Getting ‘Woke’: Sermon for March 26, 2017

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Ephesians 5:8-14
5:8 For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light-

5:9 for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true.

5:10 Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord.

5:11 Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.

5:12 For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly;

5:13 but everything exposed by the light becomes visible,

5:14 for everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”

Last night I was sitting in the living room at 8:30, trying to read something, and suddenly Heidi proclaimed “it’s Earth hour!” And she then went around the house shutting off all of our lights.

Things like this happen sometimes, and I’ve learned to just roll with it, but I of course asked, “Honey, what’s Earth Hour?” The subtext of that was, “honey, when can I get back to reading my book?” And Heidi explained that Earth Hour was a designated time when those who care about the environment were being asked to turn off all their lights and electronics for one hour to conserve electricity.

Okay, fair. I could do it for one hour. (And, honestly, it provided me with a much-needed intro to this sermon.) It also reminded me that in the course of human existence, this whole luxury of having light all through the night, and at the flip of a switch, is really quite new. A lot of us have great-grandparents or even grandparents who were born into a world lit solely by candles and lanterns.

So, sitting there in the dark last night, and thinking of all those dark nights of centuries past, I started to think about the Ephesians, and about what this text that we just read might have meant for them.

Paul, or one of his surrogates, writes to the church in Ephesus and says to them “live as children of light”. He says, “once you were in darkness, but now you are light”. And he wasn’t talking about flipping a lights witch there, at least not literally. The letter was talking about what had happened spiritually within them.

We don’t live in the literal dark often, but the Ephesians did. The night was something that was often feared because you literally couldn’t know what was around you in the dark. And so when Paul was talking to them about darkness and light, they got it in a way that you and I might not understand quite so dramatically today. They had been living in a metaphorical darkness, and now the light of Christ was shining all around them.

When Paul had come to Ephesus, in what is modern-day Turkey, he started this new church, and then others took over and helped it to grow. And Paul had come back at one point and lived with the Ephesians for three years before going back out again. There’s some question, though, about whether Paul really did write this letter. It might have been Paul, but it may have been someone writing it for Paul.

At any rate, the letter is written by someone who knows that the Ephesians were once people who didn’t know God, but who now did. And these are instructions on faith to this church, and to other churches, telling them how to live with one another, and how to live in the world.

And the big message here, in today’s text, is that the Ephesians had been changed. They had moved from spiritual darkness to light, because they now knew the love and grace of Christ. And so now they are “children of light” whose job is to live in the light, and shine the light for others. And, like I said, that metaphor would have resonated with them, because light could be truly life-saving back then. They didn’t take it for granted.

Nearly two thousand years later, we do. Last night, when I wanted to keep reading my book but couldn’t, it made me appreciate light more than I normally do. But 99.9% of the time, I don’t have to worry that there will be light when I flip the switch in my house. So, this light and darkness stuff, it’s not earth-shattering to me. I don’t often live in darkness.

But here’s the catch: sometimes I do. Sometimes we all do.

I’m talking here about metaphorical darkness. I’m talking about the ways in which I don’t really understand what’s going around me, and I am complicit with systems of injustice or inequity. I’m talking about the ways in which I have grown too comfortable with what should not be.

The author of this letter writes, “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly; but everything exposed by the light becomes visible…”

SpotlightLast Sunday some of us gathered here in the sanctuary after worship and we watched the movie Spotlight. Many of us are aware of the sexual abuse of children that took place at the hands of clergy in the Boston Archdiocese. And it’s easy to blame the priests who committed these horrible acts and to stop there.

But Spotlight tells the story of the Boston Globe reporters who unveiled a deeper, and even more troubling, truth. As the reporters were investigating these priests they learned that their superiors had knowledge of what was going on. And they learned that instead of removing these men from the priesthood, they instead moved them from parish to parish, giving them access to new victims. And that betrayal of the people by those in power became the even bigger story.

It’s not lost on me that the name of the team of reporters who investigated these acts was “Spotlight”. They were shining a light on what was hidden, and bringing it out of the darkness, even though the pressure on them not to reveal this, from the church and others, and even from inside themselves, was sometimes crushing.

Because they shined that light, though, literally thousands of survivors were finally heard. Old practices that allowed abusers to thrive were ended. And the whole institution was forced to face what had happened, and figure out how to never let it happen again.

Now it’s important for me to say here that this isn’t something that just happens in Catholic Churches. Protestant churches have had their fair share. So have schools. So have other institutions. And we are in a time of reckoning where we are shining the light and telling the truth about what happened, and in the end we will be better for it.

