Something is Coming: Sermon for December 3, 2017

The past few days have been full of seasonal celebrations in Exeter. We had our Christmas open house on Thursday night, which is always one of my favorite nights of the year. The live Nativity is going on out front, the carols are ringing inside, the crowds are streaming through the doors to look at the gingerbread houses, and everything in the church is in a sort of joyful chaos.

Last night we also had the town holiday parade. We walked down to the corner by the bank at around 5, and we staked out a spot. The parade doesn’t even step off from way up on Portsmouth Avenue until 5:30, so we were very early, but the crowd was already swarming. So we stood there, bundled up in our jackets, looking down Water Street, and watching and waiting.

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The parade route, lit up for the season. 

Every year we do this, and every year around 5:45 or so, we start to hear that the parade is almost here. They’ve almost made it to the other end of Water Street. And then, maybe ten minutes later, way down at the turn, we start to see the signs. The blue lights from the police car start to reflect on the buildings. Maybe we can start to hear the band play just a little. And finally, they turn onto Water Street, and it’s there. The waiting is over…the joyful parade is marching into town.

I love Christmases here in Exeter. I love how we celebrate. I went home feeling the joy of Christmas last night. But this morning, here we are in church. And this morning, we are contrasting all that Christmas joy and anticipation with today’s Scripture reading. And let’s be real…today’s Scripture reading is a doozy. Let me read you one of the lines again:
“the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken”
So, if you are looking for a good line for your Christmas cards this year, there you go.

The things is, every year on this Sunday, we read a Scripture lesson with a message like this. Today is the first Sunday in Advent, the first day of a brand new church liturgical year. Every year on this day we start the cycle of stories once again, with these four Advent Sundays where we watch and wait for the birth of Jesus Christ.

This name of this season, Advent, literally means “coming” in Latin. Something is coming, just as surely as that parade was coming last night, something that we cannot yet see, but that will not be stopped. Something that is about to command our full attention.

If Scripture is to be believed, it sounds a bit scary. Everything is about to be shaken up. The sun will stop shining, the moon will go dark, and stars will fall. Even the heaven will tremble. This isn’t the kind of seasonal merry-making we are used to this time of year.

And yet, something is indeed coming. Something that is going to change everything.

You and I know how this story plays out. The “something” that is coming is nothing less that Jesus Christ. Advent is the story of waiting and watching for Christ’s birth. During these four weeks we retell the story of what happened just before then. We talk about John the Baptist, and of his mother Mary, and of a trip to Bethlehem, And on Christmas Eve we gather here, and we talk about his birth, and about how it changed the world.

It’s worth repeating the story each year just for the fact of remembering. But it’s important to remember that this isn’t just about recreating a historical event. It’s not that Jesus was coming and now he’s here. It’s that Christ did come into this world, and that Christ continues to come into this world, time and again, through our own hearts and our own hands. Advent has sometimes been a season of the “already, and not yet”. Christ is already here…and yet in so many ways, Christ is not yet here…not fully anyway.

If you don’t believe that, look at our world. We are living in a time when so much is at stake. This week North Korea launched a missile further than ever before, and the saber rattling between our two countries grew louder. Meanwhile, major decisions are being made in Congress that will impact generations. And across the country, years of silence are giving way to a chorus of “me toos” as people tell their own stories of sexual harassment and assault.

We are standing on the edge of a new day, one that could either be very good, or very bad. We can enter a more enlightened time, when justice and peace and respect for others prevails. Or, we can enter an age where war, and poverty, and inequality regain their footing.

In other words, we are living in a time that was a lot like the one in which Jesus was born. And just like the people back then, we are looking for hope. We are watching, and waiting, and straining to see signs of what is to come.

Jesus tells his disciples “keep awake”. He tells them they do not know the hour in which something new is coming, something that will topple the order we know and usher in a new era, and so they must stand watch. They must be ready.

All these centuries later, we retell the story of Jesus’ birth using his own words: keep awake. Watch and wait. Something is coming. The theme of the first Sunday of Advent is traditionally “hope”. It’s about the hope that we have that something is indeed coming, and that this something is good.

The Christian church has traditionally believed that Jesus was more than just a really good guy. We believe that Jesus was God in human form. We sometimes call Jesus “Emmanuel” which literally means “God with us”. And so when we sing on this first Sunday of Advent “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” we literally are saying “o come, o come, God…and be with us”.

O come, o come, Emmanuel…come into this world that teeters on the brink, and push us into something better. O come, o come, Emmanuel, and bring us hope.

I believe that hope is coming, just as surely as I believed the parade was coming last night. I believe in that hope not because I have seen the fire trucks and floats of hope come down Water Street yet, and not because I’ve heard the band at full volume. I believe because, when I use all my senses, I can observe the signs that it is drawing near.

They were there on Thursday night, when the cookies that were made and donated by so many of you brought in hundreds of dollars for hurricane relief in Puerto Rico. And they were there yesterday afternoon, when Pastoral Counseling Services began setting up their new offices upstairs in the parsonage, using our space to provide some healing to those in our town who need it. And they were even there yesterday, at Wes Burwell’s funeral, when we gave thanks for the life of a man who was good, and kind, and brave enough to do the right things.

Sam Cooke wrote a song during the Civil Rights era when the signs of hope were beginning to be visible. Unfortunately, that also meant that the backlash against that hope was starting to come too. One night in late 1963, Cooke showed up at a hotel in Louisiana where he had made reservations. When he got to the front desk, the man there saw him and said that suddenly there were no vacancies. He was turned away.

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Sam Cooke, photo from Billboard Magazine

He knew why, and he was angry. And so he went away, and he began to write a song about how he felt, but also about how he hoped. It was called A Change is Gonna Come. He ends the song with these lyrics:

There been times when I thought I couldn’t last for long/
But now I think I’m able to carry on
It’s been a long time coming
/But I know a change is gonna come, oh yes it will.

A change is gonna come. Just as surely as that parade was coming last night. But unlike most parades, you don’t just wait passively for this one, watching it pass you by. This is the kind that you dare to join. It’s the kind that you get in front of, before it even makes it to you. It’s the kind that is driven by hope, and that grows stronger with every soul that enters it.

A change is gonna come, and that change is named “Emmanuel”. As the parade rounds the corner, now is your chance. Will you stand to the side? Or will your hope make you jump in?

Hold On and Protect This Good Thing: Sermons for the Vermont Conference of the UCC’s Annual Meeting, 2017

II Timothy 1:3-14

3 I’m grateful to God, whom I serve with a good conscience as my ancestors did. I constantly remember you in my prayers day and night. 4 When I remember your tears, I long to see you so that I can be filled with happiness. 5 I’m reminded of your authentic faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice. I’m sure that this faith is also inside you. 6 Because of this, I’m reminding you to revive God’s gift that is in you through the laying on of my hands. 7 God didn’t give us a spirit that is timid but one that is powerful, loving, and self-controlled.
8 So don’t be ashamed of the testimony about the Lord or of me, his prisoner. Instead, share the suffering for the good news, depending on God’s power. 9 God is the one who saved and called us with a holy calling. This wasn’t based on what we have done, but it was based on his own purpose and grace that he gave us in Christ Jesus before time began. 10 Now his grace is revealed through the appearance of our savior, Christ Jesus. He destroyed death and brought life and immortality into clear focus through the good news. 11 I was appointed a messenger, apostle, and teacher of this good news. 12 This is also why I’m suffering the way I do, but I’m not ashamed. I know the one in whom I’ve placed my trust. I’m convinced that God is powerful enough to protect what he has placed in my trust until that day. 13 Hold on to the pattern of sound teaching that you heard from me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 14 Protect this good thing that has been placed in your trust through the Holy Spirit who lives in us.

Part One: Delivered Friday, April 28, 2017

I have to confess, I didn’t know much about hope chests.

