On Bishop Heather Cook, Sobriety, and Who is Qualified to be Clergy

A few people have asked me, as a clergy person openly in longterm recovery, what my thoughts are on whether Bishop Heather Cook, the Episcopal bishop in Maryland who struck and killed a bicyclist and who had a history of driving under the influence, should have been serving as a bishop. Here are my thoughts.

First of all, the person we should be remembering, and whose family we should be lifting up in prayer, is Thomas Palermo, the man who was struck and killed by Bishop Cook, and then left to die in the roadway. Mr. Palermo and his family, including his children, should be our first concern as the church. In fact, if you would like to make a donation to his children’s education fund, here is the link: http://www.youcaring.com/tuition-fundraiser/children-of-tom-palermo/283939#.VKQf_XwNgGw.facebook

But to turn to Bishop Cook, and the discussion of clergy and alcoholism, this is what I can say. In the aftermath of Bishop Cook’s actions, I have seen a number of posts on social media debating whether or not a person with substance abuse issues should have been elevated to bishop. In my mind, most have lacked nuance. Several things need to be taken into account.

Untitled copyFirst, there are many clergy persons in recovery from addictions. Second, there are many more who should be in recovery. Third, I don’t know to which group Bishop Cook belonged.

That said, her 2010 DUI charges were particularly disturbing. Many of us in recovery never drove drunk, but the facts of her prior case seem to indicate that substance abuse was indeed a problem. My hope is that when she was charged she saw the need to get sober. My other hope is that the Episcopal Church supported her in that endeavor.

But as far as her consecration as bishop, a very short period of time had elapsed between her DUI incident and her elevation. If she was sober, she was still in “early sobriety” and taking on a position like this, with higher stress and demands on time, would have likely been discouraged. And, if she relapsed, as now seems likely, it was on her to step back and say “I need to focus on getting healthy.” But Bishop Cook alone is not at fault. Church communities are often too quick to push those who have had major falls back into the spotlight. They are not doing the one who is recovering any favors by pushing a false rhetoric of “forgiveness” or “grace”. Sometimes grace means saying “you need to work on yourself for a while”.

With Bishop Cook too many questions are unanswered, and too little time had elapsed since her “rock bottom” of a few years ago. Something went wrong, and she found an even lower “rock bottom”, and this time a man is dead, not because she was in recovery but because of her own choices. Add to that the fact that this was a hit and run, and Bishop Cook took no responsibility for her actions until she was chased down, and it is clear that her behavior is exactly the opposite of what we are taught in recovery, regardless of whether or not she was drinking when she hit Mr. Palermo.

The question for me is not “should a person in sustained, active recovery be elevated to a position of leadership” but instead “should Heather Cook been elevated”? Because what we don’t need in the discussion of Heather Cook’s actions is a knee-jerk response that people in recovery shouldn’t be in leadership positions anyway. That will only add more reasons for people to hide when they are struggling. And I know plenty of clergy who are struggling, and who fear the reaction of the church and their parishioners should they seek help. In the end, if they do not get sober, they will cause far greater harm than if they continue to carry on as functional alcoholics.

In the recovery community we have a saying: “you’re as sick as your secrets”. I believe that’s true. And I believe that the church is sick when it makes people who need treatment hide out of fear for their professional lives. This is what happens when we don’t encourage honest discussions around alcohol and addiction within clergy circles. We need to be able to talk about it, and to encourage recovery.

In the end this will not just benefit clergy, but the entire church as well. As I have written elsewhere, our inability to talk about our imperfections as clergy has only been a detriment to the church. We have somehow communicated the idea that Christians must be people of perfection, and not people of grace.

That’s too bad, because when the day is done, I think that people with long-term sustained sobriety actually are assets to the ministry. Staying sober requires a sort of spiritual journey and honesty that can only help clergy. I would not hesitate to elevate a person with sustained recovery to a position of leadership.

And in the end, a story of recovery is a story of grace, and a story of the healing power of God’s love for us all. This is the story the church should be telling, because it is a Gospel story. I long for the days when our clergy’s stories of recovery are celebrated, and our stories of tragedy and destruction are avoided. This is possible. But it’s going to take a huge cultural change in the way we talk about recovery and addiction in the church.

The good news is that, like Jesus said, the truth can set us free.

Gratitude Lists: Sermon for Thanksgiving Week, 2014

Luke 17:11-19
17:11 On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee.

17:12 As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance,

17:13 they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”

17:14 When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean.

17:15 Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice.

17:16 He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan.

17:17 Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they?

17:18 Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”

17:19 Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

Last Sunday a group of our third through fifth graders gathered at the church in the afternoon for our own Charlie Brown Thanksgiving dinner. If you’ve never seen “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving”, or if it’s been a while, let me remind you what was on that menu: jelly beans, toast, popcorn, and pretzels. Not exactly turkey and mashed potatoes, but our kids seemed happy. Their parents, who we sent them home to after giving them lots of sugar? I’m not so sure.

Regardless, spending the afternoon with them helped put me in the Thanksgiving mood. That’s in part because as long as I can remember, “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving” has been a part of my Thanksgiving tradition. We always watched it in my house growing up. And I love it, except for one thing.

