Learning to Fish: Sermon for January 21, 2018

When I was back in high school I saw a movie called “A River Runs Through It”. If you’ve seen it you know it’s about two brothers who live in Montana in the 1920’a and the story of their family. And you know that it’s all told through the lens of fly fishing. The brothers, and their father, are shown in shot after shot, knee deep in a river, casting lines against a beautiful backdrop.

It always looked so peaceful to me; almost Zen like. And I decided that if I ever lived in a place where you could fly fish, I would learn. So when I found myself living in the mountains of Vermont, I decided to give it a try. I went down to the fly fishing store, brought a fly rod and reel, took a lesson on land, found a river.

I confidently waded in, and cast my line. The fly fell right on the surface of the water, the trout rose up immediately to take it, and I reeled it in all set against the backdrop of beautiful green mountains and a blue sky.

No, not really. Everything up to the point where I found the river is true. What really happened is this: I stumbled my way down the bank, half fell into the river, saved the cell phone I had somehow thought it was a good idea to bring at the last, finally found a place to stand in the river, tried to cast, got my line stuck in a tree, fell in the river again, and finally, cold and wet, gave up for the day.

The next time wasn’t much better. Neither was the next, or the next, or the next. Fly fishing went from the relaxing hobby I had imagined to a vexing fixation that frustrated me every time I tried to the point where I nearly gave up. What was the point in learning how to fish, anyway?

It’s fishing that I think about when I hear today’s story. At least four of the twelve disciples were fishermen, after all. One day two of them, the brothers Simon (later Peter) and Andrew were out on the water casting the net. Jesus said to them “follow me and I will make you fish for people”. Immediately they dropped the nets and followed. And then just down the road they met another two brothers, James and John, who were out fishing with their father. Jesus called to them, and immediately they followed too.

I’ve always been struck by how readily they did that. All of a sudden, just like that, they dropped their fishing nets and got out of the boat. I would like to think I would do the same if Jesus came to town and said “follow me”, but the reality is I’m not so sure. I think it would take some convincing for me to leave everything I knew and loved. I’d have to know that this was the real deal.

But then I remember that these four fishermen, they got to see Jesus there in the flesh. They experienced him in a way that you and I do not. They were told directly by him that now they were going to be doing another kind of fishing, not for what lives in the water, but for other people.

Meanwhile, you and I, we get asked to do the same thing, only without the benefit of having Jesus walking right there with us in the flesh. And, if you’re here, some part of you wants to follow him. Some part wants to put down the nets and get out of the boat, and do what he asks. But unlike those disciples, we have to learn to do that in the lives we already know, without the benefit of being able to turn to Jesus and say “what do I do?”

That can be hard. A friend of mine told me a story a few years back. He was in a job where he was highly valued; one he liked a lot. He knew that he was on his way towards a promotion. But one day, his boss asked him to do something that was unethical. For a few days he wrestled with it. He told himself that everyone did it. He reasoned that he probably wouldn’t be caught. He rationalized that doing it would get him the promotion, and that once he got it, he would have more power to change things for the better.

And maybe all of those things were true. But on the other hand, he knew it was wrong. He knew that doing it would eat away at his sense of integrity, and self-respect. And he was also a person of faith, someone who wanted to follow Jesus. And he knew that in that moment he was called to do the right thing, the hard thing, and to let go of the nets and walk away.

That was a hard call. Because we all hold onto our own nets and fishing lines. We all clutch tightly to them, and the promise they hold. These are the tools of our trade, the things that can bring fish into our boats, and money into our pockets. But there are times when Jesus tells us to drop them, and to follow him instead

The theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer left a safe and comfortable teaching job in an American seminary to go back to his native Germany. Bonhoeffer helped to lead the resistance to Hitler, and was later martyred for his role. Before that, though, he famously wrote that there is a “cost of discipleship”. Following Jesus means that sometimes we have to let go of what feels comfortable, or secure. Being a disciple means making a choice every day about what you will hold onto, and what you will leave behind

It also sometimes means making a choice between being comfortable, and being uncomfortable. That’s what it means to be courageous: to choose the harder right, even when it feels hard.