When I was asked to speak and preach this weekend, I was told that annual meeting was going to be centered around this image of a hope chest. Now, I’d heard of hope chests before. I vaguely knew that they were this sort of idea from generations past and somehow the related to marriage.

Like we were told before, hope chests were given to young women to be essentially collection points for things that they might use in their married life. Linens, clothing, kitchen items…they all went in.

Hope chest is one name for them, but there were others. In some places, they were called “dowry closets”, because this was what the young woman was chipping in to the marriage. And, my favorite, in other places they were called “glory boxes” because what greater joy in life could a young woman aspire to than being married?

I mean no disrespect to marriage with that, as I’m happily married and it is the greatest joy of my life. And I get the idea of getting ready to start a home together. When Heidi and I married we went to Crate and Barrel and made our gift list just like a lot of other couples.

But that said, I think it’s important for us to name when things don’t seem quite right, and telling young women to put all their hope and joy into a box, and in the form of worldly goods, to somehow be opened later just feels a little sexist. And beyond that, in 2017, it feels really outdated. Hope chest was never in my vocabulary growing up, nor will it be in the vocabulary of most people around my age or younger.

And then I read that in more recent decades, as late as the 1990’s, they were recalling chests made in 1912 because they were a hazard. Hope chests have often been recalled because too many children have gotten stuck in them and have had a hard time getting out. And I thought, “oh my goodness, these things traumatize children…this is a horrifying image”.pexels-photo-221004

So I wondered what to do with hope chests this weekend. And I also wrestled with what to do with this Scripture.

The second letter to Timothy isn’t one of the most well known texts. We are told that it is a letter sent from Paul and addressed to Timothy, his protege. But these days scholars aren’t sure whether or not Paul really wrote it at all. They say it could have been written by a student of Paul’s in Paul’s style.

So, we have hope chests, a sexist, antique, public health hazard. And we have a letter that may or may not have been written by Paul.

Okay…challenge accepted.

As I got closer to this weekend, I kept thinking about this text, though. When I preach in the parish I can usually read a text on Tuesday morning and know pretty much the larger theme I’ll be preaching about on Sunday morning. But this one was a little more slippery.

First, the author is talking about the faith that Timothy has received from his mother, and his grandmother, Eunice and Lois, and about how that faith is not a timid faith, but is powerful and loving. It’s a strong faith, and it is rare in Scripture that we are explicitly told that any women have strong faith. I don’t know Eunice and Lois, but I don’t think they were the kind to box up their glory with the linens.

And then there’s this long section about not being ashamed of his faith, and of remembering what Paul taught him. And the author writes this:

I’m convinced that God is powerful enough to protect what he has placed in my trust until that day. 13 Hold on to the pattern of sound teaching that you heard from me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 14 Protect this good thing that has been placed in your trust through the Holy Spirit who lives in us.

And that was what really struck me. Let’s say that Paul did write this, and if not, let’s say that someone who knew Paul and Timothy really well and knew the love the two shared for one another wrote this. Paul had mentored Timothy in the faith. He had been in so many ways his spiritual father. He talks about Timothy crying when they last saw each other. It’s clear that this is a deep love, like that of father and son.

When this letter was written Paul was probably in prison, and he and Timothy couldn’t be face to face. They may never have seen one another again. So can you imagine Timothy getting this letter, and hearing Paul, or someone writing for Paul, saying “hold on…protect this good thing” that God gave to me to give to you?

I told you earlier about how I didn’t grow up in the church. So, when I became someone who decided to follow the Gospel, my parents weren’t the people I could turn to for guidance. Now, don’t get me wrong, they are good, moral people. But they’re not people of faith, and so we were in fundamental ways not speaking the same language.

But I needed those people. And so I had to find other spiritual mentors and guides along the way. And here’s where I remember the advice that Mary Luti gave that I talked about earlier: if you want to really learn how to be a Christian, the best way to do that is by studying the life of someone whose faith you admire.

In college, and in seminary, I had two people like that. The first was Sammy, who was my campus minister. Sammy was one of those people Luther would call a “little Christ” to so many others. He loved people, and he loved the Gospel. And his greatest sermons were preached not from the pulpit, but by the way he lived his life. At a time when I could have felt so disillusioned by this messy, frustrating, and exclusive place we called church, he taught me how to be a Christian. He taught me to, as Paul would say, “hold on” and “protect this good thing”.

Carol was the second. Carol was, like me, openly gay. And she was also an ordained minister who became my mentor. And where Sammy was the one who would just roll his eyes and tell me God still loved me when I got in trouble in college, Carol was the one who would let me know that God still loved me, but I made some really bad choices sometimes. But from her too, I learned to “hold on” and “protect this good thing”.

I needed both of them. I still do, truth be told, but at that point in my life, when I was still figuring out who I was as a person and as a Christian, I needed them more than ever.

Earlier I was talking about Erik Erikson and how he believes that before we ever great any kind of good works in the world, we first have to understand our identity – who we are. But there’s something else that he said, and that was that we also had to understand intimacy. We had to know “whose” we are, to use Bob Pazmino’s language.

Carol and Sammy loved me. They taught me that I was God’s. But they didn’t do that in an abstract way. They taught me that God loved me because I knew that they loved me too. It wasn’t an academic, intellectual exercise. It was a relationship that transformed me, and that taught me about God in the process. And I’m thoroughly convinced that if I hadn’t had them both in my life, my faith wouldn’t be half of what it is today.

Discipleship demands relationship. It needs authentic connection. It settled for nothing less than for people caring about one another, and pointing the way to the one who loves us beyond measure. And, most importantly, it demands a relationship with Christ. Not as “my own personal relationship with Jesus Christ” as an individual experience, but as a relationship with a community of believers who can be like little Christ’s to one another, helping each other to hold on, and to protect what is beautiful.

Sometimes in our churches, we hear those two commands differently than how they are intended: “hold on” and “protect”. We hear them and we take them to heart. And so we do hold on, and we do try to protect things.

We hold on to and try to protect the things that don’t matter. We hold on to our buildings until we’ve spent our last dollar. We protect old ideas that aren’t working for us believing we are somehow saving the faith. We hold on to what makes us comfortable. We protect our ideas of how church should look.

And sometimes those things are held so tightly that we can’t seem to loosen our grip on them. And sometimes we start to worship them more than God. And we take them, and we put them in something that we think will protect them. We lock them away in containers of our own making for safe keeping.
We take our hope, and our glory, and we lock it away. And eventually, we start to care more about the vessel, than what’s in it. And that’s when we know that we have lost our way.

It doesn’t have to be that way, though. Because sometimes the best way to hold on to something, sometimes the best way to protect it, is not by locking it up. Sometimes the best way is to take it out, and share it with others.

And in the case of our faith, that’s the only possible way to hold on and protect it. Unless we are daring to take it out, and love God and other people with it, we will lose it. And unless we are willing to let down our guard be broken open, to be loved beyond measure and to then love with than same ferocity, we will never be able to protect the beautiful gifts that we have been given.

So what’s in your hope chest? What’s in your church’s? What in this denominations? What has been looked away for too long? What needs to be let out of the box and into the world? What is suffocating our faith? Those are the questions we must answer.

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An illustration of the sermon produced on Friday evening by Kurt Shaffert.

About a year ago, almost to the week, I got a message that Sammy had slipped into a coma in Georgia and wasn’t expected to make it. I flew down to Atlanta for his funeral, and I sat in a church filled with generations of students. And I looked out at the congregation and thought about how the faith Sammy lived, even after he was gone, still thrived. I hold onto that faith, and I protect it.

And that same week down in Georgia, my mentor Carol and I met early nearly every morning to have breakfast. And each day, in between the eggs and grits, she kept teaching me the faith, just as she has for over 20 years now, and just as I hope she will for years. I hold onto that faith too, and I protect it.

And these days it’s my job to love other people into faith. It’s my work to give them something that they can hold on to and protect. It’s my job not because it’s the job of a pastor, but because it’s the job of a Christian. And that means it’s your job too.

