The Fall of a Sparrow: Sermon for June 25, 2017

You can listen to this sermon here or subscribe to the Congregational Church in Exeter’s sermon podcast on iTunes.

Matthew 10:26-31, 38-39
10:26 “So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.

10:27 What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.

10:28 Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

10:29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.

10:30 And even the hairs of your head are all counted.

10:31 So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.
10:38 Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.

10:39 Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

In high school, like most teenagers, I had to read Hamlet. And, like most teenagers, I wasn’t so sure about this Shakespeare guy. We read a lot of his plays, and as much as the teachers told us they were relevant to our lives, the language was so archaic that it felt like another world.

In the play’s final act there’s a scene, as the action is about to come to a head, when Hamlet tells his friend, Horatio, that he has a bad feeling about how it’s going to go. Horatio basically says, “if something feels weird, let’s not go through with this.” But Hamlet replies, “Not a whit. We defy augury.” Now, that’s the Shakepearean way of saying, “I’m not superstitious.” And then Hamlet delivers this line: “There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow.”

In college I was an English major, so I had to read more Shakespeare, but I can’t say that I ever really fell in love with it the way my professors hoped. But this week, as I thought about this text, that phrase kept coming back to me. I kept thinking about what it meant.


A sparrow who really wanted my breakfast.

Shakespeare knew the Bible, and he’s having Hamlet use the words of today’s Scripture passage. Jesus is talking to his disciples about fear and life, and he uses the example of sparrows. Sparrows are little, tiny birds. You could buy two of them for a coin back then. They would seem insignificant to anyone who was listening. But, Jesus tells them, if even a sparrow falls to the ground, God knows about it.

Jesus asks them, “aren’t you worth more than a whole bunch of sparrows?” To put Hamlet’s quote, “there is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow” another way, “If God is paying attention to sparrows, God is paying attention to this moment.”

I’m going to stop here and say that I do remember that Hamlet it a tragedy. It doesn’t end well for him, so you might be thinking “okay, if you are telling us to be unafraid, this is a really bad example.” Fair enough. But I still think there’s a little hope here for us.

Jesus uses this sparrow story when he’s talking to his disciples about fear. He tells them that the hidden things in life, everything that causes pain or destruction, will one day be revealed. For his disciples, who lived with the fear of death, that was powerful. It meant that the whole corrupt system was going to be exposed. To quote a Johnny Cash song, or at least one he covered, Jesus was saying, “What’s done in the dark will be brought to the light.”

When things in the world feel wrong, when it feels like things are being done behind closed doors that will hurt us or others, it’s a good reminder that God knows those things, and God will not let them go unexposed and unanswered.

But this is also a good reminder that sometimes we are the ones called to do the work of confronting the injustice in our world. When we stand in the face of what is wrong, and wonder “where is God”, often the question we should be asking ourselves is “what does God want me to do about this?”

That can feel scary, but more than that, it can feel hopeless. We are one of billions. None of us have endless assets or mighty armies at our fingertips. We may feel like we can’t change things in our own neighborhoods, let alone the world. It may seem that the risk we have to take to stand up to what is wrong is more likely to backfire than to succeed.

pexels-photo-326642Our lives can feel so small. And the irony in that is that if we do nothing, they are indeed. But if we choose to resist our fear, and do what is hard, they become larger than we can imagine. Jesus tells his followers to take up their cross and follow him. He says that if you want to save your life, you have to lose it, and if you lose it for his sake, you will find it.

In other words, if we do nothing, if we try to lay low and protect ourselves, the counterintuitive truth is that we will lose our lives. I’m not saying by that that we will stop living, but we will lose the reason that we live. We will start to lose our very souls. But if we step up, and take the risks that Christian life calls us to take, we just might find new life. In fact, we just might thrive.

There is a story about Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church. Before his consecration, he received a number of threats on his life, so much so that he wore a bullet-proof vest under his vestments for the ceremony. His family was concerned, and so he calmed them by telling them about all the preparations that had been made to ensure that he would stay safe. After telling them this, though, he said this: “I need you to hear, I believe that there are things in life that are worse than death.”

Living a life full of fear is worse than dying. And we are all going to die. The question is, “how do you want to live?” Or, as the poet Mary Oliver writes: “Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. And if that’s true, then there is a special providence in the rise of one too. Today we are baptizing Charlotte, not yet 8 months old. She’s not quite as small as a sparrow, but she’s close.

Today we bring her to the font, and in the waters of baptism she will be claimed as one of Christ’s own. And all of us, her parents, her godparents, and we her church community, are claiming her too. And we are saying that we are going to teach her to follow Christ, and to resist fear, and claim the life that God is calling her to claim. And if we do this well, this will be a courageous child. She may be afraid sometimes, as all of us are, but she will have the courage to do the work of healing and justice that this world needs. We are going to get her ready for that work. We are teaching her how to live.

And so Charlotte, today I say the words of Jesus to you: “Do not be afraid…you are worth more than many sparrows” God’s eye is on Charlotte, and it is on us all. In the face of that, our fear cannot win.

Hold On and Protect This Good Thing: Sermons for the Vermont Conference of the UCC’s Annual Meeting, 2017

II Timothy 1:3-14

3 I’m grateful to God, whom I serve with a good conscience as my ancestors did. I constantly remember you in my prayers day and night. 4 When I remember your tears, I long to see you so that I can be filled with happiness. 5 I’m reminded of your authentic faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice. I’m sure that this faith is also inside you. 6 Because of this, I’m reminding you to revive God’s gift that is in you through the laying on of my hands. 7 God didn’t give us a spirit that is timid but one that is powerful, loving, and self-controlled.
8 So don’t be ashamed of the testimony about the Lord or of me, his prisoner. Instead, share the suffering for the good news, depending on God’s power. 9 God is the one who saved and called us with a holy calling. This wasn’t based on what we have done, but it was based on his own purpose and grace that he gave us in Christ Jesus before time began. 10 Now his grace is revealed through the appearance of our savior, Christ Jesus. He destroyed death and brought life and immortality into clear focus through the good news. 11 I was appointed a messenger, apostle, and teacher of this good news. 12 This is also why I’m suffering the way I do, but I’m not ashamed. I know the one in whom I’ve placed my trust. I’m convinced that God is powerful enough to protect what he has placed in my trust until that day. 13 Hold on to the pattern of sound teaching that you heard from me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 14 Protect this good thing that has been placed in your trust through the Holy Spirit who lives in us.

Part One: Delivered Friday, April 28, 2017

I have to confess, I didn’t know much about hope chests.

When I was asked to speak and preach this weekend, I was told that annual meeting was going to be centered around this image of a hope chest. Now, I’d heard of hope chests before. I vaguely knew that they were this sort of idea from generations past and somehow the related to marriage.

Like we were told before, hope chests were given to young women to be essentially collection points for things that they might use in their married life. Linens, clothing, kitchen items…they all went in.

Hope chest is one name for them, but there were others. In some places, they were called “dowry closets”, because this was what the young woman was chipping in to the marriage. And, my favorite, in other places they were called “glory boxes” because what greater joy in life could a young woman aspire to than being married?

I mean no disrespect to marriage with that, as I’m happily married and it is the greatest joy of my life. And I get the idea of getting ready to start a home together. When Heidi and I married we went to Crate and Barrel and made our gift list just like a lot of other couples.

But that said, I think it’s important for us to name when things don’t seem quite right, and telling young women to put all their hope and joy into a box, and in the form of worldly goods, to somehow be opened later just feels a little sexist. And beyond that, in 2017, it feels really outdated. Hope chest was never in my vocabulary growing up, nor will it be in the vocabulary of most people around my age or younger.

And then I read that in more recent decades, as late as the 1990’s, they were recalling chests made in 1912 because they were a hazard. Hope chests have often been recalled because too many children have gotten stuck in them and have had a hard time getting out. And I thought, “oh my goodness, these things traumatize children…this is a horrifying image”.pexels-photo-221004

So I wondered what to do with hope chests this weekend. And I also wrestled with what to do with this Scripture.

The second letter to Timothy isn’t one of the most well known texts. We are told that it is a letter sent from Paul and addressed to Timothy, his protege. But these days scholars aren’t sure whether or not Paul really wrote it at all. They say it could have been written by a student of Paul’s in Paul’s style.

So, we have hope chests, a sexist, antique, public health hazard. And we have a letter that may or may not have been written by Paul.

Okay…challenge accepted.

As I got closer to this weekend, I kept thinking about this text, though. When I preach in the parish I can usually read a text on Tuesday morning and know pretty much the larger theme I’ll be preaching about on Sunday morning. But this one was a little more slippery.

First, the author is talking about the faith that Timothy has received from his mother, and his grandmother, Eunice and Lois, and about how that faith is not a timid faith, but is powerful and loving. It’s a strong faith, and it is rare in Scripture that we are explicitly told that any women have strong faith. I don’t know Eunice and Lois, but I don’t think they were the kind to box up their glory with the linens.

And then there’s this long section about not being ashamed of his faith, and of remembering what Paul taught him. And the author writes this:

I’m convinced that God is powerful enough to protect what he has placed in my trust until that day. 13 Hold on to the pattern of sound teaching that you heard from me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 14 Protect this good thing that has been placed in your trust through the Holy Spirit who lives in us.

And that was what really struck me. Let’s say that Paul did write this, and if not, let’s say that someone who knew Paul and Timothy really well and knew the love the two shared for one another wrote this. Paul had mentored Timothy in the faith. He had been in so many ways his spiritual father. He talks about Timothy crying when they last saw each other. It’s clear that this is a deep love, like that of father and son.

When this letter was written Paul was probably in prison, and he and Timothy couldn’t be face to face. They may never have seen one another again. So can you imagine Timothy getting this letter, and hearing Paul, or someone writing for Paul, saying “hold on…protect this good thing” that God gave to me to give to you?

