Why your church (and pastor) can’t be partisan.

Recently a person unknown to me posted his “resistance” oriented event on the Facebook wall of my church. It wasn’t clear what the event entailed and it seemed that it might cross the line into partisan territory. The poster’s profile picture advocated a specific political party, and the language was ambiguous.

I wrote him back and assured him that while I personally was supportive, the church was non-partisan, and I’d have to delete the post. I hoped he understood.

I received back this response: “We are nonpartisan, So the congregational church (sic) does not support civil rights, good to know.”

First, I’ve been given nothing that helps me determine whether the non-partisan part of that statement is true. But, second, I was stunned by the writer’s quick conclusion. This church I serve was an early moral force for abolition. A former pastor marched with Dr. King. They now have an openly gay senior pastor who they sent to Orlando last summer to provide emergency pastoral care for LGBTQ people. This is a church full of people who love their neighbors, near and far. And we are a part of a denomination that has consistently been early to every major Civil Rights challenge of our time.

But this is not a partisan church. It belongs to Jesus Christ, not any candidate or party. We follow the Gospel, and not a party platform. We get it wrong sometimes, but we really do try to get it right. Recently, though, I’ve heard a lot of folks wondering why churches aren’t doing more to confront the current political situation in our country.

I am writing this post as Emily C. Heath, private citizen. I am not writing this post as Emily C. Heath, pastor of a local congregation. I say that, but I can’t deny that the two people are one and the same. The same person writing these words on my personal blog a weekday will use this same (personal) computer to write a sermon for when I get up into the pulpit on Sunday morning.

I get how that can be confusing. And I think that sometimes that’s particularly confusing for people who know me outside of the church.

I have been interested in and involved with politics for over 20 years. The summer I graduated from high school I went off to Washington, DC to serve as a Democratic Congressional intern. I have campaigned for Democratic candidates on the ground. And I currently serve as a delegate to the state convention for my town’s Democratic committee. On my own time, I engage in partisan political activism.

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Phone banking on election day.

I’ve also been involved in the civil rights movements since that time. I came out in 1994 and started marching in Pride parades long before our safety was assured. I remember standing outside a bombed-out gay nightclub in Atlanta in 1997. And I remember traveling to Orlando last summer after the Pulse shootings.

When I wrote a blog post several years ago asking white folks to look at our privilege, I received messages calling me names I can’t print here, and one threat to burn down my church. I’ve been afraid for my personal safety because of my advocacy.

I don’t think I have to prove my progressive bona fides to anyone.

Except apparently I do. And that’s because sometimes well-meaning progressive folks don’t understand that clergy have to remain non-partisan while at church, in the pulpit, or serving in any way as a pastor.

That’s true for two very important reasons: first, the religious reason and, second, the civic reason.

pexels-photo-27633My faith teaches me that my ultimate allegiance is not to any political party, or even to any country. It’s to Christ. That means that when I’m in the pulpit, I’m talking about Christ. And, try as they might, I’ve yet to meet a politician who measures up to Christ.

My faith does shape my political beliefs. Whenever I go in the voting booth and close the curtain, I’m thinking about the Gospels. It was hearing the Gospels for the first time as a high school student that changed my own political thinking. My faith teaches me to care about the “least of these” and one way I do that is by thinking about them when I am voting.

But, I know good Christians who do not vote the way I do. Some of them are in my church, and I’m their pastor too. My sermons on Sunday should challenge them sometimes, just as they should challenge everyone. They should make them think hard about what they believe, and how they will act out their faith in the world. They should make clear that working for justice for all God’s people is not optional. 

This is political in the classic sense in that it concerns the polis, the city or community, and all of God’s people. Pastors must be concerned with their community, state, nation, and world.

But they should never, ever, tell their church for whom or for what party to vote on Election Day. That’s an abuse of power and that’s pastoral malpractice.

The second reason is the civic one. Our separation of church and state is mutually beneficial to both. The church does not get to impose a theocracy, and the state does not get to use the church for its own ends. This is healthy, especially in a society with religious diversity.

I get upset when I see conservative churches flaunting this rule. I don’t like the idea of “voter guides” stuffed in Sunday bulletins, or of pastors in the pulpits stating who they think God wants you to vote for because, as I said, it’s an abuse of power. I’ve heard some progressive pastors saying we should start bending the rules too. I disagree.

Our job as pastors is to teach the faith. It’s to present the Gospel in an honest and relevant manner. And, yes, that means sometimes the Gospel will be political, in the best sense of the word. It will require us to work for justice. It will mean that we speak out about non-discrimination, or climate change, or peace. We do not need to remain silent about those things in church. In fact, we cannot remain silent about those things in church.

But on the other hand, political does not mean partisan. As soon as we start to equate the reign of God with a particular candidate or party, we have committed idolatry, and we have crossed both a moral and civil line.

In a time of deep moral crisis, which I believe our country is now facing, it might feel like that’s not enough. I know there are people who want to hear me denounce specific politicians from the pulpit. They want their church to assure them that their voting record would match Jesus’.

But as your pastor, it’s not my job to give you assurance that God loves your candidate more. (Believe me…I’d love that comfort too.) It’s my job to remind you of your own responsibility, and of the fact that our faith requires our own action in the world. On Sundays you can find encouragement, support, and comfort in the Gospel. You can find the values that will inform your own choices. And, ideally, you should find a message that compels you to go out into the world on Monday mornings bent on shaking up the status-quo.

But if a church is telling you who to vote for, left or right, your church has more than a constitutional problem on your hands. You have a faith problem and you, and the Gospel, deserve better than that. 

Besides, in this time of moral crisis, putting our ultimate faith in the radical love and grace of Christ is the most powerful political and partisan action we can ever take.

 If you resonated with this article, you might enjoy Glorify: Reclaiming the Heart of Progressive Christianity.

 

But, What Do You Think?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?: A Sermon on the Good Samaritan for April 12, 2015

25 Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 27 He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” 28 And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii,[b] gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

So, I’m going to guess that this is the first time you have come to church and read the words of Mr. Rogers in unison. Fair assumption? I know that call to worship this morning may have seemed a little odd, a little playful, maybe to some even a little childish. But bear with me, and I’ll explain.

When I was a child, like a lot of people who were children when Mr. Roger’s neighborhood was on PBS, I watched that show a lot. It was, in fact, one of the few television shows I was allowed to watch. And I remember how each episode started, with Mr. Rogers coming through the door, slipping off his work shoes, and slipping on his cardigan and sneakers.