The story revolves around Charlie Brown, and Thanksgiving dinner. Charlie Brown is supposed to go to his grandmother’s for Thanksgiving. But before he can, his friend Peppermint Patty calls him and invites herself, and a group of other friends, over to his house for Thanksgiving dinner. And then, when she comes to dinner and gets served the improvised menu of popcorn and jelly beans, she criticizes her host and tells him that she is having a terrible Thanksgiving because of him.

That’s the part of the story that has always upset me, even as a small child. Because I always felt so bad for Charlie Brown who didn’t ask for guests on Thanksgiving, and who had done his best. And in the end he doesn’t even get a “thank you”.

ABC#00841I think, in an odd way, that Jesus would understand Charlie Brown. He knew what it was like to not even get a “thank you”. In today’s Scripture ten lepers, ten people who have been completely outcast from society, are following behind him. And they are calling out to him, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”

Jesus tells them to go and see the priests, and as they leave he heals them. All ten of them suddenly are clean. No more leprosy. No more being outcast. No more pain.

They are only a little ways down the road from Jesus when this happens, and they suddenly realize they have been healed. And as soon as it happens one of them, a Samaritan, turns around and runs back to him. And he begins praising God, and falls at Jesus’ feet thanking him.

But Jesus realizes that he’s the only one. And he asks, “Wait a minute…didn’t I heal ten of you? And only you, a Samaritan who doesn’t even share our faith, came back to praise God?”

When we read this story, we all know what the other nine should have done. They should have come back, right? They should have praised God. They should have said “thank you”. It’s as obvious as the fact that Peppermint Patty shouldn’t have invited herself over for Thanksgiving dinner. And any of us who grew up being told to write thank you notes, and have good manners know that.

But is this really just about good etiquette? Or is it something more?

I believe good manners and thank you notes are important, but I also believe that the Gospel is rarely just about social niceties. Jesus wasn’t upset that he was missing nine thank you notes. It went much deeper than that.

And that’s because this is about gratitude. And gratitude always goes deep. Because gratitude is about more than just saying “thanks”, though that’s important. It’s about living a life of thanksgiving.

That’s an important distinction to make this week as we approach Thanksgiving Day. Because come Thursday we will be sitting at our tables, enjoying dinner, celebrating with friends and family. And there may even be that moment when everyone goes around the table and names something for which they are grateful. And that’s all wonderful.

But, if that moment of gratitude ends as soon as the pumpkin pie is put away on Thursday night, then we are doing it all wrong. Because giving thanks is not something that should happen once a year. Hopefully we know that, but sometimes our actions don’t always show it.

Many others have pointed it out, but have you ever considered the irony of how on Thanksgiving we talk about how grateful we are for all we have. And then the next day (or even that same night) we start the annual run-up to Christmas where we try to get even more? I think it goes to show that gratitude is an incredibly fleeting feeling. It doesn’t take long to lose.

I think that’s because gratitude takes work. Because the thing about gratitude is that it’s more than just counting our blessings. Like I said last week, we aren’t blessed just to be blessed. We are blessed for a reason. And likewise, when we receive grace of any kind, it’s not enough just to receive it. We are called to do more. We are called to respond to it.

And that’s what gratitude is all about. It’s about responding to the grace we have received. And when Jesus healed the ten, and only one showed any kind of response, any kind of gratitude, I think that’s what bothered Jesus the most. It wasn’t just Peppermint Patty inviting herself to dinner. It was Jesus offering something life changing, and only one out of ten recognizing it.

Because in the end, that’s what it means to be grateful. It’s to see the way your life has been changed by the blessings you have received. And it’s about more than just saying “thank you”. It’s about deciding to live your life as a “thank you”.

I sometimes wonder if Jesus didn’t care much about being thanked. He wasn’t someone who did things for accolades after all. But maybe why he really wanted to know whether or not those nine other people were grateful is because he wanted to know if the lives of those other nine people had been changed. Maybe he wanted to know if their whole lives would now become “thank yous.”

And maybe he wanted to know that they had been healed for something, and not just from something.

We can read this story and think, “How could their lives not be changed?” And we reassure ourselves that we would do things differently if we were one of the nine. But sometimes I wonder, “Would I?” I sure hope so, but I’ll bet those nine people who kept on going thought they would too.

And I wonder, did they keep going because they somehow justified it? Did they think maybe they had deserved the healing? Did they think they had done it themselves? Were they so excited they forgot to turn around? Or, when the healing happened, did everything change so radically that all they could think about was “what next”? And all of a sudden they had a whole other set of things to worry about.

I think we’ve all had those experiences. We have wanted something so badly that when we got it we forgot to be grateful. We just moved on to the next step, the next want. I think that’s why all too often Thanksgiving becomes a once a year holiday, and not a daily practice.

But what if it doesn’t have to be that way?

People in the recovery community have long used a tool called a “gratitude list”. The idea is that when things feel hard, or when it feels like nothing is good in your life, that’s when you make a list of all that you have to be thankful for. The first time someone told me to make a gratitude list I immediately felt less-than-grateful for them. But I tried it.

