Thoughts, Prayers, and Palms: Sermon for Palm Sunday, 2018

So once again it is Holy Week in the church. Once again we have come to the last days of Lent, and we stand on the verge of the holiest time of the entire church year. And today is Palm Sunday, the start of a week that will include the beautiful intimacy of Maundy Thursday, the sorrow of Good Friday, and finally, the joy of Easter morning.

And this day, is so odd when you look at it from the outside. On the Sunday before Easter Christians go to church and they get palm leaves that have been shipped in from out of state, and they wave them in the air and shout “Hosanna” and if this is your first time in church on Palm Sunday, the whole thing must just look bizarre.

Canon 70D 1101That’s fair. This is one of those church traditions that requires some explanation. And so, we go back to the Scriptures, back to the original story of Jesus and the palms. Jesus and his disciples had been ministering in the countryside, in the smaller towns and villages, for awhile now. And people have started to talk about this Jesus guy, and how he teaches, and how he heals, and how something is special about him.

But now, they are heading to the big city: Jerusalem. Jesus sends a few of his disciples ahead of him and asks then to bring back a colt. And Jesus rides on this colt, through the streets of Jerusalem, and the people who have heard about him, they run out into the streets and they spread their coats out in front of him. And they take palm leaves, and they put them on the road too.

Palm leaves were symbols of victory and triumph, and so the fact the people wanted to lay them in front of Jesus means that they knew something was special about him. Because life in Jerusalem at that time, especially if you were just an ordinary Jewish person, and not a Roman citizen, was not good. You were oppressed. You were treated as lesser-than. You were despondent.

But then, here comes this guy, one that everyone has been talking about, one that brings a hope you have never known. And you wonder if maybe he’s the one. Maybe he is the king, for the messiah, or the savior that you’ve heard about your whole life long. Maybe he is coming to make everything better.

And so, you take these symbols of victory, these palms, and you line his path into the seat of power, this Jerusalem, this Washington or New York or what have you, and as he rides into town, you shout out your hope. Hosanna! Hosanna! And what you are literally shouting is this: “Save us. Help us. Rescue us.”

We tell this story now and sometimes we think this was a parade of some sort, but if it was, it was different than any we’ve seen. It was not a celebration so much as it was a statement, and a call for change. It was the people going out into the streets and saying “change is coming….change has to be coming….and maybe it’s this guy.” It was the crowd saying, “this is our new hope.”

I was thinking about that yesterday on the streets of Portsmouth. This year Lent began with a horrendous tragedy. On Ash Wednesday we learned that a gunman had killed seventeen people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Florida. That night, at our Ash Wednesday service, we prayed for the victims, and we prayed for a world where children did not have to be afraid anymore.

And, I confess, as I prayed, I was feeling incredibly cynical. Losing 13 people in Columbine, Colorado hadn’t changed anything. 26 first graders and their teachers in Newtown, Connecticut hadn’t changed anything. 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando hadn’t changed anything. 58 in Las Vegas? Nothing. This wouldn’t be any different either.

But, these kids at Parkland? These kids proved me wrong. Because these kids? They’re not sitting idly by. They’re not shutting up. They’re refusing to be seen and not heard. And it’s amazing.

One of these young people, a survivor of the shooting named David Hogg, was describing the role that he and his friends were now playing. And, to paraphrase, he talked about how country was broken. Because it has to be if we allow children to be gunned down in schools. And he said that we adults don’t know how to use our democracy.

And then he said it was like when your parents couldn’t figure out how to use their iphone…and you try to tell them how to do it. You coach them through it and say “now do this”. But finally, they’re not actually fixing the problem and so finally you just say, “Give me the….phone and let me handle it.”

29512296_1864634403589149_4241526480576250524_nThat’s what’s happening. They’re handling it. And so yesterday, around this country, students let us out into our houses and into the streets. News reports indicate that yesterday’s march in DC may have been the largest of all time. And across the country, smaller marches took place everywhere. In fact over in Portsmouth, Market Square was so packed that I couldn’t even make my way from the back of the crowd to the front where the contingent from our church had landed. That was okay, because blocking my way was a crowd of high school students, packed in too tightly for us to move.

It was awesome. These kids are awesome. And they are rightfully getting a lot of credit for what they are doing. They are heroes.

But, they aren’t the ones to save us. Nor should they be. Because we failed the kids, and they had to do this for us. But, as David Hogg said, “I shouldn’t have to! I’m 17.”

He shouldn’t have to. No kid should have to. They should be planning their prom and thinking about college. This work of keeping the world safe for them? That should be the work of adults. The kids shouldn’t be saving us. The kids shouldn’t even be having to yell to us “save us”. The kids should be kids.

And so, how do we let them be? How do we let them be not just when it comes to this particular kind of destruction, but to all the ways our culture of death and pain reaches them all to young? How do we proclaim another way to them? How do we proclaim another way to us?

I think it starts with this. I think it starts with us holding our palms up, and shouting out to God that ancient word: Hosanna! “Save us…rescue us…help us.”

Because here’s the thing. I know that right now it is very popular to dismiss the phrase “thoughts and prayers”. And, I get why. After a tragedy too often we hear talking heads sending “thoughts and prayers” to those who were impacted without doing anything else. Those thoughts and prayers help nothing.

But, “thoughts and prayers” get a bad rap sometimes. Because if we want to change the world, it’s going to take thoughts and prayers. But the trick is that it’s going to take the kind of thoughts and prayers that require something of us. A thought with no followthrough is just half a thought. A prayer that things would change without any intention to help make them change isn’t a prayer at all.

