Translating the Gospel: Sermon for Pentecost, June 4, 2017

Earlier this year I was researching my mom’s grandparents, my mom’s mom’s family, and I found my great-grandfather’s application for citizenship in this country.

My grandmother’s parents emigrated from Italy in the early 1900’s and they settled in Maine. They had died long before I was born so I never met them. But I found my great-granddad’s citizenship paperwork, complete with this picture of this big, bulky guy, and I texted it to my sister and said “well, I know where I got my build from.”

I then wondered what my great-grandmother looked like, but no matter where I searched, I couldn’t find anything. So I called my mom and asked, “Is there a reason that your grandmother maybe never became a citizen.” And she said, “Oh yes…she never learned to speak English.”

That surprised me because my grandmother grew up speaking Italian, but also spoke English. The same was true for her brothers and sisters. But their mother had grown up in Italy, and in Portland she lived in a community where you only needed to speak Italian. Even at church the priest spoke Italian. She had little exposure to English and never learned.

But my mom had always talked about her grandmother and how she loved her grandchildren. And, none of them had learned Italian. So, I wondered how the kids knew that. But my mom said that even though she didn’t speak much English, there were always other ways she could show her affection and love.

Today is Pentecost Sunday. This is the day that we in the church celebrate the Holy Spirit, and the way it arrived. Fifty days after Easter, and soon after the Ascension of Jesus Christ, the disciples were gathered together. You have to imagine they were a little confused. They’d been through this emotional whiplash. First Jesus was dead, then somehow he was alive, and now he was gone again. Before he left, though, he told them all to continue to tell his story, so they must have been sitting there thinking, “Okay, what now?” and “How do we do this?”

Scripture tells us that just then “a mighty wind” rushed through the room, and “tongues of fire” appeared over each of their heads. And, suddenly, they could speak languages they’d never known.

They went out into the city and met people who had come to Jerusalem from every place they could imagine. This would be like standing in the middle of the international arrival terminal at Logan, hearing all the different languages around you. And they began telling the story of Jesus, and of what had happened. And the people were like, “Wait, they’re all from Galilee. How do these guys know my language?”

A few folks were skeptical. They looked at the disciples and said, “they must be filled with new wine.” The technical translation for that is, “these guys are drunk”. But Peter hears this and says, “hey, we’re not drunk” (actually, he says, “it’s only 9am”, which I’ve always kind of loved”). But, Peter says, something has indeed happened. A new era has begun, and this small handful of disciples, this earliest church, has a story to tell.

What happened to the disciples was that the Holy Spirit had arrived. When we talk about God, or the Trinity, the Holy Spirit normally comes last. We get God who is the creator, the parent, the one who made all of us. And we get God who is Jesus Christ, who lived and died and rose again. But that last part, God the Holy Spirit, that’s harder to explain. It is literally amorphous.

And yet, it’s probably the Holy Spirit that we encounter most in our lives. It’s the Holy Spirit who Jesus promised would be there for the disciples, leading them, supporting them, and guiding them, even after they no longer saw him. And it’s the Holy Spirit who guides us still, and who lifts up our hearts when we need to know that God is still with us.

It’s this first gift of the Holy Spirit to the church, though, that is so powerful, and so important for us still. The disciples get the ability to speak the languages of others. They get a way to tell the story of Jesus, and what they’ve seen. And now it’s no longer just their story, but the world’s.

And the most important things about this is that they were the ones who started to speak other languages. How much easier would it have been for the Holy Spirit to say, “okay, I’ve touched every person in Jerusalem, and now they all speak your language, so go out there and tell them the story.”

But that’s not how it works. Instead it’s the disciples who are changed. It’s the church that has to learn new languages.

That’s a good reminder for us today because sometimes in the church we think everyone just needs to learn our language. You know, if people out there would just get onboard and come through the doors, and make an effort, they’d know how to talk like us.

But in a time when church is increasingly optional, that’s doesn’t happen. For many people, we may as well be speaking a foreign language in here. For some of them that’s confusing, and for others that may be downright frightening. So when people dare to walk through the doors of our church, that’s why it’s so important that we spell out in plain language what we are doing here.

That’s why we write the words of the Lord’s Prayer in the bulletin. That’s why we announce the hymns. That’s why we try to explain the sacraments. We have to be translators because otherwise we may as well be speaking Galilean.

IMG_5015And sometimes this goes beyond literal language to other ways of telling our story. As you arrived today you may have noticed that we have a rainbow flag out in front of the church today. Church council voted unanimously to place it there during the month of June. In doing so we are recognizing two things. First, we are remembering what happened in Orlando at the Pulse Nightclub a year ago this month. Second, we are flying it because June is Pride month for LGBTQ people, and we are standing in solidarity with the LGBTQ community.