And what I found is this. There is no way, for me at least, to make that list and not feel grateful. You start with the easy things: I have a warm place to live, I have enough food to eat, I am safe. And then you move on to the deeply meaningful things: I have people I love who love me. I have meaning. Until finally you reach this conclusion: I have more than I need. I have plenty to give away. I have a life I can give to God to use.

Gratitude can change everything. Our mood. Our actions. Our lives.

And the best news is this: it’s never too late. I don’t know what happened to those nine who didn’t come back to Jesus that day. But, I wonder if they came back later. I wonder if they were there in the end. Maybe they finally realized what they had been given, and they couldn’t help but to live their lives as “thank yous”.

The same is true for us. We have all been given so much to say “thank you” for in our lives. It’s not too late to use our lives to say that thanks. And this week is as good a time as any to start.

Last Sunday, before their Thanksgiving meal, our third, fourth and fifth graders all worked together on a craft project. They made turkeys out of paper plates and coffee filters and muffin wrappers. And they glued on leaves that said “you are blessed”. Those turkeys will go out today in our Thanksgiving baskets which are going to people who need the meals.

But I think our young people got that those leaves that said “you are blessed” were meant for them too. I think they understood that as afterwards they filled their plates with jellybeans and popcorn and we watched Charlie Brown. Because I think that sometimes the ones among us who still find joy in the smallest of gifts, even an afternoon spent serving others and having a little fun, understand gratitude the most.

I hope it’s something we continue to teach them, this intersection of joy and gratitude. But, equally important, I hope it’s something they continue to teach us. Because this Thanksgiving, I hope we take a page from them, and that we live a life of everyday joy, and everyday giving. And may each day, from this November until next, be a day of living our lives as a Thanksgiving to God. Amen.

Blessed for a Reason: Sermon for November 16, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing: Sermon for July 28, 2014

Romans 8:

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?…No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.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.

"Paul Writing His Epistles"

“Paul Writing His Epistles”

So, when I was growing up, I was pretty sure I was going to hell.

It’s sort of funny now, given my profession, but growing up in the South hell got talked about a lot. There were billboards and t-shirts that people used to scare you into faith. And my fundamentalist friends taught me that if you even did one thing wrong, you deserved hell. And I wasn’t a bad kid, but I knew I did a lot of things wrong, every day, so surely I was heading right to hell.

So I decided I would look for a solution that would keep me away from eternal damnation. And I asked my friends what I needed to do. And some said I needed to join the Baptist Church and get baptized in the lake and Jesus would forgive me. And others said I needed to join their church and learn to pray the right way, and I’d be fine. And others said I had to convert to a very strict sect of Catholicism or else I was a goner. And I remember them saying only members of their particular denomination would be saved.

I finally snapped out of it when I realized that everyone I talked to thought that everyone else I talked to was going to end up in hell.

But those questions about God never really went away, though, and when I got to be a little older, I started to read the Bible for myself. And the Bible, to me, was a scary book. I’d heard it used in ways that made it clear that God didn’t love certain kinds of people. I’d heard people say it told women that they were inferior. I heard it used to justify the horribly anti-Semitic things said to my Jewish friends. And I really didn’t want to read it for myself because I was scared to find out that maybe it really did say those things, and maybe God really was ready to damn us all.

And above all, one part of the Bible scared me to death. The letters from Paul, or the epistles. Because where I grew up, whenever someone was saying that God hated something or someone, they seemed to be quoting the apostle Paul.

Which is why it’s surprising that it was in reading’s like today’s from the letter of Paul to the Romans, that I learned not to be afraid of God anymore.

Paul is writing a letter to a church he has never been to before, the church in Rome. And he is introducing himself and telling them what he believes. He is trying to tell them who God is, and how to be the church together. And, we can’t forget this, he is writing to people who are afraid.

They are afraid of what it means to be followers of Christ in a time when that was not considered a good thing to be. And more than that, they’re afraid of getting it wrong. They’re afraid that they are not believing the right way.

It’s to this very scared church that Paul writes this letter, but he could be writing that to any of us who have ever wondered about where we stood with God. And he asks, “if God is for you, who can be against you?” And, “who can condemn you?” And, “what can separate you from God’s love?”

And his answer is this: nothing.

Nothing can separate you from God’s love. Paul writes, “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. You may have noticed in the bulletin that that was today’s sermon title. “Nothing.” So, that’s not a typo, or a sign I didn’t get the title in on time. It’s the take away.

And through the centuries people have taken that message away from this text. Martin Luther, centuries ago, was a man who was terrified of God’s judgement. Even though he was a monk, he struggled to believe that God really loved him. And then he read the Bible for himself, a revolutionary act in those times, and he read this letter from Paul. And some say this very passage helped to spawn the Protestant Reformation.

Later on others like John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, and Karl Barth, deep in the turmoil of World War II, would read this passage and find God’s love and assurance. This is a passage that changes something. It’s a passage that changed me, and maybe it changes something for you too. Maybe it makes God’s love a little more sure.

Last week in my sermon I talked about “thin places” and “thick places”. Thin places are the places where we feel God and God’s love very close to us. Thick places are the ones where God feels so far away. I believe both of those places exist for all of us.