Thoughts and prayers are not the problem. Meaning what we think, meaning what we pray, that is.
On Palm Sunday, we are invited once again to choose what, and who, we believe will rescue us. And we are invited to lay down our palms, our symbols of victory, in front of him. And when we have put down our signs of readiness, when we have lined the road with them, then we will show him the path that we have made for him into our hearts, and into our towns, and into our world.

Our palms are our invitation to Christ to come into our hearts, and use us to be a part of the healing of the world. They are our signs that our faith will be put in a savior who taught a Gospel of love and peace, change and non-violence, and who asked us to follow. They are symbols of readiness to be people of true thoughts, true prayers, and true actions.

And so, once again, I raise my palm, and I say “hosanna”. Rescue us, Jesus. Save us. Help us. And know, Jesus, know that this time we are ready to work alongside of you.

 

Something is Coming: Sermon for December 3, 2017

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

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

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The parade route, lit up for the season. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sam_Cooke_billboard

Sam Cooke, photo from Billboard Magazine

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

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

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

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

Martin Luther and the Fear of Breaking the Rules: Sermon for October 8, 2017

The following is the first sermon in a four week sermon series celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.

You don’t have to be a Christian to know who Martin Luther was. Anyone who cares about history knows that he was the man who symbolically began the Protestant Reformation when he walked to a church in Wittenberg Germany, and nailed his 95 Theses up there on the door for all to see.

Later this month, on Halloween day actually, the world will celebrate the 500th anniversary of Luther’s actions. This is a major historical event for everyone, but for Christians, and for Protestant Christians in particular, this is huge. Because Martin Luther lived, and spoke, and acted with courage, the shape of Christianity looks very different than it did back then.

Martin Luther changed the world. He was a mighty figure whose reputation has grown over the centuries. And I love reading about Martin Luther, because his life is so inspiring to me. But what really made me love Luther, what really drew me in, was learning about Martin Luther, the child and the young man. Because every great person who changes the world is first a young person, and what happens to them in those earliest years is what makes them who they are.

This morning we read the story of the Ten Commandments as our Scripture. I’ve preached about the Ten Commandments and what they mean for us today many times, so I’m not going to do that today. But I did want us to read them because they symbolize something that was important in young Martin Luther’s life: rules.

Martin knew that the world had rules. God had rules. The church had rules. His school had rules. And he was deathly afraid of breaking any of them. Part of the reason why was a system that had been set up at his school. Throughout the week one of the boys in his class would be chosen to observe all the other boys in secret. You never knew who it was, or when they were near you.

If a boy broke a rule and the boy who was the observer saw it, he would write it down. At the end of the week the observer would turn in his list of rule breakers to the headmaster. And the headmaster, armed with this intel, would then beat each boy for the rules he had broken.

Can you imagine being a boy in that class? Can you imagine young Martin on Fridays, unsure what the teacher did or did not know? Can you imagine him wondering if he would be beaten that day, and how bad the beating would be?

51WbSZBr3gL._SY346_Over 400 years later the field of psychology would come into its own, and would tell us that we form our earliest images of God based on the adults who are in authority around us when we are children. Our parents and our teachers, for instance. Erik Erikson, the famed psychologist, would go on to write a book called “Young Man Luther” all about Martin as a boy and a young man. He wanted to figure out what had made Martin into a man willing to face down the powers of the church. And this story is one he retold.

The same Martin who as a boy had been so scared and anxious about rule breaking and punishment at school grew up to be a young man who was scared and anxious about rule breaking and punishment when it came to his relationship with God. Martin became consumed with fear that he was going to be punished by an angry God who had been marking down his every mistake.

And his church didn’t help. The church of his day emphasized God’s wrath and punishment, and capitalized on it. The fear of hell drove people to engage in elaborate forms of penance. Churches even sold “indulgences”, payments you could make to the church in order to be forgiven for your sin. The church knew that they could market to the fear of good people in order to fund their own coffers.

And unlike today, there was no other church. If you were a German in the 1500’s, you were a Catholic because that’s all there was. You couldn’t go down the street to the church on the next block. The Catholic church was your one connection to God, and to heaven.

It’s important to stop here and note too that this was a very different world from ours, and a very different Catholic Church than the one that we know today. Corruption has existed in every denomination at one time or another. The fact the Catholic church was the only game in town made it easier for bad practices to flourish. You may have heard the phrase “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”? That’s what happened here. People just thought it was normal.

One of the outcomes of the Protestant reformation was that Catholicism had its own reformation where many of these practices were changed. It’s important that when we talk about what happened 500 years ago we make every attempt not to malign our Catholic siblings, or their faith, nor that we believe we who are Protestants are above corruption.

That said, this was the church that Martin Luther knew. And it was the church that was there for him when another fearful event happened in his life. Martin had grown up into a bright young man, and he had begun to study the law. He was well on his way to being a lawyer when one day in 1505, when he was about 22 years old, he was caught walking in a terrible thunderstorm.

The storm was so bad, with lightning crashing all around him, that he thought for sure that he was going to die. In his absolute terror, Martin calls out to God, and he makes a promise: God, if you save me, I will become a monk. He survives. And Martin is good to his word. He leaves school and he joins the monastery, and he begins to study to be a monk and a priest.

It was fear that got Martin into the monastery, but it is the monastery that teaches Martin that maybe he didn’t quite understand God. One thing that you have to realize about Martin’s time is that everything you knew about God and Scripture and the church was taught to you by the clergy. The printing press had just come into being about 75 years prior, and its spread was slow. Moreover, even if you could read, most books weren’t in German. The Bible in particular was written in Latin. Only the most scholarly of Germans, like the monks, could have even read it.