There’s an old adage: “Sunlight is the best disinfectant”. That’s true. And there’s another one I love as well: “We’re as sick as our secrets.”

Both remind us that sometimes truth is painful. Sometimes doing the work of shining a light in the dark places is deeply uncomfortable. But if we want to live as children of light, we cannot live in fear of what lurks in the darkness. We cannot be afraid of the truth.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that lately. I’ve been thinking about it as we live in a world where “fake news” and “alt-truth” have somehow made it into the lexicon. We seem to have entered a period of darkness in so many ways. Truth and light are not en vogue.

And so, that’s why it matters more than ever that we are children of light. And it matters more than ever that we tell the truth. And the first truth, for those of us who would follow Christ, is this: this world belongs to God above all, and so do we. Christ alone is Lord, and Christ alone deserves our ultimate allegiance.

And if that’s true, Christ alone can show us how to live as children of light.

George Orwell, the author of 1984 and Animal Farm, once wrote that “in a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”

That’s an amazingly true statement in and of itself. But long before Orwell said it, Jesus said this, “And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.”

That is also true. But, as President James Garfield once observed, “The truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable.”

He was right. Because sometimes knowing the truth, and seeing things as they are, is a lot like waking up really early in the morning, and having to get to work, when you’d much rather still be sleeping in your comfortable bed. It is inconvenient, and it is uncomfortable. And yet, sometimes it is necessary.

The author of the letter writes, “Sleeper awake.” They write, “everything that becomes visible is light. Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”

numbers-time-watch-whiteIn other words, “Wake up.” Or, to put it in 2017 terms, “get woke”. Be aware of what is happening around you and in the world. Be aware of the places where the darkness lies heavy. Do not shy away from learning about injustice. Don’t pretend that inequity doesn’t exist. Resist the urge to choose the easier path of ignorance.

Instead, refuse to hit the snooze button just one more time. Turn off the alarm, put your feet on the floor, and turn on the light. Because the world needs your light now more than ever.

And after we “get woke”, it’s our job to “stay woke”. It’s the work of our faith to not move through the world unaware. It’s our job to know what is going on around us, and to shine a light on that which is in darkness. It’s our job to stand up and tell the truth, even when it is frightening and no one else is ready to do it.

That’s what it means to follow Christ. That’s what it means when we read on Christmas that “the light shines in darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it”.

Last year a few of our middle schoolers taught me about a new concept. We were talking about bullying, and they were saying that at their school they are encouraged to not be “bystanders”, but to be “upstanders”. In other words, when they saw something wrong happening, it was there job to stand up and say something.

In this world, we are called to be children of light. And that means we are called to be upstanders. But the only way to remain on your feet, is to stay woke. That is our work together. And that is the work of faith.

And when you think about it, that’s not a bad job to have. Amen?

Pastors and Teachers: Sermon for the Installation of the Rev. Heidi Carrington Heath

The following was preached on Sunday, March 13, 2016 for the Installation of the Rev. Heidi Carrington Heath as the Associate Pastor of First Parish Church in Derry, New Hampshire:

Installations are oddly named events.

I know this has all been said before, but it bears repeating. We think of “installation” and we think about setting up washing machines or installing a piece of software or going to an art installation. We don’t think about something having to do with an active human being. Even other professions use words like “inauguration” to talk about the start of a new position.

But here in the church world we have stuck to “installation”. No one is exactly sure why, but that’s okay. The good news about church installations, though, is that unlike installing your dishwasher or a new computer program, this is a pretty exciting occasion.

Representatives from all over the Rockingham Association and the greater UCC are here. Heidi’s friends have come to Derry today. The choir is singing special pieces, and there’s a big reception down in the fellowship hall afterwards. We are making a pretty big deal about this installation of Heidi Carrington Heath.

And that’s why I think it’s so important that we remember that today is not about Heidi. Not really, anyway.

165959_10154423704977538_3898712089897527048_nSome of you were at Heidi’s ordination back in December. That was an amazing day, full of celebration. And that day was not just about Heidi either, but it definitely was about God’s call on her. She made ordination vows, and we laid on hands and prayed for her. That day was about who God has called Heidi to be.

But today is about First Parish Church of East Derry, and the chapter of ministry that God is now calling you into together. And that’s why the words we read from Ephesians are so important this morning. Paul writes to the Ephesians that, “the gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.”

You have called Heidi to be a “pastor and teacher” of this congregation. She has been called to the ministry by God, and she has been trained and equipped to do the work that is set before her. But she is not called into this ministry alone. Every one of you who is a member of this congregation is being called into this ministry too.

