Better Than a Bumper Sticker: Sermon for April 24, 2016

When I lived in Atlanta, a lot of churches had bumper stickers that members would put on their cars as a form of advertising. Other Christians would just put another ubiquitous symbol, the Christian fish, on their bumper. Decorating your car in order to tell the whole world you were a Christian was apparently a big deal for a lot of people.

At about this same time I was getting ready to head off to seminary, and a friend of mine was working as a barista in a coffee shop. She would frequently tell me stories of customers who were rude to her and to her co-workers. These were people who would yell at the staff for minor mistakes, get angry when their orders were taking too long, or complain about prices.

The worst days, though, were when she had to work the drive-thru. People were particularly rude there, perhaps because they felt like they had more distance from the employees and more anonymity. But there’s one thing they couldn’t hide: those bumper stickers on the backs of their cars.

And so one day my friend said to me: “You know, every time someone in the drive-thru line is rude to us, I just look at the back of their car…and it’s always one of your people.”

Ouch. And yet, you can’t argue with what she saw. We all fall short from time to time, but the behavior of those people in the drive thru line who professed to love Jesus so much was a little less than loving when it came to everyone else.

The irony, of course, is that Jesus was pretty clear about this whole love thing, and he was very clear it wasn’t meant to only be for him.

In today’s passage, Jesus tells his disciples “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

In other words, Jesus tells us that the way people will know we are his followers is simply this: how well we love.

It means the measure of who we are as Christians is not what we say on Sunday mornings or whether we wear a cross around our necks or anything like that. We don’t profess our faith by symbols because Jesus says none of those things will identity us as his followers. To put it another way, talk is cheap. So are bumper stickers or Facebook memes or anything else that requires little more than passivity from us.

But action…action isn’t cheap. And it also isn’t easy.

Love isn’t either. Not the kind Jesus is talking about here, anyway. It’s easy to love our families, and our friends, even when they do things that hurt us. It’s harder to love the people we don’t like very much.

Don’t believe me? Think of the political candidate in this presidential election that you most dislike, the one whose values are so antithetical to yours. Now think about loving them.

It’s not for the feint of heart, is it? And yet, Jesus requires nothing less of us. We can disagree with one another, we can think the other is dead wrong, we can find nothing in common with them…and yet, if we are serious about following Jesus, we have to love them.

Now expand that out even further. We are called not to love just people, but whole groups of people. We are called to love this whole world. And in that sense, love is not a feeling alone, but it really is an action. It is our way of relating to the world, and it’s the world’s way of knowing who we really follow.

And yet, too often Christians are not exactly known for their love.

But have you ever noticed that a lot of people don’t trust Christians? I’ve been at dinner parties before where someone, before they knew what I did, made a comment about all clergy being con artists and all Christians being hypocrites.

IMG_0219

Christians protesting against equal marriage in New York, 2011.

 

They talk about all the bad things that have been done in the name of our faith: wars, discrimination, the treatment of women. Even now friends of mine are quick to remind me that new laws aimed to reinforce discrimination in places like North Carolina and Mississippi were authored by Christian.

I sort of understand what they’re saying about the hypocrisy. In a way it’s a good sign, because people know we are supposed to be better than that. People know we got our marching orders from a loving Christ who wanted us to be loving as well.

And the truth is this: we are hypocrites. We are, not because we are Christians, but because we are human. And being human means none of us is always the person we want to be.

But our job as Christians is to try anyway. It is to not only say the right things on Sunday mornings, but to live them out every of the week.

We won’t always get it right. None of us do. We may have the best of intentions, but when the rubber meets the road, it’s hard.

When we actually have to give up our time to go volunteer at the food pantry or anywhere else,we may sometimes find other things to do. When we are asked to open our checkbooks and help out, we might rationalize that we really would rather use that money for something fun. After all, we worked hard for it. When that friend comes to us needing someone to lean on, we might make excuses on why we can’t get together.

And yet, we try. And that’s a noble endeavor, to try to make sure your actions reflect who you say you are, and reflect the love of a Christ who first loved us.

That matters for our life together as a church too. A church should ideally be the kind of community where if someone walked through the doors, without us saying a word about what we believed, they would know we were Christians.

After all, that old song says, “they will know we are Christians by our love”. It doesn’t say, “they will know we are Christians because we say so.”

It means as well that churches exist not just for ourselves, in fact, not even primarily for ourselves, but for others. It means that when we measure who we are as a church community, we should start by asking what we have done for our neighbors, and for those who would hope to see the love of Christ.

That’s not always easy. And yet, if we are going to claim the title of Christian, it’s not optional. The world has plenty of self-avowed Christians. It needs more followers of Christ.

And so my question to you is this: how are we going to be people not of word and speech, but of active love? How are we going to be the people that our world needs us to be?

I think we as a church are already doing a lot to make sure we are not just paying lip service to the Gospel. We have missions we support. We give generously to the greater church. We open our doors to those who ask. And we have more ideas in the works.

But just as our community is always changing, God’s call to us is evolving as well. God is opening new doors to us so we can better serve our neighbors and our world. And as we talk as a community about what comes next for us, as we prepare for the church retreat this Saturday, I’m excited about what God is doing with us.