Portrait_of_Martin_Luther_as_an_Augustinian_Monk

Martin Luther as an Augustinian monk.

But here was Martin, finally getting to read it. And, as he read the Gospels, as he read Paul’s letters, as he read of a God who loved God’s people, it didn’t quite square with what he had always been told about God. Here in the Bible was a story about a God who is not waiting to punish us at the end of our lives like a school master at the of the week. Here is a God who loves us, and who loves us so much that God gives us the grace of forgiveness.

Martin’s whole life he had been taught that the only way he could be saved from eternal punishment was by his works. If only he was good enough, if only he worked hard enough, if only he bought enough indulgences, took on enough penance, then maybe…maybe…God would save him from punishment. But now he saw that this wasn’t who God really was.

Twelve years after that day in the thunderstorm, twelve years of learning and unlearning so much, Martin Luther walked through the town of Wittenberg towards the church in town. At about two in the afternoon he reached the doors of the church, and posted his 95 Theses. Legend says he “nailed” them to the door, but that makes it sound a little more dramatic than it probably actually was. In actuality the church door was a lot like a well-read bulletin board of a few decades ago. Maybe even like a Facebook page today. If someone had something they wanted to share, something they wanted others to discuss, it was not uncommon for them to tack it to the door of the church for others to see.

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The doors of the Wittenberg church as they look today.

That’s not to say, though, that what Martin did that day was not courageous. The 95 Theses are really just 95 statements about who God was, and what that meant for the church. Martin knew that in the eyes of the church they would make him a heretic, and perhaps even cost him his life. But Martin had come to understand God’s love and God’s grace, and he felt compelled to share it with others, and to reform his church, even if it meant his whole life was about to change. And once it was done, there was no going back.

Next week we’ll talk about what happened next, and how it changed everything…and still changes everything even for us today…

A Big Fish Story: Sermon for September 24, 2017

Some of the best and best-known stories of the Bible are the ones that leave us asking, “Now come on…did that really happen?” Today is one of those stories. It’s the story of Jonah, one of the early prophets, and about what happens when he tries to run away from God.

So, what’s the one thing we all know about Jonah? He gets swallowed by a whale, right? Jonah and the whale. It’s another one of those stories we hear as kids: there was a guy named Jonah, he got thrown overboard from a ship, a whale swallowed him, and then a few days later the whale let him go.

We teach this story in Sunday school every few years because it’s a great kids story. There’s God, there’s a big whale, and everything turns out fine in the end. But there’s this one hitch: the kids aren’t so sure they believe it. I know that, because when kids are suspicious about whether or not you are telling the truth, they ask a lot of questions. And they’ve got questions about this Jonah guy.

For example: What kind of a whale was it, exactly? How did Jonah stay alive in its stomach? Wasn’t it dark? How could he breathe? And finally, is this really true? Did it really happen?

In other words, they don’t buy it. They’re smart kids, and they’re not so sure this story is true.

So right about now, you might be wondering, “Then why do we keep telling our kids these stories”? And maybe the bigger question is this: why do we keep telling ourselves these stories? We are not mindless. We know the difference between fact and fiction. So, why do we insist on reading stories like Creation, and Noah’s Ark, and Jonah and the whale? Why not just stick with Jesus and the things he said?

It’s a good question. And it’s one I’ll at least start to answer with words that one of you shared with a while back. Many of you know that Lois Royal is a master storyteller who has spent time listening to a lot of other storytellers share their stories. And she said something once that made me think. She said, “a story does not survive, unless there is something about it that is true.”

She’s right. Because we don’t repeat stories of any kind that don’t have at least some kernel of truth in them. And Jonah is a well-repeated story. Long before it was ever set down on paper for the first time, it was being told. In fact, it’s been around for the better part of three thousand years ago. And we still tell it today, because there’s something about it that rings true to us. And, though that whale is memorable, this truth of this story really has nothing to do with a big fish.

Listen to the story again: There was once a man named Jonah. One day God asks him to do something he does not want to do. God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh, a city where no one was living the way God wanted them to live, and to tell them to change. But Jonah doesn’t want to, so he decides to run in the other direction and get on a ship bound for another city.

And here’s the first reason why this story is true: because we all run away from God. It’s true. We’ve all done it. We’ve all at some time in our lives been asked by God to do something hard. Maybe we’ve been asked to go deeper in our spiritual lives. Maybe we’ve been asked to take a stand. But whatever it is, we’ve said “no way”. And we’ve run. I’ve done it. And maybe you have too.

And that’s why, whales aside, this is a true story.

But it doesn’t stop there. Jonah gets on the boat and midway through the journey, a storm comes. The others start to panic. They throw the cargo overboard. They start to pray. And when that doesn’t work they even cast lots to try to figure out who is responsible. And when it becomes clear that it’s Jonah, they ask “where are you from and what are you doing here”?

When Jonah confesses that he’s running away from God, they know why there is a storm. And they know nothing is going to get better with Jonah in the boat. And in the end even Jonah himself knows this, and he tells them “throw me overboard…it’s the only way you’ll survive”. And so they do.

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Actual photo of Jonah’s whale.

Jonah probably thought that was going to be the end of things, but it wasn’t. Because God sends a “big fish”, which we call a “whale”, to swallow him. And for three days Jonah is inside the whale. And it takes him three days, but finally Jonah calls out to God and says “okay…I’m here…use me…I’ll go to Nineveh!”