But here’s what I believe does not exist: disconnected places. Because even in the thickest of places, God remains with us, and nothing, as Paul would say, can separate us from God’s love.

My cousin told me a story recently about her father who was a front-lines infantry soldier with the 10th Mountain Division in World War II. That particular division saw some of the worst fighting of the war. And, like most soldiers, he was not a man who went into the Army because he liked war or what comes with it.

And he told her that as he was fighting on the front lines, he would keep repeating the Lord’s Prayer over and over to himself. “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name…” Over and over, in what was surely one of the thickest places imaginable. And even as horrible as it was, he knew God was still with him, and still loved everyone there.

Our circumstances do not make or break our relationship with God. Whether they are in our control or not, God never leaves us. And no matter what, God’s love, and nothing and no one else, gets to have the final say.

When my cousin’s father got older he began to show signs of dementia. And when he got the most confused and scared he would start reciting the Lord’s Prayer again. And sometimes he couldn’t remember the words. And so my cousin wrote them down for him, and he carried them in his pocket, and even when he couldn’t say them, he knew they were there. And he knew God was there too. (Note: I’m thankful for the permission my cousin Gail gave me to share this story, which she also previously shared in Guideposts.)

Nothing, could separate them. And this is true for all of us. There will not be a moment in our lives, or in what is to come, when anything or anyone or any circumstance can separate us from God’s love. And that is good news.

But as good as that news is, that doesn’t mean we are off the hook. Because that news means that God’s grace is real. And grace is scary. Because being loved by God, no matter what? That means that there is some part of your life that you have no control over at all. You get grace, whether you want it or not.

And so here’s what comes next. You have you have to decide what you want to do about it. And I believe the Christian life is all about that choice. It’s not about being good so that you get into heaven. It’s not about being scared into faith by people preaching a fiery hell. It’s just this: knowing you have received God’s love and God’s grace, and deciding what to do next.

And here’s what Martin Luther and all the others throughout the centuries who have read this passage and been changed by it have said: I choose to live my life in gratitude. And I believe they are right. I believe that the Christian life is all about our gratitude for what we have been given. It’s about living our life as a “thank you” to God. And it’s about choosing to live focused on the abundance that God has given us, and not on our fears or insecurities. Because not even those things, as big as they may be, have the power to separate us from the love of God.

So, when you walk out the doors today, how will you live in gratitude this week? How will you respond to the “nothing” which changes everything? And how will you share that love with the world? What will you give back out of what you’ve been given? What can you do with your life to say “thank you.”

It’s a question we all have to ask ourselves individually, and then we have to ask it too as a church. How will we live in gratitude for God’s grace? As a community, how will we say thank you to God in our life together? And how will our gratitude serve to bless our community and our world.

That’s the question that will determine the kind of church we will be for years to come. And that’s the one that we have to continuously work together to answer. Because when someone looks at us and asks, “What kind of church are you?” we want to know how to answer that. We want to be able to say, in our words and in our actions, “we are a church that knows God’s love and shares it”.

And when they ask, “What keeps you from living into God’s grace?” and “What stops you from sharing the abundant blessings that God has given you?” this is the only answer we should ever allow ourselves to give: “Nothing”.

Amen.

Grace, Gratitude, and a Good Church: Sermon for June 22, 2014

Note: This is the final sermon I delivered as pastor of West Dover Congregational Church.

Philippians 1:3-7

I thank my God every time I remember you, 4 constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, 5 because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. 6 I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. 7 It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me…

533999_485840638098085_190703679_nWhen I was in seminary we talked a lot about how the Christian life is all about grace and gratitude. I could quote that on any test you gave me, and I understood that in an academic sense, but it would be a few years before I really started to understand what grace was, and how to live my life in gratitude.

In today’s Scripture the apostle Paul is imprisoned and he is writing a letter to a church. It’s a church he has grown to know and love, but that he can’t be with at the moment. He writes to them the above Scripture.

Maybe you can see the appeal of this text for me today. Like Paul, I’m about to be far away from a church I love. A church full of people who have shared with me in God’s grace, and a church full of people who have tried to live together in gratitude. And like Paul, as I leave I thank God for you, and I will thank God every time I remember you.

I am heading to a new place. And you know that as I leave this departure changes the relationship we have. I am not going to be your pastor anymore, and that means things will indeed change. But it’s important for you to know that this does not change my affection for you, or the profound gratitude that I feel.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the last four years. Certain memories stand out. I remember blessing a family’s pet pig before she died, and finding the holy in the most unexpected of situations. I remember building bookshelves with one of you, and in the same moments learning to build a church. I remember riding in the ladder truck with the fire department when I served as their chaplain, and learning that being a pastor means loving your community, including guys who are never going to step through the church doors. And I remember you welcoming Heidi when I told you that I had asked her to marry me.

And I remember the harder things too. I remember walking down Main Street in Wilmington after the  flood and wondering what was going to happen next. I remember leaving the Wilmington church for the last time after our final service there. I remember standing here too many times to say goodbye to a beloved church member who had died.

But even in these hard times, I felt God’s grace.

How can one leave this place after all of that and not be transformed for the better? As I leave, I take those things with me, and I take you with me.

As you remain, though, you may have questions about what happens now.

