You Reap What You Sow: Sermon for October 26, 2014 (Stewardship Kick-off)

2 Corinthians 9:6-15

6 The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. 7 Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. 8 And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work. 9 As it is written,“He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor; his righteousness endures forever.”

10 He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. 11 You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us; 12 for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God. 13 Through the testing of this ministry you glorify God by your obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ and by the generosity of your sharing with them and with all others, 14 while they long for you and pray for you because of the surpassing grace of God that he has given you. 15 Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!

So, today is stewardship kick-off Sunday in the church, which means this is the Sunday each year where I preach about why we would like you to give to support our ministries here. Which means that this is the Sunday where I feel like I am one of those people on the NPR pledge drive, and I’m interrupting the things people really want to listen to and instead asking them for money.

I listen to NPR a lot, and I don’t particularly like pledge season. And yet here I am doing the same thing. Except I don’t even have anything to offer you. No tote bags. No fleece vest with our logo on it. No weather alert radio. Not even a chance to win an iPad.

So, you can see why I don’t look forward to this much. In fact, I’ve long told people that the stewardship kick-off sermon is my least favorite sermon of the year. No one likes to ask for money. And no pastor, at least no pastor worth their salt, likes getting up into the pulpit to do it. It feels too much like a televangelist; too greedy.

And yet, it is unfortunately necessary. And that’s why today, even though maybe none of us look forward to it, we are gathered here as a community, and we are gathered around Scripture, and we are talking about stewardship and giving.

1012068_10152318961546787_4013347830413628686_nAt first glance, today’s Scripture lesson might not sound like it has much to do with that. It’s not about money, or time, or talents at all. It’s about seeds and sowing and reaping. Or, to translate that for those of us who aren’t very good at gardening or farming, it’s about planting and harvesting.

Paul is writing to the church in Corinth and he summarizes what he’s telling them by saying, “The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.” In other words, he is saying “you reap what you sow”.

I don’t know about you, but that always sounded a little negative to me. It sounds like a threat or a warning, the kind we might get as kids from stern adults. “You reap what you sow, so if you don’t study you’re going to fail.” Or, “you reap what you sow, so if you don’t floss you’ll have cavities.”

Now, all of those things are true, but they aren’t exactly inspiring. It’s more like “do this or else this will happen”. In terms of motivating us to want to do something it ranks right up there with its close cousin, “you made your bed and now you have to lie in it”. And when you apply it to giving, it sounds a lot like some stewardship sermons I’ve heard. Ones where the message could be summarized by this: “You reap what you sow, so if you don’t give to this church, we will not meet our bottom line and someday we will have to close our doors.”

I’ve heard that sermon before. Verbatim. And, I’m here to tell you that it has never inspired people to give more. To tell you the truth, I think it does the opposite. Because if I happened to be a church member sitting out there in the pews and people told me that the only way to save a church was to open my checkbook so we could meet some bottom line on a spreadsheet, I wouldn’t feel particularly inspired to give to that church.

And to be perfectly honest, I hope you wouldn’t be either. And here’s why. A church that is just trying to meet a bottom line on a budget spreadsheet does not deserve your money. A church that exists only to fulfill its own needs and that worries only about maintaining the status quo and its own survival? That church doesn’t deserve anything.

In fact, I’ll go a step further. I would say that giving to a church like that is not only not helpful, but it’s actually bad stewardship. Because of all the places doing good work that you could give to that are out there, giving to one that’s just focused on self-preservation runs counter to building up the kingdom of God and doing Christ’s work in the world. Seriously, do not feel compelled to give to a church that cares only for its own survival because that is not a church. That’s just a clubhouse that is making the rest of us churches look bad.

But, if you want to do something else, if you want to be a part of something more than that, then keep listening. Because I think Paul is right. I think we do reap what we sow. But I don’t hear that as a threat. I hear that as a challenge. And I hear that as hope.

Because this is what I believe about giving. I don’t believe people feel inspired to give because they want to help meet a bottom line. And I don’t think people give because they want to sustain the status quo. I believe people give because they see what could be, and they believe that it is possible.

Paul was writing this letter about planting seeds to a church. And, of course, it wasn’t really about literal seeds and harvests. It was about asking the people of this church to support a new ministry in Jerusalem. And Paul knew that he was asking them to step out in faith and to imagine something that they couldn’t see yet. He wasn’t saying, “hey, look we are already doing this and we need help meeting the budget”. He was saying, “I believe God is calling us to do something new, and I’m asking you give not because you have to, but because you believe in it.”

In other words, this letter is Paul’s stewardship sermon. He is telling the people that something great is possible, but he needs them to help him plant the seeds. And the harvest, the tangible results that will come in a later season, will depend on this: what they are willing to plant now.

You reap what you sow. If you plant a few seeds, you might end up with something to harvest down the line. But if you plant an abundance seeds of hope in the soil of a place that is seeking to serve God in new and bold ways? That’s how you end up with a bountiful harvest. But you can’t get to that harvest by holding back.

And so that’s the question we each have to ask ourselves as members of this church community: What sort of harvest would I like to see? And what am I willing to plant in order to help us get there?

Here’s the harvest I envision. A year from now, and five years, and ten years, and many more, I dream of a church that is growing. I dream of pews that continue to fill a little more each week. I dream of our already great children’s program growing and bringing more kids into our church. I dream of vibrant youth ministry with middle and high schoolers. I dream of adult Christian education opportunities out at RiverWoods and here in our vestry. I dream of joyful Sunday worship and meaningful spiritual growth. I dream of all the ways this church can serve our community here in Exeter, and God’s people around the work.

And I know all these things are possible. First, I know they are possible because with God all things are possible. But I also know they are possible because in the short time I have been here with you, I have see how many of you share that vision. And I have seen the hope that so many of you have for this church.

This is a strong and healthy church, but we are not done with our journey. We have so much potential for growth, so much potential for going deeper, so much potential for service. And in an era when too many churches are living in a scarcity mindset, slashing ministries, and fearfully squirreling away every spare resource they can find, we are instead deciding to live in hope and invest in a future where we know God is waiting for us. And we are heading towards what could well be our most abundant harvests.

But first, we have to plant.

At the beginning of this sermon I told you about how this is my least favorite sermon of the year. I want to amend that. A sermon that asked you for money would be my least favorite of the year. But this sermon is not about asking you for money. Not really. Because this sermon is asking you for something much more valuable. This sermon is asking for your hope. And this sermon is asking you to invest in that hope, and to help plant the seeds we need to plant in order to make our hopes realities.

The reality is that it is up to you and me. UCC churches do not receive funding from the greater denomination like some of sisters and brothers in other churches do. Instead, we sustain ourselves. And so, we each, myself included, receive a pledge card. And we each are called to prayerfully consider what we are going to plant.

I know this is not easy. My family and I are making the same decisions about giving to this church that you are making, and come Stewardship Sunday on November 16th we will be putting our pledge card in the plate too. And I get it. I know what it’s like to pay the bills, and the student loans, and put some in savings, and take care of everything else. And I know what it’s like to voluntarily add something to the list. I know it’s often not easy.

