Born Again. And again. And again.: Sermon for March 12, 2017

There are some things that define the differences between generations. There are young adults who have never known a world without the internet, for instance, and others for whom this is still a pretty recent phenomenon. Or, there are those who remember rotary phones, and others who would have no idea what to do if one was put in front of them.

There’s another one, and my generation is sort of right on the dividing line for this: library card catalogs. Do you remember having to write papers using a card catalog? You picked your topic, went to those big wooden stacks full of drawers stuffed with index cards, and you looked up all the different books you would need.

That changed while I was in college. Most libraries don’t have those anymore. Now you can use a computerized system, and maybe even pull up what you need at your home. But I’ll never forget being about elementary-aged and being at the library with my friends. And we had some questions. Questions of the type that our parents weren’t ready to answer.

You get where I’m going here.

Schlagwortkatalog

Photo credit, Dr. Marcus Gossler, wikipedia commons image.

So you could innocently enough go to the card catalog, pretend you were looking for something else, and find that card that would send you to a book that would explain everything. And there’s no shame in natural curiosity, but even still, your heart was pounding the whole time, right?

Library card catalogs answered a lot of questions that we couldn’t ask others back in the day. Today we might turn to the internet. But, what if you were a Pharisee, a religious leader, back in Jesus’ day? And what if there was this guy who kept doing these things you couldn’t explain? And what if all the other religious leaders you worked with didn’t like him at all, but you were curious? And what if you needed to find out who he was for yourself?

That was the situation that Nicodemus was in. He was a Pharisee, a religious leader, and he was expected to toe the party line. And the party line was that this guy named Jesus, who kept doing things like turning water into wine and running money changers out of the temple, was bad news.

But Nicodemus was curious. He thought there might be something more to this. But there was no card catalog, no webpage, for figuring out Jesus. And so, he did the only thing he could think of…he went straight to the source. But, like a kid looking in the card catalog, pretending to be doing something else, Nicodemus didn’t go in the bright of day and just ask. Instead, he snuck out under the cover of night, and went to Jesus while everyone else was asleep.

Can you imagine Jesus? He was probably sleeping himself, and now this Pharisee was waking him up asking him questions. He says, “Jesus, I know you’ve got to be a teacher from God, because otherwise you couldn’t do these things. Who are you?”

And Jesus, as usual, doesn’t answer the question. Instead he starts talking about being “born again” or “born from above”. And Nicodemus is like, “What do you mean ‘born again’?” And he actually asks if he’s supposed to reenter his mother’s womb so she can give birth again.

But Jesus tells him, “that’s not what I mean”. And Jesus explains about being “born of the Spirit” and how we have to have a spiritual rebirth, one that changes us. And Nicodemus doesn’t know this at the time, but Nicodemus himself is in the midst of this second birth. He is having a sort of birth pangs brought about by a curiosity that he cannot ignore any longer. He is being changed.

There’s an old saying: “Curiosity killed the cat.” And I have vet bills to attest to the fact that curiosity can at least cause very expensive injuries to the cat. And we humans sometimes take this saying to heart in order to discourage our own curiosity, and sort of keep our heads down.

And, though he wasn’t a cat, Nicodemus’ curiosity was indeed dangerous. If his friends had known what he was doing, it would have cast suspicion on him. It would have changed the way he was seen. That’s why he had to look for answers in the middle of the night.

But curiosity, while generally bad for cats, is actually a really good thing for humans, especially in our spiritual lives. Asking questions is a sign of deep faith. Nicodemus knows there is something about Jesus, and so he goes and tries to learn more. And that’s what we do too.

We get curious, and when we do we sometimes have these encounters with God’s love and grace. We wrestle. We grapple. We try to work out who we think Jesus is, and what that means for our lives. And that work doesn’t always go quickly, or end neatly.

This text is the same way. Nicodemus just sort of disappears in the end. He doesn’t get this big “aha” moment where it all makes sense. Instead, he probably walked away from Jesus more confused than ever before.

That’s not surprising…Jesus can be infuriating like that.

Down South where I grew up there were a lot of people who would talk about being “born again” the way Jesus does here. And, for them, it was often this one, shining moment when all of a sudden they believed and their lives changed and everything made sense.

But I never got that moment. I had times when things made a little more sense, and I felt God’s love, but the curiosity and questions never ended. And like Nicodemus I’ve had that same pattern of getting curious, seeking answers, and then ending up with more questions. And sometimes I’ve had to wrestle with faith and doubt, and fight my way out of the safety of the womb and into new life.

I actually think that’s a good thing. I don’t want my spiritual life to ever come to a terminal point where I have all the answers. That would be boring, intellectually and spiritually.

Instead, I like the idea that we are continuously and gradually being born again. We are living lives of change, in a world full of change, and that means we are constantly having to go back to Jesus and ask the questions that keep us up at night. And we have to keep being born again, maybe not just once, but over and over and over again in many ways.

Martin Luther King once used the story of Nicodemus to talk about being born again. He said that Jesus hadn’t given Nicodemus easy instructions or said “stop doing this” or “stop doing that”. Instead, Dr. King said, Jesus told Nicodemus “your whole structure must be changed”. This was nothing less than a total shake-up.

Dr. King was talking specifically about how America had to be “born again” and deal with injustice. And that’s a good example of how we as people, and as institutions and communities, must also sometimes be born again, and do what is right and what is good, for the love of God and for the love of the world.

And it is the love of the world that Jesus is talking about. If you’ve ever watched a football game you’ve seen signs with a verse written on them from this very passage. John 3:16: For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but should have eternal life.

There’s a real irony in the fact that this one line, that comes in this passage about the kind of faith that is not easy or simple, has become emblematic of easy and simple faith. Because he whole story of Nicodemus is a little too long for a piece of poster board. But that’s fitting, because our faith journeys cannot fit onto one sheet of paper, or one bumper sticker. They require nothing less than the full length and depth of our lives.

That’s true of all of us, and that’s true of Nicodemus too. We see him only two more times in the Gospels, but in those two appearances we see a man who is in the process being born again. The next time we see him he is making a sort of tentative defense of Jesus when Jesus is in trouble, trying to save him, trying to keep the religious authorities from killing him.

And the last time we see him, he is one of the two men who takes Jesus’ body after his death, and buries it, putting it in the tomb.

I think there’s something meaningful about that. In mourning Jesus death, Nicodemus was showing that he had been reborn. And when Jesus rose again, that new life took on new meaning.