Over time I got too old for Mr. Rogers and I didn’t think about him all that much. He was just the guy in the sweater with the kids TV show. But this week, as our church school students are starting a new story, I thought about Mr. Rogers again. Because there’s something about what he taught that never fails to reminds me of this Gospel.

Today’s reading is the story of the Good Samaritan. Jesus is asked by a man who is trying to trick him what he must do to inherit eternal life. And Jesus tells him that he must love God with all his soul and strength and mind, but he must also love his neighbor as himself. And this is where the classic question is asked, the one you and I still ask 2,000 years later: Who is my neighbor?

Jesus rarely gives a straight answer. Instead he tells a story. He tells this story of a man who is traveling and who is robbed and beaten and left for dead on the road. And as he is lying there dying, a priest comes along. He sees the man, but doesn’t stop. In fact he crosses the road to avoid him. And then a Levite, another religious leader, comes along, and he crosses the road too. And by this point two men who belonged to the same people as the beaten man, two of his religious leaders, had walked right by. Things looked grim.

But then a third man, a Samaritan walks by. Samaritans were considered so lowly that the beaten man normally would not even speak to them. But Scripture tells us that the Samaritan sees the beaten man and he is “moved with pity”. He bandages his wounds, and takes him to an inn, and pays for it with his own money. Then he tells the innkeeper to feed the man and take care of him, promising that he will return and pay for it all.

Jesus finishes the story and he asks, “So, who was this beaten man’s neighbor?” And the reply comes, “The one who showed him mercy. The Samaritan.” Jesus says, “Go and do likewise”.

Mister-Rogers

Copyright, Pittsburgh Magazine

It’s one of the most important and most well known stories of our faith. But you still might be wondering right now, what does any of this have to do with Mr. Rogers?

Years after Mr. Rogers was a daily part of my life I went off to a Presbyterian seminary, and I learned that Mr. Rogers was also the Rev. Rogers, an ordained Presbyterian minister.

When Fred Rogers graduated from seminary his classmates were ordained as parish pastors. But he made a very unusual request. He wanted to be ordained to a very different kind of ministry in a then new arena: children’s television. Mr Rogers believed that television presented a new opportunity. He didn’t love what he was seeing on TV at the time, but he saw potential for something better. And he wanted to teach children things like the value of respecting others, being kind, facing their fears, and, yes, being a good neighbor.

And so every show started with that song that we all know. The one where he crossed a line not usually crossed by adults, and spoke to children in a way where it was clear that, though he was still the adult, he had respect for them. And he asked them to be his neighbor.

He was a minister of the Gospel. He got what that meant. He knew that we who are Christians are called to be neighbors to the most unlikely of people, even the people on the other side of our television screens. And, though he never preached overtly on his television show, I think each episode had as much Gospel in it as any sermon.

Now, at this point, you might be saying, “Well, yes…it’s easy to love your neighbors in a place where everyone walks through unlocked doors and wears comfortable sneakers and cardigans. It’s not that hard to pick out neighbors from the Neighborhood of Make Believe. But what about the real world? The one where you and I live? The one where not all of our neighbors are what we expect?

I think he got that too. He was hosting a children’s show, and so he was speaking to kids using situations they understood. But if you read a little about his life, this was a man who seemed to always cross the lines to make new neighbors. When he wasn’t on camera, he often stood up for others. And he really didn’t make a big deal about it because that’s just what he thought anyone should do.

But the reality, unfortunately, is that we don’t live in a world of Mr. Rogers.

A couple of years ago I drove out to a friends’ wedding in Kokomo, Indiana. And the whole way out there we kept saying to each other, “Kokomo, Indiana…why do we know that name?” We knew something newsworthy had happened there once, but we couldn’t remember what.

So, we Googled it. And we found out that Kokomo, Indiana was in the 1980’s the hometown of a young boy named Ryan White. Ryan White’s neighbors found out that he had what was then a relatively unknown disease called AIDS.

Driving around town we learned that Kokomo, Indiana is filled with churches. But when his neighbors found out that a young neighbor had this disease, what most of the Christians did didn’t exactly resemble the Good Samaritan from Jesus’ story. They didn’t minister to him or his family, or try to support them. Instead, they barred Ryan from attending the local school, and eventually they ran him out of town completely.

And so, one day about thirty years later, when a group of people who had been kids in the 80’s rolled into town, all we knew about Kokomo, Indiana was that it was a place where one neighbor had been anything but loved.

My guess is that there are a lot of good people in Kokomo. And my guess is that thirty years ago they were as afraid as those two men who crossed to the other side of road and away from that injured man in Scripture. But I remember thinking as we were driving about how that legacy of turning its back on a neighbor is something with which that community will always have to wrestle. All it takes is one time, one choice to not love your neighbor, and the message goes out loud and clear.

But it doesn’t have to be like that. Because there are other stories too. Stories like this one: I’ve always liked baseball and I’ve always been inspired by Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play Major League Baseball. I knew the part of the story where he played for the Brooklyn Dodgers and broke the color barrier. But I didn’t know what happened after he retired. Because it turns out, Jackie Robinson had to break another color barrier: the one he faced when he bought a house not in Mississippi or Georgia, but in Connecticut. And his neighbors weren’t happy.

The story goes that when Jackie Robinson moved there, his neighbors were so angry that they were sharing their neighborhood with a black man that they even ostracized the man who sold him the property. You might think that a man who had been a ball player and hero might be welcomed, but Robinson found his neighbors were as hostile as those early baseball crowds had been.

But one neighbor wasn’t: the Congregational, and later UCC, church that was just down the street from his house. And because they welcomed him and his family, not only did the Robinsons have a place to worship, but the church had a chance to show who they were. No one remembers them as “the church that turned Jackie Robinson away”. They just remember them as, “Jackie Robinson’s church”. End of story. It’s not a point of pride. It just is. As it should be, because we should never expect anything less from a church.

If we are serious about this whole following Jesus thing, we have to love with the same open-hearted abandon as the Samaritan. We have to love with the same willingness to embrace the newcomer as the church in Connecticut. We have to dare to cross lines in the road, and we have to build the unexpected relationships that will save not just one of us, but both of us. Let’s never make the mistake of thinking that the ones who cross the lines don’t also receive grace here.

But most of all, we have to ask that question Mr. Rogers asked so many times, and not just to the people we want to ask it of, but to everyone: Won’t you be my neighbor? No cardigan or sneakers or singing are required…just a sincere conviction in our hearts and this question that is so much harder than it sounds: Won’t you be my neighbor.

