The Healing Power of Gratitude: Sermon for Thanksgiving Sunday, 2017

If you’re like me, you grew up with a certain version of the Thanksgiving story. My particular source for the story was the Charlie Brown Thanksgiving specials. There I learned that after a hard first winter in Plymouth, the Pilgrims, aided by the local Native American community, survived to plant crops and then collect a mighty harvest.

Filled with gratitude for having survived, the Pilgrims threw the first Thanksgiving dinner. They invited their Native American friends too, who brought more food. And together, at a big table filled with turkeys and cranberries and everything else, they had a happy feast with one another.

Thanksgiving-Brownscombe

The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe. It probably didn’t go do exactly like this.

And because of that, every November we do the same. And it certainly seemed to me like the show was saying this had been done every November since then, and like every great American from Washington to Lincoln had grown up sitting around the Thanksgiving table. But history, as I’ve said before, is often a little more complicated than that.

But first, the Scripture for this morning. Jesus is traveling and he comes to the outskirts of a village. He’s met there by ten lepers, who stand far away from him and yell “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” They had leprosy, which was the most dreaded disease of that time. It was also highly contagious, so there was a lot of fear of the people who had it. They stayed far away from Jesus because they knew that they couldn’t come near anyone.

Jesus looks at them and says, “go show yourselves to the priests” and they are healed. They all take off running back towards town, back to show the priests what had happened to them. And nine of them keep running the whole way. But one…he turns back. And he starts to praise God. And he falls down in front of Jesus, and just keeps thanking him. And, most surprising of all, he’s a Samaritan, and Samaritans didn’t mix with good Jewish folks like Jesus.

And Jesus looks down at him and he realizes something. He asks, “Hey, didn’t I heal ten of you? Where are the other nine? Only this Samaritan, who doesn’t even follow our religion, came back and said ‘thank you’.” And Jesus looks at him and says, “go ahead and go…your faith has made you well.”

I used to read this text and think about those other nine who didn’t come back. In some ways I wondered if they were actually trying to do the right thing. See, I thought Jesus wanted them to go and show the priests that they were well again because then the priests would know that Jesus had healed them. Maybe then the priests would understand that there was something about this Jesus guy that they should pay attention to.

But then I learned a little more about what it meant to have leprosy in that time. If you had any signs of leprosy, just a little spot, you literally lost everything. You lost your home, you lost your community, and you lost your right to even live in town. You were sent to the outskirts of the city where you had to live with the other lepers. You couldn’t see your family or friends. You couldn’t have any kind of human interaction except from afar. That’s how scared people were of getting the disease. And, by extension, that’s how scared people were of you.
The only way to escape this life was to show the priests, the ones who would diagnose the illness, that somehow you had been healed. So when Jesus healed the ten, and told them to go see the priests, he was really telling them “you can go get your old life back now”. And that’s why they ran. Everything they had known before leprosy was waiting for them. Ten of them had been healed. Nine of them ran all the way to town. But only one said “thank you”.

Jesus says that it was the one who came back who was truly healed, and I think that’s true. That’s not to say that the others weren’t healed of their leprosy, but that is to say that only one of them had been truly transformed. Only one of them knew the amazing grace that he had received, and only one of them put saying “thank you” above reclaiming the life he had before leprosy.

The reality is that when you have been truly healed, and you know that healing, you know that you cannot go back to the way things used to be. You have experienced something so profoundly terrible that you have been changed by it. When you know that, and when you find some sort of healing or grace in the midst of it, your life will never be the same again, and it will never be the same again because now you have the chance to be grateful.

The other nine who didn’t give thanks…they just didn’t have leprosy anymore,…but they weren’t necessarily healed.

The hardest times in my life have also been the times when I have felt God’s healing the most. Those times have transformed me, and I am not the same. I do not look back and think “I wish that never happened” anymore. Now I look back and think, “that shouldn’t have happened, but it did, and God was there with me, and God saved me”. And I truly believe that the gratitude I have found as a result is what has truly healed me.