Sometimes curiosity doesn’t kill the cat. Sometimes it saves him. For God so loved the world, that God would want nothing less for us. Amen?

That We May All Be One: World Communion Sunday, 2015

A couple of weeks ago I received an email from Pastor Hatie Soyzayapi. Soyzayapi is the pastor of the church in Pfizda, Zimbabwe with whom we are in partnership. United Church of Christ churches from all over New Hampshire have each partnered with a congregation from the United Church of Zimbabwe and we have called this initiative the Ukama partnership. Ukama is a word in the Shona language meaning friendship, and through this project we hope first to form friendships between churches divided by continents and an ocean.

And every couple of months I hear from Pastor Soyzayapi. He tells me about what is going on in his congregation and in his community. And he always reminds me that his church is praying for us here in Exeter. But this time, Soyzayapi asked me a favor. He asked that this week in particular we would pray for Pfizda.

This is the start of the farming season in Zimbabwe. The country is south of the equator so as we here in New England are harvesting all that we have planted, they are doing the mirror image and planting in order to prepare for a harvest. And this week, they are praying in particular that the planting will be successful. And Pastor Soyzayapi asked us to pray in particular for the seeds they will plant, and for rain to come.

I wrote back and told him we could do that, and we will do that during this service. But what I didn’t realize until after I’d already written back is that today of all days is fitting for us to lift up these prayers. That’s because today is celebration called “World Communion Sunday.”

I’ll come back to that in a minute. But first, I want to lift up today’s text from the Gospel of John. In it Jesus is doing something that Scripture often doesn’t record. He’s praying, not in front of others, but for others. And he’s praying in particular for his disciples and asking for God’s guidance and blessing for them. And he prays for all who believe in him and asks “that they may all be one”.

It’s a bold prayer. It was bold when he was just dealing with twelve disciples. But it’s particularly bold in today’s context. Because while there are roughly 2.2 billion Christians in the world, we are divided into an ever-expanding list of denominations, organizations, and traditions. Roman Catholics, Orthodox Christians, and Protestants make up the three major movements, but even within those broad categories there are so many divisions.

UCC-UCCanada_LogosIn the United States, for instance, there are at least 217 different denominations. The UCC, for perspective, is somewhere around the twentith largest American denomination in terms of number of members, with right around one million people. And in this town alone, we have Catholic, Episcopal, Methodist, Lutheran, Baptist, Presbyterian, evangelical, and non-denominational churches.

And we have our reasons. We have different understandings of the Gospel, different thoughts on who should be allowed to be members and who should be able to serve as clergy, different views on who can take the sacraments and who cannot. And I am profoundly grateful that a place like the UCC exists, because it is my church home.

But on the other hand, I sometimes wonder what Jesus would say if he came back, and he stood here on Front Street among our churches, and saw that his followers all gathered in different houses of worship with little interaction at all. I wonder if he would think of that prayer from centuries ago about us all being made one. And I wonder if he would say, “guys, this is not what I meant”.

That phrase, “that they may all be one”, that is the official motto of the United Church of Christ. Sometimes we think it’s “God is still speaking” but really it’s that passage from John, that hope that the people of God will overcome differences and join together in the work that needs to be done in this world.

The UCC took that motto in 1957 when the Congregational Church, the denomination whose name we still bear, joined with a predominately German-American movement called the Evangelical and Reformed Church. Somehow New England Yankees and mostly midwestern and mid-Atlantic German-Americans were able to gather around the same table and say “you know, our theology isn’t all that different, and we might just be better together.”

When the denominations merged I think that was a shining moment for the body of Christ, a sign that God’s people can come together by building a bigger tent. And it’s one that I hope will be repeated again and again, until we are reconciled with our brother and sisters in the faith, and until we are all one in Christ.

And that’s the hope of World Communion Sunday. It was started in this country in the 1930’s and is now celebrated in Orthodox, Protestant, and Evangelical churches not just here but around the world. Today in churches everywhere Christians will be sharing in the feast of Holy Communion together, and we will all be lifted up into the glorious feast that has been prepared for us.

But as we eat of it, and as we celebrate, we must remember that there is more to do. And we must let the meal we share strengthen us for the work of reconciliation.

There was a time when if you came to church, it was not guaranteed that you would be able to take communion. In some churches you had to be examined in the days before Communion by the minister or deacons and, if you were found worthy, you’d be issued a token for the sacrament. A sort of religious “admit one”. And even in the Puritan churches here in New England, before you could take the sacrament you had to sign the church covenant and be a member.

That’s not the practice here. We welcome every person to the table. Adult or child. Devout believer or faithful doubter. UCC member or first time visitor. That’s because this is not our table. It’s Christ’s. And who are we to turn anyone away from his table?

But as open as our table is, we need to remember, this table before us is only one small leaf of a table that extends across denominational lines, across traditions, across borders, across oceans. It is a small part of the same table at which the people in Pfizda sit. It is a part of the same table that sits on then churches of the Native American reservations in the Dakotas where much of today’s Neighbors in Need offering will end up. And it is part of the same table as the other churches in our town.

It is an infinitely big table, and it is ever expanding. There is always room.

Two weeks from today, I’m not going to be with you. I’ll instead be with the rest of the United Church of Christ board traveling back from Canada. The day before we are going to cross the border at Niagara Falls and meet our counterparts from the United Church of Canada there.

Together we are going to be signing an agreement that will bring our two churches into full communion with one another. That means that the UCC and the United Church of Canada will agree that we share the same basic beliefs, the same understanding of the sacraments, and that we will freely share our clergy, among other things.

It’s a big step towards all being one. One that we have also taken in recent with the largest American branches of the Presbyterian, Lutheran, Reformed, and Disciples traditions. One that I hope we will keep taking with other churches as well.

That’s something big to celebrate on this World Communion Sunday. But on the other hand, the fact we even need to have a World Communion Sunday, that we need to name that we are bound by this sacrament to one another despite our differences, shows just how far we have to go. Because we should never have to have a special day to say that. It should just be known.

I’ll close with this. There was a time when this church knew what it was to be divided. From 1638 to 1748 there was only this church, First Parish. Some people in our town still call this church First Parish. But in 1748, the Congregationalist in this town split over what we would now think was a pretty small dogmatic matter. And then there was First Parish and Second Parish, just a few blocks down.

It took until 1918 for those churches to get past it, and join back together. And then there was neither First Parish nor Second Parish anymore. There was just the Congregational Church in Exeter.