They are easy words to sing, but they are much harder words to say. But when it comes to being the church, really being the church, and to being Christians, there’s no option here. We can’t choose our neighbor, but we can choose community. And God will never fail to bless community. Amen.

The “Next Big Thing” for the Progressive Church: Putting the Horse Before the Cart

“So, now that we have LGBT equality in the progressive mainline church, what are we going to do now? What’s the next big thing?”

I get asked that question from time to time. The tide seems to have turned in many ways when it comes to the inclusion of LGBT people in the church and in our country as a whole. Doors to ordination are opening, marriages are being blessed, and the church is growing more comfortable with talking openly about sexuality and gender. And so, the question is already being asked by some: What shall we work on next? What big issue does the church need to face?

I have a few thoughts. First, I don’t think the church is anywhere near coming to the end of discussions about full inclusion for LGBT people. Yes, we are far better off than we were ten years ago, and even further from where we were before that, but we aren’t close to being completely inclusive yet. (By the way, we’re not quite done with debates over the role of women or confronting our complicity in racism, either.)

Calling of the Disciples, by He Qi

Calling of the Disciples, by He Qi

But, for purposes of discussion, let’s just say it is time for the mainline church to start looking for the “next big thing” that will unite us in purpose and divide us in debate. What will it be?

I have some ideas. Caring for the environment is on the top of the list. Responding to immigration and other humanitarian crises is too. So is interfaith understanding. And I don’t think it will be too long until the church seriously begins to discuss economic inequalities. There are a lot of possibilities.

I was thinking about that last week. I was sitting in a discussion talking about my views on why it’s important for progressive ministers to be able to talk about our faith, and about what Christ means to us. I was talking about discipleship, and why it matters for our often progressive church. And I was talking about how we’ve lost so much of our theological heritage, and language of faith. And then the question came, part-curious, part-suspect:

“But what about social justice? Does that not matter to you?”

Like I said, the person who asked didn’t know me. They didn’t know that for the past twenty years I have been openly gay. They didn’t know about the times anonymous anti-gay hate letters showed up in my church’s mailbox during my last call, or about how I’d grown up in a place where being gay could literally get you blown up, or about how Heidi and I had needed to file separate federal tax returns even after we got married.

And they didn’t know about the times my faith had compelled me to take action. They didn’t know about how we had stood in the New York State Capitol for the better part of a week as right-wing Christians protesting against equal marriage had yelled at us that we were going to hell. I’ve gone a few rounds in the social justice arena.

But the person who questioned that? They aren’t alone. So many times when I talk about why the church needs to reclaim discipleship, starting with asking ourselves “who do I believe that Jesus is to me” even my progressive Christian friends look at me sideways. Those of us who see ourselves as progressive evangelicals often find ourselves being told that we are too dogmatic, too conservative, or too focused on what doesn’t matter.

Except, I think it does matter. I think it matters more than we know.

I often worry that the progressive church has begun to define itself not by our affirmations, but by our repudiations. When compared with our more conservative brothers and sisters we are so quick to say “we aren’t like that”. We proclaim “not all Christians believe that way” with ease. But when it comes to talking about what we DO believe, we often find we lack the words.

I am sometimes worried that we in the progressive church put the cart before the horse when it comes to social justice. It’s not that I believe we are advocating for the wrong things; it’s that I believe we sometimes advocate for the wrong reasons, acting first and then wedging theological meaning in later.

I am glad that churches stand up against anti-gay measures. I wish more would. But I want us to talk about why our Christian convictions are compelling us to do so.

I give thanks for every church member that stands and protests against the death penalty, but I want us to be able to talk about what the crucified Christ taught us about the value of human life.

I respect every minister who holds a placard in front of the White House and speaks about climate change, but I wish I heard more about how God created the world and called it good, and why that’s why we can’t be silent.

When I walk into a voting booth, I take my faith with me. When I cast my votes, I do so in accordance with what the Gospel has taught me. I cannot separate the two. And I give thanks for that.

But before I got to this place, I first had to become a disciple. I had to read the Gospel for myself. I had to want to follow the Christ they talked about. And only then could I go about the work of living my faith in the public arena, both in the larger church and in the world.

And so when people ask me what the “next big thing” in the church will be, I tell them this: discipleship.

There are a lot of reasons why the church doesn’t wield the influence we once had in the public sphere, but I think the main one is this: we have forgotten our foundation. We have forgotten what it means to be disciples. And people can see through us.

Few people are interested in joining just another public advocacy group. And those who are can find far more effective ones. The progressive church is not the Democratic Party at Prayer, to borrow a phrase. And if we continue to lose our theological literacy, and our ability to talk about our faith, that’s all we will end up being. Without a bedrock of belief, the whole enterprise of church-based social justice will crumble.

But that doesn’t have to happen.

It’s time for progressive Christians to claim discipleship. It’s time to get radical, not about our politics or our policies, but about our faith. It’s time to stop throwing the baby Jesus out with the bath water, and start putting the horse before the cart. It’s time to remember what, and who, we worship. It’s time to develop the language of faith. And it’s time to see our social justice work as a natural product of our discipleship, not something that competes with it for the church’s time.

And only then, when we have gone back to the source and found what ultimately binds us together with God and with one another, can we go out and find the next, next big thing. And whenever that happens, we will be better for it. And we just may find that when it comes to changing the world for the better, the Gospel of Why We Are Different Than Other Christians can’t hold a candle to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

But What Do You Think?: Sermon for 24 August 2014

Matthew 16:13-20
16:13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

16:14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

16:15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”

16:16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

16:17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.

16:18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.

16:19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

16:20 Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

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

When I started eighth grade my least favorite class was English. And when I ended high school, my favorite classes looking back were English classes. Up until 8th grade English classes had been all about spelling and grammar and diagraming sentences. And that’s important to know, but it was never all that interesting to me.

But in the 8th grade we started to be handed books like “To Kill a Mockingbird” or “Catcher in the Rye” or plays like “The Crucible”. And then, instead of multiple choice questions or fill-in-the-blank tests, we were given these questions that we had to respond to in essays.

ucccommaAt first I thought this was a trick and that I was missing something obvious. Like the test question that asked me about Atticus Finch and whether doing the right thing matters even when you know you’re going to lose. I was sure there was a paragraph in the book that would give me exactly the answer that I was looking for so that I would ace the test.