I was thinking of that yesterday. I know from your Facebook many of you attended a women’s march. And marching for what you believe in is an important act. For many of you, it is even an act of faith. You are speaking out because this is what it means to you to follow Christ. But what happens when the crowd is gone, the signs and pink hats are put away, and it’s just you, standing in a boat, holding on to nets that offer you a sense of security?

What happens on Monday morning, when you are back in the office, standing alone and not in a supportive crowd? What happens in the moment when you hear someone say something that is unfair, or bigoted, or untrue? What happens when you have the option to stay silent, and just ignore it, or to speak up, and confront it?

The moments when we are asked to choose between comfort or action? Those are the moments in our lives when we are called by Jesus to follow him. What we do next, whether we drop the nets or we hold on, will tell us whether or not we are willing to be disciples.

I think back to learning how to fish. I kept trying for a couple months, and I got nowhere fast. And then one day I went back to the store where I’d bought my equipment. I asked for help, and a very kind guide showed me what I was doing wrong. I practiced. I spent a lot of time in my front yard, practicing casting, and drawing strange looks from every car that drove past.

But then, one day, I went back to the river. I waded in without falling. I cast without getting tangled in a tree. My fly hit the water, and a trout rose up to take it. I reeled it in, surrounded by the most beautiful backdrop, took it off my line, and let it swim back out into the current. Somehow I had gone from a splashing, bumbling mess to someone who actually looked like they knew what they ewer doing.

I think about those four fishermen, those four disciples, whom Jesus called that day. They knew how to fish, but did they know how to follow? Scripture tells us that for quite some time, they were splashing and bumbling messes too. They got it wrong. They felt fear. They ran away when things got hard. They even pretended they didn’t know Jesus.

But then, later, they got it right. They kept trying. They kept learning. They kept practicing their casts and wading into new rivers. And in the end, those disciples, those messy and clumsy followers, they became the ones who kept the faith alive. They shared it with others who shared it with others who shared it too. And because of them, today here we are.

Later in the service we are baptizing a new baby. He is going to have his splashing and bumbling days too. So are we, by the way. But it’s our job to teach him how to fish. It’s our work to support him as he learns. And it’s our duty to teach him how to be courageous. We start with this: by teaching him that some nets are worth dropping, and some adventures are worth going on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo credit: Washington Post

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Vigil at Exeter Town Hall. Photo by Susan Cole Ross

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The front lawn on Star Island.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Defense of the Building: A Case for Not Selling Your Church Property Just Yet

It seems like every week I hear someone in the wider church say, “You know, the church is more than the building.”

This is often said in a rather condescending tone, with the sense that the speaker is delivering some novel piece of wisdom. It’s often followed with a line like, “I mean, Jesus never had a building.” Or, “Think of all the ministry we could do if we just sold our buildings and gave the money away!”

I always want to say, “Do you honestly think most Christians don’t know that?”

True, we are often a little too fond of our buildings. We are willing to wage million-dollar capital campaigns to fix aging structures while at the same time letting the associate pastor go for lack of funds. Or, we treat them like our own homes, locking them up tightly, except for a few hours on a Sunday morning.

I have known of many churches like that. Churches that, frankly, do not deserve their buildings. Because if a church is using the building only for themselves, and if they have made it the modern equivalent of a golden calf, they really have little business calling themselves a church.

I know congregations hanging on with ten people in the pews on Sunday morning and another church just down the road. They pump their money into the building and wonder why no one ever comes.

You probably know of them too.

Please hear me; I am not talking about those churches. Those buildings could often see more ministry by being better used as housing for the homeless, offices for nonprofits, or meeting spaces for 12 Step groups.

But I’m worried that in our quest to rid ourselves of buildings, we are throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
We need to be in right relationship with our buildings. They should be tools, not false idols.

I pastor a congregation with a beautiful, historic building from the late 1700s, one that inspires people to walk in off the street to explore it.

While we value our history as a congregation, the members of my church have been adamant about this building being more than a clubhouse for ourselves. We have our Sunday services of course, all held in a sanctuary that is both beautiful and functional.

But we also open our doors to AA three times a week. We host community lectures and events. We open our columbarium for all who wish their ashes to be buried. We grow vegetables in our community garden. And we host whiffle ball games out back in the summer and pass out candy from the big front doors on Halloween.

