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?

Donald Trump and the Gratitude Gap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is called grace.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We need leaders who live lives of gratitude.

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

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

Ash Wednesday vs. the Primary (A Homily About Being Told What We Don’t Want to Hear)

So, it may just be me, but if feels like there are less people here in New Hampshire than there were yesterday. The cable news vans are gone. No one is speaking at town hall. Even the commercials are off the air.

For campaigns the run-up to yesterday’s Primary began a year ago, or more in some instances. And, despite the fact I have voted in every major election I could have since I was 18, I have never felt more popular as a voter than I did in the past few months in New Hampshire. Everyone wanted a minute of my time. Everyone wanted to tell me how they would make things better. And everyone wanted to tell me exactly what I wanted to hear.

But today, one day later, no one is telling me what I want to hear anymore. At least, not here in New Hampshire. The show has moved on to Nevada and South Carolina, and people will be hearing exactly what they want to heard state by state throughout the spring.

Now, before we New Hampshirites feel too badly about being left behind, I want to argue that maybe the timing of this year’s Primary, and this year’s observance of Ash Wednesday, is incredibly poetic for us. Overnight we have gone from being told all the things that we want to hear, and all the ways we are wonderful and powerful and important, to perhaps the one thing that more than anything else we don’t want to hear: that we are mortal.

“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

It’s not a slogan that’s going to win any elections. No one is going to put it on a bumper sticker or a yard sign. It’s not something we like to acknowledge. And yet, maybe it is the one thing that we need to hear more than anything else in the world.

The reality is that this world is bigger than we are, and has been around far longer than us as well. And one day, when we draw our last breath and return to dust, the world will go on. At some level, no matter how comfortable we might be with that, it’s still a little terrifying.

And so this ritual that we take part in once a year? It’s terrifying too. Put it in plain terms: earlier today I took the left over palms from last year’s Palm Sunday service, and I burned them on the front steps of the church offices. Then, Cat and I mixed them with oil. And in just a few minutes I am going to invite each of you forward, and smear these palm ashes on your forehead in the shape of a cross while telling you that one day you are going to be dust.

12715285_10101107105583378_7085126143383140490_nMaybe it’s no wonder that this isn’t the service that draws the big crowds. Easter and Christmas make sense to us, but this day? Not so much. And every year, no matter what church I’ve been at, I always overhear people who say they won’t come to this service.

And that’s okay. But I always feel a little sad about that because the truth is that Ash Wednesday, as much as it makes us hear a hard truth, also teaches us something beautiful. Ash Wednesday, like the Apostle Paul, says that nothing, not even death, can separate us from the love of God.

And if you are really listening closely, it also tells you this: we are more than we think we are.

The one from whose love we can never be separated is the one who created us, and it is to that Creator that we will someday return. When you think about that, that is an amazing comfort. It’s a reminder that “in life and in death we belong to God”, and there can be no better source for hope or joy than God.

But this is about more than just where we are going. On Ash Wednesday we must not dwell on death but instead embrace this life too. And so, on this day we are reminded most of all about two things: whose we are, and how to live in this world knowing that.

In that sense Lent is about something that might scare us even more than the thought that one day we will be dust. That something is “humility”.

Humility isn’t an easy thing for us to think about. We hear it and we conflate it with humiliation, or a brutal way of putting someone in their place. In that light we might think that this whole ritual tonight is a kind of religious humiliation where we are told we are dust and physically marked as such.

But this is humility, not humiliation. And those are two very different things.

Far from ripping us down, true humility is about being what some would call “right sized”. It’s about knowing that, to be sure, we are not God. But it is also about knowing that we are loved by God and marked as God’s own children. These ashes are not marks of shame; they are marks of our own identity.

They are also signs in a world where out-of-control egos reign supreme, and where people will rush to tell us exactly what we want to hear, that God loves us too much for that. God won’t let us settle for what gives us happiness for the moment. God wants us to have real, sustaining joy.

The crosses are our signs that we are not our own, but we aren’t for sale either. We belong only to God, and we trust only in God’s promises. Beyond that, they signify that we are here not for our own agenda, or even a party or group’s agenda, but only in order that we would find God’s agenda for us and for all of God’s children. The ashes are a reminder of who we are, and who and whose we serve.

Like I said, none of what I’ve just told you would ever win an election. A cross of ashes is never going to replace a catchy campaign pin. But then again, we’re being called to something a little bigger here. Something that existed before any of us, and something that will go on long after. That may not be the words that we want to hear, but they are the words we need to hear. And they are the words that can begin the process of transforming us this Lent, if only we will let them. Amen?