I know also that God has a plan for each one of us. I know God has brought you here today first for worship, but then also for service. The love of Christ may have gotten you here today, but God doesn’t want your Christian journey to end here in a church pew. God has something greater in store for you beyond these doors.

And so, every week the journey of faith starts here. But this is not where it ends. Think of your pew as your launching pad. Here we say, and sing, the words of our faith, we get ready to become people of loving action. And when you leave here, you go out into a world that needs that action. It’s a world that needs followers of Christ, not just Christians n name only.

The good news is you’re not in this alone. We are a community of people who want to do just that. We want to be people of action, not just words. But we need you, and we need everyone who comes through our doors. You are all a part of God’s call on this church, all a piece of the divine puzzle, and all important. God is ready to do great things in this church. Are you ready for God to do great things in you as well? I hope the answer is yes. For all of us, and for the world. Amen?

Why Church Matters: Sermon for January 24, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today there are plenty of voices out there telling you that you can connect with God on a hike, or over brunch, or at a party with a bunch of friends. And I’m not saying that’s not true, but at the end of the day, the solitary spiritual life is just that: solitary. And I don’t think God calls us out only to leave us alone. What Paul is saying today proves that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stumbling Blocks and Stepping Stones

The following was preached on Sunday, September 27, 2015 at the Congregational Church in Exeter.

Mark 9:38-42
9:38 John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”

9:39 But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.

9:40 Whoever is not against us is for us.

9:41 For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.

9:42 “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.
In seminary we were taught to never preach a sermon that didn’t give the people who heard it reason to hope. In preaching classes we would preach, and then we would subject ourselves to a sort of “brutal grace” in which our classmates and professors would all tell us what we could have done better. The one question that seemed to come up the most was, “But what hope will people take from that sermon?”

What’s true of young seminarians is also true of just about all of us. We sometimes struggle to find, and talk about, hope. And when people do talk about it, it sometimes sounds a bit disingenuous. It becomes the stuff of commercial sound bites and political campaigns. Buy this and you’ll be a better person, or vote for me and you’ll have a better country.

And so it sometimes sounds naive to talk about hope. We probably talk more about false hope on a daily basis than we do about hope, and that’s sad. But maybe we do that because along the way we have had too many experiences of putting our hope in the wrong places and we are all a little more streetwise for it. We start to believe more in the inevitability of everything going wrong than we do in hope. And gradually, we become people of fear.

Today’s Scripture text puts, quite literally, the fear of God into us. And yet, at it’s heart, I believe it’s one about hope.

Jesus is teaching the disciples and he says something that has always struck me with fear: “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.”

That’s a frightening visual. Have you ever seen a millstone? They are huge and heavy, and no one could help but sink if they had it around their necks. And yet, Jesus tells us that that would be better than what would happen if we put a stumbling block before a child.

Now, it’s never said explicitly that he is talking about children there. In face, he may well have been talking about all believers, but I love the idea that maybe Jesus was talking about children. This was, after all, the same Jesus who told his disciples to let the little children come onto him, something so remarkable for a time when children were treated as little more than property.

And it’s fitting for today too. Because every time we baptize a child in this church it’s a tremendously happy occasion, and our joy today is literally doubled as we baptize twins. Today their parents are making vows to raise them in this faith, but we also once again make the vows as a congregation to help them do just that. They become, in a very real way, our spiritual responsibility.

And so, that line from Jesus might be hitting a little close to home right now. Because the hard truth is this: at some time or another, with these children or with others, we are all going to take our turns at being stumbling blocks.

We won’t mean to, of course. But we will indeed mess up. Every parent does. Every grandparent does. And every loving adult in a child’s life does at one time or another. We use harsher words than we mean to. We make light of something that is important. Or we fail to make time when it’s needed the most.

I remember when I missed up like that once. Earlier in my ministry I was working with a young child who had been through a series of foster homes and had lived through trauma and losses of trust that no child should. And he kept trying to use my computer while we were supposed to be working on something else. I was trying to redirect him but he kept asking me for the password. And finally, without really thinking, I told what I thought was a little white lie, meant to divert his attention away from the computer and back to the task at hand. I said I didn’t know the password.

And that was fine. For a while. Until he saw me log in. And he looked at me, and I could see how upset he was, and he said “you lied to me!” And I knew that he had been lied to so many other times in his life, and I had just become one more adult who did the same to him. And I felt like that millstone that Jesus talked about had landed right on top of me.

He forgave me. But I never forgot that. And I came to understand that messing up was inevitable. We are all going to do it. But in the end, what matters most is that we never destroy a child’s hope. Because when we do that, that’s when Jesus says it would be better for the millstone to be around our necks.

Now, for most of us here, more mainline and progressive Christians, that might be hard to hear. We don’t really talk about any kind of divine punishment or “hell” in our tradition. And when we do it’s not a lake of fire like you may hear about in other churches. Instead, hell is the absence of God. It is the absence of hope. And in in so many ways, that’s the worst sort of hell imaginable. And I often wonder whether hell isn’t as much a place of this world as it is of the next. Because far too many people live without hope. It’s like a millstone around their necks.