And here’s the second reason this story is true: because God sends us whales.

Now I don’t mean literal whales. But I do mean that God sends us second chances. God sends us places where we have to slow down for a little while and think about how we ended up like this. And God waits patiently with us until, three days or three years or three decades later, we decide that we have had enough, and we can’t do it our way anymore. God sends us whales because in the end, God doesn’t let us go. Even when we try to throw ourselves overboard, God still has a grip on us.

When Jonah prays and tells God that he will go, the whale spits Jonah back out, onto dry land. And Jonah goes to Nineveh, and he tells them to change, and despite the fact Jonah thought it was hopeless, they do it! And God says, “I will not destroy Nineveh because they listened.”

Now, this would be a good end to the story. Jonah runs. Jonah gets swallowed by the whale. Jonah ends up doing what he didn’t want to do in the first place. And in the end everything works out.

But it’s not the end because Jonah isn’t happy about this. Jonah had been through a lot on his way to Nineveh. Jonah had been in the belly of the whale. He had just been minding his own business when God had come to him, and it had not been easy for him. And now Nineveh, the city that could do nothing right, gets off scot-free. It sure doesn’t seem fair to Jonah.

And so Jonah tells God this: “I’m mad at you”. In fact Jonah says to God, “I am so angry with you that I could die”.

And here’s the third reason this story is true: because, whether we admit it or not, I think almost all of us have been mad at God before.

Have you? I know I have. Maybe I haven’t been as angry as Jonah was in that moment, but I’ve wondered “God, what are you doing? I did everything you wanted me to do, why didn’t everything work out like I wanted.

The truth is that if we have a real relationship with God, a deep one, we will probably get angry at times. The trick is learning how to stay connected with God even when you are angry because Scripture shows us that part of living a life of faith is caring enough to get angry from time to time.

After Jonah tells God that he is so angry he could die, God responds. God causes this tree to grow over Jonah to protect him from the sun while he sulks. And God waits.

Now that would be a lovely place for the story to end, but Jonah doesn’t get off that easily. Because after Jonah has been angry for a while God decides maybe Jonah has been angry a little too long. Because that happens with us too. And so God… makes the tree die. And Jonah is out in the sun, with no protection.

And God says, “Jonah, are you still angry?” And Jonah, angrier than ever, says, “I’m still angry…angry enough that I could die”.

And so God talks to Jonah once more and says this: Jonah you’re mad about one tree dying. I just wanted to save a whole city. 120,000 people, each of whom I loved. Was that so wrong?

And that’s where the book ends. With God having the last word.

And here’s the final reason why this is a true story: because God’s love always has the last word. Even if it’s God’s tough love.

The book of Jonah, at its heart, is a story about God’s love. It’s about God loving Nineveh enough to want them to turn back to God. And it’s about God loving Jonah enough that when Jonah ends up in the ocean God sends a way for him to live.

And it’s also about God loving Nineveh enough that God does not destroy them. And it’s God loving Jonah enough to protect him with a tree. And it’s God loving Jonah enough to say “okay, you’ve been angry long enough…now listen to me.” And in the end, it’s about God’s love having the last word, even when we don’t want it to.

I will always think of whales when I hear the name “Jonah”. I can’t help it. It’s just the story we all know. But I will also thing about this: I will think about what it means for a story to be true. And I will know that, somehow, this is a true story. It’s true enough that it keeps being told. And it’s true enough that the truth can change our lives.

In the end, that’s how you know you have a story worth repeating. And that’s why one day, years from now, the children of this congregation will probably tell their kids about Jonah and the whale. I hope that they do, because true stories like this are always worth sharing.

Translating the Gospel: Sermon for Pentecost, June 4, 2017

Earlier this year I was researching my mom’s grandparents, my mom’s mom’s family, and I found my great-grandfather’s application for citizenship in this country.

My grandmother’s parents emigrated from Italy in the early 1900’s and they settled in Maine. They had died long before I was born so I never met them. But I found my great-granddad’s citizenship paperwork, complete with this picture of this big, bulky guy, and I texted it to my sister and said “well, I know where I got my build from.”

I then wondered what my great-grandmother looked like, but no matter where I searched, I couldn’t find anything. So I called my mom and asked, “Is there a reason that your grandmother maybe never became a citizen.” And she said, “Oh yes…she never learned to speak English.”

That surprised me because my grandmother grew up speaking Italian, but also spoke English. The same was true for her brothers and sisters. But their mother had grown up in Italy, and in Portland she lived in a community where you only needed to speak Italian. Even at church the priest spoke Italian. She had little exposure to English and never learned.

But my mom had always talked about her grandmother and how she loved her grandchildren. And, none of them had learned Italian. So, I wondered how the kids knew that. But my mom said that even though she didn’t speak much English, there were always other ways she could show her affection and love.

Today is Pentecost Sunday. This is the day that we in the church celebrate the Holy Spirit, and the way it arrived. Fifty days after Easter, and soon after the Ascension of Jesus Christ, the disciples were gathered together. You have to imagine they were a little confused. They’d been through this emotional whiplash. First Jesus was dead, then somehow he was alive, and now he was gone again. Before he left, though, he told them all to continue to tell his story, so they must have been sitting there thinking, “Okay, what now?” and “How do we do this?”

Scripture tells us that just then “a mighty wind” rushed through the room, and “tongues of fire” appeared over each of their heads. And, suddenly, they could speak languages they’d never known.

