Making Community in the Wilderness: A Church Anniversary Sermon for April 8, 2018

This week, the town of Exeter had a birthday. On Tuesday, April 3rd, Exeter was 380 years old. That’s a pretty big celebration on its own, but for those of us who are a part of this church, it’s even bigger. When the earliest towns in New England were being settled back in the 17th century, you could not have a town until you first had a church. This was back before separation of church and state, of course. So back on April 3, 1638, not only did the town have to be chartered, but so to did a church. This church.

new_town_seal_10So, this week, The Congregational Church in Exeter turned 380. That’s pretty amazing when you think about it. To put that in perspective, we’re talking about roots that go back to just 18 years after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. Just eight years after the founding of Boston. And that’s 56 years before the Salem Witch Trials and138 years before the Declaration of Independence.

In other words, we’re old. But, in the scheme of the larger story of the church of Jesus Christ, we’re actually pretty young. And that’s where today’s Scripture comes in on this first Sunday after Easter Sunday. 

Today we turn to the book of Acts. Acts is the book of the Bible that tells about the very earliest church and how they became church. After Jesus’ resurrection, after that first Easter, the disciples started to have to figure out how to live together and share this experience that they had with others. They became the very first church. 

The passage from today tells us a little about how they lived: 

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.

With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.

In other words, they were one body, with one task: share the message of Christ’s resurrection. They lived as one unit, sharing everything they had, and they focused their all on the mission at hand. That was what it meant for them to be church.

So, next week, bring your bank account information and check books, and we’ll get started.

So, I’m kidding about that part. But, I read this passage and I realize there are some things that churches could learn from that first church. First, the ideas, as the passage says, that a church should be “of one heart and soul”. Now, by that I don’t mean that we should all believe the exact same things, or give up who we are as individuals. But I do mean that a church should be bound together by more than the fact that we all come to the same building on Sunday mornings. 

There has to be something bigger than that keeping us together. And I think that thing is the story that we gather around every week, and what it points to, which is the love and grace of Jesus Christ. We may struggle with what we believe, how we believe, or how to live in the world because of it, but at the heart of our life here together is simply that: the Gospel, the good news, of God’s love as found in Jesus Christ. Without it, there’s not much point in us being here. 

Acts tells us that the first church “gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus”. That might sounds like they were a little bit preachy. Fair enough. But I think their task was more than just saying what they had seen. And I think that task is the same one that you and I still have to carry out today. 

21314839_1664971753555416_1075856799694847201_nYou see, I believe that to be a Christian is to be called to testify to the good news of Resurrection. In other words, our job is to tell the Easter story again and again to a world that needs to hear it. Because, like I said last week, the Easter story is this: First, God became one of us and lived as one of us. Second, God’s love and grace were so threatening that the world tried to kill it. And third, God’s love and grace refused to die.

That’s the story that you and I are called to tell, just like those early disciples were. But we don’t tell it by standing on street corners and shouting it. We don’t push it onto others, insisting that they believe as we do. We don’t use our faith as a weapon. Instead, we do this…we live our lives in such a way that we are constantly witnessing to God’s love and grace. We do out best to love others, to stand up for the voiceless and marginalized, to take care of the least of these, and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. That is the testimony our faith asks of us.

It was a testimony the earliest members of this church tried to live as well. See, we would be remiss if we forgot our history, and for our church that means remembering that once this church was a church full of religious refugees.

In some ways that was true of many early New Englanders. They disagreed with the Church of England. Some, like the Pilgrims, were separatists who wanted complete freedom from that church. Others, like the Puritans, true to their names just wanted to “purify” the church from practices they didn’t agree with. That didn’t go over well, so some came across the ocean to Massachusetts, a place where they could more freely practice their faith.

But even in Massachusetts, even in a community of spiritual refugees, there was a right way and a wrong way to believe. And one man, John Wheelwright, ended up on the wrong side of things. He was a Puritan minister, like all the others, but instead of always preaching about the judgement of God, Wheelwright was more inclined to preach about God’s grace. 

That made him some enemies. They thought he was preaching heresy. And so, eventually, the other ministers and the authorities in Massachusetts had had enough. They banished him from the colony, and they sent him out to the absolute worst place they could think of: New Hampshire. 

So, that’s how this church got here. A minister talked so much about grace that he and his followers were forced to move here. Last year I said this about Wheelwright, but it still holds true: “You know that dour looking Puritan in the portrait down in the vestry? He was the fun one.” 

So, that’s how we got here. And 380 years later, despite everything that has happened in our world, and in a country that didn’t even exist yet, and in the walls of this church, we are still here. We are a very old church. But, we are also a very new one. We are new, because you and I are here now, and now it’s our turn to write the history of this place, this church that has been handed down to us by people who dared to testify to God’s love and grace. And this place that we are only temporary caretakers of, that we will one day hand on to others. 

And so, how do we be the church together? How do we remain of “one heart and soul” and work to testify by our words and deeds to God’s love and grace. As I wrap up today, I want to leave you with four ways I propose that we do that.

First, we make church a priority. We come on Sundays, and we worship together. We put it on our schedule, and we give our spiritual lives enough importance that we show up for this the way we would show up for anything else that’s important in our lives. And while we’re here, we get to know each other. We stay and have a cup of coffee. We talk to someone new. We become a part of this place.

That leads us to the second task: we invest in our community. I never want anyone to feel like there are things they have to do at church, but the reality is that there is a lot that we do as a church, and we all have to chip in a little to get it done. And so, we serve on committees. We teach Sunday school. We usher, or serve in the nursery, or greet people at the door. We give financially to the ministries of this church. We make a commitment of our time, talents, and treasure to this place because we believe it matters.

Third, we keep growing. Our spiritual learning does not stop when we are confirmed. We have to keep growing in our faith. And so, we are called to study Scripture, to pray regularly, to think about our faith in new ways, and to stay curious about what we believe and what it means to the world.

And, finally, we take our faith beyond our doors when we leave on Sundays. We serve on a church ministry, like Seacoast Family Promise or cooking dinner for the Salvation Army shelter, for instance. Or, we take our faith into our daily lives, advocating for change in our communities, standing up for those who have no voice. Or we take it into our homes and offices, treating people the way Christ calls us to treat them, living our lives as people of grace and faith. 

In other words, through all we do, we become one heart and one soul, with one another, and with Christ. Make church a priority, invest in church, grow spiritually, and take your faith with you all week long. I’ll be talking about these in the coming months, but today I ask you to reflect on these things. Because the ones who came before us did them, we’ve been here 380 years. Now, I don’t know what the world will be like in 380 years from today, but I do know that this place is good, and I do hope the Congregational Church in Exeter is a part of it. 

Something is Coming: Sermon for December 3, 2017

The past few days have been full of seasonal celebrations in Exeter. We had our Christmas open house on Thursday night, which is always one of my favorite nights of the year. The live Nativity is going on out front, the carols are ringing inside, the crowds are streaming through the doors to look at the gingerbread houses, and everything in the church is in a sort of joyful chaos.

Last night we also had the town holiday parade. We walked down to the corner by the bank at around 5, and we staked out a spot. The parade doesn’t even step off from way up on Portsmouth Avenue until 5:30, so we were very early, but the crowd was already swarming. So we stood there, bundled up in our jackets, looking down Water Street, and watching and waiting.

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The parade route, lit up for the season. 

Every year we do this, and every year around 5:45 or so, we start to hear that the parade is almost here. They’ve almost made it to the other end of Water Street. And then, maybe ten minutes later, way down at the turn, we start to see the signs. The blue lights from the police car start to reflect on the buildings. Maybe we can start to hear the band play just a little. And finally, they turn onto Water Street, and it’s there. The waiting is over…the joyful parade is marching into town.

I love Christmases here in Exeter. I love how we celebrate. I went home feeling the joy of Christmas last night. But this morning, here we are in church. And this morning, we are contrasting all that Christmas joy and anticipation with today’s Scripture reading. And let’s be real…today’s Scripture reading is a doozy. Let me read you one of the lines again:
“the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken”
So, if you are looking for a good line for your Christmas cards this year, there you go.

The things is, every year on this Sunday, we read a Scripture lesson with a message like this. Today is the first Sunday in Advent, the first day of a brand new church liturgical year. Every year on this day we start the cycle of stories once again, with these four Advent Sundays where we watch and wait for the birth of Jesus Christ.