Almost a hundred years later, we are one. Our spiritual parents and grandparents and great-grandparents stitched one congregation out of two, and made the tent bigger. They proved that, truly, they could all be one. And the fact we are all here today is all the proof we need that they were right.

The work of our time won’t be about getting rival Congregational churches together. It will be about reaching out to our Catholic friends, our Baptist friends, our Episcopalian friends and saying “we look different, and we are different, but at our core, we follow the same Lord”.

That’s reason enough to find ways to sit at the same table. And that’s reason enough to try to answer Christ’s own prayer, and to pledge that we will strive that, someday, we may all be one. Amen?

The Light: Homily for Christmas Eve 2014

John 1:1-5

1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

1:2 He was in the beginning with God.

1:3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being

1:4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.

1:5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

10885152_10100748574687168_7267670351363878850_nThere’s a joke that you can tell how long a minister is going to preach by what is written in the bulletin. If you look down and see “sermon” printed there, you know it’s going to be a while. But sometimes you see the word“homily”. I joke that homily is Latin for “really short sermon”, and it means I won’t be talking long.

You all just checked your bulletins, didn’t you…don’t worry, it’s okay. If you didn’t, it says “homily”. I’m not going to preach long this evening because my sense is that you already know this story, or else you probably wouldn’t be here. And usually the role of the preacher is to retell the story in some way and make it relevant to your life today, but I’m going to guess that more than perhaps any other story in the Bible, we all know how this one goes.

There’s Mary, and the angel, and the most unexpected of births. There’s the trip to Bethlehem, and no room in the inn. And there’s the stable, and the manger that stands in for the crib. And finally, the shepherds, who come because the one they have been waiting for has finally been born.

We know this story. Even Linus tells it at the end of a Charlie Brown Christmas, and I know I can’t beat Linus when it comes to telling this story.

And so, I’m not going to tell you the Christmas story of what happened two thousand years ago tonight. I’m not going to tell it to you because I’m going to ask you to tell it instead. And I’m going to ask you to tell it not just tonight, but tomorrow, and through all twelve days of Christmas, and then every day from then on until we arrive here again at the manger next Christmas Eve.

But first, we just heard five different lessons from Scripture. The first four were from that familiar Christmas story that we all know. But the fifth was from the Gospel of John, and it’s a passage that is traditionally read on Christmas eve. And at first it might even seem a little out of place with the rest of the story. But listen to it again:

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it.”

That light that they’re talking about there is more than just a candle or a bulb or even a star. That light is Jesus Christ, the light that comes to shine in the darkness. And as wonderful as the story of the nativity is, with the shepherds and angels and manger, that light is the truly good news of Christmas.

And it’s good news not just for 2000 years ago, but for today. Because the reality is that this is a world that is often not what it should be. There is too much war. Too much poverty. Too much injustice. And too much pain. And there is too little hope. Too little peace. Too little joy. And too little love.

You and I, we know what it is like to live with the reality of darkness. Because we are human. And yet, because of Christmas, because of the very choice God made to send hope into this world in the form of a newborn baby, we also know that it doesn’t have to be that way.

Christmas is about the light overcoming the darkness. It’s about a birth 2000 years ago, but it’s about so much more than that. Because Christmas isn’t just about what happened back then. It’s also about the ways God is still choosing to come into our world. And, perhaps most amazing of all, it’s about us too.

And that’s because Christmas is a story of choices, good and bad. It’s Mary saying “my soul magnifies the Lord” when the angel tells her she is pregnant. But it’s also the innkeeper shutting the door on Mary and Joseph, and saying that there’s no room in the inn.

And it’s about our choices too. Because we each have a choice about how we are going to respond to the story of Christmas. We can leave here tonight, our hearts unchanged, and we can forget this story until next Christmas eve.

Or, we can make another choice. We can choose to be a part of the Christmas story. And we can choose to live as reflections of this light that has been sent to shine in the darkness.

My hope is that you will choose the latter. And my hope is that you will choose to tell the story of Christmas with your lives, not just tonight, but long after the tree is taken down, and the presents are opened.

It’s no coincidence that on Christmas eve we symbolize our joy and hope by lighting candles. We are, after all, celebrating the light of the world. And so in just a few minutes we are going to be lighting our Christmas candles by passing the flame of the Christ Candle that we lit tonight. And as that light spreads throughout the sanctuary, we will end with Silent Night, and as we sing the last verse we will lift our candles into the air.

And so tonight, when you lift up your small part of the light of Christ, let it be more than just going through the motions. This year, as you lift your light, make a promise to yourself that you will lift that light all year long, and that you will be a part of the Christmas story. And make a promise to the world that you will use your life to spread a light that will shine with joy and hope and love and peace in the places that need it the most.

If you do that, then you will truly understand the meaning of Christmas. And the light of Christ will shine just a little brighter in this world because of you. Amen.

Peace Called Beside Us: Sermon for May 5, 2013

"Dove of the Holy Spirit" by Bernini

“Dove of the Holy Spirit” by Bernini

Every Sunday, at the very end of worship, I stand in the back of the sanctuary and offer the final blessing. I use words that are nearly 2,000 years old, and that are shared by Christians of all times and places: and now may the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be always with you.” And then, together, we all say “Amen”.

And when we baptize someone in this church, we do so using words shared by the universal church: I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. And we anoint the person with oil in the name of the Creator, the Redeemer, and the Sustainer.

And each Sunday we sing the the Gloria Patri and the Doxology and we sing “to the Creator, and to the Christ, and to the Holy Ghost”.

We talk about the Trinity a lot in our life together, which is to say we talk about who God is, and what God does. We know that God is our creator, our father and mother, the one from whom we come. And we know that Jesus Christ is also God and the one who redeems us. And then, we know there’s this third one we talk about.

Have you ever worked with someone who you’re not really sure what they do, but you know they are somehow really important? That’s sort of how a lot of Christians feel about the Holy Spirit. We know the Holy Spirit is important, in fact we know the Holy Spirit is God, but unlike God the Creator, or Jesus Christ, we don’t quite know what it does.

Jesus was speaking to his disciples for one of the last times before his Ascension, and he was talking about the time when he will no longer physically be with them. And he tells them that he is giving them an “Advocate”, the Holy Spirit, who will teach them and remind them of him.

