“Resolutions” – Sermon for New Year’s Day, 2012

Luke 2:22-40
2:22 When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord

2:23 (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”),

2:24 and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

2:25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him.

2:26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.

2:27 Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law,

2:28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,

2:29 “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word;

2:30 for my eyes have seen your salvation,

2:31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,

2:32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”

2:33 And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him.

2:34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed

2:35 so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed–and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

2:36 There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage,

2:37 then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day.

2:38 At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

2:39 When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth.

2:40 The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

Someone asked me once why the church acknowledged January 1st as the start of the New Year. According to Christian tradition, the new church year started back on the last Sunday of November, which was the first Sunday of Advent. According to that tradition, the significance of today is not that it’s New Years, but that it’s the first Sunday after Christmas. So, aside from changing over our calendars, why does this day matter inside the doors of this church?

It was a good question, and one I wasn’t so sure about. The church year having started over a month ago, it seems redundant to talk about a new year again a month later. And so I researched, and found out that really, this tradition of January 1st as New Years is fairly new, in the big scheme of things. The Gregorian calendar wasn’t introduced until the 1500’s, and in England the first of the year, until the 1750’s, was in March. Russia even held out with the old Julian calendar until the 20th century. And one thing is sure. Jesus, as a good Jewish rabbi who followed the Hebrew calendar, was not popping open champagne at midnight on January 1st.

So why does it matter? Why should January 1st have any more meaning for the worship of the church than the start of the fiscal year months from now?

It’s a question I pondered when reading today’s text, which on the surface seems to have little to do with the New Year. In it, Jesus goes to the Temple in Jerusalem for the first time. And when he comes Simeon, who is this old, wise, holy man, takes him into his arms, and he knows who he is. And Anna, an old, holy woman who stayed in the temple and prayed all the time, sees Jesus and begins to praise him. And Joseph and Mary, already aware that their child is somehow different, leave the Temple with their eyes open.

And that’s what a new beginning, in the truest sense of the word, is all about. Because when Simeon held the child, his eyes were opened to who he was. When Anna saw him, she knew in her heart that something new was happening. When Joseph and Mary walked out that door, their whole lives had changed. It was, spiritually, a new year for them. And everything was going to change.

We know about new years in the church. We celebrate them all the time in one way or another, because we are constantly looking for the ways that God is doing something new in us and in the world. And if you use that as the benchmark, January 1st is as good a day as any to stop, look around, and decide how you want to work with God in the new year.

And as it turns out, January 1st makes a lot of sense. In Jewish tradition, eight days after a baby boy is born, the family has a bris. Today is the eighth day after Christmas day, so today would be Jesus’ bris. But what makes today special is not that one activity that we all know about that happens at the bris, but the other, which is the naming of Jesus, and his reception into the covenant of Abraham. Churches worldwide celebrate this day, and some call it the Feast of the Holy Name. And the significance is not so much that Jesus got a name, but that the world found out what it was.

New Years can be like that for you too. This is the year when, like the ones there at Jesus’ bris, you can learn who Jesus is, or like Anna and Simeon, you can truly see him and be amazed.

Today can be a start of a whole new phase of your relationship with Christ. It can be the day when you call out that Holy Name, and decide that you are ready for the next part of your life with God. And it can be a day when you make resolutions for the coming year.

We talk about resolutions a lot on New Years. We make a list and we promise ourselves that this year we are going to do better. But the thing about resolutions is that they are more than just a game plan for how things will go; they are signs of what we want for the future. They are symbols of what we want to accomplish. They are our hopes and dreams laid bare. And some years we’re better at fulfilling them than others.

Maybe you’ve made your list already. It may have the typical items: eat better, exercise more, do better at work, get your life organized. And you will, at least for a while, do your best to make those things happen. And those hopes will be there all year, showing up from time to time like those bills in your mail bow for the gym membership that you only used three times.

That’s okay. Be gentle with yourself. Because January 1st isn’t magical. This isn’t the only day of the year that things can change. God has given you 365 days this year to do that. And God can help you use all of them to make the resolutions that matter.

February 2nd is my special day. It’s my sobriety date. And when I look at my big celebrations of the year, February 2nd matters infinitely more to me than January 1st does. And maybe that’s because on February 2nd years ago I didn’t wake up with hope and a plan for how the year would go and with my eyes set towards the future. I woke up feeling crummier than I ever had before, and wondering if God could help me make a resolution and stick to it.

I know some of you have been there too. And like me, you know that we had to be ready to make that resolution, and we had to be ready to ask God to do the next. February 2nd is my new year, because it’s the day that taught me, in the most tangible way, that God’s grace is real.