I will never willingly pastor a church that loves its building more than it loves Jesus; but I will always jump at the chance to serve where the people are willing to use every resource they have in creative ways to serve God and their communities. Including their building.

I don’t believe that this is going against Jesus’ will for the church. However, I do believe Jesus was pretty clear about using the house of God for the wrong purposes.

When the moneylenders set up shop outside the doors of the Temple, Jesus cared enough about the Temple to flip those tables over. The Temple, in and of itself, was not a bad place. What was happening in and around the Temple was what desecrated it.

And so, I take caution from that story. I know that a building is only as useful to the people of God as what we are using it for. If it becomes a place where we fulfill only our own needs, or where we mistakenly focus our worship, it is an albatross around the neck of our faith. We would do well to rid ourselves of it and look seriously inward.

But if we live in right relationship with our buildings, we can use them as incredible tools for ministry. We can use our buildings as signs that we are rooted and planted in our communities, and that we are not going anywhere. We are committed to our neighborhood because we are built into the neighborhood’s own streets. And we exist not just in our towns but for our towns.

So look again at your church’s building. And now visualize all the ways it can be used.IMG_5845

Could that same room that holds coffee hour on Sundays host 12 Step meetings? Could the Sunday school rooms host after-school programs? Could the basement host free washing machines for those who can’t afford them? Could the sanctuary double as a space for free lectures? And could that big piece of land out back be made into a community garden for the food pantry?

As Christians we are called to be good stewards of everything we have been given. Sometimes, that may mean letting go of it. But other times it just takes looking at all we have been given in a new way, and being open to use these tools for good.

Crossing the Road from Safety: Sermon for July 10, 2016

This past year I’ve been reading a lot of books that I was supposed to read earlier in life. I was a big reader growing up, but of course you can’t read everything. And so, I went back and tried to fill in the gaps. I read Tom Sawyer last fall, and Huckleberry Finn this spring. And then, this week, I finally read a book that I probably should have read in elementary school: “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.”

CS Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia are a series of children’s books that reflect his, at the time new-found, Christian faith. Reading this particular book as a Christian adult, it’s hard to miss that he’s retelling the Gospel story. And it’s not giving away too much of the book to tell you that the four children who are the book’s central characters go in search of a lion named Aslan, who acts a whole lot like Christ.

When they are told about Aslan for the first time, one of the children wonders about this lion asking, “but is he safe?” And the answer comes, “Safe? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

So often we want life to be safe, and too often we equate safety with goodness. And, to be fair, safety is indeed easier. But that doesn’t mean it’s always good, and that doesn’t mean that maintaining our safety is the right choice.

Today’s story from the Gospels reminds us of that. The Pharisees, the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, are asking him who their neighbors are. And Jesus tells a story, one that we have come to know as the parable of the Good Samaritan.

A man who is traveling is robbed and beaten and left for dead on the road. And as he is lying there dying, a priest comes along. He sees the man, but doesn’t stop. In fact he crosses the road to avoid him. And then a Levite, another religious leader, comes along, and he crosses the road too. And by this point two men who belonged to the same people as the beaten man, two of his religious leaders, had walked right by. Things looked grim.

But then a third man, a Samaritan walks by. Samaritans were considered so lowly that the beaten man normally would not even speak to them. But Scripture tells us that the Samaritan sees the beaten man and he is “moved with pity”. He bandages his wounds, and takes him to an inn, and pays for it with his own money. Then he tells the innkeeper to feed the man and take care of him, promising that he will return and pay for it all.

Jesus finishes the story and he asks, “So, who was this beaten man’s neighbor?” And the reply comes, “The one who showed him mercy. The Samaritan.” Jesus says, “Go and do likewise”.

Sometimes we ask the wrong question. We ask “who is my neighbor?” But the right answer for a Christian is simple. It’s “everyone”. But Jesus asked a different question here. He asked the religious leaders who was the neighbor of the man who had been beaten and left for dead. And in that instance, it wasn’t “everyone”. It wasn’t the two religious leaders who had left him crumpled on the side of the road. Instead, it was the man who had stopped, and given everything to save him.