I told you earlier about how I didn’t grow up in the church. So, when I became someone who decided to follow the Gospel, my parents weren’t the people I could turn to for guidance. Now, don’t get me wrong, they are good, moral people. But they’re not people of faith, and so we were in fundamental ways not speaking the same language.

But I needed those people. And so I had to find other spiritual mentors and guides along the way. And here’s where I remember the advice that Mary Luti gave that I talked about earlier: if you want to really learn how to be a Christian, the best way to do that is by studying the life of someone whose faith you admire.

In college, and in seminary, I had two people like that. The first was Sammy, who was my campus minister. Sammy was one of those people Luther would call a “little Christ” to so many others. He loved people, and he loved the Gospel. And his greatest sermons were preached not from the pulpit, but by the way he lived his life. At a time when I could have felt so disillusioned by this messy, frustrating, and exclusive place we called church, he taught me how to be a Christian. He taught me to, as Paul would say, “hold on” and “protect this good thing”.

Carol was the second. Carol was, like me, openly gay. And she was also an ordained minister who became my mentor. And where Sammy was the one who would just roll his eyes and tell me God still loved me when I got in trouble in college, Carol was the one who would let me know that God still loved me, but I made some really bad choices sometimes. But from her too, I learned to “hold on” and “protect this good thing”.

I needed both of them. I still do, truth be told, but at that point in my life, when I was still figuring out who I was as a person and as a Christian, I needed them more than ever.

Earlier I was talking about Erik Erikson and how he believes that before we ever great any kind of good works in the world, we first have to understand our identity – who we are. But there’s something else that he said, and that was that we also had to understand intimacy. We had to know “whose” we are, to use Bob Pazmino’s language.

Carol and Sammy loved me. They taught me that I was God’s. But they didn’t do that in an abstract way. They taught me that God loved me because I knew that they loved me too. It wasn’t an academic, intellectual exercise. It was a relationship that transformed me, and that taught me about God in the process. And I’m thoroughly convinced that if I hadn’t had them both in my life, my faith wouldn’t be half of what it is today.

Discipleship demands relationship. It needs authentic connection. It settled for nothing less than for people caring about one another, and pointing the way to the one who loves us beyond measure. And, most importantly, it demands a relationship with Christ. Not as “my own personal relationship with Jesus Christ” as an individual experience, but as a relationship with a community of believers who can be like little Christ’s to one another, helping each other to hold on, and to protect what is beautiful.

Sometimes in our churches, we hear those two commands differently than how they are intended: “hold on” and “protect”. We hear them and we take them to heart. And so we do hold on, and we do try to protect things.

We hold on to and try to protect the things that don’t matter. We hold on to our buildings until we’ve spent our last dollar. We protect old ideas that aren’t working for us believing we are somehow saving the faith. We hold on to what makes us comfortable. We protect our ideas of how church should look.

And sometimes those things are held so tightly that we can’t seem to loosen our grip on them. And sometimes we start to worship them more than God. And we take them, and we put them in something that we think will protect them. We lock them away in containers of our own making for safe keeping.
We take our hope, and our glory, and we lock it away. And eventually, we start to care more about the vessel, than what’s in it. And that’s when we know that we have lost our way.

It doesn’t have to be that way, though. Because sometimes the best way to hold on to something, sometimes the best way to protect it, is not by locking it up. Sometimes the best way is to take it out, and share it with others.

And in the case of our faith, that’s the only possible way to hold on and protect it. Unless we are daring to take it out, and love God and other people with it, we will lose it. And unless we are willing to let down our guard be broken open, to be loved beyond measure and to then love with than same ferocity, we will never be able to protect the beautiful gifts that we have been given.

So what’s in your hope chest? What’s in your church’s? What in this denominations? What has been looked away for too long? What needs to be let out of the box and into the world? What is suffocating our faith? Those are the questions we must answer.


An illustration of the sermon produced on Friday evening by Kurt Shaffert.

About a year ago, almost to the week, I got a message that Sammy had slipped into a coma in Georgia and wasn’t expected to make it. I flew down to Atlanta for his funeral, and I sat in a church filled with generations of students. And I looked out at the congregation and thought about how the faith Sammy lived, even after he was gone, still thrived. I hold onto that faith, and I protect it.

And that same week down in Georgia, my mentor Carol and I met early nearly every morning to have breakfast. And each day, in between the eggs and grits, she kept teaching me the faith, just as she has for over 20 years now, and just as I hope she will for years. I hold onto that faith too, and I protect it.

And these days it’s my job to love other people into faith. It’s my work to give them something that they can hold on to and protect. It’s my job not because it’s the job of a pastor, but because it’s the job of a Christian. And that means it’s your job too.

The people who loved us into faith did not give us these things so that we could lock them away for safe keeping. They entrusted them to us because they wanted us to use them, and to create real hope and glory in the world. Our job is to do just that, and to teach one another, and those who will come, about the hope and glory that comes from Christ. If we do only that, the rest will take care of itself.

Part II: Delivered Saturday, April 29, 2017

Last night we were talking about this same Scripture and about this guy named Timothy, who was a beloved spiritual son of Paul, the great apostle. And we talked about this letter that Paul had sent him from prison, and this fatherly advice to “hold on” and to “protect this good thing” that we have been given.

And we were talking about hope chests, and about how too often we try to hold onto and protect our hope by boxing it up, rather than using it, and sharing it with others. We talked about how it was time to take everything out of the box, and use it, because it’s no good to us, and it’s no good to others, stuck in there.

And we were talking about these two concepts from Erik Erikson, identity and intimacy, and how you have to know who you are and whose you are, and about how before you can go out into the world and create any kind of real change, you yourself have to be transformed. Only then can you, and can we, do truly generative work in the world.

So I was thinking about Timothy, who was loved into the faith by Paul and others, and who now was being given these heavier responsibilities to carry. And I was thinking about how he was standing at a turning point. He had to figure out how to hold on and protect the good things he had been given.

As I was reading this Scripture again this line stuck out at me: “Because of this, I’m reminding you to revive God’s gift that is in you through the laying on of my hands. God didn’t give us a spirit that is timid but one that is powerful, loving, and self-controlled.”

It’s Paul’s reminder that “God didn’t give us a spirit that is timid” that I think he knew Timothy needed to hear. And to know why, you have to sort of follow Timothy throughout the New Testament. You have to know that Paul had once written to the church at Corinth ahead of Timothy and said, “When Timothy comes, see that you put him at ease among you, for he is doing the work of the Lord.” In other words, “Hey, Timothy can be a little shy, a little timid, so make him feel at home because he’s a good guy.”

In other places Paul talks about Timothy’s stomach aches and how he gets sick a lot, and he tries to help him to feel better. He even tells him to drink a little wine to help his stomach, which I think was probably more about quieting his nerves a little bit. The overall picture is of a young man who was sometimes a little reserved, and a little unsure.

But he was also the guy who Paul trusted with some big things, because Paul knew that Timothy was faithful, and that with the help of the Holy Spirit he could do them. And so with his mentor in jail, awaiting what they all knew would probably be his martyrdom, Timothy is standing on this turning point, and he is wrestling between courage and timidity.

To put it another way, he is holding on to the good things that he has been given to protect, and he is having to make a decision about whether to box them up for safekeeping, maybe for someone else to use, or whether to step up, and trust in the power of the Holy Spirit to give him the strength he needs.

I think about Timothy, and I think about the mainline church. We have been given such a good thing in our faith. And we have held on to it. But sometimes we have also had a spirit of timidity. We have been afraid of risk and been afraid of failure, just as he must have been. And so sometimes we’ve needed this kind of reminder that the faith that we have been entrusted with is not a retiring one, but is one that is as Paul says “powerful, loving, and self-controlled”.

And that means that it is also a faith that is going to demand something of us. Yesterday I talked about Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the “cost of discipleship”. If we truly want to follow Christ, we can’t be complacent and timid. We have to sacrifice our comfort, and be willing to confess that there are worthy of sacrifice.

Yesterday one of you came up to me after the keynote and we were talking about the example I used from Gene Robinson yesterday, and you said that you thought I was going to tell another story, one I’d actually never heard before. And you told me that when Gene Robinson was about to be consecrated as a bishop, his daughters were scared to death of what might happen to him. With good reason.

And so he sat down with them, and he told them about all the precautions that had been taken to protect him. He told them that a lot of people were working together to make sure he was safe. And then he told them this. He said something to the effect of, “And I need you to know, I believe that are some things that are worse than death.”

For the church, and for Christians, if we really want to find our lives, we have to be willing to lose them. We can be afraid, but we cannot be too timid to act. And so we need to call on the power of the Holy Spirit, just as Paul told Timothy to do, and we need to take out everything that we have stored away in our hope chests, and we need to be ready to be the church. But before we can do that, we need to know who and whose we are, and we need to draw on that strength in all that we do.

I’m telling you this today because this world is not in a good place. War, poverty, fear-mongering, exclusion, hatred, and the willful neglect of one another reign supreme across the globe. And between this annual meeting and next I don’t know what will happen. I truly believe we are at a crossroads in history, a moral turning point where we are either going to respond successfully as the people of God, or we are going to become truly irrelevant.

Now more than ever, we need to remember who and whose we are. And now more than ever, maybe we need to hear the story of Timothy, a timid young man who was loved into a faith that made him strong.

When he got this letter, he was standing at his own crisis point. He was deciding what kind of Christian he was going to be. And I think Paul was writing this to him, praying that he would remember who he was and trust in the Holy Spirit enough to make the right choices, and to be bold in his faith.

There are stories about the rest of his life that tell us that Timothy did just that. Timothy lived to the age of about 80, a good long life back then, and he became a witness to God’s love and to the Gospel. He was the Bishop of Ephesus, and he took some unpopular stands against the pagan worship practices of the day.