We all thought that. And so when we didn’t find it we all seemed to write some variation of what the teacher herself had said in class in our essays. Which is why when she handed back our exams and seemed less than excited about them we were confused. We had listened in class. We had taken notes. We had read the book. Why didn’t we get A’s?

But that was the first time I heard a teacher really say, “I don’t want you to tell me what other people think. I don’t want you to tell me what I think. I don’t want you to take the easy way out. I want to know what you think.”

Today’s passage doesn’t take place in an English class, but it’s another that reminds me that Jesus was, among other things, a good teacher. Jesus has pulled his disciples aside and he’s asking them an important question: Who do people think that I am?

And Peter, who always seems to be the first to raise his hand, has the answer. “Well, Jesus,” he says, “some think you’re John the Baptist, some think you’re Elijah, and some think you’re a prophet like Jeremiah.” And my guess is that Peter thought he had covered all the right possible answers there. He had done his homework. He was getting that A.

But Jesus pushes the question just a little more. He asks Peter, “But, who do YOU say that I am.”

Whenever I read that question I think about my English teacher, and the long line of teachers I had after her, and how they would push us to go deeper, and find the answers for ourselves. And in that moment I can picture Peter sitting there, trying to think of what to say, and how the easy or memorized answer was no longer enough.

And then it comes to Peter: “You are the Messiah, the son of God.”

And here’s the difference between a high school English student and Peter. In high school the right answer can get you an “A”. But with Jesus the right answer gets you something more. It gets you a new purpose and a whole lot of other questions.

Jesus says to Peter, “blessed are you” and he tells him that Peter is going to be the rock that Christ’s church will be built on. In that moment Peter goes from a guy who knew everyone else’s answer, to a guy who had his own and who would become a teacher in his own right.

After high school I went to college and, much to the chagrin of my parents who were pulling for law school, I became an English major, and then I went to seminary. I’ve always held the English major partially responsible for that. Because throughout college I ran into professor after professor who didn’t want to know what some critic thought, or even what they thought. They wanted their students to wrestle with the texts, to think for themselves, and to find the truth not in cliff notes or lectures, but in the process of truly trying to understand something complex.

And when you think about that, that’s pretty similar to what we as Christians are asked to do. Or, at least, we should be. Because Jesus, as you may have noticed, was rarely in the mode of handing out answers. He was much more the kind of teacher who gave his followers questions. In fact, I think that at times it must have been pretty infuriating to be a student of Jesus.

And yet, do we really want someone who just gives us the answer key? Do we really want to be able to just turn to the back of the book and find it there? Okay, maybe sometimes we do, but in the end do we really want an easy, simplistic faith? Or do we want one that forces us to go deeper, and that transforms us?

There is, as is fitting, no right answer there. And if you do want all the answers there are plenty or pastors and churches and people of faith who will purport to have them. But I’ve always been a little wary of those who claim to have all the answers about God, and who are unwilling to tell Christians to keep asking the tough questions. I guess that’s because I’ve always been careful of anyone who gives easy answers…because I’ve often found they won’t hold up in the hardest of times.

So, what does it mean to have a faith that embraces that question Jesus asks us: “Who do you say that I am”?

For starters, I think it’s about not being afraid to ask questions. Somewhere in so many of our faith upbringings we were been taught that it’s somehow wrong to ask questions, or to wonder. But Jesus was all about the questions. He was all about making people think. Just going through the motions of acting faithfully meant nothing to Jesus if there wasn’t true meaning behind it. And I don’t think there can ever be true meaning behind it if there is no depth. It’s like a plant that’s put into shallow soil. It may bloom for a little while but it won’t last for long.

So instead, what does it look like to not be afraid of knowledge? What does it look like to ask the big questions not in spite of the fact you are a person of faith, but because of it? This isn’t a new concept, just a somewhat lost one. Colleges like Harvard and Yale and Dartmouth were founded by our Congregationalist ancestors. So was Phillips Exeter and a host of other schools. There was an assumption that education, and asking questions, didn’t hinder our relationship with God. It brought us closer. And it deepened it.

And here’s why I think this is. I don’t think Jesus was just asking Peter what Peter thought. I think that Christ continues to ask us all what we think. And in that, I think Jesus is asking us to go deeper. Not just into the questions and into the possible answers, but deeper into a relationship that demands more than us just repeating what we have heard from others. And that invitation, like any invitation to think for ourselves and experience something for ourselves, can be anxiety producing at first.

I didn’t really grow up in the church. My parents left it up to us to decide. But I had a lot of questions. So when I was 17 I decided to start going to church on my own. And the deeper I went in search of answers, the deeper my relationship with God became, and the less I was able to ignore it.

One morning towards the end of senior year I was driving to school with a good friend of mine who had grown up in a very fundamentalist Baptist family. And while I was finding faith, she was finding her way out of the church. But we were close, and I wanted to explain to her what was going on with me and I talked about how I just had this feeling and the more I explored the more I just felt this closeness with God that I couldn’t explain.

And I grew up in the South, you may remember, so about half way to school she sort of looked at me and rolled her eyes and said, “Emily, are you trying to tell me that you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?”

I was so surprised, and so afraid of what my friends would think, that I said, “no, of course not, I’m just saying I’ve been thinking about some things, that’s all”.

But while that’s not the language I would have used for it either then or now, the reality is that, yes, there was a relationship there that I had never had before. It didn’t look much like what I thought it was supposed to look like. There were more questions than answers, and sometimes more doubt than faith, but taking someone else’s word for it, and using their answers wasn’t cutting it anymore. It was time to at least start to answer that big question for myself. It was time to ask who I said that Jesus was.

Through the years the people of faith I have respected the most have been the ones who have asked that question themselves, no matter how messy the answers seemed. Their lives have proven to me that our personal faith stories, and our relationship with God, matter.

There was the friend who grew up in a church where he was always given easy answers, and who left it, and God, behind. Or so he thought. But now, he asks those questions again, and this time he doesn’t settled for what others say. He’s finding out for himself.

There was the friend who went to Iraq as an Army medic and came back questioning everything, and why God allowed the suffering she saw. In her darkest moments she wondered if God even cared. But she kept wrestling, through good and bad.

And there was the friend who narrowly escaped the Twin Towers on 9/11 and, for the first time, asked questions about faith. A few years later he left his law office and went to seminary.

