John Calvin and the Love That Will Not Let Us Go: Sermon for October 22, 2017

This is the third sermon of four in a sermon series for the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. To begin at the beginning, please click here.

Throughout this month we’ve been talking about the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. 500 years ago, on October 31, 1517, Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany. He was not the first person to ever talk about reforming the church, but his posting came at just the right moment, and they were like a spark that lit a powder keg.

John_Calvin_-_Young

Portrait of Young Calvin

Luther is a huge figure in the story of the Protestant Reformation, and so we’ve spent the last two weeks talking about him. Today though, for the third sermon, we’re going to switch gears and talk about another early reformer named John Calvin, and how he launched a movement from which our very own church is descended.

Today’s Scripture comes from Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. You’ve probably heard the words before, especially this verse: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Nothing can separate us from God’s love. I wanted to start with that today because that was what John Calvin truly believed. I also wanted to start with that, because John Calvin gets a bad rap. That’s especially true if all we remember about him is what we learned in our high school history classes about the movement he started, which is often called Calvinism.
First, who was John Calvin. Calvin was born in France, to a father who worked for the Catholic church. He was born in 1509 which means he is about a generation younger than Luther. He was only 8 when Luther posted those 95 Theses on the church door. Calvin grew up with the expectation that he would be a priest, but when he got to university, his father decided he should be a lawyer instead.

That means that, like Luther, Calvin was a law student when he started to have his spiritual transformation. Anything to avoid taking the bar, I guess.

Calvin did become a lawyer, but he kept thinking and writing about faith and the church. And he soon broke completely with the Catholic church. When his mentor, Nicholas Cop, who was also a reformer, delivered a speech that was deemed heretical, he had to flee from France. Calvin, who was a known friend, had to go into hiding and then flee too. The two ended up in Switzerland.

This is where Calvin really began his reform work. He wrote a book called The Institutes of the Christian Religion that continues to be read today. Later, in Geneva, Calvin ends up becoming a pastor to the reforming church there. In Geneva, Calvin sought to influence both church and state, and he was sometimes a divisive figure. But it’s something that he taught as a pastor that I want to bring up here, because you probably have heard of it, and if you have you probably don’t like it very much.

Calvin believed in predestination. How many of you remember reading about that in school and thinking it was an absolutely horrible idea? I did too. The way it was taught to me in school was that God decided before we were even born what we were going to do, and whether we were going to go to heaven and hell. A person could live a good and holy life, I was taught, and still be damned. I thought this was horrific.

In seminary, though, I learned what Calvin had really meant. Like Luther, Calvin was pastoring people who had been deeply traumatized by the idea that they had to work, or buy, their way into heaven. They were anxious and fearful. And so Calvin began to teach something in line with the Bible passage we read today: if God loves you, nothing you do can separate you from the love of God. In other words, there is nothing you can do to lose your salvation if God has already decided to save you. There is nothing so bad that you can do that can cause you to go to hell.

Predestination is not the same thing as God deciding your every movement. We are not pawns on a chess board whose moves are planned our in advance. Instead, predestination was meant to be an assurance to an anxious people that they could stop being afraid. To be fair, Calvin didn’t believe everyone was going to go to heaven, but he did believe that if you were asking whether or not you would, that was a good sign that you were. It sounds terrible in our present-day context, but we have to understand that it was absolutely liberating in Calvin’s time.

ReformationsdenkmalGenf1

Reformation Wall in Geneva.

The good news that came out of that was about grace. John Calvin, like Luther, taught that we were saved by grace alone. There was nothing so good that we could do to work our way to salvation, and there was nothing so bad we could do to work our way out.

Where I agree with Calvin is that I believe we receive God’s grace. We don’t receive it because we deserve it, because that’s not grace. We receive it because God loves us so much that God could never abandon us. Where I disagree with Calvin, and where many Reformed Christians disagree with him, is the idea that only some people receive God’s grace. I believe we all do. To put it another way, as many others have said before me, if there is a hell, I believe that God’s love means that it is empty. I believe that because I believe that grace is real.

And so the question that remained for people of faith was this: How do you respond to the grace that you have been given?

The churches that John Calvin inspired are often called “Reformed churches”. This is different from other churches of the Reformation, like the Lutheran church. Reformed churches believe that the grace of God, and our response to God’s grace, is central to what it means to be a Christian.

And so with that in mind, think about the grace you have received in your own life. Looking back, where do you see God’s love active in your life? Is there a time when you have felt God’s hand supporting you, and lifting you up? Was there ever a time when your heart was opened to a new idea that changed everything? Were you ever so broken that you didn’t know how to go on, but somehow you were able to rise again?

That’s grace. That’s God acting in this world to lift us up. And for Calvin that same grace extended beyond this world. Calvin believed God’s grace was so strong that “nothing, not even death” could ever separate us from God’s love.

This is the kind of grace that we sing about when we sing “Amazing Grace”. “Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come. ’Twas grace that brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.” There’s a reason this is such a powerful song for so many. When you’ve truly experienced grace, you are moved by lines like that in a profound way because you know that it is true.

John Calvin would begin his services with the same Psalm that we began with today, Psalm 124. “If God had not been on our side,” he would preach, “the flood would have swept us away.” We would be destroyed. But God’s grace was there for Calvin, and just as surely, it is there for us.

And so, how do we respond. Calvin believed that the only proper response to the grace of God was this: gratitude. If we know that we are loved by God, and that we have received God’s grace, what can we ever hope to do, but to say “thank you”. No other response is enough.

And so how do we say “thank you”? That’s where our own daily lives matter. We say thank you to God by how we live. We live our lives out as a thank you to God. We do the right thing, and we participate in good works, not to help ourselves, but to say thank you. We take care of our neighbors, and our world, and we work for peace and justice because we are loved by a God who wants these things for all of us.