You may have your own. Maybe it’s your sobriety day. Maybe it’s the day you were married. Maybe it’s when you became a parent. Or maybe it’s when something turned in your soul, and you decided that you wanted to become the person that God created you to be. It could have been January 1st, or February 2nd, or October 4th, or just yesterday. If God could use February 2nd, then God can use any day to change a life. God doesn’t need January 1st, because they all work fine.

But that means that this day is as good as any.

This day is as good as any to make a resolution, not just for the year, but for the rest of your life. And maybe you’ve already joined the gym, or bought the file folders to organize those papers, or set your budget, and that’s great.

But are there other resolutions that you want to make this year? Are there ways that you want things to change in your life? And are any of those ways spiritual? Are any about the way your want to love God in the new year? Are any about how much time you’d like to spend in prayer, or helping those who need it, or just getting to spend more time on your relationship with God? If they are, maybe they are worth being on that resolution list.

They may feel too daunting, or too big. “Be a better Christian,” on the top of the list sounds so unspecific. So hard. You can’t measure that by a scale or a bank account balance. In fact, you probably won’t be able to measure it at all. But chances are, like Anna and Simeon, the people who see you will notice that there is something different about you, and that God is doing something new in you. It may not happen on January 1st or 2nd or 3rd, but it will happen. And, it will continue to happen.

John Wesley started a tradition still found in some Christian churches to spend New Year’s Eve together in prayer. The idea is to reflect on the past year, think about the next one, and focus on your relationship with God. Now, John Wesley was really mostly trying to keep his parishioners out of the bars and streets on New Year’s Eve. But there’s something about that idea that makes sense. Not just for New Year’s Eve, but for any day when you want to start again. Begin it in prayer, and reflection, and decide where you want to go next, and call on God’s name to help you.

May this year be a watchful one for you. May it be one where you learn the name of Jesus, and never fail to see him for who he is, and what he is doing. May it be one where God does new things in your life, not just on one day, but on all of them. And may it be one where you resolve to live with hope, and with love for God. Christ’s blessing be upon you in 2012, and always. Amen.

“Different Kind of Business, Different Kind of Owner” – Sermon for Sept. 18, 2011

Like many of you, I’ve had reason to talk to FEMA this past week. We were concerned about a few very minor things with the church building, and we wanted to be on the safe side, so we registered. One step in the registration was having to sit at that table, and call in to a call center somewhere to talk to an agent. When I got her on the phone, the conversation went something like this:

Her: Are you the business owner?
Me: No. I’m the pastor.
Her: Well, who owns the business?
Me: Well, we’re a church, so not a business, so no one owns us.
Her: (Increasingly confused.) I’m going to need a business owner’s name.

I was trying to be respectful of the fact that these people are working very hard to help us in a natural disaster, and are doing a good job. So, even though there were so many possible snappy responses about who owned the church, I just explained once again that there was no “owner” of the business. The matter was finally settled when it was accepted that while I was not the “owner”, I was the “responsible party”, and that was good enough.

The part of me that was seeing some humor in all of this, though, really wanted to answer her “owner” question with something like, “well, I guess that would be God. Or, you could put in Jesus Christ, which in the computer might look something like Christ, Jesus. And no, I don’t have his taxpayer ID number either.” In the end I decided not to subject her to either a theological commentary or my humor.

But, I was thinking about that encounter a little when I read this week’s Gospel passage. Jesus tells a parable about a business owner. He talks about the owner of a vineyard who hires workers for the day. In the early morning he goes out and finds people who will work and agrees to pay them a living wage. They go out to the fields and start to work.

Around nine he goes to the square and finds more people, and this time he says “I will pay you what is right”. They go out to the fields too. He does this again at noon, and then at three. And at five he goes out and finds people who haven’t been hired yet, and he hires them and sends them to the fields.

Now, when it comes time for everyone to be paid, he starts with the ones who came at 5pm. And they get a full day’s wages. Now, can you imagine being those folks who were hired at 9am? The people who were hired eight hours later got a full day’s wage. They must have been waiting thinking, “If they got paid for the full day, we are surely going to get even more!”

Except they don’t. They get the full day’s wage that they agreed on earlier in the day. And they grumble about how unfair it is. You get the same pay whether you worked one hour or nine, hard hours.

The owner of the vineyard answers, “I did you no wrong. I paid you for the day. Are you angry because I was generous and gave what was mine to give to the others? The last shall be first. And the first shall be last.”

If you’re like me, you read this parable and you feel a little uneasy. It doesn’t seem right that the ones who came at 5pm get paid as much as the ones at 9am. It’s not what we’re taught our whole lives. It’s not fair. That vineyard owner had it all wrong.

Except we know that just as in all Jesus’ parables the main character, the business owner, really represents God. And the workers in the vineyard, whether they came at daybreak or 5pm, really represent us. And we know that Jesus is trying to teach us all something about God, and one another.