This name of this season, Advent, literally means “coming” in Latin. Something is coming, just as surely as that parade was coming last night, something that we cannot yet see, but that will not be stopped. Something that is about to command our full attention.

If Scripture is to be believed, it sounds a bit scary. Everything is about to be shaken up. The sun will stop shining, the moon will go dark, and stars will fall. Even the heaven will tremble. This isn’t the kind of seasonal merry-making we are used to this time of year.

And yet, something is indeed coming. Something that is going to change everything.

You and I know how this story plays out. The “something” that is coming is nothing less that Jesus Christ. Advent is the story of waiting and watching for Christ’s birth. During these four weeks we retell the story of what happened just before then. We talk about John the Baptist, and of his mother Mary, and of a trip to Bethlehem, And on Christmas Eve we gather here, and we talk about his birth, and about how it changed the world.

It’s worth repeating the story each year just for the fact of remembering. But it’s important to remember that this isn’t just about recreating a historical event. It’s not that Jesus was coming and now he’s here. It’s that Christ did come into this world, and that Christ continues to come into this world, time and again, through our own hearts and our own hands. Advent has sometimes been a season of the “already, and not yet”. Christ is already here…and yet in so many ways, Christ is not yet here…not fully anyway.

If you don’t believe that, look at our world. We are living in a time when so much is at stake. This week North Korea launched a missile further than ever before, and the saber rattling between our two countries grew louder. Meanwhile, major decisions are being made in Congress that will impact generations. And across the country, years of silence are giving way to a chorus of “me toos” as people tell their own stories of sexual harassment and assault.

We are standing on the edge of a new day, one that could either be very good, or very bad. We can enter a more enlightened time, when justice and peace and respect for others prevails. Or, we can enter an age where war, and poverty, and inequality regain their footing.

In other words, we are living in a time that was a lot like the one in which Jesus was born. And just like the people back then, we are looking for hope. We are watching, and waiting, and straining to see signs of what is to come.

Jesus tells his disciples “keep awake”. He tells them they do not know the hour in which something new is coming, something that will topple the order we know and usher in a new era, and so they must stand watch. They must be ready.

All these centuries later, we retell the story of Jesus’ birth using his own words: keep awake. Watch and wait. Something is coming. The theme of the first Sunday of Advent is traditionally “hope”. It’s about the hope that we have that something is indeed coming, and that this something is good.

The Christian church has traditionally believed that Jesus was more than just a really good guy. We believe that Jesus was God in human form. We sometimes call Jesus “Emmanuel” which literally means “God with us”. And so when we sing on this first Sunday of Advent “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” we literally are saying “o come, o come, God…and be with us”.

O come, o come, Emmanuel…come into this world that teeters on the brink, and push us into something better. O come, o come, Emmanuel, and bring us hope.

I believe that hope is coming, just as surely as I believed the parade was coming last night. I believe in that hope not because I have seen the fire trucks and floats of hope come down Water Street yet, and not because I’ve heard the band at full volume. I believe because, when I use all my senses, I can observe the signs that it is drawing near.

They were there on Thursday night, when the cookies that were made and donated by so many of you brought in hundreds of dollars for hurricane relief in Puerto Rico. And they were there yesterday afternoon, when Pastoral Counseling Services began setting up their new offices upstairs in the parsonage, using our space to provide some healing to those in our town who need it. And they were even there yesterday, at Wes Burwell’s funeral, when we gave thanks for the life of a man who was good, and kind, and brave enough to do the right things.

Sam Cooke wrote a song during the Civil Rights era when the signs of hope were beginning to be visible. Unfortunately, that also meant that the backlash against that hope was starting to come too. One night in late 1963, Cooke showed up at a hotel in Louisiana where he had made reservations. When he got to the front desk, the man there saw him and said that suddenly there were no vacancies. He was turned away.

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Sam Cooke, photo from Billboard Magazine

He knew why, and he was angry. And so he went away, and he began to write a song about how he felt, but also about how he hoped. It was called A Change is Gonna Come. He ends the song with these lyrics:

There been times when I thought I couldn’t last for long/
But now I think I’m able to carry on
It’s been a long time coming
/But I know a change is gonna come, oh yes it will.

A change is gonna come. Just as surely as that parade was coming last night. But unlike most parades, you don’t just wait passively for this one, watching it pass you by. This is the kind that you dare to join. It’s the kind that you get in front of, before it even makes it to you. It’s the kind that is driven by hope, and that grows stronger with every soul that enters it.

A change is gonna come, and that change is named “Emmanuel”. As the parade rounds the corner, now is your chance. Will you stand to the side? Or will your hope make you jump in?

Always Being Reformed: Sermon for October 29, 2017

This is the final sermon in a four week series on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. To start at the beginning, please click here.

Over the past month we have been on a journey through the landscape of the Protestant Reformation in preparation for this Tuesday, All Hallow’s Eve. That day marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther posting his 95 Theses on the door of the Wittenberg Church.

Portrait_of_Martin_Luther_as_an_Augustinian_MonkFor two weeks we talked about Luther, first as a young man, and then as a man who changed the course of Christianity and really the entire world. Then last week we talked about John Calvin, another key reformer. And I told you that this week I was going to talk a little about what all this meant to our own church, and our own faith tradition.

And in order to do that, I first want to turn to the Scripture we read today from the Gospel of Matthew. This is a part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, where he teaches about the heart of our faith.

Jesus talks here about “salt and light”. These were two very valuable things in Jesus day. Salt was useful for many things, not just cooking, and it was not inexpensive. And light, in these pre-electric days, was coveted too. And Jesus talked about how we are called to be the salt of the earth, and the light of the world. We are called to be valuable and useful.

You’ve heard a lot about being the light in this church. You know my affection for the song, “This Little Light of Mine”. I’ve told you before that even though we might think of it as a kids’ song, it’s really a profound testament to what it means to lead a Christian life. And it’s this passage in particular that spells out why:

Jesus says, “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

In other words, “Hide it under a bushel? No! I’m going to let it shine.” It was this very passage that spoke to some of the people responsible for our church being here.

Last week we left off with Calvin and how he started what we now called the Reformed tradition. And like the tradition that descended more closely from Luther, the Reformed tradition expanded too. Soon Reformed churches had spread to the Netherlands, some parts of Germany, and Scotland. Those Scottish Reformed folks would later call themselves “Presbyterians”, and would bring the Presbyterian Church to this country, particularly in the colonies south of New England.

But it was what was happening in England that most shaped us. England was in the midst of its own Protestant Reformation. King Henry VIII had broken away from the Pope’s authority in the 1530’s and the Church of England, or the Anglican Church, had become the official church. That may make it sound like England was a good place for Protestants, but that was only true if you were Henry’s kind of Protestant.

That was a problem for a group of Christians who had been influenced by Calvin’s ideas. They looked at the Anglican Church and they felt like Henry hadn’t gone far enough. They tried to change the church, but they met resistance and were persecuted. Some wanted to “purify” the church. They would later be called Puritans. Others believed the church was beyond repair. They were called Separatists, and they ended up having to flee from England to the Netherlands where they were building a church in exile.

MayflowerHarborYou might know the story that’s coming now. In the Netherlands some of Separatists decided to come to the New World, partially in order to find a place they could worship freely. Before their ship left their pastor, a man named John Robinson, preached a sermon to them. And in it he talked about Luther and Calvin and what we had learned about church from the Reformation.

And then he said these words, “God hath yet more light and truth to break forth from (God’s) word.” More light. The kind of light we cannot hide under a basket. These were the words that rang in the Pilgrims’ ears as they set off on a journey that would end up in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

Likewise, some Puritans who had stayed in England set off for this land too. Settling in Boston and on the north shore, they heard similar words from John Winthrop right before they landed. He said that the “eyes of the world” were upon them and, using Jesus words, that they would build here, “a city on the hill” that would be an example for the world. In many ways Boston became that city to them. It was meant to be a shining example to the world of the faith they embraced.

So, this sounds great, right? Forward-thinking, positive. Lots of light and understanding? Well, yes and no. Certainly it was more progressive than many places but. as was true in every other place where one faith reigned supreme, Massachusetts was a hard place for those who disagreed with what the people in charge said. And one of the people who kept running afoul of the more well-known ministers in the Boston area was a man named John Wheelwright.