And so often that millstone weighs so heavily around us that we can’t help but let it get in the way. And we teach our children that hope is indeed absent. We don’t think that’s what we’re doing. We think we are teaching them to be tough. We talk about the real world. But so often we cross that line, and teach them to be cynical and jaded way too early.

IMG_2511We take their hope away. We become stumbling blocks on their paths. We take away what they think is possible. And in doing so we shape what they believe is possible and impossible in their future, just a little at a time. And we make the world just a little less bright both for them and for us.

And so I think about those words from seminary; “Never preach a sermon that leaves people without hope”, and I realize that the same could be said for all of us, for the ways each of us preaches the sermon of our lives, especially to the young people around us: never do anything that takes hope away from them.

The biggest mistakes we make are the ones that take hope away from the young. And I don’t just mean in our daily lives, and in our own interactions with young people. I mean in all of our lives.

Look, for instance, at what we are doing to our very planet. Look at the ways generations have used it unwisely, and with thought only for themselves. And look at what we are preparing to hand over to the ones who will follow us. Will they receive this world with gratitude and hope? Or with fear, and resignation?

I hope it’s the former. I hope that they will hope in a better future. And I hope that they will live as people of hope.

But hope is more than just wishful thinking. Hope is a form of action. And we must hope a better future into being for the ones who shall inherit the earth. Because the children of today are the keepers of the promises and possibilities that will shape our lives.

And so we, you and I, must also become people of hope. We must become not stumbling blocks but stepping stones. We must become teachers of hope. Because if we want these children to live in hope, then we must become ever-present examples of hopeful people.

We can become the biggest cheerleaders to our young people. We can become the ones who encourage them to do the things that are hard. We can be consistent in our encouragement, and our prayers for them. We can be loving and honest, even on our hardest days. And we can make this world the sort of place that they will inherit with hope, and not fear. And we can start today.

Because today we are making hopeful promises. We are telling the two children we are baptizing today, by this action that they are too young to understand, that there is hope in Christ. We are telling them that even though they don’t yet know what it will look like, there are lives ahead of them that are worth putting their hopes in, because they will be filled with the hope of Christ and because we cannot yet know how good that will be. And we are telling them, as Christ’s people, as the ones who have been claimed by God, that we will work to build a world for them that is full of hope.

That is what baptism is about. It’s God’s claim of hope on our lives. That is what those waters symbolize today for our newest brother and sister in Christ. And that’s what our baptisms symbolize in all of us.

Before I came here, I lived in the mountains of Vermont. And I learned something watching the rivers there. I learned about how slowly, over hundreds of years, water can wear away stone, carry it out to sea, and form a new landscape.

That’s even true for millstones. As big and cumbersome as they are, in the end they are no match for relentless waters. And what better water to wash them away, then the waters of baptism. The waters of hope. They are washing over me, and they are washing over you. And they are taking away the stumbling blocks, renewing us and giving us hope. And it’s that hope that we can give to the next generation. Amen?

But, What Do You Think?

The following was originally delivered as the sermon at the Congregational Church in Exeter on September 13, 2015.

Where I lived when I was growing up, people would sometimes try to convert others to their own particular brand of Christianity. Sometimes a classmate would do it. Other times it was someone on the street, or going door to door, passing out pamphlets. And you sort of learned what to watch out for if you didn’t want to be evangelized, and most of the time you could sneak by them, or cut them off at the pass.

It wasn’t always possible, though. One time my mom got stuck in the line at the DMV with someone who was trying to convert her.

12011156_1042871019098829_2260206330329240522_nOne question I remember being asked a lot by the folks who wanted to convert others was this: Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ? I was a Christian, I did have a relationship with Jesus, but I was a little worried that they were going to tell me I was doing it all wrong and that they knew him a whole lot better than I did. So, to be honest, I’d hear the question and run the other way as fast as I could.

And then one time my senior year of high school, when I was really starting to explore my faith more, I tried to talk to a friend who had grown up in a fundamentalist family about it. She was heading in the other direction from her church and rejecting everything that she had been taught.

We were driving and I told her about this pull I was feeling towards belief and about how my priorities felt like they were shifting. And I could sort of see her getting uncomfortable, and she turned to me with this exasperated look and said something like, “Emily…are you trying to tell me you’ve been saved?”

And I recoiled and said, “oh…no…no…I was just saying I’ve been thinking about some things, that’s all.

This week’s Gospel lesson features Jesus having one of those awkward talks with his disciples. He asks them as a group, “Who do people say that I am?” And they give him some answers. They say some say he’s Elijah. Others say he’s John the Baptist. Others say he’s a prophet.
But after they all give him these answers, he asks the question another way. “But, who do YOU say that I am.”

I’ll bet for a minute there you could hear crickets chirping. It’s sort of like when you’re in class and you give the answer you think the teacher wants to hear, the safe answer, the one you read in all the books and the cliff notes. And then the teacher asks it again but this time says, “now I want to hear what you think”.

Finally Peter tries. He tells Jesus, “you’re the Messiah”.