When I think about what it means to answer “who do you say that I am”, I think of them and so many others like them. And that’s what faith looks like to me. Not easy answers. Not being so self-assured that yours is the first hand up in the classroom. Not belief that tries to answer for others. But faith that would answer the old question of “but what do you think” well, and that never settles for an answer key that someone else wrote. Faith that settles for nothing less than a relationship, and life of searching. That’s the faith I hope you always feel like you can have here, and that’s the journey I pray we can go on together. Amen?

Falling: Recovery, Silence, and the Church

Untitled copyTwice in my life I have competed in contact sports. After a childhood spent envying the boys on my block who could play on the football team, I joined my college’s rugby team. It was a club sport at my school, more adventure than varsity, but it was one of the few places I had found where women could play a rough-and-tumble game without others trying to protect us. After college I found my way to the local judo dojo where that same truth held. There on the mat we sparred together, a mix of genders and abilities, starting standing face-to-face and ending with throws and pins to the floor.

What struck me about both sports was what I learned at my very first practice. My first night on the rugby pitch I learned how to throw a tackle. But, more importantly, I learned how to be tackled. A friend of mine knelt down on the field and, as I ran at them, threw a perfect tackle just above my knees. I soared over their shoulder and hit the ground safely. We did this again and again that night until being tackled was second nature.

My first night in the dojo was similar. Before I was allowed anywhere near the other students, I spent an evening sitting on the mat and practicing falling backwards. Each time I fell backwards I would strike the mat with one arm to absorb the blow. Once I mastered the art of falling down from a sitting position, I fell backwards from a standing position. That first night I thought judo must be the most boring athletic endeavor ever, but after I was thrown to the mat the few times I realized the point.

With both sports the idea was this: you’re going to fall. You’d might as well learn how to fall safely, with minimal injury, so that you can stand back up.

So what does this have to do with the church? At first glance maybe not that much. But last week I found myself lying face up in our village market’s parking lot thinking otherwise. I’d slipped on a patch of Vermont black ice while carrying a bag of groceries, but as soon as I had felt myself lose balance I immediately, instinctively, did what I had learned in the dojo: I fell back, didn’t panic, and tried to distribute the impact as broadly as possible. In the end the only thing injured was my pride. I stood back up, picked up the groceries, and drove home unscathed.

And that’s when I started to think about the church. Recently a clergy friend told me that he had been advised by older clergy mentors to hide the fact that he is in recovery from addiction. I immediate felt sad about that. This is a person with sustained sobriety, and an incredible story of recovery. His testimony could be a powerful witness to God’s healing, as well as one of hope to those “still sick and suffering”. But his congregation might never hear it.

My friend had been told that clergy shouldn’t show weakness. They shouldn’t admit to perceived failures. They should allow those around them to live under the impression that, no matter what is going on, everything is fine. And, while I do believe clergy need to be careful not to overshare our personal lives or to preach our own stories more than the Gospel, I believe this is the attitude that not only contributes to clergy burn-out but hurts our whole church.

The reality for all of us is this: we fall short, we mess up, we lose our traction, and end up on the ground. In short, we live life. Clergy and lay together. But often we don’t talk about that in church. Instead we bring ourselves to worship in our Sunday best and hide the truth that sometimes things just aren’t that great.

It’s no surprise. For too long we’ve been taught to do just that. We clergy have taught, often by our own example, that appearances are more important than honesty. We’ve taught that appropriate vulnerability is career suicide. We’ve taught that falling down defines us no matter whether or not we get back up. And, inadvertently, we’ve taught a sanitized, powerless Gospel.

Somehow we have taught that Christians are people of perfection, and not people of redemption.

This past year, as the Boston mayoral race heated up, eventual winner Marty Walsh ran television ads that briefly mentioned his recovery from alcoholism. I watched the ads and thought, “that’s brilliant”. He, as Robert Kennedy used to say, hung a lantern on his biggest problem, the thing that might have come out in sneaky attack ads and bombed his candidacy. Instead, his recovery became a part of his story. It showed that he knew how to get back up and rebuild.

But the more I thought about it, the more I felt sad for the church. If an admission of being in recovery can actually help someone in the hardball world of politics, why is it so feared in the very place where redemption should be celebrated? Why aren’t we, people who talk about grace and forgiveness and new life, in the business of teaching people what to do when they fall? Why don’t we acknowledge these things so that we can help people know where to turn when they need help to get back up?

In my ministry I’ve never hidden the fact that I am in recovery. I’m blessed to be able to say that because of that I’ve been able to be a first call for parishioners and non-parishioners alike when they finally hit rock bottom. But I’ve also never talked about it in my writing all that much.

This Sunday marks another year of sobriety, one day at a time, for me. It doesn’t matter how many years, but I can say that it’s far more than a much younger me ever thought I could string together the first time I admitted I needed help. I give thanks every day that I got it.

I also give thanks for the ones who I’ve met in recovery who have taught me that falling down in life is as inevitable as falling on the rugby pitch or in the judo dojo. Most have had much more dramatic and devastating falls than my own. Most have made far more dramatic and inspiring recoveries. And, though they may not have realized it, and though most have never stepped into a pulpit, they have preached the Gospel to me in the most powerful ways I have ever heard it.

I only wish that those of us who did occupy the pulpits could preach the Gospel of redemption with such power and transparency and strength.

But then again, maybe we can.

Prayer and Action: Sermon for July 28, 2013

200px-Super_Bowl_XVII_Logo.svgSome of the first prayers I ever remember saying were during football games. My family is full of Redskins fans, and my dad in particular takes games very seriously. I remember being about six years old and watching the Redskins play the Dolphins in the Super Bowl. We were watching them on TV, and I could see everyone was so intent and so anxious. And so, though I didn’t understand much about God or prayer or how to pray, I kept praying that the pass on third and long would connect, or the field goal would make it through the uprights.

The Redskins won that Super Bowl, and I thought I was on to something good. Joe Theismann did okay that game, but I held myself personally responsible for praying the way to that Lombardi trophy. But the next year, the Skins went to the Super Bowl again. And this time they played the Raiders. And, despite my best attempts at prayer, the Skins were absolutely crushed.

It was probably my first experience of religious disillusionment.

I don’t pray about football much these days. Though I still sometimes catch myself saying, “Oh please, God, let him catch it,” and I feel a little embarrassed. I don’t think it’s ever wrong to talk to God, but I still feel self-conscious and like I’m doing something wrong. I still want to know, “Am I praying the right way?”