Neighbors are as neighbors do. Loving our neighbors requires action, or else we aren’t really neighbors. And sometimes loving our neighbors means being willing to put our own safety and comfort at risk.

Jesus never promised us safety. It would be a mistake to think that. In fact, Jesus told us that we must be willing to risk everything to follow him. Or, to use the story from Narnia, of course Jesus isn’t safe. But he’s good.

I’ve wrestled with staying safe but wanting to do good. I’ve wrestled with saying I want to love my neighbors, and actually doing so. I think we all do sometimes.

And, I confess, that some Sundays I have wrestled between the safe option of preaching an easy and unchallenging word, and the good option of risking something in order to follow Jesus.

This was one of those Sundays.

This past week we kept waking up to bad news, in the midst of a summer of bad news. One morning we woke up and heard about Alton Sterling, a man in Baton Rouge, who was shot multiple times during an arrest. The next day, Philando Castile was shot five times while reaching in his back pocket for his wallet during a police stop.

I could get away with saying nothing about this today. We are hundreds of miles removed from the violence. We are not a congregation where most of us typically wrestle with what it means to be black in this country. And by bringing this up, I may be making some of you uncomfortable.

But the lectionary text today was the Good Samaritan. And the question Jesus poses about the man who is crumpled on the side of the road looking for help is “Which one of these was his neighbor?” And the safe answer is “we are all neighbors”. But the good and right answer is “the one who crossed the road to help him”.

I want to be a good neighbor. And this week I remembered what one of our literal neighbors said a little over a year ago when he stood in this sanctuary talking about race in this country. Rev. Bob Thompson stood here and told us that the only place he had ever been called the “n word” in his life was Exeter, New Hampshire.

And so, I can’t ignore my neighbor when he says that. I can’t pretend this is a sermon that should only be preached in Baton Rouge or Minneapolis this week. I can’t walk on by while someone waits for help.
There’s an old expression: “When your neighbor’s house is on fire, you don’t haggle over the cost of your garden hose.” You do what you have to do. You put out the fire.

Take that metaphor further, and there are some other things you don’t do either. First, you don’t deny that your neighbor’s house is burning. Your own house might be safe and comfortable, but if they are running out of theirs, you should believe them when they say they need help.

Second, as an illustration I saw this week showed, you don’t say “well, all houses matter” and then go around spreading water on every house in the neighborhood. True, no one’s house should burn, but if everyone else’s is doing pretty well, and your neighbor’s is on fire, you have to be able to say “this particular house matters” and turn on the hose.

QU7sepVDThat’s why I say “Black Lives Matter”. Not because they matter more or less than the lives of any others, but because right now too many of our African American neighbors are losing theirs. That was true last summer in Charleston. That was true this week in Atlanta where a black man was found hanging from a tree. People are dying. And if we want to be called neighbors, we have to be willing to cross the road and help those who do not have the option of safety.

I want to say this also. I don’t want anything I say this morning to be construed as anti-law enforcement. I have worked as a first responder myself, I have led trauma debriefings with law enforcement, and I have family members and friends who are police officers. I know that the vast majority of officers are good people, who put their lives on the line daily to save others.

And that’s why the shootings this week in Dallas broke my heart too. Five officers will never go home again. There is absolutely no justification for the slaughter of police officers, no matter how angry someone might be. And the man who did this, he was angry. He hated police officers, and he also hated the very same African American activists that were first blamed for this attack.

The reality was that the officers and the activists who led the march the officers were at had a longstanding, positive relationship. And when the shots were fired, they protected one another. While talking heads on television blamed one group, the reality is they were there on the ground, being neighbors to one another, even as they risked being shot.

And I am so tired of people being shot. I am so tired of people having to be afraid. I am so tired of looking at the Scripture for the week and thinking to myself, “And how do I preach about this text in the aftermath of another shooting? Of more hatred? Of injustice? Of xenophobic rhetoric from our so-called leaders?”

I think you might be too.

And if you are, I would say this: we are called to be good…not safe. Because we follow a Lord who, like Aslan, is good, but not safe. And the only hope I have now is that Jesus alone is Lord, and Jesus alone can guide us to a better way. 