About twenty years ago now this church voted to become Open and Affirming, which is a term that itself needs translation. Open and Affirming in our tradition means that we welcome and affirm people of all sexual orientations and gender identities. So, you know, and I know, that this is a step this church has taken. And you know, and I know, that it is safe for an LGBTQ person, or their friends, or their family, to walk through the doors of this church.

But here’s the catch. The average person walking or driving by probably doesn’t know that. And if they are a person who is LGBTQ, or who loves someone who is, they probably don’t know that this is a safe place. That’s understandable. Most churches aren’t, so why should this one be any different?

I know that’s a question for some in our community because people have asked me, “Would I be welcome there?” And I’m often like, “Okay, look at me…I’m the pastor.” But even with that…they don’t know for certain.

So imagine this. Imagine you are wondering who we are. Maybe you’re the parent of a gay kid. Maybe your best friend is trans. Or maybe you’re a middle school kid who is figuring out who you are, and who is wondering whether God really loves you. And imagine that you are riding in a car, looking out the window, and you see the big white church on Front Street, and you notice that flag. And imagine that in your heart, in a new way, you know for the first time that maybe God really does love you.

Even if you never come through the doors of the church, you hear that this story is for you too. That’s the power of Pentecost. That’s the gift of the Holy Spirit, and it’s a gift that is given to us not to keep to ourselves, but to use to share the story of God’s love with the world.

We become stronger every time we share our story. And we become stronger every time someone new walks through our doors because they bring their own gifts with them. That church that gathered in the Upper Room at Pentecost, all of twelve people strong, has grown to be a church of over 2 billion people worldwide today.

It didn’t get there by us all sitting in our pews, speaking our own language. It got there because the Holy Spirit taught us new ways to tell the story, and open our doors wider, and to invite people in. And so now is our turn. Let us be Pentecost people in all we do, sharing the Gospel of God’s love and grace in every language we can find.

 

Organic Fruit: Sermon for June 26, 2016

When I meet new people and they ask what I do for work, there are a few typical responses. The first is that people will tell me about their own faith. Those are good conversations. The second is just awkward silence. Maybe the person will say “oh, that’s interesting” and change the subject. But the third is what is always the most entertaining: people will tell me, in great detail, and with varying degrees of hostility, why they are not religious.

That’s fine. I listen, but I rarely give them the fight they are looking to have. But there’s one argument I hear often that I just never understand. People tell me that Christianity is all about the church trying to control people. They say faith is just about people telling other people what they cannot do.

That always entertains me because, as you know, if I tried to tell this congregation what it could not do, I probably wouldn’t be here very long. I suspect that is true for most clergy. That’s good. Because the job of the church is not to forbid people from doing things.

Instead, it’s about teaching Christ’s message. And it’s about sharing a Gospel that is not about control, but is about possibility. It’s not about making people prisoners of religion, but helping them to find freedom in God’s grace.

Today’s reading is about that. This passage from the Epistle to the Galatians. Paul had come to this community and he had taught the people there 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. 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. The Galatians were Gentiles, and so they didn’t know about it. And so these new teachers were saying to the Galatians, “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 this letter. And this letter is probably the angriest letter that Paul sends to any of the churches.. 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.

Paul was speaking to a church 2,000 years ago. But, his words could just as easily speak to churches everywhere today. Because that misconception I talked about early on, about people who think religion is about control? That didn’t come from nowhere. There are indeed churches who teach Christian faith that way.

But Paul tells us that that’s not what following Christ is all about. Instead he talks about faith as getting free. He lists a number of things that can hold us back: anger, fighting, jealousy, idolatry, and more. And he tells us that those are the things that make us less free. They hold us back. They tie us down.

Instead, he says, we are called to turn away from those things. Not because someone is making us, but because when we do, new life is promised to us. Paul talks about how the Scriptures condemn these things because they “enslave” us. They don’t tell us not to do these for no reason. Instead they give us warning signs to help guide us in a better direction, and out of captivity. They unchain us.

In other words, this faith is not about being controlled. It is about learning how to turn away from what controls us.

Paul even gives us a way of knowing that we have been unchained. These are the directional signs that tell us we are going the right way. He talks about something called the “fruits of the Spirit”.

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Here’s the list of those fruits: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

In short, things that almost all of us wish we had, and wish we exhibited to others.

Nothing on that list is about control. These fruits of the Spirit are the fruits of freedom. These are the signs that we have given ourselves, not to the law, but to the Gospel. They are the good and outward signs that Christ is growing within us.

And, like any fruit, they are signs that we have been planted in good soil.

I didn’t realize how much soil mattered to producing good fruit until I lived in Vermont. One of my favorite places to go fly fishing there was a stream in the Green Mountain National Forest near where I lived.