They went out into the city and met people who had come to Jerusalem from every place they could imagine. This would be like standing in the middle of the international arrival terminal at Logan, hearing all the different languages around you. And they began telling the story of Jesus, and of what had happened. And the people were like, “Wait, they’re all from Galilee. How do these guys know my language?”

A few folks were skeptical. They looked at the disciples and said, “they must be filled with new wine.” The technical translation for that is, “these guys are drunk”. But Peter hears this and says, “hey, we’re not drunk” (actually, he says, “it’s only 9am”, which I’ve always kind of loved”). But, Peter says, something has indeed happened. A new era has begun, and this small handful of disciples, this earliest church, has a story to tell.

What happened to the disciples was that the Holy Spirit had arrived. When we talk about God, or the Trinity, the Holy Spirit normally comes last. We get God who is the creator, the parent, the one who made all of us. And we get God who is Jesus Christ, who lived and died and rose again. But that last part, God the Holy Spirit, that’s harder to explain. It is literally amorphous.

And yet, it’s probably the Holy Spirit that we encounter most in our lives. It’s the Holy Spirit who Jesus promised would be there for the disciples, leading them, supporting them, and guiding them, even after they no longer saw him. And it’s the Holy Spirit who guides us still, and who lifts up our hearts when we need to know that God is still with us.

It’s this first gift of the Holy Spirit to the church, though, that is so powerful, and so important for us still. The disciples get the ability to speak the languages of others. They get a way to tell the story of Jesus, and what they’ve seen. And now it’s no longer just their story, but the world’s.

And the most important things about this is that they were the ones who started to speak other languages. How much easier would it have been for the Holy Spirit to say, “okay, I’ve touched every person in Jerusalem, and now they all speak your language, so go out there and tell them the story.”

But that’s not how it works. Instead it’s the disciples who are changed. It’s the church that has to learn new languages.

That’s a good reminder for us today because sometimes in the church we think everyone just needs to learn our language. You know, if people out there would just get onboard and come through the doors, and make an effort, they’d know how to talk like us.

But in a time when church is increasingly optional, that’s doesn’t happen. For many people, we may as well be speaking a foreign language in here. For some of them that’s confusing, and for others that may be downright frightening. So when people dare to walk through the doors of our church, that’s why it’s so important that we spell out in plain language what we are doing here.

That’s why we write the words of the Lord’s Prayer in the bulletin. That’s why we announce the hymns. That’s why we try to explain the sacraments. We have to be translators because otherwise we may as well be speaking Galilean.

IMG_5015And sometimes this goes beyond literal language to other ways of telling our story. As you arrived today you may have noticed that we have a rainbow flag out in front of the church today. Church council voted unanimously to place it there during the month of June. In doing so we are recognizing two things. First, we are remembering what happened in Orlando at the Pulse Nightclub a year ago this month. Second, we are flying it because June is Pride month for LGBTQ people, and we are standing in solidarity with the LGBTQ community.

About twenty years ago now this church voted to become Open and Affirming, which is a term that itself needs translation. Open and Affirming in our tradition means that we welcome and affirm people of all sexual orientations and gender identities. So, you know, and I know, that this is a step this church has taken. And you know, and I know, that it is safe for an LGBTQ person, or their friends, or their family, to walk through the doors of this church.

But here’s the catch. The average person walking or driving by probably doesn’t know that. And if they are a person who is LGBTQ, or who loves someone who is, they probably don’t know that this is a safe place. That’s understandable. Most churches aren’t, so why should this one be any different?

I know that’s a question for some in our community because people have asked me, “Would I be welcome there?” And I’m often like, “Okay, look at me…I’m the pastor.” But even with that…they don’t know for certain.

So imagine this. Imagine you are wondering who we are. Maybe you’re the parent of a gay kid. Maybe your best friend is trans. Or maybe you’re a middle school kid who is figuring out who you are, and who is wondering whether God really loves you. And imagine that you are riding in a car, looking out the window, and you see the big white church on Front Street, and you notice that flag. And imagine that in your heart, in a new way, you know for the first time that maybe God really does love you.

Even if you never come through the doors of the church, you hear that this story is for you too. That’s the power of Pentecost. That’s the gift of the Holy Spirit, and it’s a gift that is given to us not to keep to ourselves, but to use to share the story of God’s love with the world.

We become stronger every time we share our story. And we become stronger every time someone new walks through our doors because they bring their own gifts with them. That church that gathered in the Upper Room at Pentecost, all of twelve people strong, has grown to be a church of over 2 billion people worldwide today.

It didn’t get there by us all sitting in our pews, speaking our own language. It got there because the Holy Spirit taught us new ways to tell the story, and open our doors wider, and to invite people in. And so now is our turn. Let us be Pentecost people in all we do, sharing the Gospel of God’s love and grace in every language we can find.

 

Donald Trump and the Gratitude Gap

The realization came to me while watching the “Mothers of the Movement” speaking at the Democratic National Convention. These mothers of children who had died too young and too violently, Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, and more, had come to Philadelphia to speak. Sandra Bland’s mom was leading them off with words of faith and grace.

And that’s when I thought about Donald Trump’s speech at his own convention last week, and about the overarching message of fear, intolerance, and negativity that has come to define his campaign. I thought about his calls to “make America great again” and the implied message there that this country is not great, and about how he said that only he alone could fix it.

What a contrast to these women on the stage, mothers who have suffered the deepest of losses, who were expressing gratitude to God and hope for their country.

That’s when I realized what has made me most wary of Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency.  Never have I heard him express any gratitude for anyone other than himself, and his immediate family. None for God’s grace, none for this country, and none for other people.