When we live our lives in this way, as lives of gratitude and thanksgiving, everything changes. Our outlook on the world changes. Our concern changes. Our hope changes as well. We become more attuned to God’s will, and less focused on ourselves. We become joyful participants in the world, eager to say “thank you” to God with all that we do. We become God’s hands here on earth, and in every action, we praise God.

This is what John Calvin taught us: that love does not let us go. Nearly 500 years later we, his spiritual descendants, carry on. The church we are in today might not be that recognizable to him, but my hope is that the grace we know, and our response to it, might be.

Next week I’ll be talking about how we get from John Calvin to a 21st century church in Exeter, New Hampshire, and what it means that the church is still reforming, all these centuries later. For now, though, remember this: Nothing, not even death, can separate us from the love of God. God’s grace will never leave us, and God’s love will never let us go.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Portrait_of_Martin_Luther_as_an_Augustinian_Monk

Martin Luther as an Augustinian monk.

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

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

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

220px-Lutherstadt_Wittenberg_09-2016_photo06

The doors of the Wittenberg church as they look today.

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

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

Being Perfect: Sermon for February 19, 2017

When I was in graduate school I had a position as a teaching assistant for a class of seminarians. My job was to lead a discussion section of the class, and to help the students to understand their papers and tests. And one semester I was assigned to a new professor who, in retrospect, was probably trying to prove herself as a serious teacher.

Every professor assigned a lot of reading, but this professor assigned an impossible amount. Hundreds of pages each week. It was too much for even the TAs to read, and we knew the material and the concepts already. The new students had at least three other classes and usually an internship too, and it didn’t take long until they were all falling behind and coming to the teaching assistants for help. These were high-level students used to thriving in school, and they were drowning

With the professor’s blessing we decided that we would teach a workshop on how to get through a lot of reading quickly. So, one afternoon we taught them how to scan, how to find central themes and how to outline. Most students walked from the room feeling relieved and like they could keep up.

Afterwards the professor asked how it had gone. She wondered if the students now felt a little more confident about keeping up. I told her that I thought they’d be fine, and that they just needed some skills. And then I said something else. I said, “You know, I think they thought you expected them to read every single word of those hundreds of pages.”

She looked at me affronted. “But I DO expect them to read every single word.”

When I read about Jesus’ words to the crowds this week, I’m reminded a little of that class. This is the last week we are looking at the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ big speech to the crowds. And Jesus is not setting the bar low. He tells the crowd that these are the things they need to do:
If someone strikes your right cheek, offer them your left.
If someone takes your coat, give them your cloak too
If asked to go one mile, go a second mile
If someone wants anything from you, give it to them
Love your family, your friends, but more than that love your enemies and pray for them
And then Jesus delivers this bottom line: be perfect, therefore, as your father in heaven is perfect.

Be perfect. When I think about being perfect, I think a little about that class that I TAed, and I think about unrealistic expectations, and harsh graders. And when I think about being perfect in the spiritual sense, I picture God as a divine professor, checking through my work and saying “it is very clear to me that you did not read every single word of the assigned reading.”

I think a lot of us might wrestle with an image of God that’s a lot like that. God as the ever-demanding, ever-critical, authority figure. The parent you can never please. The teacher who is always disappointed. The client who always complains, no matter how hard you work.

Maybe, at its worst, God as our own critical inner voice, bent on reminding ourselves how much we are messing everything up.

It would be easy for me right now to say “but God’s not like that. That’s human beings. God is love.”

But then we have Jesus here, telling us to be perfect. And somewhere deep down that’s unsettling, because we all know that we don’t measure up to perfect, and we never will.

And so that’s when it’s important to remember that God is a little different from our critical fourth grade teacher, or the coach who always yelled at you when you missed the free throw. God is’t a divine task master at best, and bully at worst. God is different.

I think about that grad school professor from the beginning, and about how she demanded perfection. And, truth be told, grad school is a little about hazing. There’s a lot of “I had to do this, so you will too.” And, honestly, she was trying to get tenure, which is another kind of hazing in and of itself. She was trying to prove that she was perfect too, and being a tough teacher was a part of that.

But the life of faith is not about jumping through hoops, or looking good on paper. It’s not about reading every page. Instead, it’s about this: it’s about progress.

In recovery communities like AA there is a slogan: “progress not perfection”. The idea is that you shouldn’t focus on getting every single thing right. If you do that things are bound to go wrong, and it’s too tempting to just give up. Instead, just focus on doing a little better, one day at a time.

I think that makes sense for the spiritual life too. No one, this side of heaven, is ever going to be perfect. But that doesn’t mean that we get to just throw up our hands and give up. Instead, it means that a little at a time, we get better. We become more generous, more patient, more compassionate, and more loving.

And, if we are doing it right, we also extend all of those things to ourselves. Because in a world that too often seems to demand the unrealistic, we could all stand to treat ourselves with a little more generosity, patience, compassion, and love.

We cannot batter ourselves into perfection. And there’s nothing in destroying our selves that will glorify God.

This week I was remembering something from when I was a kid, and thinking about what it means to be perfect, and to fail. I grew up about 40 minutes from Cape Canaveral where NASA launched all of it’s rockets. We were close enough whenever a shuttle launched we’d all know it was happening and go outside to see it.

There were other launches too, though, that didn’t rate the same sort of hype. Regularly satellites would be sent up on unmanned rockets from the Cape. And one afternoon late in elementary school I was riding my bike down the street when I saw the familiar arc of a rocket coming up over the trees.

150px-goes_g_spac0244

Delta GOES-G satellite launch, 1986.

I stopped and watched. It kept climbing higher and higher. And then, all of a sudden, far up in the air, it started to go to the side. And then it spun on itself. And this didn’t look quite right. A minute later there was a flash of light and the rocket was no more. Mission control had pressed whatever button they press to cause the rocket to self-destruct.
Later, talking to my dad, I realized how many tens of millions of dollars, if not more, had gone into building that rocket and that satellite, how many hopes had been attached to it, and how now it was just a bunch metal sitting off the coast at the bottom of the ocean.