It was way out in the woods. And as you followed the dirt roads further into the woods, you would pass these old cemeteries filled with those who are long dead and whose descendants have moved on. There was this old schoolhouse, unused for a hundred years, sat on the side of the road. The once lively towns have been officially dissolved by the state. The bitterly cold and rocky terrain simply proved too difficult to live in, even for the heartiest of Vermonters. And that’s saying a lot.

But if you drove a little further, there was an orchard full of apple trees. Some farmer planted them in the 1800s, and they still bear fruit. Today they are allowed to remain because they provide ready food for the bears and other area wildlife to eat.
I am always amazed by that. Long after human beings gave up on the land and moved on, somehow those same acres manage to bear fruit every fall. The people who planted it, and their children, and grandchildren even, are all dead. But the soil is not. It feeds the trees, and each year a bounty comes once again.
That’s the power of good soil. It is always capable of rejuvenation and growth. Because of good soil in our lives, what is planted in it can remain a source of blessing for others long after our life is over.
It’s the same way with the fruits of the Spirit. They grow in us because first we cultivate good soil. We make room in our soul for God to plant these things, and if we give them good soil, they will grow. They will be the fruits of our spiritual lives. They will be the organic byproducts that come when we choose another way. They are signs of our freedom.
That’s one reason why I believe cultivating good soil is so important. It’s one reason that I’ve invited you all to join me on the New Testament Challenge this summer. I’ve been encouraged to see how many of you have taken me up on that. That’s wonderful because that means that together we are cultivating rich, spiritual soil.

It’s also important because this morning we are once again celebrating a baptism in our church. Scarlett is going to join the larger family of God, and we are going to make promises to help raise her in the faith. Like every young person here, she needs people who bear these spiritual fruits in their lives. We are called to be her examples of faith.

And so, may we bear good fruit. Not because we have to. Not because anyone is telling us we must. But because Christ’s love and grace have touched us so deeply that we can do nothing less. Amen.

Gained in Translation: Sermon for Pentecost, 2015

Before I became a parish minister, I was a chaplain. I was working for a hospice on the South Shore of Massachusetts, and I had one patient down near New Bedford, where many of the older population still speaks Portuguese fluently.

Whenever I went to see this patent at their nursing home, this other resident on her unit would see me in the lobby and start shouting at me in Portuguese. And I had no clue what she was saying, but it was obvious to me that she was upset, and so I always just apologized and got out of there as quickly as possible.

One day I went back and the same thing happened. Only this time there were people around. And one of the aides said, “Do you know what she’s saying?” And I said, “no, but whatever I did I’m sorry.”

And then she told me that the woman was speaking Portuguese, and that she was a little confused. But she thought I was a relative of hers, and that when she saw me she wasn’t mad at all; she was excited. And she was yelling joyfully to me about how glad she was to see me. After that day I would always talk to her, and I understood now that when we talked, though I couldn’t understand her, she was happy.

Pentecost by He Qi.

Pentecost by He Qi.

I learned then that translation matters. It can change everything. Today’s story is about translation too. It’s ten days after the Ascension, when Jesus left this world, and the disciples are together, trying to figure out what to do next now that Jesus is gone.

And all of a sudden a rushing wind, with tongues of fire, fell on them. And suddenly, the disciples, all of whom were Galileans all just speaking the same language, were speaking languages that they had never known before. People from other places were nearby and they heard it and they could understand what they were saying, and they asked “how come we are hearing this in our own language”?

Some didn’t even believe it; they said “they must be drunk.” But Peter gets up and he says “look, it’s only 9am..we’re not drunk”. Instead, something new has come, and everything has changed.

In the church we call this the Pentecost, which is translated to mean “fifty days”, as in fifty days after Easter. And we call that mighty rush of wind that came down the coming of the Holy Spirit. And we call this the birthday of the church. This is the day when the gift of the Holy Spirit was given to the disciples, and the church was born.

I’ve always found that interesting. Because, intuitively, it might not make a lot of sense. Shouldn’t Easter be the birthday of the church? After all, it’s the day Jesus rose again and appeared to the disciples. Maybe you could even argue that Christmas, with the birth of Christ, should be the day of celebration? Or, maybe Maundy Thursday when Jesus tells the disciples how to love one another?

But most believe Pentecost is the church’s birthday. And I think it’s because that was the day the disciples went from being this sort of loose band of followers of Jesus, standing around wondering what now, to being equipped by the Holy Spirit to minister not just to their own, but to the whole world.

And I think it says a lot that on its day of birth, when the Holy Spirit came down, the first gift that the disciples realize they have is the gift of being able to speak in new languages. The ability to translate the message to others.

I told you that story earlier about translation, and how it helped me to know what was being shouted at me in Portuguese. But translation doesn’t always have to be literal. Sometimes we learn to speak, and to understand, the language of others even when we don’t have the words.