When will you get a new pastor? Will you like the new pastor? Will they be like me?

I can answer that last one. No, in some ways they won’t be like me. Something, maybe even many things will be different. And that’s okay. In fact, it’s a good thing. Because God is already calling to you the person who you need next. God is calling someone with the skills to meet you on this place in your journey, to to help guide you to the next. Even if you are skeptical of that, it’s true.

Do you remember when your pastoral relations committee brought you me as a candidate? Some of you, maybe more than I know, were skeptical. A younger woman who was gay. A first time parish pastor. A Southerner who had never been to Vermont until I interviewed here. Someone who had spent a lot more time around cities than farms. And someone who just couldn’t seem to stop using the word “y’all”.

And yet, you gave me a chance. And together, and with the grace of God, I think we built something pretty great. And with your next pastor, you can keep building on that. You know you can do it, because I didn’t do anything special here. You did the heavy lifting. And you can work with whomever comes next to do the extraordinary things that God already has in mind for you. And the one thing I do know about your future is that God does indeed have extraordinary things in mind for you.

And so, as I leave, I’m going to ask you to do some things I can’t do anymore.

First, I’m going to ask you to stay. Some of you may have come to this church because you got to know me in the community. I’m glad for that. But this church was never about me…it is, and has always been, about Jesus. And Jesus is staying right here.

Second, work together. You are a diverse congregation made of people who have decided to be the church together. You are all good people. And you are all carrying a piece of what this church needs to thrive. Work together to put those pieces together. This church’s future will be blessed if you do. And, look for the ways God is calling you to serve. Are you being called to some sort of leadership in this church? Now is the time to ask yourself, and to ask God in prayer. And now is the time to step up.

Third, keep looking out at your community and asking “how do we serve”. Half of you are new here within the past four years. You came here because someone or something from this church reached out to you. Find the ways to keep reaching out. Find out this community’s needs. Look for ways to help your neighbors. And never forget that this is God’s church, and those who pass through its doors are just this generation’s caretakers.

As we leave tomorrow, I know that you are in good hands. Because you are in God’s hands.
And because God is going to equip you for whatever comes next.

But I want you to know, I’m taking something with me.

It’s not, as we’ve joked, the pews or the tea cups. Or the pulpit. That wouldn’t fit in my car, unfortunately.

No. It’s gratitude. Gratitude for all that I have learned. Gratitude for the cups of coffee at Dot’s. Gratitude for the times you have left me into your home or hospital room and allowed me to share in your life. Gratitude for the laughter we have shared so often. Gratitude for the privilege of baptizing your family, or officiating at your wedding. And gratitude for the fact that each Sunday you let me come up here, and you gave me the great honor of preaching the Gospel in this place.
I will never forget West Dover. I will never stop praying for this church, or for any of you. And I will always do so giving thanks to God for God’s amazing grace in bringing me here. Amen.

“The Reports of My Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated”: A Letter from the “Dying” Church

To my mourners:

Sometimes the dying are the first to know. While others believe you are invincible, you quietly go around collecting pamphlets from hospice and making final arrangements. But sometimes, more rarely, the dying are the last to know. While they feel alive and vital, others are picking out their headstone. Lately I’m feeling like I’m in the latter camp.

I hear that I am dying. This is a shock to me because I had no idea. I’m a good two millennia old so I think I’ve gotten to know myself pretty well, and I certainly have had tougher times than this. In my earliest days, in fact, my very existence was in question. So picture my surprise when I hear that those who have known me for only a fraction of my days are counting down to my demise.

150400_10100264762650368_2031715009_nI think what makes it all the more surprising is that many of the ones who are saying I am dying are not just observers. They are actually a part of me. A recent part, perhaps, but a part none-the-less. Because I, the church, am more than just another institution. I am, in fact, the body of Christ; the living and continuing presence of Jesus in the world. And all who believe in Christ are a member of this body, just like all believers in the past have been members of this body. To be the church is to be Christ’s body in the world.

With that in mind, let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that I am dying. Let’s say that death is even somewhat imminent. Let’s say that the body of the church, the body of Christ, is indeed about to die.

Well, here’s what I know about Christ’s body. It has died before, and it has risen again. Resurrection. That’s the whole message of Easter. Death occurs, but death does not win. The body rises stronger. And we, who are Easter people, should know that and not fear the end.

But beyond that, am I really dying? Because I’m not so sure that’s true. Yes, fewer people are attending church. Yes, as that happens some churches are closing down. Yes, the church’s influence in society is not what it used to be. But does that really mean I’m dying? Or does that just mean that the church is entering a new phase of life, just like it has before and will again? Maybe, in fact, a better phase?

Here’s the thing. There’s a difference between death and change. Just because I am no longer the way you (or your parents, or your grandparents) remember it growing up does not mean I am dying. Just because you don’t see what you want or like when you look at the church does not mean that death is imminent. Because, and this is sometimes hard to accept, as much as you may like to believe otherwise, the church is not dependent upon your comfort or approval for its life.

So here’s my question: Do you want to continue to sit and mourn around a death bed that I do not inhabit? Or do you want to be Easter people, and live in the Resurrection? If it’s the former, fine, but don’t call that church. Call it what you want, but don’t put the words “body of Christ” on that funeral.