“So what will they do?”, I asked my dad.

“Well,” he said, “they’ll try again.”

All of us mess up sometimes. But my guess is that you’ve never been the one who caused a spaceflight worth tens of millions of dollars to self-implode.

The irony is that even if you have been, NASA would forgive you and try again.

Why? Because you keep trying. You keep learning from your mistakes and building on what you learned, and you dare to try again.

If NASA can forgive a broken satellite, perhaps God can forgive our brokenness too. And perhaps we can head back to the drawing board, figure out what went wrong, and try again.

Here’s the good news: while spaceflight might require absolute perfection, life does not. We get to get it wrong sometimes. And we get to know we are forgiven. The only thing that we can’t do is stop trying. Amen?

Jesus’ Hardest Words: Sermon for February 12, 2017

It’s good to be back in the pulpit this morning after being sidelined for the last couple of weeks. I’m grateful to Heidi Heath and Alex Simpson for stepping in to preach while I recovered from my concussion.

I’m particularly grateful because they both preached on the same larger subject that I’ll be talking about this morning, and so in a real way I’m just building on the foundation that they’ve already put in place over the past two weeks.

As timing would have it, these multiple voices came in the midst of one of the most significant and dense parts of the Bible. For a solid month the lectionary gives us Gospel readings from the Sermon on the Mount.

Now, Jesus was a interesting sort of teacher. Most of his big lessons came not from lectures or speeches, but from stories and from questions. Jesus was much more likely to teach something important by telling a parable, like the ones about the Prodigal Son, or the Sower and the Seed. Or, he would let the people figure out the truth for themselves by asking them questions and having them come to a conclusion.

sermon_on_the_mount

Carl Bloch’s painting, “Sermon on the Mount”

What he was unlikely to do was exactly what he does do here, and that is to effectively preach. And yet, one day he saw crowds gathering and he went to the top of a mountain, and he began to teach the people. Later Christians would call this the “sermon on the mount”, but I like to just think of it as “Jesus’s big sermon”. This was the time that he laid bare so much of what it would mean to follow him.

The passages that Heidi and Alex preached about are well known to us. They are calls for Christians to live as examples of God’s love in the world, and to take hope, even when it seems like the whole world is stacked against goodness and kindness.

But then, right after those words, comes this passage. And there’s a lot in this passage that makes me nervous. First, if you are angry with someone, says Jesus, you will be judged. Later, if you look at someone with lust in your heart, you are committing adultery. Or, if your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out. Or, if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off. Or, if you marry a divorced woman, you are committing adultery. And in a lot of these, Jesus is talking about going to hell. Or finally, don’t swear. Just say, “yes or no”. Nothing more.

So, things don’t look so good for me here.

I mean, I’ve been angry before. To be honest, I think I had every right to be angry. And, frankly, I’ll be angry again. It might be righteous anger about some great social injustice, but it could just as easily be about someone cutting me off in the Starbucks drive-through.

And then there’s lust. Remember how Jimmy Carter once talked about lusting in his heart when he was president, and everyone laughed at him. Well, he was a good Baptist, and he was talking about this passage. Truth be told, we’ve probably all lusted at one time or another.

And then there’s this stuff about tearing out eyes and cutting off hands. My eyes cause me to judge others, or to envy them. And my hands…sometimes my hands are idol, and we can’t have that. Other times I’m so proud of the works of my hands that they cause me not to be humble. But, I plan on keeping both eyes and both hands because, frankly, I don’t think any of us would have hands or eyes if we followed this one.

There’s also this divorce passage. I’m not divorced, but I am married to a divorced woman. Does that mean I’m committing adultery? Do I need to go home this afternoon and say “sorry, honey…you’re on your own”?

And then there’s the swearing. I’ve sworn on legal paperwork, and I’ve sworn in far less legally-mandated ways. In other words, everything Jesus talks about here in this passage, I’ve done.

So, I don’t know about you, but reading these I feel pretty sure that I’m probably going to hell.

You too? See you there.

Now, to be honest, I don’t actually think I’m going to hell. I don’t think you are either, by the way. If you want my honest opinion, I’m not sure there is a hell. And if there is one, I think it is this: I think it is the absence of God. And because I believe God’s love and grace are stronger than anything we could ever do, I don’t think that God leaves any of us there.

But there was a time in my life when the thought of hell caused me real distress. I didn’t grow up in a church that damned people to hell. We were Christmas and Easter Presbyterians. But I did grow up in the South where the churches who preached a literal hell were all around, and they were very vocal.

I remember when I was six years old and a kid at the playground told me that if I had ever told a lie in my life I was going to hell. I have no idea what I could have lied about at age 6, but it probably involved taking extra cookies or something. No matter, I was damned.

And then there were those times when I was in high school, and the local megachurch talked about homosexuals and how they were going to hell if they didn’t change. And I knew they were talking about me. And I knew that there was no hope.

I think I may have started studying theology because I wanted to know that I wasn’t damned. Along the way, I came to believe that not only was I not damned, but I was loved beyond measure by a God who is full of grace. I came to see the fear-based churches that had proliferated in my hometown as a sort of anxious reaction to our own understanding of our humanity. We humans are imperfect beings, after all. How could God love us?

I confess, though, that when I read this passage my old fears come back. What if I’m not measuring up? What if I’m wrong? What if the way I’m living isn’t good enough.

What if I’m not perfect?

I’m not, of course. You probably aren’t either.

And here’s where I have one small point of agreement with those fundamentalist churches I used to know: we are indeed imperfect beings. We will sin. We will fall down. But unlike those fundamentalist churches, I don’t tell you this because I believe God is ready to throw us all into the fires of hell. I tell you this because God is ready to welcome us home.