And, it shouldn’t be. Because when we invest in our hopes, that is never an easy leap of faith. When we decide to take that step and plant those seeds, we are stepping out in faith. And for each of us that looks different.

It feels important for me to tell you that I do not know who gives and who does not. I have no idea who the biggest givers are in this church, and I don’t want to know. I also don’t know who is giving an amount that means little to their bottom line, and who is giving an amount that feels big to their modest budget. I don’t know, because that does not impact how I serve each of you as your pastor.

But, I am praying for you as you make this decision. Not because I hope that you will write down a big number. Really, I don’t care much about that. But because I pray you are a person of hope, and I hope that you feel hopeful about our future together. I’m praying that you will find spiritual meaning in your decision to give, and that you will plant those seeds in this good soil. I’m praying that you will sow in faith, and that we will harvest in joy.

We reap what we sow. It’s true. And that is good news. Because I truly believe that we are about to plant something amazing together. Amen?

Joy in a One Star World: Sermon for October 19, 2014

Philippians 4:4-9

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

One of the wonderful and yet challenging things about the internet age is that anyone can share an opinion online. That can sometimes be wonderful. We get to hear a lot of new perspectives that way. But, sometimes, there is a lot of perhaps less-than-helpful stuff to wade through too.

A good example of that to me are online reviews. There are a lot of online review sites where you can go and rate things and experiences, usually by doing something like leaving one to five stars. Maybe you’ve heard of a site called Yelp? It’s a site where if you go to a restaurant you can then go there and rate it with, say, “four stars…pretty good”. Or “one star…I got food poisoning”.

I’ll admit, I read those reviews before I go to a new restaurant. But, slowly, a whole lot of other things have started to be reviewed. Like churches. We don’t have any reviews…I checked, but Old South Church in Boston, a church that has existed over 300 years and whose history is tied up in our very country’s has some. In fact, Old South, got a one star review recently. The reason why? A would-be-bride, who was not a church member or attendee, couldn’t have her wedding on the Saturday she wanted. Sorry, Old South…you get one star.

I like reading about other places, like the Grand Canyon, which also has Yelp reviews, including this one star review: “As amazing as the views are, it’s really kind of boring. Every 500ft a new vantage point of the same thing: a really big hole in the ground.”

I mean, technically, I guess that’s true. Sorry, God…good try, but not your best work. One star for the Grand Canyon.

10403016_827092474010019_3062638086161016394_nBut, what does this have to do with this 2000 year old letter written by the apostle Paul to a church he had visited? I was thinking about one star reviews while reading this week’s passage from the Letter to the Philippians. And it’s not because I’m about to give it one star, don’t worry. But it reminded me of those Yelp reviews because I believe it speaks to a tendency that exists even to this day: the tendency to choose the negative over the positive. The tendency to choose complaining and fear over grace and abundance and joy. Or, put simply, the tendency to be a one star voice.

Paul tells the church, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice…Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God…(and) whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

In other words, you can be a one star voice. You can choose to be a voice of negativity, or doom and gloom. You can complain constantly without trying to change anything.

Or, if you really believe this Gospel stuff, you can choose another way.

That’s not easy. How often do we not say what is going right? How often do we focus on what is wrong? How often do we choose to magnify what we don’t like, and not lift up what is going right? How often do we choose to be voices that break others down instead of building them up? And how often do we just stand by and not say a thing as we watch someone do that to others?

It’s probably more than we realize. And what we don’t realize is that it doesn’t just impact us. It slowly infects the ones who are gathered around us. And negativity attracts more negativity until all that is left is the negative. So, there is a question for us to ask ourselves as individuals, and also one every church should periodically ask itself: With all the choices people can make with what to do with their time and resources these days, who would want to be a part of something negative? And how much more attractive are we when we are positive? And how much more powerful is our witness to Christ when we rejoice?

So, about right now you might be thinking, well, that’s all well and good, but it’s naive. I mean, someone has to play devil’s advocate. Someone needs to think of the worst case scenario. Someone has to snap us back into reality. You preacher types like Paul, you just don’t get the way the real world works.

Except, Paul did get it. He got it more than we realize. When Paul wrote this letter, this exhortation to a church to “rejoice” and lift up what is good, how do you picture him? At a comfortable desk somewhere? Sitting down with a five year plan that spelled out everything that was about to happen with great confidence and excitement? Relaxing?

Those are fair assumptions. It’s pretty easy to say “rejoice” when things are going well for you. But that’s not what was going on. When Paul wrote this letter about joy, he was in prison. And he was waiting for his sentencing. And he knew it might well be death. He literally was facing losing his life. Nothing was good or comfortable or happy. He was having a one star kind of day.

And yet, he was full of joy. How can that be?

Here’s what I think. I think it’s easy to be a one star voice in this world. It’s simple. It doesn’t take much effort. You can lob your thoughts out like reviews on the internet and you feel better and you don’t really have to do anything constructive after that.

But it is a whole lot harder to rejoice. Why? Because joy is hard.

Now that may sound like an oxymoron. Joy is joy. Shouldn’t joy be easy? I don’t think so. Because I think joy is deeper than that. Joy and happiness are two different things. Happiness is easy, but it’s fleeting. You can find happiness in everything from a stiff drink to a big paycheck. A nice meal to a new car. You can get happy pretty easily. At least for a little while. And you can lose it just a quickly.

But joy. Joy is hard. But it’s also deep. It’s rooted. And it’s the thing that remains in you even when everything else around you is crumbling down.

Joy was there that day with Paul in that prison cell. And that wasn’t an accident. It was there because Paul had chosen the places where he would put his trust and his faith. And they weren’t in the fleeting things of this world. They weren’t in the things we can hold on to or lose. They were solely in this: God’s love, and Christ’s grace. That’s where his heart was. And so even when everything else in the world was taken away from him, no one could touch his joy.

And so, when he tells us to rejoice, I think he knows what he is talking about. And I think it gives us a pretty good reason to do the hard work of starting to think about how we rejoice, both as individuals and together, and to look at what we lift up as worthy of rejoicing about.

It just so happens that today is an easy day to be happy. We are baptizing a beautiful baby and starting her on her journey of faith. And we are also welcoming eleven new members to our church. I’m happy. I’m thrilled. And, if I might be so bold, I am joyful. I am rejoicing. And I hope you all will join me in that rejoicing.

But, before you do, I want to offer this caution: Choose joy carefully. Because joy isn’t cheap.

Because joy requires something of us. It requires us to constantly re-root ourselves in our faith. It requires us to part and to have a relationship with God. It requires us to stop putting our faith in earthly things and to let go and trust the Holy Spirit. And it requires us, as the church covenant we are going to recite together as we welcome new members states, to “hold fast” to God and to Jesus Christ. Nothing else.

Joy requires faith. And faith is not easy or comfortable sometimes. And, honestly, you can choose happiness instead, and it will come at a much cheaper price.

But here’s the thing: joy trumps happiness every single time.

Remember at the beginning when I was talking about Yelp and that one star review for Old South Church? I’ll let you in on a secret that the bride who posted it probably doesn’t know: They don’t care. (By the way, I’m pretty sure that if the Grand Canyon doesn’t care either, by the way.)