Donald Trump is a man who has just about everything he could ever want. Born into wealth, the breaks have always gone his way. Even when he has failed tremendously, he has walked away none-the-worse for it. He has had every privilege, and every advantage of a well-born American.

And yet, he believes only he is responsible for his greatness.

That should not have been surprising to me. This is a man who, despite his professed Christian faith, when asked about whether he ever seeks God’s forgiveness for his sins stated, “I am not sure I have. I just go on and try to do a better job from there. I don’t think so. I think if I do something wrong, I think, I just try and make it right. I don’t bring God into that picture. I don’t.”

Donald Trump’s faith is his own, and only he and God know its depth, but as a Christian that is stunning to me. My own understanding of Christian faith is rooted in the fact that we are God’s beloved children, and yet time and again we mess up. The good news is that God acts through Christ to forgive us, turn our hearts back around, and set us back on the right path.

This is called grace.

picmonkey_imageI also believe that the only proper response to grace is gratitude. The only way we can possibly begin to say thank you to God is by living lives that reflect that gratitude. And so, we seek to love others and to make this world better for all not because we are great, but because God is great.

But if you have never acknowledged that it is God’s greatness, and not your own, that is amazing, then of course you will not be grateful. If you believe every good thing in your life has come to you because you are special and talented, and that grace has played no part in it, then how could you be?

You’ve never been repentant. You’ve never known what it is to be aware of your own failings. You’ve never understood that only God alone can fix it.

That’s when we fall into the most damaging of spiritual conditions: staggering narcissism, unquestioned entitlement, and belief in our own ability to do it alone.

Those are spiritually dangerous places for all of us, but they are even more destructive when they exist in those who would be leaders. The ungrateful leader is not aware of their ability to be wrong. They lack the wisdom that grace brings, and the sense of purpose that is tied to gratitude. They approach their work not with the humility that it demands, but with a cocky self-satisfaction that has the power to destroy those they lead.

There is a saying that those of us who are in recovery from addiction often repeat: a grateful heart will never drink. That means that a person who wants to stay sober must be aware of the grace they have received, live with real gratitude, and always give thanks to God for what has been done for them.

For one who seeks a position of leadership, that saying might read something like this: A grateful heart will never take for granted those whom I serve.

This country needs leaders who know that they have received God’s good grace. We need the launch codes to be in the hands of someone who is humble and wise. We need budgets that are written by just and merciful people. We need leaders who can speak with kindness and strength in the same voice.

We need leaders who live lives of gratitude.

I cannot tell you how to vote come November. That is your choice. But I can say that where there is gratitude there is neither intolerance nor mockery, fear nor exclusion, rage nor violence, grandiosity nor idolatry. Gratitude leaves no room for those things.

Note: All opinions on this blog reflect only my own thoughts as a private citizen, and not those of the institutions which I serve. 

This Book Will Not Save Your Church: Or, Why I Wrote “Glorify”

Glorify is a book I never meant to write.

In the fall of 2014 I was taking a research seminar for my Doctor of Ministry degree. One of our assignments was to present our plans for our doctoral project. So, I went with my previously stated intentions and wrote out a lengthy proposal for a project centered on Ron Heifetz’s theory of adaptive leadership and its application to the church.

If you’ve never heard about “adaptive leadership” before, here’s the quick and dirty version. There are two kinds of fixes: technical and adaptive. Many challenges can be solved by relatively easy “technical fixes”. I like to think of this as the “duct tape approach”. Something is broken? Duct tape it back in place. It will work…at least for a while.

But adaptive challenges are more difficult than that. They require us to take a look at the entire broken system and use creative approaches to fix them. Many of the challenges we try to solve with “technical fixes” are actually adaptive challenges in disguise. Because adaptive fixes take more time, energy, and effort, though, it may be tempting to just try to fix them with the duct tape of technical fixes instead.

I wanted to write about the mainline church and how we, as almost anyone will tell you, are broken. We are losing members. We are losing churches. We are losing our sense of purpose. My project was going to be a practical guide to bringing adaptive thinking to the congregational setting.

But one day in class, while I was sketching out my ideas, a thought came to me: was I attempting to fix an adaptive problem with just another technical fix? Am I writing another book that pastors and church leaders will buy in an attempt to fix things? One that, like most other books, won’t contribute much to solving the problem?

It was while I was pondering this that another thought came: Maybe Jesus is the adaptive fix.

9780829820294Bear with me. I don’t think we should follow Jesus to save our churches. But I do think that mainline churches have in many ways already put the cart before the horse (or forgotten the horse entirely). We have been so focused on saving ourselves that we have forgotten that someone has already done that. Perhaps the greatest adaptive fix the mainline could make would be to remember its purpose, and build back a sense of itself as belonging to a God of grace.

That fall I wrote a blog about this idea that was later picked up by Still Speaking Magazine. (You can read it here: https://emilycheath.com/2014/09/16/the-next-big-thing-for-the-progressive-church-putting-the-horse-before-the-cart/ ) Not long after that I signed a contract with Pilgrim Press for a book based on these same ideas. The result was Glorify: Reclaiming the Heart of Progressive Christianity, which was just published last month. 

From the beginning I knew this was a different kind of church leadership and church growth book. It’s doesn’t follow the “ten easy steps to turn your church around” format. There’s no conversation about whether traditional or contemporary music will get the millennials in your pews, or whether to buy hymnals or project the music overhead. I’m not telling you to run a sermon series on marriage or hang a rainbow banner from your steeple.