Peter answered for himself, and he got it right. But I’ll bet just answering that question was a leap of faith for him. I’ll bet it was a lot easier to give the answer that everyone else was giving. When he had to answer it for himself, it was probably terrifying. And yet, when he finally did dare to speak, Peter was the first one to really understand who Jesus was.

I think we can all relate to the disciples here. If someone were to ask you, “Who do you say that Jesus is”, how would you answer? To be honest, I would probably try to put all those seminary classes to good use and come up with the perfect, pithy, theologically correct answer, hoping that others would think I was right. Because I spent a lot of time in seminary trying to come up with the right answers, and reading a lot about what other people said about Jesus. When Jesus asked me that question, I could go and pull out the heavy theological books from seminary, write up a summary in an essay, polish it up, and turn it in and pray for an A.

But then I think Jesus would ask me again, “But, who do YOU say that I am?” And that question would be ten times harder.

I think back to those folks I knew growing up. “Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?” You know, in a way they were really asking, “Who do you say that Jesus is?” Except, I’m pretty sure that for most of them, there were right answers. And I’m not sure they were really wanting to hear my answer, so much as the answer they were looking for, the answer, they and their church all believed was true.

But I’m glad Jesus doesn’t ask us what everyone else says about him. He asks what we say about him. Because the reality is there is a lot of stuff that is said about Jesus that I don’t believe. And, unfortunately, when I ask my non-Christian friends what they think Jesus was all about they sometimes tell me what they hear churches saying about this issue or that one, and it’s not pretty.

If Jesus really were the person some of the voices that were loudest around me growing up said he was, I don’t think I would want to get close enough to him to find the answers for myself.

But the good news is that Jesus doesn’t call for all the voices around us to answer that question. He calls for each of us to answer that question. And in order to answer it, we have to get to know Jesus for ourselves. We have to, as the street preachers used to say, have a personal relationship with him.

And, unlike what those street preachers used to say, we have to trust it, and we have to trust that our relationship with Jesus is as valid as anyone else’s.

But that’s not always easy. During one of the hardest times of my life, a few years after I was ordained, I had to ask myself that question again: who is Jesus to me. And for a while there, I wasn’t sure. My doubt and faith were wrestling with one another, and I just didn’t know.

I would not want to go back through that time. But I’m glad I lived through it. Because it was that grappling, that questioning, that helped me to answer the question for myself today. It was that season in my life that deepened my faith, and made me believe that God truly did love me.

We are fortunate that we are in a religious tradition that encourages us to ask questions like that. We have a lot of testaments and testimonies to faith from those who came before us. And we do believe things as a body. But we don’t have a checklist of things you must believe to be a part of this community. We don’t make you take a test, or answer the questions of a catechism correctly, when you come to the door. We just welcome you, and we welcome your questions.

For us as individuals, that’s both wonderful, and a little terrifying. It means that you don’t come here on Sunday mornings because I’m going to have the right answer up here in the pulpit. I might have the answer I’ve come to, and what I think is true, but that’s not to say that you will agree or that it’s the right one. And we don’t come here because we have the cheat sheet hidden somewhere in the church.

We come because we are all journeying down the same road, trying to answer for ourselves, the question Jesus asks of us. “Who do you say that I am?”

Sometimes we will try to answer that together. But sometimes we can only answer it for ourselves. And we have to trust that whatever we say, if we are truly answering out of our relationship with Christ, it will be enough.

I’ll close with this. There’s always been one thing about that passage we read this morning that has bothered me. When Peter answers correctly, when he says “you’re the Messiah”, Jesus tell them all, “don’t tell anybody”. Now, I think there were a lot of reasons for that. Some had to do with where he was heading, and his own coming death and resurrection. But I wonder if there was another meaning there too.

I wonder if Jesus said that because he wanted people to find out for themselves. I wonder if he said that because he didn’t want us to take the shortcuts to the right answers, instead of really getting to know him. I wonder if he said that to discourage generations of followers who came later from taking the easy route, from just buying into the soundbites about faith that they hear all around them. I wonder if he said that because he wanted to make that journey with us, and because he was our companion on the road to that answer, and not just our destination.

It’s sort of the difference between flipping to the back of the math textbook and writing down the right answer rather than actually showing your own work. It’s easy. But in the end you’re no better for it.

So, on this gathering Sunday, where we start a new program year, I home you will join me on the journey of asking the big questions. And as we bless the backpacks of our students today, we send them out into a world where they will ask big questions and seek worthy answers. And they will do it with our blessing, just as they will in church school each Sunday, or in youth group, or even when they go off on their own one day. We are literally blessing them for the journey today.

And it’s a journey all of us are on. Because more than anything, the life of faith is traveled on a road paved by our own questions. And this is a place where you can ask those questions, gathered together in this community, gathered together on this journey, and gathered together to ponder Jesus question to us all: who do you say that I am.

I love walking this road with Jesus, and I love walking it with all of you. Even when it’s clouded and we can’t see up ahead. Even when it leads us to some places we’ve never gone before. I love it because I know we are all trying to answer that question, both together and as individuals, and we’ll never get the answer quite right. At least in this lifetime. But we keep trying. And we keep our hearts open. And slowly, together, we begin to find the words to answer our biggest questions. Amen.