And the word that is used in the original Greek text is “paraclete”. Now, it’s not important that you know that, but what that word literally means is “to call beside”. In other words, God is calling the Holy Spirit to be beside us. To comfort, and encourage, and guide us. And unlike Jesus who was standing there in one place with the disciples, the Holy Spirit will be with us everywhere and always.

And Jesus tells the disciples, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

When Jesus tells the disciples about the Holy Spirit who is about to come to them, he’s telling them that he is going to give them peace. And in a few weeks we are going to read the story of Pentecost, when that Holy Spirit does come, and hear about how that event transformed the church.

But today, we have the story of a group of disciples who know they are about to be on their own again, trying to figure this thing out. And you’ve got to think that they were afraid, and unsure, and asking why Jesus wasn’t going to be right there beside them anymore.

You and I, we know a little about that. Have you ever thought to yourself, “this whole faith thing would be a whole lot easier if Jesus just came down and told us what he wanted?

I sure have. Anytime I make a big decision, I wish I could just ask Jesus, “is this what you want me to do?” I did it before I got ordained, I did it when I was trying to figure out if God wanted me to move here to Vermont, and I still do it whenever something comes up and I don’t know what the right answer is.

Maybe you can relate. Maybe you have been faced with having to figure our how to live as a Christian in this world, and you have had some decision to make, or some hard thing to grapple with, and you’ve wondered “God, where are you, and why aren’t you here telling me what to do next.”

About two years ago we started a discussion down at the church in Wilmington about what God wanted us to do. The town was shrinking, the church had been growing smaller and smaller for over twenty years, and it had become clear to everyone that God was asking us to do something different, and something new. And it was hard, and sad, and painful, and confusing. And we weren’t sure exactly what to do or how to do it.

It was around that time when we asked everyone to pray about it, both by themselves and together. We asked that God would guide us to the right decision. And we looked for God’s peace to be with us in the process. We called the Holy Spirit to be beside us during that process.

And I believe the Holy Spirit was there. We made good choices, choices that ended benefitting both this congregation and St. Mary’s. And we made them because we entered those meetings where we made the tough decisions not the way you might enter a corporate boardroom, but as people of faith, and as the church called together to truly discern God’s will. And in the end, it was hard, but we found peace. And when Jesus tells us “peace I leave with you”, I think that’s what he meant.

I believe the Holy Spirit was guiding us in Wilmington, but I don’t believe the Holy Spirit is only found in churches. I believe we can call on the Holy Spirit in every situation of our lives, and if we listen for what it is telling us, we will feel God’s peace.

Maybe you’ve felt that. In hard times, like when you’ve had to make the very difficult decision about letting a dying loved one go. Or when you’ve had to end a relationship that didn’t feel like the place you should be anymore. Or when you’ve had to leave behind something that you once loved and turn towards something new.

But maybe you’ve had that in not-so unhappy situations too. Like, when you had to pick what college to go to. Or when you had to choose between two job offers. Or you stood at any kind of crossroads and really both options looked pretty good, and you wished God would just tell you which way to go, which next right step to take.

We’ve all been there. It’s called being in discernment, a time when your sort through your options. And what can make this time Holy is calling upon the Spirit to show you where God is leading you.

Three years ago when I had a choice a few years ago between coming to this church, or another church in Maine, both filled with good people who I had already come to care about, I prayed about it. I discerned. And in the end it became clear that God was leading me here. And when I had made that decision, I felt deep peace, and I knew then that it had been the right one.

Next week we start the second part of a visioning process in this church, and each week we are going to have a discussion about one aspect of the church’s life. And this isn’t going to be a time to come into the room and say right off the bat “this is what I think we should do”. This isn’t a business negotiation about getting what you want.

Instead, this is going to be an opportunity to enter into a time of discernment with others in this church. And, together, we are going to call on the Holy Spirit to guide us and to show us what is right for our congregation. We will undertake this process the way we undertake prayer: with open hearts and minds, and with a willingness to let the Holy Spirit lead us to the place God has already prepared.

My prediction is that if we approach this process by deliberately opening ourselves to the Holy Spirit, we will find God’s guidance, and we will find God’s peace. That doesn’t mean the discussions will always be easy. That doesn’t mean there will always be clear consensus. That doesn’t mean that the church we are called to be will end up looking the way we might think. But it does mean that in the end we will find God’s peace waiting for us. By giving us the Holy Spirit, God has given us the tools to do this work. We just have to be willing to use them. Amen.

The First of the Resurrections: A sermon for Easter Sunday, March 31, 2013

150400_10100264762650368_2031715009_nAlleluia, Christ is risen!

The Lord is risen indeed, and on Easter morning we are filled with reminders of resurrection and new life. There’s music, and flowers, an Easter egg hunt, and more. On Easter morning we are filled with joy, and filled with hope.

But it is such a contrast from what was happening here in this sanctuary just two nights ago. Good Friday is the most somber day of the church year. No music, no candles, no flowers. We told the story of Christ’s betrayal and death. And then we prayed and left in silence.

Good Friday is about the worst that the world can do. And on Friday we prayed for the pain of the world. We took turns lifting up and naming the things that make this world so hard: war, addiction, abuse, environmental concerns, bullying, oppression. We named them one by one, and then we sat in silence, and prayed for a better world.

And today we come back. We come back because we believe that Good Friday doesn’t have the last word. We come back because as much as we live in a broken world, we believe that something better is possible. We come back because we want to see resurrection for ourselves.

On the first Easter morning nearly 2000 years ago, Mary went back. She went back to the tomb where she and a handful of others had laid Jesus two nights before. She went back because she was looking for something, what she may not have even been sure of.

Mary was expecting to see that tomb sealed up. She was expecting to see the grave. She was expecting to find memories, but not much hope.

But when she gets there, the stone is gone. Jesus isn’t in the tomb. And her first reaction is not, “Christ is risen”. It’s to find the gardner and say “what did you do with him?” Mary thought that what was bad had somehow gotten worse.

But then, something happens. She looks at that gardner again. He speaks to her. And her eyes are opened, and she knows it’s him.

What Mary saw that day was more than unexpected. It was improbable.  It was resurrection.

Now, you and I, we may not have literally stood outside an empty tomb. We may not have seen Jesus literally rise from the grave. But that doesn’t mean that we are not also witnesses to the resurrection.

When Jesus rose again, it was more than a man being raised from the dead. It was the triumph of love over the worst that the world could do. It was proof that in the end love wins. It was the first resurrection of many, and, even more spectacular, you and I have seen some of them.