How do I know this? Because neither a church nor creation draw their value from what is easily given or taken away. And, if we are functioning at our best as children of God, neither do we. Instead, we draw our meaning, we draw our joy, not from what we are or what we have or by what others say about us, but instead from whose we are. And the more we remember that God alone is both the source and focus of our rejoicing, the more we find that we can never again settle for anything less than to rejoice.

And so, let’s turn our hearts to the next part of our worship today, the part when we respond to the Word of God. And let’s welcome those eleven new members. Let’s baptize that beautiful baby and let’s make our promises as a congregation to her. Let’s celebrate.

But first, ask yourself this: as we celebrate are you going to be happy? Or are you going to rejoice? I hope it’s always the latter. Because you are a beloved child of God, and you deserve nothing less. Amen.

Gotta Serve Somebody: Sermon for September 28th, 2014

When I was a kid there were these books that I would often read called “Choose Your Own Adventure Books”. The idea was simple. You started reading and after a few pages there would be a question. And you were given two options, leading you to two different pages in the book.

For instance, you are hiking in the woods and you are lost and it’s getting dark. Do you keep trying to hike your way through? If so turn to page 30. Or do you stop at the creepy abandoned cabin and stay there for the night? Turn to page 56.

As you can imagine, neither is a good choice. But they lead you to other pages where you have to then make similar choices. And choice after choice you work your way through the book. And, to be honest, a good portion of the time you end up dying some tragic death.

Somehow someone thought these were great books for children. But, honestly, I was a big fan, and so were my friends. And I think that’s because the books always gave us choices, and they always took those choices seriously.

Copyright, believed to be Nadia Bolz Weber (please contact me if this is incorrect and I'll be glad to change it).

Copyright, believed to be Nadia Bolz Weber (please contact me if this is incorrect and I’ll be glad to change it).

I am reminded of those books when I read today’s Scripture, not because everyone meets a horrible end, but because Jesus is presenting his disciples with a sort of “choose your own adventure” story. Jesus is teaching his disciples, and the religious authorities are getting worried. He’s gaining too much influence and so they ask him “who gave you the authority to do the things you are doing?”

Jesus answers the question with a question. He tells them, “I’ll answer you, but first answer me this: Who gave John the Baptist his authority?”

And he had them there. Because if they had said “God” Jesus could have asked “then why did you kill him?” And if they said otherwise, the crowd, who loved John, would have turned against them. And so, they just say “we don’t know”.

And so Jesus tells them this story: A man had two sons and a vineyard. And one day he asked both of them to go to work in the vineyards. The first son says “no…I’m not going.” And the second son says “sure, I’ll go”. But here’s the twist. That second son never goes. And the first son, who said he wouldn’t, changes his mind and goes.

So Jesus asks the Pharisees, which of those two sons did what his father asked? The one who said he would and didn’t, or the one who said he wouldn’t and did.

The Pharisees answer, “the one who went to the vineyard”.

And then Jesus delivers this stinger: Truly, the tax collectors and prostitutes, the ones looked down on by everyone, are going to be ahead of you in the Kingdom of God.

And that’s when the Pharisees get it…he’s talking about them.

It’s a dangerous thing to call out someone’s hypocrisy. I don’t suggest it, because usually it makes the hypocrite pretty mad. But being Jesus has its privileges. Jesus publicly exposes these religious officials, these people who like the second son are a little more talk than action, for what they are. And it infuriates them.

There’s something satisfying about that. There’s a reason that when a person who professes religious faith falls from grace it becomes a media field day. I remember being very young and watching televangelists be led off in handcuffs on the evening news. A few years later I would look around at my more outwardly devout neighbors who maybe weren’t living in such devout ways when they thought no one was looking. And I began to get a little disillusioned with religious people. And it struck me then that maybe not everyone’s words and actions lined up.

But years later, I’ve developed a little more sympathy for the Pharisees and the other hypocrites of the world. And that’s because I know now that I am at times a hypocrite too. And, more than likely, so are most of us. Perhaps my everyday hypocrisies aren’t as newsworthy or spectacular as the ones on the front pages of the paper, but they are there. More than I like to admit.

The truth is that I call myself a Christian, a follower of Christ. I say everyday that I will go to work in the vineyard. And most days I at least make it there. But some, I don’t. Because this is what I think working in the vineyard looks like. I think it looks like choosing to follow Christ, even when we are afraid, even when there are other things we would rather be doing, even when it’s hard.

I say I want to do that, but some days I know my own fears and limitations hold me back. I get distracted. I put my trust and faith in other things. I get it wrong. And I know that some days I am so busy serving other things, that I never make it out to serve in the vineyard. I’m too busy checking things off my to-do list instead.

This is not just a clergy problem. This is a problem most of us who want to follow Christ have. We have the best of intentions when we are asked to go out into the vineyard, but good intentions don’t always get us out there. And, slowly, we begin to realize that maybe, just maybe, we are hypocrites too.

And this is where I am reminded of those “Choose Your Own Adventure” books I talked about. Not because I think we are all headed for certain destruction. If so this would be the most depressing sermon ever. But instead because I think each day we get to make a new choice.

In the books one bad choice ends hope for you. But in the life of faith, we make bad choices all the time. And the good news is that God’s grace somehow reaches us even when we wander away from the vineyards. And, yes, even when we are hypocrites.

Every Sunday in church we say the prayer of confession together. And at first glance that might seem like a bit of a downer. Some churches, to be honest, have jettisoned it altogether because they don’t want anyone to feel bad about themselves, especially not visitors who might never come back. .

But to me the prayer of confession is about this: it’s about telling the truth. It’s about saying that sometimes we get it wrong, and it’s about believing that God can still use us anyway. When you think about it, church is probably one of the only places in our lives where we can so easily admit to being wrong sometimes.

I think there is some real grace in that.

I wonder about the son who tells his father that he will not go to work in the vineyard. I wonder if other days he, like the other son, told him that he would. And I wonder if he never made it there either. I wonder if on the day he was asked, he finally decided to tell the truth. And maybe that act of truth telling set him free to do more than just have good intentions.

Another minister I know shared a photo this week of a church’s sign. It read in big letters, “This Church is Not Full of Hypocrites!” A little defensive sounding at first, really. But then at the bottom it said this: “There’s always room for more!”

I think that’s what the church is about sometimes. It’s about admitting that we mess up. And it’s about sharing the good news of God’s grace with one another, assuring one another that God can still use us, and deciding to go together out into those vineyards. The church has never been about being perfect. Our purpose is not to exist as a club for saints. Instead, the church is a place for real people, living real lives, and facing real choices, who all the while are trying to follow Jesus Christ in this world.

It’s about understanding that God has given us grace. And it’s about responding to that grace. And, to me, the best way to respond to grace is always in gratitude. It’s about choosing to live a life of gratitude in a world that often gives us a lot of other choices about how to respond. That’s what the church is all about.

So getting back to choosing your own adventures. This morning I borrowed my sermon title from a song by Bob Dylan. In it he gives this long list of things that you might be: an ambassador, a rock and roller, a banker, or even a “preacher with your spiritual pride”, but he says no matter who you are “you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”

It may just be a song, but he’s right. We all end up getting to choose what, and who, we are going to serve each day. We all get asked that question every morning when we wake up, the same one asked of the two sons: Will you go to work for me today?