You know Wheelwright because he was the founder of our church. His portrait is downstairs in the vestry. And like Calvin and Luther, Wheelwright really believed in the grace of God. He believed in it so much that the folks in Massachusetts thought it was a little too much. And when he called some of the other Puritan ministers out, they were done with him. They banished him to the frontiers of the most terrible place they could think of then: New Hampshire.

Wheelwright.John.AmAntiquarianSocSo that’s how our church got here. It was 1638. Only 18 years after the Pilgrims had landed at Plymouth. Only 74 years since John Calvin had died. Only 121 years after Luther posted his big ideas to the door of a church. In other words, only a couple of generations into the Reformation. This church is 379 years old. That means that we’ve been around for a lot of the 500 years of the Reformation.

And that also means that we know a lot about what it means to reform. I’m not going to go deeper into the church history here. I preached a sermon on that last April for our birthday, and there are a lot of resources available if you want to read more. But I will say that we have never been a church that was not closely tied to the Reformation and to reformation itself. It’s in our very DNA.

There’s a phrase that Reformed churches use quite a bit: “The church Reformed, and always being reformed, by the Word of God.” More simply, “Reformed and always reforming.” The church is always changing. This isn’t change for change sake, but rather purposeful change, change that comes because we are following God into what is next.

To use a UCC catchphrase, “God is still speaking…” That means that we are called to listen, to act, and something to change.

That change is sometimes not easy. John Wheelwright knew that. So did our ancestors in this congregation who decided to support American independence, to work for the abolition of slavery, and to become Open and Affirming. The surest way to make others unhappy with you is to seek to change what needs to be changed. But they did it anyway, because, like Luther, they believed that they could “do no other”.

And so that’s the challenge that we now take up. If the church is Reformed and always being reformed, where is God calling us now? What are we being asked to reform, or to re-form? How will we grow and change for the next 500 years?

The Refomation began 500 years ago, but it has never really ended. The spirit of reformation, the Holy Spirit that guided Luther and Calvin, also guided the Pilgrims and John Wheelwright. And it has guided this church for generations too. And now it guides you and me as well.

And so long as we are following that Holy Spirit into the future God is already preparing for us, we will be on the right path. God is reforming God’s church, and that means God is again and again re-forming us for the work that is left to do.

IMG_6541What remains on this anniversary is the challenge that Jesus issued so many years ago on that hillside. We may not be a city on a hill, but we are a church on the hill, and we have a lot of light in this place. We must now take the light that shines brightly around us, and share it with the world.

It’s time to move aside the bushel basket, or anything else that would dim our light, and instead share the light with the world. No longer can we keep hidden what is meant to be shared. Because the reformation continues, and we are called to be the light. It’s time to take our places in the reformation, and it’s time to let it shine.

Our Story: Sermon for the 379th Anniversary of the Congregational Church in Exeter, April 2, 2017

An audio recording of this sermon is available here.

When you’re telling a story, there are two ways to do it. One is that you can focus on a very short period of time, like a year, or even a week. Those can be great stories. James Joyce’s Ulysses might just be the best work of Twentieth Century fiction and that takes place entirely in one day.

But on the other end of the spectrum, there are the stories that take not just years, but generations, and centuries, to tell. We read from a book of those stories every Sunday. The Bible spans centuries, and we can never forget that some of the central characters were separated by long spans of time. From Moses to Paul, for instance, was probably about 1300 years.

So that’s a really long story. And near the end of the story told in the Bible, there’s the start of a new story. The passage from the book of Acts that JD read this morning is about how the Christian faith started spreading and growing, and how Christ’s disciples and new converts to the faith began to form into a community.

The passage tells us that the believers “devoted themselves” to the teachings, and to praying, giving to others, sharing fellowship, eating together, praising God, and growing in number. In other words, they became the church.

That’s the larger story that we are a part of today. Because nearly 2000 years ago the first Christians learned that community mattered, we know to gather in this community, and to live out our faith with one another. This is the story of the church in every age and in every place.

But every church that has ever been formed, every community that has ever gathered around the story of Christ, has its own story too. And it’s the story of this community, and what God has done in it, that I want to talk about a little today.

exeter church logo triple vertical-1A few years ago a pastor friend down in Florida was talking about old churches. He was saying to a group of New England pastors, “You know, they’re really old…they’ve been around since the 1800’s!”

There was a little suppressed laughter and he was like, “wait…I forgot…how old are your churches?”

And then the roll call started. Late 1700’s. Early 1700’s. Late 1600’s. And I very humbly said, “Oh, you know, 1638.”

People are always surprised to hear just how old we are. We’re not the oldest church in continuous existence in New England. The first comes from 1620. But we are close. 379 years ago tomorrow, our church, and by extension the entire town of Exeter, was founded.

It’s worth noting that this story does not start joyfully. The people who came here to Exeter were in a real sense religious refugees. The Rev. John Wheelwright had been kicked out of Massachusetts for the heresy of being too focused on the love and grace of God.

So, that dour old Puritan in the painting down in the vestry? He was the fun one.

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Rev. John Wheelwright

Around the same time Wheelwright’s sister-in-law, a woman named Ann Hutchinson, was also kicked out. So, Hutchinson went south to what is now Rhode Island and Wheelwright and his band of followers came here to a place no one back then wanted to go: New Hampshire.

They settled on the banks of the Squamscott and they started to build a new community. And back in Puritan times, if you wanted to have a town, you had to have a church. There was no separation of church and state back then. They were essentially one and the same.

That’s the start of our story. A few years later this area came under Massachusetts’ control, and Wheelwright, still persona-non-grata, had to move on. But the church stayed. And even though it had some rocky years at first, it took root. And so did the town. And because of that, 379 years later we are still here.

Think of those 379 years. Think of everything that has happened in that time. This parish predates American independence by 138 years. A signer of the Declaration of Independence was a part of this very church.

Later in 1781 John Phillips and other church members took seriously the need for education and founded what is now Phillips Exeter Academy. And in the next century this church took a stand against slavery, and committed itself to abolition.

In the 20th century this church sent young people off to World War I and World War II. Later it sent its pastor off to march with Dr. King at Selma. It watched the Cold War come and go, and society rapidly change. And all the while, it endured, here at the heart of Exeter. And the story went on.

But that is only part of the story. Because this church has survived a lot of change inside its doors too. First, there’s the physical change. For instance, did you know that we are in the “new building”? This is actually the fifth church building, built recently, in 1798.

This church has also seen its fair share of changes involving clergy, and their role. When this building was first built, there was no second floor sanctuary. Instead, you came in the front doors and sat in pews in what is now the vestry. But the pastor would stand about where I am now. And he, always a he, would look down on his congregation, and preach to them for hours.

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The church in the later 1800’s.

Sometime in the 1800’s things changed and the sanctuary was moved upstairs, and the pastor rightfully was brought to the same level as the people, both physically and symbolically. (The sermons became a lot shorter too.)

In all this church, excluding interims, has had 38 senior pastors. Each has had their own style, and each has influenced the direction of the church. And no matter whether they were beloved or their tenures were rocky, they were not the church. And when they left, the story went on.

There have been challenges too. Like the fact that or a large part of our history this church was supported by the taxes people paid to the town. We were the only church, and you had to belong, so everyone was taxed and that’s how the pastor got paid and the building stayed open.

But in the 1800’s, when there were more faiths in town, that ended. And the church was absolutely panicked about it. They thought for sure that this would be the end. But instead, people dug deep, and gave. And in the end they gave more willingly in gifts than they had ever given grudgingly in taxes. And the story went on.

There was also the time this church split it two. In 1748, in the heart of the Great Awakening, theological differences were so great that this church split into First Parish, which was more orthodox and remained here, and second parish, which was just down the street by the Academy.

They remained separate for 170 years, not rejoining one another until 1918 or, as I like to think of it, until everyone who remembered why they were fighting was dead.

That’s one reason that we have our name. Once the churches rejoined, we became one. And so was no longer First Congregational Church of Exeter, or Second Church, but only The Congregational Church in Exeter. And the story went on.

Later we added the initials UCC, for United Church of Christ. The Congregational Churches merged with another denomination in 1957 to form the UCC. But there was plenty of debate. New England Congregationalists have a healthy suspicion of hierarchy, and cherish independence. Still, we joined, and became connected with another larger story.

