Faith, Science, and the Journeys We Take

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blessed for a Reason: Sermon for November 16, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clocks, Dinosaurs, and Other Inconvenient Realties: A Sermon on Creation for September 14, 2014

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

Remember how last week I talked about how a shorter sermon is sometimes called a homily? Well, I don’t know the a name for a longer Scripture reading, but whatever it is, our reading for today would probably qualify, right?

We just heard the whole of the first chapter of Genesis, one of the stories of Creation found in the Bible. It’s probably one you know well. On the first day God created this, and on the second day this, and on the third day this, and so on and so on all the way until the seventh day, when God rested. And at the end of each day Scripture tells us this: “and it was good.”

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Chalk drawings of the Creation story by the Middle School Youth of The Congregational Church in Exeter.

If you’ve ever tried to read the Bible cover to cover, maybe with a few starts and stops, you’ve probably read this passage so many times that it’s almost second nature. Six days of work. One day of rest. And God making everything from the stars to the fish, from the seas to the sun, from animals to us.

It’s why we divide our week into seven days, one of which is, in theory anyway, a day of rest. It’s why we look at our world and see God’s hand in everything we see. And it’s why we, and the other faiths which share this story with us, believe that taking care of God’s creation matters. This story informs so much of what we believe, and what we do.

Which is also why it’s so challenging to those of us who want to take the Bible seriously, but also sometimes have trouble taking it literally.

A few years ago a friend of mine sent a box of books to a family member who had just had a new baby. She was surprised when she received a call from her relative stating that she just could not give her children one of the books because it was inappropriate, and that she hoped my friend would never send her children anything like that again.

My friend is a very conscientious person and couldn’t figure out what was possibly objectionable about these books for small children until her relative said, “You know we are Christians…and you sent a book about dinosaurs. The world was created in six days. There is no such thing as evolution, and there was never such a thing as dinosaurs.”

It’s tempting to dismiss this or laugh it off, but these were well-educated people who sincerely believed that their Christian faith told them the earth was only about 6,000 years old, that dinosaurs never existed, and that the world was formed in six, 24 hour, days. And they believed that if they believed any differently, they were not Christians. And, they are not alone. There are many others who feel the same way.

The only problem with that is this: We know it’s not true. Scientists estimate the earth is about 4.65 billion years old. We know that dinosaurs once roamed it. We know that over the billions of years that came before now there has been profound change, even among human beings.

And so for those of us who are people of faith, but who also take science seriously, where are we left? One of my favorite places growing up was the local science museum, and you can’t tell me that my faith tells me to disavow everything I learned there.

And yet there are many who believe that Christianity requires that. And the scariest part is that it’s not just people in the church, but people outside of it as well. That’s what some people think you and I believe.

Because of that I’m sometimes asked by my atheist and agnostic friends, “how can you believe that stuff”?

I ask them, “What stuff?”

And they tell me, “Stuff like the world being created in six, 24-hour days.”

When I tell them I don’t believe that either, they seem surprised. And then think I’m hiding that from my church and then they get worried that if you find out I might get fired. And that’s when I tell them, “you know a lot of Christians don’t believe the world was created that way either. You just never hear about us on the news.”

And that’s because we who are people of faith, can also be people of science. And, more importantly, we can be people of nuance.

A friend of mine is a geologist. She studied rocks and rock formations all through college and then went out and worked in the field. And taking a walk outside with her is like walking through a living museum. Every rock she picks up suddenly tells a story about what happened hundreds and thousands and millions and billions of years ago. It’s fascinating.

And it was while I was walking with her recently that something hit me. I’ve always known that the Biblical account of creation was to be taken seriously, but not literally. That wasn’t new. But for the first time I really comprehended how important it was to acknowledge just how long creation has been unfolding, and not just for scientific reasons, but for faith reasons. Billions of years. And each of those billions of years does not detract from the idea of God as Creator. Instead, each of those years tells us even more about God’s work, and just how long God has been doing this whole Creation thing.

To deny just how long God has been at work is to deny the glory of God, and is to fail to understand the whole of God’s story.

I believe that in the beginning God created the earth, as well as so much more. And so I think the story in Genesis is true in the big T sense of the word “truth”. But I don’t think the Bible is a science textbook. I think it’s a story that speaks in the language of faith. And I think that faith and science can speak to one another, and only strengthen the other.