One night when I was on call as a hospital chaplain, I received a page, and I was asked to come meet with a man whose wife had just given birth and who now was not doing well. And he was an Orthodox Christian originally from the Middle East. He spoke English fluently, and had been in this country a long time. And we were talking and I asked him, as I always did in these situations, if he wanted to pray.

He said “yes”, and took my hand and I was about to start praying, as I always did, but instead he started. And in Arabic he prayed this impassioned, heart-felt prayer for his wife.

I have no idea what those words were that he was saying. But in that moment, without knowing a word of Arabic, I knew exactly what he meant. And I know that the Holy Spirit was with us in that moment.

If the Holy Spirit were to sweep into this place again today, and give us all a birthday gift, because we are all the church, I think we would get the same gift the disciples got. And I don’t mean by that that we would all be able to speak Spanish or Chinese or Russian or Arabic, per se. Rather, I think we would learn how to speak in new ways to those who haven’t heard yet about God’s love in language that they understand.

And you don’t have to leave the country to find people who haven’t. You don’t even have to leave Exeter. Just look at the news. A few weeks ago there was a poll out talking about how fewer and fewer people considered themselves religious now. It made the front page of major papers. And New Hampshire is the second least-religious state in the country. And “nones”, those who do not claim a religious tradition, are the fastest growing demographic group.

And yet here we are in the church, speaking a foreign language. There was a time when everyone knew what the Lord’s Prayer, the doxology, and all of our other church words meant. There was a time when most people knew our language. But they don’t anymore. And that is new, but it’s also not necessarily bad. Because it doesn’t mean that ours is not a language worth sharing.

For decades now too much of the church has stood still, angry at the world that no one understands us anymore. No one speaks our language. We complain about that fact, and we have plenty of things to blame, everything from parents to over scheduled kids to sports on Sunday morning, but the reality is that few people are going to spontaneously show up at our doors asking to learn our language.

But do you notice something about the Pentecost story? When the Holy Spirit comes, it’s the disciples who learn the new language. All the other people there don’t suddenly speak the disciples’ language: instead the disciples learn to speak theirs.

I think maybe the Holy Spirit is trying to tell us something. We can’t wait for others to talk the way we talk. Instead, we have to learn their language. We have to learn what is important to them. We have to be able to communicate in the ways that matter to them. We have to be willing to make the connections. It’s what the church has been doing since its first days, and it’s what we are still called to do today.

And, more importantly, we have to have something to say. Gone are the days when people are going to come to church out of obligation. And I think that’s a good thing. But what that means is that the people coming through our doors are looking for something deeper. They are looking for community. They are looking for meaning. And, more than anything, they are looking for a spiritual connection.

The Holy Spirit is what we in the church have to offer. We as Christians believe that God speaks to us and leads us through the Holy Spirit. It is our companion and guide through life. It is what gives us comfort when we need it, and courage when we are done being comforted. Jesus called it the paraclete, which means “advocate” or “helper”. The Holy Spirit is our advocate and helper. Why would we not want to claim that and share that?

That’s one reason that we are doing this Natural Church Development process, and we are looking seriously at what it means to reclaim “passionate spirituality”. Because in this world where so many say that they are “spiritual but not religious”, if the church can’t do “spiritual” well, we may as well close our doors. There’s no point unless we are gathered around something bigger than ourselves and led by a Spirit bigger than our own; a Holy Spirit, the same one that came on Pentecost all those centuries ago.

Because so long as we are actually trying to God’s will for us, so long as we are actually following where the Spirit leads us, we aren’t some forgotten dinosaur speaking some lost language. We’re alive, and we have something to offer. And there are people who want to hear about it. They want us to make the connections, they want us to be translators, they want to know. But if we try to hide that light, that fire of Pentecost, under a bushel, then what we have will be lost in translation.

And so, on this Pentecost, on this birthday of the church, we can make a choice. Because Pentecost didn’t just happen 2000 years ago. It happens still. And on Pentecost we are given an incredible gift in the Holy Spirit. It’s one that will never wear out, never grow too small, and never fail to amaze us if we only let it.

But here’s the catch: we can’t hold on to that gift only for ourselves. It must be shared. And if you have really received it, it will be shared through you. In fact, it probably has been already, and with God’s help will be again. You will be the translator of all God has to give this world.

And so this Pentecost, unwrap your gift. Delight in it the way you would any good gift. But don’t stop there. Share it with a world that has a deep spiritual hunger. Learn to speak the language of the ones who thirst for spiritual depth. And follow the Holy Spirit into all the places God has already prepared for you to go. You just may find that behind every corner a never-ending birthday celebration waits. Amen?

Growing in Good Soil: A Sermon on Passionate Spirituality for May 3, 2015

When I was in middle school a new church came to my town. It built a huge building on the outskirts of the city. They had rock bands playing for all the services. And they had big video displays with indoor pyrotechnics.