In this season we think about gratitude a lot. We think about what it means to give thanks, and that’s a very good thing. But there’s something that we as Christians should remember, and that is that Thanksgiving is not actually a Christian holiday. It’s actually a national holiday. We celebrate it in November. Other countries have something similar that is all their own. Canadians have their Thanksgiving in October, for instance.

These are certainly good celebrations, in line with our faith, and in line with many other faiths as well, but they are not church holidays. I’m not telling you this to be a church curmudgeon. It’s still good that we sing “We Gather Together” and decorate the sanctuary. But I’m saying this because if we limit our gratitude to one day a year, we are in danger of being a lot like those nine who just kept running. For Christians, every single day should be a day of thanksgiving. Every single day should be one where we run back to Jesus, fall down in awe, and say “thank you for everything”. We don’t need a holiday for that.

And that’s where I’m reminded of that old Charlie Brown Thanksgiving special. I learned years later that Thanksgiving was not a 400 year old tradition. The Pilgrims were very religious people, and so they probably did have some kind of celebratory meal back in 1621 to thank God for the harvest. The Native Americans were probably not invited, by the way. And the meal became far from a yearly event. There would occasionally be times when various governors would call for days of thanksgiving to God, but it wasn’t routine. George Washington tried to start a tradition, but Thomas Jefferson, who believed in a strict separation of church and state, didn’t think there should be a national holiday that gave thanks to God, and so he ended it.

Abraham_Lincoln_O-77_matte_collodion_printBut then, in 1863, as a beleaguered and divided nation fought a great Civil War, Abraham Lincoln wanted to give thanks for the Union victory at Gettysburg that, despite the massive casualties on both sides, had turned the tide of the war. And so he proclaimed that every fourth Thursday of November would now be known as Thanksgiving Day.

The stories of a first Thanksgiving, embellished a little with Pilgrims and Native Americans sitting side by side, held special meaning for a nation divided into North and South. The holiday became a tradition, first in the north, and then in the reunited nation. And that’s why you and I will sit down to turkey and potatoes on Thursday, and we will give thanks.

It’s also why Charles Schultz, who may or may not have known the real story wrote a story about Charlie Brown, the hapless hero who was pressed into preparing a Thanksgiving dinner for his friends. Being a child, though one who seems routinely unsupervised by any kind of adults whatsoever, he cannot make a turkey. And so he makes toast, and popcorn, and jelly beans, and serves them to his friends.

Sitting down at the table, Peppermint Patty, who had invited herself over, is less than impressed. Where are the mashed potatoes? Where’s the cranberry sauce? Where’s the pumpkin pie?

CHEF SNOOPY PRESENTS THANKSGIVING DINNER AS A CONFUSED PEPPERMINT PATTY LOOKS ONWhat follows is a reminder of what it means to be grateful, even when your plate only has toast and jelly beans. After some arm-twisting, Peppermint Patty apologized to Charlie Brown and thanks him for the meal. An invitation from a grandmother whose Thanksgiving table never seems to stop growing is offered to all of the kids. And Snoopy and Woodstock even roast their own turkey which, as an aside, somehow Woodstock, the bird, feels fine eating. Weird, right?

We’ve all been Charlie Brown at one point or another, trying to do the right thing despite the odds. We’ve all also been Peppermint Patty, forgetting to be grateful when so much has been given to us. Likewise we’ve all been the one person who has run to God to say “thank you”. And we’ve all been one of the nine who has kept running after all that we think that we should have.

Thanksgiving is a day for all of us to stop running, and to take a seat at a table that is big enough for all. It’s a time for us to reflect on what God has given us, and it’s a time to say “thank you”. Though the food may be a little better on this particular day of thanksgiving, it’s worth remembering that it’s just one day of many that God has given us for giving thanks. May we never take our gifts for granted, and may we never forget the one who gives them to us.

 

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. 

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?

The Gifts of Exiles: Stewardship Sermon for 2015

Jeremiah 29

4 Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

10 For thus says the Lord: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. 11 For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.

Once a year, every October, I preach a sermon that feels like the church equivalent of a NPR pledge drive.

If you listen to public radio you probably know what I mean by that. During pledge drives the programs get cut short and instead people ask you to give money so that the station will stay on the air, and in return you get a mug or a tote bag.

