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.

IMG_3044

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.

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?

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?

Advent Hope (Or, Why I Quit My PhD Program)

Over the last few years I have written short daily devotionals for each day of Advent and Lent. I enjoyed doing it, but there were times when it felt a bit draining, particularly in the clergy obstacle course that is the season of Advent and Christmas planning.

So this year I am doing something a little different. I am not writing daily posts, but I am committing to blogging. Maybe it will be once a week; maybe more. But, if I miss a day I won’t feel like I’m failing Advent. (Ever feel like you get grades for your liturgical seasons? Just me?)

The sanctuary at The Congregational Church in Exeter. The manger is filled with strips of paper on which the prayers for hope of the congregation have been written.

The sanctuary at The Congregational Church in Exeter. The manger is filled with strips of paper on which the prayers for hope of the congregation have been written.

Today seems as good a day as any to start in Advent because it is a memorable one for me. Thirteen years ago today I was ordained to the ministry of Word and Sacrament. When I knelt in the chapel of Columbia Theological Seminary and my friends and colleagues laid on hands I thought I knew how this journey would go. I was ordained in the Presbyterian Church (USA) to a specific call as a hospital chaplain. I thought I would spend a few years serving as a chaplain, go to graduate school and get a PhD, and then teach in a seminary somewhere. I had hopes, and I was going to work to make those hopes realities.

And for a few years I was on that exact course. I spent hours in a pediatric emergency room responding to the families of children with traumatic injuries. I crammed for the GREs. I earned a second masters degree in systematic theology that would boost my chances of getting into a PhD program. And then, early in 2005, I dropped six PhD applications into the mail and waited.

Here’s the part where you expect me to say I didn’t get in anywhere, and I had to change my hopes. Part of me wishes I had received back rejection letters. But I didn’t. Instead six offers of acceptance came back bringing with them my choice of programs. In the end I picked the one I thought made the most sense and headed off for the ivy tower, ready to join the ranks of the academy. My hopes had been realized.

Except for one thing. I hated academia.

Sure, I’ve never met a PhD student who was thrilled with their life. Graduate work is quiet drudgery. You live in a little apartment while your friends are buying houses. You drink too much coffee and eat too much crummy food. You feel grateful for the meager stipend you are lucky enough to get for being a teaching assistant. And you read. A lot. And you write. A lot. And you try to make your professors happy, but you get a sense that this is going to be a years-long academic gauntlet.

I expected all that. I expected things to be hard, and I was fine with that. But what I didn’t expect was how empty the whole thing would make me feel. I didn’t expect that each class and paper would feel meaningless. I didn’t expect the existential angst that would come from devoting years of my life to a dissertation that would most likely sit in an university library unread. I didn’t expect that I would feel like I was on the sidelines, sitting on the bench, while all my other clergy friends got to play in a game that mattered. And I didn’t expect that I would start to think about how to get through the next 35 years doing something I hated.

It wasn’t until later that I came to realize that, no matter how much we complained, a lot of my classmates actually didn’t hate it that much. I began to realize that they had a legitimate calling to academia. And, more importantly, I did not.

And so, I had to go back to what got me there in the first place. And I realized that becoming a PhD student had little to do with my hopes, and everything to do with my fears.

The reality is that when I was ordained in 2001 the Presbyterian Church (USA) (the tradition in which I was ordained) still prohibited practicing LGBT people from being ordained. (Despite recent news reports to the contrary, this is still the case in many presbyteries.) I had been out since I was 18, a fact that did not change while I was in seminary, and I know my ordination committee was well aware of this fact. (One member pulled me aside to assure me of this.)

And yet, I was never asked whether or not I would abide by the rules as they then stood. It became our little game of chicken. Our own ecclesiastical “don’t ask, don’t tell”.

If I had it to do over today, I might do things differently. But I was 24 when I was approved for ordination, and living in the South. Not even the local United Church of Christ jurisdictions were approving LGBT people for ordination yet. And so, cheered on by professors and well-meaning clergy who assured me I could do more good “inside the system” than outside, I played the game, and I was ordained.

But I knew that there were still things I could not do. I could not pastor a church, because I could not love a congregation the way a pastor must love their church and not be honest with them. Likewise, though I was not yet partnered at the time, I knew in the future that I could not love someone as a partner and ask them in any way to hide who they were in my place of ministry. I knew plenty of clergy who did this, and I saw what it did to them and their families.

And so, even though I loved preaching, even though I loved the parish, I convinced myself that I didn’t belong there. And I instead came up with a new set of hopes; ones revolving around chaplaincy and academia, relatively “safe” places full of LGBT clergy.

But deep down inside I knew it wasn’t my calling. No wonder I was miserable. I had traded in hope for convenience and safety. And hope, real hope, rarely guarantees us either.

I left my PhD program after two and a half years. My only regret is that I didn’t leave earlier. I also left the Presbyterian Church, choosing instead to transfer my standing to the United Church of Christ. And, finally, I went out into the parish, the very place I’d been so terrified to go, but yet the one place I was sure God wanted me.

