Better Than a Bumper Sticker: Sermon for April 24, 2016

When I lived in Atlanta, a lot of churches had bumper stickers that members would put on their cars as a form of advertising. Other Christians would just put another ubiquitous symbol, the Christian fish, on their bumper. Decorating your car in order to tell the whole world you were a Christian was apparently a big deal for a lot of people.

At about this same time I was getting ready to head off to seminary, and a friend of mine was working as a barista in a coffee shop. She would frequently tell me stories of customers who were rude to her and to her co-workers. These were people who would yell at the staff for minor mistakes, get angry when their orders were taking too long, or complain about prices.

The worst days, though, were when she had to work the drive-thru. People were particularly rude there, perhaps because they felt like they had more distance from the employees and more anonymity. But there’s one thing they couldn’t hide: those bumper stickers on the backs of their cars.

And so one day my friend said to me: “You know, every time someone in the drive-thru line is rude to us, I just look at the back of their car…and it’s always one of your people.”

Ouch. And yet, you can’t argue with what she saw. We all fall short from time to time, but the behavior of those people in the drive thru line who professed to love Jesus so much was a little less than loving when it came to everyone else.

The irony, of course, is that Jesus was pretty clear about this whole love thing, and he was very clear it wasn’t meant to only be for him.

In today’s passage, Jesus tells his disciples “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

In other words, Jesus tells us that the way people will know we are his followers is simply this: how well we love.

It means the measure of who we are as Christians is not what we say on Sunday mornings or whether we wear a cross around our necks or anything like that. We don’t profess our faith by symbols because Jesus says none of those things will identity us as his followers. To put it another way, talk is cheap. So are bumper stickers or Facebook memes or anything else that requires little more than passivity from us.

But action…action isn’t cheap. And it also isn’t easy.

Love isn’t either. Not the kind Jesus is talking about here, anyway. It’s easy to love our families, and our friends, even when they do things that hurt us. It’s harder to love the people we don’t like very much.

Don’t believe me? Think of the political candidate in this presidential election that you most dislike, the one whose values are so antithetical to yours. Now think about loving them.

It’s not for the feint of heart, is it? And yet, Jesus requires nothing less of us. We can disagree with one another, we can think the other is dead wrong, we can find nothing in common with them…and yet, if we are serious about following Jesus, we have to love them.

Now expand that out even further. We are called not to love just people, but whole groups of people. We are called to love this whole world. And in that sense, love is not a feeling alone, but it really is an action. It is our way of relating to the world, and it’s the world’s way of knowing who we really follow.

And yet, too often Christians are not exactly known for their love.

But have you ever noticed that a lot of people don’t trust Christians? I’ve been at dinner parties before where someone, before they knew what I did, made a comment about all clergy being con artists and all Christians being hypocrites.

IMG_0219

Christians protesting against equal marriage in New York, 2011.

 

They talk about all the bad things that have been done in the name of our faith: wars, discrimination, the treatment of women. Even now friends of mine are quick to remind me that new laws aimed to reinforce discrimination in places like North Carolina and Mississippi were authored by Christian.

I sort of understand what they’re saying about the hypocrisy. In a way it’s a good sign, because people know we are supposed to be better than that. People know we got our marching orders from a loving Christ who wanted us to be loving as well.

And the truth is this: we are hypocrites. We are, not because we are Christians, but because we are human. And being human means none of us is always the person we want to be.

But our job as Christians is to try anyway. It is to not only say the right things on Sunday mornings, but to live them out every of the week.

We won’t always get it right. None of us do. We may have the best of intentions, but when the rubber meets the road, it’s hard.

When we actually have to give up our time to go volunteer at the food pantry or anywhere else,we may sometimes find other things to do. When we are asked to open our checkbooks and help out, we might rationalize that we really would rather use that money for something fun. After all, we worked hard for it. When that friend comes to us needing someone to lean on, we might make excuses on why we can’t get together.

And yet, we try. And that’s a noble endeavor, to try to make sure your actions reflect who you say you are, and reflect the love of a Christ who first loved us.

That matters for our life together as a church too. A church should ideally be the kind of community where if someone walked through the doors, without us saying a word about what we believed, they would know we were Christians.