You see, resurrection comes in many forms. And if we dare, like Mary, to go to the hardest and most broken places in our lives, we will see it too.

A year and a half ago, Hurricane Irene swept through our Valley. A few days ago I was looking at pictures of the destruction. And then yesterday I drove over those same roads and went into some of those same buildings. A community has rebuilt itself. That is resurrection.

A man I know had been bullied repeatedly as a high school student years before. He had endured slurs and name-calling day in and out until the point he thought he just couldn’t take it anymore. And yet, he found a way to keep going. And now he works to reach out to kids like him who are going through the same things, and to give them hope. That is resurrection.

A woman I know found herself slipping deeper and deeper into addiction. The more she tried to stop drinking, the more she wanted to drink. She though she was hopeless. But one day she walked into a room full of people who had all faced the same thing, and she sat and listened to their stories, and she told them hers. And for several years now, she has been sober. That is resurrection.

Chances are, you know a few stories about resurrection too. Ether you’ve lived them, or you’ve seen them. And if you have, you can’t help but be transformed by them.

When Mary saw that Jesus lived once more, she couldn’t keep it to herself. Scripture tells us she had to go and tell everyone. She was the first one to see it, and the first one to proclaim it.

I don’t think we are all that different. When we see a story of new life, when we see a story of love triumphing over hate or ignorance or fear or violence, we can’t help but tell it. We share it with each other. It goes viral in our conversations, over telephone lines, and on our Facebook lines. When we see a story that inspires us, it becomes a resurrection story, and we can’t keep quiet.

And that’s what being a Christian is about. It’s about believing in a resurrection so incredible that you can’t keep quiet. You have to show the world what you have seen.

Now, I don’t mean by that that you need to be beating everyone over the head with a Bible, or shouting from a street corner. Really, if you want to be a good witness to the resurrection, you probably don’t even need to do a whole lot of talking. In order to show the world what you have seen, you have to do something much harder. You have to live it.

There’s a quite attributed to St. Francis. He probably didn’t say these words, but he said something pretty close, and in the same spirit: Preach the Gospel at all times, and if necessary use words.

He was right. It’s not enough to just tell the world what you know. You have to actually live your life in a way that shows that you believe it. You can’t claim to believe in the triumph of God’s love over a Good Friday world and then live as though the deck is stacked, and as though you can’t do anything to change it. You can’t say you believe in the triumph of love on Sunday morning, but then live like you don’t the rest of the week.

Instead, you can choose this. You can choose to preach the Easter story, not just today, but everyday. You can choose to cultivate hope, to encourage transformation, to stand alongside the oppressed, to work for justice, to side with the powerless, and to bind up the brokenhearted. You can choose to give the best of yourself to the God whose love was to great to be contained by the tomb, and not to a culture that tells you the tomb is the final word.

Between this Easter, and next Easter, you can be a witness to the Resurrection, and you can witness more resurrections than you could ever believe. Because if you look at the world with Resurrection eyes, you’ll find that resurrection is everywhere. Maybe even in yourself.

We are a world in need of new life. We are a world in need of love. We are a world in need of resurrection. And who better to help than the people who believe in the one who was Resurrected?

That’s our job as Christians. Deep in our hearts, we know that. We know that, or else we wouldn’t be here today.

There is a world waiting for the stones to be rolled away. And it’s time to go out and meet Christ in it. In our hearts. In our homes. In our communities. And in our world. New life is coming. And it starts with him.

Alleluia, Christ is risen…

Loaves, Fishes, and Hope – Sermon for July 29th 2012

John 6:1-21
6:1 After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias.

6:2 A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick.

6:3 Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples.

6:4 Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near.

6:5 When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?”

6:6 He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do.

6:7 Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.”

6:8 One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him,

6:9 “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?”

6:10 Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all.

6:11 Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted.

6:12 When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.”

6:13 So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets.

6:14 When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”

______

I sometimes worry about not having enough of something. A few years ago, when I was still living on the Cape, I was hosting a bonfire on the beach. And, there were a lot of people coming, and for the most part they were bringing their own stuff to eat, but I wanted to have s’mores for everyone.

So I went to the grocery store, and I stood in the aisle doing this complex calculus where I tried to figure out the perfect ratio of graham crackers to Hershey bars to marshmallows to people. And I put it all in my cart and, when I wasn’t sure it was enough, I threw a few more in to boot.

That night more people than I thought came to the bonfire. I was worried I didn’t have enough. But the supplies I had so anxiously stockpiled held out, and by the end of the night I ended up going home with more graham crackers than I could ever want.

I was eating graham crackers for a long time. And I don’t even particularly like graham crackers.

I think we are prone to doing that a lot. Maybe you’ve never had my particular smores problem, but maybe something similar has happened. You’ve worried that you can’t stretch what you have out enough to cover your own needs, let alone the needs of others. It might be something as small as graham crackers and marshmallows, but more often it’s something bigger.

It’s something like looking at the retirement account, or even just your monthly paycheck, and wondering if it will be enough. In times like that I think it’s natural to want to protect what little you have left. Especially in an economy like ours. You want to safeguard everything that you have. Probably the last thing in the world that you think you can do, even if you really want to, is share it with others.

The people who came to Jesus that day knew what that was like. They’d come to hear him preach, or to seek his healing, and they had been there a long time. They were tired, and hungry.

The disciples were getting worried. They looked out at them, about 500 in all, and they went to Jesus. Jesus asked them, so, where are we going to buy enough bread for all these people.

They probably thought he was out of his mind. Philip says to him, “Jesus, it would take six months wages to feed all these people. We can’t feed them all.” And Andrew says, ‘there’s this boy here, but all he has are five loaves of bread and a couple of fish…that will barely even touch this problem”.

But Jesus decides, “I can work with that.” He has the people sit down, and he gets the bread and he gets the fish, and he gives thanks for them. And then he starts to pass them out to all of them. And it’s not only enough to feed them all. There’s plenty left over. In fact, there’s twelve baskets full of bread. More than they had even started with.

The feeding of the 5,000 is one of those miracles that we hear about a lot. It defies comprehension, and it calls on us to believe something inexplicable happened. So, of course, many through the centuries have tried to explain it away.

There are many who say that on that hill that day, there weren’t just five loaves and two fish. Instead, there was just one boy with five loaves and two fish who was generous enough to share them with the crowd. Once the boy shared, and Jesus started to break the bread and distribute it, a few others got brave too. They opened their bags, pulled out the food they’d been keeping for themselves, and shared it with the rest. Then more people, realizing it would be okay, did the same. Then more. Until finally, there was enough for everyone.