Along the way I learned something about hope. It’s not about goals or plans or hoping that everything will work out easily and with the least degree of resistance. Instead, it’s about trust. It’s about trusting God enough to believe that God is creating something new and good, and God will make a way for you to do exactly what you are called to do.

And it’s also about knowing that if your hopes aren’t big enough, if they are in any way dictated by fear and not faith, you will end up settling for being miserable.

Thirteen years later, my ministry has taken me to a place I never expected. I’m not at a seminary teaching. I’m also not living with a tacit understanding between self and denomination. And I’m not compromising my hopes anymore.

Instead, I wake up in the morning next to a wife I love dearly. One I will never ask to hide for me. I walk from our home down the street to my study in the church office. I spend my days preaching, writing, praying, talking to parishioners, working for peace and justice, and serving the church and community. But, more than that, I truly believe I spend them (to steal a phrase from the Westminster Catechism) glorifying God, and enjoying God forever. And I am truly, deeply happy.

And now I know. On that day thirteen years ago, I may have had hope, but my hopes weren’t nearly big enough. And so this first week in Advent, when hope is what we think about, that is what I know about the subject: A hope that depends on our fears, and not our faith in what God can do, is no hope at all. And I truly believe that God wants more for us than that.

What We Worship: Sermon for October 5, 2014

Recently I heard a story about Ruby Bridges. In 1960 she was a six year old African-American girl in New Orleans who had the unenvious task of desegregating a formerly all-white elementary school. You may have seen pictures of her. A little girl walking into school surrounded by tall US Marshals.

As she walked to school each day protestors yelled at her. One grown woman would say that she was going to poison her. Another held up a black doll in a coffin. And when she got to school all but one of the teachers walked off the job and refused to teach her.

"Adoration of the Golden Calf" - Herrad of Landsberg, 12th Century

“Adoration of the Golden Calf” – Herrad of Landsberg, 12th Century

The one teacher who did stay taught Ruby that whole year. And at the end of the year she asked Ruby a question. She had noticed that when Ruby walked through the crowds she talked to herself, repeating something over and over. And so this teacher finally asked her, “What were you saying?”

I’ll come back to that story, but first let’s look at today’s story from the book of Exodus. Over the last two months the lectionary has brought us a lot of readings from this book about Moses leading the people out of Egypt and towards the promised land. They are familiar stories. The Burning Bush. The Passover. The parting of the Red Sea. And today is no exception; you have probably heard about the Golden Calf.

The people have been journeying in the wilderness for a while now. And Moses is called up to the top of Mt. Sinai by God to receive Ten Commandments. But the people don’t know that. They just know he’s been gone a long time. So long that they start to worry is he never coming back.

So Aaron, Moses’ brother who is left in charge while he is gone, gets scared. He wants to calm down the people who are getting panicked. And so he has all of them bring him their gold, and he melts it down and makes a giant gold cow. And he shows it to the people and says, “this is your god, who brought you out of the land of Israel.” And the people respond by worshipping before it, bringing offerings, and having a feast. It’s only when Moses comes back down the mountain, alive and angry with them, that they stop.

It’s easy to identify with Moses here. It hadn’t been so long ago that God had brought the people out of Egypt. It wasn’t so long ago that the Red Sea was parted. They should have remembered that. And they should have recognized that this golden calf, this brand new statue that had been set in front of them, had nothing to do with it.

So we get why worshiping a gold cow is so ludicrous. It’s easy to think they were just plain foolish. But here’s where Scripture works its trick. Because sometimes we think the truth is so obvious that we would never fall into the same trap as the people in the stories. But sometimes we have more in common than we think.

This isn’t really a story about a gold statue of a cow. This isn’t really just a story about the Israelites. This is a story about all of us, and about what we choose to worship. And, most of all, it’s about what we put in God’s place when we are afraid, or uncertain, or lost, just like the Israelites were.

In theological terms, the Golden Calf was an “idol”. An idol can be an object, like a statue of a cow, but it doesn’t have to be. An idol is just anything that we put our trust in instead of God.

So, sure, a golden calf seems silly to us now. But is it really any more so than some of the other things we worship? Money? Power? Sex? A big house? A nice car? Maybe none of these things are bad by themselves, but when we start to attach our ultimate meaning, and our hopes for salvation, on them, that’s when they become a problem.

The Israelites were trying to get somewhere. They had left everything they knew behind, and now they were lost in the wilderness. And the guy who said he knew where they were going, the one with the direct line to God, was gone. And it didn’t look like he was coming back. And so, they took matters into their own hands.

We do the same things. We all have our own Golden Calves. We find ourselves lost. Or full of fear. Or searching for meaning. And when we feel the most scared, or alone, or uncertain, we build ourselves false idols, things that we think will make us feel better, but rarely do. And that’s because we turn to idols when our fear overtakes us, and we lose so much hope that we stop turning to God.

In the best case scenario our idols only destroy us. But taken to their extreme, our idols can destroy not just us, but those around us.