The people who loved us into faith did not give us these things so that we could lock them away for safe keeping. They entrusted them to us because they wanted us to use them, and to create real hope and glory in the world. Our job is to do just that, and to teach one another, and those who will come, about the hope and glory that comes from Christ. If we do only that, the rest will take care of itself.

Part II: Delivered Saturday, April 29, 2017

Last night we were talking about this same Scripture and about this guy named Timothy, who was a beloved spiritual son of Paul, the great apostle. And we talked about this letter that Paul had sent him from prison, and this fatherly advice to “hold on” and to “protect this good thing” that we have been given.

And we were talking about hope chests, and about how too often we try to hold onto and protect our hope by boxing it up, rather than using it, and sharing it with others. We talked about how it was time to take everything out of the box, and use it, because it’s no good to us, and it’s no good to others, stuck in there.

And we were talking about these two concepts from Erik Erikson, identity and intimacy, and how you have to know who you are and whose you are, and about how before you can go out into the world and create any kind of real change, you yourself have to be transformed. Only then can you, and can we, do truly generative work in the world.

So I was thinking about Timothy, who was loved into the faith by Paul and others, and who now was being given these heavier responsibilities to carry. And I was thinking about how he was standing at a turning point. He had to figure out how to hold on and protect the good things he had been given.

As I was reading this Scripture again this line stuck out at me: “Because of this, I’m reminding you to revive God’s gift that is in you through the laying on of my hands. God didn’t give us a spirit that is timid but one that is powerful, loving, and self-controlled.”

It’s Paul’s reminder that “God didn’t give us a spirit that is timid” that I think he knew Timothy needed to hear. And to know why, you have to sort of follow Timothy throughout the New Testament. You have to know that Paul had once written to the church at Corinth ahead of Timothy and said, “When Timothy comes, see that you put him at ease among you, for he is doing the work of the Lord.” In other words, “Hey, Timothy can be a little shy, a little timid, so make him feel at home because he’s a good guy.”

In other places Paul talks about Timothy’s stomach aches and how he gets sick a lot, and he tries to help him to feel better. He even tells him to drink a little wine to help his stomach, which I think was probably more about quieting his nerves a little bit. The overall picture is of a young man who was sometimes a little reserved, and a little unsure.

But he was also the guy who Paul trusted with some big things, because Paul knew that Timothy was faithful, and that with the help of the Holy Spirit he could do them. And so with his mentor in jail, awaiting what they all knew would probably be his martyrdom, Timothy is standing on this turning point, and he is wrestling between courage and timidity.

To put it another way, he is holding on to the good things that he has been given to protect, and he is having to make a decision about whether to box them up for safekeeping, maybe for someone else to use, or whether to step up, and trust in the power of the Holy Spirit to give him the strength he needs.

I think about Timothy, and I think about the mainline church. We have been given such a good thing in our faith. And we have held on to it. But sometimes we have also had a spirit of timidity. We have been afraid of risk and been afraid of failure, just as he must have been. And so sometimes we’ve needed this kind of reminder that the faith that we have been entrusted with is not a retiring one, but is one that is as Paul says “powerful, loving, and self-controlled”.

And that means that it is also a faith that is going to demand something of us. Yesterday I talked about Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the “cost of discipleship”. If we truly want to follow Christ, we can’t be complacent and timid. We have to sacrifice our comfort, and be willing to confess that there are worthy of sacrifice.

Yesterday one of you came up to me after the keynote and we were talking about the example I used from Gene Robinson yesterday, and you said that you thought I was going to tell another story, one I’d actually never heard before. And you told me that when Gene Robinson was about to be consecrated as a bishop, his daughters were scared to death of what might happen to him. With good reason.

And so he sat down with them, and he told them about all the precautions that had been taken to protect him. He told them that a lot of people were working together to make sure he was safe. And then he told them this. He said something to the effect of, “And I need you to know, I believe that are some things that are worse than death.”

For the church, and for Christians, if we really want to find our lives, we have to be willing to lose them. We can be afraid, but we cannot be too timid to act. And so we need to call on the power of the Holy Spirit, just as Paul told Timothy to do, and we need to take out everything that we have stored away in our hope chests, and we need to be ready to be the church. But before we can do that, we need to know who and whose we are, and we need to draw on that strength in all that we do.

I’m telling you this today because this world is not in a good place. War, poverty, fear-mongering, exclusion, hatred, and the willful neglect of one another reign supreme across the globe. And between this annual meeting and next I don’t know what will happen. I truly believe we are at a crossroads in history, a moral turning point where we are either going to respond successfully as the people of God, or we are going to become truly irrelevant.

Now more than ever, we need to remember who and whose we are. And now more than ever, maybe we need to hear the story of Timothy, a timid young man who was loved into a faith that made him strong.

When he got this letter, he was standing at his own crisis point. He was deciding what kind of Christian he was going to be. And I think Paul was writing this to him, praying that he would remember who he was and trust in the Holy Spirit enough to make the right choices, and to be bold in his faith.

There are stories about the rest of his life that tell us that Timothy did just that. Timothy lived to the age of about 80, a good long life back then, and he became a witness to God’s love and to the Gospel. He was the Bishop of Ephesus, and he took some unpopular stands against the pagan worship practices of the day.

1013016_614340468589772_307607125_nOne day he stood in front of a procession in honor of the goddess Diana. The crowd was carrying a large idol, and they were so angry with him for blocking their path that they beat him, dragged him through the streets, and killed him. He became a martyr for the faith.

We hear that with 21st century ears and we think, “just let them have their parade…don’t die for it.” But put that in 21st century terms. Think of the things that culture makes an idol: money, war, power. Think of the social ills those things create: greed, violence, hatred and xenophobia.

And now think of standing in front of them, and saying you are not going to rule this world anymore.

That’s the work of the church. It’s to face down everything that keeps this earth from being as it is in heaven. And it’s to be courageous, even when we want to be timid, because we know who and whose we are.

And so, hold on. Hold on to the good things, because this world needs them now. And protect them. Protect the fire that has been ignited in you. And let it burn in you, that we may be a light to the world.

Preparing the Armor of Light: November 27, 2016

A year ago right about this time I had breakfast with a friend of mine who grew up Jewish. We were talking about the coming holidays and she asked me about Advent. “You know,” she said, “I always thought Advent started on December 1st, but I’m hearing now that it actually starts in November.”

“That’s right,” I said. “It starts four Sundays before Christmas, so that means it usually starts the last week of November.”

“So here’s my question,” she replied. “If Advent starts in November, why does my chocolate Advent calendar always start on December 1st? I only get 24 pieces of chocolate.”

After I informed her that she was being cheated she nodded sagely and said “Aha! I knew it.”

I’m not sure what happened after that, but I think she may have gone back to the store to file a complaint.

It’s true that Advent usually starts in November, and today is in fact the first Sunday of Advent. So, if you have one of those December 1st-starting chocolate Advent calendars, it is liturgically appropriate, perhaps even necessary, for you to go out today and get some additional chocolate.

But today is more than just the start of Advent in the church. That’s because on the first Sunday of Advent each year, something big happens. Today we begin a whole new church year. This is, in fact, the church’s new year’s day.

For those who were thinking it was January 1st, let me explain, because there’s a good reason for this. The church year is the cycle we follow that tells the story of Jesus’ birth, life, death, resurrection, and reign. And if we waited to start a new year on January 1st we would miss this important early stuff. We’d miss Mary learning she was having this baby. We’d miss Bethlehem and the manger. We’d miss Jesus’ birth itself.

And we’d miss Advent, which is our preparation for everything that is about to happen. And Advent matters. Not just for chocolate calendars, but for something much sweeter than that.

This morning we read a text from the letter to the Romans written by Paul. He tells the Romans, “You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light…put on the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Paul is issuing a wake-up call to the Romans. He’s telling them that something big is coming and that it’s time to get ready. He tells them to put on armor. But he’s not talking about literal armor here. There’s no metal and no shield.