Now, I would argue first that that’s not so much explaining a miracle, as it is a miracle. In times of scarcity, inspiring people to share what little they have is nothing short of miraculous. And Jesus, and that boy, did that. And hearts were opened, and people were fed.

It sort of reminds me of the new mission we are undertaking here at the church. We are about to start offering this once a month free meal in September. And when the idea came up, I know some of us were wary. We wondered if we had enough money. We wondered if we had enough energy. Enough volunteers. Enough interest.

But then, people started signing up to help. And then more people signed up. And now it looks like this could really be a success. And because people have stepped up, and shared what they have, our neighbors will be fed. Just like the neighbors on the hill were that day.

Now, we could end the story there, and it would be, in many ways, good enough and miraculous enough. But there’s more to it.

I do believe that people opened their bags that day. I do believe they dared enough to share what little they had. But I also believe that an even greater miracle happened. I believe Christ really did turn a little into a lot, and that those five loaves and two fish would have stretched out to feed the masses had no one else come through.

I think there is a tendency for those of us in the church, particularly in traditions like ours where we value intellect and we value reading the Bible with common sense, to try to explain away the miracles sometimes. We try to look for plausible explanations for what happened, and we point to the miracles as lessons on right behavior rather than evidence of who Christ is.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but in the end if that’s all churches believe, they might as well be just another ethical society, teaching a secular humanism that, while not bad, is not any different than you can find in a number of other places.

It’s important that we not lose the mystery of faith. It’s important that we not dismiss the inexplicable. It’s important that we not forget that Christ was not just a good man. Christ was God incarnate, sent here to transform us all.

What happened that day on that hill was not just an example of the idea that, to use a line from my elementary school teachers, “sharing is caring”. It was something more. It was Jesus doing something s unexpected, and so inexplicable, that it inspired hope. It was Jesus inspiring us to do more. To give more. To open our hearts and serve one another.

He doesn’t need us to respond. But in the face of such grace, needed or not, we can’t help but to respond anyway. And the good news is that when we do, Christ blesses what we give, and he makes it enough.

I know what it’s like to live life as a pessimist. And, more recently, I know what it is to live as an optimist. I know what it is to think that it will never be enough, that it won’t make a difference, that it’s not worth even trying. That’s a pretty horrible way to live. And it’s pretty uninspiring. And the things that you hold on to, the things you keep to yourself out of fear, often become about as useless and unappealing as all those extra boxes of graham crackers that I talked about earlier.

But to live in optimism, to live in hope, can come easier when we believe that it’s not all on our shoulders. It can come easier when we believe that Christ will take the little that we have, maybe as little as a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish, and transform them into a feast. And it can come easier when we know that the ones who see that change, will be changed themselves.

And so, we ask ourselves this question: What are the limits of our hope? What are we holding back because we do not believe God will bless it and make it enough? What are we reluctant to even try?

I’ll close with this. Like many of you I’ve been watching the Olympics, and one of my favorite sports to watch is men’s gymnastics because I am so blown away by their sheer strength and grace. But one story this year has captivated me. John Orozco is a gymnast from a particularly rough part of the Bronx. His family didn’t have a lot of money and, unlike most Olympic caliber kids whose parents can afford to sign them up for expensive gyms, he was enrolled in a free class in his neighborhood.

It turns out he was pretty good, Olympic good, and after a while so his parents drove him an hour each way to a gym in Chappaqua where they paid for his training by cleaning it for free. Back home in the Bronx, he was mocked mercilessly for being a boy competing in what many saw as a girl’s sport.

Yet there he was last night in London, his mother in the stands so nervous that she couldn’t uncover her eyes, nailing his routine.

Can you imagine all the voices of “no” he heard over his life? Can you imagine all the times he was told, “what you have will never be enough”? And, most important, can you imagine growing up with that, and doing it anyway? Can you imagine faith like that?

I’m not saying you have to be an Olympic gymnast. Which is good, because I’m pretty sure that ship has sailed for all of us. But I’m just saying we all have something inside of us that hope can transform. We all have enough to give, one way or another, that Christ can work with it and do incredible things. But we have to have enough faith to give, and to not hold it back. That’s true faith. It’s the kind of faith that brings two fish, and five loaves of bread to Christ and says “use this”. It’s the kind of faith that can end up transforming everything. And it’s the kind of faith that doesn’t let your fears hold you back. And that’s miraculous, no matter how you understand it.  Amen.

“Here I Stand” – Sermon for March 11, 2012

John 2:13-22
2:13 The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.

2:14 In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables.

2:15 Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.

2:16 He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”

2:17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

2:18 The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?”

2:19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”

2:20 The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?”

2:21 But he was speaking of the temple of his body.

2:22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

When most of us think about Jesus we have this certain image. We picture a loving, non-violent, peaceful man who is kind to everyone. We don’t picture someone who is angry. We don’t picture someone who knocks over tables and yells. We think that’s the exact opposite of who Jesus really is. But then we have passages like this, and we’re often not really sure what to make of them. And we have to ask ourselves, what in the world could have made Jesus so enraged? The answer is in the story.

Jesus went to Jerusalem. It was almost the Passover, and he went, along with many other people, to the Temple. The holiest site in Jerusalem. The physical center of the faith. The people who came to the Temple did two things: they made sacrifices and they paid their taxes. Giving to the Temple was not optional. It wasn’t like a Sunday morning offering. It was something you had to do to go in.

And in order to make sure all the mandatory religious activities were able to happen, this industry sprang out in the Temple. There were people who sold sheep and cows and doves for the sacrifices. And there were money changers who would convert Roman currency to Hebrew money, sometimes at rates as high as 300%. It was usury at its worst, but they had the market cornered. Every observant person would not risk not paying the rates. This is how religion had been done for a long time in Jerusalem, and no one could really question it.

Which is why they were so shaken when Jesus came and, literally, turned everything upside down. Throws animals out. Takes the tables and knocks them over. Money was probably going everywhere. And the religious leaders came to him and said, “What gives you the right to do this?”

He tells them, “you can destroy this Temple, and in 3 days I’ll raise it up again.” They think he’s crazy because the temple has been being rebuilt for years. But Jesus was talking about himself and how he knew they were about kill him, and how he would rise up again. He was telling them, though they didn’t know it, that everything was about to change, and business as usual was over.