The reality of life is that none of us is perfect. None of us will ever keep even one of the Ten Commandments perfectly, let alone all ten. All of us will disappoint ourselves, and one another. All of us will fail from time to time.

Jesus knew that. He knew that it was inevitable. But he also knew this: he knew that in God there is grace. God is willing to love us “as is”. More than that, God is delighted to love us like that. God may have high standards for us, ones that we try even still to reach, but God does not expect our perfection. God just expects us to keep trying.

And so, that’s much of how I understand the Christian life. There is a way that things should be. This world should be filled with love, kindness, and justice. Were we all perfect, it would be. And then there is the way that things actually are.

And so, it’s tempting in the face of that to throw up our hands and say “well, we will never get it right, so what’s the point”. But that’s exactly when we need God’s grace the most. That’s exactly when we need to hear God saying to us, “it’s okay…keep trying…I still love you”.

And so, we keep trying. And we stay in relationship with God and with one another. And, little by little, the world is transformed.

I used to try to do the right thing out of fear. I feared a God who I thought kept the fires of hell burning.

Now I try to do the right thing out of love, and out of gratitude for God’s grace.

I’m not sure if I’m any better at getting it right from time to time, but I can tell you this: I’m a whole lot more sure that I’m doing it for the right reasons. And I’m a whole lot more sure that God loves me, and that God loves us all. Even when we mess up. Maybe especially when we mess up. God is still there loving us through it. Amen?

Donald Trump and the Gratitude Gap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is called grace.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We need leaders who live lives of gratitude.

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

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

The Character of Hope

This morning we are baptizing six month old twins. It’s a joyous occasion that we have been repeating often lately, because we are in the midst of a season of baptisms in our congregation, a veritable baby boom. Today Melissa and Erica will bring their sons to the font and they will receive this sacrament in which we affirm that they are God’s, and that God loves them beyond measure.

But first, there’s the Scripture we read today. The one that tells us that “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.”

I worried for a moment when I started thinking about this Scripture and about suffering and endurance that after months of middle of the night feedings, sleep deprivation, and more that Erica and Melissa might think I had deliberately chosen this passage to talk about the perils of parenting twins.

Don’t worry, you two. Endurance produces character and character hope. So by the time you get these boys off to school, you will probably be two of the most hopeful people we know.

But the reality is that this passage isn’t about Melissa and Erica. At least, it’s not about them any more than it is about any of us. Originally it was from a letter, one sent by the apostle Paul to the church in Rome. Paul had never been to Rome, but he was planning to go and meet this church. And so, before he got there, he wanted them to know who he was, and what he believed.

And in particular, he wanted to write about what he believed about salvation. He wanted them to understand in particular what it means to be saved not through our works, not by how great we are, but instead by faith and by God’s love and grace.

And it’s in explaining this that he writes these words: “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”

picmonkey_imageIt’s that line, about suffering and endurance, character and hope, that always strikes me. Because, as much as it was meant for a church 2000 years ago, it was also meant for you, and for me.

And there’s so much about that line that needs unpacking, and understanding. Because the idea that our sufferings are the start of this journey to hope is a dangerous one if it is misunderstood.

When I was a college freshman I was in this leadership program where we did a lot of outdoor challenges in order to build leadership skills. One of them was rock climbing where we scaled the face of this cliff in north Georgia. And the motto that we kept hearing all week, especially during this cliff climb, was one you’ve probably heard before: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”.

For a long time I liked that idea and the thought that by challenging ourselves we become tough. Invincible even. Because when you’re 18 and standing on a mountain and the big challenge ahead of you is climbing a rock, it’s easy to look at the world and say “bring it on”.

But all of us reach a point in our life where the things we are facing actually do look like they could kill us. And sometimes, even if they don’t kill us, they don’t leave us stronger. Sometimes they might even leave us broken.

I don’t believe that God makes bad things happen in order to teach us lessons. I’ve never believed that. God is up there throwing down car crashes and cancer so that we can toughen up. God is not sadistic like that.

But the reality is that, as Hemingway said, “the world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.” We are all going to be broken at times. We are all going to suffer. We will lose people. We will be hurt. We will be lost.

But, for some at least, in our weakness we will also become strong. And that strength will come not because we have endured, but because in the midst of the hardest moments we have recognized our limitations, and found that we are being upheld not by our own virtues, or our hard work, but by nothing other than God’s grace.

This passage, with this line that sounds like you could paint it on the wall at a gym somewhere along with other motivational sayings, has nothing to do with how great we are, or how hard we can push ourselves. Instead, it comes in the middle of a passage about grace, and about how God’s love is so great that it alone is sufficient for our salvation, in every sense of the word.

If you have ever had a time in your life when you felt broken, one when it felt like you were at rock bottom, one when it seemed like you had failed time and time again…then you are extremely lucky.

You probably think I have no idea what I am talking about right now. How can pain be luck? But I do know what it’s like to hit rock bottom. And I do know what it’s like to fail, and to fail again.

But the good news comes in this: that also means that I know about grace. I know that in the hardest times, God’s grace is what can lift us up. And, just as I know that light shines the brightest in the darkness, I know that God’s grace is better than anything because it came to me when I needed it the most, and deserved it the least.

On second thought, we aren’t lucky if we’ve known grace. We are extraordinarily blessed.

And so, when we see that grace, when we realize that it doesn’t come from our own work or worthiness, that’s when what Paul is talking about here really matters. That’s when character comes into play. And that’s where hope comes from.
That’s because for those of us who would follow Christ, those who know that we have received grace upon grace, it is how we respond to that grace that comes to define our character.

The truth is if we really have experienced grace, then we cannot help but respond in one way: with gratitude. If we have truly been lifted up, then we cannot remain unchanged. We have to become people of light. People of grace. People of generosity. People of character.