1013016_614340468589772_307607125_nOne day he stood in front of a procession in honor of the goddess Diana. The crowd was carrying a large idol, and they were so angry with him for blocking their path that they beat him, dragged him through the streets, and killed him. He became a martyr for the faith.

We hear that with 21st century ears and we think, “just let them have their parade…don’t die for it.” But put that in 21st century terms. Think of the things that culture makes an idol: money, war, power. Think of the social ills those things create: greed, violence, hatred and xenophobia.

And now think of standing in front of them, and saying you are not going to rule this world anymore.

That’s the work of the church. It’s to face down everything that keeps this earth from being as it is in heaven. And it’s to be courageous, even when we want to be timid, because we know who and whose we are.

And so, hold on. Hold on to the good things, because this world needs them now. And protect them. Protect the fire that has been ignited in you. And let it burn in you, that we may be a light to the world.

Why Did the Samaritan Cross the Road? A sermon for Stewardship Kick-off Sunday

About a month ago I was listening to an NPR pledge drive. And Ira Glass, one of the hosts, took it in a unique direction. He was asking people to call in, not to pledge themselves, but to essentially tell on someone they knew who listened to public radio but who had never pledged.

This one woman called in and turned in her husband. She said he listened to public radio all the time. He loved all sorts of different shows. But there was just one problem; he had never actually given a dime to the station.

So, the poor guy. This is bad enough. But Glass takes it one step further. He calls him, and gives him a good-natured hard time about never giving. And the husband was actually incredibly good-natured about it too, and by the end he not only agreed to pledge, but was quite generous, saying that he was making up for lost time.

So, if about now you’re worried that this will be our new stewardship program here at church…let me ease your mind. There will be no turning your spouse in. There will be no phone calls, radio broadcast or otherwise. Giving to church should never be a shame-based affair, even when lighthearted.

But I did laugh, because when you’re asking people to give, it’s tempting to try just about anything.

You probably already know we are in the middle of our annual church stewardship campaign because you received your pledge packet at home. And every year around this time I preach a sermon about stewardship and why supporting this church is important. And every year I try to make it interesting, so, I’m always looking for good ideas.

Ira Glass’ method is out, so we’re going to have to settle for a sermon.

So, first, what is this word “stewardship”? It’s kind of archaic sounding. It sounds extra “churchy” and serious. Like, this is something that you need to do or God will be like a really mad Ira Glass, calling you up and demanding more.

But the truth is nothing like that. The word stewardship itself comes from the idea of “stewards”. These were people who were appointed to look over and manage prominent people’s property or money, like a king or a lord.

It applies to the Christian practice of giving because, at the root of it, Christians believe that all we have comes not from ourselves, but from God. And because we ourselves belong to God, we believe that all we have also belongs to God.

A friend of mine, Quinn Caldwell, is fond of taking up the offering at his church by saying this: “I’m not saying you’re a thief, but the money in your wallet isn’t yours.” In other words, what we have is not ultimately our own. It belongs to God too. But how we use it, that is our choice. And that is stewardship.

This morning we begin a three week sermon series on stewardship. This isn’t a three week series on why you should give to the church. I’ll only be talking about that aspect today. But this is an exploration of what it means to be a good steward, or good manager, of all that God has entrusted to your care, like money, time, abilities, and more.

We are using the Biblical texts that the UCC picked out for this year’s stewardship inserts. You have one in your bulletin today. And the overarching theme of their campaign this year come from the story of the Good Samaritan which we read today.

Layout 1I love the story of the Good Samaritan. It’s one of my favorites. But when we got the sample material for this fall, for the life of me I couldn’t understand why this was a stewardship text.

And so here we are wrestling with this story where a man is robbed and is left for dead on the side of the road. And as he lays there, people from his own community walk by. Religious leaders. Powerful men. They all stay on the other side of the road, avoiding him.

But one man doesn’t. He’s a Samaritan, a member of a group that was usually looked down upon. But he crosses the road, and bandages the man’s wounds. And then he takes him to the inn, and he gives the innkeeper money and says “take care of this man…I’ll be back to pay whatever it costs”.

Jesus tells this story to his disciples and asks, “Who was a true neighbor to this man?” They answer, “The one who took care of him”. And Jesus says very simply, “Go and do likewise.”

It’s a beautiful story, one at the very heart of our faith. But what does this have to do with stewardship?

I wrestled with that until one of you, unknowingly, gave me the answer in our Wednesday book group recently. You were talking about an experiment where seminarians, students preparing to be ministers, were asked to quickly write a sermon about the Good Samaritan. After they did so they were then sent to another building to preach it.

There was a catch. Some were given adequate time to write and get to the other building. But others were given short periods of time, so the scientists knew they’d be stressed out and hurrying.

What the seminarians didn’t know was that along the route from the first building to the second, they had an actor play a man in distress. He would ask the seminarians to help him. Keep in mind, these were people who had just read and written a sermon on the Good Samaritan.

What do you think happened? It’s not so surprising. The ones who had plenty of time stopped to help the man, the way the Good Samaritan did. But the ones who were rushed? They walked on past.

I don’t think that the second group was filled with bad people who wished ill on the man. Rather, I think something like this happened. I think they knew the man needed help, but they were counting on someone else, someone with more time, to do the helping.

And here’s where the Good Samaritan story makes sense for stewardship. When we are pressed for time, when we are pressed for money, when we have so much going on, we want to give, but we think and hope that the next guy will do it.

That’s human. I’ve done that. We all have. Even the guy that Ira Glass called on the phone. He said he had always just counted on other people to pledge, saying to himself that he would do it some day when he had more time, or more money. He had good intentions, but he never quite got there.

I think that’s true in churches, too. We have good intentions, but we depend on others to do the giving. And, they will. We have generous people in our midst. And we might think that the little we could give wouldn’t make much of difference.

But here’s the question: What if we all gave anyway?

I titled this sermon, “Why did the Samaritan cross the road?” The answer is, in fact, “to get to the other side.” But why did he want to get there? And I think the answer to that is because he knew he could make a difference.

And so, in the context of stewardship, what if we all crossed the road?

If you’ve ever tried lifting something heavy by yourself, and then tried lifting the same thing with others, you know that many hands make light work. The work of upholding this congregation and our ministries is heavy. A lot of good people hold it up. But can you imagine if we all lent a hand? How much higher could we be lifted?

And so how do we cross that road? And what keeps us from crossing it?

I think the biggest thing is our fear of not having enough. That’s acutely true around money. It’s not about our desire. We want to do the right thing just as much as those seminarians who were rushed for time probably did.

But when we are afraid of not having enough, our stress becomes very real. A few years ago the American Psychological Association did a study and found that 64% of Americans said that money is a “somewhat” or “very significant” source of stress. Additionally 31% of partnered people said it was a significant stressor in their relationship.

I’ll give you another statistic. I would wager that just about 100% of clergy would say that the stewardship sermon is a “very significant” source of stress for them.

I’ve told you before that stewardship season feels a little like the NPR pledge drive. And I don’t have Ira Glass to make calls for me. But the reality is this is about more than paying the bills. This is about more than money. And this is about more than even this church.

This is about investing in a life that is congruent with our faith. Billy Graham, as I’ve told you before, once said that if you want to see what you really worship, look at your check book. Update that today, and log on to your bank account, check your credit card statements.

How we spend our money is an act of our faith. And that’s why I’m crossing the road to have this conversation with you. Because this is about more than giving. Because overcoming the fear act holds us back, and aligning our values with our resources is all about faithful living.

I would be remiss to not ask you now to think about how you will cross the road to support this place that we all love. I’m not asking you to stress you out or shame you. There will be no Ira Glass phone calls. And who gives what is a closely guarded confidence at this church; not even I know, nor do I want to.

But I am inviting you to take a risk, and to cross the road. And if you already have crossed that road, I’m asking you to go a little farther. I’m asking you to be one of the hands that works together to lift us up so that we can thrive.

We have amazing things happening right now at church. We have a Christian growth program that continues to be strong, and grow. In Allan and David we have tremendous commitment and talent. We have monthly dinners for younger families, and weekly church school for elementary kids and youth groups for middle and high schoolers.

We have a mission and action committee that never rests, giving generously of their time, and also of our funds. We have Kim, our choir director, and voices that help us weekly to praise God. We have worship that gathers in an increasing number of friends and neighbors every week. We have a well-maintained historic building that houses not just us, but community events like blood drives and AA meetings, lectures and open houses. We have people like Mary, Jim, Faith, and Sharon who help this church keep running. And we have been blessed with so much more.

And all of these things are free to all who wish to enjoy them. Like public radio, they are just there for those who need them. The bill is not in your mailbox. But like public radio, this doesn’t just happen, and it doesn’t just happen for free. The responsibility falls on the gathered body of the church. They happen because we work together as a community to lift them this church up.

And so, don’t give just to pay the bills. You should never give to a church just to pay its bills. Instead, give because you believe good is happening here. Give because you see a bright future. Give because you are ready to cross the road. And give because God has made it possible for you to do so.

This week as you ponder how you will give, I leave you with this question: Why did the Samaritan cross the road? And why, and how, will you? Amen?

The Gift of Forgetting Our Place: Sermon for Easter 2016

Many of you know I grew up in the South. And, one of the things I remember hearing about growing up, at school and in the neighborhood was the importance of “knowing your place”. Where I grew up, for instance, children were supposed to know their place and to be quiet and obedient.

Girls were supposed to know their place too. I remember trying to play Little League baseball with my friends. I loved baseball, and I could hit or throw better than almost any boy I knew. But when I tried to play, the everyone made it very clear to me that I had forgotten my place.

That was pretty frustrating. But, sometimes, things were a little more serious than baseball.

Where I grew up there was a train track that ran through the center of town, and it was literally a dividing line. If you were white, you lived on one side of that track. And if you were black, you lived on the other side. I don’t remember anyone ever teaching me that, but I do know that we all knew it. And I know that we all were all expected to know our place relative to it.