They killed him not long after. The religious leaders knew he was a threat. If he would overturn tables and cause a scene in their Temple, what would he do next? They thought they could overturn him just as easily as he overturned those tables. Who did this son of a carpenter from some backwoods town think he was?

But he rose again. And in the new movement he started there was no room for animal sacrifices or money changers. At least not for a while.

Fast forward 15 centuries. To Germany. And to a monk named Martin. The church was trying to build a new temple, this time in Rome. It was called St. Peter’s. And they had a fundraising problem. So they started to sell these indulgences. Pay a little and your sins will be forgiven. Pay a lot and the soul of your dear departed mother or spouse will be sprung from purgatory and released to heaven.

These were poor believers paying this money. As poor as the Jewish people who journeyed to the Temple in Jerusalem and paid three times what they should have to change their money. But they were good people, willing to pay the price to be faithful. Willing to pay into this corrupt system because they didn’t think there was any other way.

And so the young monk wrote a list of things he thought were wrong. And he posted them in a town called Wittenberg. And Christian faith would never be the same. We Protestants are spiritual descendants from Martin Luther. But his reforms shaped even what the Catholic Church has since become. Because Luther, like Christ, had the courage to stand up to the ones who had corrupted the faith, to turn their world upside down, and to reclaim what was good in the name of God.

They didn’t kill Luther, though they tried. But he paid heavily. He was excommunicated and thrown out of the faith. But when he was asked to recant, he couldn’t. He said only, “Here I stand. I can do no other.”

Jesus and Luther were cut from the same cloth. And the people around them thought they were heretics. Thought they were anti-faith. Thought they were misguided at best, and downright sinful at worst. And yet, in the end, they ushered in new faith, and new life. We wouldn’t be Christians without Christ, of course. But we also wouldn’t be the Christians we are without Luther.

But being an alternative religious voice doesn’t always make you popular. That doesn’t always mean that you have the most people who agree with you. It often makes you a bit of a target. Churches that stand up against what they see as being against the true message of Christ often incur the wrath of others who say they’re not really Christian. They’re getting it all wrong. They’re out in left field.

But they’ve said that in the past about others. And they’ve been wrong.

I’ve been thinking about what the church has become, especially in our North American context. I’ve been thinking about what people think being a Christian means in America. As the division and rhetoric picks up in this country, the dominant images of Christianity are often becoming less and less flattering. The voices that speak the loudest, the ones who stand in front of the Temple changing money and demanding payment, are often not kind ones or compassionate ones or ones that tell you much at all about the love of Christ.

They may not speak for us, but they’re what people think of when they think of what it means to be Christian. And whether we realize it or not, they’re the ones who may be stopping people from feeling like they’d ever have a place in our temple.

One Sunday about five years ago I was preaching down South at a church that was a lot like ours. It was a welcoming place. Warm, ready to embrace the stranger, slow to judge. The service ended and I processed out into the narthex. And there was a young woman, about 18 or 19, sitting there waiting to talk to me.

She was a student at a very fundamentalist Bible college down the road. Her father was a preacher, but that brand of Christianity wasn’t working for her anymore. The faith she was a member of was so strict that she could have been thrown out for drinking a beer. And if the people at her college had found out who she really was deep down, she would have been thrown out for that too.

She had been so wounded by the faith. So wounded by those who sat at the doors of the Temple and told her the price she would have to pay to enter, a price that would mean denying who she was, that when she came to this church that would have totally welcomed her, she sat out in the narthex. Because she didn’t know she had a place in the sanctuary. It broke my heart.

But the saddest thing is, she came a lot further than a lot of people do. I wonder if there were good Jewish people in Jesus day who were never able to go to the Temple and worship because they just couldn’t pay the price. I wonder how many good Catholics in Luther’s day lay awake at night afraid because they couldn’t buy their way into heaven. And I wonder how many of our neighbors want to walk through the doors of a place that would love them as they are?

We say we will welcome everyone who walks into our doors. And I believe that’s true. But how will we welcome the ones who would never dare to do that on their own. How do we welcome those who have grown accustomed to a representation of Christianity that has come to be defined not so much by the face of Christ, but by the faces of modern day moneychangers at the front of the Temple? The ones who would distort Christ’s message of love for something so different?

We are a welcoming place, that is for sure. But when I meet people in this area, and they find out I’m the pastor, I still get all sorts of questions . And they’re not because you have been doing anything wrong. They’re because the voices of faith they have heard the loudest in our culture cause them to have to wonder. Here are some real questions I’ve heard about us:

Would I be welcome in your church if I drink alcohol? If f I believe women are not inferior to men? If I think maybe the world was not created in six 24 hour days? Would I be welcome if I like to read Harry Potter? If my kids can’t sit quietly for an hour? Would I be welcome if my daughter is gay? If I’m a recovering alcoholic? If on some days, I doubt?

You and I hear these questions and we think “of course”. Of course you would. But they don’t know that. And their questions are reflective of just how far some have to come to walk through the doors of our church.

You might say, “We’re not that kind of church!” And we’re not. But here’s the thing. They think we’re that kind of church. Not because of anything you’ve been doing wrong, but because they think every church is that kind of church.

Because if all they’ve ever seen standing in front of the Temple, standing between them and God, are the faces of the moneychangers and the sacrifice sellers, the faces of the ones who twist faith into something different than it is, the ones who go on the evening news preaching hatred instead of Christ, can you blame them?

So what is at the front of your temple? Because if we are all members of Christ’s body, then we are all part of his temple. When people come to know you at the most sacred places, what do they see first? Do they see a religion as they’ve always seen it done before? Or do they see grace, and a Christ who would sweep away what doesn’t matter and replace it with a new creation?

There are people outside of these doors who belong here. Who would be loved here. Who would be welcome. And we know that. But they don’t. So when you go back into the world this week, how can you tell them about the Christ you know? How can you lead them into the temple, past what doesn’t matter, and into what does? Don’t take for granted that they know what kind of Christian you are. Show them.

We who are the “frozen chosen”, we don’t like to talk about our faith or our religion much. I get that. But when we aren’t talking, others still are. And they’re the voices your neighbors, who may love to be here, are hearing. So this week, think of one way you can represent the Christ you know in your life to those who might need to know there’s a place for them here. I’m not saying go door to door handing out Bibles. I’m saying a simple word of welcome may mean as much to someone who needs it as Jesus turning over tables may have meant to those who had been standing outside the temple, waiting for a new day to come.