And perhaps because of all of that, people of hope. Because Paul was right about that. In the end, we hope because we have known what it was to feel hopeless. And we have found that it wasn’t true. Because where God is, there is always hope.

And so, as we prepare to baptize these two children, these embodied reminders of God’s grace, that’s what I hope that we teach these boys as they grow. I hope that we teach them to be hopeful.

Because Caleb and Spencer, they are going to grow up. And, as hard as it is to imagine today, they are going to suffer. They are going to have nights when it feels like God is so far away. No matter what the people who love them do to bubble-wrap them and protect them, they are going to suffer. Because they are human. It’s unavoidable.

But today we are affirming that those moments won’t be the end of the story. We are saying through these waters of baptism that there is grace. And along with their mothers, we are going to guide them in their faith journeys to become people of character, because they will know that grace. And they will grow to be men who have hope. And, even better, men who give that hope to our entire world.

Caleb and Spencer, you are beloved children of God. And you are the hope of the world. Amen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

remb_vz_terug_grt_p17l39bgjj1q0skfopu718imsrr5-medium

“Return of the Prodigal Son” by Rembrandt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanksgiving or Black Friday: Choosing Which We Will Live – Sermon for November 22, 2015

I’m not a big Black Friday shopper. The few times in my life that I’ve shopped on Black Friday I’ve done so under duress, and I’ve never liked it. I’ve watched people swarm into stores, fight over toys and TVs, and spend more money than they have trying to make this the best Christmas ever.

This year Black Friday will once again start early. Some stores will open at midnight after Thanksgiving. Others even earlier, during the time when families could still be gathering around the turkey. And once again crowds will be there. A few years ago a crowd walked over a man who was having a heart attack, ignoring him. The next year, a man pulled a gun on someone who had cut in line.

All of this to celebrate Christmas, which is ironic in many ways, not least of which is that we are not in the Christmas season yet. In fact, we aren’t even in the Advent season of waiting and preparing for Christmas. In the church calendar we are celebrating the last Sunday of the year, a day called Christ the King Sunday. Today is the day when Christians proclaim that our allegiance is to nothing less than the power of Christ’s love. Christ is king, not the world, and not Black Friday.

And at the same time, we’re celebrating another holiday: Thanksgiving. This week we’re supposed to reflect on all we’ve been given, and thank God for it. It’s supposed to be a celebration of our gratitude. Yes, we eat the bird and the potatoes and pie. We spend time with family and watch football. But more than anything else, we are called to look around at our lives and look at what is good, and to say to God, quite simply, thank you.

But in our cultural rewrite of Thanksgiving, gratitude is slowly being replaced by the desire for more, and the one day a year we set aside for giving thanks is literally losing time to a day when we bow down to the pressure to try to buy our Christmas joy.

Which is why texts like the one we read today are such a powerful reminder of what it means to claim Christ as king. Jesus tells his followers not to worry. Not about food, or clothing, or anything else. He says “consider the lilies of the field” and how beautiful they are. If God clothes them like this, how much more will he give to you?

Instead of worrying about what you do not have, he says, do this: “Strive first for the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” In other words, don’t let your anxieties about not having enough consume your life. Instead, focus your mind on God, and on creating God’s reign of peace here on earth, and you will find true peace and never want for anything.

Put that in modern terms. Don’t worry about the store with the better sale. Don’t concern yourself with commercials and big screen TVs. Don’t join the crowds that trample one another for 20% discounts. Instead, consider what God has already given you, and have faith that God will provide what you need.

2BF0413000000578-3222405-Sanctuary_Although_the_vast_majority_of_Syrian_refugees_live_in_-m-73_1441380822991It’s pretty counter-cultural, isn’t it? While the world worries about finding the best deal, Christ calls us to give thanks for what we’ve already been given for free. When the world asks us to crown retail king, Christ instead reminds us of the reign of God. When the world asks “how can we get more”, Christ tells us we will always have enough.

But that’s not always a popular sentiment.The irony isn’t lost on me that the whole point of Black Friday is to prepare for Christmas, the birth of Christ. The same Christ who tells us in today’s passage to not worry about material things and to instead focus on helping to create God’s kingdom here on earth. I don’t think that’s done by rushing the doors of the mall when it opens, but more than that, I don’t think that’s done by cutting short the one day of the year we explicitly set aside for gratitude.

That’s too bad, because gratitude can change everything. People in early recovery from addiction who hit a hard point are often told to make a “gratitude list”. They’re told to take a piece of paper, look around at their life, and list everything for which they are grateful. Usually the list starts pretty basically: I have enough to eat, I sleep in a warm bed, I can make ends meet. But as the list goes on, more and more is added: I’m grateful for people who love me, for family who care about me, for a chance to make a difference with my life.

By the time most people are done, it’s hard to look at their lives and feel anything but gratitude. More than that, it’s hard not to realize that the good in our life is far greater than anything we have worked for. Because what has been freely given to us is grace. And that grace comes from God.

Grace and gratitude always go together. Grace comes from God and the only proper response is to thank God. Because of that, the measure of the Christian life is only this: how well you say thank you. And if you really feel that gratitude, and really understand what God has done in your life, you will say thank you by passing on God’s grace to everyone you meet. Because it is impossible to truly feel God’s grace and not share it.

And yet, I think sometimes that gratitude is our biggest cultural problem in this country. And I think that’s because we don’t know how much we really have, and we don’t know how destructive our fears about not having, doing, and being enough can be.

That’s dangerous, because that means our culture is at odds with our faith. Because the Christian life, at its core, is a journey of Thanksgiving. Without gratitude, we have nothing.

And if we act in our daily lives like we do not have enough, and like we have not indeed received grace upon grace, and if we live in such a way that our fears, and not our love of God dictate the way we treat others, then we are not living our faith.