After all, that old song says, “they will know we are Christians by our love”. It doesn’t say, “they will know we are Christians because we say so.”

It means as well that churches exist not just for ourselves, in fact, not even primarily for ourselves, but for others. It means that when we measure who we are as a church community, we should start by asking what we have done for our neighbors, and for those who would hope to see the love of Christ.

That’s not always easy. And yet, if we are going to claim the title of Christian, it’s not optional. The world has plenty of self-avowed Christians. It needs more followers of Christ.

And so my question to you is this: how are we going to be people not of word and speech, but of active love? How are we going to be the people that our world needs us to be?

I think we as a church are already doing a lot to make sure we are not just paying lip service to the Gospel. We have missions we support. We give generously to the greater church. We open our doors to those who ask. And we have more ideas in the works.

But just as our community is always changing, God’s call to us is evolving as well. God is opening new doors to us so we can better serve our neighbors and our world. And as we talk as a community about what comes next for us, as we prepare for the church retreat this Saturday, I’m excited about what God is doing with us.

I know also that God has a plan for each one of us. I know God has brought you here today first for worship, but then also for service. The love of Christ may have gotten you here today, but God doesn’t want your Christian journey to end here in a church pew. God has something greater in store for you beyond these doors.

And so, every week the journey of faith starts here. But this is not where it ends. Think of your pew as your launching pad. Here we say, and sing, the words of our faith, we get ready to become people of loving action. And when you leave here, you go out into a world that needs that action. It’s a world that needs followers of Christ, not just Christians n name only.

The good news is you’re not in this alone. We are a community of people who want to do just that. We want to be people of action, not just words. But we need you, and we need everyone who comes through our doors. You are all a part of God’s call on this church, all a piece of the divine puzzle, and all important. God is ready to do great things in this church. Are you ready for God to do great things in you as well? I hope the answer is yes. For all of us, and for the world. Amen?

Faithful Work, Faithful Welcomes: Kim Davis, Aylan Kurdi, and all of us.

The following was preached as a sermon on September 6, 2015 at the Congregational Church in Exeter, NH.

James 2:1-4, 14-17
My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

When I started seminary, all the area churches came to campus to try to persuade the new students to worship with them. There happened to be a lot of churches from our denomination in town, and they always wanted seminarian members.

One of my classmates went to worship that Sunday at a church where most visitors did not stay for long. He found a pew somewhere in the middle of the congregation, and he sat down and got ready for worship to start. And that’s when a woman came down the aisle, and tapped him on the shoulder.

“Young man,” she said, “you are sitting in my pew! I’m going to have to ask you to move.”

Up until then I didn’t think that actually happened in real life, but it did. And my classmate, a very kind man, got up and gave her his seat. But that’s not the end of the story. Because the woman who had displaced him somehow found out that he was a seminarian visiting for the first time. And now she was embarrassed.

She came up to him and said, “Had I known you were a visiting seminarian, I would never have asked you to move!”

Today’s reading reminded me of that story. Like last week, we are in the Epistle of James, and this week we read this: “if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges?”

In other words, if anyone treats one stranger differently than another, especially over something as trivial as clothing, then that person is judging them. And it is not the place of a person, and especially of a Christian, to treat other children of God with anything less than dignity and respect.

That was the greater injustice of what happened to my classmate that day at that church. It’s one thing to be asked to move by someone who really likes their pew. It’s not what I hope would happen to a church visitor, but it’s the lesser of the problems here.

The greater was that the woman who did it was only sorry because she found out he was a seminarian, and she was embarrassed about the way she had treated a future member of the clergy, rather than the way she had treated a child of God.

The irony is that when it comes to making someone feel unwelcome in a church, seminarians and clergy are really your last concern. We’re coming back to some church regardless. We’re sort of a captive audience, no matter what you throw at us.

But what if he had been someone who for years had been trying to work up the courage to walk back into church? What if he had felt unwelcome before? What if he had felt so far from God that stepping into those doors had been an act of faith in and of itself? What then?