We like to believe that we will be rewarded, that we can make sure everything will turn out okay, if we just work hard enough. It’s what we have heard since we were in grade school. If we worked hard enough, we could do anything we wanted. And so many of us burn ourselves out, run ourselves into the ground, in order to try to create the future we want.

Now, I don’t fault hard work. I often work long days, and have a hard time disconnecting when I should. I check email when I’m out with friends, I pick up the phone on my day off, I have an inability to shut off. I am, like many of you, a bit of a workaholic.

But, like many of you, I sometimes find that despite my best laid plans, despite my hard work, in the end things don’t always go exactly my way. And sometimes that feels really unfair. Especially when we see someone else get something that we feel like they haven’t earned.

I think I would have been grumbling right along with those early workers that day. What’s the sense of working hard if other people get what they don’t deserve?

And then I think about it more. And I remember that the vineyard owner is God. And I remember that none of us gets what we deserve. Instead, we get a whole lot better.

Throughout the history of our faith, there have been those who have said you can gain God’s love through work. Do the right things, pray the right way, make the right sacrifices, and you can find salvation. It has come up again and again in the course of Christian history.

And yet, that’s not the point of the Christian life. That’s not the point of God’s grace. We don’t do what we do as Christians to earn God’s love. We do what we do because we already have God’s grace, and we are so filled with gratitude for that grace that we can’t help but glorify God through our actions.

We don’t donate to the food pantry to get to heaven. We donate because our souls were hungry for God and we were fed. We don’t build a house with Habitat for Humanity because we fear eternal damnation. We build a house because in God’s kingdom there are many houses, and we are welcome in them all. We don’t hand out water to volunteers to earn God’s love. We hand out water because Christ himself has given us living water.

We do all these things not because we were the workers waiting at the vineyard at sunrise. We do these things because we were the ones God went out and found at 5pm, and we were chosen to go into the vineyards anyways. And we were not treated fairly. We were treated better than fairly. We were treated with grace.

The biggest relief in my life came when I realized I didn’t have to earn God’s love. The biggest relief came when I realized I already had it, that it was inside of me, and that nothing I could do would separate me from it. And that relief, that freedom from the fear of a God who I could never be good enough to be loved by, turned from relief to joy. And from that joy came gratitude.

I still work a lot. It’s a growing edge. But now I don’t do it to earn God’s love. I do it as a response to God’s love. I do it as a kind of paying forward of what has already been given to me. I do it because maybe, if I meet the right person on the right day, someone else will look through what I do, and see what God has done in me, and in you, and in all of us.

There is a phrase that many of us have heard: there but for the grace of God go I. That phrase used to upset me. I used to look at whatever unfortunate person was being pointed out and try to come up with some reason in my mind why what happened to them would never happen to me. That works for a while. Until it doesn’t. And then you find that you are the one who is in need of grace. It’s a humbling experience.

But, in many ways, it can also be a freeing one. It can be freeing to know that in the end, God’s grace is not dependent on us. It’s only dependent on a God who loved us first. You look around at your co-workers in the vineyard, and you realize that that grace is not yours to withhold. And that is often the most powerful example of God’s grace in you. When God’s grace is so great that in your joy you feel compelled to do things that share that grace with others, you know that love has won..

And when you really feel that grace for the first time, when you really believe it, you are free. You are free from fear. You are free from worry. You are free from the illusion that you are always in control. And you are free in another way too. You are free to serve. You are free to give. You are free to love. You are free to labor in a vineyard where all are paid not according to the work they do, but according to what God does. You’ll never find another business owner who will pay you like that.

Now if I could have just written that all in on the forms I had to fill out this week, maybe I could have answered that question I was asked. Who owns this business? Not me, and not you, and not any of us. This is God’s. And it’s not like any business we’ve ever seen before. Indeed, this is the best place we will ever work. Amen.

Loaves, fish, and you. – A sermon for August 31, 2011

I’ve been watching what is going on in Washington this past week. The debate about the debt ceiling and what we should do now has been all over the news. It’s inescapable. Now, don’t be alarmed. I’m not about to preach about politics. The fact is I have no idea how we solve this problem, and I’m not sure anyone in Washington does either.

 

But as I listened to the news this week and read this passage, I was struck by the fact that both had to do with crowds of people in need, and few resources to go around. In both situations people were trying to figure out a way to make a little stretch into a lot, and in both situations, they were baffled.

 

There was one key difference. In one situation, Jesus was there to figure out the answer. In the other, no offense meant, we have members of Congress. And as much as some members of Congress probably think they are God incarnate, they are not. In many ways they are much closer to the disciples, bringing forward a couple of fish and loaves of bread and saying “we have no idea what to do now”.

