are not big gifts. They might buy some copier paper or something. But, my heart is in all of these places, and so I want my treasure to be there also.

I know that’s true of so many of you too. You are generous people who look around, see places that are doing good in this world, and give of your time, talents, and treasure. For many of you, this church is one of those places. You know that for over 375 years others have put their treasures into this place, and so you now give yours. Not because you have to. But because your heart is here.

So, that’s the first part: aligning our treasure, our gifts of every kind, with what is most important to our heart. But here’s the second, trickier part: doing it now.

Jesus tells us to “be dressed for action and have our lamps lit”. He says we do not know the time when he will come back. And so, we must stay “alert” and “ready” because “the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour”.

Some read this text and believe this literally means Jesus is coming back at any time so look alive. That sounds pretty serious. But I think it’s much more serious than that.

Because I don’t think this is about Jesus popping back into the picture once and for all in order to settle all the scores. I think this is about the million little ways that Jesus pops into our everyday lives and we don’t even realize it. I think this is about how God shows up when we least expect it, and how we have to be ready to respond.

In other words, this is about urgency. It’s about the need for us to stop procrastinating, and start figuring out our priorities before we miss the incredible things that God is calling us to.

Procrastination when it comes to writing college papers isn’t such a huge issue. But when it comes to our lives, and aligning them with what really matters to us, it is a matter of whether we are truly living, or just surviving. And Christ invites us into life.

And so, I leave you with this challenge this week: take some time between this Sunday and next to think about the places, and people, and causes that have your heart. And then, ask if they also have your treasure. I don’t just mean financial treasure there. I mean your time, your talents, your passion, your love.

If they don’t, then this is your chance to fix that. This is your chance to take what God has given to you, and to use it to respond to God’s call. This is your chance to align your heart and your life, and to rely on God to make it work.

Step out in faith. Take a risk. Take your treasures from their hiding places, and put them to work for something you believe in. Not next year, not next week, not tomorrow. It’s time to give yourself permission to let your heart lead. Amen?

Marching Orders: Where Citizenship Meets Discipleship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Organic Fruit: Sermon for June 26, 2016

When I meet new people and they ask what I do for work, there are a few typical responses. The first is that people will tell me about their own faith. Those are good conversations. The second is just awkward silence. Maybe the person will say “oh, that’s interesting” and change the subject. But the third is what is always the most entertaining: people will tell me, in great detail, and with varying degrees of hostility, why they are not religious.

That’s fine. I listen, but I rarely give them the fight they are looking to have. But there’s one argument I hear often that I just never understand. People tell me that Christianity is all about the church trying to control people. They say faith is just about people telling other people what they cannot do.

That always entertains me because, as you know, if I tried to tell this congregation what it could not do, I probably wouldn’t be here very long. I suspect that is true for most clergy. That’s good. Because the job of the church is not to forbid people from doing things.

Instead, it’s about teaching Christ’s message. And it’s about sharing a Gospel that is not about control, but is about possibility. It’s not about making people prisoners of religion, but helping them to find freedom in God’s grace.

Today’s reading is about that. This passage from the Epistle to the Galatians. Paul had come to this community and he had taught the people there all about God, and Jesus, and God’s love for them. Paul had taught a Gospel of grace. He had taught them about Jesus, a man whose compassion and love for the world had transformed the world. And he had taught them about being his disciples.

And then, after he left to go on and start other churches, the Galatians had been on their own. And that’s when other teachers had come to the church. And they started telling the Galatians, “you’re doing it all wrong”. And there wasn’t a Bible at this point, because it hadn’t been compiled yet. But there was the law of Moses, the law that the Jewish community had followed for centuries. And most Christians at the very beginning had been raised in that law and saw that as the authority. The Galatians were Gentiles, and so they didn’t know about it. And so these new teachers were saying to the Galatians, “the law clearly says this is what you should do.”

And so, this church that had been taught about grace and about Christ’s love by Paul, all of a sudden was adopting the ways of their new teachers. And they were doing things like arguing about whether they should all get circumcised, and whether or not they had to prepare their food a certain way. And it was causing a rift in this new church.

Paul hears about it, and he writes this letter. And this letter is probably the angriest letter that Paul sends to any of the churches.. He tells the Galatians, “look, I know the law”. Paul had been a lawyer, he had been raised in a family that followed the law, and he had been so committed to it that he had even persecuted the early church before his own conversion. He even says, “look, I was a zealot”. And he tells them this to show them that if anyone is going to say to them “Scripture clearly says” or “the law clearly says” he would know better than anyone.

Paul was speaking to a church 2,000 years ago. But, his words could just as easily speak to churches everywhere today. Because that misconception I talked about early on, about people who think religion is about control? That didn’t come from nowhere. There are indeed churches who teach Christian faith that way.