And it doesn’t matter where our day takes us. It doesn’t matter our profession, or our age, or what we have or don’t have in our bank accounts. It doesn’t even really matter what you say when you are asked. All that matters is this: When you decide which vineyard to go to that day, and there are a lot to choose from, will you choose one that will never be able to love you back? Or will you choose the vineyard that belongs to the one who loved you first, and always?

It’s like what I told our kids today in the children’s sermon: never give the best of you to something that can never love you back.

And so, in this book that is life, make good choices. But even if you don’t, don’t worry. There’s always tomorrow. And the pages can always be turned back. And no matter what you will still be welcome in this place where day after day we keep trying together to choose the one we want to serve. Amen.

Ready, Set, Go: Homily for Gathering Sunday, September 7, 2014

If you look in your bulletins this morning you’ll see that where it normally says “sermon” it says “homily” today. People sometimes ask me what that word “homily” means, and I tell them it’s ancient Greek for “shorter sermon”.
That’s not exactly true. That’s not what the Greek means, but a homily is typically a little shorter than a regular Sunday sermon. I try not to be too long-winded on Sundays, because I believe that often preachers can make their point in less time than they think they need. But today I’m going to be deliberately short-winded. And that’s because today we have important work to do here in worship, and so much of what we are doing will preach the message today. And so I’m going to let it.
Today, it’s time to gather. And it’s time to get ready. And it’s time to go.
IMG_3574We are not the first faith community to be in this position. Today’s Scripture from Exodus tells us about another congregation that gathered and got ready and said “go”, albeit under very different circumstances. Last week we talked about Moses’ call from God to go and free the Israelites and lead them out of Egypt. And this week is about what happened when that community got together and got ready to go.
God is talking to Moses and giving him some instructions on how to get the people moving. God gives them all these instructions about getting a lamb and preparing a meal and even putting blood on their doors as a sign that they are the people getting ready to move. And God gives them very specific directions about how to eat the lamb: don’t have a long leisurely meal. Instead, eat it like you are in a hurry. Get dressed, put on your shoes, put your staff in your hand, and get ready. In fact, don’t even let your bread rise. Eat it unleavened. Because very soon, I’m going to call you out of this place, and onto a journey that will change everything.
So, here in Exeter, all these millennia later, it’s our Gathering Sunday. And we are not being persecuted by harsh taskmasters. We do not have lamb dinners to eat quickly, or so little time that we can’t let our bread finish baking. We are not escaping in the dead of night. Our situation is very different from that of the Israelites.
And yet, one thing is the same: we are gathering, and we are getting ready to go on a journey together that can change everything.
On Gathering Sunday things change. Worship goes back to 10am. We come back upstairs. The choir is back. Our summer vacations are over. And we all come home. But the point of Gathering Sunday is not just to say “summer is over”. The point of Gathering Sunday is that we are about to embark on a journey together, as a church, and we want you, and everyone else, to come along with us.
And so some special things are happening today. You already saw our students come up with their backpacks to receive a special blessing as they start a new year of learning. And after worship you can go downstairs to make sure they are registered for Christian education this year. Our Christian growth folks, and all our Sunday school teachers, have made sure that the journey our children and youth are about to embark on is a fantastic one, and we don’t want anyone to miss it.
But this isn’t just the start of a new year of learning for the youngest among us. This is the start of something new for all of us. We never stop growing in our Christian faith, no matter what our age, and we should never stop learning and trying new things. There are adult Christian education opportunities coming this fall. There are options for serving in our community. There are ways you can serve in worship. And, most importantly, whatever else you are doing there are ways to choose to go deeper this fall. Ways to open your hearts up in prayer, and contemplation, and in discernment of God’s call.
Each of us is being called to go on this journey. We are being gathered together here this morning because we are about to be sent out into something new. We are being gathered to re-focus our vision on what matters, to make choices about how to do the work of growing and serving this fall, and then to go out into our world and let our light shine.
You can even see that in our hymns today. We started with “Be Thou My Vision”, then we are singing “Called as Partners in Christ’s Service”, and then we are ending with a song that is far more theological profound than we give it credit for: “This Little Light of Mine”. And that’s what we are doing today: Re-focusing, partnering, and deciding to shine as we are sent forth on this journey..
And, like the Israelites, we are even going to get fed. Our menu is a little different, but the idea is the same: we are eating a meal together before we hit the road and start this journey. In Holy Communion we gather around the table and say “I’m ready…send me Lord”. There’s a reason we do not eat this meal alone in our own homes with no one else around. We eat it together, because one of the most important things we do as a church is gathering, and because being a Christian means being a part of community. And so, we share the meal, because it strengthens us, and binds us together, for the journey we are about to take.
And so here’s my question: Are you ready to go? Are you ready to start this journey? Are you ready to get on the road?

Now, before you answer that, let me clarify what that means:

Are you ready to be an active part of this community?
Are you ready to join together in worship regularly?
Are you ready to pray and to think and to discern?
Are you ready to learn and ask questions?
Are you ready to tell the story of our faith to the youngest ones here?
Are you ready to sing? Or create artwork? Or use any of your talents?
Are you ready to hang in there during committee meetings, even when they feel as long as 40 years in the wilderness?
Are you ready to serve not ourselves, but our neighbors, and our world?
Are you ready to be a blessing?
Are you ready to be the church?
I believe that together we are. Because I believe this church has been blessed in so many ways, including by each of you individually. And I don’t believe anyone or any church is ever blessed without there also being an expectation. I believe we are only blessed to be a blessing. And I believe that we are only a blessing when we dare to let our light shine.
And so here’s the question again: are you ready for this journey?
I think you are. I think we are. And I think that even on the days when it might feel hard or tiring or tough for us as individuals, especially on those days, that’s when this community will matter more than ever. Because if we make this journey together, God will be able to lead us so much further than if we try to go it alone.
So, why a homily? Why the short sermon? Because we have gathered. And we have prepared for this journey. And now, time is growing shorter…and it’s time to hit the road.
So, are you ready?
Then let’s get going. Amen.

Who Am I?: Sermon for August 31, 2014

Exodus 3:1-15

3:1 Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God.

3:2 There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed.

3:3 Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.”

3:4 When the LORD saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.”

3:5 Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”

3:6 He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.

3:7 Then the LORD said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings,

3:8 and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites.

3:9 The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them.

3:10 So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”

3:11 But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”

3:12 He said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.”

3:13 But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?”

3:14 God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.'”

3:15 God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The LORD, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’: This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations.

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart be always acceptable to you, o God, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.

When I was a kid, in elementary school, there were a lot of words I couldn’t pronounce the right way. (And not just because I was from the South.) I had a speech impediment, and so once a week or so I had to go meet with the speech pathologist. And she would try to get me to concentrate on saying “s” correctly, or making sure my “f’s” and “th’s” sounded different.

And, she was good at what she did, and my speech did eventually become clearer, but I also became incredibly self-conscious about speaking in public. I was always worried that when I talked my mistakes were all that people heard.