1473964586467In recent years, this church has been called to take other stands as well. Like in 1996 when the question of whether we should become an Open and Affirming congregation, one which welcomed people of all sexual orientations or gender identities, came before the church. You have to remember that this was truly a different time. The decision to become ONA led to some leaving the church. And yet, sometimes you have to move forward and do the next right thing, even if not everyone is onboard. Because that’s the work of faith. And even then, the story went on.

And so, this morning we sit here in this place, and we remember that the story did not begin with us. We are here because generations of faithful people tried their best to be God’s church here in Exeter. We are here because a cast of characters we will never know wrote a story that was rich enough to last centuries.

But hopefully we are also here because we want to be a part of the story. We are here because in some small way we are hoping to write our own sentences and paragraphs into the story of this church.

You and I get to write this chapter in the story of the Congregational Church in Exeter. And, God willing, long after we are gone, others will be writing this story too. Because this isn’t just our story. It’s the story of John Wheelwright, and it’s the story of John Phillips. But it’s also the story of unnamed women who kept the doors open. It’s the story of children who were raised in this church, and in the faith. Children whose names we will never know, and children who grew up to be men like Harry Thayer.

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Singing “Happy Birthday Dear Church” before cutting the birthday cake.

And it’s the story of generations left to come. My hope is that generations from now another pastor will be standing at the pulpit of this church and preaching about this church’s birthday. Neither they nor the people they serve will probably know our names. But they will know us. They will know us by our works, and they will know us by the story that, with the help of God, we have written for them. The one that they will then take their turn writing.

I pray that the story we leave to them is one worth reading, and one worth telling. And I pray that what we do today will make it possible for them to truly write a masterpiece. We are so very fortunate to be a part of the story of the Congregational Church in Exeter, because long after we are gone, the story will go on.

And so, Happy Birthday, Congregational Church in Exeter. And may God bless us with many more.

The People of the City on a Hill: Sermon for October 9, 2016

Note: this is the second in a three part sermon series on “Prayerful Citizenship”. To read the first sermon, please click here: https://emilycheath.com/2016/10/02/when-all-is-not-well-where-you-live-sermon-for-october-2-2016/

In 1630, John Winthrop stood aboard the ship Arbella and addressed the people of the ships that would become known as the Winthrop Fleet. They were Puritans, arriving ten years after the Pilgrims of the Plymouth Colony, to form the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Before they went ashore, Winthrop preached a sermon to them about what they were about to do. He told them that the new community they would form would be a like a City on a Hill, one that would be looked at by the whole world. He saidpablo that because of that they needed to be careful that the whole experiment not end in what he called a “shipwreck”.

Today we would say “train wreck”, but they didn’t have trains back then, but you get the idea. In other words, “don’t mess this up because everyone is looking at us”.

No pressure.

Nearly 400 years later Americans talk about how we are called to be a shining city on the hill, or an example of what a good society can look like. And 400 years is a long time for an idea to live. But it’s not even a quarter as long as the idea of the “City on a Hill” has been around. For that you have to go all the way back to Jesus Christ himself.

And so, as we begin this second week in our sermon series on “Faithful Citizenship”, that’s where we are heading. Jesus was giving what became known as his Sermon on the Mount, and he had just finished teaching the Beatitudes: Blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are you who are persecuted, and so on.

He immediately tells the people, “you are the salt of the earth”. Salt was rare and highly valued in those days, so this was high praise. Then he tells them, “you are the light of the world and a city built on a hill cannot be hidden”. Just like that old song we sing sometimes, “this little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine”, he tells them that they cannot but a basket over their light and hide it. They have to let their light shine, not so that they would be praised, but so God will be praised.

This is the passage that John Winthrop was talking about when he preached that sermon. They were about to go ashore, not so far from here, and build a city that the whole world would be watching. And so, using Jesus words, he told them “don’t hide your light”; make sure that this place we are going to build together will shine so brightly that people can’t help but see it.

All these centuries later, in an era of global 24 hour news and the internet, the country that grew from that City on a Hill cannot help but be noticed. We live in one of only a handful of countries that is consistently on the global radar, perhaps more than any other. We are watched, and analyzed, and both loved and hated. And at our best, we are a country that shines our light for good. We are a place of hope and freedom. One that still draws immigrants to our shores because of those promises.

But that doesn’t mean that our light is always shining. This country has had times when that light has been obscured by the baskets that we ourselves have put over it. Baskets like hatred, inequality, violence, systemic poverty, and more. In our worst moments, we are a shining example of what not to do. That’s what we talked about last week, when we admitted that sometimes not all is well where we live. We have to tell the truth about that before anything can change.

The good news, though, is that by telling that truth, we have a chance to kick over the baskets that hide the light, to change the story, and to make this City on the Hill shine as it never has before.

But that starts with us. Because that City on the Hill must be filled with People on the Hill. And the city will only be as good as the people who build it. And so, like Jesus said, we need to become like the salt of the earth. And for those of us who are Christians, that means we need to draw upon our best values, the ones given to us by our faith, and use those things to inform the way we will be citizens in our country.

John Winthrop himself had an idea of where to look for those values. In his sermon that day he quoted an Old Testament prophet, Micah, whose words we read before the sermon. Speaking to a city in distress, one that had lost its way and was trying to get back on track, Micah asked rhetorically, “What does God require of you?” And the answer wasn’t burnt offerings or sacrifices or anything like that. Instead if was just these three things: do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.

csp_zhgwiaepitiDo justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly. It almost sounds too simple. But it is harder than it looks.

Because what would it look like if we all demanded those three things of ourselves in our daily lives? How would we do justice? Would we seek to be more fair to the people we deal with in our businesses? Would we look at people who weren’t treated as equals and advocate for them? Would we speak up when we hear someone use words that demean others?

And what about kindness? This same word is sometimes also translated as “mercy”, so would we be kind and merciful? Would we hold the door open? Would we let that person merge in traffic? Or, more seriously, would we stop withholding words that would heal? Would we look at those who suffer, and choose mercy over words of blame?

And what about humility? By this I mean real humility, which is understanding that none of us is any more or less beloved by God’s than others. If we walked through the world with that kind of humility, how would it change us? Would we be less judgmental of differences? Would we be more apt to value character over celebrity? Would we be more aware about what was good for all, and not just good for us?

Micah gave us a prescription for what ails us. He told us clearly how to get better. But as much as those three things sound as simple as an episode of Mr. Rogers, that is hard medicine. Justice, kindness, and humility are wonderful things…and they all take work. Every day we have to recommit to them. And every day we have to use them to kick aside the baskets that cover our light.

But more than that, if we want to be a City on the Hill, it is not enough that we ourselves commit to these things. We must also demand them from our leaders. “Christian values” is a phrase that gets tossed around a lot in election years. It often comes to mean a very specific set of beliefs and priorities, one with which only some Christians agree. But what would our national political stage look like if we took this bedrock of our faith, these real Christian values, and demanded them of our leaders? What would happen if we refused anything less than real justice, real kindness, and real humility?

That may sound naive, especially in a year like this, but if enough of us demanded it, things would start to change. And so would our leaders.

I’ll close with this. I’ve talked a lot about John Winthrop in this sermon. He would go on to be the Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and a very powerful man. He would also become one who didn’t always live up to Micah’s call to justice, kindness, and humility. Because of that, real people’s lives were affected for the worse.

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Rev. John Wheelwright, who was not beloved by John Winthrop

One of those people was a Rev. John Wheelwright. You may have heard of him, because in 1638 he founded our church and the town of Exeter. He had crossed Governor Winthrop, and he was banished from Massachusetts into what was then the frontier of New Hampshire. (His sister in law, Ann Hutchinson, was banished to what would become Rhode Island, by the way.) We’re here today, in a real way, because John Winthrop got it wrong.

A lot of our leaders get it wrong sometimes. And in the face of that, it is easy to feel powerless. I’m sure that John Wheelwright did. But we are not powerless. We have the ability to continue to build up our City on the Hill, and to transform it for good. We have the ability to become the servant leaders who make sure that light shines, even when others would obscure it. To be a Christian and a citizen is to never be without hope, and to never be without responsibility.

When I think of the man who founded this church, and this town, I remember that. 378 years later, I hope when people look at us as a church and as a town they see light. And I hope that we, as Christians and as citizens, will only do the things that would help that light to shine, here in our city, and far beyond. Amen?

When All is Not Well Where You Live: Sermon for October 2, 2016

The following is the first in a three part sermon series on Faithful Citizenship.