Things like that don’t just happen in the South. And they didn’t just happen in the past either. There is still injustice today, and there has been for longer than we know. And throughout history, time and again, when someone has “forgotten their place”, at least in the eyes of people with power, there have been heavy consequences.

Jesus knew about that. He was a Jewish man living where the Roman Empire controlled everything. He wasn’t a citizen, and he had no rights. And even in his own community, he really had no standing. He was just the son of a carpenter. No money. No power.

But, when he grew into a man and started to attract followers, that’s when things became really dangerous. He was teaching the crowds. He was healing people. He was being talked about like a new king. And that was dangerous, because there he was, showing the Romans and the religious officials and the powers that be, that he had forgotten his place.

And so, they decided to remind him. They arrested Jesus, convicted him, and sentenced him to die by crucifixion, a punishment that only a non-Roman citizen could receive. Even by his manner of death they tried to put him in his place. And as his tomb was sealed, they thought they had succeeded.

That’s the story of Good Friday. It’s a grim one, perhaps one we don’t want to hear on Easter morning. And yet, it’s one we hear everyday. That’s because this world, while not a bad place, is a badly broken place. It’s filled with pain and suffering, war and violence, hatred and injustice.

And if you listen too much to the world that surrounds us, you might believe that this is the way it’s supposed to be. And you might believe that there’s nothing you can do to change that.

Put another way, you might know your place, and you might even accept it.
That’s not surprising, really. You can’t be a realist and live in this world without being aware of what surrounds us. But accepting it, and accepting your place in the whole thing? That’s not mandatory. We may live in a Good Friday world, but the doesn’t mean we have to have Good Friday faith. We don’t have to accept our place as passive participants in that world.

picmonkey_image-1That’s especially true because of what today’s Scripture tells us. On the first day after the Sabbath, at her first opportunity, Mary went to Jesus’ tomb. But when she got there the stone that was supposed to be sealing it had been rolled away, and Jesus was gone.

Mary went to the man she believed was the gardener and asked what happened, and in that moment the possibility that Jesus had risen was so ridiculous, so unbelievable, that at first she didn’t even realize that she was talking to Jesus himself. Even Mary, perhaps his most devoted follower, couldn’t believe that somehow Jesus wouldn’t accept his place and that, somehow, Jesus wouldn’t just stay put.

That’s the good news of Easter. When the world told Jesus he had forgotten his place, he showed them that he did indeed know it, and it wasn’t in the tomb.
And that good news still matters today. Because for all the ways the world tries to extinguish hope, for all the ways it tries to put that God’s love back in the tomb, it just will not stay put.

That’s true no matter what. And that’s why even in a world dominated by injustice, by narcissism and self-interest, by a culture where too many look out only for themselves and those like them, Jesus reminds us that’s not who we are supposed to be. That’s not real life. That’s not real wholeness. And that’s not real hope.

Put quite simply, that’s not our real place.

I believe at some level we all know that, and that today we are here, because, at some level, we believe in a better way. We believe just as he was risen 2000 years ago, he is still risen today.

And, because of that, we begin to know our real place in the world.

One of the greatest examples of moral courage I know comes from the stories of the young African-American students of the 1960’s who tried to integrate lunch counters throughout the South. They would enter these restaurants and stage sit-ins, staying perfectly still even in the face of verbal taunts and horrible violence.

The students were often accused of forgetting their place. But how wrong those accusations were. They knew their place, and it was sitting right there at those lunch counters.

So many of those who participated in those sit-ins were people of faith. They believed in a real way in the Jesus who knew his rightful place, and so rose again, and they drew strength from a faith that said they would rise to theirs too.

That is an Easter faith. It is a faith that rejects the lies of hate and violence, fear and bigotry. It is a faith teaches us our real place and that raises us up with Christ.

Easter wasn’t a one time event that happened 2000 years ago. Easter still happens, every day of the year and all around us. Because Christ triumphed over death all those years ago, we now rise in the face of a whole new set of tombs, and the Easter story lives on.

It lives on when an addict lays down their addiction and chooses life. It lives on when a gay kid, bullied for years, refuses to believe that they are anything less than God’s beloved. It lives on when we cross lines that were drawn by fear, and extend our hands to those who at first glance seem nothing like us.

But mostly it lives on when we forget our place, and least the one that the world tells us about. And it lives on when we start proclaiming an Easter faith that says that no living person’s place is in the figurative tombs of this world.

That’s the good news of Easter. But that’s also the easy part, because there is a challenge. Even in good news there is always a challenge.

And the challenge is this: if Jesus doesn’t stay put, than neither can we. After all, Mary went looking for him just three days after what was supposed to be the ultimate end, and found he wasn’t where they had put him.

And so, 2,000 years later, where is Jesus now? What is he up to? And where does he want us to be?

That’s the big question. Each of us needs to find what is holding us back in our old places, and to remember our real places in this world. For each of us it will look a little different. I cannot tell you where yours is exactly, but I can tell you this: wherever it is, there will be life, and there will be light, and you will be more fully yourself in that place than you have ever been before.

And I can tell you this as well: you don’t have to find that place alone.
Last night some of us gathered here for the Easter vigil. It is an ancient Christian tradition that on the night before Easter new believers were baptized and welcomed, and the Paschal light was lit for the first time. That’s why the Paschal candle is burning this morning next to the baptismal font. It’s a visible sign that Jesus has risen.

That same flame burns now for all of us. It’s a sign that we are Christ’s, and that our place is with him. And it’s also a reminder that we have a job to do, and that is to carry this light out into the world, and to remind others of their place as well.

Because their place is as beloved children of God. Their place is as the ones for whom Christ also rose. Their place is as people who belong not in the tombs, but in the light.

Proclaiming that truth is the work of Easter.

And so, together we do that work. And as we seek to follow a Jesus who for our own good just won’t stay put, may we learn to forget our place, at least the one that the world has told us to accept. And may we guide one another by the light of Christ out of the tombs, and to a truer place than we have ever known. Amen?

Thoughts, Prayers, and the Widow’s Mite: Sermon for November 15, 2015

12249738_10153171783211787_8883653876062982129_nPeople sometimes joke with pastors that we only work on Sunday mornings. Like we preach for an hour each week and then go golfing every other day. To be honest, even I think it’s funny.

But the reality, of course, is different. During the week, along with all the other things ministry entails, we get ready for Sunday morning. And by midweek the service is starting to be prepared in the office. Sermon titles, hymns, prayers, and more are chosen. And by early on Friday a stack of bulletins is ready to go for Sunday morning.

That’s what happened this week. Today is pledge dedication Sunday, when we ask you to bring your pledge cards for 2016 in, and when we dedicate them for next year. It’s the official end of our stewardship campaign. And as you can see in the bulletin, today’s sermon was entitled “Budgeting for Gratitude”. I was preparing a sermon that was about generosity, and how giving is a way of expressing our thanks for all that we have been given.

And I was sitting down on the couch on Friday night, about to write that sermon, when it became clear that something really terrible was happening in Paris. And so for the rest of the night, we watched the news, and prayed for those who were still in danger, and hurt for a beautiful city. And the next morning, like many of you, we asked “Is this what our world is now? Is the world always going to feel this unsafe?”

And then, I thought about this morning. And it just felt wrong to be talking about our stewardship season here when terror is holding so many captive around the world. And I wondered if I should change the text this morning from the story that we just read, to something new.

But, in the end, I didn’t, and it wasn’t just because the bulletins were already printed. This morning the deacon read what’s commonly called the story of the widow’s mite, a mite being a very small amount. And that was what this woman put in the treasury: two small copper coins that didn’t really amount to very much.

Jesus was watching as she did this because all of the people would all come and put their money in the temple’s treasury, and anyone could watch. And so, for some it could be a bit of a production. You could get noticed for your large gifts. And some people, particularly some of the religious officials, made a show of their giving and their piety. And so they also got the place of honor at dinners and events, and they always commanded respect, even if they did not treat others well.

But this widow who is barely scraping by comes into the square, with her two little coins. And she puts them in the treasury. And Jesus says to his disciples, “that woman has just given more than all the others put together”. Because the others had given what was just extra to them. They didn’t even feel it. But she had invested greatly from the little that she had.

The implications for stewardship season are clear there. It’s why churches don’t name their biggest donors. Because this is not a contest to see who can give more. There are no tiered giving societies here. No Pastor’s Circle or, if you really give a lot, Jesus’ Circle. And it’s why I don’t know, and do not want to know, who gives what. That’s because each of us has to figure out what faithful giving looks like given what we have. For some that might be $1 a week, for others that might be a $1000. And those gifts, though vastly different financially, are worth the same to God if they truly come from the right place.

To me, the right place is from our gratitude, and from our hope and courage. Are we giving for recognition? Or are we giving that others may be seen and loved and lifted up? Are we giving to say “thank you” for what we’ve already received, or are we giving to say “I’m important, and you should thank me.” Are we giving from an abundance so big that we don’t even notice the gift is gone? Or are we giving from faith, and are we feeling it just a little when we put our pledge in the plate?

Are we giving like the scribes? Or are we giving like the widow?

These are all the questions that guide my giving. But about right now you might be wondering, what does this have to do with Paris?

To me that all comes back to Jesus line about giving from abundance, versus giving when times are tight. Because I think that same thing could be said about love, and about loving when it is easy for you to do so, and loving when it is tremendously, tremendously difficult.

It is easy to sit here across the ocean, and to say “our thoughts and prayers are with Paris”. And they are. And they will continue to be in the coming days. And then one day, far too soon, something else is going to happen in this world filled with violence. And our thoughts and prayers will be with the next place.

I’m not saying that we are being insincere. But I am saying that for those of us who are not directly affected by the things that happened, it’s not that difficult to say “my thoughts and prayers” are with you. It’s one reason why when people say “we are Paris” I hesitate a little. Because we may love Paris, and stand by Paris, but we are not suffering the way they are. We are not Paris.