 

Jesus had headed down to the lakeshore to escape the crowds, but they followed him anyway. He saw them coming to him sick and hungry and in need of compassion and, because he is Jesus, he couldn’t turn them away. And so he healed the sick all day.

 

That night the disciples said to him, “this is a deserted place” and told him that there was nothing there to eat, so he should send the crowds away, back into the villages. Now many of us know what it might feel like to be in a deserted place. We might know what it is like to make a hard journey, to come to the lakeshore, and to seek out healing, and teaching, and meaning, and maybe even salvation. And we know the fear of making that journey, and being afraid that even though we are in the right place, we might not have enough to stay there long.

 

When the disciples came to Jesus that night they were surrounded by people who must have felt like that. They had followed Jesus out into the wilderness, and now they were hungry. And the disciples only had five loaves of bread and two fish on them. And they told Jesus that because of that he would have to tell the crowds to go .

 

Now part of me thinks that the disciples must have been scared too. Five loaves and two fish and thirteen people makes for a pretty lean meal. I’m sure they looked out at that hungry crowd and realized that the little they had was about to get devoured pretty quickly. And the best way to ensure that they’d at least get something was to get rid of that crowd.

 

But of course, Jesus doesn’t send the crowds away. We know from the Last Supper, and from the sharing of Holy Communion, that Jesus’s dinner parties are always extraordinary and there is always enough there to fill us up. And this day was no exception. Jesus takes those loaves and fishes, and blesses them and breaks them, and starts to hand them out to the crowd.

 

Everyone was fed that day. Not just fed, but fed until they were filled. And there was such abundance that twelve baskets full of food were collected afterwards. Five thousand hungry people, just a little bit of food, and in the end not one hungry soul.

 

I heard a story once of another view of what happened that day. Some say that when the crowds saw that Jesus was making sure there was plenty, they opened their own bags. They dug deep and pulled out the bread and fish they had been carrying, scared to share with anyone. And now, knowing that they would be fed and there would be enough, they shared it with their neighbors. Christ’s generosity inspired their own, and they were not afraid to give.

 

There’s something that rings true about that. In times of scarcity, in the times of our neighbors’ greatest need, we are, perhaps understandably, the most inclined to protect what is ours. When we see people in need we are often uncomfortable and embarrassed. But mostly we are afraid. We are afraid that they are not so different from us. We are afraid that we could become them. And so we create stories in our heads of how they got that way, or what they did wrong to deserve this fate, and how it could never happen to us because we aren’t like that. And it makes us feel safer. At least for a little while.

 

But the reality is that “it”, no matter what “it” is, could happen to us. Poverty, foreclosure, addiction, illness, unemployment. All those things and more. They could all happen. Not because we are bad, but because we are human. And we know that. And that is what makes us even more afraid to share what little we have.

 

We’re a lot like those disciples, wanting to at least hang on to those few loaves and fishes. We’re a lot like those people in the crowd, protecting what little they may have had. We’re like that, because we are afraid.

 

It’s no secret that giving to charitable organizations goes down when the economy is bad. Non-profits, religious institutions, schools, all suffer when the economy is unstable. It’s not that we don’t see the need of our neighbors. We do, but we are so afraid that it’s going to happen to us too. And so when we trim our budgets, the first thing to go is often our generosity to others. The irony, of course, is that when economic times are hard, that’s when your neighbors need you the most.

 

But sometimes, even when we are afraid that we might not have enough, we get it right.

A friend of mine, not much older than I am, had a headache for four days last week. She didn’t understand why it wouldn’t go away. On the fourth day it turned out she had a brain hemorrhage and had had a stroke. It was shocking, and the recovery will be long, but she is, thankfully, showing signs of progress.

 

My friend is an artist who works incredibly hard, but she has never had much expendable income. Neither have many of her friends. And her recovery process will mean she can’t work for a while. Things will be extremely tight financially. But this weekend her friends started to do they only thing they knew they could do. They started to pool together their money, organize food delivery schedules, and come up with a plan  to help her get through the next few months.

 

Now, these are not wealthy people. These are not even people who know that they will have enough to make ends meet this month, let alone whether they will have enough left over to help others. And yet they are digging deep because they love their friend, and because they can do none other.

 

I stole a line from what the pastors say at Old South in Boston and now on Sunday mornings, when we take up the offering, I tell you “don’t give until it hurts. Give until it feels good.” My friend’s friends are giving not until it hurts, though surely it will make some of them tighten their belts this month. They are giving until it feels good. Because they could never feel good in a world where their needs and wants were met, and she was left on her own.

 

I don’t know how many of them are Christians. I actually doubt most would claim that title. But the reality is that they are demonstrating the love and generosity and hope that Christ taught us that day on the lakeshore far better than many who are Christian do. They believe in the abundance that comes from love in a real way. They know the risk to themselves, and they give anyway. Because they simply cannot not give.