At the beginning I was talking about Ruby Bridges and the teacher who had watched her repeat something over and over to herself while protestors were tormenting her. At the end of the year she asked the little girl, “what were you saying”? And this six year old replied that she was praying. She was repeating over and over to herself the prayer her mother taught her to say while the protesters yelled at her: Forgive them, God, because they don’t know what they’re doing.

Now, that’s an amazing story of forgiveness and reconciliation. But you might wonder what that has to do with idolatry. For me, it’s this. The people who were yelling those horrible things at Ruby were, at their core, afraid. They had been given this false idol of racial superiority couched in “the way things have always been” for their whole lives, and now it was being taken away. And they were so scared of losing it that they lost their humanity entirely and terrorized a small child. I’m sure many of them were even Christians, and yet, their fear and hatred drove them to stop seeing a child as beloved of God and to instead love their idol even more.

Some would say that six year old Ruby Bridges had every reason to hate those people who hated her. And yet, with the help of the adults around her, she somehow didn’t. Every morning she walked through a hell that most of us never will, and somehow refused to build a false idol of hate or anger. She didn’t give the people who hated her that power. She refused to live in their fear. Instead, she put her trust in God, and ultimately that trust carried her through and gave her hope.

You and I, hopefully, will never face anything like she did. And yet, we will know what it is to be afraid. We will know what it is to forge ahead on a new path. We may even know what it is to live with the fears of others. And when we do we will be tempted to create our own golden calves, our own little idols, to protect ourselves.

But we have another option. In fact, we have the only option that will keep us from letting our fears destroy us. We have God. And we have the assurance that worshiping anything else will never save us. It will just destroy us from the inside out.

And so we have a choice. Do we worship our fears? Or do we instead bless the possibilities?

As you know, today after church we are having our annual blessing of the animals. I was a little worried about preaching about the Israelites worshipping the golden calf on the day we were blessing the animals. I thought it might look like we were trying to recreate the scene out front.

But, of course, we are not worshipping them. Instead we are blessing them. And when we bless something, we are not worshipping it…we are putting it in its place, and asking God’s blessing upon it.

Churches typically do this blessing of the animals on this first weekend in October because it is the closest to the Feast of St. Francis, who was known to be a lover of animals. He saw in them evidence of God’s work in creation, and he blessed them as good. We in the Protestant traditions don’t view saints the same way our Catholic brothers and sisters do, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t look to them as examples. And St. Francis is a fascinating example of someone who wanted to shed all the false idolatries of the world and look only for evidence of God’s presence, even if that evidence came covered in fur or feathers.

There’s a story about Francis that I love, that also reminds me how important it is for those of us who are Christians to keep our eyes on the prize, and off the idols. The story goes that Francis attended a lavish dinner with other members of the clergy. Inside the tables were heaped with food and drink, paid for by the church, and everyone was having a great time.

Except right outside the doors of the banquet hall, people were starving and begging for food. And so, quietly, while others feasted, Francis put only a few breadcrumbs on his plate. And he quietly began to eat them as everyone else ate from the feast. And when they finalized realized what was happening, they stopped too. And they realized that they had been distracted from what they really wanted to be. And they shared the feast with those outside.

To me that story is about putting aside our idols, our distractions, clearing our vision and choosing instead to focus on what really matters. It’s about letting go of our golden calves, and choosing God instead.

In the end, Francis and the bishops found they couldn’t serve Christ until they focused on the people outside their door. And the Israelites found that they couldn’t go to the promised land until they left the calf behind. They could have remained there, with the idol they made for themselves. But they would have been stuck there. They never would have become what God intended them to be.

And in the end, we can’t find the promised land until we leave our idols behind. No matter what they are, and no matter what fears or insecurities created them, we will never manage to move until we let go of the distractions that don’t matter, and cling for dear life to what does. Only then will we ever find what we are truly seeking. Only then will we have hope. And only then will we be given the wondrous privilege of being used by God to bless the world. Amen.

A Ghost Story: Sermon for August 10, 2014

Matthew 14:22-31
14:22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds.

14:23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone,

14:24 but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them.

14:25 And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea.

14:26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear.

14:27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

14:28 Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”

14:29 He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus.

14:30 But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!”

14:31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

When I was about six years old, I went to a haunted house at camp. And looking back now, it was probably way too scary for a six year old, but none on the counselors were stopping us. And thought I tried to act like it didn’t bother me, it did. The ghosts and the people scaring you and the spooky scenes in the graveyards stuck with me.

2011082816icon_water_2_insideThis was especially true once it got dark at night, and it was time to go to bed. And just about every night I was convinced that there must be a ghost in the house somewhere. I’d hear a noise and get scared. Or I’d see something move and be convinced something was there.

I think my parents wanted to find those camp counselors. But they were also sensible, and decided the best way to help me face my fears was to help me to find more reasonable explanations for what I thought I saw or heard. The hissing noise outside of my window was just the sprinkler coming on. The figure I saw moving in the hallway was just my mom’s shadow as she turned off the lights. The thump I heard in the early morning was just the paper being delivered and hitting the front walk.