And so, it’s okay to say you are praying for Paris. It’s fine to change your Facebook profile picture to the French flag. It’s normal to feel sad and afraid. But in a sense we are giving all of that from our abundance, as people who are relatively untouched.

But looking at Paris on Friday night, I was amazed at some of the ways Parisians, people who like the widow had so little emotionally to give in that moment, opened up and found generous hearts. In one example, Parisians on social media started posting and tweeting that if anyone was stranded and needed a place to stay, they would open their homes to them. And I thought, “how extraordinary…because if there were ever a time for Parisians to fear the stranger it is right now” and yet are choosing to live in abundance instead.

That is what it means to give, and to act, like the faithful widow in the world. To hold nothing back out of fear, but to choose to invest all of yourself, even your heart, in the work that is yet to be done. Because saying “you’re in my thoughts and prayers” without actually intending to do anything is a little like the scribe who has all the money in the world making a sizable deposit in the treasury. It looks good, but you don’t really feel it.

And that is what it should mean when we say a place, or a person, or anything is in our “thoughts and prayers”. It’s not just about thinking about those things for a moment. It’s not saying a quick prayer to God the way we might send an email or something, getting it off our desk and onto God’s. It’s about joining ourselves with the cause, and choosing to invest in it with our lives. Especially when we feel like we have nothing to give.

And that’s because prayer is more than words. Prayer is not something that is over the moment we say “amen”. Amen means “truly” after all. As in “I truly mean this God”. And so, in a profound way, I think that when we say “amen” that means we are just getting started with the praying.

And so, if your thoughts and prayers are with Paris, how will you truly mean that? Will you work for peace in this world? Will you live in hope, and not in the fear that the terrorists hope that we will embrace? Will you stand up in the coming days to the Islamophobia that we will doubtlessly hear all around us?

And I want to say something specifically about that. Because those refugees in Europe who are now being looked at with suspicion came there because ISIS was doing these same things in the places they are fleeing. And ISIS is as much a Muslim organization as the Klan was a Christian one. They weren’t burning those crosses because they wanted to destroy them. They burned them as symbols of their faith. Thank God we Christians are not judged by them. So let’s make sure our Muslim neighbors aren’t judged by the actions of those who would sully their faith.

In all these ways and more, how will you pray for Paris? And how will you pray for all the other places where terror reigns? For Beruit. For Iraq. For Syria. For those places in our own country.

I’m of the mind that terror wins when it forces us to live in fear. It wins when we are no longer generous people, but instead live with closed and suspicious hearts. And it wins when a night of horror halfway around the globe can dampen the basic faith in humanity of people here.

And so I’m reminded of the old bumper sticker phrase, that despite its brevity actually has a lot of truth in it: think globally, act locally. We are not in Paris. But we are here. And we can choose this day, and each day, how we will live in the world. And we can choose how we will give of ourselves in every part of our lives.

We can choose love. We can choose understanding. We can choose generosity. And we can choose to invest all of us in the people and things that we believe in.

But more simply, we can choose to live like scribes, with closed hearts, and actions that cost us nothing. Or we can choose to live like the faithful widow, who believed God would bless even those two small coins she put in the plate. We can choose to live with our fears in charge. Or we can can choose to love with our hearts wide open. The choice is ours. And the prayer that is our lives starts now. Amen?

But, What Do You Think?

The following was originally delivered as the sermon at the Congregational Church in Exeter on September 13, 2015.

Where I lived when I was growing up, people would sometimes try to convert others to their own particular brand of Christianity. Sometimes a classmate would do it. Other times it was someone on the street, or going door to door, passing out pamphlets. And you sort of learned what to watch out for if you didn’t want to be evangelized, and most of the time you could sneak by them, or cut them off at the pass.

It wasn’t always possible, though. One time my mom got stuck in the line at the DMV with someone who was trying to convert her.

12011156_1042871019098829_2260206330329240522_nOne question I remember being asked a lot by the folks who wanted to convert others was this: Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ? I was a Christian, I did have a relationship with Jesus, but I was a little worried that they were going to tell me I was doing it all wrong and that they knew him a whole lot better than I did. So, to be honest, I’d hear the question and run the other way as fast as I could.

And then one time my senior year of high school, when I was really starting to explore my faith more, I tried to talk to a friend who had grown up in a fundamentalist family about it. She was heading in the other direction from her church and rejecting everything that she had been taught.

We were driving and I told her about this pull I was feeling towards belief and about how my priorities felt like they were shifting. And I could sort of see her getting uncomfortable, and she turned to me with this exasperated look and said something like, “Emily…are you trying to tell me you’ve been saved?”

And I recoiled and said, “oh…no…no…I was just saying I’ve been thinking about some things, that’s all.

This week’s Gospel lesson features Jesus having one of those awkward talks with his disciples. He asks them as a group, “Who do people say that I am?” And they give him some answers. They say some say he’s Elijah. Others say he’s John the Baptist. Others say he’s a prophet.
But after they all give him these answers, he asks the question another way. “But, who do YOU say that I am.”

I’ll bet for a minute there you could hear crickets chirping. It’s sort of like when you’re in class and you give the answer you think the teacher wants to hear, the safe answer, the one you read in all the books and the cliff notes. And then the teacher asks it again but this time says, “now I want to hear what you think”.

Finally Peter tries. He tells Jesus, “you’re the Messiah”.

Peter answered for himself, and he got it right. But I’ll bet just answering that question was a leap of faith for him. I’ll bet it was a lot easier to give the answer that everyone else was giving. When he had to answer it for himself, it was probably terrifying. And yet, when he finally did dare to speak, Peter was the first one to really understand who Jesus was.

I think we can all relate to the disciples here. If someone were to ask you, “Who do you say that Jesus is”, how would you answer? To be honest, I would probably try to put all those seminary classes to good use and come up with the perfect, pithy, theologically correct answer, hoping that others would think I was right. Because I spent a lot of time in seminary trying to come up with the right answers, and reading a lot about what other people said about Jesus. When Jesus asked me that question, I could go and pull out the heavy theological books from seminary, write up a summary in an essay, polish it up, and turn it in and pray for an A.

But then I think Jesus would ask me again, “But, who do YOU say that I am?” And that question would be ten times harder.

I think back to those folks I knew growing up. “Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?” You know, in a way they were really asking, “Who do you say that Jesus is?” Except, I’m pretty sure that for most of them, there were right answers. And I’m not sure they were really wanting to hear my answer, so much as the answer they were looking for, the answer, they and their church all believed was true.

But I’m glad Jesus doesn’t ask us what everyone else says about him. He asks what we say about him. Because the reality is there is a lot of stuff that is said about Jesus that I don’t believe. And, unfortunately, when I ask my non-Christian friends what they think Jesus was all about they sometimes tell me what they hear churches saying about this issue or that one, and it’s not pretty.

If Jesus really were the person some of the voices that were loudest around me growing up said he was, I don’t think I would want to get close enough to him to find the answers for myself.

But the good news is that Jesus doesn’t call for all the voices around us to answer that question. He calls for each of us to answer that question. And in order to answer it, we have to get to know Jesus for ourselves. We have to, as the street preachers used to say, have a personal relationship with him.

And, unlike what those street preachers used to say, we have to trust it, and we have to trust that our relationship with Jesus is as valid as anyone else’s.

But that’s not always easy. During one of the hardest times of my life, a few years after I was ordained, I had to ask myself that question again: who is Jesus to me. And for a while there, I wasn’t sure. My doubt and faith were wrestling with one another, and I just didn’t know.

I would not want to go back through that time. But I’m glad I lived through it. Because it was that grappling, that questioning, that helped me to answer the question for myself today. It was that season in my life that deepened my faith, and made me believe that God truly did love me.

We are fortunate that we are in a religious tradition that encourages us to ask questions like that. We have a lot of testaments and testimonies to faith from those who came before us. And we do believe things as a body. But we don’t have a checklist of things you must believe to be a part of this community. We don’t make you take a test, or answer the questions of a catechism correctly, when you come to the door. We just welcome you, and we welcome your questions.

For us as individuals, that’s both wonderful, and a little terrifying. It means that you don’t come here on Sunday mornings because I’m going to have the right answer up here in the pulpit. I might have the answer I’ve come to, and what I think is true, but that’s not to say that you will agree or that it’s the right one. And we don’t come here because we have the cheat sheet hidden somewhere in the church.

We come because we are all journeying down the same road, trying to answer for ourselves, the question Jesus asks of us. “Who do you say that I am?”

Sometimes we will try to answer that together. But sometimes we can only answer it for ourselves. And we have to trust that whatever we say, if we are truly answering out of our relationship with Christ, it will be enough.

I’ll close with this. There’s always been one thing about that passage we read this morning that has bothered me. When Peter answers correctly, when he says “you’re the Messiah”, Jesus tell them all, “don’t tell anybody”. Now, I think there were a lot of reasons for that. Some had to do with where he was heading, and his own coming death and resurrection. But I wonder if there was another meaning there too.

I wonder if Jesus said that because he wanted people to find out for themselves. I wonder if he said that because he didn’t want us to take the shortcuts to the right answers, instead of really getting to know him. I wonder if he said that to discourage generations of followers who came later from taking the easy route, from just buying into the soundbites about faith that they hear all around them. I wonder if he said that because he wanted to make that journey with us, and because he was our companion on the road to that answer, and not just our destination.

It’s sort of the difference between flipping to the back of the math textbook and writing down the right answer rather than actually showing your own work. It’s easy. But in the end you’re no better for it.

So, on this gathering Sunday, where we start a new program year, I home you will join me on the journey of asking the big questions. And as we bless the backpacks of our students today, we send them out into a world where they will ask big questions and seek worthy answers. And they will do it with our blessing, just as they will in church school each Sunday, or in youth group, or even when they go off on their own one day. We are literally blessing them for the journey today.