We have enough. We have enough for ourselves, and we have enough for others. And we can’t look at the other with fear. We have to be able to look at others and see the image of Christ that is within them. Because there are people literally willing to risk their lives to live as we do. The least we can do is open our hearts to them.

And so I feel compelled to say this. My ancestors who emigrated to this country came here in many different ways. Some came from England on boats that arrived nearly 400 years ago so they could live their faith. Others came from Scotland as prisoners. Others came later from County Galway because there was no food at home. And others later from the mountains of Italy, because there was no work.

Of the ones who came voluntarily, none of them left home because they were having a good day. All came because home was a place where they could no longer live. I suspect that that is true of most your families as well. And if it is not, if your family is one of the ones who was here before others came, then you understand in a profound way the cost of welcoming the other.

In this season when we get ready to enter a new church year, one that starts with the story of a child who was born on a night when his family could not find shelter, it’s worth considering the ways in which our own families have been given grace. And it’s worth asking how we will pass that grace on to others, because our gratitude requires no less.

I’ll close with this: Thanksgiving isn’t a church holiday. It’s a national one. It’s not in the Bible or on any church calendar, but it’s in our hearts and so we gather. But the reality is that for people of faith, Thanksgiving Day doesn’t come once a year. Thanksgiving Day is every day because we are called to live in gratitude for what God has already given us, and to pass it on.

When you are able to do that, you will know that Christ, and no one else, is the king of your life.

And so here’s my challenge for you this week: will you live Thanksgiving? Or will you live Black Friday? Will you live like you have been given grace upon grace? Or will you live in the fear that you do not have enough, not just in terms of presents under the tree, but in terms of how you will treat this world.

In just a few minutes, we are going to baptize Tana and Bower. We are going to welcome them into this community of faith. And their parents, along with all of us, are going to promise to raise them to trust in God’s abundance, and not in fear. We are going to teach them this, because if we are serious about proclaiming Christ as our King, we can teach them nothing else.

So as we make the baptismal vows, and bless them off on a lifetime journey of grace, I ask you to pause a moment. Can you make those vows with hearts that are filled with gratitude, and willing to pass it on to them? I hope so. And I hope you will. Because the world needs these children to grow up to live lives of gratitude, and to share God’s grace with others. And it needs us to be the ones to teach them how. Amen?

Sabbath and the Idolatry of Being Busy

The following was preached as a sermon at the Congregational Church in Exeter on July 19, 2015. 

Mark 6:30-32

6:30 The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught.

6:31 He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.

6:32 And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves.

We are all busy.

Would you agree with that statement? And even if you don’t agree with the “all”, would you at least agree with it in regards to your own life? Are you busy? And do you sometimes feel as if you don’t have a minute to spare, as if the hours and days of your life are so over-scheduled that you have no control over them, as if you can never get to the end of your to-do list?

Does any of this sound familiar to you?

It does to me. I keep my calendar on my phone, and before I schedule anything I have to check it. And I have in my mind a list of things I would like to do if only I were not so busy. I promise myself I’ll get around to them someday, when I’m less busy, but of course that time never comes around.

I even start many of my phone calls and emails with this apology: “I’m so sorry for my delay, I’ve been really busy.” And that never feels particularly good to say. But at the same time, I know that sometimes, in some twisted way, that busy-ness is almost a source of pride.

Because, part of me believes that if I’m busy, I’m important. If I’m busy, I’m not lazy. If I’m busy, my life matters.

My Puritan ancestors, with their strong work ethic, would be proud.

But the thing is, I’m not so sure I should be.

This morning’s reading comes from the Gospel of Mark. It’s a story of how the disciples all came and gathered around Jesus, and they told him all about what they had been doing. Scripture tells us that they were coming and going and not even eating. They were saying to him “look at how many we have taught, and look at all we have done”.

So, what they were really saying to him was this: look at how busy we have been.

And Jesus, this is how he responds; he doesn’t hand out awards, or raises, or corner offices. He doesn’t make one the senior disciple. He doesn’t even say “good job”. Instead, he says this: “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.”

Wouldn’t you have loved to have seen their faces just then? Because I’ll bet they were disappointed. I’ll bet they’d been gearing up for the biggest pat on the back ever, and all they got was “yeah, you need to take a break”. Jesus, didn’t seem to care about whether they were busy or not.

It’s almost like he was saying you couldn’t work your way to salvation, or something.

Of course, that’s what our faith tells us. We don’t earn salvation by working hard. We don’t earn God’s love by being busy. We get those things anyway solely because of this reason: God loves us, and God gives us grace.

IMG_6067In response we are called to live lives of gratitude to God. That means that whatever we are doing in our lives is supposed to be a sort of “thank you” to God for the grace we’ve already received. We’re asked to live not busy lives, but good lives. Lives that glorify God.

So, where did we get our wires crossed? When did good and meaningful lives come to mean over-scheduled and stressed out ones? When did our worth somehow become tied to the fullness of our calendars? And when did we ever get the idea that this is what God wants from us? Because Jesus makes it pretty clear what he thinks his disciples need most, and it’s not an 80-hour workweek.

But that’s the culture that we live in. One where a spare minute is wasteful, and everything comes down to billable hours. And one where even our kids are over-scheduled. One where they have to sacrifice sit-down family meals or play time or, yes, even church on Sunday in favor of travel sports teams or Mandarin lessons or oboe practice.

And for so many of our kids they do this all not because they truly love the sport or the language or the music, because the adults in their life want them to have a good life. A worthy life.

A life in which they can have children of their own. Who will miss their own family dinners, and go to their own practices and lessons instead.

I’m not preaching this because I am blameless here. Because, I confess, this has been a hard lesson for me to learn. In my first few years of parish ministry I worked 70 hour weeks. I took less than half my vacation time, and even then it was usually to do things like officiate a friend’s wedding or bury one of my relatives.