Gained in Translation: Sermon for Pentecost, 2015

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

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

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

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

Pentecost by He Qi.

Pentecost by He Qi.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A favorite fly fishing stream.

A favorite fly fishing stream.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why are we here?: Sermon for January 18, 2015

So, I’m going to ask you a question that is going to sound better suited for a college philosophy course than worship: Why are you here?

I don’t mean in the big, existential sense of why are you alive, or here on earth, or why does any of this exist. I mean in a very simply sense: why are you here at church this morning?

After all, you have other options, you know. You could be home, sleeping in right now. You could be out running errands at the grocery store or doing home repairs. You could be at brunch, sipping coffee and eating Eggs Benedict. You could be in so many places right now other than sitting in the pews at church on a three day weekend. And yet, you are here. Why?

10494762_877906185595314_459548515296640538_nNow, don’t get me wrong…I’m glad you are and no one is asking you to leave. Far from it, because I hope you keep coming. But in this season after Epiphany, this time before Lent when we are still remembering the Light that just came into the world at Christmas, it’s as good a time as any to ask yourself that question: Why am I here?

So, unless choice was taken out of the equation, and your parents brought you here today, take a moment to ask yourself that. Because in an age where no one goes to church simply because “everyone does it” anymore, you choose to come anyway. Something has brought you here today, even if you can’t exactly explain it.

And so I’m going to ask you this question about why you are here a few different ways this morning. But before you answer that, let’s start with the Scriptures.

I normally only preach on one text, but this morning we read two. The first is from the first book of Samuel, and it talks about a young prophet of the same name. He’s been taken to the temple and his life has been dedicated to serving there. And one night it’s growing dark, and he can’t see well, and he starts to fall asleep. And then there’s a voice: “Samuel, Samuel.” He runs to Eli, the priest he works for, but Eli tells him “I didn’t call…go back to bed.” Again, he starts to slip into sleep and hears, “Samuel!” He runs to Eli who tells him, “I didn’t call you this time either.” So he goes back. And then a third time, “Samuel, Samuel.” And this time Eli catches on. And he tells him, if you hear it again, say this, “Speak, God…for your servant is listening.” And God does.

So, that’s the first story. The second comes from the New Testament, and the Gospel of John. In it, Jesus begins to call his disciples. He goes to a man named Philip and he calls to him and says, “follow me”. And he does. And then Philip goes to his friend Nathaniel, and he tells him all about Jesus, and even though Nathaniel doesn’t quite believe it, Philip tells him “come and see”. And he does, and he finds out that everything Philip said was true.

Both stories are about calling. They are about God speaking to people who never expect to be spoken to by God. In Samuel’s case he hears God’s voice directly. In Philip’s he is called directly by Jesus. And in Nathaniel’s, it’s Philip that God uses to call to him.

In the United Church of Christ, the wider church we are a part of, we have a saying. We say, “God is still speaking.” That means that God didn’t just speak to people like Samuel or Philip or thousands of years ago. God speaks to us today. And sometimes our job, as God’s people, is to learn to say, “speak God…for your servant is listening.” And, sometimes, our job is to drop everything when we hear Jesus saying “follow me”. And sometimes, it’s just to repeat God’s call and to tell the ones we love the most, “come and see”.

So this leads me back to the question: Why are you here? First, why are YOU here? We each have our own answer to that question, but I believe each of us is here, in Christian community for a reason. Because just like Samuel, and Philip, and Nathaniel, I believe that God called you. I don’t know how God called you, but I believe God called you.

First, God called you to God’s self. This was not a one time thing. God calls us to God over and over again, and even if we get off the path sometimes, God calls us back to God. You might not hear it the way Samuel did, with a literal voice in the night. You might hear it through the voices of friends. You might hear it in community. You might hear it whispered around you, like a gentle nudge. But however you hear the call, it’s real. And it’s valid. And even if you aren’t so sure what it’s saying, something about it was enough to get you out the door today and here this morning.

And so here’s my next question: Why are you HERE? I don’t just mean here at the Congregational Church in Exeter. I mean here at any church. Because this is the era of “spiritual but not religious”. There are plenty of voices out there telling you that you can connect with God on a hike, or over brunch, or at a party with a bunch of friends.

And I’m not saying that any of those things are false. But I am saying that I don’t think they are enough. Because at the end of the day, the solitary spiritual life is just that: solitary. And I don’t think God calls us out only to leave us alone.

When Christ called Philip, he didn’t leave Philip alone for long. Right away Nathaniel was called too. And then more and more disciples. The church is here today because Christ knew we were better together, and for generations we Christians have discovered the same thing. And something about that appeals to you enough that you are here, in a church.

That’s true for each of us here today. Each of us has come here on our journey, our roads converging together here. And now, as members of this community, we walk the road together. That’s why I am here. That’s why you are here. That’s why each of us is here.

And so here’s the next big question: Why are WE here? Why have we been brought together in this place.