Lamentations 1:1-6
1:1 How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations! She that was a princess among the provinces has become a vassal.

1:2 She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks; among all her lovers she has no one to comfort her; all her friends have dealt treacherously with her, they have become her enemies.

1:3 Judah has gone into exile with suffering and hard servitude; she lives now among the nations, and finds no resting place; her pursuers have all overtaken her in the midst of her distress.

1:4 The roads to Zion mourn, for no one comes to the festivals; all her gates are desolate, her priests groan; her young girls grieve, and her lot is bitter.

1:5 Her foes have become the masters, her enemies prosper, because the LORD has made her suffer for the multitude of her transgressions; her children have gone away, captives before the foe.

1:6 From daughter Zion has departed all her majesty. Her princes have become like stags that find no pasture; they fled without strength before the pursuer.

I grew up in a rather patriotic family. Most of my family members had either served longterm in the military or government, or married someone who did. And so my parents flew an American flag for all the federal holidays, they taught us about the patriotic symbols of this country, and when we were old enough they took us to Washington, where my dad grew up, to see Congress, the Museum of American History, and all the monuments.

The idea of America was important to my parents. And they always taught that if you did nothing to make it better, you weren’t allowed to complain. And they were especially adamant about voting. The way they saw it, if you didn’t vote, you shouldn’t be allowed to say a word about anything political issue whatsoever.

I’ve been thinking about their example this fall because, as you cannot have helped noticing, we are in the midst of election season. And this year it is particularly nasty. There’s always a sense of vitriol that comes out in particular election years, but in this one in particular there is an exceptional bitterness.

It’s in this atmosphere that today we start a new sermon series on what it means to be a faithful citizen. And I want to assure you upfront that this is not about how you should vote. It is never the place of churches to endorse candidates or parties, and I’m not about to start now. But when I asked about sermon series for this fall, this was the one that generated the most interest, and I don’t think that’s so surprising given what’s happening around us.

And so, over the next three weeks I want to talk about what it means for a Christian to be a good citizen. This week I’m going to be talking about living in a divided country. Next week I’m going to talk about how to make it better. And the last week I’ll talk about what it means to give your ultimate allegiance not to the state, but to God.

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Today we begin by reading this text from the book of Lamentations. As the name implies, this is a book of laments, full of sad poems. What happened was that Jerusalem, the promised land, the place where everything was supposed to be great, had been devastated. The city had been ransacked by King Nebuchadnezzar, the Temple, the holiest place in town, had been destroyed, and most of the people had been taken from the city to Babylon to live in exile.

The writer says that the city is like a lonely widow who “weeps bitterly in the night” and “has no one to comfort her”.

And as I was reading the text this week, I thought about how this was written about Jerusalem, but how for many in our country today, the word “exile” might just describe how they feel about things. Because all is not well in our country. There is pain and anger and hopelessness on every side. And it doesn’t matter how you phrase that disillusionment, at the bottom line all of it means that you believe this country is in some way broken.

And if you believe we are broken, then you also believe that we are somehow in exile. This may not be a literal exile, the way that the people of Jerusalem were physically taken from their land and moved to another one. But this can be exile nonetheless. Because when you believe that your country should be one thing, but it is another, then you are talking about an exile from the place where you are meant to live.

The only thing is, unlike Jerusalem, that perfect place has never existed. At least not yet. Or, at least not for all of us.

I believe America is a good country. But I know that it is an imperfect one too, and one in which justice and equality are still evolving. I knew that four years ago when I was just married and I was completing my taxes for the year. I remember looking at my wedding ring, but then having to check “single” on my federal income tax return because my marriage was not yet recognized by the government. I remember feeling confused by this country that my family had taught me to love, the same one whose flag was sewn onto the sleeve of my firefighter’s uniform. It didn’t feel right. It felt like exile.

But that’s minor compared to other exiles. When I was in Atlanta last week I went to two national historic sites. One was the Kennesaw Mountain Battlefield, and the other the Martin Luther King, Jr. historic site. And in the first place I thought about this country that had been torn in half, and the two sides who were then literally killing one another. And in the second place I thought about how over 100 years later, that war was in real ways still being fought. And how it’s still being fought today.

I thought about how I can love my Jerusalem, because I’ve made it to the city. But there are others who never made it in their lifetimes.

And then I thought about lament. That is what this text is about, after all. It’s about speaking words of sadness and pain. It’s about telling the truth about division and disunity. It’s about being honest, and saying that the Jerusalem you know is broken.

That’s not unpatriotic. That’s faithful. That’s faithful to the fact that the Jerusalem you know is not the city it could be yet. And that’s faithful to God’s will that all of God’s children would find a home and a welcome in that city.

But before that happens, we have to tell the truth.

In a real way, that’s the job of Christians as citizens. We have to look around, see what is broken and who is excluded, and tell the truth about it. We have to learn to use our voices, and yes our votes, to advocate for the healing of a place that is in exile from its best ideas. And we have to use our prayers, and our hearts and hands, in order to do the work of building and rebuilding our own Jerusalem.

The first role of the Christian is to tell the truth about what is broken in order to know how to fix it. And the second is to be invested in our neighborhoods, and country, and world enough that we can join in that work. Not every four years, but every year, and every day. There is no such thing as a Christian who lives in exile from their community. A Christian must be planted in the place where they live, and must work for the good of all of their neighbors, everywhere. That’s Christ’s clear commission to us when he tells us to love our neighbors. We’ll be talking a little more about that next week.

But as I wrap up, I want to return to that story about my parents from the beginning, and how they talked about being good citizens. From the way I described them, you might think that they shared a lot of political opinions, too. But the reality is that if you ever saw their ballots, you’d find that they generally aren’t voting the same way. But somehow, for 56 years now, they’ve made it work.

In a time when this Jerusalem where we live is so divided, it’s small examples like that that give me hope. We don’t all have to agree in order to want better for our country.

We began worship this morning by reading the words of the Gettysburg Address by Abraham Lincoln. This country, this Jerusalem, was never more exiled from itself than in the days of the Civil War. This very church is said by some to have been the site of the first meeting of the Republican Party, which was first organized to work for the abolition of slavery. Meanwhile, down South families like mine sent sons off to war dressed in gray.

150 years later, in this sanctuary sit people with Rs on their voter registration cards, and people with Ds. And plenty of Is too. There are descendants of Union soldiers here, and descendants of Confederates. And together we see clearly the evil of slavery for what it was. That would be pretty remarkable to the people who sat in these pews 150 years ago.

But at the time, it was that small group who gathered here as people of faith, and decided the time had come to push the issue of abolition, that saw clearly when others couldn’t. It should never be lost on us that they were acting in the public arena because their faith compelled them to not be silent. And thank God they were not.

150 years from now, when the people sitting in the pews look back, will they remember this time in our history, and will they ask “What did the people in these pews back then do?” For the sake of our memories, but more importantly, for the sake of our own Jerusalem, I pray that God compels us all to do the right thing. Amen?

The Gifts of Exiles: Stewardship Sermon for 2015

Jeremiah 29

4 Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

10 For thus says the Lord: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. 11 For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.

Once a year, every October, I preach a sermon that feels like the church equivalent of a NPR pledge drive.

If you listen to public radio you probably know what I mean by that. During pledge drives the programs get cut short and instead people ask you to give money so that the station will stay on the air, and in return you get a mug or a tote bag.

It’s no one’s favorite time of the year, and yet, it has to be done. But if enough people give quickly enough, you even get to go back to your regularly scheduled program ahead of time.

I joked that that was how I was going to do my sermon this morning. I’d pass out pledge cards and when we hit our goal I’d stop preaching and you all would get tote bags.

We didn’t go that route. And that’s for the best because what I am talking about is not an interruption from our regularly scheduled program…it is our regularly scheduled program. And that’s because stewardship, the wise and prudent use of what God has given us, is not a distraction from the spiritual life. It is at the heart of the spiritual life.

That’s because stewardship is not about paying the bills or meeting the bottom line on a budget, though, we’d like to do that. It’s about gratitude. And it’s about hope, and investing in that hope.

Last year I told you stewardship was like planting seeds. If you plant generously, you will reap generously. And you all planted generously. We not only met our pledge goal, we surpassed it. And in the past year this church has been able to do new things that have changed lives.