 

Christians are called to be that way too. And sometimes we get it right, and sometimes we don’t. We are human, and we are often afraid. And this economy is a perfect example of that. But we have something that we can put our faith in that is greater than a stock index or a mutual fund return. We have something with a guaranteed return rate that outperforms any investment we can think of. We have Christ. And we have reason to believe that what happened on that lakeshore 2000 years ago can be, and has already been, repeated over and over again.

 

We are all here, in this church, because at some point at least on person claiming the name of Christian was generous to us. It may have been financial, it may have been a gift of love, it may have been a gift of time. But whatever it was, that person dug deep, put aside their fear that a couple loaves and fishes wouldn’t last them long, and decided to give to you anyway. And hopefully, years from now, pews in churches near and far will be filled because you have chosen to give too. Our generosity to one another, our sharing of Christ’s love, is the most tangible reminder of the legacy Christ gave to us that day at the lake. Let’s not that that legacy die, even when we are afraid. There are enough loaves. There are enough fish. They are out there, and we will find them. Deep in our hearts, we will find them. Amen.

The Widest Welcome – Sermon for June 26, 2011

Matthew 10:40-42

10:40 “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.

 

10:41 Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous;

 

10:42 and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple — truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

 

———-

 

In college one of our chaplains was a man named Luther. Luther was southern and United Methodist. He had been those two things his entire life. His father was a Methodist preacher. One day, as a young man in the early 1960’s, this son of a Methodist preacher went to a different Methodist congregation for worship. He got to the door, expecting to go in a worship God. And then a man stopped him, and instead of handing him a bulletin told him to leave. Luther was African American, and he was not welcome at their church.

 

Now Luther, had not come to the doors of the church knowing he wouldn’t be allowed in. He came in the sincere belief that since he was a United Methodist, and more importantly a Christian, he would be welcomed into worship in this United Methodist church. He left that day knowing the truth: not everyone who proclaims Christ’s welcome to all people really means it.

 

When I heard that story I felt bad for Luther. If you’ve ever experienced rejection for being who God created you to be, then you know how much that hurts you, right to the core. But I felt even worse for the church who did it to him. Because they had no idea what they were missing. They had no idea that they had just turned away Jesus.

 

No, Luther was not Jesus Christ. Not in the literal sense, anyway. But according to today’s Gospel, he may as well have been. Matthew writes, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” And the unspoken part is this: when you fail to welcome someone, you fail to welcome Jesus.

 

There’s an old joke among preachers. We joke that there are many churches that wouldn’t let Jesus in the door. We also joke that there are many churches that Jesus wouldn’t really want to come to anyway. I’ve always sort of believed that if Jesus came back on a Sunday morning he wouldn’t come and visit us good church folks right away. He’d be in a homeless shelter. Or a hospital. Or a day laborers line. People who need him the most.

 

But that’s not how it has to be. Because on Sunday morning, we have the power to change that. On Sunday morning we have the power to be the place where the people who need Jesus the most feel welcomed. We have the power to become the first place that people who need love and hope look.

 

And yet the church has sometimes been the last.

 

I wear my clergy collar more than most Protestant ministers. Those of us who are Protestant ministers who wear collars sometimes get some flack. We’re told that only Catholic or Episcopal priests do that. We’re told that it creates a hierarchy between ordained people and lay people. We’re told it’s really just too formal.

 

Now the reality is that the clergy collar was most likely a Protestant invention, and it wasn’t so long ago that almost every clergy person wore them regularly. And the reality is that it’s not a sign of superiority. It’s a sign of functionality. It’s a uniform that tells people who we are and that they can approach us.

 

I find that happens a lot when I wear my collar. People come up to me in coffee shops, in restaurants, in hospital lobbies, and ask me for help or ask me questions they never would otherwise.

 

The one thing that happens the most, though, is people tell me why they no longer go to church. They don’t do it angrily. They do it with sadness. They do it because they need someone in the church to hear what happened.

 

I hear stories like this: I left the church because people judged how I dress on Sunday morning, and I can’t afford dress clothes. I left the church because my family member who has Down Syndrome was not fully included in the children’s programming. I left the church because when my son had AIDS no one in the church would talk about it, even though I needed to. I left the church because as soon as people found out who my daughter really was, she was no longer welcome there. And I refuse to go to a place where she is not welcome.

 

These are not people who hate God. These are people who love God too much to settle for a partial welcome. These are people who know the Gospel too well to accept anything less than Christ’s love. These are people who need the church, and who have yet to find a place they feel is worthy of that name.

 

A lot of people say to me, “all Christians are hypocrites.” To which I reply, “yes, we are. And so is everyone. Because we are human.” But then I tell them this: we try really hard not to be. And that’s why we need you to help us change. That’s why we need you to join us. Because we want to get this right.