Some of you read in my weekly email on Friday that today we are starting a new, month-long sermon series that will lead us right to the start of Lent by that same name: Why are WE here? And here’s the big question we are asking: What does it mean to be church together?
What we are really asking here is “What’s our purpose? What are we all about?” And to answer that question, sometimes it’s easier to ask the opposite question: What isn’t our purpose?

I have a few thoughts. These are reminders I have to give myself from time to time, because they are easy to default into, but I’ll share them with you because maybe they are helpful. First, the church is not a club. We may have members and membership rolls and a building and all of that, but we aren’t a club. This is a place where we each belong, but remember that this is also a place where anyone who wishes can also belong. There is no exclusivity here.

Second, with all due respect to all the great civic organizations out there, we aren’t one of those either. We can do good works continuously, and we should and must, but at the end of the day if that’s all we do we may as well just pack it in and join together with all the great organizations out there who do good works everyday.

And third, we are not just a place where we are fed, or entertained. Don’t get me wrong. I want us to leave church on Sundays filling spiritually renewed. I want the music to be uplifting, and the sermon to be memorable. But, I want those things to happen because we were worshipping God together. And because we are being prepared so that we can go back into a world that needs people who will lead lives that testify to God’s love.

That’s true of everything we do together. We do not exist for ourselves. We exist for glorifying God, and for loving the world. All the things we do together, worship on Sunday, committee meetings on Wednesday, music rehearsals on Thursday, all of that is important because all of that is part of what it means to be the church, the body of Christ.

And we, you and I and everyone else here, are the church together. Church is not a place we go on Sunday morning. Church is who we are. And we don’t have to be church alone. We are really, truly, better together. And our life together, no matter what comes up, can always be deeply joyful because of that fact.

And so, over the next few weeks, in the course of worship, the most meaningful thing we do together, we will be exploring why we are here. We will be looking at three things that Christ calls us to do together: to learn, to change, and to love. I’m not saying that’s the sum of the Christian life, but those are good places to start. And along the way, I hope you will keep asking yourself the question: Why am I here? And I hope you’ll then ask the bigger question: And what does it mean that I am a part of this “WE” called the Congregational Church in Exeter.

They are big questions, but they are worth asking. And more than anything, they are worth asking together. I’m privileged that my road has intersected with yours, and that we have found each other in this place. And I’m looking forward to asking them together. Amen.

A Ghost Story: Sermon for August 10, 2014

Matthew 14:22-31
14:22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds.

14:23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone,

14:24 but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them.

14:25 And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea.

14:26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear.

14:27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

14:28 Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”

14:29 He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus.

14:30 But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!”

14:31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

When I was about six years old, I went to a haunted house at camp. And looking back now, it was probably way too scary for a six year old, but none on the counselors were stopping us. And thought I tried to act like it didn’t bother me, it did. The ghosts and the people scaring you and the spooky scenes in the graveyards stuck with me.

2011082816icon_water_2_insideThis was especially true once it got dark at night, and it was time to go to bed. And just about every night I was convinced that there must be a ghost in the house somewhere. I’d hear a noise and get scared. Or I’d see something move and be convinced something was there.

I think my parents wanted to find those camp counselors. But they were also sensible, and decided the best way to help me face my fears was to help me to find more reasonable explanations for what I thought I saw or heard. The hissing noise outside of my window was just the sprinkler coming on. The figure I saw moving in the hallway was just my mom’s shadow as she turned off the lights. The thump I heard in the early morning was just the paper being delivered and hitting the front walk.

For everything, there was an explanation. And after a little while I wasn’t quite so scared of the dark anymore. And I learned that when it came to bumps in the night, ghosts were the least likely explanation.

I was thinking about that while reading this week’s text, which is a ghost story of a different kind. Like me, the disciples saw something in the night that they didn’t understand. But it’s a little different with them because what they saw was so unexplainable that they couldn’t just say it twas shadows. No, they looked out and they saw something so unbelievable that the most plausible, most reasonable, most likely explanation they could think of was “it must be a ghost”.

To set the stage, this morning’s story falls right after last week’s story about Jesus feeding the 5,000. After he feeds them Jesus sends the disciples on and ahead of him in a boat while he stays behind to pray. And the disciples are out on the sea, being tossed in the boat all night. But early in the morning they look out and they see Jesus walking on water, coming across the sea to them.

And this is when they decide that they’ve seen a ghost.

Now, that might sound ridiculous to us now, but when you think of it, that was no more ridiculous than a man walking on water. In their mind a ghost was far more likely. So when Jesus calls to them and says, “it’s me…don’t be afraid,” they don’t believe him. And they do what six year old me would not recommend; they decide to talk to the ghost.

Peter, who is probably my favorite disciple, goes first. And Peter sometimes gets a bad rap. He runs away from Jesus on the night before he dies. He denies he knows him three times. He gets overly-excited and reacts quickly when people challenge Jesus. And he’s sort of the one we look at when we think about the disciples and think to ourselves, “boy they really got it wrong sometimes”.