And here’s the other piece. I don’t believe that God is done creating. To say God finished the work long ago is to deny that God is still active in our world. There have been some over the centuries who have believed in God, but who also believed God was like a divine watchmaker who put us together, wound us up, and walked away, leaving us to our own devices. You may have heard them called Deists in history class.

But I don’t believe God ever walked away. I believe God is still active in creation, and God is transforming creation, including us, all the time. That’s one reason we take our Eco-Covenant seriously in this church. We believe God made this world, and we believe God still has more to do, and so we need to be good stewards of all we have been given. We need to work with the Creator.

And that’s why, despite the fact they can go home and read science books, we still tell this story to our children and youth.

We are starting something new this year where every time the children and middle school youth start a new unit, about every six weeks or so, the story is going to be told in worship, and I’m also going to preach on it. The idea is that all generations will be able to reflect on the same passage. Today is the first day we are trying this. And so, the kids just came up front and heard the story told by Lisa. And right now they are downstairs learning more. And the middle school kids are out front with chalk, drawing their understandings of Creation too.

And when they leave here today, I hope they go home and play with dinosaurs. I hope they pick up science books. I hope they go to museums. I hope they use the minds that God created in them and learn all they can about this world.

And then, I hope they remember what they were taught here. And I hope that they have adults in their lives that help them to integrate the two. And that they see what they learn outside of church not as a barrier to faith, but as an affirmation of it, and as a sign of God’s work in the world. And I hope they learn to love this world because it is a gift from God, and that they want to care for it.

If those things happen, we will have done a good job sharing this story with the next generation. But this is a story for all ages. And this is your story too. And so, how does it change your faith? Does it challenge it? Or does it make it stronger? I hope it’s the latter. I believe it can be the latter. But I believe it requires those of us who are adults to do the same things that we are asking of our youth. It requires us to bring all of us to our faith. Not just our hearts and our hands, but also our heads. And it means that when we come into the church, we refuse to check our brains at the door.

At the end of each day in the creation story, Scripture tells us “and it was good.” God created us good. God created us, in the words of the Psalms, “just a little lower than God and crowned with glory and honor”. God created every part of us, including our minds, and to not use everything God gives us is not an act of faith. It is an act of disrespect for our awesome creator.

Your minds are always welcome in this church. Your questions are always honored. Your struggles to find God’s truth are always honored. And your quest to read the Bible, this document not of scientific facts or historical timelines, but of God’s love, with your heart and soul and mind, will always be respected. To do anything less, would be to disrespect the God who created us good all those years ago, and who, generation after generation, creates us still. Amen.

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

Genesis 28:10-19

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

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

It was not well-received.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jacob was right about something and wrong about something.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Noah’s Dove and the Olive Leaf – Sermon for September 4, 2011

Genesis 8:6-12

6 After forty days Noah opened a window he had made in the ark 7 and sent out a raven, and it kept flying back and forth until the water had dried up from the earth. 8 Then he sent out a dove to see if the water had receded from the surface of the ground. 9 But the dove could find nowhere to perch because there was water over all the surface of the earth; so it returned to Noah in the ark. He reached out his hand and took the dove and brought it back to himself in the ark.10 He waited seven more days and again sent out the dove from the ark. 11 When the dove returned to him in the evening, there in its beak was a freshly plucked olive leaf! Then Noah knew that the water had receded from the earth. 12 He waited seven more days and sent the dove out again, but this time it did not return to him.

Last Saturday night the leaders of both churches and I made the decision to cancel church the next morning. We weren’t sure whether anything would come out of the weather reports we were hearing, but we thought it was better to be safe than sorry.

Last Sunday morning, when we would have been in church, like many of you I watched the river rise in my front yard, praying it wouldn’t come any closer. Around the time church would have been letting out, the Deerfield River spilled over its banks and changed so much about this place we love.

Last Sunday night I stood in my clergy collar in the middle of the devastation in Wilmington and talked to some people who had been on vacation. We shook our heads in disbelief and one said, “This is God showing us what he can do.”

I’ve never understood that line of thought. My first call out of seminary was as a chaplain at a pediatric hospital in Atlanta. I served in the emergency room and unfortunately saw many children brought in with devastating injuries. As I would sit with the parents, I would hear the comments from well-meaning friends and staff who didn’t know what else to say:

“God meant this for a reason. God doesn’t give you more than you can handle. God has a plan.”

It wasn’t the time or place, but I always wanted to challenge them:

“God willed someone who had a few drinks to many to get behind the wheel? God told someone to beat this child? God made this kid find his father’s gun that hadn’t been locked up?”