But Paul tells us that that’s not what following Christ is all about. Instead he talks about faith as getting free. He lists a number of things that can hold us back: anger, fighting, jealousy, idolatry, and more. And he tells us that those are the things that make us less free. They hold us back. They tie us down.

Instead, he says, we are called to turn away from those things. Not because someone is making us, but because when we do, new life is promised to us. Paul talks about how the Scriptures condemn these things because they “enslave” us. They don’t tell us not to do these for no reason. Instead they give us warning signs to help guide us in a better direction, and out of captivity. They unchain us.

In other words, this faith is not about being controlled. It is about learning how to turn away from what controls us.

Paul even gives us a way of knowing that we have been unchained. These are the directional signs that tell us we are going the right way. He talks about something called the “fruits of the Spirit”.

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Here’s the list of those fruits: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

In short, things that almost all of us wish we had, and wish we exhibited to others.

Nothing on that list is about control. These fruits of the Spirit are the fruits of freedom. These are the signs that we have given ourselves, not to the law, but to the Gospel. They are the good and outward signs that Christ is growing within us.

And, like any fruit, they are signs that we have been planted in good soil.

I didn’t realize how much soil mattered to producing good fruit until I lived in Vermont. One of my favorite places to go fly fishing there was a stream in the Green Mountain National Forest near where I lived.

It was way out in the woods. And as you followed the dirt roads further into the woods, you would pass these old cemeteries filled with those who are long dead and whose descendants have moved on. There was this old schoolhouse, unused for a hundred years, sat on the side of the road. The once lively towns have been officially dissolved by the state. The bitterly cold and rocky terrain simply proved too difficult to live in, even for the heartiest of Vermonters. And that’s saying a lot.

But if you drove a little further, there was an orchard full of apple trees. Some farmer planted them in the 1800s, and they still bear fruit. Today they are allowed to remain because they provide ready food for the bears and other area wildlife to eat.
I am always amazed by that. Long after human beings gave up on the land and moved on, somehow those same acres manage to bear fruit every fall. The people who planted it, and their children, and grandchildren even, are all dead. But the soil is not. It feeds the trees, and each year a bounty comes once again.
That’s the power of good soil. It is always capable of rejuvenation and growth. Because of good soil in our lives, what is planted in it can remain a source of blessing for others long after our life is over.
It’s the same way with the fruits of the Spirit. They grow in us because first we cultivate good soil. We make room in our soul for God to plant these things, and if we give them good soil, they will grow. They will be the fruits of our spiritual lives. They will be the organic byproducts that come when we choose another way. They are signs of our freedom.
That’s one reason why I believe cultivating good soil is so important. It’s one reason that I’ve invited you all to join me on the New Testament Challenge this summer. I’ve been encouraged to see how many of you have taken me up on that. That’s wonderful because that means that together we are cultivating rich, spiritual soil.

It’s also important because this morning we are once again celebrating a baptism in our church. Scarlett is going to join the larger family of God, and we are going to make promises to help raise her in the faith. Like every young person here, she needs people who bear these spiritual fruits in their lives. We are called to be her examples of faith.

And so, may we bear good fruit. Not because we have to. Not because anyone is telling us we must. But because Christ’s love and grace have touched us so deeply that we can do nothing less. Amen.

Launch: Sermon for Ascension Sunday, 2016

I couldn’t wait to get to college. As much as I loved my parents, like every college freshman I was eager to be on my own. And so we pulled up to the dorm as soon as it opened on the first day, I got everything I could out of the car as quickly as possible, set it up in my dorm room, and told my parents that I was fine, and that I’d see them on fall break.

But as soon as my parents disappeared out the front doors of the dorm, a sinking realization hit me: I was on my own.

I wonder if the disciples were panicking like that the day Jesus left them there at Bethany. Today we read the story of the Ascension, when Jesus is lifted up into heaven, seemingly leaving the world behind, and on its own.

It hadn’t been all that long since Christ has been put to death, and then resurrected. And I wonder if when he rose again the disciples had thought they had him back for good. Were they really ready to be on their own? Were they like college freshmen, eager for mom and dad to get back in the station wagon so that a new life could finally begin? Or were they scared to death?

I was the youngest of my parents’ kids, and born significantly after my sisters, so by the time I went to college they had had kids in the house for 33 consecutive years. I think they had earned a vacation. So they did what they had always dreamed of doing, and they went to Paris.

But this was before the days of cell phones, and I didn’t really have an easy way to reach them. And so a few weeks into my freshman year, when I hit the inevitable point of having some problem I wasn’t sure how to handle, I realized that for the first time in my life I couldn’t turn to mom and dad for advice. I had to rely on what they had taught me, and trust that it wouldn’t lead me wrong.

I wonder how long it took before the disciples had a question they couldn’t answer on their own, and they wished he was back there? And I wonder if like me they realized that they just had to rely on what he had taught them, and trust that it wouldn’t lead them wrong?