But here’s the other thing about Peter. He was the one who was always willing to take the chance, and to take the first steps, stumbling though they may have been. And so he decides to test the ghostly Jesus in front of him and he says, “Jesus, if that’s really you, tell me to come to you on the water.”

Jesus says, “Come on”. And so he does. He gets out of the boat, and somehow he walks on the water, and towards Jesus.

So, if the story ended here, it would be pretty amazing. Not only could Jesus walk on water, but his disciples could too. It would be proof that Jesus not only was who he said he was, but that just a word from Jesus could ensure that anything we put our mind to, even the most crazy of things, would be successful.

But it doesn’t end there. Because suddenly Peter realizes what he is doing. He sees the water under his feet, and he feels the wind picking up, and suddenly it clicks that he is doing something he’s not supposed to be able to do. And that’s when it all comes crashing in. He falls into the water. He starts drowning. And he calls to Jesus to save him.

Have you ever watched a small child learn to do something like riding a bike? I’m always struck by how quickly kids “get it”. They practice peddling with their parents holding on to the back of their seat and running, and then one day the parents let go, and the kid keeps going.

And have you ever watched what happens when they suddenly realize that the parents aren’t holding on anymore? Sometimes the kid is fine and they keep happily peddling away. But others times they realize they are there, doing it on their own. And what happens? They panic. And they ride into the grass or stop as fast as they can. And everyone else is cheering, “you were doing it…you got it.” But in the moment, the kid is not so sure.

I picture Peter on the sea as being a little like that. He was walking on water. He was doing it. But when he realized what was happening, and that what he was doing was unbelievable, that’s when it all went off the rails. It’s not until he panics that he starts to sink. It’s not until he thinks he can’t, that he can’t.

And Jesus pulls him up from the water, and all he says to him is this: “you of little faith. Why did you doubt?”

I think a lot of us can relate to Peter here. Because sometimes our fears and our anxiety mean that even when we are doing things well, we panic. Sometimes especially when we are doing something new, and something we couldn’t imagine ourselves doing. Call it self-sabotage. Call it lack of faith. Call it what you want. The reality is that ghost stories might scare us, but sometimes finding out we can do things we never imagined scares us more.

Peter found that out that day, and it terrified him. He took a step out in faith and then he nearly drowned. Because even though he trusted Christ enough to get out of that boat, he didn’t trust himself when Christ called him.

I think that happens to those of us who are people of faith more than we realize. And it starts when Jesus calls us out of the boat. You might remember that all twelve of them were in there together, and I’m sure the boat was fine. Maybe a little crowded. Maybe a little sea-swamped. But fine. It was getting the job done.

But Jesus had bigger plans for the disciples than what could be accomplished in a small boat. And as much as Peter looks like a cautionary tale in this passage, he’s the one who has the courage to take the first steps. He gets out of what is comfortable and familiar, and he enters what is tumultuous and ever-changing. And as long as he trusts that even when the ground is shifting, Christ will remain the solid foundation, he does just fine. In fact, he does what is unimaginable.

That’s good news and bad news for us. Because those of us who are Christ-followers have for a long time had a pretty comfortable boat. It’s gotten the job done. And it’s seen us through some stormy sea. And everyone just sort of knew who we were, and where we were, and they wanted to get on board.

But now the world is different. Church isn’t a place everyone goes on Sunday anymore. Faith is not a given. Our friends might not understand why we are here on Sunday mornings, instead of out at brunch. And maybe it feels like the once solid ground we felt below our feet has given way to waves of change. Now our friends, our community, and our world, have to be engaged in new ways if we want to remain relevant, and share why exactly we believe this Jesus guy is worth following, and why we come to this place, and why we do what we do to love our neighbors and our world.

So, there are two options. First, stay in the boat, a perfectly fine boat, and hunker down. Or, look out across the water and find that Christ is already out there in the unknown, somehow standing in the midst of it, calling us to him.

I don’t know about you, but I want to follow Jesus. It’s great when things are familiar and comfortable, but in the end there’s not much that’s inspiring or life-giving about it. But when we step out in faith, and we trust that Christ will be our solid ground, we find ourselves doing things we never imagined. And when we refuse to let our fears and doubts drown us, we find out that the world outside the boat isn’t such a bad place after all. In fact, it can be amazing.

I’ll close with this. Like I said earlier, Peter sometimes gets a bad rap. He feels like the punch line in a bunch of Gospel stories. But the thing is he was also Jesus’ go-to guy. Remember, Jesus named him Peter, or “rock”, and said “you are the rock upon which I will build my church”.

This is the guy Christ chose. The one who sinks like a rock, and the one who comes up sputtering from the ocean after doubting. I think that’s good news for you and me. We are going to get it wrong sometimes. We are going to have fears and doubts. But in the end we just might find that our solid ground has been in Christ all along, and that even when what we are called to do sounds more scary than a good ghost story, Christ can still use us to do something amazing.

Amen.

Ascending: Sermon for June 1, 2014

Acts 1:6 So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”

1:7 He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.

1:8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

1:9 When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.

1:10 While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them.

1:11 They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

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. And even today you hear plenty of people talking about how Christians are too focused on the next life, and not focused enough on this one.