For everything, there was an explanation. And after a little while I wasn’t quite so scared of the dark anymore. And I learned that when it came to bumps in the night, ghosts were the least likely explanation.

I was thinking about that while reading this week’s text, which is a ghost story of a different kind. Like me, the disciples saw something in the night that they didn’t understand. But it’s a little different with them because what they saw was so unexplainable that they couldn’t just say it twas shadows. No, they looked out and they saw something so unbelievable that the most plausible, most reasonable, most likely explanation they could think of was “it must be a ghost”.

To set the stage, this morning’s story falls right after last week’s story about Jesus feeding the 5,000. After he feeds them Jesus sends the disciples on and ahead of him in a boat while he stays behind to pray. And the disciples are out on the sea, being tossed in the boat all night. But early in the morning they look out and they see Jesus walking on water, coming across the sea to them.

And this is when they decide that they’ve seen a ghost.

Now, that might sound ridiculous to us now, but when you think of it, that was no more ridiculous than a man walking on water. In their mind a ghost was far more likely. So when Jesus calls to them and says, “it’s me…don’t be afraid,” they don’t believe him. And they do what six year old me would not recommend; they decide to talk to the ghost.

Peter, who is probably my favorite disciple, goes first. And Peter sometimes gets a bad rap. He runs away from Jesus on the night before he dies. He denies he knows him three times. He gets overly-excited and reacts quickly when people challenge Jesus. And he’s sort of the one we look at when we think about the disciples and think to ourselves, “boy they really got it wrong sometimes”.

But here’s the other thing about Peter. He was the one who was always willing to take the chance, and to take the first steps, stumbling though they may have been. And so he decides to test the ghostly Jesus in front of him and he says, “Jesus, if that’s really you, tell me to come to you on the water.”

Jesus says, “Come on”. And so he does. He gets out of the boat, and somehow he walks on the water, and towards Jesus.

So, if the story ended here, it would be pretty amazing. Not only could Jesus walk on water, but his disciples could too. It would be proof that Jesus not only was who he said he was, but that just a word from Jesus could ensure that anything we put our mind to, even the most crazy of things, would be successful.

But it doesn’t end there. Because suddenly Peter realizes what he is doing. He sees the water under his feet, and he feels the wind picking up, and suddenly it clicks that he is doing something he’s not supposed to be able to do. And that’s when it all comes crashing in. He falls into the water. He starts drowning. And he calls to Jesus to save him.

Have you ever watched a small child learn to do something like riding a bike? I’m always struck by how quickly kids “get it”. They practice peddling with their parents holding on to the back of their seat and running, and then one day the parents let go, and the kid keeps going.

And have you ever watched what happens when they suddenly realize that the parents aren’t holding on anymore? Sometimes the kid is fine and they keep happily peddling away. But others times they realize they are there, doing it on their own. And what happens? They panic. And they ride into the grass or stop as fast as they can. And everyone else is cheering, “you were doing it…you got it.” But in the moment, the kid is not so sure.

I picture Peter on the sea as being a little like that. He was walking on water. He was doing it. But when he realized what was happening, and that what he was doing was unbelievable, that’s when it all went off the rails. It’s not until he panics that he starts to sink. It’s not until he thinks he can’t, that he can’t.

And Jesus pulls him up from the water, and all he says to him is this: “you of little faith. Why did you doubt?”

I think a lot of us can relate to Peter here. Because sometimes our fears and our anxiety mean that even when we are doing things well, we panic. Sometimes especially when we are doing something new, and something we couldn’t imagine ourselves doing. Call it self-sabotage. Call it lack of faith. Call it what you want. The reality is that ghost stories might scare us, but sometimes finding out we can do things we never imagined scares us more.

Peter found that out that day, and it terrified him. He took a step out in faith and then he nearly drowned. Because even though he trusted Christ enough to get out of that boat, he didn’t trust himself when Christ called him.

I think that happens to those of us who are people of faith more than we realize. And it starts when Jesus calls us out of the boat. You might remember that all twelve of them were in there together, and I’m sure the boat was fine. Maybe a little crowded. Maybe a little sea-swamped. But fine. It was getting the job done.

But Jesus had bigger plans for the disciples than what could be accomplished in a small boat. And as much as Peter looks like a cautionary tale in this passage, he’s the one who has the courage to take the first steps. He gets out of what is comfortable and familiar, and he enters what is tumultuous and ever-changing. And as long as he trusts that even when the ground is shifting, Christ will remain the solid foundation, he does just fine. In fact, he does what is unimaginable.

That’s good news and bad news for us. Because those of us who are Christ-followers have for a long time had a pretty comfortable boat. It’s gotten the job done. And it’s seen us through some stormy sea. And everyone just sort of knew who we were, and where we were, and they wanted to get on board.

But now the world is different. Church isn’t a place everyone goes on Sunday anymore. Faith is not a given. Our friends might not understand why we are here on Sunday mornings, instead of out at brunch. And maybe it feels like the once solid ground we felt below our feet has given way to waves of change. Now our friends, our community, and our world, have to be engaged in new ways if we want to remain relevant, and share why exactly we believe this Jesus guy is worth following, and why we come to this place, and why we do what we do to love our neighbors and our world.