 

The church is not God…but for some people we may as well be. And when they feel that we don’t love them, they feel like God doesn’t love them. And when they see the minister in the collar walking down the street, all they want to do is tell me what happened and hear that maybe one representative of the church feels like God still loves them.

 

God does. And God loves us. God loves both of us so much, that God wants us to extend that welcome to one another. God wants us to welcome one another because in doing so we truly welcome Christ. We will never really know Jesus until we welcome everyone as though they were Jesus.

 

And that goes for all of us. There is no one who has done this perfectly. And yet those of us who have tried, often find we are better off for it. We find gifts and graces we would never have imagined.

 

Here’s an example. When you were looking for a pastor, did you really think you would end up calling someone like me? It’s unspoken, but we can talk about the unspoken for a minute. And, I’ll be honest, I thought I would be an associate pastor at a progressive urban church.

 

And yet, we both felt like God was calling us to one another. And so we decided to extend a welcome to one another. And now, I think we’ve got something good going on here. I think we are building something incredible together, with the help of God’s grace. I am glad we opened ourselves up to one another, and I am glad that in that welcome we found Christ just a little more.

 

I am, as you know, a big fan of the phrase, “No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” I love it because it means everyone, not just the people we agree with. It means that on Sundays people who vote differently, think differently, and hope differently can still sit next to one another here, be loved for who they are and not just who we hope them to be, and worship God together. And in the end, that’s all that matters. And in the end that’s the gift we get for the welcome that we offer. May this be a church that would welcome Jesus, no matter what shape he took when he came to the front doors. Amen.

 

“On the Road to Emmaus” – sermon for May 8, 2011

Luke 24:13-35
24:13 Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem,

24:14 and talking with each other about all these things that had happened.

24:15 While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them,

24:16 but their eyes were kept from recognizing him.

24:17 And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad.

24:18 Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?”

24:19 He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people,

24:20 and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him.

24:21 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place.

24:22 Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning,

24:23 and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive.

24:24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.”

24:25 Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!

24:26 Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?”

24:27 Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

24:28 As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on.

24:29 But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them.

24:30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.

24:31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.

24:32 They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”

24:33 That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together.

24:34 They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!”

24:35 Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

A friend of mine got a new car recently, and we were talking about something interesting. Before she started looking at this particular car, she would have thought there were not many of them on the road. But when she got close to buying one, she suddenly began to see them all the time. She could not go a mile without seeing at least one of these cars.

We laughed because the reality is that there hasn’t been a sudden surge of the number of people who drove Hondas. Not everyone had run out and bought a car just like hers around the same time she did. Instead, she had just became more conscious and more aware of cars like hers and she was more able to readily see what was there all along

It’s like that with a lot of things. Try this exercise with me for a minute. If I had stopped you outside the door and asked you to name five green things in the sanctuary today, could you have done it? Probably not. But the reality is that those things have been here all along. You just haven’t been looking for them. So, try it now. What do you see around you?

When we are looking for something, we are more likely to see it. When we are looking for a certain kind of car, it’s there. When we look for a color, it pops out at us

When we look for a sweatshirt or a bumper sticker with our college’s name on it, or a license plate from our same state, or anything else, we’re apt to see it.

But when we’re not looking at all, just like my friend before she was looking for a specific kind of car, we are most likely to miss it.

It’s like that with Jesus sometimes. This story tells us that two men are walking on the road to Emmaus. And they know vaguely what has happened, and they are sad and confused. They have seen what happened to Jesus, and they have heard these stories that he might be back, but they are obviously doubtful. So doubtful, that they are not looking through the world with eyes that wanted to see Jesus. So much so, that when he was walking with them, they didn’t even notice it.

We hear the story now and think they must have been pretty dense. Who would miss it if Jesus were standing right next to them? But the reality is that a lot of us would. A lot of us just wouldn’t have the eyes for it that day. As much as we tend to see things when we are keeping a look out for them. The car. The certain color. We sometimes don’t if we are not.

There was a story about a year ago. you may have heard it. The Washington Post reported on a violinist who played in a Metro station in DC. He played for 45 straight minutes. Only six people stopped. He made about $32 and packed up and went home

The violinist’s name is Josh Bell. He’s one of the most renowned classical musicians alive. Seats for most of his shows average $100. And he was playing one of the most complicated pieces ever.

And yet no one realized. Because no one was looking for it, and no one was ready to believe that an extraordinary musician would just come and play in the Metro station. And so he became just another guy trying to make a little money playing in the subway.

I’m wondering if it was that way on the road to Emmaus that day. Who would have expected Jesus to be walking this dusty road, in the middle of nowhere? Who would have imagined that possibility? It was the Jesus-equivalent of walking past one of the most incredible musicians in a Metro station and hearing him play, and having no idea who was right in front of you.