But if it’s the latter, if you want to live as a Resurrection people, here’s a few thoughts on what you can do:

1. Read Scripture: I know, I know. There are many forms of revelation, the Bible has been used to justify some terrible things, etc., etc. But the Bible is the story of communities of faith learning how to live, and change, and grow together. And when we lose Biblical literacy we lose our story, and we lose our hope. And too many Christian have given up on really knowing the Bible.

We need to be able to talk about Moses and the Israelites taking the risk of leaving Egypt, getting lost, and then finding the promised land. We need the early Christians of the Book of Acts to tell us what it meant to be the church together in those early days. We need Paul’s letters to small local churches struggling to figure out who they are and what that means. We need it all.

2. Take risks:

Every local church I’ve known that has died has one thing in common: for too long in their lives they were risk averse. Maybe in the last years of their lives that changed and they were willing to risk everything, but they didn’t get to that place without years of choosing “safety” over choosing a bold witness to Christ’s love. No one wanted to rock the boat. No one wanted to risk losing a few members. No one wanted fail. And so, slowly, the local church became so afraid of making a move that it just withered in place.

But every local church I know that has thrived has one thing in common: they took risks. Not reckless risks. But risks. They took financial risks to expand growing ministries. They took leaps of faith when calling pastors and other staff, and did not try to find a candidate who wouldn’t make waves. They took risks when it came to social issues. And, most of all, they took these risks without sabotaging themselves because they feared their own success.

3. Reject negativity:

No one likes to be around negative people. (Well, possibly with the exception of other negative people.) And yet, the church is often a negative place. Church meetings are filled with anxiety about money or arguments about bylaws. Community life is uninspiring and tedious. And gossip and “parking lot meetings” are far too often the rule of life in the church. Who wants to be a part of that? Anyone who doesn’t enjoy drama won’t stay at a church like that for long.

More importantly, who is going to believe we are being honest about saying we have faith in Christ if our churches are like this? Because if someone says that Christian faith is all about redemption and new life and hope, and then turns around and shows someone a church that is full of pettiness and negativity, no one is going to buy it. Yes, Christians are human and make mistakes, but our default mode should be about living in God’s grace, not living in fear.

4. Recognize grace and practice gratitude:

This follows on the last point. Christians are called to recognize God’s grace in their lives. It’s sort of the point. It’s why you all sing “Amazing Grace” so much. But understanding grace on an intellectual level, and really knowing you have received grace are two different things. And here’s how you know that you really understand God’s grace: you can’t do anything but say “thank you”. Gratitude is the most natural response to grace, and it’s what the Christian life is all about. Christians do what they do not to earn their way to heaven, but to say “thank you” to all of the grace that God has already provided.

So why don’t churches live that way? Why is so much of Christian community life about the anxiety of not having enough? Why is it about mourning what we don’t have instead of celebrating what we do?

People in recovery, perhaps some of the most aware people in the world about the grace they have received, have a practice called gratitude lists. When everything looks like it’s going to hell, they sit down and write down what they are grateful for in their lives. Sometimes it starts small (I’m alive, I have enough to eat, I have enough for today) but often it grows into something more (I have more than I need, I have a community that loves me, I have meaning). What would it look like if your church made a gratitude list? Could you do it? If not, that may be part of the problem. Help those in your community to cultivate grateful hearts, and you will transform your local church.

5. Live for others, not for yourselves:

When you talk to churches in transition I ask them about their greatest challenge. “We need more people,” is what you will hear a lot. Some go further and are a little more blunt: “We need more people to join so we can pay our bills.” For some churches, too many, bringing new people in is not about welcoming them to a community of faith. It’s about ensuring the local church’s survival. And the reality is that people can see that desperation from a mile away. And no one joins a church, or any other organization, just to be another name on the books or another pledge card in the plate. And no one should.

What if instead of asking people to build up your church, you asked how your church could help build up others? What if the focus wasn’t so much on healing yourself, but on helping those who need it the most? What if your greatest priority wasn’t saving the church you know, but instead sharing that church with others and giving them the freedom to help change it?

And what if we lived together like the Resurrection is real, and is happening still? Because it is. And because we have work to do.

With love from the empty tomb,

The Church

P.S. – Of course one person cannot speak for the church. But if we believers are really the church, each of us can speak as a part of the church. So what do you have to say, church? Are you dying? Or are you ready to live?

Something for Nothing: A Still Speaking Daily Devotional on Grace and Gratitude

stillspeakingJesus said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid.” – Luke 14:12

Every couple of weeks I have lunch with a good friend of mine. Early in our friendship we struck up a pattern of alternating who paid for lunch. So, about once a month I’d paid, and once a month she would take the check.

A few months ago we were both busy and we missed a few months worth of lunches. We were finally able to reschedule, but as I pulled up to the restaurant I realized I had no idea whose “turn” it was to pay for lunch. I tried to remember where we had gone and who had pulled out their wallet first, but I just couldn’t seem to place it.

My fear wasn’t that I would accidentally pay for a lunch I didn’t owe. My fear was that I wouldn’t pay my fair share.