Maybe you’ve asked that too. If you have, you’re not alone. Even back in Jesus’ day, people were wondering if they were praying the right way. And one day one of his disciples said to him, “Teacher, teach us how to pray.”

Jesus responds by teaching them a prayer that we recite here every week, and that Christians around the world have recited daily since: “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.”

It sounds a little different than the words we say now, but there’s no mistaking that it’s the Lord’s Prayer. And it’s as close as we have ever gotten to a perfect prayer. And that makes sense, because it came right from the source.

When you look at the prayer, just in those few lines, there is so much there that is so rich. Jesus calls God “Father”, which means he is inviting us to enter into a conversation which is personal, and loving. We ask that God’s reign would come. We ask for our daily bread, trusting for God to provide what we need. And ask forgiveness, and we ask for help forgiving others. And, finally, we ask God to keep us safe, and out of harm’s way.

Really, everything you need is in that prayer. If there is such a thing as a “right way to pray”, this is it.

So, that being said, why didn’t Jesus just stop talking then? Why is there the rest of this passage? Jesus tells a story about a man who goes to a friend’s house late at night because he needs somethings and he knocks on the door. The friend shouts, “go away, I’m sleeping”. But the man still knocks, and eventually the man gets up and gives his friend what he needs. Jesus tells us, “Ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened to you.”

He’s talking about prayer. He’s talking about the persistence of prayer. And he’s saying that when we care enough to keep knocking, God will answer. Jesus then tells his disciples, “You wouldn’t give your kids a snake if they asked for a fish, and you wouldn’t give your kids a scorpion when they ask for an egg, right? So why would God, who loves us as a parent, and who is a far better parent than any of us could ever be, withhold what we need from us?”

Now at this point you might be thinking, “that’s all very good and well, but I have prayed before and nothing has changed.” Maybe you prayed for something you really and truly needed, not just a football game, and you didn’t get what you need. Or maybe you prayed for someone you loved dearly who needed healing, and you ended up losing them anyway. Or maybe you have just cried out asking, “God, are you there”, but you haven’t had any response.

I wish I could give you an easy answer at this point, one that explained all that, but the fact is that I can’t, and it would be condescending for me to try. And at this point a lot of people would quote the words of CS Lewis, a well-known Christian writer, who once said, “Prayer doesn’t change God. It changes me.”

And, he’s right about one part of that. Prayer does change us. If you’ve ever gotten into a regular routing of praying, you know that. Your attention shifts. Your priorities change. You feel your life change in ways that make it better.

Two of my favorite prayers, the Prayer of St. Francis, and the Serenity Prayer, are two good examples of prayer that changes us. They teach us how to order our lives. They remind us of what matters and what we can do. And if we really mean what we pray, they change us.

And that, in and of itself, isn’t a bad thing. But if prayer were only a one-sided conversation with ourselves, it wouldn’t be all that much better than something written by a motivational speaker. We would feel good, but where is God in all that?

Prayer is not just about us. It’s about God, and it’s about a conversation that we are having with God. And time and again in Scripture, we are provided with examples of a God who does listen to us, and who does respond. That doesn’t always mean that we get what we want, and that doesn’t always mean that we are answered with a “yes”, but it does mean that, somehow, we get what we need. As Jesus said, God would hand us snakes and scorpions, and God’s door won’t go unanswered.

But, on our side, that means that we have to be a part of that conversation too. And sometimes that means that we have to recognize that prayer is more than just words. It’s not just a wish made to God. Sometimes the best kind of prayer can be our own action.

In the aftermath of the recent Oklahoma tornadoes, I saw a lot of people on TV and online saying, “pray for Oklahoma”. A few days later, some atheist groups countered with their own saying: “actually do something for Oklahoma”. Now, you all know that I don’t think atheists should be the punching bag for people of faith. They have their belief, and we have ours, but I remember thinking, “I don’t think you understand what prayer means.” Because praying for Oklahoma and actually doing something for Oklahoma are not mutually exclusive.

I do believe that prayer in and of itself is action. It’s asking for God’s involvement. But prayer doesn’t have to stop with words. In fact. prayer cannot just stop with words if it is real. Prayer can take many forms. And actions can be prayers as well.

When you write out a donation to disaster relief, that is a prayer. When you go and help rebuild houses, that’s a prayer. When you give food to those who are hungry, that’s a prayer. When you work for justice and peace, that’s a prayer. And when you get up in the morning, and get out of bed, and commit yourself to loving the people around you as best as you possibly can, that’s a prayer too.

If you are really intent on this Christian life, if you are really committed to prayer, then there is one way to live, and that is to live your life as a prayer. No matter where you are or what you are doing, use this one life you have to pray without ceasing. Make prayer your way of being in the world, and not something that you fall back on only when you need something. If you do that, everything will change. Because you cannot knock on that door for long before, one way or another, God will answer.

I’ll close with this. Many of you know that this weekend was the 50th anniversary of t he West Dover Fire Department. A few of us from our congregation are currently involved in the department, and many more have been for some time. I learned this weekend that members from our congregation were among those responsible for starting that department. People like Frank Smith, Paul Kammerlen, and Eddie Barber. I really think that what they did was a form of prayer. It was a form of communicating their love for God and neighbor into action.

And now 50 years later new generations go out in the middle of the night to pray themselves. West Dover, East Dover, Deerfield Valley Rescue, Ski Patrol, and our Dover Police. They pray by serving their neighbors. And that is a prayer that is always pleasing and acceptable to God. People like that teach us how to pray by what they do, not what they say. By living their life as a prayer.

There’s a capacity for all of us to do that, whether we wear a uniform or not. It starts when we go to God in prayer, but prayer is never complete until we commit to living that prayer. May God bless our prayers, and show us how to live our life as a prayer. And may all of our prayers glorify God. Amen.

Journey Through Advent: Day 12

IMG_0242This year my wife and I are trying to be conscious of where we are spending our Christmas money. We have a set budget, and we are deliberately trying to spend as much of it as possible either locally, or with small artisans. It’s our personal challenge to ourselves to try to support small businesses.

We bought candles at one of my parishioner’s shops. We decorated with a Vermont-made wreath from our local Habitat for Humanity affiliate. And we found a shop on Etsy that sent us a handmade ornament for our tree, complete with our names and wedding date, to celebrate our first married Christmas. As we head into the homestretch, we are thinking of choices we could make next year to support other small businesses.

You might wonder what this has to do with faith, or with Advent.