So, there are two options. First, stay in the boat, a perfectly fine boat, and hunker down. Or, look out across the water and find that Christ is already out there in the unknown, somehow standing in the midst of it, calling us to him.

I don’t know about you, but I want to follow Jesus. It’s great when things are familiar and comfortable, but in the end there’s not much that’s inspiring or life-giving about it. But when we step out in faith, and we trust that Christ will be our solid ground, we find ourselves doing things we never imagined. And when we refuse to let our fears and doubts drown us, we find out that the world outside the boat isn’t such a bad place after all. In fact, it can be amazing.

I’ll close with this. Like I said earlier, Peter sometimes gets a bad rap. He feels like the punch line in a bunch of Gospel stories. But the thing is he was also Jesus’ go-to guy. Remember, Jesus named him Peter, or “rock”, and said “you are the rock upon which I will build my church”.

This is the guy Christ chose. The one who sinks like a rock, and the one who comes up sputtering from the ocean after doubting. I think that’s good news for you and me. We are going to get it wrong sometimes. We are going to have fears and doubts. But in the end we just might find that our solid ground has been in Christ all along, and that even when what we are called to do sounds more scary than a good ghost story, Christ can still use us to do something amazing.

Amen.

The Danger of Building Bigger Barns – Sermon for August 4, 2013

image14Every UCC pastor participates in the pension fund for our denomination. The idea is that years from now when we retire we’ll have enough put away so that we can live. When I came here three years ago I had to get set up in the pension program and we called the UCC offices and had them send me a registration packet.

It arrived and it was, literally, about an inch thick. There were brochures about all sorts of different funds and investment strategies. I was lost. I had no clue whether I was supposed to have an aggressive approach to investing or a semi-aggressive one or balanced or conservative. I panicked. Finally I called family members with a better head for investments than me and took their advice.

I know more about investing now, but the fact remains that for most of us the idea of investing makes us uneasy. We often don’t know if we’re doing it right. Are we putting enough away? Are we putting it in the right places? Will there be enough for us down the line?

These are not new problems. They apparently were very much present even 2000 years ago when a man called out to Jesus from the crowd saying, “Tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”

Even Jesus seems a little reluctant to talk about it. He tells the man, “Who made me the arbitrator?” But he goes on. He warns, “”Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

And then he tells this story: There was a man who had some land and he was doing very well. He had a lot of crops, a high yield. But he realized he didn’t have enough room to store it all. So he takes down his barns, and he builds even bigger ones in their place. He says to himself, I’ve got it made. I’ve got enough for years now. I’m going to relax and eat, drink and be merry.

Except, Jesus says, the man’s life is demanded of him that night. And now what good does all that stored up grain do? And who does it belong to? He ends by telling us that it’s the same as those who store up things for themselves but are not rich in their relationships with God.

Unlike the man who builds a bigger barn so that he can horde his wealth, Jesus reminds us that we have to take the even longer view. We have to look not just at our lives, but at the life eternal. We have to look past what we can forsee, and look at what we don’t even understand yet. And then we have to fill our barns only as much as we need.

Do we take what we have and do we store it up in barns? Do we cram those barns with far more than we could ever use? Do we sit back and say, “Now I have enough…now I can relax?? Because the reality is, no matter how much we get, we will never have “enough”. We will always think that we need more.

I was reading an article from the New York Times recently. It was about storage units, the kind where you take the stuff you can’t fit anymore in your house and put it into a small room that you rent. And if you’ve ever been to a storage unit place, you know that there are row after row of these little rooms, each renting for a pretty good monthly sum.

The article was talking about how even in a recession, in a time when a lot of other industries are having to downscale, the storage market is growing. There are new ones opening up all the time. The article offered a statistic that blew me away: “by the early ’90’s, American families had, on average, twice as many possessions as they did 25 years earlier.”

When you think about that, it sure does say a lot about who we are, and what we value. It says a lot about what we hold on to, and what we invest in. And it says a lot about where we put our faith. We are building bigger barns, and we are, quite literally, storing up the stuff that won’t save us.

There’s a phrase you may have heard before: you can’t take it with you. We all know it. And we know that the subtext is that we can’t take the money or the things or anything else that we have accumulated in this life on to the next. And that’s true.

Yesterday we had Shirley Meade’s funeral here at the church, and we had a time of sharing where the people who had come could tell stories about what they remembered about her. And the one thing that kept coming up time and again was her generosity. People were saying what she had done for them, and what she had given to them. It struck me that not a one cared how much she may or may not have had stored away…all they cared about was what she did with it. And she was remembered for it.

But this is not a lesson that applies just to life and death. It’s a lesson for ministry as well, as in the ministry that we are all engaged in together. You can’t take it with you if you truly want to follow Christ. You can’t be so tied down to the stuff that you want to hold on to, both literally and figuratively, that you are afraid to follow Christ to the new places you are called.