Read the rest here: http://www.ucc.org/feed-your-spirit/daily-devotional/something-for-nothing-1.html

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.

The Bible Clearly Says…: Sermon for June 2, 2013

Martin Luther, by Cranach

Martin Luther, by Cranach

Earlier this week I was reading a news article about a social issue, and the reporter had interviewed a pastor. And he was talking about this issue and he said, “the Bible clearly says that this is wrong”. And I remember thinking to myself, “actually, I don’t think that’s what the Bible says at all.” In fact, I think that the Bible says the exact opposite.

And it made me think about how many times I had heard that line: “the Bible clearly says”. And it made me think about the ways that we become confident that we are right, and the ways we can take what is meant to be a message of grace and hope and love for one another and instead turn it into at best a tool to justify our own worldview, and at worst a weapon used to impose that worldview on others.

I was thinking about that when reading today’s text. The passage we read today comes from the very beginning of the Epistle to the Galatians. “Epistle” is just a fancy word for “letter”, really, and this is a letter that Paul wrote to a church that he had started.

Paul had come to this community and he had taught the people there, who were not Jewish like many of the other early Christian people, all about God, and Jesus, and God’s love for them. Paul had taught a Gospel of grace. He had taught them about Jesus, a man whose compassion and love for the world had transformed the world. And he had taught them about being his disciples.

And then, after he left to go on and start other churches, the Galatians had been on their own. And that’s when other teachers had come to the church. And they started telling the Galatians, “you’re doing it all wrong”. And there wasn’t a Bible at this point, because it hadn’t been compiled yet, so they weren’t saying “the Bible clearly says”. But there was the law of Moses, the law that the Jewish community had followed for centuries. And most Christians at the very beginning had been raised in that law and saw that as the authority. And they were saying to these new Christians, “the law clearly says this is what you should do.”

And so, this church that had been taught about grace and about Christ’s love by Paul, all of a sudden was adopting the ways of their new teachers. And they were doing things like arguing about whether they should all get circumcised, and whether or not they had to prepare their food a certain way. And it was causing a rift in this new church.

Paul hears about it, and he writes them a letter. And this letter is probably the angriest letter that Paul sends to any of the churches. And he lays it out to them, starting with these first lines. He tells the Galatians, “look, I know the law”. Paul had been a lawyer, he had been raised in a family that followed the law, and he had been so committed to it that he had even persecuted the early church before his own conversion. He even says, “look, I was a zealot”. And he tells them this to show them that if anyone is going to say to them “Scripture clearly says” or “the law clearly says” he would know better than anyone.

And he tells them, “you know what I taught you” and people are trying to confuse you. He says to them, “I’m not trying to please other people. I’m trying to please God. And regardless of what the people coming in telling you what the law clearly says, don’t forget the real message of grace I taught you.”

Paul was speaking to a church 2,000 years ago. But, his words could just as easily speak to churches everywhere today. Because Christianity is caught in this tension about how we read the Scripture. And this has always been happening to some degree, but in our country the Bible is sometimes used as a political football, meant to justify or not justify whatever big issue is up for public discussion.

And I’m always fascinated when people say “the Bible clearly says this is wrong” or “the Bible clearly says this is right”. Because when it comes to practical matters, the Bible doesn’t clearly say a whole lot. Because the Bible is not just one book, it’s a collection of books, and it’s no secret to those who read it that often those books leave the reader with even less clarity than they had coming in.

And sometimes that means that the Bible has been used to justify some pretty heinous things. In the 1800’s in the South, Christian preachers used the Bible to justify slavery. The Baptist Church split into the American Baptists, the ones we have up here, and the Southern Baptists because the ones down South said “the Bible clearly says it’s okay to have slaves”. The same with the Presbyterians, the Episcopalians, the Methodists, and others, though they all later reconciled.

Fast forward to this century, and the Bible was used again to justify segregation in the South. It was used to fight giving women the right to vote. It’s used to keep science out of classrooms, and it’s used to in dozens of other ways. Someone is always willing to stand up and say “the Bible clearly says…” And God help you, literally, if you try to tell them otherwise.

It’s easy to get intimidated in those situations. Especially if you’re not someone who has devoted a lot of your life to studying the Scripture. It’s easy to feel like the other person must know what they are talking about. That’s especially true if you hear people quoting chapter and verse from memory.

But, that doesn’t mean that you don’t have something to say too. Because here’s what I believe. The Bible doesn’t clearly say much, but it does clearly say this: that God’s love for us is far bigger than anything we could imagine, that Christ taught us how to reflect that love to the world in our lives together, and that the Holy Spirit continues to guide us in every time and place.

That’s the test I use when someone says to me, “the Bible clearly says…” I go back to Jesus, the man who said love God and love your neighbor was the full extent of the law, and I ask myself whether that particular person’s interpretation of the Bible is in agreement with the way Christ asked us to love the world. And, often, I find that it’s not. And so I read the Scriptures for myself instead.

Now, you may disagree with me. And that’s okay. Because the clergy do not hold a monopoly on the Bible. The Bible, and the legacy of Christ, belong to you as much as they belong to me. Clergy are trained in a certain way, and we learn tools that help us to understand the Scripture, and we can be good resources for helping to interpret them. But in the end, this book belongs to each of us, not just some of us.