That is because we are all called to specific forms of ministry by the very fact that we have been baptized into Christ’s body. The calling of pastors and teachers is specific, but it is not any more valuable than any other calling. And in a congregation, if the pastors are the only ones who are living into their call to ministry, that is not sustainable. Each of you has a calling, and by being here today, you are saying you are going to listen to that calling so that Heidi can effectively live into hers as a pastor and teacher of this church.

And that’s why this reminder from Paul is so important here. Listen to what he tells the church in Ephesus about there callings: “I therefore…beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

Unless you are willing to live into that calling together, there is no point going forward in this installation. Unless you are willing to, as Paul says, “live a life worth of the calling” and work together to make this a place of exceptional ministry, you cannot hope to have a vibrant ministry here.

You have stepped out in faith to call Heidi. You have listened for the voice of God and, after discernment, you have created a new associate pastor position. That means that you have helped to create this ministry, and by installing Heidi into this position you are not simply turning it over. You are saying that you will continue to live into your own calling to ministry, and that you will serve with her. You are taking these installation vows alongside of her.

And so, in that spirit, I want to offer a few reminders that I offer at every installation I’m asked to preach at. First, a reminder that Heidi has been called to ministry here. She has not been hired, and she is not your employee. She has been brought by God to this ministry, and you have affirmed that call.

That means that, unlike an employee, sometimes she is going to say and do things that challenge you, or that push you out of your comfort zones. That’s her job. Know that she will never do those things to be unkind or difficult. She will only do them because she truly believes she is doing what God asks of her.

Also remember that just because she is not an employee it doesn’t mean that she is any less invested in her work. Trust me, I live with her. Heidi works hard for you because she is already living into this covenant with you.

That also means that, like every clergy person I know, Heidi is going to overwork at times. And so, if you want to keep her running at her best, make her practice self-care. Make her take time off. Make her do continuing education and professional development. Make her take the time and space she needs to be refreshed so that she can serve you creatively.

Next, remember that while she is “installed” she is different than other things that get installed. She is not a laundry machine or dish washer that you load up, flip on, and walk away from while she does all the work.

Nor is she a software program or an app that has been installed at the church and which will now solve all your problems. Nor is she a piece of artwork whose job it is to remain passively in its place.

Heidi is a pastor and teacher. She is one your pastors and teachers. And the single greatest predictor of great she will be at that role is this: how you choose to minister with her, and how you live into your own calls to ministry.

And so, as you get ready to start this new chapter of ministry together, I have one piece of advice that I hope you’ll take to heart. And that’s this: pray. Pray for Heidi. Pray for all who serve your church. Pray for your church itself.

I don’t say this lightly. I’m not saying just do it today, or whenever you think of it. I’m asking you to commit to regularly, even daily, praying for your clergy and for this congregation. Pray that God would bless your clergy with insight and faithfulness. Pray that your church would proclaim the Gospel and serve the world. But most of all, pray that God would make clear to you your own call to ministry in this place, and that God would give you the ability to live into that calling every day.

God has great things in store for you, First Parish. Today is just a reminder of that fact. And as you turn the page on that new chapter, I pray that you would keep writing this story with Heidi, and with one another. It’s going to be an incredible one; I just know it. Amen.

What Kind of a Pastor Does Your Church Really Want?

About six months ago I started a new call as the senior pastor of a church in New Hampshire. I truly loved the congregation I previously served, but with a wife who had just graduated from seminary herself, and a feeling that God was nudging me to something new, I began the long discernment that comes with a pastoral search process.

Unlike my first search process, where I sent my profile (the UCC version of a pastor’s resume) to just about every church that was searching, I was more selective this time. I wasn’t willing to move for anything less than the right call, which is a great luxury for a searching pastor. But it also meant that I ended up saying “no” a lot. I love a challenge, but I did not feel called to a place where my understanding of ministry, and the church’s, were so radically different that we were in fundamentally different places.

The Rev. John Wheelwright, the first Pastor and Teacher of the church I now serve.

The Rev. John Wheelwright, the first Pastor and Teacher of the church I now serve.

The biggest thing I learned is that everyone says they want a pastor, but not everyone means the same thing when they say that. Here are just some of the understandings of what it meant to be a pastor that I encountered in my search:

Chaplain – No disrespect meant to chaplains (I was one for eight years) but the role of a parish pastor and that of a chaplain are very different. And yet, over and over I met parishes who wanted someone to spend most of their time “doing home and hospital visits”.

I’m always glad to visit, but the first question I had for churches who wanted this was “Who does this now?” Most of the time the answer was “no one…that’s the pastor’s job”. This was always a huge red flag for me because the work of visitation is supposed to be done by all Christians, not just the pastor. In fact, having a strong and vibrant network of lay visitors is a great sign of church vitality. You don’t have to go to seminary to make a visit, after all; you just need to love the people of your church.