The way we treat people in our churches is just the start, though. It’s what we do in the world outside of our church doors that really matters. Because like I said last week, our actions speak louder than words. And our actions tell others what we really believe more than any statement of faith. And how we treat other people, particularly those who have nothing to give us, says the most of all.

I’ll tell you another seminary story. At my seminary we paid most of our tuition by working a few hours a week around campus. And one of the places most of us rotated through was the refectory, the seminary dining hall. And I almost always had the breakfast shift. I’d get up around 6am and sort of stumble over to the kitchen and serve eggs and bacon to the few of my classmates who got up in time.

And a few times a year the doctoral students, clergy members, would come to campus for intensive classes. They’d come to breakfast every morning, and mostly they were very pleasant. But one woman was not.

Each morning she’d work her way through the line barking orders at us. And each morning we’d fill her plate and roll our eyes and say nothing. But one morning a classmate of mine was in line before her. And he and I got to talking about an exam we had both just taken in a class.

I saw her eyes get big. And she said, “Are you students here?”

“Yes,” I told her, “Everyone who serves the food is a student here.”

Now she looked downright panicked. And all of a sudden she found her manners. Because now it occurred to her that she was being rude not just to a nameless server, but to her future colleague.

There’s an old saying that if you really want to know whether or not you should date someone, that them to dinner and watch how they treat the wait staff. I believe that. And that day in the refectory, I was pretty disillusioned about the clergy. And if seminary is dating, ordination is marriage. And I didn’t want to marry into that.

I didn’t want to be the sort of person who treated people differently based on what they could or could not do for me. I didn’t want it to matter whether or not they were like me. I wanted to love the way Jesus did, and does. I wanted to love my neighbor as myself. And I wanted to let that love to speak volumes about my faith. I didn’t want to be a hypocrite.

But the reality is that I am.

I don’t mean to be. It’s not intentional, anyway. But, I am. And it only took two things this week to remind me of that fact.

The first was watching the county clerk in Kentucky who, despite court orders, will not grant same-sex couples marriage licenses. And let me say first, that I think she’s dead wrong. I don’t think she’s being persecuted, and I don’t think her legal consequences have anything to do with her faith. I think this has to do with her being a civil servant who is using her position to impose her religion on others, and to deny their civil rights. Couples like Heidi and me. Couples like others in this church.

And so when people started to talk about what a hypocrite she was, and how she’d been married four times herself, I joined in. And when they said they hoped she would rot in jail, well, I didn’t go that far, but I understood the anger because I know what it’s like to not have my own marriage recognized.

But when they started to talk about her clothes. And her appearance. And when they made fun of her for being from Kentucky…well, that’s when it got a little less funny. And that’s when I thought about what would happen if she walked into my church, and whether I would give up my pew to her, and see her for the child of God that she is.

That was my first reminder.

Drawn by Rafat al-Khateeb

Drawn by Rafat al-Khateeb

The second was this. A picture of a lifeless child on a beach in Turkey. A refugee. A child who was not rich. Who did not possess the right passport. Who was seen, at least in the abstract, as a burden on the society his family risked their very lives to join.

And the first thing I thought about were our kids here at the church. And how much I really love them. And how this boy was the same age as some of them. And I thought about how I’d do anything in my power to save one of our kids from harm. And I thought about how this boy needed someone to do that for him too.

And then I thought about all the children throughout the world like him. Children on rafts coming from Syria. Children crossing the border into our country. Children right here in Exeter. And I thought about how all Jesus said was that we should welcome the children. And how he never added any qualifiers about which children.

Every child needs someone. Every child needs more than someone. They need all of us. And they need our moral courage.

The fact so many were more outraged this week by the fact that a government employee was asked to do her job than they were by a child who lost his life tells us just how much we miss the point sometimes.

Because we can talk about our faith all day, but unless we are doing something because of that faith, unless we are changing the way we interact with the world, then it’s just lip service. Because James is right: Faith without works is dead

James asks us, “What good is it… if you say you have faith but do not have works?…If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”

What good is it? What good is faith if it doesn’t change the world? What use is it if it only comforts us? What’s the point if we only pay attention on Sunday morning? If that’s the sort of faith we aspire to, faith on life support, then it’s time to let it die.

Because that’s not faith at all.