But we’re not so different. We miss Jesus a lot.

In seminary one of my theology professors would talk about missionaries in the past who left this country and went to places where no missionaries had ever been saying that they were taking God to “those people”.

It was almost as if God were a piece of carry on luggage, loaded up and ready for the journey.

But the reality was that they didn’t get it. They may have been teaching people more about how to see God, but they weren’t taking God anywhere. God was already in every remote village they would travel to. God was already in the lives of the people there. God was already doing incredible things. They didn’t have to bring God anywhere.

And the real irony, is that sometimes those of us who think we get it. Who think it’s our job to show God and God’s will to the people who we think have never seen it, are the ones who are most apt to fail to see it ourselves.

When I look back on things now, I know that there were times when God felt so far away from me, and yet I was never so close. They’re usually the times when everything was going wrong and I cried out, “Where is God in this?” and got, so I thought, no answer.

I didn’t see the little signs around me. The little indications that God was working in my life. The gestures from people that God was working through to give me a sign, the turns of event that signaled that something extraordinary was happening, the moments where if I had just turned to the side, I would have seen that Jesus was walking with me.

I’m not the only one. You’ve probably had these moments too.

We sometimes teach ourselves not to expect what we think is unlikely. We tell ourselves that the kid who is a “trouble maker” will always be a troublemaker and we fail to see the signs that he is really gifted in some area. We say that the relative who was having a hard time with something will never really get their act together, even when there are signs otherwise. We make a million assumptions and snap judgments without meaning to, and we miss the incredible reality of what is in front of us.

And if we do it in the day to day details of our lives, we do it more when it comes to God. We tell ourselves not to expect the incredible. Not to see the life changing. Not to dare to believe in what is extraordinary.

When I get into good natured arguments with my atheist friends, and I do have atheist friends, it often becomes a litany of “but what about this” statements. Every possible sign of God’s absence is used to try to prove that God does not exist. But on the other side, every sign that God is alive and well and working in this world, is ignored.

Now, I’m not trying to argue a point about atheism here, although I often think strenuous atheism is often just another kind of religious fundamentalism. I’m just saying that we are often more willing to see what isn’t there, than we are to see what is. We are more willing to be negative than we are positive. We are more willing to disregard the fact that Jesus is walking next to us than we are to accept the hard, and it is hard and inconvenient, truth that Jesus has been with us every step of the way.

When the two men got to the end of that road with Jesus, they sat at a table with him. They still didn’t see. They didn’t see until he took bread, and broke it, and gave it to them. And finally it became too much to ignore. They had to see it.

Sometimes when have those moments too. When it just becomes too much to ignore. When are eyes, for however short a period of time, are opened wide. When we can’t argue it away anymore, and we have to believe.

They went from that place and they told everyone what they saw. They went to the disciples who had just had their own experience of seeing Jesus. And together they shared the news that he was back.

The church is the same way. We come here week after week, sharing the news that Jesus is with us. Telling one another about walking on the road with him or seeing him again for the first time. We strengthen one another when we look around and really see what is happening around us. We strengthen the church when we look around not with eyes that are looking for a certain car or a certain color, but for Jesus. When we look at the world through Jesus-eyes, we find that we cannot help but see him all around us. And then we find that we can’t keep it to ourselves anymore.

As we walk on our Emmaus roads may we dare to turn to those who are walking beside us and see the light of Christ that is in them. Amen.

“Faith, Doubt and Everything in Between” – Sermon for May 1, 2011

John 20:19-31
20:19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”

20:20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.

20:21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

20:22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.

20:23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

20:24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.

20:25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

20:26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”

20:27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”

20:28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”

20:29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

20:30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.

20:31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

We all have doubts. We don’t talk about that much in the church, but it’s true. Even the most devout person you know has questions and wonders sometimes, “Is this really true?” I wouldn’t trust anyone who told me that they’ve never had a moment of doubt.

It’s always been that way in the church. Even from the very first community of faith, the disciples. Even after the resurrection.

The disciples are sitting around the table in a locked house. They are afraid of the crowd, and they are hunkering down together. And all of a sudden, Jesus is there. And he tells them “peace be with you”. He shows them the wounds in his hands and in his side, and breathes upon them, and they receive the Holy Spirit. And they believe.

There’s always one guy who is late to dinner, though. Thomas. Jesus comes and he is not there. By the time he gets there, Jesus is gone and despite the story he hears from the other disciples he says “unless I see it for myself, I don’t believe it.”

That would be my luck. The one day I was late for dinner, Jesus would just drop by. I’d imagine that if I got there I’d say something to my friends like, “I don’t believe you. Come on…I’m not that gullible.” I wonder if Thomas thought his friends were playing a practical joke on him.