It’s no one’s favorite time of the year, and yet, it has to be done. But if enough people give quickly enough, you even get to go back to your regularly scheduled program ahead of time.

I joked that that was how I was going to do my sermon this morning. I’d pass out pledge cards and when we hit our goal I’d stop preaching and you all would get tote bags.

We didn’t go that route. And that’s for the best because what I am talking about is not an interruption from our regularly scheduled program…it is our regularly scheduled program. And that’s because stewardship, the wise and prudent use of what God has given us, is not a distraction from the spiritual life. It is at the heart of the spiritual life.

That’s because stewardship is not about paying the bills or meeting the bottom line on a budget, though, we’d like to do that. It’s about gratitude. And it’s about hope, and investing in that hope.

Last year I told you stewardship was like planting seeds. If you plant generously, you will reap generously. And you all planted generously. We not only met our pledge goal, we surpassed it. And in the past year this church has been able to do new things that have changed lives.

And so here we are again this year, with a new budget and new dreams. And a little while back we received our stewardship materials from the United Church of Christ’s national offices, and the theme for this year sounded fitting: Trust in the promise. It was drawn off of this Scripture passage from Jeremiah: “For surely I know the plans I have for you…to give you a future with hope.”

Sounds good. Who doesn’t want to trust in hope?

But then I read a little of the surrounding passage and I realized that these words come from a less than hopeful time. They’re from a letter sent by the prophet Jeremiah to the Jewish people who had been exiled from their homes, and were living in Babylon. And he’s telling them, you are going to be in exile a long time. Long enough that you need to put down some roots. Build houses. Start families. Love where you’re at.

And, I confess, that changes the passage a little for me. Because it’s no longer “everything is going to be great”. Now it’s “you’re not going home anytime soon”.

I don’t know about you, but it doesn’t exactly inspire me to open my checkbook.

But then I thought about it some more. And I thought about what it means to live in exile, and about how maybe we all know a little something about that.

Because the reality is that I think we’ve all felt that way sometimes. We’ve all felt cast out of our homes, our comfortable places, and into a world that sometimes doesn’t make sense. We’ve been cast out of “the way things used to be” and into a world that is changing more rapidly than perhaps any time in its history. And we’ve been cast into a new place, one where we sometimes long for what we used to know.

And yet, someone is telling us to get used to it. And to plant ourselves in it. And to trust in a promise, a future with hope.

That’s hard to hear when you are an exile. That’s hard to hear when the world is confusing, when you are anxious, or when you don’t know how things will end. And that’s hard to hear when you are being asked to give.

Because, really, if we want to make sure people give, I should be getting up here and saying “everything you love is going to remain exactly the way you like it”. I should be saying, “whatever your favorite thing is about church, give generously and that will never change”. Or, “give today, and you will never feel like an exile again.”

But I’m not. Because I can’t promise that. Because that’s not church.

The reality is that church changes. Every church does. Churches change, or they die. And so we make room for new generations. We invest in their futures. We open their doors wider. And we learn to live in a new time, and a new reality. Even in exile. And because generations of people who have passed through these doors have done that, right here in Exeter, you and I are here today.

And that’s remarkable. Because I want to tell you a secret about those people who built this church: they were exiles too.

I mean that in the metaphorical sense. They were people of changing times who learned to trust in a future that God was building for them. But I also mean that some of them were literally exiles.

Rev. John Wheelwright

Rev. John Wheelwright

The man who founded this church in 1638, the Rev. John Wheelwright, was an exile from, of all places, Massachusetts. (Actually, maybe that resonates.) He had made some enemies in Boston, among the ruling clergy of the time. Why? Because he preached too much about grace. And they ran him out of the colony and here to New Hampshire, to a rugged frontier, where he planted this church and the town of Exeter.

But he is not the only exile in our church family tree. I want to tell you a story about three Scottish young men who found their way to Exeter in the 1650-60’s. They did not come willingly. They had left their homes in Scotland as soldiers, and they had been captured in battle during the English Civil War. And people were so afraid they would rise up again that they sent scores of them off to the new world, where they could never be a threat. Teenagers, sent away from all they knew, never to see it again.