Paul talks about “armor of light.” I like that image. I like the idea of clothing ourselves not in the garments of isolation and impenetrability but in something that illuminates. I like the idea of shining in a world where so much is shrouded in darkness.

1006084_237267106479277_264921106_nAnd this is where Paul’s wake-up call comes in, because before we can get dressed in our armor of light, we first have to wake up. We have to look around and see what is happening. And if ever there were a time for God’s people to wake up, this is one of them.

I have been despairing of the state of the world this fall. I know many of you have been too. The mean-spiritedness, the fear-mongering, the scapegoating, the anger and violence. There are times that I wish Mr. Rogers were still alive and that he’d get on TV and remind us all how to act. But even if he did, I fear that he’d be mocked and belittled too.

There are days that I wake up and I feel like I’m living in a world that I never knew I lived in, and like I’m seeing it for the first time.

But the reality is that I, like you, have always lived here. And while I think I’m far from naive, the privilege I carry in so many ways means I’ve been insulated from so much of the pain and the darkness.

And so, like Paul says, it’s time for me to wake up. And it’s time for me to be one of the people who puts on the armor of light and by my very being proclaims a better way in the darkness.

And Advent is about a better way. This first Sunday of Advent, in particular, is about hope. And we’re not talking about cheap hope here. This isn’t the kind of hope that comes from anything you can buy on Black Friday, or some promise from a politician, no matter how great it might sound.

This is about real hope, the kind that comes dressed not in the newest styles or the trappings of some political campaign, but wrapped in the clothes of a newborn baby and placed in an old manger. If that sounds ridiculous, it is, because this is ridiculous hope, the kind that defies every expectation and brings with it demands that will change everything.

Including you, and including me.

That’s important to note because Advent isn’t just about waiting for Christmas. It’s not like being in a long line at the checkout counter, trying to distract ourselves until we reach the counter. This isn’t a passive season. Rather, Advent demands our participation. It demands we wake up, and we prepare for what is about to happen. It demands nothing less from us than a willingness to wear the armor of light.

And as beautiful as that armor might be, know that sometimes it is very hard to wear. There is so much in this world that would try to snuff out that light, to extinguish it. You will be told that it is pointless to wear, that there is no hope, that the darkness has triumphed too fully for your light to shine.

Don’t believe that. Wear that light anyway.

There’s a story about a lumberjack who was once asked how he would chop down a tree if he only had five minutes to do so. He replied, “I’d spend the first two and a half minutes sharpening my axe.”

That’s good advice. Preparation matters. Being ready matters. Being sharpened so that we can be effective matters

On Christmas we proclaim the birth of a child who would change everything. And, we commit to being Christmas people, people who would spread the light and the joy of that child to the world.

Christmas is the time when Christ is born anew in all of our hearts, and when his light shines through us. Advent is the time when we prepare for that light.

To put it another way, Christmas is when we join with the newborn savior to start chopping down the overgrowth of hatred, violence, mean-spiritedness, oppression, and false hope. But Advent is when we sharpen our axes.

And so, how will you sharpen yourself this Advent? How will you prepare to wear this armor of light in a world that needs your light?

That is your challenge this week. As a new season, a new year, begins, what is your Advent resolution? How will you prepare yourself for Christ’s birth and for the coming of the light that you will be asked to wear in this world?

How will you wake up, sharp and bright, and be a person of hope?

Whatever you choose, know that Christmas is coming. And so, keep awake, and get ready. It’s a new year, and it’s the perfect time to start something amazing. Amen?

The People of the City on a Hill: Sermon for October 9, 2016

Note: this is the second in a three part sermon series on “Prayerful Citizenship”. To read the first sermon, please click here: https://emilycheath.com/2016/10/02/when-all-is-not-well-where-you-live-sermon-for-october-2-2016/

In 1630, John Winthrop stood aboard the ship Arbella and addressed the people of the ships that would become known as the Winthrop Fleet. They were Puritans, arriving ten years after the Pilgrims of the Plymouth Colony, to form the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Before they went ashore, Winthrop preached a sermon to them about what they were about to do. He told them that the new community they would form would be a like a City on a Hill, one that would be looked at by the whole world. He saidpablo that because of that they needed to be careful that the whole experiment not end in what he called a “shipwreck”.

Today we would say “train wreck”, but they didn’t have trains back then, but you get the idea. In other words, “don’t mess this up because everyone is looking at us”.

No pressure.

Nearly 400 years later Americans talk about how we are called to be a shining city on the hill, or an example of what a good society can look like. And 400 years is a long time for an idea to live. But it’s not even a quarter as long as the idea of the “City on a Hill” has been around. For that you have to go all the way back to Jesus Christ himself.

And so, as we begin this second week in our sermon series on “Faithful Citizenship”, that’s where we are heading. Jesus was giving what became known as his Sermon on the Mount, and he had just finished teaching the Beatitudes: Blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are you who are persecuted, and so on.

He immediately tells the people, “you are the salt of the earth”. Salt was rare and highly valued in those days, so this was high praise. Then he tells them, “you are the light of the world and a city built on a hill cannot be hidden”. Just like that old song we sing sometimes, “this little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine”, he tells them that they cannot but a basket over their light and hide it. They have to let their light shine, not so that they would be praised, but so God will be praised.

This is the passage that John Winthrop was talking about when he preached that sermon. They were about to go ashore, not so far from here, and build a city that the whole world would be watching. And so, using Jesus words, he told them “don’t hide your light”; make sure that this place we are going to build together will shine so brightly that people can’t help but see it.

All these centuries later, in an era of global 24 hour news and the internet, the country that grew from that City on a Hill cannot help but be noticed. We live in one of only a handful of countries that is consistently on the global radar, perhaps more than any other. We are watched, and analyzed, and both loved and hated. And at our best, we are a country that shines our light for good. We are a place of hope and freedom. One that still draws immigrants to our shores because of those promises.

But that doesn’t mean that our light is always shining. This country has had times when that light has been obscured by the baskets that we ourselves have put over it. Baskets like hatred, inequality, violence, systemic poverty, and more. In our worst moments, we are a shining example of what not to do. That’s what we talked about last week, when we admitted that sometimes not all is well where we live. We have to tell the truth about that before anything can change.

The good news, though, is that by telling that truth, we have a chance to kick over the baskets that hide the light, to change the story, and to make this City on the Hill shine as it never has before.

But that starts with us. Because that City on the Hill must be filled with People on the Hill. And the city will only be as good as the people who build it. And so, like Jesus said, we need to become like the salt of the earth. And for those of us who are Christians, that means we need to draw upon our best values, the ones given to us by our faith, and use those things to inform the way we will be citizens in our country.

John Winthrop himself had an idea of where to look for those values. In his sermon that day he quoted an Old Testament prophet, Micah, whose words we read before the sermon. Speaking to a city in distress, one that had lost its way and was trying to get back on track, Micah asked rhetorically, “What does God require of you?” And the answer wasn’t burnt offerings or sacrifices or anything like that. Instead if was just these three things: do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.

csp_zhgwiaepitiDo justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly. It almost sounds too simple. But it is harder than it looks.

Because what would it look like if we all demanded those three things of ourselves in our daily lives? How would we do justice? Would we seek to be more fair to the people we deal with in our businesses? Would we look at people who weren’t treated as equals and advocate for them? Would we speak up when we hear someone use words that demean others?

And what about kindness? This same word is sometimes also translated as “mercy”, so would we be kind and merciful? Would we hold the door open? Would we let that person merge in traffic? Or, more seriously, would we stop withholding words that would heal? Would we look at those who suffer, and choose mercy over words of blame?

And what about humility? By this I mean real humility, which is understanding that none of us is any more or less beloved by God’s than others. If we walked through the world with that kind of humility, how would it change us? Would we be less judgmental of differences? Would we be more apt to value character over celebrity? Would we be more aware about what was good for all, and not just good for us?