The next week, though, it happens again. Thomas has learned his lesson and gotten there on time, and Jesus shows up. And even with Jesus right in front of him, Thomas is still on the fence. So Jesus tells him, put your hands to my hands. Put them on my side. Believe.

And he cries out, “My Lord and my God.” And he believes.

Sometimes don’t you wish we could do that too? Sometimes, when our doubt is getting the best of us, when we are wrestling with the demons of doubt, don’t you wish that Jesus would come and physically stand in front of you and say “take my hands…believe”?

Jesus asks Thomas, “Did you believe because you saw me?” And then he says, “blessed are those who don’t see me, but who believe anyway.” And what he’s really saying to all of us who believe, no matter how imperfectly, is “blessed are you”.

Today is confirmation day. Two of our youth are making a thoughtful commitment to confirm their baptisms and become full members of our church. John and Anna have made a thoughtful, prayerful decision and are ready at this point in their lives to claim this faith, and to commit to walking on this journey with us. We are all so proud of you.

But you need to hear, John and Anna, that even if you hadn’t made this decision, God would have still loved you. God’s love and God’s grace exist even if we don’t acknowledge them. But almost as much as you need to hear that God still would have loved you, you need to know that we would have loved you too.
A friend of mine from seminary interned in a fairly large Presbyterian church in Atlanta. They had a big confirmation class one year. Over 30 people. And her son was in it. He had doubts, and she rightly said the decision to be confirmed was his. All she asked was that he go to all the confirmation classes first.

At the end of it, he alone out of all the students in the class, chose not to be confirmed. It caused a bit of a ruckus in the church. The seminarian’s student didn’t get confirmed. The pastor, the church leaders, all weighed in.

The day of the confirmation all the other youth were confirmed, and they went out afterwards to celebrate with their families. My friend took her son out too. Not to celebrate confirmation, but to congratulate him on making his first adult decision.

This week Dorie’s son will graduate from the Citadel, a military college that places a high premium on integrity. He will be commissioned as an Army officer this week as well. I told Dorie that her son’s decision as a teenager not to be confirmed was a good indicator of the man of integrity he would later become. One who could not make a commitment he didn’t believe in. He is still unsure of the specifics of his belief, but he is loved by God none the less.

You don’t get confirmed to please other people. You don’t do it out of fear that God won’t love you anymore. You do it because it’s the decision, and commitment, that you have made. And Anna and John, you have made a decision to publicly say “this is what I believe”. You may not have every theological detail worked out in your minds yet, but you know enough to say this is the road that I will travel.

I told the youth that one thing that would happen after confirmation is that they would have full membership in our church. They would be eligible to sit in all the leadership roles we offer, and they would have a vote at our congregational meetings.

I’m not sure the prospect of voting on church budgets was all that exciting for them. But there was something that was. And that was that they are now in a position where they can help to shape the direction of this church. They can help us to envision the church that needs to be here for their generation, and they can bring the light that God is giving to new generations into our church. Listen to them. They know more about God’s plan than we realize.

And we have already influenced them more than we know. Anna sent me her confirmation paper yesterday, and she told me I could read you a passage. I’ll share it with you now:

Confirmation can mean a lot of things. To me it means confirming my baptism. It means the start of adulthood. It means gaining responsibility and leadership. And most of all, it is a new start in a church that I love.
Confirmation means to me that I am confirming my baptism. I am saying that I agree with my parent’s decision to let me have a Christian life. I see it as a commitment to Christianity and to my church.
I also feel that confirmation is a good way to start having a voice and an opinion, not only in church. When you learn to do something it’s best to learn to do it surrounded by people who love and support you. That way you can be helped along the way without worrying about doing anything wrong. Our church is the perfect place to start trying to be a leader and having a voice.

I especially love that last paragraph. The part about, “when you learn to do something it’s best to learn to do it surrounded by people who love and support you.”

I was thinking about that. I moved here to West Dover a year ago today. Tomorrow is the anniversary of my first Sunday with you all. I had been ordained for a few years before I met you all, but this was my first parish. My first time being a pastor. And I was both hopeful and afraid. And Anna’s words are true, “When you learn to do something it’s best to learn to do it surrounded by people who love and support you. That way you can be helped along the way without worrying about doing anything wrong.”

Thank you for helping me along the way. And thank you for helping them along their way. And thank you for helping each other. Thank you for being there when we come to one another like Thomas did to Jesus, cautiously, doubtfully, yet hopefully. In many ways, we are the ones who show each other the signs of Christ’s return. We are the ones who hold out our hands so that others may believe. We are Christ’s body shown to the entire world. And we are called out for all the world to see, now more than ever. Amen.