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

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Sometimes they’re right. I’ve talked before about how after seminary I did some coursework to get a PhD, and how I ultimately left that program because I felt like I was gazing into the heavens, doing nothing, while the real world, full of real needs, was all around me. And as much as studying theology at the next level had felt noble at the beginning, by the end it felt like I was really missing the point.

The problem didn’t start, or end, with me 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.

The first disciples were doing literally just that. On the fortieth day after Easter, after weeks of Jesus appearing to them after the Resurrection and telling them how to be his disciples, he told them that he wouldn’t be physically with them anymore. Instead, he would always be with them, but in a different way. He was returning to the Creator, and speaking through the Holy Spirit.
And after he told them this, Scripture tells us that he was lifted up into heaven and “a cloud took him out of sight”.

In the church we call this the Ascension, which is a fancy way of saying that Jesus is preparing a new place for us now, and has gone before us. But, fancy theological terms aside, can you imagine what the disciples were thinking that day? 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?”
And so, they were standing there, with their heads in the clouds, doing nothing…and that’s when they hear this voice. And there are 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.
And we won’t get very far in that work if all we do is keep our head in the clouds.

The Book of Acts, the book we read from today and the one that we will be reading from a lot in the lectionary cycle we are following now, is about what happens next. This is the very start of that book. And it’s what happens when the disciples become the first church. It’s about how they go from this small group of people who followed Jesus to a community that grows and spreads and endures to this day.

And it’s worth remembering that it starts with this: the disciples looking up in the clouds and getting their attention called back to the world they have been asked to serve.

It’s really fitting that this passage happened to come up in the lectionary today because today after coffee hour we are starting phase two of our visioning process. This is the part where we sit with each other for the next six weeks and we have discussions about what we believe God is asking us to do, and how God is asking our church to exist in our community.

Our church has had some good things happen to it in the last few years. We are bigger, and we are increasingly connected to both mission and the larger church, and we are looking ahead to a future that I believe will be very bright. But that also means that we are on new ground. And we are having to learn how to be the church together in new ways. And sometimes that can feel confusing and daunting, and we feel better looking up in the clouds and asking, “now where did that guy with all the answer go?”

Those first disciples knew what that was like. Because on that day they were standing there, looking up, and going, “What now?” “Where do we go from here?”

And the answer they got, was “don’t look up in the clouds. Look around you.”

And that’s what we get too. In this visioning process, instead of just looking to the clouds for answers, we get to ask the question, “What is clouding our vision?” We get to ask, what is happening here all around us, in our community and in our world? And then we get to ask, what is our role in it all?

Today’s discussion is about “purpose”, as in “what is our purpose here as a church?” And I’m not going to give you all the “right answers” here about how why our church exists in our community, or how our life together should unfold, because I don’t claim to have all the “right answers”.

But I will say this, our purpose has to do with something more than looking into the clouds and longing after Jesus. And it has to do with more than being a clubhouse for people who believe and act the way that we do. Instead it has to do with helping one another to live out the sort of life that Jesus asked of us, and serving our neighbors in love because Jesus first loved us. It’s a very down-to-earth purpose that we are called to gather around, and that means that it is also a very possible one.

It has to start with pulling our heads out of the clouds, and looking around. We live in what has been called the “least religious state” in the country. We live in a small community that has fewer and fewer year-round jobs and that means a lot less young families. We live in a place where many, if not most, people have to work on Sunday morning in order to provide for their family. And we live in an era where compulsory church attendance has vanished. We live in a challenging time to be the church.

But it’s not the first challenge. The Scripture passage today proves that. But even if you want to get a little closer to home, in both time and place, there are other examples too.

A few years back I was given an excerpt from a letter written by a “George Mann” to his friend “Rice”. The date was August 6, 1858, 156 years ago. And the place was West Dover, Vermont. That summer, the church, this building we are sitting in now, was being built.

And I don’t know much about Mr. Mann, but he didn’t have a whole lot of faith in either the future of this church or of Dover in general. He wrote to his friend,

“The meeting house advances towards completion slowly – the steeple is on it looks majestic – they have money enough subscribed to purchase a bell I think – os you see we shall soon be cheered weekly by the tones of “Sweet Sabbath Bell” – but I fear it will not have the power to bring out to church all the wicked, hardened “non church going” sinners of this wicked place”. He underlined that last part for emphasis.

Mr. Mann, whoever he was, was wrong. Because 156 years later you and I are sitting in this sanctuary. And the community outside our doors is not full of “wicked, hardened” people, and it is not a “wicked place”. It’s a good place, filled with good people, church-goers or not. Everything else has changed, except that, and except the fact that our church bell still tolls every week, not just welcoming our neighbors, but reminding us to serve them.

As much as those two men reminded the disciples to take their heads out of the clouds, that bell reminds us to stop looking up, and start looking out. To keep serving our neighbors, and to keep spreading God’s love to our community. We’ve been doing it for 155 years. But we’re just kids, in the big scheme of things. The church has been doing it for nearly 2000 now. And somehow, by the grace of God, it’s still going. I think that means that God has a purpose for us yet. Amen.