10351450_801313973254536_63441642393740313_nThe whole prospect of public speaking scared me to death. And I remember very clearly making a decision as a child that whatever I did when I grew up, I would never take any kind of job that required me to stand up in front of people and talk.

There’s an old saying that we make plans and God laughs. I think God laughed pretty hard when I made this promise to myself that day. Because the truth is that our best laid plans often don’t quite match up with God’s.

Moses knew what that was like. When you think about Moses you might think of him telling Pharaoh “let my people go”, or parting the Red Sea or coming down from Mt. Sinai with the two stone tablets and the 10 Commandments. You might think of Moses as a strong leader. A man of faith. A liberator.

And he was all those things. But first he was this. A baby who escaped death because his mother put him in a basket in a river. A boy who grew up in the royal household not knowing his heritage. A teenager with a conflicted identity who saw injustice and in a moment of rage killed a man. And a young man who had fled, and who in exile resigned himself to tending his father-in-law’s sheep.

It was while he was out with the sheep one day that things changed for Moses. He’s grazing the sheep and he sees this bush that is on fire. And that’s concerning, but even more concerning is the fact that while the fire is raging it doesn’t actually seem to be burning up the bush. Moses goes to take a closer look and once God has Moses attention, because sometimes for some of us we need big signs like randomly burning shrubbery, God calls to him.

“Moses! Moses!”

And Moses says, “Here I am.” And God tells Moses to take off his sandals because he’s on holy ground. And then God says “I’m the God of all your ancestors…Abraham, Isaac, Jacob…that’s me. And I know what’s been going on. I know what you and all of my people have been going through in Egypt. I know about the suffering and the slavery and the beatings and the injustice. And, more than that, I’m going to stop it. I’m going to take all of you and bring you out of Egypt and to a place flowing with milk and honey.”

Sounds pretty good, right? God knows how bad things have been. God is going to put a stop to it. God is going to save God’s people. This must have all sounded like good news to Moses. Until God says this: “And I’m going to send you to Pharaoh to take care of this, okay?”

And that’s when Moses asks the big question: “Who am I that I should be the one to go to Pharaoh and lead the people out of Egypt?”

“Who am I?” It’s the big question. We all ask ourselves that. And Moses had reason to ask. He was a refugee who had fled after killing a man. But even without that, he did not think of himself as a leader. He was just a guy who watched his wife’s father’s sheep. He didn’t really belong with the Hebrews, didn’t really belong with the Egyptians, and didn’t really belong with the people in Midian. And, Scripture tells us, he was “slow of speech” which meant that he probably had some sort of speech impediment to boot.

This is the guy God chose to go talk to the Pharaoh and then lead his people for forty years in the wilderness? Moses was probably the last guy you would expect, and Moses himself knew it.

And so when Moses says “who am I”? it’s not a ridiculous question. It makes sense.

Have you ever asked yourself that question? Have you ever felt called to do something big, something meaningful, but you haven’t felt qualified? I think we all have. I think we’ve all had a time when we have counted ourselves out of the game before we even tried because we just didn’t feel like we were good enough, or smart enough, or talented enough. Moses got what that felt like. And that’s why he asked his big question: “Who am I?”

Now, here’s the kicker: did you notice that God doesn’t answer him? Hardly confidence-inspiring, is it? Instead, when Moses says “who am I”, God says this: “I will be with you.”

God doesn’t say “Moses you are good enough,” or “Moses, you have what it takes”. Because God promises something better. God promises God’s presence.

So Moses starts to think about logistics, and he says to God, “If I go to your people, and tell them you’ve told me to lead them out of Egypt, what do I say? What if they ask me who you are? What should I tell them?”

And God says this: “Say, ‘I am who I am’ and tell the Israelites that ‘I am’ has sent me to you. This is my name.”

“I am who I am”. What’s that supposed to mean? Is it a riddle? Is it God dodging the question? It sure doesn’t sound like a name.

But in Hebrew “I am who I am” translates into a name for God that you may have heard before. It’s is pronounced “Yahweh”. And among the most Orthodox of our Jewish sisters and brothers that name is so holy that it is never spoken out loud. And if it is written on paper that paper must be treated with respect. In fact in college I had a professor who was an Orthodox rabbi who asked us that we give him our textbooks if they were damaged because they contained God’s name and it was so holy that he would bury them out of respect.

It was striking how deeply he cared and it took me a while to realize that it’s wasn’t just the actual name itself that made it holy. It’s what it means: I am who I am, which at its essence just means this: God is.

Of all the things we can say about God: God is great, merciful, gracious, loving, eternal, Triune, and we could go on and on…none of them are completely accurate. Because on their own they can’t be. No matter what words we can put on God, they will never accurately convey the vastness of who God is. We will never completely get it. And so the most faithful thing we can say is what God said: God is. “I am who I am.”

That’s what God tells Moses before God sends him to do something incredible. Moses asks “Who am I?” and God says “I am with you”. Moses asks “what’s your name” and God says “I am”.

And that’s the sum of it. God is. And God is with Moses. And God is with all of us. And because of that, sometimes ideas as crazy-sounding as going and asking the Pharaoh to leave and take everyone with you work out. Because God is with you.

The name of the book this story is told in is Exodus. It was originally written in Hebrew but later it was given this Greek name. And Exodus literally means “a way out”. And that’s what God created through Moses; a way out for God’s people. God took this most unlikely of heroes and made him capable of amazing things. God did that. Because God is. And God was with Moses.

So who was Moses? He was someone that the great “I am” had chosen to be with. And who are you? You are someone God is with too. At your core, that is what defines you more than anything else in life. That is how God answered Moses’ question, and that is how God answers us all: I am, and I am with you.

And so maybe, despite our shortcomings, despite our faults, we are enough. And maybe God can use us in some ways we have never imagined. It’s easy to give all the reasons why we can’t succeed. It’s easy to give all the reasons why we won’t even try. It’s easy to accept defeat before the first step is taken. But when we do that, we forget who is with us, and who God is.

And so here’s my challenge this week. What if every time you tried to step out in faith and then asked yourself “who am I?” or “what makes me think I’m up to this challenge” or “why did I ever think I could do this”, what if every time a question like that comes up, what if you didn’t answer? And what if instead you just said this: God is. And God is with me.

What if we all did that. Can you imagine what it would be like if we all put our faith into action and trusted that God would be there with us? What would it be like if we believed that God could take the most unlikely among us, and the most unlikely parts of us, and use them for amazing things? I’m not saying it would always be smooth sailing; even Moses wandered around for forty years in the wilderness. But I am saying that if God is really calling us out into the next part of our journey, God is not calling us out alone.

God is. And God is with us. And that is all we need to know. Amen.

But What Do You Think?: Sermon for 24 August 2014

Matthew 16:13-20
16:13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

16:14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

16:15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”

16:16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

16:17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.

16:18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.

16:19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

16:20 Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart be always acceptable to you, o God, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.

When I started eighth grade my least favorite class was English. And when I ended high school, my favorite classes looking back were English classes. Up until 8th grade English classes had been all about spelling and grammar and diagraming sentences. And that’s important to know, but it was never all that interesting to me.