And it’s a journey all of us are on. Because more than anything, the life of faith is traveled on a road paved by our own questions. And this is a place where you can ask those questions, gathered together in this community, gathered together on this journey, and gathered together to ponder Jesus question to us all: who do you say that I am.

I love walking this road with Jesus, and I love walking it with all of you. Even when it’s clouded and we can’t see up ahead. Even when it leads us to some places we’ve never gone before. I love it because I know we are all trying to answer that question, both together and as individuals, and we’ll never get the answer quite right. At least in this lifetime. But we keep trying. And we keep our hearts open. And slowly, together, we begin to find the words to answer our biggest questions. Amen.

Faithful Work, Faithful Welcomes: Kim Davis, Aylan Kurdi, and all of us.

The following was preached as a sermon on September 6, 2015 at the Congregational Church in Exeter, NH.

James 2:1-4, 14-17
My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

When I started seminary, all the area churches came to campus to try to persuade the new students to worship with them. There happened to be a lot of churches from our denomination in town, and they always wanted seminarian members.

One of my classmates went to worship that Sunday at a church where most visitors did not stay for long. He found a pew somewhere in the middle of the congregation, and he sat down and got ready for worship to start. And that’s when a woman came down the aisle, and tapped him on the shoulder.

“Young man,” she said, “you are sitting in my pew! I’m going to have to ask you to move.”

Up until then I didn’t think that actually happened in real life, but it did. And my classmate, a very kind man, got up and gave her his seat. But that’s not the end of the story. Because the woman who had displaced him somehow found out that he was a seminarian visiting for the first time. And now she was embarrassed.

She came up to him and said, “Had I known you were a visiting seminarian, I would never have asked you to move!”

Today’s reading reminded me of that story. Like last week, we are in the Epistle of James, and this week we read this: “if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges?”

In other words, if anyone treats one stranger differently than another, especially over something as trivial as clothing, then that person is judging them. And it is not the place of a person, and especially of a Christian, to treat other children of God with anything less than dignity and respect.

That was the greater injustice of what happened to my classmate that day at that church. It’s one thing to be asked to move by someone who really likes their pew. It’s not what I hope would happen to a church visitor, but it’s the lesser of the problems here.

The greater was that the woman who did it was only sorry because she found out he was a seminarian, and she was embarrassed about the way she had treated a future member of the clergy, rather than the way she had treated a child of God.

The irony is that when it comes to making someone feel unwelcome in a church, seminarians and clergy are really your last concern. We’re coming back to some church regardless. We’re sort of a captive audience, no matter what you throw at us.

But what if he had been someone who for years had been trying to work up the courage to walk back into church? What if he had felt unwelcome before? What if he had felt so far from God that stepping into those doors had been an act of faith in and of itself? What then?

The way we treat people in our churches is just the start, though. It’s what we do in the world outside of our church doors that really matters. Because like I said last week, our actions speak louder than words. And our actions tell others what we really believe more than any statement of faith. And how we treat other people, particularly those who have nothing to give us, says the most of all.

I’ll tell you another seminary story. At my seminary we paid most of our tuition by working a few hours a week around campus. And one of the places most of us rotated through was the refectory, the seminary dining hall. And I almost always had the breakfast shift. I’d get up around 6am and sort of stumble over to the kitchen and serve eggs and bacon to the few of my classmates who got up in time.

And a few times a year the doctoral students, clergy members, would come to campus for intensive classes. They’d come to breakfast every morning, and mostly they were very pleasant. But one woman was not.

Each morning she’d work her way through the line barking orders at us. And each morning we’d fill her plate and roll our eyes and say nothing. But one morning a classmate of mine was in line before her. And he and I got to talking about an exam we had both just taken in a class.

I saw her eyes get big. And she said, “Are you students here?”

“Yes,” I told her, “Everyone who serves the food is a student here.”

Now she looked downright panicked. And all of a sudden she found her manners. Because now it occurred to her that she was being rude not just to a nameless server, but to her future colleague.

There’s an old saying that if you really want to know whether or not you should date someone, that them to dinner and watch how they treat the wait staff. I believe that. And that day in the refectory, I was pretty disillusioned about the clergy. And if seminary is dating, ordination is marriage. And I didn’t want to marry into that.

I didn’t want to be the sort of person who treated people differently based on what they could or could not do for me. I didn’t want it to matter whether or not they were like me. I wanted to love the way Jesus did, and does. I wanted to love my neighbor as myself. And I wanted to let that love to speak volumes about my faith. I didn’t want to be a hypocrite.

But the reality is that I am.

I don’t mean to be. It’s not intentional, anyway. But, I am. And it only took two things this week to remind me of that fact.

The first was watching the county clerk in Kentucky who, despite court orders, will not grant same-sex couples marriage licenses. And let me say first, that I think she’s dead wrong. I don’t think she’s being persecuted, and I don’t think her legal consequences have anything to do with her faith. I think this has to do with her being a civil servant who is using her position to impose her religion on others, and to deny their civil rights. Couples like Heidi and me. Couples like others in this church.

And so when people started to talk about what a hypocrite she was, and how she’d been married four times herself, I joined in. And when they said they hoped she would rot in jail, well, I didn’t go that far, but I understood the anger because I know what it’s like to not have my own marriage recognized.

But when they started to talk about her clothes. And her appearance. And when they made fun of her for being from Kentucky…well, that’s when it got a little less funny. And that’s when I thought about what would happen if she walked into my church, and whether I would give up my pew to her, and see her for the child of God that she is.

That was my first reminder.

Drawn by Rafat al-Khateeb

Drawn by Rafat al-Khateeb

The second was this. A picture of a lifeless child on a beach in Turkey. A refugee. A child who was not rich. Who did not possess the right passport. Who was seen, at least in the abstract, as a burden on the society his family risked their very lives to join.

And the first thing I thought about were our kids here at the church. And how much I really love them. And how this boy was the same age as some of them. And I thought about how I’d do anything in my power to save one of our kids from harm. And I thought about how this boy needed someone to do that for him too.

And then I thought about all the children throughout the world like him. Children on rafts coming from Syria. Children crossing the border into our country. Children right here in Exeter. And I thought about how all Jesus said was that we should welcome the children. And how he never added any qualifiers about which children.

Every child needs someone. Every child needs more than someone. They need all of us. And they need our moral courage.

The fact so many were more outraged this week by the fact that a government employee was asked to do her job than they were by a child who lost his life tells us just how much we miss the point sometimes.

Because we can talk about our faith all day, but unless we are doing something because of that faith, unless we are changing the way we interact with the world, then it’s just lip service. Because James is right: Faith without works is dead

James asks us, “What good is it… if you say you have faith but do not have works?…If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”

What good is it? What good is faith if it doesn’t change the world? What use is it if it only comforts us? What’s the point if we only pay attention on Sunday morning? If that’s the sort of faith we aspire to, faith on life support, then it’s time to let it die.

Because that’s not faith at all.

But if that’s not what we are looking for, if that’s not what we think God wants for us, the good news is that there is a better way. But it’s going to take a little work. And it’s going to take a little moral courage.

Scripture tells us that God is “our refuge and our strength”. And we often repeat that. We believe it. But we can’t just believe it for ourselves.

And so here is our faithful work. It is to fling open wide the doors of our church. Yes, our literal downstairs doors, but even more so the doors of our hearts. It is to welcome everyone in. And it is to offer them our pews, and to deny a seat to no one.

I believe God gives us strength for the work our faith requires of us. And I believe God uses us to give refuge to the world. Refuge, because the world is filled with refugees both in the literal and spiritual sense. And they are all fleeing the same hardness of the world. And they are all hoping to find more than just hardness in our hearts. They are hoping to find people of compassion. People of mercy. People of faith.

The name of that child was Aylan Kurdi. And I hope Aylan would have found a pew here. And the name of that clerk is Kim Davis. And I hope Kim would find a pew here. And the name of that woman who kicked the seminarian out of her pew, and the one who was rude to the kitchen staff…well, I don’t know their names. But I hope they would find a pew here. I hope this, because I hope that I, with my imperfect faith, would find a pew here too.

Yes, faith without works is dead. But faithful work…the sort of work that intentionally opens the doors to all, and treats each one with dignity? That work brings new life to the world. And to us all. And there’s always room for more. Amen?

Choosing What We Will Serve

The following was preached as a sermon on Joshua at the Congregational Church in Exeter, Sunday, August 23, 2015.

Everyone has heard of Moses. He was the guy who talked to the Burning Bush. He told Pharaoh “let my people go”. He helped his people cross the Red Sea and went up on the top of the mountain and came down again with the Ten Commandments. As Biblical figures go, he’s a rock star.

But the guy you probably don’t know as much about, is the one who had the unenviable task of following him in the job. The one who had to assume command after Moses died just shy of the Promised Land. The one who had to lead the people as they figured out what it was to no longer be lost in the wilderness, but to be putting down roots.

His name was Joshua. And his job was to be the new Moses for a new time.


Orthodox Christian icon of Joshua.

It’s not a job I would have wanted, but it’s one Joshua did well. He helped the people to secure their land and start a new community. And at the end of his life, he called the elders to him and said to them all the things you just heard in the Scripture reading. Including this:

24:14 “Now therefore revere the LORD, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD.

24:15 Now if you are unwilling to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.”

In other words, figure out what you are worshipping. Choose who or what you are going to serve. And if it is some thing other than God, then serve that. But if it is God, then serve God. No more divided loyalties. Make a choice. Commit.

When I was in seminary, my theology professor had us read centuries worth of church history and theologians. And he had one topic that he hammered home probably more than any others. He wanted us to read these heavy texts looking for what he called the “polemic against idolatry”.

I’ve talked before about how theologians sometimes use big words for relatively easy concepts. This is another example. Because all he was really talking about was how important it has been for Christians throughout the centuries to turn away from idols.