In the wake of the floods, I hear the same sort of quick theological judgements. It’s not a huge surprise. People want to make sense out of something so horrific that it takes our breath away.

But I remind myself that God does not cause natural disasters to punish us any more than God wills a child to be hit by a drunk driver. God does not flood river banks to show us God’s strength. God does not wreak devastation because “God has a plan” or “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle”. God doesn’t kill people to teach us a lesson.

But I also believe this. No matter what happens, God can work through it to create something good.

We read a passage from Genesis this morning. It’s the story of Noah and the flood, and God’s promise. After the waters from the flood receded, Noah sent a dove out in order to find out whether it was safe again.

The first time the bird came back, finding no safe place to land. For seven days it stayed with Noah.

Seven days. Seven days later he sent out another dove. And the dove found that the world was not back to normal yet. But it was starting to be. And it plucked an olive leaf from a tree and it brought it back to Noah as a I sign of the hope that they could have in a world rebuilt.

Seven days. One week. One week ago we walked down into Wilmington, or East Dover, or Wardsboro to see what had happened, and we were like the dove who couldn’t its our feet down on solid ground. Our entire worlds have been changed.

One week later we come here to claim an olive leaf. We come to see God’s promise starting to come through once again. We look around and we see evidence of God’s grace working through this to create good. God did not send this flood, but God can work through even the worst of situations to transform them, and to transform us.

The olive leaf that the dove brought back was a sign of hope. And this week I have seen a lot of olive leaves. I have seen the grace of God at work in profound ways.

As the high school turned into an evacuation center, the lines between neighbors were crossed in the interest of working together. And time and again, someone who had lost so much came to me and asked who had it worse, and how they could help them. Many of you cleaned out friends’ stores, helped neighbors move, served meals at the shelter, handed out water at the church, stacked shelves at the food pantry, organized diaper delivery, and in so many other ways demonstrated that hope is real.

And the olive leaves, the symbols of hope that we claim a week later, they are not just here in the valley. They are all over. Within hours after the rains came, checks were on the way to the pastor’s discretionary funds of both churches from people across the country. Within days Church World Service, the organization we donated to last spring after the tsunamis in Japan, had sent disaster supplies up here to us.

Later in the week we heard that both churches had been sent funds from the national United Church of Christ so that we can help our neighbors in the coming months. You may remember that in the spring we took up a collection for the UCC’s storm relief fund. And now here we are, just a few months later, finding that what we gave is coming back to us. In addition, throughout the week I’ve received calls from numerous UCC churches throughout New England that wanted to know how to help us. This week I have been reminded more than ever that we are stronger because we do not stand alone. We are all interconnected, and when we think beyond our own needs, we find that we are the ones who are often strengthened the most.

But, as Christians we already knew that. Because as Christians we know that we do not live in isolation from one another, or from our Creator. We know that Christ did not choose one disciple. He chose many, and he taught them to serve not themselves, but one another. This week I saw so many people, both here and in places far away, living into the kind of community Christ wanted us to have. In the coming weeks and months, may we continue to do the same. Even when things look hard.

Two weeks ago I had coffee at Dot’s, walked down to some of your shops, and stopped to look at books at Bartleby’s. It was a warm summer’s day, and everything seemed perfect. Last week the buildings I’d been in were torn apart. They were the first things I saw when I walked into town. There was so much devastation. It took my breath away.

But, like you, I come here every Sunday because I believe in resurrection. I come here because I know someone who was subjected the worst that this world could do to him, who suffered alongside of us, and who the whole world thought had been destroyed.

Except he lived.

When I took that walk around Wilmington last week, I wasn’t in love with the buildings or the businesses. I was in love with the people, even with all of our imperfections. I was in love with who we were, and who we are, and who we will be.

And today I am grabbing hold of that olive leaf. That what made our community special a week ago was not what we had built, but who we were. We are a community that can rebuild, because even as the landscape has changed, who we are has not.

We come here because we believe in our hearts that resurrection is possible. I can’t tell you what that resurrection will look like yet, but I can tell you that God can work through us to make it good. Our hope is in a God who so long ago brought new life after the world was flooded. God still can, and God still will.

May God bless us all in the coming days, and in the coming months, and may God pour out a blessing on this whole Valley. Amen.

Six Days and Some Dinosaurs: Sermon on Genesis 1:1-2:4

As you all know, I’ve spent the last week on vacation. I was down on Cape Cod and the weather was refusing to cooperate. It was cold and rainy. But one day I decided I was going to go out on the beach anyway, and I headed out to Truro. I went to Head of the Meadow Beach near low tide. The water was out and I walked out onto the sandbar.