But in the 8th grade we started to be handed books like “To Kill a Mockingbird” or “Catcher in the Rye” or plays like “The Crucible”. And then, instead of multiple choice questions or fill-in-the-blank tests, we were given these questions that we had to respond to in essays.

ucccommaAt first I thought this was a trick and that I was missing something obvious. Like the test question that asked me about Atticus Finch and whether doing the right thing matters even when you know you’re going to lose. I was sure there was a paragraph in the book that would give me exactly the answer that I was looking for so that I would ace the test.

We all thought that. And so when we didn’t find it we all seemed to write some variation of what the teacher herself had said in class in our essays. Which is why when she handed back our exams and seemed less than excited about them we were confused. We had listened in class. We had taken notes. We had read the book. Why didn’t we get A’s?

But that was the first time I heard a teacher really say, “I don’t want you to tell me what other people think. I don’t want you to tell me what I think. I don’t want you to take the easy way out. I want to know what you think.”

Today’s passage doesn’t take place in an English class, but it’s another that reminds me that Jesus was, among other things, a good teacher. Jesus has pulled his disciples aside and he’s asking them an important question: Who do people think that I am?

And Peter, who always seems to be the first to raise his hand, has the answer. “Well, Jesus,” he says, “some think you’re John the Baptist, some think you’re Elijah, and some think you’re a prophet like Jeremiah.” And my guess is that Peter thought he had covered all the right possible answers there. He had done his homework. He was getting that A.

But Jesus pushes the question just a little more. He asks Peter, “But, who do YOU say that I am.”

Whenever I read that question I think about my English teacher, and the long line of teachers I had after her, and how they would push us to go deeper, and find the answers for ourselves. And in that moment I can picture Peter sitting there, trying to think of what to say, and how the easy or memorized answer was no longer enough.

And then it comes to Peter: “You are the Messiah, the son of God.”

And here’s the difference between a high school English student and Peter. In high school the right answer can get you an “A”. But with Jesus the right answer gets you something more. It gets you a new purpose and a whole lot of other questions.

Jesus says to Peter, “blessed are you” and he tells him that Peter is going to be the rock that Christ’s church will be built on. In that moment Peter goes from a guy who knew everyone else’s answer, to a guy who had his own and who would become a teacher in his own right.

After high school I went to college and, much to the chagrin of my parents who were pulling for law school, I became an English major, and then I went to seminary. I’ve always held the English major partially responsible for that. Because throughout college I ran into professor after professor who didn’t want to know what some critic thought, or even what they thought. They wanted their students to wrestle with the texts, to think for themselves, and to find the truth not in cliff notes or lectures, but in the process of truly trying to understand something complex.

And when you think about that, that’s pretty similar to what we as Christians are asked to do. Or, at least, we should be. Because Jesus, as you may have noticed, was rarely in the mode of handing out answers. He was much more the kind of teacher who gave his followers questions. In fact, I think that at times it must have been pretty infuriating to be a student of Jesus.

And yet, do we really want someone who just gives us the answer key? Do we really want to be able to just turn to the back of the book and find it there? Okay, maybe sometimes we do, but in the end do we really want an easy, simplistic faith? Or do we want one that forces us to go deeper, and that transforms us?

There is, as is fitting, no right answer there. And if you do want all the answers there are plenty or pastors and churches and people of faith who will purport to have them. But I’ve always been a little wary of those who claim to have all the answers about God, and who are unwilling to tell Christians to keep asking the tough questions. I guess that’s because I’ve always been careful of anyone who gives easy answers…because I’ve often found they won’t hold up in the hardest of times.

So, what does it mean to have a faith that embraces that question Jesus asks us: “Who do you say that I am”?

For starters, I think it’s about not being afraid to ask questions. Somewhere in so many of our faith upbringings we were been taught that it’s somehow wrong to ask questions, or to wonder. But Jesus was all about the questions. He was all about making people think. Just going through the motions of acting faithfully meant nothing to Jesus if there wasn’t true meaning behind it. And I don’t think there can ever be true meaning behind it if there is no depth. It’s like a plant that’s put into shallow soil. It may bloom for a little while but it won’t last for long.

So instead, what does it look like to not be afraid of knowledge? What does it look like to ask the big questions not in spite of the fact you are a person of faith, but because of it? This isn’t a new concept, just a somewhat lost one. Colleges like Harvard and Yale and Dartmouth were founded by our Congregationalist ancestors. So was Phillips Exeter and a host of other schools. There was an assumption that education, and asking questions, didn’t hinder our relationship with God. It brought us closer. And it deepened it.

And here’s why I think this is. I don’t think Jesus was just asking Peter what Peter thought. I think that Christ continues to ask us all what we think. And in that, I think Jesus is asking us to go deeper. Not just into the questions and into the possible answers, but deeper into a relationship that demands more than us just repeating what we have heard from others. And that invitation, like any invitation to think for ourselves and experience something for ourselves, can be anxiety producing at first.

I didn’t really grow up in the church. My parents left it up to us to decide. But I had a lot of questions. So when I was 17 I decided to start going to church on my own. And the deeper I went in search of answers, the deeper my relationship with God became, and the less I was able to ignore it.

One morning towards the end of senior year I was driving to school with a good friend of mine who had grown up in a very fundamentalist Baptist family. And while I was finding faith, she was finding her way out of the church. But we were close, and I wanted to explain to her what was going on with me and I talked about how I just had this feeling and the more I explored the more I just felt this closeness with God that I couldn’t explain.

And I grew up in the South, you may remember, so about half way to school she sort of looked at me and rolled her eyes and said, “Emily, are you trying to tell me that you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?”

I was so surprised, and so afraid of what my friends would think, that I said, “no, of course not, I’m just saying I’ve been thinking about some things, that’s all”.

But while that’s not the language I would have used for it either then or now, the reality is that, yes, there was a relationship there that I had never had before. It didn’t look much like what I thought it was supposed to look like. There were more questions than answers, and sometimes more doubt than faith, but taking someone else’s word for it, and using their answers wasn’t cutting it anymore. It was time to at least start to answer that big question for myself. It was time to ask who I said that Jesus was.

Through the years the people of faith I have respected the most have been the ones who have asked that question themselves, no matter how messy the answers seemed. Their lives have proven to me that our personal faith stories, and our relationship with God, matter.

There was the friend who grew up in a church where he was always given easy answers, and who left it, and God, behind. Or so he thought. But now, he asks those questions again, and this time he doesn’t settled for what others say. He’s finding out for himself.

There was the friend who went to Iraq as an Army medic and came back questioning everything, and why God allowed the suffering she saw. In her darkest moments she wondered if God even cared. But she kept wrestling, through good and bad.

And there was the friend who narrowly escaped the Twin Towers on 9/11 and, for the first time, asked questions about faith. A few years later he left his law office and went to seminary.

When I think about what it means to answer “who do you say that I am”, I think of them and so many others like them. And that’s what faith looks like to me. Not easy answers. Not being so self-assured that yours is the first hand up in the classroom. Not belief that tries to answer for others. But faith that would answer the old question of “but what do you think” well, and that never settles for an answer key that someone else wrote. Faith that settles for nothing less than a relationship, and life of searching. That’s the faith I hope you always feel like you can have here, and that’s the journey I pray we can go on together. Amen?