And even that word, idols, can be broken down. Because, what do you think of when you think of idols? You may well think of the statues of false gods that people worship in the Bible. Like the people who built the golden calf in the wilderness while Moses was up on the mountain getting the Ten Commandments. They thought he wasn’t coming back, they lost faith, and in the void they melted all of their golden jewelry and created a god of their own. A gold cow. And they worshipped it!

It sounds ridiculous to us. None of us, I don’t think anyway, are dancing around golden calfs in our living rooms or backyards. We can look at those people in the wilderness and feel superior. Who would build a big gold cow and make it their substitute for God?

Except, as it turns out, the lesson of the golden calf didn’t take so long to be forgotten. Because by the next generation, by the time of Joshua’s leadership, the idols were back. They weren’t big golden calfs, but they were there. Some had even been brought from Egypt, where the people had lived for so long that they had begun to worship the gods of the Egyptians. And the people had begun to have divided loyalties between the God who had brought them to the promised land, and the gods they had gathered around them.

Those gods, often actual statues or physical objects, became the places where the people could put their faith. And their fears. Places where they could make meaning and work through their anxieties. And places where they would put energy and faith that was meant only for the one true God.

Another word for “idols” is very simple. It’s “distractions”. Because that’s what idols are; they are distractions from the God who loves us and who asks for us in body and soul.

When Joshua was dying he looked around at his people and he saw all the false gods they had brought with them from Egypt. All the idols and distractions that they were worshipping and serving, and he called his elders to him and he said: “Make a choice. Decide this day who you will serve. And if it’s the idols, then serve the idols. But if it’s God, then put away those distractions. Decide. But as for me, I will serve the Lord”

What Joshua is saying is to stop worshipping distractions. Stop worshipping what cannot and will not save you. Stop worshipping what is not God.

We hear that word “worship” and we might think about what we are doing right now, and what we do every Sunday morning for an hour of our week. But worship, it doesn’t have to be formal. In fact, in a real way we are worshiping during every hour of our lives. And what we worship can give us great life. But if we choose unwisely, it can also destroy us.

I don’t think Joshua called the people to him and told them to stop worshiping distractions because they were somehow just backing the wrong team. I think he warned them to make a choice because he knew an important truth. He knew that worshipping, and serving, false idols is not just pointless. It can actually hurt you.

I’ve talked before about being an English major. I think being an English major is more than just being someone who set out on a particular academic course. I think it’s choosing a way of life that involves trying to find the lessons of great literature. And so, I spend more than I should down at Water Street books. That’s okay. I consider it part of a continuing education, especially for a theologian.

Because in so many books I have found theology. And in so many I’ve found the lesson to be this: our false idols have the power to destroy us.

In Moby Dick Captain Ahab lives for finding and killing the giant whale that had injured him. And his obsession destroys not just him but others. In The Picture of Dorian Gray the protagonist so worships his own beauty, that it becomes his downfall. And in Harry Potter, Voldemort so fears death, that he kills multitudes to try to avoid it.

The false gods we worship, the distractions, the things we put our faith in other than God, they will not save us. They will more often than not aid us in our own destruction.

And yet, more often than not, we do it anyway. We find idols all around us. And we put our faith in them instead of in God, even when we don’t realize we are doing it.

I said a few moments ago that we worship not just one hour a week on Sunday mornings, but every hour of our lives. I believe that is true. No, we don’t sit in pews and offer up formal prayers to our distractions, but they are there none the less, and we do worship them.

We worship them by giving them our attention. Our time. Our money. Our hope. We let them shape our identity and define us. We let them give us meaning. And far too often, they leave us disappointed.

I tell parents especially that their children are keen observers of what their parents worship. They know what they give their attention to, and they are sharply aware of what is given priority in their parents lives. They know what their parents will drop everything for, and what gets done when there is time.

And I tell them this, that the greatest predictor of a child’s future faith, is their parents’ current faith. I don’t just mean church attendance there. I mean lived faith, in the home and in the pews. And if your children see worship as something you only do when you have the time, it will send them a powerful message about what gods you are asking them to serve.

That’s true for all of us. Each day, each hour, each minutes, we make the decision about what we will serve. Each minute we decide where we will put our faith, and our trust. Each minute we choose distractions, or we choose what really matters.

Rest assured, we will always do this imperfectly. But also know that with a little practice, the choices we make will become more automatic, more joyful, and more life-giving. And we just may find that in a real, every day way, they will save us.

And so, as you prepare this day to choose who you will serve, I will leave you once again with this caution: do not serve, do not love, what cannot love you back. And then make your choice. May we all be so bold to say, “as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord”. Amen.

Faith, Science, and the Journeys We Take

Note: the following was originally delivered as a sermon at the Congregational Church in Exeter on July 26, 2015.

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day. – Genesis 1:1-5

One of the questions I get most when a new friend finds out I’m a Christian, is some variation of this: How can you believe that stuff?

The “stuff” part of that is always different. Some folks have difficultly believing in a virgin birth. Others a literal resurrection. Others that there is a life after this one. And I tell them that there are good Christians who have a variety of different beliefs on “that stuff”, and that a large part of being a Christian is living between faith and doubt, and not always being 100% sure, but being open to a greater truth.

So that’s what happens sometimes. Other times I get a question like this: “Do you really believe that this world was created in six days?” Or, “Do you really think Darwin was wrong? Do you reject evolution?” Or, my favorite, “What about the dinosaurs?”

I get questions like this all the time. They are all a little different, but all variations on the same theme: how do we reconcile faith and science?

And, in a world where things are given credence only when there is scientific proof, how do we believe without it? And I’ve recently had some of you ask me if I would preach a sermon on these questions, so that’s part of why I’m doing this today.

They’re good questions. And they’re not questions that are easily answered. Or, I should say, they are not easily answered in this particular church and others like it.

Because in some churches they are. I knew people growing up who believed that the earth was created in six, 24 hour days. They believed that this happened a few thousand years ago. And they believed that anyone who believed otherwise was not a real Christian.


The “Space Window” at the National Cathedral, donated by the crew of Apollo 11. (Photo copyright National Cathedral.)

It always troubled me to hear that. I wanted to be a good believer, but one of my favorite places in town was the science center and planetarium. And I couldn’t reconcile what I heard those loudest voices of Christianity in my town say with what I learned when I went to the science museum and saw the exhibit on the dinosaurs. Because they had lived long before a few thousand years ago, and things just didn’t add up.

And on a few occasions I even heard Christians say that God had put the dinosaur bones on the earth to test our faith. If we were real believers, we wouldn’t be distracted by them and we wouldn’t stray from the story: God created us in six, 24 hour days.

I could never accept that. I’m grateful that I’ve never been a member of a church that has asked me to check my brain at the door. I’m thankful for a faith that tells me to glorify God not just with my soul, but with my mind.

But not every church is like that. When my a friend of mine’s sister in law had her first child, my friend sent them a box filled with things for the baby. One of the things in the box was a picture book about dinosaurs. They called her and angrily demanded that she never send anything of the sort again because “real Christians didn’t believe in things like that.” My friend, who considered herself a good Christian, was baffled.

I feel baffled sometimes too. I love the Bible. I take the Bible very seriously. I think it contains an inherent truth about who God is and how God loves us. But I also think that taking the Bible seriously is different than reading it mindlessly. Faith is too precious, and God’s creation too extraordinary, to approach God’s word with anything less than our full selves; minds included.

But learning how to do that has been a process. Like I said, I loved science as a child. I loved that science museum and its exhibits. Everything was fascinating to me. And in a real way I credit that first interest in science with inspiring the big questions that led me to theology.

If there are all these stars in the sky, all these galaxies, how did they get there? Who created these dinosaurs? Who created a universe that even the greatest scientific minds of our generation cannot explain?

I had a Biology teacher in ninth grade who was also a Christian. One day in class a more fundamentalist classmate was asking her how she could believe the things she believed about how old the world was and still be a Christian. She responded simply that even if she didn’t believe that the world was created in six, 24 hour days, she still believed that God created the world. Genesis, while not a literal timeline of the beginning of the world, was true to her none-the-less. God’s hand was no-less a part of creation in her scientific view than it was in their literal view.

That always rang true with me. That idea that taking something literally and taking something faithfully are two different things. That God’s involvement in the world is not something that can be quantified and understood by our human measurements. That God’s work of creation can stand on its own and does not need to be supported by living in a scientific world and believing literally a story told by pre-scientific people. Especially one that seeks to explain what we as humans, of whatever age, will never be able to fully explain.

Because God could have created the world in a second. God did not need six days. And God could have created the world over the course of millenia, always active in creation, always working, always transforming. Because God is creating the world, and all of us, even still today.

And that means God is still creating our ways of understanding the world. Back when the books that make up this book were written, thousands of years ago, and over hundreds of years, the world looked so different.
The Bible is a pre-scientific book. It comes from an era before this one, one in which human beings did not know all that we now know. But we are now living in a scientific world, and sometimes it doesn’t translate well. We know the world is not flat, heaven is not literally just above the clouds, and the world is more than 6000 years old. But that doesn’t mean that this book is worthless. Because it still holds truth. It just means we have to read it in a different way than we read a science textbook. And we have to say “both ways are valid”. Read it like poetry. Read it like inspiration. Read it like a testament to the greater truth of God.
Because if you can do that, you will find something great…you will find that you can see the world itself in new ways. And that can be a gift.

And that’s also the other side of this. Because the other half of the questions about faith and science that I get are about this: how do we know? How do we know God is real? How do we know that God loves us? How do we know it’s true?

It’s not like back when you had to do a project for the science fair. This is not like scientific knowledge. Because, great truths are discovered through the scientific method. It would be a whole lot easier if we could approach faith that way. But there’s no controlled experiment, no equation that can yield us a definitive answer. It doesn’t work that way.