Reclaiming Progressive Christianity, Starting with Remembering Our Values

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post that two weeks later is still getting a lot of traffic. The title of the piece is “I Don’t Think I Want to Be a Progressive Christian Anymore“, and it is an accurate depiction of how I was feeling at the time. After a little time, though, I’m realizing I was wrong: I do still want to be a progressive Christian.

But here’s the challenge; in the very recent past the term “progressive Christian” has come to be conflated with “emergent Christian” and “post-evangelical Christian”. And I’m not saying that you can’t be one of those things and also be a progressive Christian. This is a big tent movement, and you can. But I am saying that it’s not right to co-opt a term that has been used for several generations to define a theological movement for your own benefit. And it’s especially not right to do it when you are not familiar with, or not willing to honor, the values that progressive Christianity has been trying to model for the larger church for years.

10245585_250411955164792_8829165948251833523_nMy elders in the progressive Christian movement, some of whom are now dead and cannot speak for themselves, deserve more than to have their legacies misrepresented by those who never knew them. And those of us who came of age in the progressive movement over the last few decades are now being called on to bear witness to the history and values of this tradition, and to help to articulate a vision for the future for the movement.

So, I think I do still want to be a progressive Christian. But I want to say a little about what I understand that term to mean, starting with a few values I’ve learned along the way. Here is what I think the progressive church is called to be:

– Transparent

The progressive church has taught me again and again that Jesus’ was right when he said “the truth shall set you free”. It has also taught me that “sunlight is the best disinfectant”. One of the Christian men I respect most has a habit of telling organizations with which he works that “I will not be your institution’s secret keeper”. They hire him anyway, and they’re better for it.

– Accountable

We don’t just answer to ourselves (or kid ourselves and others by saying “I answer to God”). We need accountability from our peers. Denominations get a bad rap with some, but a healthy denomination is one of the best ways of making sure that a Christian leader will be held accountable to a high standard. It’s when a clergy person or other leader becomes a long ranger that the trouble happens.

– Prophetic

Wayne Gretzky famously said, “I skate to where the puck is going; not to where it has been.” For progressive Christians that means that we have to be future focused, and innovative. For instance, the progressive church started talking about LGBT rights in the early 1970’s. By contrast, some well-known leaders who are now claiming the progressive labels have just come forward as allies in the last several years. That’s not being prophetic. That’s being popular.

– Repentant

We will make mistakes. We will fail people who could have used our voices. But when that happens, we need to be the first to stand up and apologize. As a former Presbyterian pastor, I often saw people who sat in positions of power never speak as allies. In the past few years many have now come out as allies, which is great. But sometimes I just want a little acknowledgement that they regret not having done so earlier. Likewise, I know there are probably many things I am not doing now that I should be. When I realize what they are, I hope I have the character to confess, apologize, and make amends.

– Humble

True humility is not about putting yourself down; it’s about raising others up. And what I valued most about the progressive leaders in the generations before mine was their humility. They admitted there were things they did not know. They listened to those who were marginalized in some way. And they stepped aside and gave up the mic when they didn’t know from firsthand experience what they were talking about. (And they never drew attention to themselves when they did it.)

– Witness-oriented

The other thing I learned from progressive Christian leaders over the past twenty years is that they were never, ever, interested in celebrity. In fact, they were quick to shy away from the lime-light. They didn’t mind teaching, or speaking, but only if it helped others in their Christian journey. Karl Barth kept a picture of John the Baptist above his desk. In that picture John was pointing towards Christ. For Barth it was a reminder that the task of every Christian was not to gain followers for one’s self, but instead to use one’s life in order to witness to, and glorify, Christ.

– Bold

The progressive Christians I have know are bold people. That’s different than being brash or provocative. Instead, being bold is about being willing to risk one’s status or power for what one believes is right. In the 1990’s and early 2000’s I watched people risk their pulpits and ordinations to stand up for people like me. Some of these same people had done the same thing a 35 years before that when they stood up against segregation. They weren’t fearless; they were scared to death. But they did it anyway. They are some of bravest people I have ever met, and few in my generation can hold a candle to them.

– Non-idolatrous

The progressive Christians who taught me were also well-trained Reformed theologians. They lectured constantly about the importance of confronting idols. And they practiced what they preached. They refused to worship anything other than Christ. They would not worship at the altar of money. They refused to collude with empire, as Walter Wink taught us, choosing instead to confront it. They would not profit on the backs of others, particularly those who have been in any way marginalized. They did not seek power or status or comfort. They sought only God’s will for God’s people.