And once a year, to attract the teenagers, they had this group of traveling evangelists come in for this sort of modern day tent-revival. They were a group of Christian bodybuilders, and they would do things like tear phone books in half, or break handcuffs in two, all while Christian rock was blaring loudly. And they would then say that they were able to do these things not because they were strong, but because Jesus Christ was giving them the strength to do it.

My parents were less than impressed, and were clear they didn’t want me anywhere near the place. But, a lot of my classmates went and loved it. And that church grew and grew. In fact it grew so much that one of our neighbors joined and began having loud prayer meetings in their backyard. (I still remember my dad grilling on the barbecue and shaking his head while one was happening.)

Really, all that church taught me was what I wasn’t looking for in church. And so when I went looking for a church later on, all I really knew was that I wanted to find something as different as possible.

So you may be wondering what this has to do with today’s passage. Jesus uses a lot of metaphors to talk about our relationships with God. Here he uses the image of a growing vine and God as the vinegrower. And Jesus talks about how God prunes us. The parts of the vine that are growing well, and bearing good fruit, God allows to flourish. And the parts that no longer produce fruit, God cuts back in order to allow new life to grow.

It’s that image of God as a gardener that I really love. I’m only recently learning about gardening, and I’m learning about the importance of good soil and of cultivating what is thriving, and pruning what isn’t anymore. And I’m learning about what goes into making the whole plant grow.

I like that image because it’s so organic, and it makes sense to me. You let what naturally works well happen, and you make space for that. And if you do it well, you find that the whole plant grows healthy and strong.

I also like that image because I believe it’s true for churches too. And I believe it’s a good metaphor for a process our church is starting to undertake.

You may remember that back in January I was gone for about a week to Arizona for my annual continuing education time with the Next Generation Leadership Institute of the UCC.And this year we studied a program called “Natural Church Development”, which is a church growth program. And, frankly, I was skeptical. I’ve heard about a lot of consultants who promise to come in and help your church grow if you only pay them thousands of dollars. It rarely works.

But this seemed different. It wasn’t about selling anything. It was just a way of thinking organically about church growth, taught from pastor to pastor. And the success rate was impressive. 80% of churches who undertake and complete this program see a 50% increase in their growth rate. And so after talking with colleagues who had used this same program, I proposed it to the church council back in January, and they agreed that we should try it.

In February we had thirty of our church leaders take a survey. The program asks for only thirty people to take it, and so we were strategic about whom we asked, because we wanted a real diversity of people in terms of gender, age, background, and so forth.

The survey asked questions designed to measure what are called “quality characteristics” of churches. These are traits that they have found growing and healthy churches around the world, from Catholic to Protestant to evangelical to Orthodox all somehow have in common, despite their differences.

The quality characteristics of Natural Church Development. (Copyright NCD)

The quality characteristics of Natural Church Development. (Copyright NCD)

The eight characteristics are (and don’t worry…you don’t have to memorize these): Inspiring worship, gift-based ministry, empowering leadership, loving relationships, effective structures, need-based evangelism, holistic small groups, and passionate spirituality.

The principle of this program is that if you concentrate on those things, if you make sure that the soil you are planted in is good and that the parts of the vine that are growing well can flourish, your church will naturally and organically see growth.

So, the survey results back. And, I don’t know about you, but when I get an evaluation there’s always this minute of panic, like “what will it say?” And then there’s always this minute of wanting to be defensive, like “that’s not true…they don’t really understand”. But then, if I give it a little time, I’m able to see the truth of the feedback, and to say “okay, how can I use this to grow?”

So, when the results came back, I went through that process in my head. I agreed with the good stuff. The survey said our maximum factor, our strongest score, was in inspiring worship. We also did well in other areas like gift-based ministry, effective structures, empowering leadership and loving relationships.

But then came the other shoe, and what is called our “minimum factor”. That “minimum factor” is very important because that’s the thing in this process your church then turns to and decides to work on. That’s the gardening project, so to speak.

And for us, that minimum factor was “passionate spirituality”. Our score was not bad, but everyone does have to have a minimum score in one area, and that was ours. That’s where we have the greatest opportunity as a church to improve, and get even better.

But, for me at least, there was an issue with that. I heard “passionate spirituality” and I had some preconceptions of what that looked like. I was right back there in my hometown with the church with the screaming guitars and yelling evangelists and the exuberant prayer meetings. And my first instinct was to run.

Because I saw what happened to my friends who went to that church. I saw how their faith was exciting and new for a few years, and then they sort of left it behind. Or, I saw how others used what they learned at that church to bully people who weren’t like them by saying they were concerned for their souls. I saw how sometimes a person’s sincere Christian convictions seemed to be inversely proportional to how loud they were about their faith.