 

You can do all of that, of course. It’s still great stuff. But, in the end, it’s just a technical fix in an age when we need an adaptive change.

One of the statistics I quote in the book says that we mainliners, “have the worst ‘retention rate’ when it comes to our young people; 45 percent, less than half, of our youth continue to claim our tradition into young adulthood. That number dips to 37 percent, or just over a third, when you look at millennials. More and more of our youth are graduating from high school, stepping out into the world, and becoming “nones.”

In other words, despite every bell and whistle we try, we’re losing about two-thirds of the people who grow up in our mainline congregations. It’s not that people don’t know about us. It’s that they know us, and aren’t so sure they want what we are offering.

To put it another way, the technical fixes that mainline and progressive churches have been trying for the last thirty years aren’t working. The kids are alright, but we’re not. And they can see through any facade that says otherwise.

So, maybe it’s time to try something new. Maybe it’s time to eschew the technical fixes of the latest new craze in church, and instead look for something different. Maybe it’s time to put our hope in something a little more long-lasting. Maybe it’s time to stop looking countercultural, and actually be countercultural.

And maybe it’s time to do the kind of adaptive work that only God can help us do.

Glorify will not be the book to help you save your church. But it might just point you towards the one who can.

The Gift of Forgetting Our Place: Sermon for Easter 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Proclaiming that truth is the work of Easter.

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

The Prodigal in All of Us: Sermon for March 6, 2016

All through my 20’s, I was fortunate enough to have a mentor. From college to seminary to ordination and beyond, she was always there, carefully balancing gentle encouragement with the not-so-gentle directness of one who could see through excuses with x-ray vision. In other words, she was excellent at her job.

Throughout college, and throughout seminary, she was there for me, helping me to focus and to think about my future. And after seminary I took a chance and applied to a PhD program, in the exact same field as hers incidentally, and was accepted. When I drove off to school to start that doctoral program she told me how proud she was of me.

But there was just one problem: once I got there I hated it with every fiber of my being. Every day in graduate school made me feel like I was a square peg being pounded into a round hole. So, finally, I left.

Driving away I felt incredibly free. I also felt so worried that I had disappointed my mentor that I didn’t write or call to tell her. Embarrassed at what I thought she would see as my failure, I all but disappeared for the next few years.

This week’s Scripture tells us about a son who asked for his father’s inheritance early, went off to the big city, and promptly hit rock bottom. He was so afraid that his father would be ashamed of him that he took a job feeding pigs for a stranger. One day out in the fields, hungry and humiliated, he realized that even his father’s hired hands were treated better than this.

And so, he set off for home, expecting no welcome but hoping for just enough grace to be treated fairly as a servant, and not as a son. He was, after all, a disappointment.

I often worry that churches are too full of people who are not disappointments, and too full of people who can easily resonate with that older brother who feels cheated when the younger one comes home without any consequences.

Churches are often filled with people who pay the bills on time, call their parents regularly, and change the oil in the car long before the check engine light comes on. In short, people who have never been disappointments.

remb_vz_terug_grt_p17l39bgjj1q0skfopu718imsrr5-medium

“Return of the Prodigal Son” by Rembrandt

These are the sort of folks who can resonate with the angry brother who has stayed and worked on the farm while his younger brother wasted the family’s money in the city. The ones who are mad that now that same brother is home again, dad just can’t wait to give him another chance.

Except the reality is that even when we look like we have our lives together, even when we look to all the world like the loyal son or daughter, we have all been disappointments at one time or another. We have been prodigal sons who have hit some kid of rock bottom. Maybe no one has known it but us, but we have known it. And it has shaken us to our core.

In truth both brothers live inside of us, the responsible one and the prodigal one. It is an uneasy coexistence made worse by the reality that neither is perfect, and that both make real mistakes. The dutiful brother’s lack of compassion and grace when his brother returns is indeed worth our attention. But he’s not the only one.

Of all the places in our life, church should be the one place where we can all admit that we are sometimes the other brother too. Even when others admire the highlight reels of our lives, each of us knows that there is a lot sitting back there on the cutting room floor. We need a place where we can say that, and hear that from others too.

In Lent we get honest about the fact that we sometimes disappoint God. The good news is that we also get to hear this truth: God is waiting to come running down the road, and welcome us back. Dutiful son, prodigal son, or a little bit of both…God knows us already, and God can’t wait for us to come home.

I don’t know what the prodigal son was feeling when he walked up the road to his father’s house that day, but I do know what I felt when I opened my email and typed a message to my old mentor after so many years. I know what it is like to wait for a response I was not sure would come. I know what it is like to be prepared for the worst.

It is because I sent that message, though, that I also know what it’s like to find the one you have disappointed running down the road to you, embracing you, and welcoming you home.

The greatest gift I received from my mentor that day was her telling me she was not disappointed in me in the least for quitting my PhD program. As she put it, she would have only been disappointed had I stayed in a place where I was not being true to the person God had created me to be. The hard truth, though, was that she was disappointed in me for one thing: I hadn’t given her the chance to tell me that all those years ago.

The reality is that we have all disappointed people who have loved us. God included. That’s real. But so is grace, and the thing about grace is that those moments of disappointment do not define us. Unless, of course, we are so scared of our loved ones’ rejection that we choose to let them.

In Lent we are called home by a God who will come running down the road just to hold us once more. We turn away not from life, but from those places in life in which we are not true to whom God has created us to be. In this season we find that our failures are indeed real, but that God’s love is so much bigger and better than what we could have imagined.