Martin Luther, the great reformer who helped to launch the Protestant Reformation, really believed that was true. He had been a priest in a time when only priests and a few others could read the Bible. That was literally true because, first, not many people could read. Second, the printing press hadn’t been invented yet, so there wasn’t much to read. And, third, what was available was often in Latin and not the language of the people.

Part of the Protestant Reformation, the movement that brought churches like ours, was the idea that everyone should be able to read this book. And printing presses were invented right at the time Martin Luther was doing his work, so the timing was perfect. And all of a sudden, it was possible for everyone to have a Bible. And not just a Bible printed in Latin, but one printed in German, their own language. And those early Lutherans and other early Protestants stressed education for this reason. They wanted everyone to be able to read this for themselves. They wanted Christianity to be a religion that promoted education, and that wanted you to use your mind and read for yourself. They didn’t want to control the Bible; they wanted to open it up so that everyone could claim it.

Which means that this is your Bible too. Our church isn’t known as one full of Bible-thumpers. We don’t walk around telling people what the Bible clearly says. I hope we don’t start doing that. But we are people of this book as much as any other church is. It’s ours too. And that means that we can claim it, and read it for ourselves, and find out what is really says, not just what talking heads on TV or people with an agenda say it says.

I think I started reading the Bible because I’d been told so many times what the Bible clearly said and I wanted to see for myself. And what I found was not a scary book full of rules. What I found was grace, and compassion, and a witness to God’s love. Ironically, it’s a big part of what made me go to seminary.

And you too are free to explore. So, how will you do that? Will you read the Bible for yourself? Will you come to a Christian education class? Will you start a prayer group? Will you go to a Bible study?

Today in the visioning process we are going to be talking about some of the ways that the church can help you to do that, and so I hope you will stay and tell us what would be helpful. This book, this faith, is yours as much as it is anyone else’s. You have as much claim to the name of Christian as anyone, whether you carry a Bible in your hand, or not. That means that the doors of faith have been flung open wide to you. How will you walk through? Amen.

Journey Through Lent: Second Sunday

Pro and anti-gay marriage equality advocates, New York State Capitol, summer 2011.

Pro and anti-gay marriage equality advocates, New York State Capitol, summer 2011.

One morning last summer I was working at my desk at the church. It was one of those days when pastoring felt so wonderfully fulfilling and joyful. I had been looking out at the forest behind the church, when suddenly I looked down and saw I had a voicemail on my phone.
 

When I played the message, I was immediately overwhelmed by the anger of the person speaking. A man from town, whom I had met briefly, had recently figured out that I, the pastor of the local church, was gay. He was calling to tell me his feelings about that fact. As his message went on, the venom kept spewing, punctuated only by slurred words. It was about ten in the morning, and I wondered whether he had turned to liquid courage (or liquid anger) in preparation for this phone call.

Curiously, unlike many of the other hateful messages I’d received before, he left me both his name and his phone number, and invited me to call back. I never did, which I sometimes regret. I don’t deliberately expose myself to the anger of hate-filled people, but on the other hand, how sad must one’s life be that you have to angrily call a person you barely know and berate them for who they are? He probably needed a pastor to talk to, but he probably wouldn’t have let me be one to him anyway.

Not taking on the anger of others has been an important part of my spiritual growth. There was a time when a message like this would have been painful. I would have dwelled on it, and let it dictate my mood for days. Now, though I can’t say the bigotry of others doesn’t affect me, I no longer let it control my emotions. I’ll admit that I felt some anger at the man who left the voice mail, but I also felt something much stronger. I felt compassion. And I wished for him that he would find peace; the kind of peace that keeps a person from being so angry at the world that they have to lash out at someone they barely know and don’t understand.

I often wonder what Jesus felt like when people spoke against him. Let’s be clear, neither I nor you are Jesus, but Jesus knew what it was like to be us. Jesus knew what it was like to be hated. He knew what it was like to be the object of anger. And he knew what it was like to be attacked for no good reason. He felt it in ways few of us ever will. But more importantly, he knew what it was to love anyway. He knew what it was to have grace anyway. He knew what it was to hear the worst of what the world thought of you, but to not let it dictate what came next.

In Lent I think about that a lot. I know that peace is possible. A voicemail like this one would have compelled me to a bottle of whiskey in the past. Years later, it’s a reminder that no matter what someone says to me, grace is bigger. I can’t control the anger of others. I can’t make them love me. I can’t make them accept me. But I can choose what I do next. To me, that’s a lot of what Lent is about. It’s seeing the journey that Christ took within himself, free from the judgements of the world outside. And it’s seeing how, in spite of all those things, he was still called to do one thing: to love. And love he did. Even when it cost him all he had known.

I want to be able to love like that. I’m nowhere close yet, but maybe I’m getting better. And in Lent that’s what I pray for: the ability to love others, even when it’s the last thing on earth I can imagine. I love that man who called me that day and said those hateful things. I can’t say I like him much; but I love him. And I love him enough to pray that maybe one day he’ll find enough peace in his heart to love people like me back. Maybe it will never happen for him. But I give thanks for what has happened in me.