I think that the Wilmington church knew that. They knew God wasn’t done with them yet, and they knew that there was a lot of ministry left in them. And so, rather than storing up their treasure in a building they loved, but that they didn’t need anymore, and rather than keeping their money tied up in its upkeep, they decided to let go, and to follow Christ.

It’s a powerful lesson, and it can guide us now. What fears are holding us back from doing the work we want to do? How are we building bigger barns, and packing them to the rafters, when we should be sharing our abundance with others? What are we holding onto out of fear that we might not get it again? What are we treating like a limited resource, instead of a gift given by God for us to share?

This isn’t just about money or stuff, though it is about those things too. This is about all that we are given. It’s about our time. It’s about our talents. It’s about our love. And it’s about not being afraid to use it. You may remember that song from when we were kids called, “This Little Light of Mine.” One of the lines is, “Hide it under a bushel? No. I’m going to let it shine.”

It’s the same way with all we are given by God. “Hide it up in a barn? No. I’m going to share it with God.”

I’m talking about using the barn to store what you need, but not making that barn your god. Not making your fear and anxiety over not having enough in the future dictate your whole life. And not making the need to fill that barn to the rafter dictate your happiness. It will never be enough. There will never be a barn that is big enough to hold all the things our fears want us to hold onto…unless you let go, and trust in God’s abundance.

This morning and this afternoon, this parish is going to partake in two meals together. The first is already set for us. It consists only of a loaf of bread, and a cup of grape juice. It’s nearly the simplest meal you can think of, and yet, it is the one Jesus chose for us. When you think about that, it’s pretty amazing. God incarnate got to set out a meal for us to eat for centuries, one in which Christ would be spiritually with us, and it wasn’t a four course dinner from a well-known chef. It was just a humble meal. And it was enough.

Then later, we will share another meal together. Our all church picnic is taking place out on the grounds. Last night I went to the grocery store and bought some stuff for the church just in case we didn’t have enough or people forgot to bring something. And I was worried that I hadn’t gotten enough, and I was going to go back and get some burgers, but then it struck me: when have I ever been to a church potluck where there hasn’t been enough? At this church, we typically have the opposite problem. I can’t remember a time I haven’t been sent home with a plate of extras.

But every time, every single time, we worry….will there be enough?

That’s not atypical. Everyone does it. I’m sure it happens at every church. But, eventually, we can’t ignore the fact that more often than not we are living in abundance. We have far more than we will ever need. And we have been blessed with more than we can use. And so we have two choices…build a bigger barn? Or decide that we will trust in the God who has blessed us so deeply enough to open our doors, release our fears, and bless others with us. Amen.

Go Jump in the River – Sermon for February 12, 2012

2 Kings 5:1-14
5:1 Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favor with his master, because by him the LORD had given victory to Aram. The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy.

5:2 Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife.

5:3 She said to her mistress, “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.”

5:4 So Naaman went in and told his lord just what the girl from the land of Israel had said.

5:5 And the king of Aram said, “Go then, and I will send along a letter to the king of Israel.” He went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments.

5:6 He brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, “When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of his leprosy.”

5:7 When the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, “Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me.”

5:8 But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent a message to the king, “Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.”

5:9 So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha’s house.

5:10 Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.”

5:11 But Naaman became angry and went away, saying, “I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the LORD his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy!

5:12 Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?” He turned and went away in a rage.

5:13 But his servants approached and said to him, “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean’?”

5:14 So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.

There’s an old story about prayer and how God answers it. You may have heard it before. A woman was standing on a roof during a flood and praying to God to save her. Not soon after a rowboat came by and told her to climb in. They’d get her to safety. She told them, “No thanks. God will save me.”

A few minutes later a motorboat came along and they begged her to get in the boat. Again she said, “No thanks. God will save me.”

Finally the waters rose higher and a helicopter flew over and dropped down robe and told her, “We’ll pull you up.” Again she told them, “No thanks. God will save me.”

The inevitable happened and when the woman died and came face to face with God she was angry and said to God, “I prayed to you. I put my trust in you, and you didn’t save me.”

And God said, “But I sent you a row boat, a motor boat, and a helicopter. What more did you want?”

We sometimes wonder why God doesn’t answer our prayers. We wonder what the point of faith is if God won’t do what we want God to do when we want God to do it. Maybe sometimes, we even get a little mad about it.

Today’s reading reminds me a bit of that. Naaman is a soldier who is very strong. But he also has leprosy. And he hears about this healer in another land, and his king even sends him along with money and a letter, asking for him to be healed. The healer was Elisha. And when he gets to him, ready to be healed, Elisha doesn’t even come out of the house. Instead he sends a messenger out who tells Naaman to go wash in the river Jordan seven times.

Naaman is furious. He came all that way for healing and he tells his servants, “He could have just waved his hand over me and cured me. If I wanted to jump in a river, I could have done it at home.

But one of his servants says, “You know…he’s not asking you to do something all that hard here. If the cure was difficult, you probably would have done it. But all he is saying is go wash in the river and be healed.”

Something in that rang true for Naaman. And so he goes to the river, and he washes. Once, twice, three times. All the way to seven. And they say when he came out, his skin was as clean and healthy as when he had been a boy.