That can be a scary thing. Like the disciples, we can feel that void and that uncertainty sometimes. As much as we believe that God is still active in our lives, as much as we believe in the continual guidance of the Holy Spirit, we can feel like sometimes we are on our own.

When Jesus returned to God he did stop being with the disciples in a physical way. But the blessing in that is that this means that he is no longer with just a small group of people in one place long ago. He now is able to be with all of us, all the time.

Christ is here right now in Exeter, and he’s down the road in Boston, and he’s out in California, and across the oceans in every place you can think of. He’s even there at Bethany, where we last saw him 2,000 years ago. He’s with us still.

I believe that. But I also believe this. We have a harder time believing in what we cannot see. And so for those of us who are Christians, we need physical daily reminders of who Christ is, and what Christ desires for us. We need to be reminded that Christ is with us daily, and that God is here.

So what’s the answer? It’s us. You and I. The church. And the world around us.

There are two parts to this, and every one of us has played both roles. First, we have to learn how to see Christ in everyone we meet. And second, we need to learn how to be Christ to everyone we meet.

Maybe you’ve heard it said before that Christ comes disguised as the stranger. Christ is in our midst every day, but he doesn’t look like the Sunday school painting of him with the white robes and long hair and sandals. He might look like a woman who needs money for food. Or a man who is in the hospital, fighting depression He might look like the kid who is getting bullied in high school. Or the veteran returning from war.

Jesus shows up in the most unexpected places. And when Jesus does, I want to be ready. I want to meet Jesus, and love Jesus, and be the person Jesus wants me to be. And so I try to practice. With every person I meet, no matter how they might challenge me, I try to see Jesus in them.
That’s not easy. But it’s the best way I know how to make sure I don’t go through a day without seeing Jesus in the world around me.

But then there’s the next step too. And that’s not just learning to see Christ in others, but also learning how to be Christ to others. Martin Luther wrote that we Christians are called to be “little Christs” to one another. Our job is to imitate Christ in our lives, and respond to those we meet the way we think Christ would respond to them. When we do that well, lives are changed.

But only when we do that well.

Churches, and their clergy, have sometimes been accused of being out of touch with the real world. Karl Marx called religion the “opiate of the people” because he believed it made us ignore the pains and injustices of the world and look to a pie-in-the-sky heaven when this life is over.

They might even say we have our heads in the clouds.

That problem didn’t start, or end, with us though. Because from the very beginning of the church, nearly 2,000 years ago, Christians have had to be reminded that they can’t spend too much time with their heads in the clouds.

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In fact, standing there looking up in the sky after Jesus, the first disciples were doing literally just that.

My guess is that they were all standing there looking up and saying, “Where did he go?” Or, “did that really just happen?” Or, “what do we do now?”

They were standing there, with their heads in the clouds, doing nothing…and that’s when they heard this voice. And there were two men dressed all in white, messengers, saying “Why are you guys looking in the clouds? He is going to come back to you again.”

Sometimes the church needs people like those two guys in white. We need them to call our attention back from gazing up at the clouds all the time and to the world we are in now. And we need them to remind us that we have a task here as disciples of Christ. Because with the Ascension the baton has been passed, we are left as witnesses to Christ’s life and work, and we are called to be the church.

But we won’t get very far in that work if all we do is keep our head in the clouds.

And so here is the reminder of the Ascension: the church would never have gotten anywhere if those first disciples hadn’t stop looking at what didn’t matter, and instead start looking around at one another. That doesn’t mean don’t ask the big questions. And that doesn’t mean get busy and stop taking time to be with God.

On the contrary, I think it means something else. It means that sometimes when we get distracted by the fears, anxieties, or distractions of minor details, as every church does, we have to get our head out of the clouds too, stop being paralyzed by what matters little, and start being the church.

It is a luxury to spend our time focused on things like building and spreadsheets and committee structures and the like. Yes, it’s necessary to do these things, but ultimately we are not here for that work. It’s just cloud cover. These are the things that help us to do our ministry in this world. They are not our ministry. They are tools. They can never become our idols.

Instead, we have to look down, and look at one another. We have to figure out how to be Christ embodied to one another, and to the world.

Today we have a good reminder of why we get our head out of the clouds. Today we are baptizing James, who is all of eight months old. We already know James, and love him. And today we are going to pledge to help to teach him who God is, and what it means to follow Jesus Christ. He is going to grow up in this church, and he is going to learn from us.

And so, what are we going to teach him that church means? What are we going to teach him is most important?

I hope this is what he learns most of all: I hope he learns that God loves him, and that God needs him to be the hands and feet of Christ in this world. I hope he learns what it means to love other people. I hope he learns to pray, to ask big questions, and to serve. And I hope he learns that clouds come and go, but the firm foundation of faith is always there. And I hope he learns that here in this church, and from us. Amen?