And, I don’t know about you, but I didn’t want our church to become like that. There are dozens of churches surrounding us where you can find that. But what there are not are many churches like ours where you can come with your heart, and head, and hands, and connect with God, and with the world in a thoughtful, often more quiet, way.

But then I had to go a step further, and I had to really examine what they meant by “passionate spirituality”. And I talked to others, and came to understand that my preconceptions were all wrong. I heard “passionate spirituality” and I automatically assumed it meant becoming something we are not. But what I found was something very different. I found that it was about being who we are, but even better.

It turns out that passionate spirituality is not about the way you worship. You can find passionate spirituality in mainline Protestant churches like ours, in Catholic churches with a formal liturgy, and even in quiet Quaker meetings.

It’s also not about specific beliefs. You don’t have to subscribe to a set view of the God, and sign on the dotted line. And it’s not about being loud or flashy or being the next big thing.

Instead, it’s about this. It’s about being passionate about your spiritual journey, the same way that you are passionate about the other things that matter in your life, and it’s about being rooted in your relationship with the divine, and able to connect that to all that you do.

I am passionate about my marriage, for instance. I love my spouse. I am dedicated to my marriage. I work on it, and value it and make it a priority. What you don’t hear me doing, though, is shouting out to everyone who will listen how awesome marriage is and how everyone needs to get married and if you want to do marriage right you need to do it the way that I do. In fact, if I did that, you might wonder if the marriage was really all that strong to begin with.

But, even if I’m not shouting about it, it’s important to me. It gives me life.

The same is true of my spiritual life. My spiritual connection with God is my guiding force in life. It helps me to make the big decisions that matter. It is always with me. And it is because of my faith that I live the way that I do, and make the choices I do on a daily basis. And it is only when I am being fed spiritually that my faith thrives.

Likewise, as a church, it is because of our connection with God that we are able to do amazing things. It is because of our faith that we feed the hungry. It is because of our faith that we care for the planet. It is because of our faith that we work for justice in the world. And it is because of our faith that we come here each Sunday, and we love one another.

It is because we are planted in good soil that we are able to do good things in the world. That soil is the soil of our faith. And we make it good soil by connecting with God spiritually. That is what roots us. That is what feeds us and gives us passion for the work we will do.

But when we let that soil grow dry, when we stop growing spiritually, when we stop nurturing what grounds us and roots us, we find that we are like a vine that has stopped growing, and one that will no longer bear good fruit.

I have known churches like that. Churches that are so busy that they forget why they are there in the first place. Churches that lose their connection with the spiritual, and lose the passion that once drove them. People don’t tend to stay long in those churches because they get so burned out trying to work in dry soil.

But I don’t think that’s us. I think we have good soil here. And I think it can be even better, and that as we grow spiritually what we have planted will grow as well. And in the end we will see it, and we will know that it was growing in us all along, just waiting for the soil to be even better.

And so, I’m excited about this journey. I hope you are too. And I hope that you will join me on Saturday morning for our retreat. We are about to do some gardening, and we need your hands to help till the soil, and plant the seeds. Amen?

How to Be a Pentecost Church: Five Pointers for Congregations

This Sunday is Pentecost Sunday in the church. It’s the Sunday when churches everywhere are filled with the color red, symbolizing the Holy Spirit, and we celebrate a story from the church’s earliest days. On Pentecost we remember how the Holy Spirit came to the early disciples like a “mighty wind” and rested on them with “tongues of fire”. Suddenly they were able to speak in the languages they did not know, and all the people gathered around them in Jerusalem, a host of nations, were able to understand what the disciples were saying.

There’s a tendency in the church to think that everyone is supposed to learn our language. But if you look at the Pentecost story, you find the exact opposite is true. The Holy Spirit could have easily touched everyone around the early disciples so that they could understand the language the disciples spoke. But instead, it was the disciples who were transformed. They were the ones who learned new languages, ones they could use to communicate with people using the words they already knew.

So why does the church sometimes miss the point?

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No, really. This Pentecost stuff is going to be fun.

We often talk about how our church is very welcoming, but new members are few and far between. And often it’s true…many churches are extremely good at welcoming visitors who walk through the front doors. But the first place we should be meeting people is not inside our buildings. It’s out where they (and we) live.

The Pentecost story reminds us that witnessing to Christ is not about our own convenience. It’s about being radically transformed by the Holy Spirit so that we can speak the language (literally and metaphorically) of those God wants us to love and serve. Pentecost reminds us that we cannot sit ideally back and wait for people to learn our ways. We have to be the ones who learn new ways.

So how do we do that? Here are some suggestions:

1. Check out your social media presence.

If this seems like a strange place to start, that might be part of your church’s issue. I’ve heard countless people in churches deride what they see as an over-dependence on social media in younger generations. Facebook, Twitter, texting, and the like are seen as distractions and barriers to community.