We cannot allow our fears or the tools we use to calm them to be our lords anymore. We cannot offer excuses to not cross the road and tend to the broken. We cannot look away, and we cannot choose our own comfort.

I usually try to end my sermon with a comforting word. Something that will give you hope and make you feel good. But today, I’m not going to do that. Instead, I’m going to tell you this: the time for being safe has ended. Now is the time to be good. We must each figure out what that means, and then we must each cross the street, and do what we must in order to earn the title of neighbors. Why? Because Jesus told us to.

Jesus. “‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.” And in the end, maybe that’s the best sign of hope that we could hope to have. Amen?

For thoughts on putting faith into action in urgent times, check out Glorify: Reclaiming the Heart of Progressive Christianity: https://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/0829820299?keywords=glorify%20emily%20heath&pc_redir=T1&qid=1453486699&s=books&sr=1-1

Marching Orders: Where Citizenship Meets Discipleship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five Things Mainline Christians Need to Stop Doing

1) Running churches and denominations like businesses.

I’ve been told that if I really want to be a highly-sought after pastor I need to get an MBA. First, I’m very happy right where I am. Second, even if I happened to be looking for a new call, no thanks.

There’s nothing wrong with having an MBA. There’s also nothing wrong with pastors learning from the field of business management. I do some reading in the area from time to time myself, and appropriate what works for use in the church. But I’ll never get an MBA.

Why? Because it’s not my call. My church is filled with well-educated people, including MBAs. They use their gifts in our church all the time. But even if we didn’t have a single MBA in my congregation, I still wouldn’t need one.

The church is an organization. That is indeed true. We are a collection of human beings trying to build, plan, and use our resources well. But, unlike businesses or even non-profits, we aren’t here to sell a product or fix a problem. We are here for the worship of God, and for the service of God’s people.

We don’t do our work in isolation. We do it by being led by the Holy Spirit.

True, we can use things like budget spreadsheets, revised organizational structures, and every physical resource we have to work towards that mission. But if we are spending more time thinking about how to use those things, and how to manage the people who are doing so, than we are about discerning God’s will for us, we are utterly lost.

It gets worse when the most unhealthy aspects of corporate culture make their way into our life together. In my larger church life I was once ruled out of order when I called for a prayer of discernment before a major vote. Other times I’ve seen transparency go out the window, or a small minority make decisions without consulting a larger group.

Check out what the Bible has to say about the qualities needed for pastors and for overseers (or “bishops”). None of them would make for great corporate leaders. But they do make for good enough church leaders. When we function as business executives, rather than church leaders, we not only disenfranchise one another, but we say we know what God desires better than the gathered church does. That is hubris at its worst.

2) Neglecting evangelism and church growth.

I’ve heard pastors say that they devote a set amount of their pastoral time every week to advocacy around one particular concern. It could be 10% of their time is spent on the environment, or 20% on LGBTQ inclusion. Those are certainly worthy of concern. But when I ask them this, I’m often greeted with a blank stare: “And how much time do you spend on evangelism and church growth?”

Usually none. Not unless you count the evangelism that comes as a by-product of advocacy. That’s surely important, but our advocacy work should not be undertaken as a means to increase our membership. That’s disingenuous.

Instead, what would it mean for our clergy leaders to actually take 10% of their ministry time and to engage in the work of proclaiming the Good News, and inviting people to discipleship? What would it look like to invest in growing our churches by encouraging life-transformative programming that proclaims God’s love? What would it look like if we could positively describe why we are Christians without first saying how we aren’t like other Christians?IMG_8457

Billy Graham once said that if you want to figure out what you worship, look at your checkbook. If I were to update it for today I’d say that if you want to figure out what you worship, just look at your planner. How you spend your time in ministry will tell you what you worship. If you, your church, or your denomination isn’t spending much of it telling the story of God’s love in some way, that’s deeply troubling.

This is the one thing the church can do that no other organization can. We have a commission to spread the Gospel by proclaiming the love and grace of Christ. Can you imagine how the mainline could be renewed if we focused our attention on reaching out to those who are hungry for spiritual depth and discipleship that requires something of us? Our churches would be growing spiritually by leaps and bounds.

3) Paying little attention to faith formation.

Does your denomination have concrete resources for faith formation? Is time and energy invested in curriculum development for children? Are youth learning what it means to be a disciple?