Micah gave us a prescription for what ails us. He told us clearly how to get better. But as much as those three things sound as simple as an episode of Mr. Rogers, that is hard medicine. Justice, kindness, and humility are wonderful things…and they all take work. Every day we have to recommit to them. And every day we have to use them to kick aside the baskets that cover our light.

But more than that, if we want to be a City on the Hill, it is not enough that we ourselves commit to these things. We must also demand them from our leaders. “Christian values” is a phrase that gets tossed around a lot in election years. It often comes to mean a very specific set of beliefs and priorities, one with which only some Christians agree. But what would our national political stage look like if we took this bedrock of our faith, these real Christian values, and demanded them of our leaders? What would happen if we refused anything less than real justice, real kindness, and real humility?

That may sound naive, especially in a year like this, but if enough of us demanded it, things would start to change. And so would our leaders.

I’ll close with this. I’ve talked a lot about John Winthrop in this sermon. He would go on to be the Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and a very powerful man. He would also become one who didn’t always live up to Micah’s call to justice, kindness, and humility. Because of that, real people’s lives were affected for the worse.

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Rev. John Wheelwright, who was not beloved by John Winthrop

One of those people was a Rev. John Wheelwright. You may have heard of him, because in 1638 he founded our church and the town of Exeter. He had crossed Governor Winthrop, and he was banished from Massachusetts into what was then the frontier of New Hampshire. (His sister in law, Ann Hutchinson, was banished to what would become Rhode Island, by the way.) We’re here today, in a real way, because John Winthrop got it wrong.

A lot of our leaders get it wrong sometimes. And in the face of that, it is easy to feel powerless. I’m sure that John Wheelwright did. But we are not powerless. We have the ability to continue to build up our City on the Hill, and to transform it for good. We have the ability to become the servant leaders who make sure that light shines, even when others would obscure it. To be a Christian and a citizen is to never be without hope, and to never be without responsibility.

When I think of the man who founded this church, and this town, I remember that. 378 years later, I hope when people look at us as a church and as a town they see light. And I hope that we, as Christians and as citizens, will only do the things that would help that light to shine, here in our city, and far beyond. Amen?

The Character of Hope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts, Prayers, and the Widow’s Mite: Sermon for November 15, 2015

12249738_10153171783211787_8883653876062982129_nPeople sometimes joke with pastors that we only work on Sunday mornings. Like we preach for an hour each week and then go golfing every other day. To be honest, even I think it’s funny.

But the reality, of course, is different. During the week, along with all the other things ministry entails, we get ready for Sunday morning. And by midweek the service is starting to be prepared in the office. Sermon titles, hymns, prayers, and more are chosen. And by early on Friday a stack of bulletins is ready to go for Sunday morning.

That’s what happened this week. Today is pledge dedication Sunday, when we ask you to bring your pledge cards for 2016 in, and when we dedicate them for next year. It’s the official end of our stewardship campaign. And as you can see in the bulletin, today’s sermon was entitled “Budgeting for Gratitude”. I was preparing a sermon that was about generosity, and how giving is a way of expressing our thanks for all that we have been given.

And I was sitting down on the couch on Friday night, about to write that sermon, when it became clear that something really terrible was happening in Paris. And so for the rest of the night, we watched the news, and prayed for those who were still in danger, and hurt for a beautiful city. And the next morning, like many of you, we asked “Is this what our world is now? Is the world always going to feel this unsafe?”

And then, I thought about this morning. And it just felt wrong to be talking about our stewardship season here when terror is holding so many captive around the world. And I wondered if I should change the text this morning from the story that we just read, to something new.

But, in the end, I didn’t, and it wasn’t just because the bulletins were already printed. This morning the deacon read what’s commonly called the story of the widow’s mite, a mite being a very small amount. And that was what this woman put in the treasury: two small copper coins that didn’t really amount to very much.

Jesus was watching as she did this because all of the people would all come and put their money in the temple’s treasury, and anyone could watch. And so, for some it could be a bit of a production. You could get noticed for your large gifts. And some people, particularly some of the religious officials, made a show of their giving and their piety. And so they also got the place of honor at dinners and events, and they always commanded respect, even if they did not treat others well.

But this widow who is barely scraping by comes into the square, with her two little coins. And she puts them in the treasury. And Jesus says to his disciples, “that woman has just given more than all the others put together”. Because the others had given what was just extra to them. They didn’t even feel it. But she had invested greatly from the little that she had.

The implications for stewardship season are clear there. It’s why churches don’t name their biggest donors. Because this is not a contest to see who can give more. There are no tiered giving societies here. No Pastor’s Circle or, if you really give a lot, Jesus’ Circle. And it’s why I don’t know, and do not want to know, who gives what. That’s because each of us has to figure out what faithful giving looks like given what we have. For some that might be $1 a week, for others that might be a $1000. And those gifts, though vastly different financially, are worth the same to God if they truly come from the right place.

To me, the right place is from our gratitude, and from our hope and courage. Are we giving for recognition? Or are we giving that others may be seen and loved and lifted up? Are we giving to say “thank you” for what we’ve already received, or are we giving to say “I’m important, and you should thank me.” Are we giving from an abundance so big that we don’t even notice the gift is gone? Or are we giving from faith, and are we feeling it just a little when we put our pledge in the plate?

Are we giving like the scribes? Or are we giving like the widow?

These are all the questions that guide my giving. But about right now you might be wondering, what does this have to do with Paris?

To me that all comes back to Jesus line about giving from abundance, versus giving when times are tight. Because I think that same thing could be said about love, and about loving when it is easy for you to do so, and loving when it is tremendously, tremendously difficult.

It is easy to sit here across the ocean, and to say “our thoughts and prayers are with Paris”. And they are. And they will continue to be in the coming days. And then one day, far too soon, something else is going to happen in this world filled with violence. And our thoughts and prayers will be with the next place.

I’m not saying that we are being insincere. But I am saying that for those of us who are not directly affected by the things that happened, it’s not that difficult to say “my thoughts and prayers” are with you. It’s one reason why when people say “we are Paris” I hesitate a little. Because we may love Paris, and stand by Paris, but we are not suffering the way they are. We are not Paris.

And so, it’s okay to say you are praying for Paris. It’s fine to change your Facebook profile picture to the French flag. It’s normal to feel sad and afraid. But in a sense we are giving all of that from our abundance, as people who are relatively untouched.

But looking at Paris on Friday night, I was amazed at some of the ways Parisians, people who like the widow had so little emotionally to give in that moment, opened up and found generous hearts. In one example, Parisians on social media started posting and tweeting that if anyone was stranded and needed a place to stay, they would open their homes to them. And I thought, “how extraordinary…because if there were ever a time for Parisians to fear the stranger it is right now” and yet are choosing to live in abundance instead.

That is what it means to give, and to act, like the faithful widow in the world. To hold nothing back out of fear, but to choose to invest all of yourself, even your heart, in the work that is yet to be done. Because saying “you’re in my thoughts and prayers” without actually intending to do anything is a little like the scribe who has all the money in the world making a sizable deposit in the treasury. It looks good, but you don’t really feel it.

And that is what it should mean when we say a place, or a person, or anything is in our “thoughts and prayers”. It’s not just about thinking about those things for a moment. It’s not saying a quick prayer to God the way we might send an email or something, getting it off our desk and onto God’s. It’s about joining ourselves with the cause, and choosing to invest in it with our lives. Especially when we feel like we have nothing to give.

And that’s because prayer is more than words. Prayer is not something that is over the moment we say “amen”. Amen means “truly” after all. As in “I truly mean this God”. And so, in a profound way, I think that when we say “amen” that means we are just getting started with the praying.