The waves were crashing hard and the wind was picking up and the rain was setting in.

 

I started to turn over rocks. I found one that had three different colors on it. You could see the different eras, the years, on that rock, each stacked one on top of the other. I thought of the millions of years it must have taken to get like that. I thought about it coming loose from the bottom of the ocean and making its way onto the shore, and about how incredible our world is and how long it has taken to form it.

 

And then I returned home and began the sermon for this Sunday. And I was reminded of the account of creation in Genesis. Of a six day creation in which God created everything. Of a story that is familiar to us all. And about a story that sometimes brings with it controversy and confusion.

 

This morning’s Scripture passage is one of two Biblical accounts of creation. Biblical scholars generally believe that the creation story in the following verses of Genesis was separate, though not contradictory, and the two were combined later to form the narrative we know. Even in the earliest chapters of the Bible, there are multiple ideas about how the earliest days of creation played out.

 

But we should be used to that. Because we live in a world that tells us that the creation story is a little different depending on where it is being told.

 

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

 

It always troubled me to hear that. I wanted to be a good believer, but I couldn’t reconcile what I heard those loudest voices of Christianity in my town say with what I learned when I went to the science museum and saw the exhibit on the dinosaurs. They  had lived long before a few thousand years ago, and things just didn’t add up. On a few occasions I even heard Christians say that God had put the dinosaur bones on the earth to test our faith. If we were real believers, we wouldn’t be distracted by them and we wouldn’t stray from the story: God created us in six, 24 hour days.

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

That always rang true with me. That taking something literally and taking something faithfully are two different things. That God’s involvement in the world is not something that can be quantified and understood by our human measurements. That God’s work of creation can stand on its own and does not need to be supported by living in a scientific world and believing literally a story told by pre-scientific people.

 

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

 

I thought about that as I stood out on that sand bar on Cape Cod. I thought about the power of the waves crashing in. I thought about the beauty of water and all the species of life that lived in it. I thought about my ancestors who sailed on those waters almost four hundred years ago and how, in the big scheme of things, in the vastness of God’s time, we are not so far removed from one another. And I believed in God not any less. In fact, looking down at that rock, faced with the grand scale of God’s creation and the majesty of God’s work in it, I believed all the more.

 

I heard a story once of a native American woman who told her grandson a story from her tradition. When she was done her grandson looked up at her, amazed and asked, “Did that really happen?” She replied, “I don’t know if it really happened, but I know that it’s true.”

 

The same is true of Genesis. “I don’t know if it really happened, but I know that it’s true.”

 

I know it’s true that God created the heaven and the earth. I know it’s true that God created us. I know it’s true that God is involved in creation still. And I know that that little ocean stone that washed up on a sand bar in Truro is more than just a rock: it’s evidence of God’s steadfast love throughout the continuing process of creation.

 

The creation story of Genesis taught me how to read the Bible. It taught me how to take something seriously, but not literally. It taught me how to grasp the truth of God’s involvement and God’s love, without being a slave to fundamentalist interpretations. It taught me that was it true is different from what is exact.

 

And I read other passages that way too. I look to see what God is saying to us today. I look to find God’s love, which is always where the truth lies. I try to make sure that the full reality of God’s grace and God’s love is not obscured by the finite constraints of human understanding.

 

And so when I read, “slaves be obedient to your masters,” I know that, even though it was used this way, it was not meant to condone the continuing captivity of slaves in the American South.

 

I know that when I read, “women should be silent in church” that it is not meant to stop women from preaching 2,000 years after Christ’s resurrection.

 

I know that when I read in Deuterononomy that a rebellious or disobedient child should be stoned to death, that God does not actually want parents to kill their children.

 

And I know that when a pastor uses a Bible to tell an abused spouse not to get away from her abuser, that is not the truth either.

 

God created us good. God created us, in the words of Psalm 8, just a little lower than God and crowned with glory and honor. God created every part of us, including our minds, and to not use everything God gives us is not an act of faith. It is an act of disrespect for our awesome creator.

 

Your minds are always welcome in this church. Your questions are always honored. Your struggles to find God’s truth are always honored. And your quest to read the Bible, this document not of scientific facts or historical timelines, but of God’s love, with your heart and soul and mind, will always be respected. To do anything less, would be to disrespect the God who created us good all those years ago. Amen.