And so here we are again this year, with a new budget and new dreams. And a little while back we received our stewardship materials from the United Church of Christ’s national offices, and the theme for this year sounded fitting: Trust in the promise. It was drawn off of this Scripture passage from Jeremiah: “For surely I know the plans I have for you…to give you a future with hope.”

Sounds good. Who doesn’t want to trust in hope?

But then I read a little of the surrounding passage and I realized that these words come from a less than hopeful time. They’re from a letter sent by the prophet Jeremiah to the Jewish people who had been exiled from their homes, and were living in Babylon. And he’s telling them, you are going to be in exile a long time. Long enough that you need to put down some roots. Build houses. Start families. Love where you’re at.

And, I confess, that changes the passage a little for me. Because it’s no longer “everything is going to be great”. Now it’s “you’re not going home anytime soon”.

I don’t know about you, but it doesn’t exactly inspire me to open my checkbook.

But then I thought about it some more. And I thought about what it means to live in exile, and about how maybe we all know a little something about that.

Because the reality is that I think we’ve all felt that way sometimes. We’ve all felt cast out of our homes, our comfortable places, and into a world that sometimes doesn’t make sense. We’ve been cast out of “the way things used to be” and into a world that is changing more rapidly than perhaps any time in its history. And we’ve been cast into a new place, one where we sometimes long for what we used to know.

And yet, someone is telling us to get used to it. And to plant ourselves in it. And to trust in a promise, a future with hope.

That’s hard to hear when you are an exile. That’s hard to hear when the world is confusing, when you are anxious, or when you don’t know how things will end. And that’s hard to hear when you are being asked to give.

Because, really, if we want to make sure people give, I should be getting up here and saying “everything you love is going to remain exactly the way you like it”. I should be saying, “whatever your favorite thing is about church, give generously and that will never change”. Or, “give today, and you will never feel like an exile again.”

But I’m not. Because I can’t promise that. Because that’s not church.

The reality is that church changes. Every church does. Churches change, or they die. And so we make room for new generations. We invest in their futures. We open their doors wider. And we learn to live in a new time, and a new reality. Even in exile. And because generations of people who have passed through these doors have done that, right here in Exeter, you and I are here today.

And that’s remarkable. Because I want to tell you a secret about those people who built this church: they were exiles too.

I mean that in the metaphorical sense. They were people of changing times who learned to trust in a future that God was building for them. But I also mean that some of them were literally exiles.

Rev. John Wheelwright

Rev. John Wheelwright

The man who founded this church in 1638, the Rev. John Wheelwright, was an exile from, of all places, Massachusetts. (Actually, maybe that resonates.) He had made some enemies in Boston, among the ruling clergy of the time. Why? Because he preached too much about grace. And they ran him out of the colony and here to New Hampshire, to a rugged frontier, where he planted this church and the town of Exeter.

But he is not the only exile in our church family tree. I want to tell you a story about three Scottish young men who found their way to Exeter in the 1650-60’s. They did not come willingly. They had left their homes in Scotland as soldiers, and they had been captured in battle during the English Civil War. And people were so afraid they would rise up again that they sent scores of them off to the new world, where they could never be a threat. Teenagers, sent away from all they knew, never to see it again.

They became indentured servants. And by different routes three of them ended up here in Exeter. They went to work for a man named Nicholas Lissen, who had three daughters. And one by one, they married those daughters. And along the way Lissen, and his three Scottish sons-in-law, John Bean, Henry Magoon, and Alexander Gordon, helped to build this church into what it is today. And even now, if you look around you see those names around this church, on old pew charts and in the cemetery. And you see how three men in exile helped shape us into who we are today, over 300 years later.

Can you imagine that? Can you imagine how they were taken from the family and life they’d always known, sent halfway around the world, and how they still managed to find a future with hope? Can you imagine what it must have taken for them to find the love of God in a new place? And can you imagine how, when they had every right to be afraid and bitter and dejected, they instead became invested, and they instead turned their exile into hope?

We still get calls from the descendants of those three men fairly regularly. People call the church and say, “I’ve traced my family tree back to Exeter, and there was this Scottish prisoner of war there in the 1600’s…do you know anything about them?”

And I say, “yes I do”. I know, for instance, that the Beans went on to found a little company in Maine called LL Bean. But, for me, the best story is about the Gordons. Because one of those men, Alexander Gordon, now has a ninth great-grandchild who a little over a year ago you happened to call as your pastor.

ClergyTartanCrossI didn’t know that when I was called here. I learned about Alexander shortly after. And that’s one of the reasons I wear a tartan stole so often in the pulpit. It’s in honor of a young man who was taken from the life he knew, brought to a place where he trusted in hope, and who built something that endures even still today. It’s in honor of an exile, who trusted in the promise.

If he could invest in this church, then I can too. If he could find a home here, than so can we all. Because we are more than exiles. We are ones to whom a great promise has been given, and we are planting the seeds now that will feed not just us, but our children, and grandchildren, and generations to come. With every commitment, with every pledge, with every act of good stewardship, we are saying that this is our home, and that we trust God has a future of hope for us.

And God does have a future of hope. We have seen God working in our midst in this past year, and I know God will work with us still. I know God has great plans for the Congregational Church in Exeter, and I know that something amazing is happening here.

And so, I ask you to consider the decision you have to make. Consider how you will use some of what God has given you to invest in this hope, and trust in this promise. Consider how you can give to this church, this home of hopeful exiles. Because all of us are working our way towards a home we have never seen before, one in which we live with God and with one another in peace and joy. We are going home together, and we are rejoicing on the way.

And like I did last year, I’m going to tell you a few things I think you should know. First, I give too. Like you I sit down with my family and I figure out what I can give to the church. It’s important to share that because I want you to know that this is not about paying bills or meeting a bottom line, though those things are important. This is about saying “thank you” for this amazing place, and saying I want it to be around long after I am gone.

I also want you to know that I do not know who gives, or who gives what. I have told our church leaders not to tell me. What you give is your spiritual decision, made between you and God. I hope you give as you are able, and I hope you give with generous hearts. In fact, I simply assume that you all do. And if you don’t, that’s okay. But, please know this, there is hardly anything better than giving joyfully to a place you love. Not because you have to, not because we need to meet some bottom line, but because your love of this place, and your hope, compels you.

Finally, I’ll close with this. Last weekend you may remember that I was in Canada, as our denomination joined with the United Church of Canada in full communion. But before we did we had dinner with our Canadian counterparts, and we exchanged lapel pins from our churches.

And I was sitting across from a gentleman from the First Nations. And he gave me not just his lapel pin, but also this four directions pin symbolizing his heritage. And he told me, “We’ve done so much more in this church to address what happened in the past. And now it’s your church too. And it’s your work too.” And he put the pin on my lapel.

That’s what church does. It pins its hopes on Christ, but also on the people of Jesus Christ. And it calls us to do the work together. The hopes of this church have literally been pinned upon you. You are now marked by the promise. It’s your work too. But the good news is that it is joyful work that you are being called to today. And so search your hearts, search your souls, and find your hope. And then, together, may we exiles choose to build our home on this rock. Amen?

To the Guy Flying a Confederate Flag in Exeter, New Hampshire

I saw your truck parked in front of the Rite-Aid, right by the Dunkin Donuts. Two large Confederate flags were attached to the back of it, waving in the wind. The American flag was, incongruously (and in violation of the flag code), in the center. And, I have to confess, I don’t get it.

Part of me wanted to ask obvious questions: You know you are in New Hampshire, right? And, you know New Hampshire was not a part of the Confederacy?

11709431_400316456841007_5791455240479926301_nI ask this because I’m not so sure you do. Here we are in a northern town, a place that gave her sons up to the Union Army and lost them on the battlefields of the Civil War. A place where locals organized early against slavery and led the charge against it across the country. A place where 150 years ago that flag would have been seen as a symbol of treason.

I grew up in the South where I saw plenty of Confederate flags. My college campus had a small Confederate cemetery on it and every Confederate Memorial Day (do you know when that is, by the way?) they’d be decorated with those flags. And I lived in a state where that Confederate emblem was on the flag for far too long.

Some people say it’s heritage. I don’t buy it. I have Confederate soldiers for ancestors, and I’ve never felt the need to honor them by flying that flag.

I also know it wasn’t even the Confederate flag. It was the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia. (My ancestors’ unit, by the way.) And I know that even the Daughters of the Confederacy advocated not using that flag anymore back in the 1920’s. And I also know that it didn’t really make a comeback until the 1950’s when a Supreme Court decision let African-American children go to school with white children.