And so, if your thoughts and prayers are with Paris, how will you truly mean that? Will you work for peace in this world? Will you live in hope, and not in the fear that the terrorists hope that we will embrace? Will you stand up in the coming days to the Islamophobia that we will doubtlessly hear all around us?

And I want to say something specifically about that. Because those refugees in Europe who are now being looked at with suspicion came there because ISIS was doing these same things in the places they are fleeing. And ISIS is as much a Muslim organization as the Klan was a Christian one. They weren’t burning those crosses because they wanted to destroy them. They burned them as symbols of their faith. Thank God we Christians are not judged by them. So let’s make sure our Muslim neighbors aren’t judged by the actions of those who would sully their faith.

In all these ways and more, how will you pray for Paris? And how will you pray for all the other places where terror reigns? For Beruit. For Iraq. For Syria. For those places in our own country.

I’m of the mind that terror wins when it forces us to live in fear. It wins when we are no longer generous people, but instead live with closed and suspicious hearts. And it wins when a night of horror halfway around the globe can dampen the basic faith in humanity of people here.

And so I’m reminded of the old bumper sticker phrase, that despite its brevity actually has a lot of truth in it: think globally, act locally. We are not in Paris. But we are here. And we can choose this day, and each day, how we will live in the world. And we can choose how we will give of ourselves in every part of our lives.

We can choose love. We can choose understanding. We can choose generosity. And we can choose to invest all of us in the people and things that we believe in.

But more simply, we can choose to live like scribes, with closed hearts, and actions that cost us nothing. Or we can choose to live like the faithful widow, who believed God would bless even those two small coins she put in the plate. We can choose to live with our fears in charge. Or we can can choose to love with our hearts wide open. The choice is ours. And the prayer that is our lives starts now. Amen?

Through the Fire: A Sermon on the Book of Daniel, November 8, 2015

Daniel 3:19-27

19 Then Nebuchadnezzar was so filled with rage against Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego that his face was distorted. He ordered the furnace heated up seven times more than was customary, 20 and ordered some of the strongest guards in his army to bind Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and to throw them into the furnace of blazing fire. 21 So the men were bound, still wearing their tunics, their trousers, their hats, and their other garments, and they were thrown into the furnace of blazing fire. 22 Because the king’s command was urgent and the furnace was so overheated, the raging flames killed the men who lifted Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. 23 But the three men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, fell down, bound, into the furnace of blazing fire.

24 Then King Nebuchadnezzar was astonished and rose up quickly. He said to his counselors, “Was it not three men that we threw bound into the fire?” They answered the king, “True, O king.” 25 He replied, “But I see four men unbound, walking in the middle of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the fourth has the appearance of a god.” 26 Nebuchadnezzar then approached the door of the furnace of blazing fire and said, “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, servants of the Most High God, come out! Come here!” So Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego came out from the fire. 27 And the satraps, the prefects, the governors, and the king’s counselors gathered together and saw that the fire had not had any power over the bodies of those men; the hair of their heads was not singed, their tunics[f] were not harmed, and not even the smell of fire came from them.

At the risk of offending our science teachers in the congregation, I was never a good chemistry student. I struggled with the class. For some reason the formulas with the chemical reactions never made sense to me. And the experiments we did in the lab I just never got exactly right. They would work for my lab partner, but they never ended up working for me.

But I remember one thing I learned in the labs. There were these little tiny white porcelain cups that we used to heat things up in experiments. You would put the elements into them, and hold them over the bunsen burner with tongs. And it never seemed like they should be able to withstand the heat, but they always did. Even when whatever was inside of them changed or evaporated, they remained unbroken.

They were called “crucibles”. And they seemed to be able to withstand the hottest of flames.

I think about those crucibles when I read the book of Daniel, and particularly today’s passage. Daniel and his friends had been plucked out of an occupied Jerusalem and taken to Babylon, the home of their occupiers. And in Babylon they are being taught about a culture that is not their own. More than that, they are being taught to reject where they came from. But Daniel and his friends resist; in fact they refuse to even eat the food of the oppressor.

So, as you can imagine, Daniel and his friends sort of developed a reputation as troublemakers. And they go back and forth with the King, Nebuchadnezzar, who can’t decide if he believes in their God or not. And this all comes to a head when Daniel’s three friends refuse to bow down and worship a statue of the king, because to do so would be blasphemous for them. And so the king becomes so angry that he throws those three friends friends, Shadrack, Meschach, and Abednego into a fiery furnace.

So, that should be the end of them, right? You get thrown into a fire that hot, and you are not going to make it out.

Daniel's friends, Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin

Daniel’s friends, Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin

But when the king looks into the furnace the men are fine. They are walking around in the midst of the flames, and they are untouched by it. And a fourth person is walking with them, and Scripture tells us that he looked “like the Son of God”. And so, the king has the men pulled out of the fire. Alive. And even the king changes his mind, and stops forcing them to worship other gods.

So, it’s a great story. But what does it mean for us? I mean, if one of us ever got thrown into a furnace, I think we’d pretty much be toast. But, maybe the truth of this story doesn’t come from the literal, fiery details, but from an even more powerful truth.

Because the reality is that I think each of us has had to walk through a fire at one time or another. And many of us have nearly been destroyed by the flames.

That’s true for me. Some of you know that a little over a week ago I sat on one of the We the People panel discussions on the addiction crisis in our area. And you know that I told my own story, one of a recovering alcoholic.

When I was in my late teens and into my 20’s I drank a little. And then I drank a little more. And then I drank a lot. But I was lucky. I had friends and mentors who loved me enough to tell me I needed to stop, and who helped me to get into recovery, and to get sober.

Because of that, the days I didn’t have a drink turned into months. And the months turned into years. And today, the idea of a drink holds no appeal for me.

But those first days and weeks? That was hard. And those times of having to look inward and face the things that drinking made easier? That was even harder. It was as though I spent each day walking through the flames. But I kept walking, surrounded by others, and the flames never consumed me.

When I became a pastor, people told me not to tell anyone this story. “You’ll never be called anywhere,” they said. “People will think less of you.” “It will make people feel uncomfortable.”

But for me, I knew I couldn’t help but tell this story. I don’t tell it to draw attention to myself or my past, but instead to say, “look, I know what it is like to walk through the flames…and I know what it’s like to survive.”

I’ve always been open about my sobriety because recovery is the best evidence I have in my life that God’s grace is real. Why would I ever try to hide that?

And yet, too often we who are Christians hide our struggles. And the trouble with that is we also hide our victories. And sometimes there are people all around us who need to see those victories, and who need someone who has been through the same thing to walk with them through the flames.

One of my favorite TV shows of all times is West Wing. And one of my favorite characters is the president’s chief of staff, a recovering alcoholic and addict named Leo. In one episode when another staffer deals with post traumatic stress disorder he hides it from the others because he is worried it will threaten his career. But Leo sees what is happening, and gets him help. And he tells him this story:

“This guy’s walking down a street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep, he can’t get out. A doctor passes by, and the guy shouts up, “Hey you, can you help me out?” The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a priest comes along, and the guy shouts up “Father, I’m down in this hole, can you help me out?” The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a friend walks by. “Hey Joe, it’s me, can you help me out?” And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, “Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.” The friend says, “Yeah, but I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out.”

And then Leo says:

“Long as I got a job, you got a job, you understand?”
Sometimes in the church we worry that if we are honest about our lives, and if we are honest with our struggles, we will not be accepted any longer. For some reason we’ve come to believe that church people are perfect, and holy, and sinless. But that’s just not true, and it never has been. Because church is not about dressing up, and looking holy one hour a week. Church is for people who need God’s grace the most. People like me. And people like you.

Or, to put it another way, “long as I got a church, you got a church.”

At the beginning I was talking about chemistry class, and that tool we called the crucible. It was the container that could literally survive the fires that would destroy anything else.