For us, where we spend our money is more than an economic choice. It’s a theological one. I can’t say that Billy Graham and I agree on everything, but I do think he was right when he said, “Give me five minutes with a person’s checkbook, and I will tell you where their heart is.” The way we think about the money we have, and where we spend it, says a great deal about us.

We often get nervous when theology and money intersect, and often for good reason. But, what if we used our faith to inform our decisions about what we would use our money to support? If we say that we follow a faith that teaches us to love our neighbors, why do we drive past our neighbors’ stores because we can find something slightly cheaper at the Wal-Mart? If we say we follow a faith that teaches us justice, why do we buy things made in sweatshops overseas?

Most of us do more discretionary spending around Christmas time than we do any other time of the year. So this time of year is when our economic decisions could have the greatest impact on others. And conveniently, it’s Advent, which means it is the time of year when we are called to prayerfully reflect on the coming of Christ and what he would teach us. And, if we claim to celebrate his birth, how can we ignore the teachings of the man that child grew up to be?

The Gospel isn’t divorced from any part of our lives, including the part that has to do with our wallet. And there’s no better time to start thinking about how to live into that Gospel in our economic lives than Advent.

Cruise Ship or Christ’s Ship? – Sermon for June 24, 2012

Mark 4:35-41
4:35 On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.”

4:36 And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him.

4:37 A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped.

4:38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

4:39 He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm.

4:40 He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”

4:41 And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

A few years ago a friend of mine who lived in Boston decided to take a quick trip to the outer tip of Cape Cod. The two aren’t that far apart, of course. At least not as the crow flies. But if you drive you have to go down the South Shore, over the backed-up bridge, and over and up the Cape again. Several hours later you’ll get there.

So my friend decided to go by boat. When they got on the ferry, the day looked pretty nice. The sea was calm. It was sunny. They’d be there soon. But once they got out in open water, things changed. The swells came up the side of the boat. It lunged through the water, dipping up and down, and her friends told her she was literally turning green.

She made it safely to the other shore, but she resolved that next time she would drive.

If they had had cars in Biblical times I’ll bet the disciples in today’s passage would have gotten to the other shore, turned around to look at Jesus, and said “next time we’re driving.”

Jesus is teaching the crowds and when he gets done he tells them that they are going to the other side. And part way across a storm kicks up. The water swamps the boat, the waves beat against it, and the disciples are not just seasick; they’re pretty sure they’re going to die.

Times like this, you want Jesus to be awake. But they look over at him, and he’s sleeping. And I’m sure they were thinking, “How can you sleep through this, Jesus?” They call out to him, “don’t you realize we are about to die? Don’t you care?”

And then Jesus wakes up. And he looks around. And he says, “Peace…be still.”

The storm goes ends. And the winds die down. And they are safe again. Jesus asks them, “Why are you afraid? Do you still have no faith?”

The Scripture tells us that the disciples were filled with awe, and started to ask each other, “Who is this guy? Even the wind and sea obey him?”

Had I been there, I might not have been filled with awe about Jesus. It might have gone more like this: “Hey, buddy…while you’re asleep the rest of us are about to die, so maybe you could wake up and help us keep the water out of the boat?”

To be honest, a lot of us have moments we feel that way about Jesus. The sea gets rough, the waters of life overwhelm us, and we call out to a God who it sometimes seems might as well be sleeping. Sometimes we might feel like we are all alone on a sea, shouting, “Jesus, don’t you care?”

This passage gives me hope in times like that. Not because Jesus stilled the storm, though I’m glad he did. But because it shows me that even the disciples felt that way at times.

But more importantly, it shows me this. Even the disciples were put in situations that they didn’t know how to get out of. It shows me that Jesus sometimes does lead us to places that aren’t all the great in the moment.

I think sometimes we think that if we really believe, if we really try to be a good Christian, nothing bad will ever happen to us. I wish that that were true. The saints of the faith have lived holy lives, and yet they, like we, have often found themselves on choppy seas. And the people in our lives who most exemplify “good” sometimes are the ones who face the situations we just don’t understand.

It doesn’t feel fair. It makes us want to call out to Jesus, “Why is this happening? Are you asleep at the helm?”

But then I think again about today’s passage, about Jesus telling the disciples to get in the boat and cross the sea, and I wonder if maybe he knew what was coming. I wonder if he was preparing them for what was about to happen.

Jesus was a teacher. He used parables and metaphors and whatever was handy to teach his disciples about God and the life of faith. And I wonder if that’s what he was doing that day. He knew that life for the disciples would be full of stormy seas, and that at times they would be about to lose everything. And maybe he knew that in those moments they’d need to draw on faith from somewhere.

Have you ever noticed where Jesus is in this passage? That’s what always strikes me. Jesus isn’t back on the shore. And he’s not standing over on the opposite shore. He’s not high and dry and safe.

He’s in the boat. He’s going through the storm with the ones he loves. And in the end, being in the same boat with Jesus is what saves them.

In art work, the church is often represented metaphorically by a boat. The World Council of Churches, and international body made up of denominations from all over the world, chose not a cross, but a boat as their symbol. And during World War II the Confessing Church, the churches that opposed Hitler in Germany, used a boat as a symbol.

The boat symbolizes the church and its people being carried by God through the sometimes choppy waters of life. Even this place you’re sitting in now, this part of the sanctuary, is also called the “nave”, from the same root as naval or navy. If you think of the steep roof of a church, it looks a little like an upside down boat. There’s a reason for that. Even church architecture reminds us that we are called to journey together in the same boat as Jesus.

That’s both a blessing, and a warning. When my friend got on the boat in Boston, she knew she was going to make it to the Cape. Even when the waters got bad and she wanted to just be on dry land, she knew that by night fall she’d be eating a lobster roll and sitting by the beach.

But getting in the boat with Jesus is different. It’s not a luxury cruise ship. It’s not a quick ferry. It’s a boat that goes to places that sometimes we might not want to go. Because it’s Jesus boat. And sometimes Jesus goes into the heart of the storm. That’s his job. To be there in the roughest of waters, with the ones who need him the most. And if we want to be in the same boat as he is, that means that sometimes we will end up there with him too.

Sometimes Christians, especially in this country where we are rather comfortable, fall into the trap of thinking that the church is more of a club than anything else. We go to church on Sundays, but it doesn’t really affect us much. Or, we don’t go to church at all. We figure we can just follow Jesus as an individual, and we don’t need the community of faith. Christian belief becomes something that doesn’t really challenge us much.