Where You Least Expect It: Sermon for July 20, 2014

Genesis 28:10-19

When I was in college I had a chaplain who was a Methodist minister who had grown up in south Georgia. He’d gone north for seminary and thought he’d stick around but around the time he graduated the Civil Rights movement was starting to heat up in the South. And so, he decided to go home and to try to be a part of the change.

mural-ladderOne of his first Sundays at his new church he preached a sermon on why segregation was not God’s will.

It was not well-received.

And as people were filing out of the church after worship, going through the receiving line with the pastor, they let him know that. One man stopped and pointed at another man headed his way.

“You see that man?” he asked Sammy. “He’s the head of the local Ku Klux Klan, and he is not happy with you.”

You may wonder why I’m telling you this story when the Biblical story for today is about Jacob, a man who knew nothing of the Civil Rights era South. I’ll come back to Sammy’s story, but for now let’s consider Jacob.

Jacob was the favored son of Isaac, the son of Abraham. He had tricked his brother Esau out of his birthright and now that brother was angry enough that he wanted to kill Jacob. And so his mother sent Jacob away, telling him to go and find a wife. And it’s out there in the wilderness, far from home, with a brother that wants him gone, that Jacob finds himself trying to sleep, with a rock for a pillow.

I once had a professor who is an Episcopal priest and he would talk about spirituality. He introduced us to an idea many spiritual writers have had about what they called “thin places”. “Thin places” are those places where what separates us from God feels so thin that we easily feel God’s presence surrounding us. We all have different places where that happens. For me it can be walking on a beach and watching the waves, for others it can be on a mountaintop, for others it’s something else entirely. All that matters is that in those places you feel close to God.

But in the particular class where the professor was teaching this, a friend of mine raised her hand. She had lost her best friend a year or so before, suddenly and violently. And now she struggled to know where God was in all of this. Most days God felt so very far away. And so she asked the professor, “Is there such a thing as “thick places”? Is there such as thing as being in a place where, no matter who you do, God feels so far away?”

I think there is. And you may have been there too. Maybe you’ve been in a place where no matter what you do, God just doesn’t feel present. Maybe you’ve been out in the wilderness of life, or on rough waters, and you’ve wondered why you just couldn’t feel God. And maybe you’ve looked around and thought “God’s not here…how could God be in a place like this.”

I think that night, laying his head down on a rock, Jacob knew what it was like to be in that kind of thick place. But it’s there, with that rock for a pillow, that he dreams a dream that changes everything.

Jacob dreams that there is a ladder set on the earth and rising all the way up to heaven. And angels are going up and down that ladder, getting closer to God and farther away. And the voice of God calls out to Jacob and “not only are you going to be okay, but your children are going to be okay, and their children are going to be okay, and generation on down too.” And God tells Jacob, “I’m with you. I’m with you and I’ll take care of you wherever you go and bring you back here…and I will not leave you.”

And in that moment, that thick place became a very thin one. And Jacob says, “surely God is in this place…and I didn’t know it.”

At the beginning I was telling you the story of the pastor and the Klan leader who didn’t like him very much. One night, very late, the young preacher got a call at home. And it was the Klansman. And he asked the pastor to come out and meet him. And the place he told him to come was this rough roadside bar in the south Georgia countryside. And as the preacher drove out there in the middle of the night to meet a man he knew did not like him much, he thought to himself, “well, this is where it ends”.

But when he got there he found the man sitting at a table, looking not angry or vengeful, but instead broken. And he sat down and listened as the man told him he knew that he had to change, and he knew that his life had gone the wrong way. And then he said, “Pastor, would you pray for me?”

The young preacher said “of course” thinking he was saying, “just keep me in your prayers”. But then it became clear the man meant now. And he looked around at that bar, at the people drinking and fighting and passed out, and said, “Wait…you mean here?”

And the man replied, “Pastor, don’t you believe in God?”

For all the ways the man had been wrong in his life, he was right about one thing. And that is that God shows up in the most unexpected places. God was present in that roadside dive, ready to hear prayers for a broken man. And God was out there in the desert with Jacob. And God is in all the thick places of our lives.

God is here today in this church, but that’s probably easy to believe. The steeple, the surroundings, the music. We might be temped to believe God lives here. But God is also with you when you go back home. God is with even in the most unlikely places of your life, and God is giving you a promise of new life even in your lowest moments. And that has always been true. And sometimes it’s just a matter of having the eyes to see it.

So here’s my question for you: Where has God shown up where you have least expected it? When have you been in a thick place in your life, and yet God has somehow worked to turn it into something new. Something good and full of grace? I have those places, and I know that in the midst of them I wondered where God was. And yet, looking back I now see how God could use even the hardest of situations to create something new. Something better.

When Jacob woke from his dream knowing that God was there, he did something that may seem odd. He poured oil over the stone he had slept on and he consecrated it. He took the hard and painful thing and he blessed it. And he called it “the gate of heaven” and “Beth El” which means literally, “the House of God”.

Jacob was right about something and wrong about something.

That place, it was holy ground. Maybe it was even a gate of heaven. But it was not the only one. Because the gates of heaven are all around us every day. And the house of God is not just one spot in the wilderness. It’s every space where God can break through to us. And that means, the house of God is everywhere.

When Jacob left that place, you might think things went well from there on out. That he had this amazing encounter with God and God reassured him everything was going to be okay and from that point on his whole life was a thin place.

But that’s not the way it worked. Because after he left Jacob would, literally, wrestle with God. He would watch his sons feud. He would live in exile. It almost sounds like God was pulling Jacob’s leg when God said he would be blessed.

But if you think about that dream, I think God was telling Jacob that his life would be blessed, but that it wouldn’t always be easy. Because the angels in the dream weren’t just going up that ladder to God. They were also going down. They kept going back and forth. Some rabbis have even said that the ladder symbolizes the ups and downs of the life God knew Jacob would lead, and that God knew Jacob’s descendants would lead.

And yet, even knowing that truth, the promise remains. Or maybe because of that truth, the promise remains. Even when that thin place starts to feel thick. Even when uncertainty clouds what once seemed obvious. Even when you are led further into the wilderness, instead of out of it, it just may be that you are still standing at the gates of heaven.

Jacob never knew God was in that place. Until he did.

And that young preacher in south Georgia never knew God was in that roadhouse. Until he did.

And that man who had led such a broken life never knew God was in the people that he had hated for so long. Until one day, he did. And the truth drove him to his knees. And then it drove him to the light that only comes from the gates of heaven.

Surely God was in those places. And God is in this place too. And God is in all of us. And as we start this journey together, climbing higher to the thin places sometimes, slipping lower to the thick, God is opening those gates of heaven, and welcoming us home. Amen.

The Tyranny of Consensus: Why the Church Needs to Reject the Idol of Unanimity

Remember those “What I Learned on my Summer Vacation” essays from school? Think of this post as one of those. A little over two weeks ago I finished my pastorate in Vermont and moved to Exeter, New Hampshire, where I will be starting a new pastorate a week from today.