When the king looked into the furnace he saw a third figure walking with the three friends. There was someone there with them in the midst of their fear, and certain destruction. There was someone there who could help them to survive the crucible that they had been cast into. And I truly believe that was some manifestation of God, walking alongside them in their greatest trials. Standing in the midst of the crucible with them.

We understand crucibles not just as physical objects, but also as experiences which push us to our brink, and transform us. And, while we would never willingly choose them, and while we do not deserve them, they can transform us in powerful ways. But it depends who is with us in those flames.

The comedian Stephen Colbert gave an interview recently where he talked about his faith. And he talked about how his father and brothers were killed in a plane crash when he was young. And he recalled the way his mother’s faith, a faith that never once denied the pain and tragedy, had sustained him in the years to come. He said, “by her example am I not bitter. By her example. She was not. Broken, yes. But bitter, no.”

Hemingway said the world breaks us all, but some become “strong at the broken places”. He was right. But the best strength, the best repair I know, comes from our faith. And that is especially true when we have others beside us who walk through the same flames, who fall in the same holes, and who rise again like Phoenixes from the more hopeless of places and who show us how to do the same.

That’s what church is all about. It’s about the worst the world can do to us. And it’s about our resurrections. It’s about emerging from the crucible, and thriving. I think there’s a lot of poetic resonance in the fact that the very word “crucible” comes from the Latin word “crux”. Or, translated, “cross”. And who better to guide us through the flames than the one who overcame the cross, and the community he has called to be his body?

We will all walk through the flames. We will all face crucibles that will threaten to destroy us. We will all have pain. But because we are the church, we will always have a place to go, filled with people who have been here before.

So, tell your stories. Tell about the times God has lifted you up. Tell of the saints who have walked with you on the way. And walk through the flames, knowing that they will not consume you, and that, indeed, you can thrive. 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?

Stumbling Blocks and Stepping Stones

The following was preached on Sunday, September 27, 2015 at the Congregational Church in Exeter.

Mark 9:38-42
9:38 John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”

9:39 But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.

9:40 Whoever is not against us is for us.

9:41 For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.

9:42 “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.
In seminary we were taught to never preach a sermon that didn’t give the people who heard it reason to hope. In preaching classes we would preach, and then we would subject ourselves to a sort of “brutal grace” in which our classmates and professors would all tell us what we could have done better. The one question that seemed to come up the most was, “But what hope will people take from that sermon?”

What’s true of young seminarians is also true of just about all of us. We sometimes struggle to find, and talk about, hope. And when people do talk about it, it sometimes sounds a bit disingenuous. It becomes the stuff of commercial sound bites and political campaigns. Buy this and you’ll be a better person, or vote for me and you’ll have a better country.

And so it sometimes sounds naive to talk about hope. We probably talk more about false hope on a daily basis than we do about hope, and that’s sad. But maybe we do that because along the way we have had too many experiences of putting our hope in the wrong places and we are all a little more streetwise for it. We start to believe more in the inevitability of everything going wrong than we do in hope. And gradually, we become people of fear.

Today’s Scripture text puts, quite literally, the fear of God into us. And yet, at it’s heart, I believe it’s one about hope.

Jesus is teaching the disciples and he says something that has always struck me with fear: “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.”

That’s a frightening visual. Have you ever seen a millstone? They are huge and heavy, and no one could help but sink if they had it around their necks. And yet, Jesus tells us that that would be better than what would happen if we put a stumbling block before a child.

Now, it’s never said explicitly that he is talking about children there. In face, he may well have been talking about all believers, but I love the idea that maybe Jesus was talking about children. This was, after all, the same Jesus who told his disciples to let the little children come onto him, something so remarkable for a time when children were treated as little more than property.

And it’s fitting for today too. Because every time we baptize a child in this church it’s a tremendously happy occasion, and our joy today is literally doubled as we baptize twins. Today their parents are making vows to raise them in this faith, but we also once again make the vows as a congregation to help them do just that. They become, in a very real way, our spiritual responsibility.

And so, that line from Jesus might be hitting a little close to home right now. Because the hard truth is this: at some time or another, with these children or with others, we are all going to take our turns at being stumbling blocks.

We won’t mean to, of course. But we will indeed mess up. Every parent does. Every grandparent does. And every loving adult in a child’s life does at one time or another. We use harsher words than we mean to. We make light of something that is important. Or we fail to make time when it’s needed the most.

I remember when I missed up like that once. Earlier in my ministry I was working with a young child who had been through a series of foster homes and had lived through trauma and losses of trust that no child should. And he kept trying to use my computer while we were supposed to be working on something else. I was trying to redirect him but he kept asking me for the password. And finally, without really thinking, I told what I thought was a little white lie, meant to divert his attention away from the computer and back to the task at hand. I said I didn’t know the password.

And that was fine. For a while. Until he saw me log in. And he looked at me, and I could see how upset he was, and he said “you lied to me!” And I knew that he had been lied to so many other times in his life, and I had just become one more adult who did the same to him. And I felt like that millstone that Jesus talked about had landed right on top of me.

He forgave me. But I never forgot that. And I came to understand that messing up was inevitable. We are all going to do it. But in the end, what matters most is that we never destroy a child’s hope. Because when we do that, that’s when Jesus says it would be better for the millstone to be around our necks.

Now, for most of us here, more mainline and progressive Christians, that might be hard to hear. We don’t really talk about any kind of divine punishment or “hell” in our tradition. And when we do it’s not a lake of fire like you may hear about in other churches. Instead, hell is the absence of God. It is the absence of hope. And in in so many ways, that’s the worst sort of hell imaginable. And I often wonder whether hell isn’t as much a place of this world as it is of the next. Because far too many people live without hope. It’s like a millstone around their necks.

And so often that millstone weighs so heavily around us that we can’t help but let it get in the way. And we teach our children that hope is indeed absent. We don’t think that’s what we’re doing. We think we are teaching them to be tough. We talk about the real world. But so often we cross that line, and teach them to be cynical and jaded way too early.

IMG_2511We take their hope away. We become stumbling blocks on their paths. We take away what they think is possible. And in doing so we shape what they believe is possible and impossible in their future, just a little at a time. And we make the world just a little less bright both for them and for us.

And so I think about those words from seminary; “Never preach a sermon that leaves people without hope”, and I realize that the same could be said for all of us, for the ways each of us preaches the sermon of our lives, especially to the young people around us: never do anything that takes hope away from them.

The biggest mistakes we make are the ones that take hope away from the young. And I don’t just mean in our daily lives, and in our own interactions with young people. I mean in all of our lives.

Look, for instance, at what we are doing to our very planet. Look at the ways generations have used it unwisely, and with thought only for themselves. And look at what we are preparing to hand over to the ones who will follow us. Will they receive this world with gratitude and hope? Or with fear, and resignation?

I hope it’s the former. I hope that they will hope in a better future. And I hope that they will live as people of hope.

But hope is more than just wishful thinking. Hope is a form of action. And we must hope a better future into being for the ones who shall inherit the earth. Because the children of today are the keepers of the promises and possibilities that will shape our lives.

And so we, you and I, must also become people of hope. We must become not stumbling blocks but stepping stones. We must become teachers of hope. Because if we want these children to live in hope, then we must become ever-present examples of hopeful people.

We can become the biggest cheerleaders to our young people. We can become the ones who encourage them to do the things that are hard. We can be consistent in our encouragement, and our prayers for them. We can be loving and honest, even on our hardest days. And we can make this world the sort of place that they will inherit with hope, and not fear. And we can start today.

Because today we are making hopeful promises. We are telling the two children we are baptizing today, by this action that they are too young to understand, that there is hope in Christ. We are telling them that even though they don’t yet know what it will look like, there are lives ahead of them that are worth putting their hopes in, because they will be filled with the hope of Christ and because we cannot yet know how good that will be. And we are telling them, as Christ’s people, as the ones who have been claimed by God, that we will work to build a world for them that is full of hope.