But in reality, social media can be a wonderful way to build community. I don’t believe it can ever replace face-to-face interactions, but it can help to spread your message. If you talk to your Generation X and Millennial parishioners, in fact, you might find that a surprising number of them found your church via social media. The days of looking in a phone book for a church, or even just knowing where a church is located, are over. For many a Google search will be their first stop in their search for a new church.

So make it count. If your church doesn’t have a webpage, you need one now. You can get a domain name for $18 a year and build a page on WordPress, so there is no excuse. And, if you do have a webpage, give it an honest assessment. Is it up-to-date? Are your address and service times clearly displayed? Could a visitor determine whether or not they would be welcome at your church? Is there information about programming and what you believe? Is there contact information? Are there pictures of people and not just the building?

And don’t limit yourself to a webpage. A Facebook “like” page is free and a great way to spread the word about your church. Use the page to post updates, photos, reminders, sermon links, and more. Encourage members to “like” and “share” posts on their page. You’ll be surprised how a post can go viral in no time. When the daughter of one of my current church’s members won a silver medal in the Olympics this winter, for instance, we posted a photo congratulating her. That photo was shared by 72 people and reached over 5,500! It was a wonderful way for our church to share our celebration.

The Facebook picture that went viral.

The Facebook picture that went viral.

Finally, make sure that you have a “like” page and not a Facebook group for your church. A group is fine for discussion purposes, but it will not reach new people. They are not going to join a group of people they do not know. Instead concentrate on putting out clear information, inspiring links, and warm invitations on your “like” page. Make sure that your social media presence exists more for others than yourself.

2. Get out in your community.

Like I said earlier, you might be the warmest church in the world when people step inside of your doors. But for the vast majority of your community, you are just another building that they have never been inside. As untrue as it sounds to those of us who are churchgoers, church buildings are often seen as private clubhouses. Others might be curious about what is going on inside, but it’s going to take more than a little bit of curiosity to go in. This is especially true of the growing number of us who are younger and did not grow up in the church.

So instead of waiting for others to come to you, go to them. Get involved as a church in the community. Host events like concerts and lectures. Make your building as accessible as possible to local non-profit groups needing a space to meet. Host AA meetings. Welcome community groups. Provide hospitality to outside youth events. And don’t just be a landlord. Be a host. Consider sharing your building as a ministry to the community.

But more importantly, go outside of your doors. Get involved in community celebrations. Serve lemonade and cookies on the lawn if the town’s parade is going by your doors. Sponsor a Little League team. Volunteer at youth events. Go into retirement communities. Work with other congregations. Whatever it is, find out what matters in your community and then figure out a way to contribute. You can’t serve a community that you don’t know and love.

3. Enable your pastor to get out in your community.

The work of representing your church in the community is the work of the whole congregation. It is never just the pastor’s job. But, the reality is that the pastor can be a great ambassador. So, as much as possible you want to make sure they have your blessing to be involved in your community. So don’t keep them locked up in their office! Encourage them to go out in the world.

I am finishing my pastorate in a small community right now. During this time the church has nearly doubled in size. This is not due to me, but I believe it does have a lot to do with our church being more visible in our community. And that has happened in part because my congregation has blessed me by encouraging me to be involved in the community.

For me this has meant being the chaplain of our local fire department, as well as working with Habitat for Humanity, writing an occasional column for our local newspaper, and more. It has also meant holding community “office hours” in a local coffee shop. Once a week I stationed myself at a table for a couple of hours and bought the coffee for anyone who dropped by for a chat. People who had never come through the doors of the church before met me for the first time there. Finally, when a natural disaster came to our community in the form of a flood, the congregation didn’t want me in my office. They wanted me out on the streets talking to people and giving out energy bars and water. (They were there too, by the way.)

Not every church understands this, though. Once when I was in a pastoral search process the search committee ran through their list of questions about how I planned to grow the church. When it came time for me to ask my questions, I led off with what I thought was a softball question: “Do you want a pastor who is going to be actively involved in your community?” The response shocked me. Members hedged their answers, telling me they really weren’t sure. To them the pastor was “theirs” and had enough work to do with current members. It was clear for me this was not the right church for me. But what struck me was that due to their inward focus I was sure it was clear to prospective parishioners that it wasn’t the right church for them either.

Your pastor can be a tremendous gift to your community. Don’t keep them all to yourself.

4. Don’t assume everyone knows your insider language.

So let’s say everything is going right and new people have started coming through your doors. What do you do now?

Well, first, keep doing what you are doing in terms of being hospitable. Welcome people when they walk in the doors. Show them the sanctuary. Invite them to coffee hour. Make them feel at home. But, also, watch the “insider language” and help to translate what might be new.