Last week we found that our new town doesn’t have fireworks on the Fourth of July. The reason is not that these folks don’t love their history. Exeter played an active part in the American Revolution, and even has a museum dedicated to American independence here in town. Instead, the town chooses to honor their history by pushing their celebration from the 4th of July until a date later in the month when in 1776 one of the first copies of the Declaration of Independence arrived in town and was read to the assembled crowds.

declaration

A broadside of the Declaration of Independence. A broadside like this was read in Exeter later in July of 1776.

Here’s how you might picture that event in your mind 238 years later: a guy in a three-cornered hat rides into town holding the Declaration. Someone else stands in the middle of a crowd and reads it. And then, because everyone loves freedom, there was a huge block party complete with fireworks and everyone was happy to be an American.

Except that’s not how it happened.

At the festival here in town a re-enactor does read the Declaration to the crowd. But instead of being met with cheers and applause (though there are some of those) other re-enactors heckle him and decry the new document. The moment is recreated to be historically accurate: tense, full of conflict, and rooted in the assurance that everything was going to change for this town, this colony, and the twelve others who would somehow cobble together a new country.

As I think about what those first days and months must have been like for those who supported independence, I wonder whether it would be possible today. Would we have the moral courage to forge ahead on a path that must have seemed so shaky? Could we make a decision so many seemed to deride? Would we proclaim it from the center of town? Or would we just slink silently away, not wanting to cause a stir?

You may think I’m talking about politics right now, but I’m thinking about the church. Because when it comes to doing something risky, and when it comes to moving ahead, even when some people aren’t in agreement, the church is sometimes incredibly bad at it.

Have you ever heard church leaders say that they want consensus? Have you ever heard a pastor or deacon say they want a unanimous vote on some given matter like starting a new form of mission? Did they spend countless hours worrying about how to appeal to a few people who are vocal opposition, rather than working with the majority who are excited about moving forward? And were they scared to death that someone would be so unhappy that they would leave the church?

When I was in seminary learning how to “seek consensus” seemed to be the most important skill a pastor could acquire. And, it is important to promote unity in the church and to try to hear everyone’s perspective. Sometimes, you’ll even find that everyone is on the exact same page.

But, on the other hand, I’ve watched at a distance as churches have imploded because of their need for consensus. In one case it was because the vast majority of the church wanted to become Open and Affirming but a few members (including major donors) did not and threatened to leave. And so, because the church was not going to have a unanimous vote, the church made a “decision to make no decision” in an effort to keep everyone happy. Of course, no one was. And over the next few years more and more people left that church until a skeleton crew remained.

In another parish the congregation wanted to reach out to their neighborhood and address the growing addiction crisis in the community that surrounded it. A majority of members felt convicted that they were being called to this new ministry. But a minority felt it was “a waste of resources” and “a distraction”. Even though there was more passion for this particular proposal than the parish had seen in some time, the idea was eventually dropped for fear that it would cause contention. To my knowledge, this parish has not engaged in any other form of mission in their community in the years since.

The reality of church leadership, like any kind of leadership, is this: you will rarely find that a good idea is received with unanimous approval. And, in those rare cases where you stand on the edge of something great, you might have more than just a handful of dissenters.

This is natural. It’s easy to ask people to follow you into a place where there is no risk. Do that and you can get consensus every single time. But It’s a lot harder to ask them to actually risk something, make a commitment, and try something new. And yet, a willingness to change is the only way for a parish to be resilient enough to survive.

A year ago I watched a pastor I respect lead her parish through a contentious decision-making process. The lines were drawn, a vocal minority sent letters to every stakeholder, and more than a few threatened to leave. But in the midst of all of this, that pastor didn’t back away from showing leadership. She told her parishioners what she felt the church needed to do, backing it up with both sound theology and cold, hard facts. And she joined them in conversation and prayers of discernment.

But when people came to her with threats of leaving or withdrawing support if the vote did not go their way, she did what too few pastors do: She said, in variations of these words, “I’m very sorry to hear that. You will be missed. But I hope you can respect that the majority of this church feels this is where God is calling us now.” And she blessed them on their way. (It should be noted that very few actually left.)

Too often the church becomes a place where we don’t want to alienate anyone. And so, we alienate everyone. We become conflict-averse to the point that we become stuck, so fearful of our own shadow that we can’t move. And slowly we stop becoming a community of disciples, and we start becoming a museum of a faith community that once was.

There are enough of those already. And I don’t think that’s what Jesus was talking about when he called us to this risk-filled path called faith.

So, what did I do on my summer vacation? I waited a couple of weeks for my fireworks. And I learned a little more about pastoral leadership.

 

The Next Part of the Journey

The Congregational Church in Exeter, NH

The Congregational Church in Exeter, NH

Over the past few weeks I have shared this news elsewhere, but now that the news has been shared with my current congregation, I want to share this here for those of you who follow my blog.

On Sunday, May 4th, I was called as the new senior pastor of the Congregational Church in Exeter, a United Church of Christ congregation in New Hampshire. The Congregational Church in Exeter was founded 375 years ago, and has a rich history of witnessing to Christ’s love in southern New Hampshire. The congregation continues to be vital, and is an important contributor to the Exeter community. This, along with their Open and Affirming commitment, their Eco-Theology covenant, and more drew me to prayerfully consider this call. But it was my meetings with their search committee, and the deep faith and passion for a strong future for the church that they exhibited, that helped me to know that God was calling me Exeter.

Heidi at her seminary graduation.

Heidi at her seminary graduation.

Earlier this month my family had another celebration as well. My wife, Heidi Carrington Heath, graduated with her Master of Divinity from Andover Newton Theological School. After years of coursework, internships, worship services, and ordination interviews, it was a day of profound joy and blessing. And it was also a day of commissioning. God has great things in mind for Heidi. I’ve known that since I met her. And now it will be my turn to stand beside her as she sees where God is calling to her next.

My last day at West Dover Congregational Church will be June 22nd. We will be moving to Exeter the next day, and I will begin ministry at the Exeter church on July 15th. Heidi will be searching for her first ordainable call in the surrounding area as well. In all of this we have both felt extremely clear that we are being called together to make this step in faith, and we are confident of God’s grace.

Signing the pastoral contract after the congregational vote.

Signing the pastoral contract after the congregational vote.

But to be clear, leaving is not easy. For the last four years I have been deeply blessed by the congregation of West Dover Congregational Church. In that time we have nearly doubled in size, we have had a successful Open and Affirming process, we have reached out further to our community, we have maintained the legacy of a sister church who closed, and we have undertaken major capital improvements. It has been an incredibly busy few years. But, more importantly, we have had moments together where I know that Christ was present, and where I know I saw God.

But there comes a time for every pastor when they are called to something new. When that call came for my family it was indeed joyful, but there was plenty of bittersweet there too. We love Vermont, and we love our church. But we also know that God is calling us to the next step. And God is calling West Dover Congregational Church on to the next step too. And for the next part of the journey they will walk with someone else. And for the next part of my journey, I will walk with someone else too. And soon, I know Heidi will walk with a congregation on their journey as well. And God will be with all of us along the way.