That is what baptism is about. It’s God’s claim of hope on our lives. That is what those waters symbolize today for our newest brother and sister in Christ. And that’s what our baptisms symbolize in all of us.

Before I came here, I lived in the mountains of Vermont. And I learned something watching the rivers there. I learned about how slowly, over hundreds of years, water can wear away stone, carry it out to sea, and form a new landscape.

That’s even true for millstones. As big and cumbersome as they are, in the end they are no match for relentless waters. And what better water to wash them away, then the waters of baptism. The waters of hope. They are washing over me, and they are washing over you. And they are taking away the stumbling blocks, renewing us and giving us hope. And it’s that hope that we can give to the next generation. Amen?

Alarming and Amazing: A Sermon for Easter Sunday, 2015

Mark 16:1-8
16:1 When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him.

16:2 And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb.

16:3 They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?”

16:4 When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back.

16:5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed.

16:6 But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him.

16:7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”

16:8 So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to any one, for they were afraid.

It is Easter Sunday in the church. It’s the day of flowers and trumpets, Easter egg hunts and the Alleluia chorus. It is a day of joy, one without compare, and no celebration is too big on this holiest of Sundays.

But I’d like for you to humor me for a moment, because before I talk about Sunday, first I was to talk about Thursday.

Last Thursday night we had our annual Holy Week Tenebrae service here. In that service the Gospel story of Christ’s last hours is told in pieces, and one by one the lights here in the sanctuary are lowered until we are left in almost total darkness. And Thursday night we left the sanctuary in silence and we waited for Good Friday, and for the day when the world did the worst it could to a man who was God’s love personified.

We do that in the church during Holy Week. We go through the motions of remembering Christ’s betrayal, and suffering, and death. And we are remembering something from the past, something that happened all those centuries ago. But in a larger way, we are telling a story that still makes sense today.

Because the reality is that though today is Easter morning, we live in a Good Friday world so much of the time. We live in a world where violence, addiction, injustice, hatred and poverty all too often surround us. A world where we see pain and suffering up close. And a world that some days may feel just as dark as the sanctuary was on Thursday night, and just as dark as the tomb was all those centuries ago.

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

The Gospel today tells us that on the morning after the Sabbath, on the first day that they could, three women went to the tomb where Jesus had been buried. One of them was Mary Magdalene, and another was Mary, the mother of Jesus. And they hadn’t been able to properly prepare him for burial on Friday and so there they were, his mother and two women who had loved him, grieving deeply for Jesus and all the hope they had lost when he died. And they were trying desperately to just be able to say goodbye properly; to just have that one moment.

And as they walked they had one big problem: They didn’t know how to roll the stone away from the tomb.

That was a problem because in front of the tomb, the people who had buried Jesus had put this huge, heavy stone blocking the entrance. And they just had no idea how they were going to move that, and how they were going to be able to get in to prepare Jesus’ body.

And it’s while they are still trying to figure out how to do it, while they are really just talking about logistics, that they come upon the tomb and discover something shocking: the stone is gone! And they walk into the tomb and Jesus is nowhere in sight. Instead a man dressed in a robe is just sitting there.

Scripture tells us that the women were quote-unquote “alarmed”.

That’s one way to put it.

My guess, though, is that as they stood there in that empty tomb, with a stone inexplicably rolled away and the body of their son and brother gone, they were more than a little “alarmed”.

And the guy in the glowing white robe, the one they’ve never seen before, very helpfully says to them, “Don’t be alarmed!”

(I could be wrong, but I think “don’t be alarmed” is sort of the Biblical equivalent of, “Don’t be mad…I can explain this.”)

So, “Don’t be alarmed,” he says, “you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised. He is not here.”

He tells the women to go on ahead to Galilee, and tell the other disciples. And he tells them, “you will see him there!”

And Scripture tells us that they did something that may seem surprising: they ran away, and they were afraid.

IMG_5277_2The three women had just seen the most unimaginable, amazing thing they had ever seen. They’d been given news that was literally unbelievable. And contrary to the way we think of Easter, their first reaction was not joy or awe or celebration. It was alarm. And fear.

Truth be told, I think I would be alarmed too. Because none of this makes sense. Stones don’t roll away on their own. People don’t rise from the dead. And, and this is the big one, we don’t get the kind of second chances that they’d just been given.

Because that’s what Resurrection is all about. It’s about second chances. It’s about a new lease on life. It’s about the world meeting God’s love in the flesh and responding not with joy but with fear. And it’s about that love still having the last word anyway, and even then not to condemn us, but to love us even more.

It’s about the biggest, heaviest, most immobile stones in our lives being rolled aside like they are nothing. Because, compared to God’s love for us, they are.

Most Christians would say that the cross is the sign of our faith. But I’ve heard it said before that maybe there should be another one. And, maybe, it should be a stone.

Because in the end even the cross could not destroy God’s love. And it is that rolled away stone that tells us that truth.

And so, here we are, about 2,000 years later after that first Easter morning. And despite all that has happened since, despite every attempt of the world to roll that stone back and seal love into that tomb, it hasn’t happened yet. And even in the hardest of days, God’s love still somehow rises again.

That is amazing. And, truth be told, that is alarming. And here’s why: because it means there is hope. And hope is messy business.

It’s messy because here is what hope does: it makes you change your plans. Hope makes you go from someone who is walking to the tomb of their friend to perform one of the saddest final acts of love imaginable to someone who is running from the graveyard believing that maybe, just maybe, what that man in white said is true. Maybe Resurrection is real.

You go from accepting as inevitable the worst case scenario to believing in the possibility of new life.

And you go from the comfort of complacency, to the affliction of knowing there is something better waiting.

Resurrection is joyful.

Eventually.

But, truth be told, first it shakes you up and it changes everything. It is “alarming”. But maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

I was curious about that word “alarming” this week, and so I went back to the original language, the Greek in which the New Testament was first written. And like so many things, that word doesn’t exactly translate well. Because the original word that was used when they first wrote this story down can mean “alarmed” but it can also mean something else: “amazed”.

I don’t think it’s an accident that you can confuse the two. Because when it comes to Resurrection, when it comes to the new life that is offered in Christ’s love, “alarmed” and “amazed” are two sides of the same coin. It is amazing, but the alarming part is that once you know Resurrection, nothing will ever be the same again.

Because the truth is this: at some point in our lives, we have all been in the tombs. We have given up hope, we have felt pain, we have lost what we loved. We have questioned how a world can allow so much suffering. And, perhaps, we’ve wondered where God is in all of it.

That’s human. And that’s what any good person would ask. But it’s not the end of the story. Because the end of the story, and the start of a whole new one, comes from the man who sits in that same tomb saying “he’s not here…he’s been raised.”

And so, you get to choose whether you will be too. You are a part of this Resurrection. You are called to something better with God. And it may at times be alarmingly difficult, but it will be amazing.

And soon, you will see the signs of Resurrection all around you, in the most surprising of places. You will see it at the bedside of the 82 year old man who on Palm Sunday seemed headed for the grave but who on Good Friday was sitting up in his hospital bed talking and laughing.

You will see it in the face of the addict who is able to put down what was killing her and to live life clean and sober.

You will meet it in the form of the high school youth at our lock-in on Friday, who talked to me about their commitment to standing up to bullying if they see it at their school.

You will hear it in the words of the one who once hated those who were different from them, but now sees the image of God reflected back in every person they meet.

Ice thawing on Easter morning on the Squamscott River.

Ice thawing on Easter morning on the Squamscott River.

And you will even see it in the thawing river and the melting snowbanks, because even God’s creation itself knows about Resurrection, and it cannot keep quiet.

This Resurrection stuff; it’s everywhere if you look for it. And it’s waiting for you to walk past the rolled away stones, come out into the world, and be a part of it too. Because we have all been invited to this Resurrection. All of us. The stones keeping us in our tombs have been rolled away, and a new day is waiting.

Alleluia Christ is risen…may we rise with him. And may we be amazed. Amen.