Fundraiser – In my interviews when the time came for me to ask questions I asked “What’s the biggest crisis facing this church right now?” More times then not I was told “money”. Churches said they didn’t have enough of it, or people weren’t pledging like they used to, or expenses were too high. Then they often asked me, “How can you help us fix that?”

The reality is that I like talking about stewardship in the church. I think it’s a key part of the Christian life. But, the pastor can’t be your church’s “fundraiser”. The pastor can help to set the tone for the conversation, but they cannot control the bottom line. The money has to come from the congregation itself, and the stewardship campaign itself needs to be run by faithful and creative lay leaders. A new pastor will not be the magic bullet that balances your church’s budget.

Complaint Box – This works two ways. First, people complain to the pastor about everything that they think is wrong with the church, and expect them to immediately fix it. Later, when they don’t, people complain to the pastor about everything that is wrong with the pastor.

Some of the churches I talked to spent their interview complaining about everything from the fact not as many people came to church anymore to the fact their last pastor was “terrible” (a red flag for interviewing pastors if ever there was one). Those were the churches that I knew were ready to blame everyone else for what wasn’t going right. And every pastor knows that it only takes so long until they will become the sacrificial lamb in a church like that.

Entertainer – I will be the first to say that pastors need to do their best to not preach boring, lifeless, irrelevant sermons. And yet, so many churches I talked to wanted someone who would be “funny”, or “tell us stories” in the pulpit. A few even noted that they loved when their pastor sang solos on Sunday mornings. They wanted a pastor who would entertain them!

But that’s not the role of a pastor in the pulpit. The pastor’s job in preaching is to present the text in a way that is faithful to Scripture and relatable to the congregation. Hopefully they won’t do that in a way that puts everyone to sleep, but at the end of the day the church would do better with more faithful preachers than more “entertaining” ones.

Recruiter – “What will you do to increase our membership?” It’s the question candidates get all the time from churches. The expectation is that a new pastor needs to come in and build up Sunday attendance and church membership. In this way the pastor becomes the church recruiter, and is even seen as a sort of potential savior. (That should be a red flag, if it’s not.)

But while a new pastor might draw a few more visitors, they can’t be the person responsible for building church membership up. Even if they go door to door to invite new people to church, if those people come to church and don’t feel welcomed by the congregation they will not stay. Instead, every church member needs to be responsible for inviting others, welcoming them on Sunday, and then helping to make them part of the congregation.

Kept sheep – My go-to “softball” question for search committees was a no-brainer: Do you want a pastor who is involved in your community? Usually search committees jumped on this and said “yes, of course!” But in one interview I asked the committee this question and, instead of hearing “yes”, I instead heard “well…maybe”. The committee then went on to say that they thought their pastor would have enough to do just serving them. They didn’t want their pastor to get involved in local organizations, to hold drop-in hours out in the community, or to do much in the wider church.

This interview reminded me of a question I heard someone ask a church years ago: “Do you want a shepherd? Or a kept sheep?” Of course almost every church will say the former but, the egregious example above aside, how many mean it? Do you really want a pastor who will serve your community and the wider church? Or do you just want a pastor who will serve the people who are already in your church? Healthy congregations don’t just “allow” their clergy to engage the world beyond the church’s four walls; they encourage it.

Pastor and Teacher – This is the one I was looking for, and the one I found. The Letter to the Ephesians talks about how Christ has given each of us different gifts and graces. The author writes, “The gifts (Christ) gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ…”

For most of us in the United Church of Christ our call agreements state that we are becoming “pastor and teacher” of a local church. At the end of the day, that’s what I believe a clergy person is called to be. We are called to faithfully shepherd a congregation in their life together, and to teach that congregation about Christ’s love for all.

Signing the pastor making me "pastor and teacher" of my current church.

Signing the pastoral contract making me “pastor and teacher” of my current church.

What that entails can look different for each congregation, but at the end of the day your pastor should be doing the ministry that they have been prepared for through calling and training. And they can’t do that ministry well if they are also taking on the responsibilities that belong to, and can and should be carried out by, all members of your congregation.

So, what kind of pastor does your church really want? If you are a congregation in search, or even just a congregation trying to figure out where it wants to go, take the time to ask yourself this question. And then, if necessary, adjust expectations. If you do, you will free your pastor to do the ministry God has equipped them to do best. And, more importantly, you will see the people of your church stepping up to do the ministry God has equipped them to do as well.