Because I wanted to be a good pastor. And I was willing to kill myself to do it. It took my Dad, one of the hardest working people I know, saying “you need to slow your life down” before I realized that maybe, just maybe, I could do just that.

I still struggle with workaholism. I always will, I think. But now I look out for it. And when I find myself writing my sermons on Saturday afternoon because I’ve been too busy to work on them all week, for instance, that’s a cue to me that something is wrong. And that’s a sign that something is wrong spiritually in me too.

Because the reality is this: our busy-ness, our need to do more, to work harder, can be an idol. And idols never deserve the worship we give to them.

It’s right there in the Ten Commandments. Three times in fact. Have no other God’s than me. Don’t make false idols for yourself. And remember the Sabbath, and keep it holy.

I happen to think those are all pretty good rules for life, but if you are not a rule person, and if you don’t want to listen to that, then listen to Jesus. Listen to him saying “stop…come away for a little while”.

Because what we all need is a little sabbath. If you want to think of that in the strictly one day a week sense you can, because for centuries people kept a sabbath day each week. Christians generally did so on Sunday, the day of Resurrection, and our Jewish brothers and sisters, for many millennia more than us, have seen the wisdom of a Sabbath from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown.

One of my favorite memories from living near the Orthodox Jewish community in Atlanta was seeing the shops shut down on Friday evenings, and then watching the faithful walking to temple, and walking back home where they would eat meals together and celebrate the sabbath. There’s a reason why Jewish sages have long said that “sabbath is like a taste of heaven on earth”.

So right now you might be saying, that’s great, but I can’t give up one day out of my week. If I do that, I’ll be busier than ever the other six!

Maybe. But I tend to think our busy-ness is a choice. And I think that setting aside sabbath time might actually teach us an important lesson. It might make us look at our obligations and appointments and think a little more clearly about what is essential and what is not.

Because the reality is that making time for sabbath means that we have to do some spiritual discernment. We have to make choices about our priorities. And we have to decide what we will worship. Because when we give time to something, in a small way we are worshipping it.

But if you still say, I can’t do it, try this: try an hour. Try one hour when you will take sabbath. Try one hour when you will set aside all work, all obligations, and all busy-ness. And instead, do the thing your soul is calling you to do. Take that walk with your kids. Go to the beach with your spouse. Do something to rest yourself, and quiet your soul, and to connect with God.

And when you’ve done it for a while, you might even find that you can’t afford to not take a sabbath. Maybe you even need to take more. Because sabbath, paradoxically, makes us more efficient. It helps center us. It rests us. It takes our dull edges, and it sharpens us. And it shows those around us, even our kids, that life is more than being busy. There’s a reason Jesus insisted his disciples take it: he was preparing them for some big roles, and he needed them ready.

And so, here are my questions for you: First, who or what do you really worship? To answer this, take a look at your calendar. Or, look back at your last few weeks, think about how you’ve spent your time. If someone observed it, what would they tell you that you value the most?

And second: Do you want things to keep worshipping those things, or do you want to make a change?

You have to answer that question for yourself, but I can offer this advice: if you are giving your heart and soul and time to something that can never love you back, if you are worshipping at the altar of the false gods of busy-ness or material success or the fear of its loss, you will never be truly happy.

But if you want something better, then I know this guy. And he says that our worth doesn’t come from working ourselves into an early grave. It comes from the one who loved us first, the one who will love us even on our final day. And he’s asking us all to stop, and come away with him, to a place where we can remember what really matters. I’m ready to go there. And I hope you’ll join me. Amen?

Breakfast with Jesus: Sermon for April 19, 2015

John 21

21 After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. 2 Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. 3 Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

4 Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. 5 Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” 6 He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. 7 That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. 8 But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.

9 When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. 10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” 11 So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. 12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. 13 Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14 This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16 A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17 He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. 18 Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” 19 (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

One Sunday when I was preaching at my last call I looked out in the congregation and saw the face of someone I knew, but had never seen in church before. I knew she had a spiritual life of her own, but I also knew that she wasn’t so sure about churches or about Christianity.

We had developed a growing friendship through some other friends in town, and she had been curious about what I did for work, and so I had invited her to come to church some Sunday. And, to my great surprise, she had taken me up on the offer.

A few days later I asked her what she thought about the church. And she told me, “I liked the people, I liked the music, and I even liked what you said. I would consider coming back, but for one thing. I don’t really mind the God-talk, but do you think you could talk about Jesus a little less?

I told her no, that Jesus was there to stay. And she said, “yeah, I thought so,” and we let it go at that.

The sad thing is, I sort of understood where she was coming from. In her life she had heard people talking about Jesus in ways that never felt meaningful or sincere to her. Jesus had always been this figure she had seen as judging her, or someone her parents or priests appealed to in order to get her to behave, or someone that friends told her she needed to accept as her personal savior or else she would never get to heaven.

And I get how that can make you a little wary. Growing up in the South, a lot of my friends would talk about having a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ”. So much so that when someone asked me, “Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?” I knew it was time to get away, because someone was about to try to convert me.

Now the truth is, I was already a Christian. I did have a spiritual life, and I did follow Jesus. But it wasn’t because I had ever had the sort of revelatory, sudden conversion experience that my more fundamentalist classmates told me I had to have, but because I’d always had this sort of quiet, questioning faith that had grown over time

And my only exposure to churches were in the kind that often get jokingly called the “frozen chosen”: Congregational, Presbyterian, Episcopalian. The ministers there emphasized God’s love for us, and mission, and trying to live a good life, just like we do here every week. But we rarely talked about what it means to have an actual relationship with Jesus. We knew who we are were and that God loved us, but we just didn’t talk what it meant. And, truth be told, some might say the same about those of us who are members of the UCC today.