But if your Christianity is not inconveniencing you a little, if you are not at times finding yourself on choppy seas because of what your faith calls you to do, you might want to check to make sure you are in the right boat back at the docks. If your faith makes no demands on your life, if it doesn’t make you make the hard choices sometimes, chances are good that you may have accidentally boarded the cruise ship, not the Christ ship.

It’s okay. God allows you to change your travel plans mid-trip.

I talked earlier about the Confessing Church in Germany. These were the Christians who refused to be a part of the puppet Reich church that Hitler had set up and instead decided that they were going to follow the Gospel. The fact they chose a ship as their symbol is a reminder to me of the sometimes very high price of being in the same boat as Jesus. Some of them died for their beliefs, and their refusal to collude with Naziism. They could have chosen smooth waters in a safe ship by simply cooperating with Hitler. But they didn’t. And the storm got bad.

But they called out. They remained faithful to the Gospel as they knew it, and, they called out to Jesus at the worst of the storm, when it must have most felt like God was asleep at the helm. And finally, the winds stopped, and the waves receded. And not only they, but nation and a world was saved. They did not do it alone, but they did it perhaps more faithfully, and with greater stakes, than any other Christians. And, ironically, all the ones who had chosen the boat with the easier waters, found that in the end their ship was the one that was destroyed.

I have no doubt that Jesus was in the boat of those confessing Christians. And I have no doubt that Jesus is in the boats of all of those who would follow Christ’s call no matter where it takes them, even if it’s into the storm. We are often tempted to pray for smooth waters and an easy passage. I can’t deny that I want that sometimes. But ironically, in the end it’s being in the boat that sails the hardest seas, the one with God at the helm, that will truly bring us peace.

May this small boat that we all now sit in find the other shore safely, but may the seas be just choppy enough that we know we are on the right boat. Amen.

Sheep, Goats, and the Rest of Us – Sermon for the installation of the Rev. Joe Amico

When Joe asked me to preach this afternoon I asked him what his favorite text for ministry was. He responded by sending me that text I just read to you. The one about the sheep and the goats, and Jesus separating them from one another. The one about the sheep going to inherit the kingdom of God, and the goats going to a not very nice place at all.

 

I was a little worried.

 

Whenever I hear about people being judged by God, I start to get nervous. Mostly because I’m not really sure which way it’s going to go for me. I have my sheep moments, and I have my goat moments, and most of the time I’m somewhere in the middle. And I’d guess it’s like that for a lot of us.

 

But when I asked Joe to tell me more about why he picked this passage, I started to look at it in a new way. I started to think about it less about the life that is to come, one, by the way, where I believe Christ’s grace will shine brighter than any judgement, but the life that we live now.

 

Christ tells us that this is how he will know we are his:

I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

And Christ tells us that we’ll ask, “when did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or sick or in prison”? And that’s when he’ll tell us, “if you did it for any of my brothers and sisters, even the least among them, you did it for me.”

Christ’s words say so much about how we should judge the life we are already living, both as individuals and the church. Because they tell us exactly what Christ expects of us in this life. But more importantly, they tell us why we should do these things. And it’s not because we want to inherit the kingdom in the next life. It’s because can love Christ enough to create the kingdom in this one.

 

But this isn’t just about you and I or any other person. This is about who we are as the church. And it’s about whether we want to be a church of goats. Or a church of sheep. It’s about whether we want to be the kind of church that Christ would come to and already know us, or the sort of place where Jesus would look around and say, “Who are you people? I’ve never seen you before in my life.”

 

And that’s where Joe comes into the picture. Because I know Joe knows Jesus. I know that because I know Joe has been trying to live his life by this verse for a long time now.

 

I found something about about Joe last night that I didn’t know before. I found out that when he was a young man in high school, he marched with Dr. Martin Luther King. Now when you think about it, a young, white, teenager from Massachusetts might have said, “this isn’t my fight” and had every reason not to get involved in the Civil Rights movement. Except, for Joe, he couldn’t look at the faces of those who were being denied their rights as children of God and do nothing. Because for him, looking into their faces was like looking into the face of Christ.

 

I know Joe started going into prisons to do ministry around the same time, and I know he kept reaching out to the people society has called “the least of these” through the years after that. I know that every day in his other calling, and it is a calling, of working with people in recovery he sees the face of Christ. And I know that he sees it when he looks in the faces of all of you.

 

That’s how I know Joe knows Jesus. But that doesn’t make Joe a saint. That makes him a Christian. And that’s good news for you. Because Joe is your pastor now.

 

Now, there’s something that I think is always important to note when a new pastor is installed. We have a tendency to say, “that church hired a new pastor”. But I want you to remember, you didn’t hire Joe. You called him. You prayed and talked and discerned that Joe was the person God had already prepared to be your pastor.

 

That’s good news for you. It’s good news because it means you are already listening for God’s word in your life together. And it means that together you felt that God was asking you to call this man. This pastor who believes ministry is defined by how well you love Christ by loving your neighbor. It means that you already have some idea of what you want this pastorate to look like, and what kind of a church you want to be. You want to be the kind of church that Christ could come into on a Sunday morning and feel right at home.

 

And that’s huge. Because you have probably heard the talk about churches. You have probably heard people say that churches are dying. You’ve heard that we have less people in the pews, less money in the plates, less of a place at the public table than ever before.

 

But all those things have nothing to do with whether or not the church, the body of Christ, is living. None of those things matter one way or another if you don’t go back to this passage and use this as yardstick against which you judge the life of your church. Are you feeding the hungry? Giving drink to the thirsty? Visiting the prisoner? Clothing the naked? Housing the homeless? Maybe even comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable? That’s the measure of your life as a church. And that’s the clearest indication of who you can be.

 

I know Joe is ready to meet Jesus with you. I know he’s ready to meet Jesus when he comes through the doors of this church. And I know he’s ready to meet him when you go outside into the community. You might not recognize him when you see him, but rest assured…Jesus lives in Brattleboro. And he’s waiting to see you all.

 

In the coming weeks and months and years, remember the reasons you called Joe here. Remember what God was calling you to do. And hold Joe to the passage just as much as he holds you to it. Because as much as I believe anything about the church, I believe this: the church that tries to see Christ in everyone they meet is the one that will be the most blessed by Christ in all they do.

 

But don’t take my word for it. Don’t even take Joe’s. Take Christ’s. Because he’s ready to show the kingdom to sheep, goats, and the rest of us. Amen.