I’d love it if we could do that?. Wouldn’t you? But faith, just like science, is not that simple. It means taking risks. It means opening your mind to new things. And it means being willing to be changed by new discoveries.

Your minds are always welcome in this church. Your questions are always honored. Your struggles to find God’s truth are always allowed here. And your questions, your search for God’s love, with your heart and soul and mind, will always be respected. To do anything less, would be to disrespect the God who created us good all those years ago.

I’ll close with this. Thursday afternoon, after I’d already picked the text and topic for today, and after the bulletin had been planned, I was walking back to the church from lunch. And there was a car parked in front of it with a bumper sticker. It read, “Too stupid to understand science? Try religion.”

I had to laugh. But then I thought about our church. I thought about many of you. Physicists, biologists, chemists, science teachers, medical professionals. I thought about one of our members who is in the Galapagos right now studying what Darwin studied. I thought about even our children and youth who love science and devour every book they find.

And I thought, “science isn’t an enemy to us here.”

I left a note on the car. Not an angry or hostile one. Just one that said, hey, I’m not trying to convert you but I’d love to show you Christians who love science. So, I invited that person to worship today. I don’t think they came. But I hope that maybe their perception of what it means to be a person of faith changed, just a little bit.

Because in the end I believe both people of faith and scientists hold something in common: we are explorers. We don’t stand on the shore and say it can’t be done. We get in the boat, and go on the journey. And if we look hard, we just might find something there that is true. Something worth searching for. Something worth believing.

Scientists are on voyages to find the next vaccine, the newest planet, the cure for cancer. They never stop exploring. And if we are true to our faith, and to who we are created to be as human beings, than neither do we.

We keep going on our own voyage. Our own journey that defies easy answers. We have to work at it. We pray. We struggle. We wonder. We ask the big questions. And somewhere, despite all odds, we find faith, and when we least expect it, we just might find out a little more about God.

Learning to Multiply: Sermon for May 10, 2015

I’ve been thinking this week about learning how to multiply. Do you remember when you first learned? I was in about third grade when we had to memorize our times tables. Some were easy. 1×1 is 1. 1×2 is 2. Some got harder like 9×7 is 63. And some I could never remember like 11×12 is 132.

Math was one subject that just never came easily to me. And, when I was already struggling, the teacher introduced this thing we would have do in math class. She handed out these cards with all these multiplication problems on them, and she would say “go” and then you had something like two minutes to do the entire sheet correctly.

It was the most anxiety-producing academic experience I ever had, one that not even my ordination exams in seminary rivaled. And this week I had dinner with a friend, and I talked about what my sermon for today, and about learning how to multiply. And she said, “Did you ever have to do those things…with all the problems that you had to complete in two minutes?”

It became clear that learning to multiply was a traumatic experience for many of us.

And yet, multiplication is about more than just math. It even has a place in the spiritual life. And though we don’t have to do those timed worksheets, we still have to learn how to do it.

Loaves and Fish Roundel Zunti and Doepker, Saskatchewan

Loaves and Fish Roundel
Zunti and Doepker, Saskatchewan

Today’s story tells us a little of why. The story of the loaves and fish is one we hear at least once a year in church. It’s also the only miracle of Jesus that is told in all four Gospels, which I think is a pretty good indicator of its importance. In each of the four tellings the details vary just a little, but the main story remains the same: Jesus is preaching. The people all come out to hear him. And they are hungry. And there are so many that the disciples look out and wonder how they are going to feed them all. And they tell Jesus, “we could spend six months’ wages and we couldn’t afford to even start to feed everyone.”

One of them, Andrew, points out that one boy has five loaves of bread and two fish, but he says “What use is that?”

But Jesus says something different. He takes the boy’s food, and he has the crowd of five thousand sit down. Then he blesses the loaves and fish and sends them out into the crowd. And when all is said and done, not only does everyone eat, but there are baskets filled up with all the extras.

Now, what really happened that day on that hill? There are ways to explain it away. Some say it never really happened. And others say that the real miracle was that once one person decided to share the others around them felt like they could do the same and it turned out there really was enough for everyone.

And, maybe there’s something to that. It does take a small miracle to get over our fear about never having enough and to instead share abundantly with others. But, what I think happened that day, more than anything, had to do with Jesus. And multiplication.

Here’s why. Do you remember your times tables, and the rule about zero? Zero times any number always equals what? Zero. 0 x 1 = 0. 0 x 37 = 0. 0 x 984 = 0. This was a revelation to me. It was like finding out there was a free space in math. You cannot multiply 0 and ever get something else.

But with even a little bit, multiplication can work wonders. Even more than addition, if you want to build something you have to learn to multiply.

Think about the story for a moment. It has always struck me as important that Jesus did not start with zero. Personally, I think he still could have figured out a way for everyone to get fed. But I think there’s something important about the fact that the only thing he initially had to work with were five loaves of bread, and two fish, brought to him by a small child. I don’t think it’s an accident that Scripture tells us about that first, small gift. Because it may not have been much, but it was something.

So, like I said, there are some who believe that what happened next was addition. People opened up their own bags, and added to the common meal. And like I said, maybe that’s true. But, I think what really happened was multiplication. Jesus took what was given, and transformed it into something far greater and better than it could be on its own.

I think that’s what happens when God gets involved in something. I think we bring what we are willing to give, and what we are willing to see transformed. And I believe that God doesn’t just add to it. God takes what we give and multiplies it into something we couldn’t imagine.

To me that is what blessing looks like. It’s not God just giving us more. It’s God creating something new out of what we give, and multiplying the blessing until what we end up with is so much bigger and better than we could imagine.

A small child dared to share what little he had. Jesus did not just say “okay, here’s a few more fish”. Jesus multiplied it so it fed the masses, and there was an abundance left.

The same is true of anything we give to God, and it’s true of our spiritual lives. When we give God just a small part of ourselves, whether in prayer or meditation or service, we find that God gives us back something even better. God gives us a sense of God’s presence, and love and grace. God renews us for the work we do, and gives us joy.

That’s what happens when we stop holding on to things so tightly, whether our time or our gifts or even our fears, and we let go, and let God work with them. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the one who brought the fish and bread to Jesus that day was a child. Because I think children understand in an intrinsic way that we are not transformed by what we hold on to. They understand, because they have not yet learned otherwise, that when we live our lives with our hearts open, incredible things can happen.

It’s that spirit of children, that willingness to let God in, that Jesus himself commended to his disciples. Jesus said unless we become like little children, we will never get it. Unless we learn to put aside our fear and let God work with what we have to give, no matter if people are scoffing on the sidelines and saying it’s not enough, we will never understand how God can multiply our blessings.

I’m always struck by the fact that even while the disciples talked about how few people that boy’s fish and bread could feed, the boy still gave them to Jesus anyway. And I’m struck by the fact that none of the disciples opened up their own bags. And so Jesus used the small gifts of a child to show everyone what he could do.

Too often, we adults depend on the slow and sure gains of addition. We don’t want the risk of handing things over. And even when it comes to growing spiritually we don’t want to invest in something bigger than ourselves when we could just hold on to what little we have, the way some people stash money under a mattress, adding a few dollars every so often. It’s safer that way. You can’t lose anything. Or so we think.

But you also don’t gain that much either. Because you’re just adding, and not multiplying.

There’s a math problem, disguised as a story, that I like a lot. In it, a person is given a choice between two things. He can either have $10,000 a day for 31 days. Or, a penny on the first day that is doubled for each of the next 30 days. In other words, you get a penny on the first day, two on the second, four on the third, and so on.

The choice sounds easy at first. You take the sure thing, the $10,000 a day. Because if you take the other option, even after 21 days, you only have a little over $10,000. You could have had more than that on day two. But if you hang in there, by the time you get to day 28, you have $1.3 million. And by the time you get to the end of the month, when the people who are adding $10,000 a day have $310,000, you have over $10 million.

Unless you are starting with nothing, unless you are holding everything back, multiplication always beats addition. And God’s blessing is like multiplication. It doesn’t settle for just giving us more. It creates real growth.

Yesterday morning, several dozen of us gathered in our vestry to talk about our natural church development focus on spirituality. And many talked very openly about the fact that this feels like new ground. It’s easy to talk about how our week was, someone shared. It’s a lot harder to talk about our spiritual lives. Others shared about how they didn’t feel they knew how to grow spiritually. Others said they needed resources and examples of spiritual practices. Some, who were really honest, talked about being afraid of what it means to embark on a spiritual journey.

I hear all of that. And, you never have to do anything you don’t want to do in this church.

But, I want to offer this image. What if we are all there on that mountaintop with Jesus, hungry, and hoping to be fed. And what if have something small that we can give, something we are so afraid to give up. And what if we are being asked to make the choice not to hold onto it, but to give it to God, and let God bless it.

That’s what deepening your spiritual life is like. You might not feel like you have all that much to give, but you have more than you know. You have it because you, and your spirit, were created by God. And all you have to do is step up, trust your spirit in God’s hand, and get ready to see the ways God can bless you on this journey. Get ready for the ways God will take just a little, and multiply it into a blessing you won’t believe.

I’ll close with this. I have a pastor friend named Jack. This week I was reflecting on something I once heard him say. He asked a group what the fruit of an apple tree is. Most answered “an apple, of course”.

But Jack disagrees. He says the true fruit of an apple tree is not an apple, but another tree.

In our spiritual lives, too often we settle for the apples, because they often feel hard enough to get. But what if God is hoping that we won’t just settle for a quick spiritual snack anymore? What if maybe for too long we’ve been settling for what has been lying around on the ground, instead of believing in the possibility of something better? What if God is waiting to help us plant those spiritual seeds, water them, and watch them grow into a tree of their own? What if God doesn’t want us to settle for a spiritual life that fills us for a few minutes? And what if God wants us to truly plant for a lifetime, and beyond?

The seeds are in our hands. We can hold on to them. Or we can plant them in God’s good soil, watch them multiply, and let them grow. Amen?