To me this story isn’t about God healing us from physical sickness. Everyday people do all they are asked to get well again from illness. Neither the illness nor whether or not they are cured is their fault. This story isn’t about that.

And this story isn’t about the river. I don’t know why Elisha sent him down to the river. Or why he had to go in seven times. I’m not sure what’s so special about that, that it worked when nothing else would. But I don’t think the cure is the point of this story. I think what Naaman was willing to do to get it is.

This story is about our spiritual life, and what we are willing to do to have a great one. Are we willing to do the little things that can make a big difference? Or are we content to just let God come to us. After all, just like Elisha could have waved his hand and cured Naaman’s leprosy, God could certainly make us perfect spiritual beings.

But God doesn’t. God makes us human beings, with free will, and a choice about what sort of spiritual beings we are going to be. Are we going to actively respond to God’s grace? Or are we going to remain passive? Are we going to wonder why God hasn’t done more for us? Are we going to just chug along and hope that it all sort of works out in the end?

If you want to put it in the terms of this story, are we going to go down to the river and jump in seven times? Or are we going to just stand on the shore?

One of my seminary professors wrote once about being in spiritual direction, a process by which one works with a director to try to expand their spiritual life and connection to God. She had been having a hard time, and her spiritual director had told her to read through the Psalms, a few each day. And so she did. And nothing got better. And one day she slammed shut the Bible and got angry and said, “this is pointless. What good does all this do?”

But then something compelled her to go back, and try again. And slowly, bit by bit, she began to feel God’s presence like she never had before. And she felt peace.

A few Psalms a day may seem as inconsequential as jumping in the river seven times. And yet, it worked. And it worked in part because even when it made no sense she was willing to give it a try because she wanted to know God.

I’ve been thinking about the spiritual life a lot lately. I’ve been thinking about it as our church is at this new stage in our life together. I read this week that a recent study of UCC churches. Of the congregations that are considered not vital (which means healthy and hopeful) 46% said they were not willing to try new things to meet new challenges. Of the ones that are vital, only 7% said the same thing.

I think there’s a spiritual lesson for us there. Because congregations are spiritual systems. And we are in a time where what it means to be a church is changing. And there may be times when we are asked to do something unexpected and new. And it may make about as much sense to us as jumping in the river seven times. But we might just do it anyway. I hope we do, because experience shows us good things happen when you’re willing to do the things you truly believe God is calling you to do, no matter how different or unexpected they may seem.

Today at the congregational meeting, I’m going to be talking a little about our new visioning process which will be launching after Easter. This is a process where we will talk about what kind of a church we are. Are we the sort when asked to go jump in a river seven times gets angry and refuses to go? Or are we the sort who says, “Okay God”, and comes out healthier and stronger than ever. I think I know which one we are, and I think you do too. Because you probably wouldn’t be here if you didn’t believe that.

What happens in a few months is just one example of daring to walk the spiritual path that God has set before us. But it happens in a few months. And we have two even better illustrations of what it means to walk the spiritual path here with us today.

This morning we are welcoming several new members into our church. They are going to join us on our path, and walk with us. They’ve decided that this is the place God is calling them to. And they are going to help to shape who we are. If God has brought them here, then they have good news for us to hear, and I pray that we will listen to their voices.

But there’s one voice, that hasn’t even begun to form words yet. That’s because she was born two weeks ago. Kylie Hope is going to be baptized here this morning. Her family is here not just from West Dover, but also from South Africa. They’re here this morning to witness her becoming the newest member of the body of Christ as we baptize her.

Now, Kylie won’t remember this. She will hear about it later, but she won’t remember the water, and the blessings. But we will. Just like we remember every baby we baptize.

And Kylie will know us. She’ll grow up in this town, and she’ll meet us, and she’ll know that this is the place that made baptismal promises along with her family when she was brand new. And as she goes along her spiritual path in life, she will look to as an example.

I hope Kylie grows up to be the sort of person who is willing to go jump in a river for Christ. I hope she will take the small spiritual risks that yield incredible gains. I hope she grows up to be a person of faith, and grace, and goodness.

And I hope we are models for her of what that looks like. I hope she sees  how we live our lives, and how we live. I hope she never looks at us and sees people standing timidly on the shore. I hope she sees us trust Christ enough to go jump in the river knowing we will come out whole, and that will tell her all she needs to know about the life of faith.

May God bless Kylie and her family today. May God bless our new members. And may God bless this whole church with just enough willingness to step into the waters of our baptism again and again, with faith. Amen.

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Sermon for February 27, 2011: Lilies, Sparrows and You.

Matthew 6:24 “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.

6:25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?

6:26 Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?

6:27 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?

6:28 And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin,

6:29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.

6:30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you–you of little faith?

6:31 Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’

6:32 For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.

6:33 But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

6:34 So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

I have this recurring dream. Maybe twice a year I dream that I get a letter from my high school. The letter tells me, “You didn’t actually graduate”. It turns out that there was some requirement that I overlooked and the school didn’t catch it until now, and I have to go back. In the dream I argue that I actually have a college and seminary degree now, but they tell me if I don’t finish this high school class those will be rescinded as well. I always wake up panicked and trying to figure out whether or not it really happened.