And often, we are just fine with that. We have our faith, and it is a good faith, a well-reasoned and deep-thinking one, and it sustains us. But sometimes even we who are the frozen chosen need something more. Sometimes we need a relationship that goes deeper. And thats where Scripture passages like today’s come in.

Not long after the Resurrection, a little while after that first Easter, the disciples, Jesus’ friends and followers, were gathered. And Peter was among them. And you have to remember what’s been happening with Peter. On the night before Jesus died, Peter had done exactly what Jesus told him he would do, and the very thing Peter had said he would never do: he had denied that he was a follower of Jesus. Not just once, but three times.

After Jesus had died he had been crushed by the weight of his grief, and the weight of his own betrayal. And it was only now, in these first confusing days when it looked like Jesus might be back, that he was starting to understand what that meant. Because if Jesus had come back, how amazing would that be? But, if you are Peter, and Jesus is back, and you had denied him, how awkward would that be? Can you imagine what he must have been thinking? “What am I going to say to Jesus when I see him?”

Scripture tells us that Peter tells the others, “I’m going fishing”. I get that. He probably needed to do something to clear his head. And a few of them go out in their boat, throwing the fishing nets out again and again and each time they pull them up and find nothing.

10273557_10152954505737538_7593581376163540580_nAnd then a man calls to them from the shore, “try the other side of the boat”. And they do, and this time it is so filled with fish that they can’t even bring it up. And that’s when they realize who that man standing on the shore is.

Can you imagine being Peter in that moment? This is the moment you’ve both been waiting for and been scared to death of. He sees Jesus there, and he doesn’t even wait for the boat to head back. He jumps into the water, and goes to the shore to meet Jesus there.

And this is the part of the story that I’m always struck by. When Peter gets there, Jesus doesn’t yell at him. He doesn’t chastise him for his lack of faith, or call him a coward. He doesn’t tell him to get lost, that he had had his chance. Instead, he says this: “Come and have breakfast.”

I sometimes wonder if we have a hard time talking about our relationships with Jesus not because of what we will sound like to others, but because of how scary that kind of intimacy can be. It’s a little easier to talk about this creator God who made everything and who is so very different from us. Maybe even distant. But it’s harder to talk about someone who actually lived as one of us, and felt the same feelings as all of us, and who knows the truth about us, good and bad, and who still loves us anyway.

In Jesus, God becomes human. God becomes like us. And we are able to know God not as the CEO who gives us orders. Not God the lawyer with a bunch of statutes for us to follow, neatly bound together. Not even God the heavenly father. But God, standing there on the beach, cooking breakfast.

If Jesus ever showed up in my kitchen, I’ll be honest, I wouldn’t be asking what was for breakfast. I’d probably be so dumbfounded and scared I wouldn’t know what to say. And I think that’s normal. Because relationships can be scary when it’s just us everyday people. But really having a relationship with Jesus? God incarnate and you? That’s a whole other level.

And yet, Jesus shows us what it can be like. Because he invites Peter to breakfast.

Can you imagine that? You expect to be persona non grata, and instead you get breakfast. The very one you denied, the one who knows the worst about you, isn’t angry. He doesn’t reject you. Instead, he’s cooking you fish to eat, and telling you to pull us a seat to his table. And he loves you. All the stuff from the past, all the mistakes, they don’t matter. He loves you.

And that may be the scariest part of all. The fact that we are loved no matter what. The conviction that grace is real, and that we can’t somehow mess things up so badly that we lose it.

The first time I really understood that, the first time I realized that no matter what God still loved me, it was actually a little terrifying. Knowing that God’s grace was for me, and for everyone, was overwhelming. But then, it was profoundly freeing. Because God’s love went from something I had to earn to something that was there. All I had to do was let it in, and believe that I was loved.

That’s amazing. But it’s also not the end of the story. Because Jesus’s love does not depend on me. I can choose what to do because of it. I can choose to do nothing. I can just accept it and not really think about it much. But, when you are truly loved, and you know that you are truly loved, can you really just do nothing?

I think the answer is “no”. Because I think love always transforms us, and I think that when we know we are loved, we are never the same again. And I think that Peter knew that too.

When Peter sat down to eat breakfast with Jesus, Jesus asked him a question: Peter, do you love me?

Peter says, “yes, Lord, I love you.” And Jesus says to him “feed my sheep” or, as we might say it, take care of my people and guide them.

A clear cut mission. But then a second time Jesus asks him the same question. “Peter do you love me?” “Yes Lord,” Peter says, “you know I love you.” “Then feed my lambs.”

And then a third time, “Peter, do you love me?” And this time Peter is hurt, and he wonders “why doesn’t he believe me?” And he says, “yes Lord…you know everything…you know that I love you!” And once again Jesus says, “feed my sheep”.

He asked him three times. I don’t think that’s because Jesus didn’t believe him. I think it was because Peter didn’t really believe himself. Peter had denied Jesus three times. And so Jesus asks him three times if he loves him. And in those questions, there’s a certain grace. An assurance that as many times as we want away, God will call us back just as many times. Whether it’s three or three hundred or three thousand. God will always ask us to return in love.

When we think of the great saints of the church, Peter is up there at the top. The guy who ran away from Jesus on the night he was betrayed was the same guy who jumped into the water and ran onto the shore when he saw him again. And he was the one that Jesus named Peter, or rock, saying “you’re the rock upon whom I will build my church”.

What sort of amazing love, and amazing grace, is that? One minute you can be the one who denied Jesus three times. And the next, you are the one he loves so much that he trusts you to do something amazing. And all of this takes place over something as mundane and everyday as breakfast.

This is a story about a saint, but it’s not just a story for saints. It’s a story for us all. Maybe we won’t be invited to breakfast on the beach, but there are little signs all around us that we are still invited to the feast. There’s a chair for us, and the table is overflowing with the grace and the love of God. And all we have to do is say “yes” to the host who wants to get to know us better. Amen?