And so, this Lent, decide where you are going to stand. Will it be idly by as Jesus turns over the tables of religion at its worst? Or will it be with Christ, who is turning us into something new? I know where I’m going to stand. I hope you will stand with me. As Martin Luther said better, “Here I stand. I can do none other.” Amen.

“You’re Still Here” – Sermon for May 22, 2011

John 14:1-14

14:1 “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.

14:2 In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?

14:3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.

14:4 And you know the way to the place where I am going.”

14:5 Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”

14:6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

14:7 If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

14:8 Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.”

14:9 Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?

14:10 Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works.

14:11 Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.

14:12 Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.

14:13 I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.

14:14 If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.

You may have heard that there were some folks who thought you wouldn’t be today. You have have heard that yesterday, May 21, was supposed to be the end of the world. A very small sect of Christian faith was trying to tell the world that yesterday at 6pm, local time, the rapture would happen.

And you’re all here! Which means either, one, the rapture didn’t happen, or, two, as a church we have a lot to worry about.

I think it’s the first.

Now the idea of the rapture is pretty new in Christianity. It has really only come about in the past few centuries, and it has never really been accepted by anything more than a vocal but very small minority of believers. They believe that there will come a day where believers are suddenly taken up into heaven while non-believers are left behind here on earth. They base their idea on one short, disputed verse in one of Paul’s letters. And they really, really believe it.

The group that was responsible for the idea that the world was going to end yesterday is based out of California. Their leader did some complicated but questionable mathematical computations and somehow decided that yesterday was the day. There could be no doubt. And so his followers spread the word on billboards, and the internet, and one on one on the streets.

They were positive he was right. So positive that I read an article about one family that had planned to spend down all of their savings so that yesterday they would be left with nothing. Another woman quit her job and went with her husband to tell people on the streets, even while her teenage kids didn’t believe a word of it.

I had a few people ask me this week, “Does your church really believe in this May 21st, end of the world thing?” And I responded that despite all the press this very small sect was being given, 99.99% of Christians did not believe the world was going to end yesterday.

But did you notice how much attention that .01% got? Did you notice how interested some people were by it?

It’s been a problem since Paul wrote his letters to the earliest churches. The early believers thought that Christ would come back in their lifetimes. Paul struggled to assure them that the fact Christ hadn’t come right back didn’t mean that they weren’t loved or saved or remembered.

Since then there have been thousands of different ideas about the end of the world. Hundreds of doomsdays. Hundreds of times that people have said that we are on the verge of an apocalypse. Hundreds of May 21st. And on those days, each time, true believers who stood and waited at the appointed hour only to find that nothing happened to them.

I thought about that family with the teenage kids yesterday. I read an article about them in the New York times. They had been spreading this message about the end of the world to everyone, but meanwhile, their kids had felt neglected. They talked about needing to take the SATs, worrying about how to pay for college now that their parents had spent down their college funds, and even just going to the high school parties that were taking place yesterday night.

One son talked about how it was hard for him to make plans for his future because he felt like his parents didn’t care about his future. They didn’t believe he had one.

It was easy to make jokes about the end of the world yesterday. There were plenty of them. I confess I may have made a few.

But really, at 6pm yesterday, I am aware that for a very small group of people, their worlds did come to an end. All that they truly believed was revealed to be false. All their work and sacrifice and misdirected energy became clear. All their worst fears were revealed. And they were lost.

We may be tempted to say that they got what they deserved. But really, they’re not so different from us. They’re just an extreme example of our worst tendencies to neglect the lives that God has already given us.

In today’s Gospel passage Jesus talks a little about what comes after this life. He tells us that he is going before us and preparing a home for us in God’s house. He tells us that he will one day bring us there himself.

And even then, with him right there, the disciples wanted details. Thomas asked, “Where are you going and how can we know the way?” Philip said, “Show us God and then we will be satisfied.”

They had him in front of them, reassuring them, telling them it would be okay, and even then they couldn’t focus on what was in front of them. Even then, they were more worried about the next life than this one.

And every generation of Christians after them has done the same things. We have wanted to know the details of what happens next. We have wanted to know the exact date and place and time. We have wanted to prepare ourselves for the end of the world. And sometimes it has looked as extreme as the group that waited at 6pm yesterday, and other times it has looked a lot like everyday life.

It’s normal to wonder. It’s normal to want to have some assurance that God is bigger than our world. It’s normal to want to know that God’s love will save us all in the end.

But when we become so obsessed with the details that we forget to live the life that God  has given us here, the life that God has made good, we miss so much.

I’ve talked before about growing up in the South, and how that has forever affected my view of religion. Growing up I always heard the question, “Are you saved?” I was told over and over that if I was not, I would burn for all of eternity in a fiery hell. The summer I was 15, I thought about that a lot. So much so, that I got pretty depressed about it. I’d lie on the living room couch and watch the ceiling fan and think about it. Life, the way the Christians I knew presented it, seemed life was this awful test that no one could pass. I certainly wasn’t good enough to earn my way into heaven, and if I was going to everything else felt pointless.

I went back to school that fall and slowly the questions went away. But they were always there. It wasn’t until I got to seminary that I started to truly believe that this life was not meant to be a test, and that God wanted us not to live in fear, but to live in gratitude.

I learned in seminary what I should have learned from the Christians I had known my whole life. That in the end, we are sorted into the good and the bad. We are not saved or discarded. Instead, we are all loved by a God who sees our imperfections and gives us grace anyways. In fact, gives us grace because of it.

The measure of our life here on earth, no matter what God has in store for us next, no matter when Christ will return and change everything, is how we respond to the grace that we have already received. Do we live in fear, whether waiting for May 21st or lying on the couch thinking that we will never be good enough? Or do we meet that grace with gratitude? Do we turn our lives over to God and say “no matter what happens, I know I will be okay because your grace is so overpowering…so, please God, use me”?

We are at our best as Christians not when we are spreading fear. Not when we are worried about what comes next. Not when we are doing good works because we are afraid we might not be good enough for God’s love. We do our best work when we know that God’s grace has already taken ahold of us, and will never let us go. We do our best work when we are simply trying to say thank you for a gift so great that we can never really understand it.

It’s May 22nd. And the world has not ended. And neither has God’s grace, nor our gratitude. I don’t know the details about the end of the world, or the next life, or anything like that. But I do know this: God will be there. And if God is there, it will be good. Amen.