I did not grow up in the church so when I started attending as a young adult I was keenly aware of what I did not know. Every Sunday we would get to a point in the service where everyone recited a prayer together. I didn’t know it, and I felt like everyone was looking at me as I stood there in silence. It was the Lord’s Prayer, and I had no clue what to say.

I learned it quickly by getting a copy and sitting in the privacy my home and repeating it over and over to myself. I didn’t want to be embarrassed anymore. But I remember that feeling. And so years later, when I heard members of a church talking disdainfully about how visiting younger people didn’t even know the Lord’s Prayer, it hit me hard.

From then on I have always tried to print the words of the Lord’s Prayer in the bulletin for those who do not know it. The same is true of the Gloria Patri, Doxology, and other “well known” pieces. We should not give up these important parts of our liturgy, but we should be aware that as more people grow up as religious “nones” they are no longer a part of the common language.

Likewise, is your bulletin or worship leader clear about when to stand and when to sit? If you are turning to a certain page, do you announce it? Do you clearly state at the communion table that all are welcome, and let people know whether you are using grape juice or wine (an important consideration for many)? Or are your visitors just left on their own?

It’s important to make worship as accessible as possible. No one wants to feel like an outsider. It’s the surest way of making sure that visitors won’t come back.

5. Be willing to keep being transformed.

Here’s the secret no one wants to tell you about bringing new people into the church: they are going to change everything. I actually think more churches realize this than let on, and I believe that, subconciously, a lot of churches have chosen not to grow as a result.

When new people come to a church they bring with them new stories, new gifts, and new energy. They also bring new needs, new ideas, and new perspectives. And your church will be changed by them. Or else it will not be. And they will leave.

We often think of the church as “our church”. But it has never been “our church” It is Christ’s church. We are just the stewards of the church in this time and place. And when new people are brought into the church, they join us in that role. And even though you may have been their thirty years and they’ve been there one, they are equally important. And that can be frustrating.

There is a tendency to fall back on “we’ve always done it this way” in these situations. Resist that temptation. It’s wonderful to know our history (in fact, I think if we all knew more of it we’d find that we haven’t, in fact, always done it “this way”) but we cannot become a history museum. We must be willing to be transformed by the Holy Spirit, speaking in new ways through new voices. That’s what being the church is all about.

So when the young families arrive with their kids, let them teach you about what will keep their kids engaged. The old Sunday School models might not work anymore. When young adults come, let them shape their own programs. Maybe they want to meet for a “faith on tap” discussion at the local pub on a Wednesday night rather that for Bible study on Sunday mornings. And when someone brings that new idea to deacons that makes everyone tense up and want to say “but we don’t do that here”, give it a minute. Hear them out. And ask whether God is leading you into the future. It’s scary, but it’s also full of promise.

Most of all, this Pentecost Sunday, pray that the Holy Spirit will teach you to be a Pentecost Church. Open your hearts to the ways the Holy Spirit teaches us new languages. And then, let yourself speak them. Meet others where they are, and learn what God is already doing in them. And then, let yourself be transformed. You just may find that you, and the entire church, will be blessed.

 

Peace Called Beside Us: Sermon for May 5, 2013

"Dove of the Holy Spirit" by Bernini

“Dove of the Holy Spirit” by Bernini

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Journey Through Lent: Day 10

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Tonight we are starting a new monthly Saturday night worship service at the church I pastor. Since we are in a ski town, a lot of people, especially younger ones with kids, have to work on Sunday mornings to run the ski resorts. So, we are trying to provide another option for worship for them.

I’m both excited and nervous. One of the marks of this service will be that it is less formal than our regular Sunday morning worship. We will have a guitar player instead of an organist. We won’t be using hymnals. And we will be making it deliberately child-friendly. All of this means that worship will be a lot less predictable than normal.

This has caused considerable consternation for some. What will we do without the familiar order of service? What will we do if people don’t know what to do? And, worst of all, what if no one comes?

At every church I’ve ever been to, the fear of the unexpected in worship has always been there. And I’ve wondered why. Why are we so afraid to go off script in worship? Our own lives have unexpected twists and turns every day. So, why does it threaten us so much when it happens inside the walls of a church?

I think part of it is that people sometimes want church to be familiar, and comforting. I’ll admit that I want that sometimes. I like liturgy, and I prefer traditional services. But sometimes worship needs to leave room for the Holy Spirit, too. And when we do that, we might just find that we are making room for new people too.

For me, this has been an important Lenten lesson. I want to be in control. I want to know what to expect. I want to have the details nailed down. But in the end, that’s not always the best, or the most faithful, attitude. Lent teaches us that sometimes we have to give up the privilege of setting the agenda, and we need to let Christ set it for us instead. We might end up not knowing what’s about to happen, but chances are it will be better than anything we could have planned.