They became indentured servants. And by different routes three of them ended up here in Exeter. They went to work for a man named Nicholas Lissen, who had three daughters. And one by one, they married those daughters. And along the way Lissen, and his three Scottish sons-in-law, John Bean, Henry Magoon, and Alexander Gordon, helped to build this church into what it is today. And even now, if you look around you see those names around this church, on old pew charts and in the cemetery. And you see how three men in exile helped shape us into who we are today, over 300 years later.

Can you imagine that? Can you imagine how they were taken from the family and life they’d always known, sent halfway around the world, and how they still managed to find a future with hope? Can you imagine what it must have taken for them to find the love of God in a new place? And can you imagine how, when they had every right to be afraid and bitter and dejected, they instead became invested, and they instead turned their exile into hope?

We still get calls from the descendants of those three men fairly regularly. People call the church and say, “I’ve traced my family tree back to Exeter, and there was this Scottish prisoner of war there in the 1600’s…do you know anything about them?”

And I say, “yes I do”. I know, for instance, that the Beans went on to found a little company in Maine called LL Bean. But, for me, the best story is about the Gordons. Because one of those men, Alexander Gordon, now has a ninth great-grandchild who a little over a year ago you happened to call as your pastor.

ClergyTartanCrossI didn’t know that when I was called here. I learned about Alexander shortly after. And that’s one of the reasons I wear a tartan stole so often in the pulpit. It’s in honor of a young man who was taken from the life he knew, brought to a place where he trusted in hope, and who built something that endures even still today. It’s in honor of an exile, who trusted in the promise.

If he could invest in this church, then I can too. If he could find a home here, than so can we all. Because we are more than exiles. We are ones to whom a great promise has been given, and we are planting the seeds now that will feed not just us, but our children, and grandchildren, and generations to come. With every commitment, with every pledge, with every act of good stewardship, we are saying that this is our home, and that we trust God has a future of hope for us.

And God does have a future of hope. We have seen God working in our midst in this past year, and I know God will work with us still. I know God has great plans for the Congregational Church in Exeter, and I know that something amazing is happening here.

And so, I ask you to consider the decision you have to make. Consider how you will use some of what God has given you to invest in this hope, and trust in this promise. Consider how you can give to this church, this home of hopeful exiles. Because all of us are working our way towards a home we have never seen before, one in which we live with God and with one another in peace and joy. We are going home together, and we are rejoicing on the way.

And like I did last year, I’m going to tell you a few things I think you should know. First, I give too. Like you I sit down with my family and I figure out what I can give to the church. It’s important to share that because I want you to know that this is not about paying bills or meeting a bottom line, though those things are important. This is about saying “thank you” for this amazing place, and saying I want it to be around long after I am gone.

I also want you to know that I do not know who gives, or who gives what. I have told our church leaders not to tell me. What you give is your spiritual decision, made between you and God. I hope you give as you are able, and I hope you give with generous hearts. In fact, I simply assume that you all do. And if you don’t, that’s okay. But, please know this, there is hardly anything better than giving joyfully to a place you love. Not because you have to, not because we need to meet some bottom line, but because your love of this place, and your hope, compels you.

Finally, I’ll close with this. Last weekend you may remember that I was in Canada, as our denomination joined with the United Church of Canada in full communion. But before we did we had dinner with our Canadian counterparts, and we exchanged lapel pins from our churches.

And I was sitting across from a gentleman from the First Nations. And he gave me not just his lapel pin, but also this four directions pin symbolizing his heritage. And he told me, “We’ve done so much more in this church to address what happened in the past. And now it’s your church too. And it’s your work too.” And he put the pin on my lapel.

That’s what church does. It pins its hopes on Christ, but also on the people of Jesus Christ. And it calls us to do the work together. The hopes of this church have literally been pinned upon you. You are now marked by the promise. It’s your work too. But the good news is that it is joyful work that you are being called to today. And so search your hearts, search your souls, and find your hope. And then, together, may we exiles choose to build our home on this rock. 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?

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?