– Hopeful

When Rev. John Robinson sent the Pilgrims, ancestors of today’s progressive Reformed Christians, off across the ocean he said God had “more truth and light yet to break forth out of (God’s) holy Word”. It was a message of hope. And hope is central to the message of progressive Christianity. Every piece of writing, every sermon, every speech must point to the fact that our hope comes not from our own words, but from the one who is constantly working in this world to create all things anew. And living into that hope means that we get to make the choice to either participate in that work joyfully, or get out of the way.

– Community focused

Progressive Christians value the life and stories of the individual, but we also highly value the community. Our interdependence on one another is what makes us stronger, not weaker. And so we need the voices of many, and not just a few. And so, because progressive Christianity is bigger than any one of us, this needs to be a group discussion. What values would you add? I’d love for you to tell us all about them below.

Journey Through Lent: Days 24-28

Copyright, Salon.com (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

Copyright, Salon.com (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

Note: Sorry for the lack of posts the past few days. I’m catching up after being quite sick.

The cardinals appeared on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica on Wednesday, and announced that they had chosen Jorge Bergoglio to be the next Pope of the Roman Catholic Church. And then they announced his newly-chosen name: Francis.

The symbolism was not lost on those of us who are modern-day fans of a twelfth century saint. St. Francis of Assisi valued humility, simplicity, compassion, and care for the poor. The religious order he founded, the Franciscans, has continued his work for centuries, and Francis has come to be an example of what it means to live a Gospel life.

When I was 17, and exploring Christianity for the first time, I read the Prayer of St. Francis during a worship service. (There is some debate over whether or not Francis actually wrote it, but it’s clear it was written by one of his followers and embodies his spirit.) It’s sheer simplicity and beauty of ideals profoundly moved me, and shook my world. I knew then, for sure, that I wanted to be a Christian. It begins, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,” and continues with a litany of choosing love for other over love of comfort. It’s a prayer about humility, in the best sense of the word.

So far, Pope Francis seems to be seriously trying to emulate his namesake. He chose the bus instead of the Papal limousine. He insisted on paying his own hotel bill. He asked for the blessing of the people before blessing them. It’s a very public statement, repudiating what many feel have been the excesses of the Vatican in recent years. And it’s a humility that is refreshing in religious leaders of all faith traditions.

When I talk about humility, I’m sometimes met with a strong backlash in progressive church circles. “Humility” is sometimes confused with “humiliation”, or a desire to make one’s self lesser. I’ve been chided, “Why shouldn’t we be great? God has created us in God’s own image!”

And, that’s true. But that also points to the fact that as a culture we don’t understand what humility really means. Humility isn’t about denying that we are good (or perhaps even great) or wearing sackcloth and ashes. It isn’t about self-flagellation and low self-esteem. Rather, humility is about refusing to deny who others are, and refusing to see them as any less created in the image of God than you.

It’s not about making ourselves “less”. It’s about making everyone “more”.

There is a story about St. Francis that reminds me of this. In a time and place of great poverty, he was once invited to an extravagant meal with other clergy. As plates were filled at the banquet, he quietly put some crumbs on his own plate and began to eat them. Eventually his dinner companions observed this, and stopped eating. How could they, the ones entrusted to serving God’s people, really claim to be following Christ when other children of God were outside starving?

My guess is St. Francis wasn’t trying to humiliate the other clergy (though they may indeed have been embarrassed.) My guess is that for him personally his understanding of Christian faith meant he could not have done any differently. We know that he was not a killjoy, or a man who disregarded the beauty of creation. In fact, he seemed to delight in it more than others. But we also know he was a man who couldn’t stomach ostentation in the face of pain.

There’s something valuable about that distinction. Many twelve step communities teach about the importance of becoming “right sized”. That means not thinking too highly of yourself, but it also means not thinking too little of yourself as well. It means coming to see yourself as you are: a beloved, worthy, child of God. And it means coming to see others the same way. And then acting accordingly.

So far, Pope Francis has been a good reminder of what it means to right-sized. I’m eager to keep watching him. Though I’m not a Catholic, I’m always genuinely inspired by followers of Christ who try to live lives of true humility, and true right-sizedness. I hope, for both the sake of his church and the church universal, that he lives into the name he has chosen for himself. And I hope all of us who follow the same Christ as Francis did might find something life-giving there too.