Do you think that flag has been flying in front of the South Carolina capitol since 1865? It hasn’t. It was put there for one reason only: racist defiance in the face of integration.

I think you believe that the flag brands you as a “rebel” or somehow honors your outlook on life. It doesn’t. It brands you as a racist. You may not think you are one, but flying that flag is a racist act.

I know that right now you are saying, “But I’m not a racist!” “Heritage, not hate!” But this isn’t your heritage. It’s mine. And it is hate. And it is racism. And every time you put that flag on the back of your car, we all go back in time a little. And the past wasn’t so great for many of our neighbors.

The present isn’t so great either, by the way. Because in a time when nine African-American churchgoers were massacred at their church by a man wearing that flag, and in a week when seven black churches have been burned with little media attention, those flags tell everyone that you couldn’t care less about what is happening. Others can suffer, so long as you get to wear your flag. It’s like showing up at a funeral and dancing on the grave.

Is that the kind of man you are? One who doesn’t care who is being hurt, so long as you get to show off your flags on your truck?

You aren’t being a rebel. And you aren’t being courageous. And you won’t be on the right side of history.

But here’s the good news: it doesn’t have to end like that. You can stop flying the Confederate flag. You can honor your ancestors here in the North by learning why they were willing to give their lives to fight against that flag. And you can honor my ancestors down in the South by saying you are willing to learn from their mistakes.

Please. Our town doesn’t need those flags. And, if you look inside and find your better self, you’ll find that neither do you.

A few words about comments:

1. For those asking why I didn’t personally speak to him, I’ve only seen him while he was driving and couldn’t figure out how to get him to stop. My wife was in the car alone when she took this picture. Given the racist, sexist, and homophobic slurs I’ve received in comments (deleted) from people claiming to be his friend, I’m glad she didn’t stop. But I’d welcome him to come talk to me.

2. Post away but use your full, real name (First and last) or else I will delete your comments without reading.

3. My mom’s side is from NH and has been for 13 generations. Dad’s is from the South. So don’t tell me I don’t belong in NH.

4. No one is forcibly taking your flag from you. I am saying consider the message you are sending. A part of me wishes every racist would carry that flag so they’d be easy to identify. But I also hope everyone who really, truly does not want to be racist will decide to stop flying it.

5. Because some of the comments I received used derogatory and bigoted terms, I’m moderating comments now (because disagreement is fine but I refuse to host those words on my page). I’m also away for the weekend with my wife so your comment may take a couple of days to appear.

Thanks! 

Magnify: Sermon for December 21, 2014

Luke 1:46b-55

1:46b “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

1:48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;

1:49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.

1:50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.

1:51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

1:52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;

1:53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

1:54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,

1:55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

 

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When Catholic friends of mine come to visit Protestant churches or worship services, they always notice the differences. Most Protestants don’t take Communion every week. And we don’t stand, sit, and kneel throughout the service. But the thing I have heard more often from my Catholic friends than not is this: Where’s Mary?

My grandmother was a first generation Italian American, and a Catholic. Her name was Maria, though everyone called her Mary. Just about every family in her neighborhood had at least one Maria or Mary in it. And when she named her own kids, three have names derived from “Maria”, including my mother. And even when she and a priest had a bit of a theological disagreement, centered around the fact she married my Protestant grandfather, and she left the church, her devotion to Mary continued.

And so, like my Catholic friends, I often wonder why we in the Protestant tradition don’t lift up Mary’s story more often. Because, as one of you said to me this week, “without her, we wouldn’t be here at Christmas”. Mary remains one of many strong women in the Bible who changes the course of our faith and yet, like some of the other women in the Bible, we don’t tell her story nearly enough.

That’s unfortunate because we, and especially our kids, need to hear stories of Biblical women. But, most importantly, Mary’s story is not just one for girls and women. It is a story for people of all genders to remember, because it is a story of strength, of courage, and of choosing to glorify God.

In today’s reading we hear about how the angel Gabriel came to Mary and gave her the surprise of her life. She was pregnant, and not by the guy to whom she was engaged. She asks the angel, “How did that happen? That’s impossible!” But Gabriel just replies, “nothing is impossible with God.”

Mary goes from there to visit her cousin Elizabeth, a woman who was not supposed to be able to be pregnant, and yet who was about to give birth to someone else we know; John the Baptist. And when Mary enters the house John leaps for joy in Elizabeth’s womb. And when she tells Mary that, Mary responds with what we’ve come to know as the Magnificat: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.”

The word “Magnificat” literally means “my soul magnifies”. And when Mary, a woman who was not wealthy or powerful or likely to be chosen for anything that had to do with royalty, really realizes the importance of what she has been asked to do, those are the first words she says: my soul magnifies the Lord. That’s her first response.

It’s sort of an odd turn of phrase in today’s language, though. When you think of what it means to “magnify” something, what do you picture? I can’t help it but I always go straight to a magnifying glass, like the kind I played around with as a kid. Except I wonder what it means to magnify the Lord. Because as a kid I’d use a magnifying glass to make something that was small look bigger. Hold a magnifying glass over tiny writing and suddenly it is readable. Or look at grains of sand through it, and all of a sudden you could see different colors. The seemingly insignificant became bold.

And that’s wonderful, but God’s problem is not that God is too small. God is immense beyond our wildest imaginations, and we only need to open all our senses up to know that God is all around us. But that’s the issue. Because sometimes, despite how big God is, and how much God surrounds us everyday, we just don’t acknowledge that God is present. Because it is our understanding of God is way too small.

And so, that’s when the magnifying glass comes in handy. Not because God needs to be made bigger, but because our attention to, and understanding of, God does. We are the ones who need the magnification that the glass provides, not God. We need help to refocus, and to see things in their proper light. And it is by looking at people like Mary, and what she did, that we are able to understand more about God, and about God’s love for us.

Mary said “my soul magnifies the Lord”, and that’s really true. Mary becomes a magnifying glass through which our focus is changed, and God becomes clearer to us. By magnifying the Lord, Mary also teaches us what it means to be loved by God, and chosen by God to do surprising and amazing things.

And Mary also teaches us that it’s not enough to just see God more clearly. Because God also requires of us action. Because just as Mary had to be an active participation in the story of Jesus’ birth, we too have to be active participants in helping to bring Christ’s light into this world.

And this reminds me of something else I learned about magnifying glasses as a kid, something that I am perhaps glad our own kids are down in church school right now and so will not hear. And that is, that you can use a magnifying glass to set things on fire.

I learned this as part of some sort of lecture given to kids in some youth program I was in about how to survive if you are ever lost in the woods. I’m not sure why they taught us this, because the likelihood we were ever going to be lost in the woods was much less than the likelihood we’d accidentally set our front lawns on fire, but I digress.

And so the teacher taught us that we should always carry a small magnifying glass if we are hiking so that if we get lost, and need warmth, we can make a fire. You just take a bunch of old, dry leaves, hold a magnifying glass over them, and the sun will hit the magnifying glass, and the reflection will burn so hot that the leaves will smolder and you will have fire.

Now I’m not recommending anyone try that, but I think there’s a greater meaning here. Because each of us, like Mary, can choose to magnify the Lord. Each of us can be the lens through which the world comes to see God in new ways. And each of us can let the light of Christ shine through us bright enough that the places in our world that need light and warmth the most can be set ablaze with Christ’s love.

We can make the choice to magnify God in this way with out lives. But in order to do so, we have to look at ourselves, and see what kind of lens we are. Have we covered ourselves so that the light of God cannot penetrate us? Have we shut our souls so that the warmth of God’s love is never reflected to others?

Or, have we cleared off the lenses of our life, and are we letting God’s light shine through them? Have we chosen to live our lives as magnifiers of God’s love?

The literal meaning of the word that the original Greek text uses, the one we translate as “magnify”, is “extol”, or to “praise” or “glorify”. And I like the idea that by magnifying the Lord we are glorifying God. In our historical tradition one of our catechisms even asks what our purpose in life is, and the answer is “to glorify God and enjoy God completely”.

And so, to me, the question is how do we use the lens of our life to magnify and to glorify God?

As we prepare for Christmas Eve, and as we reject today on “love”, the theme for this last Sunday in Advent, I think that’s what it’s all about. We glorify God by loving God, and loving one another, and loving others. And I think that letting God’s love pour through us unencumbered for all to see is the truest way of glorifying God.