Maybe the only way we could ever truly disappoint God is by believing that we have messed up too much to ever be loved by God again. But even then, even when we refuse to give God a chance, I’ll bet that God still will somehow still find us. And in that moment we will once again be welcomed back home. Amen?

Love is Patient, Love is Kind…and Love is Not Control

“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.Love never ends.” – 1 Corinthians 13

From the time I graduated from college, until the time I was married, I lived mostly on my own. Even when I had roommates early on, we had separate rooms and our own personal space. And I really liked my space. I was very particular about it. Which is why, when I found myself engaged and about to be married at the age of 36, despite all the love and excitement and certainty I was doing the right thing, I wasn’t so excited about sharing my space.

But, I believe in love, and so I told my spouse, who was moving into my house, this is our home. I don’t want you to feel like it’s mine. So make yourself comfortable, and do whatever you need to do to make it feel like home.

That wasn’t a good idea.

Only a few days after living together, I was at a daylong meeting, and I got home tired and hungry. I walked into the kitchen and opened the cupboard for a coffee mug. And my coffee mugs were not there. And then I opened THE silverware drawer. And the silverware was nowhere to be seen. And then tried to find a bowl, and the coffee mugs were where the bowls had been.

FullSizeRenderNothing was where it was supposed to be. And I made mention of that fact to my spouse, who quickly reminded me of what I had said about it being OUR house.

And that’s when I got, in a very real way, that as much as I was madly in love, marriage was going to be a whole lot different than living alone. It was going to be wonderful and exhilarating and fulfilling, and it was also going to mean I couldn’t find a thing in my kitchen.

I think about weddings and love and the marriage that comes after the wedding every time I hear this passage. Most of us have been to a wedding where these verses, “Love is patient…love is kind…” are read. And they’re very nice, very pretty words about love.

The problem is, they weren’t written for a wedding. In fact, I think if most would-be newlyweds knew where these words came from, they might be a little reluctant to use them in their wedding. Because, far from advice to new couples, this was Paul’s letter to the church in Cornith, and he was telling a bunch of church people to stop fighting with each other.

This isn’t about romance at all…it’s about churches behaving badly. And that’s probably not the vibe you are looking for at your wedding.

And yet, there is some good advice there for us all. Corinthians acknowledges the hard truth: to love somebody, or something, means that they are going to challenge your way of thinking. They are going to shake up the calm and complacency of your life. They are going to make things complicated.

But if it’s really love, romantic or otherwise, they are also going to make things better.

And that’s where the “love is” statements come into play. Listen again, because this isn’t just about how you treat your spouse. It’s also about how you treat your kids, and the rest of your family. It’s about how to treat your neighbors and your fellow church members. It’s about how to treat the world.
“Love is patient, love is kind, love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

I think you can sum these words up in another way too. And that is that if you truly love someone or something, you cannot control them. Love and control are not the same thing. Instead, you can only control your actions and reactions.

We all need that reminder at times. I do too. Just like getting married taught me that my life was in very real ways about more than just my preferences now, even if that just meant where things went in the kitchen, being a part of any relationship or any community teaches us the exact same thing. It’s always bigger than us.

This is especially true in the church, where it is never just about us, but is always first and foremost about God and God’s will for us.

And yet, we are human. And that means sometimes we struggle to love God, and to love one another. And Paul knew that when he wrote this letter to a church in Corinth, and reminded them what love looked like.

Now, I’m aware that me saying all of this on our annual meeting day might have some of you curious right now. “Uh oh, is something wrong?” “Is there some sort of controversy about to come up?”

Not that I know of. (And now would be a good time to say so if you do.)

But this is annual meeting day for a lot of congregations today, and I am praying hard for a lot of churches and colleagues today, because I know that this is going to be a rough afternoon for them.

That’s to be expected, because love, even in the church, is not always easy. And sometimes we love something so much that we try to control it. But that’s not real love. And that’s why even God in God’s perfect love, who could control this world, refuses to do so. God loves us too much for that.

Three and a half years after getting married my kitchen still looks very different from the way I used to set it up. But here’s the strange thing: I’m okay with that. Heidi’s the cook, not me. And she should be the one who sets up that space, because she’s the one who uses it. So now, I’m content to just know where things were moved to, and to eat all the delicious meals that she makes.

When I got married, I gave up some control of my life, right down to my kitchen cabinets. It wasn’t just about me anymore. But what I get in return from loving someone, is so much better, and so much more incredible.

Likewise, when I confessed my faith in Christ as a young adult, I began to let go of some my own ego and my own desires, and I put them back in God’s hands. I said, “God, show me your will for me…and help me to love you enough to follow.”

That’s what each of us does when we confess our faith. And that’s what each of us does when we become members of a church. Together we say that we will put the big choices in God’s hands, and we will love one another and love God enough to patiently try to figure out what God is asking us to do next. Patiently. Kindly. And lovingly. Because love is always worth it.

I’ll close with this. In a few moments, we are going to baptize a new baby, a new child of God. And I cannot tell you what her life will look like 20 years from now. I cannot tell you who she will become, or what she will believe, or how she will live.

We cannot control who she will become. Not even her parents can. And we shouldn’t. Because that’s not love.

But I can tell you this: God already loves her. And today we will literally pour the waters of that love over her.

And so our responsibility as the church is the same responsibility that we have for anyone who walks through those doors, and the same responsibility we have for one another: guide her, help her discern God’s will for her, and remind her that God loves her, and that her greatest calling in life is to love God, and love God’s world.

We will teach her this because God has taught us that love is always, always, worth it. Amen?