I’m told it’s not an uncommon dream. Another favorite of mine that a lot of people seem to have is finding out that you have an exam in a class you haven’t been to all semester. And it’s always something like German. Something you can’t even try to fake it on.

When I have dreams like this, I pay attention. Because I know when I have them, it means there is something else going on in my life that I am getting really anxious about.

We are get anxious. It’s part of what it means to be human. We worry about our family. We worry about work. We worry about money. We worry about all the details of our days. And by the end of this sermon, you will still worry about these things. But my hope is that you might worry a little less.

Jesus is still preaching the Sermon on the Mount. He’s been at this for a while now if you’ll recall the last few weeks. And today he is talking about worry and fear and anxiety.

Jesus tells the disciples a few things. First he tells them that they cannot serve two masters. They cannot simultaneously serve God and serve wealth. They cannot set those things as equal and work towards both at the same time. One must take precedence over the other, and Jesus tells us the only choice that makes any sense is God.

Jesus goes on to say don’t worry about what you will eat. Don’t worry about clothing. Don’t worry about what you will drink. Because worrying will not add a single hour onto your life. Instead, trust that God will provide. Trust that the God who takes care of the birds, the God who puts the lilies in the field, will care for you even more.

I think we’re all prone to anxiety. Some of us even more than others.

I was a very anxious kid and that continued as I got older. In high school, I worried about getting into college. In college I worried about getting into seminary. In seminary I worried about getting ordained. And then I worried about what I would do after I was ordained. I spent so much time worrying about the specifics of my future that I often missed the beauty of what was going on around me. I often missed the lilies in the fields, or the birds in the air. And when I finally got to that place I’d been trying so hard to get to, I felt like I had run a marathon.

More of us are like that than we like to admit.
If you are anything like me, you want to know exactly how the future will unfold. You want to know what everything will look like. You want to know that you will have not only everything you need, but everything you want.

When the hospice I was working for had to make cuts, I knew that they would have to cut chaplains. I know I’ve told this story before, but it bears repeating. I was basically prepared. First they cut one chaplain and gave me her territory to cover. And then, one morning, they cut me.

I was pretty terrified. I wasn’t long out of grad school, so I had no real savings to speak of. My transfer to the UCC was still is process so I couldn’t take a church yet. And no other hospices were hiring. Even non-ministry positions were overrun with a glut of applicants. I had no idea what I was going to do.

But I got through the year. And that’s not a testament to my thriftiness or anything like that. That’s a testament to what God was doing in me, and how much I had to learn to trust God. Because the more I learned to trust that God would provide for me, somehow or another, what I needed next, the more I felt my faith deepening. I began to feel God in ways that I never had during that year.

I really do hope I’m never in that situation again. But, in other ways, I’m grateful for having been there. Because as I searched for a call that year, I had a feeling that God was truly guiding me to something I did not yet understand. That God would make a way. That God had a plan and it would be revealed in time. I knew that being laid off would not have the last word. God would.

There is a story of the earliest Christian monks who were in Ireland. They used to build boats and put them on the sea, and then ask God to take the boats to the place they needed to be. They would let God be their navigator, and they would trust that their boats would be safely brought to shore.

While I don’t recommend the same course of action to you, there’s something to be said for that.

There’s something to be said for the idea of putting your boat on a stormy ocean and saying, “okay God…show me where you want me to go.” There’s something to be said about that act of faith in a sea of fear.

What would it mean for you to get in a boat? What would it mean to cast yourself out on the seas and see where God could use you? What would it mean even for our church to get in a boat and let God direct our journey? Would our life together look the same? Look different? I don’t know. But I think it may be worth asking.

I’ll close with this story that I heard about four years ago, and which has become integral to my faith life. I heard it told by a Gene Robinson, a bishop who had faced threats of great violence. He had been called to be a bishop and in the aftermath there had been great division. He had to celebrate worship in some places with a bullet proof vest under his robes because of all the death threats. Yet, his quiet, certain faith was so apparent to all who saw him. He told this story. Some of you have heard me tell it before, but it’s worth telling again.

Robinson talks about the parting of the Red Sea. He recalls the movie “The Ten Commandments” and how in that telling we see the sea parted wide from shore to shore. The Israelites are able to pass through quickly, always knowing they will make it safe to the other side.

Except, he says, it wasn’t really like that. Instead, Robinson argues, the sea only parted a little bit at a time. Someone put their foot in and the waves rolled back just enough for them to put another foot down. And then they did. And the sea retreated a little more. Little by little, step by step, they made their way across the sea. And finally they made it to the other shore. They did not know exactly how things were going to turn out. But they knew that God was with them in the next step.

Jesus tells us not to borrow tomorrow’s trouble. We have enough today. Instead we can pray earnestly and with faith, “Jesus show us the next right step.” And we know that he will. And we know that in God’s love there is always a safe shore waiting for us. Amen.