In Glorify I quote a sobering statistic: only 45% of the youth who grow up in mainline congregations continue to claim our tradition as adults. That doesn’t mean practice our tradition; that just means that they will admit they are one of us.

That number dips down to 37% when we are talking about Millennials. These are the kids who were raised in our churches, and they don’t want anything to do with us. They are either disengaging altogether or finding new traditions, often in Christian traditions with deeper formation programs. What does that say about our effectiveness at making them disciples?

Add to that the fact that we’ve all but given up on our college students. Every mainline denomination used to have an active college fellowship program. You could step on campus and easily find Canterbury, Westminster, Wesley Fellowship, and more. Now college ministry is dominated by well-funded programs from conservative and fundamentalist churches.

True, you don’t make any money supporting college students. They are a really bad investment from a financial sense. But the churches that are succeeding in college ministry care enough to spend that money anyway. They are planting the seeds that will yield a great harvest in coming years. Meanwhile, we mainliners are so short-sighted that we are slashing funding for our young adults who need support.

Finally, we don’t do the work of helping adults to keep growing as disciples. This is especially true of the former “nones” who come through our doors. For those of us who were raised outside of the church formation is essential. As a new Christian I had no idea how to say the Lord’s Prayer. I needed someone to help teach me the faith in a non-judgmental fashion. But even if you have gone to church every Sunday of your life, if the last time you learned anything about discipleship was high school Sunday school, then we are failing you.

4) Engaging in interfaith dialogue without doing our own work first.

I love interfaith work. I think it’s absolutely crucial in our world. We need to be addressing our historical relationships to Judaism and Islam. We need to be standing against religious oppression of all faiths. We need to learn from one another. And we need to be hearing from those who are atheist and agnostic too.

But we can’t do this honestly until we know who we are, and whose we are.

You know how you can’t really love someone until you know and love yourself? No one should get married, for instance, until they know who they are and what they stand for first. Otherwise they will just become enmeshed with the other. That’s never healthy.

And yet, well-meaning mainline Christians will often engage in interfaith dialogue without first knowing what we ourselves believe. In that case we do a disservice not only to ourselves, but to those we meet who genuinely want to know more about us. If they ask us what a Christian believes, or what our own denomination believes, and we can’t give an answer, then really we aren’t there as equal participants. We’re just asking them to teach us.

At the same time, we also risk becoming appropriative. Just like Christians who appropriate the Jewish Seder for our own reasons, without full understanding, we risk appropriating the traditions of other religions and cultures as well. When we meet our siblings from other traditions on the path we should do so with both self-knowledge and generous spirits. And when they teach us about themselves, we should use that new knowledge in order to better understand them, not to make what is theirs our own.

5) Dismantling seminaries.

Seminaries have seen better days. Once communities of formation and learning, they’ve become optional in some mainline traditions. While some never receive any educational formation for ministry, others take their entire course of study online. After all, many say, I can’t be expected to quit my job and move my family.

IMG_8461Except, Jesus was pretty clear about leaving everything behind and following him. Over half my seminary classmates packed up families, took out student loans, and left lucrative jobs to do so. Is it convenient? No. Is it easy? No. But, it’s faithful. And it’s worth it.

Seminary is more than an academic experience. It is a place where a community is formed by worship, learning, and living together. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his words to a seminary that still formed during the rise of the Third Reich, wrote to the students about the importance of living in community. He believed that it would transform both their faith and their ministry to come. (See Life Together for more.) Surely, if any generation had an excuse to skip the spiritual formation of seminary it was German seminarians in the 1930’s. And yet, they not only formed an underground seminary, many also eventually went to prison for being seminarians.

No one is asking you to do the same. But perhaps making the small sacrifice of giving three years of your life in order to be formed as a pastor is worth it. Yes, you might have to change everything in order to do so. But if you think that ministry is going to allow you the luxury of staying in one place or doing things your own way, then you are in for a disheartening shock.

That’s why denominations, and their churches, have to support their seminaries and their seminarians. This means both financially and in terms of encouraging attendance and demanding rigorous preparation. The church needs clergy who know who they are, and what they believe. We need clergy who can live in community, and wrestle within it. And we need clergy who take the call seriously enough to know they are not yet prepared to undertake it.