Because you can spend your life talking about God. You can tell people all about God and how wonderful God is. But if you don’t live your life with love, nobody is going to believe you. They’re just hollow words, and the world is not any better for them.

But on the other hand, if you love, in every sense of that word, if you even just try…you glorify God, and your soul magnifies the Lord.

And so, today we lit that fourth candle, the one for love, as a sort of prayer. We ask that God will help us to love more this Christmas. We strive to love God, to love one another, and to love the world just a little better this year.

It’s that love that will bring us to the manger on Wednesday night. And it’s that love that we pray will remain with us all year, as we use our lives to magnify the love of Christ that is breaking into this world, and making it brighter.

May your last days of Advent be a blessing, and may we all prepare ourselves for the task of helping the light that shines in the darkness to burn brighter this Christmas. Amen.

Blessed for a Reason: Sermon for November 16, 2014

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.

I’m a bit of a history buff and so when I first moved to Exeter this summer I bought some books on the history of the town. One book I bought was put out by the historical society and it featured these two or three page snippets of Exeter history. And one story in particular caught my eye.

It was about the end of official tax support for churches, and in particular the loss of town funds to support this church. You see, New Hampshire, like most former colonies, had an “established church”. And in New England that was normally the Congregational Church. And if you lived in Exeter, a portion of your town taxes would go to support this church.

That worked here for the better part of 200 years. But by 1819, there was more than one church in town. This church had split into two parishes, there were now Baptists, and there was a fledgling Universalist church. And in Exeter, as in other places, people who worshipped elsewhere didn’t think it was fair that they should have to pay to support this church.

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That may seem like a no-brainer to us now, but it was quite a scandal at the time. People believed that doing away with public financial support for the church would lead to the destruction of the church, and even the end of morality itself. In the end, though, people decided that only the people who went to a church should support that church. And this church, like Congregational churches across New England, stopped being the official town church.

So what does that have to do with today’s Scripture from Genesis? The one in which God calls Abram, who later gets the name Abraham, out of the home he has always known and to a new place he’s never seen before? God tells Abram “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing…and all peoples on the earth will be blessed through you.”

That line, “blessed to be a blessing” might sound familiar to you right now, and if it does it’s probably because of this. That line is the Bible verse that United Church of Christ parishes have been using this fall for our stewardship campaigns. So you have seen it on the stewardship letter you received back in October, and it’s right there on your pledge cards.

And I think it was a good choice for those of us who are thinking about giving. I think it’s one to remember, and not just at stewardship time. Because, honestly, I think that’s being blessed to be a blessing is what the Christian life is all about.

But, when someone describes the way in which they are “blessed”, does it ever give you pause? Sometimes I hear people talk about how God has blessed them with a big house or a nice car or some material thing and it just makes me a little uncomfortable. It’s not that I think those things are inherently bad, but I just don’t think of God like that. To me that trivializes God, and makes God sound like some sort of divine Oprah handing out cars and iPads to ecstatic crowds.

And God is bigger than that. And not only is God bigger than that, but I think God expects bigger things from us too. And sometimes the way we talk about our blessings just doesn’t reflect that. And here’s why: being blessed is not about winning. None of us is blessed just to be blessed. That’s not the end goal here. Instead, being blessed is about God saying “here’s a tool…now use it to help others.”

In short, we are not blessed for our own comfort or satisfaction or glory. We are blessed so that we can serve others and glorify God. And because of that, all the things we don’t use in order to serve others and glorify God? Those aren’t blessings. Those are just trophies. And in the end, honestly they aren’t worth that much.

So, what does it mean to live a life of blessing? First, I think it means to live a life of giving, and not just taking. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t good to receive. We have all received grace upon grace from God and from others, whether we acknowledge it or not. But being a blessing means that you can’t stop there.

Because when we receive a blessing of any kind, whether it’s love or health or understanding or resources or anything else, we are receiving grace. It is not earned. It is given freely by a God who loves us. And we have a choice. First, we can take it and use it only for our own good. In other words, we can collect the trophy. Or, we can decide to say thank you to God by turning it into a blessing for others.

I’ve always found that the second is the one that not only brings blessings to others, but blessings back to me. Because, honestly, trophies aren’t good for much other than gathering dust. The joy and light that comes from blessing others is much, much better.

So, what does that look like? Recently I read a story that really spoke to me. It was about a man named Howard Lutnick. Lutnick is the chairman of Cantor Fitzgerald, and so obviously a man of means. And so when he recently made a donation to Haverford College, in the amount of $25 million dollars, it was impressive. But, at first glance, you might not know that it is also a story about being blessed to be a blessing.

When Howard Lutnick was a high school student his mother died. And then, a week after arriving on campus as a Haverford freshman, his father died suddenly too. His sister attended another college and when she went to the administration to tell them she was now suddenly parentless they told her to become a waitress to pay her tuition. But Haverford acted differently.

When his father died, the president of the university called him and just said this: “Howard, your four years here are free”. As he tells it, he had been on campus a week. The school didn’t know who he was or who he would become. They just decided to bless him. And so years later, he turned that blessing into a blessing for others.

Now, you and I, we might not have the salary of the chairman of a large company, and perhaps we cannot afford to make $25 million endowments. (And if you can, I’d love to talk to you after church, by the way.) But that doesn’t mean that we are not capable of blessings others in equally significant ways.

First, we have to first look at the people and places that God has used to bless us. Who has been a blessing in your life? A parent? A teacher? A church? A friend? A school? A choir that sings every Sunday? Next, what would you say to those people and places if you could? And finally, what do you think they would want you to do with the blessings you have received through them?

I think about those people in my life who have been a blessing. I think of my college chaplain. I think of my parents. I think of professors who stayed after class to help me. I think of mentors who showed me which way to go. I think of churches I have known along the way. And I truly believe that God worked through all of them to bless me. And the only way I can fail them, and the only way I can fail God, is by choosing not to pass those blessings on to others. I can choose to live my life in a way that makes me a conduit of God’s grace. Or I can choose to turn off the switch, and barricade myself alone with all my trophies.

In the end, that choice is what stewardship is all about. Because stewardship is not just about money. Stewardship is about our whole lives. It’s about how we choose to live. It’s about gratitude and the way we respond to the grace we’ve been given. It’s about choosing to let our light shine, instead of hiding our light under a bushel.

That’s a choice we are constantly making with our lives. We choose whether or not to be good stewards of our time, our talents, our treasure. But it’s more than that. We choose whether or not we will use God’s blessings so that we can in turn be a blessing. We have that choice. But we just have to dare to take it.

When Abram was standing there that day with God talking to him, do you think he hesitated? God was giving him a pretty big promise there: I will bless you so that you will be a blessing. But, God was also asking a lot of Abram. He wanted Abram to take a risk and step out in faith. Perhaps we could understand it if Abram had never set out on his journey. But then again, if he hadn’t, where would we be? And how would the story of our faith have been changed if Abram hadn’t chosen to be a blessing?

I was thinking about how God calls us into uncertainty sometimes, and about how that’s when God asks for us to show up in big ways. I was thinking about that while reading that story of this church and how people stopped paying taxes to support us. And I was thinking about how people thought back then that this church would come crashing to the ground, and that would be the end of faith as we knew it.

But that’s not what happened. Instead, in1819 the tax payments stopped, but the Spirit didn’t. Instead, despite all the fear, not only did church attendance go up, but giving did too. And so, almost 200 years laters, you and I, improbably, are sitting here in the same building and still stepping out in faith. The author of the book I read wrote a telling line. She writes, “it turns out New Hampshire folks were never opposed to religion…we just didn’t take kindly to being told what to do with our money. Some things never change.”

And so, I will heed that caution, and I will never tell you what to do with your money, or with any of the other blessings you have received in your life. But I will say this. You have an opportunity do use your life and every blessing in it to do something extraordinary. You have a chance to be a blessing.

Because being blessed does not mean you have won. Being blessed means you are up at bat, and you get to choose whether or not to take a swing. You are the college kid who was blessed for no rational reason when the world dealt him a tough blow. You are a churchgoer in 1819’s Exeter who doesn’t know how the church will remain standing. You are Abram talking to God. And you are here, standing on the threshold of the next part of the journey. And your blessings are yours to do with as you wish. May you use them well, and may the world be blessed. Amen.