Without clergy who understand that enormity of this call, we will never have leaders who understand the enormity of what God has called the church to do next.

If you found meaning in this post, you’ll love Glorify: Reclaiming the Heart of Progressive Christianity. There is hope for mainline renewal, and this book can show you how to claim it for your local congregation, your denomination, and beyond: http://www.amazon.com/Glorify-Reclaiming-Heart-Progressive-Christianity/dp/0829820299/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1453486699&sr=1-1&keywords=glorify+emily+heath

The “Glorify” Group Reading Guide Is Here!

9780829820294Just released by Pilgrim Press, the group reading guide makes it possible for church reading groups, Christian education classes, and other small groups to better use Glorify: Reclaiming the Heart of Progressive Christianity. To know more why your church should be using Glorify in groups, read this post: https://emilycheath.com/2016/05/03/glorify-for-groups/

There are two format options, one with ten sessions and one with three. Suggestions for opening each session, and questions for discussion are included in this guide. The questions help readers to go relate the book to their own lives, and to their churches. It’s also helpful for those who are reading Glorify on their own and want to reflect more deeply on the text.

You can download the guide as a PDF, or print copies for your group, here: glorifystudyguidev2b

The book itself may be purchased from Amazon, Pilgrim Press, Cokesbury, and more.

“Glorify” Update: The Book Launches This Week!

9780829820294I’ve been eagerly anticipating this week ever since I hit “send” on the final manuscript last fall. This week Glorify: Reclaiming the Heart of Progressive Christianity is being released by Pilgrim Press.

Pre-orders have already been great. Thank you to everyone who has already done so. It’s been wonderful to see that this book has already found a broad audience. If you have pre-ordered, your copies should ship within days.

If you would like to order a copy now, there are several purchasing options:

Water Street Bookstore is Exeter, New Hampshire’s hometown bookstore. (It’s conveniently located on the walk between my home and my office, which means I spend a lot of time there.) This is a great independent bookstore, and I’d love to support them as much as possible.

They’ve also been incredibly supportive of me. The book’s official launch is being held waterlogothere this Friday, April 8th at 7pm. (125 Water Street, Exeter, NH) If you can make it in person I’ll be reading excerpts, answering questions, and signing copies. You can find more here: http://www.waterstreetbooks.com/event/rev-emily-c-heath-author-glorify

Even if you can’t be there in person, you can order your copy from Water Street Books.
When you check out online there is an option to add special instructions. Write a note with your name, and I’ll sign your copy before it’s shipped to you.

Amazon-Prime-Streaming-Video-Service-Bundles

Or, if you would prefer to use your Prime account, Glorify is available from Amazon.com. At Amazon you can order either the paperback edition or the Kindle edition:
Paperback: http://www.amazon.com/Glorify-Reclaiming-Heart-Progressive-Christianity/dp/0829820299/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1453486699&sr=1-1&keywords=glorify+emily+heath

Kindle: http://www.amazon.com/Glorify-Reclaiming-Heart-Progressive-Christianity-ebook/dp/B01CGTANF4/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1453486699&sr=1-1

 

Finally, you can buy Glorify directly from Pilgrim Press through UCC Resources:
http://www.uccresources.com/products/glorify-reclaiming-the-heart-of-progressive-christianity-heath

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Glorify is also for sale at Barnes and Noble, Cokesbury, and more. Wherever you buy your copy, thank you so much for your support!

On Throwing the Baby Jesus Out with the Bath Water

I love the United Church of Christ.

I do. After growing up a “spiritual but not religious” “none” at the tail end of Generation X, I found my way into Christ’s church at the age of 17 and was baptized. Eight years later I was ordained in the Presbyterian Church (USA), a church I also love deeply. Because I was openly gay, though, in 2010 I felt that I needed to transfer my ordination to a church that could openly affirm all of me.

The United Church of Christ was that place, and for the past six years I have served as a UCC parish pastor, a delegate to General Synod, a member of Association and Conference committees, and as someone actively involved on the national level.

But I’m not writing as any of those things today. Today I’m writing as this: a disciple of Christ who wants to be a part of a church seeking to love God and follow Christ in this world.

The Gospel is radical. It requires us to acknowledge first and foremost not just who we are, but WHOSE. For those who would call themselves Christians, that means acknowledging that we belong to God and that we are claimed by the love and grace of Jesus Christ.

That’s why we call our denomination the United Church OF CHRIST.

Which is why I’m shaken by a recent piece of marketing (I can’t bring myself to call it evangelism) from my denomination. A new meme circulating on social media proclaims us the “United Church of ‘I’m a Very Spiritual Person.'”

12592230_10153339764751787_1236073688534807391_nSo, first of all, I’m not exactly sure what the message is supposed to be in this ad, which is already troubling from a marketing perspective. But I suspect what we are trying to do is reach out to the “spiritual but not religious” folks, or the religious “nones” out there who are numerous in Generation X and the Millennial crowd.

Like I said, that was exactly what I was growing up. And so I think I’m qualified to say that this ad just doesn’t speak to me. In fact, it turns me off now, and it would have turned me off as a spiritually seeking young adult.

Why? Because it conveys the message that the United Church of Christ is a place where nothing will be required from me. I don’t have to believe in God (or even try). I don’t have to develop a relationship with Jesus. I don’t have to be a disciple in the world. I can just say “I’m really spiritual” and that’s enough.

The only trouble is, there are a million places that exist for those who just want to be “spiritual”. You can engage your spirit in a yoga class, book group, therapist’s office, arts class, and more. Those are all great things, by the way. But they are very different than a Christian church.

Another meme recently put out by the UCC asked, “What do you need most on Sunday mornings?” The possible answers: music, community, love, inspiration, donuts. Again, all great things, but none of them are in any way unique to church. In fact, I’d wager you could find just as good or better examples of most of those things outside of the church doors.

12510473_10153296238666787_7321833935111760409_n
I come to church to worship God. I come to experience the awe that comes in knowing of Christ’s grace. I come to hear the Word and receive the sacraments. I come to be better equipped to serve God’s world.

I don’t come for the donuts.

And neither will other Gen Xers and Millennials.

At this point it might be tempting to say, “Hey, it’s just a meme. Calm down.” But this is more than just a meme. This is a prevailing trend in our denomination, as well as other mainline denominations, that has been going on for years. It’s the slow and steady rejection of theological depth and meaning in favor of what is easy and popular.

My concern is that as we try to market ourselves to a sort of lowest common spiritual denominator, we are forgetting that churches are unique places in a culture where commitment is increasingly devalued. In church we are asked to seek not our own will, but God’s. We are asked to serve not ourselves, but Christ. We are called on to receive from a tradition that is radically transformative, and not watered down.

That is counter-cultural to what my generation has heard for its whole existence. It’s Niebuhr’s classic idea of Christ transforming culture. And, if the church is to be “marketed” to the spiritual seekers under 40, this is our strongest “selling point”. The days of obligatory church attendance are over. If people fill our pews again it won’t be because we are offering something they can get anywhere else. It will be because we are sharing a Gospel that challenges and sustains them.

There is a tradition in recovery communities like Alcoholics Anonymous that the program grows by “attraction not promotion”. There are no ads for AA. Instead, people join because they meet others in recovery, see the good in their lives, and decide they want to be a part of something like that.

I think the church needs to relearn that concept. I’m a big believer in social media, but in the end social media doesn’t hold a candle to the power a disciple of Christ has to live a life that witnesses to God’s love and grace.

And so, I have a radical proposal. What if as a church we invested less in ad campaigns and overhead, and instead created resources that helped to raise up a denomination full of Christ’s disciples? What if we invested in developing Christian growth materials that congregations could use? What if we took the theological seriously, and trained our future pastors to talk about their faith, and explain why it matters? And what if we rooted our outreach not in our own anxiety about the church losing members, but in our joy over what Christ has done in our lives and what Christ calls us to do in the world?

I believe God has great plans for the United Church of Christ. But I also believe we can never hope to claim them if we continuously insist on throwing the baby Jesus out with the bath water. Now’s the time to try something new. Now’s the time for us to try something truly radical. And it starts with remembering that we are the United Church OF CHRIST, and that’s an amazing thing.