But if that’s not what we are looking for, if that’s not what we think God wants for us, the good news is that there is a better way. But it’s going to take a little work. And it’s going to take a little moral courage.

Scripture tells us that God is “our refuge and our strength”. And we often repeat that. We believe it. But we can’t just believe it for ourselves.

And so here is our faithful work. It is to fling open wide the doors of our church. Yes, our literal downstairs doors, but even more so the doors of our hearts. It is to welcome everyone in. And it is to offer them our pews, and to deny a seat to no one.

I believe God gives us strength for the work our faith requires of us. And I believe God uses us to give refuge to the world. Refuge, because the world is filled with refugees both in the literal and spiritual sense. And they are all fleeing the same hardness of the world. And they are all hoping to find more than just hardness in our hearts. They are hoping to find people of compassion. People of mercy. People of faith.

The name of that child was Aylan Kurdi. And I hope Aylan would have found a pew here. And the name of that clerk is Kim Davis. And I hope Kim would find a pew here. And the name of that woman who kicked the seminarian out of her pew, and the one who was rude to the kitchen staff…well, I don’t know their names. But I hope they would find a pew here. I hope this, because I hope that I, with my imperfect faith, would find a pew here too.

Yes, faith without works is dead. But faithful work…the sort of work that intentionally opens the doors to all, and treats each one with dignity? That work brings new life to the world. And to us all. And there’s always room for more. Amen?

Gotta Serve Somebody: Sermon for September 28th, 2014

When I was a kid there were these books that I would often read called “Choose Your Own Adventure Books”. The idea was simple. You started reading and after a few pages there would be a question. And you were given two options, leading you to two different pages in the book.

For instance, you are hiking in the woods and you are lost and it’s getting dark. Do you keep trying to hike your way through? If so turn to page 30. Or do you stop at the creepy abandoned cabin and stay there for the night? Turn to page 56.

As you can imagine, neither is a good choice. But they lead you to other pages where you have to then make similar choices. And choice after choice you work your way through the book. And, to be honest, a good portion of the time you end up dying some tragic death.

Somehow someone thought these were great books for children. But, honestly, I was a big fan, and so were my friends. And I think that’s because the books always gave us choices, and they always took those choices seriously.

Copyright, believed to be Nadia Bolz Weber (please contact me if this is incorrect and I'll be glad to change it).

Copyright, believed to be Nadia Bolz Weber (please contact me if this is incorrect and I’ll be glad to change it).

I am reminded of those books when I read today’s Scripture, not because everyone meets a horrible end, but because Jesus is presenting his disciples with a sort of “choose your own adventure” story. Jesus is teaching his disciples, and the religious authorities are getting worried. He’s gaining too much influence and so they ask him “who gave you the authority to do the things you are doing?”

Jesus answers the question with a question. He tells them, “I’ll answer you, but first answer me this: Who gave John the Baptist his authority?”

And he had them there. Because if they had said “God” Jesus could have asked “then why did you kill him?” And if they said otherwise, the crowd, who loved John, would have turned against them. And so, they just say “we don’t know”.

And so Jesus tells them this story: A man had two sons and a vineyard. And one day he asked both of them to go to work in the vineyards. The first son says “no…I’m not going.” And the second son says “sure, I’ll go”. But here’s the twist. That second son never goes. And the first son, who said he wouldn’t, changes his mind and goes.

So Jesus asks the Pharisees, which of those two sons did what his father asked? The one who said he would and didn’t, or the one who said he wouldn’t and did.

The Pharisees answer, “the one who went to the vineyard”.

And then Jesus delivers this stinger: Truly, the tax collectors and prostitutes, the ones looked down on by everyone, are going to be ahead of you in the Kingdom of God.

And that’s when the Pharisees get it…he’s talking about them.

It’s a dangerous thing to call out someone’s hypocrisy. I don’t suggest it, because usually it makes the hypocrite pretty mad. But being Jesus has its privileges. Jesus publicly exposes these religious officials, these people who like the second son are a little more talk than action, for what they are. And it infuriates them.

There’s something satisfying about that. There’s a reason that when a person who professes religious faith falls from grace it becomes a media field day. I remember being very young and watching televangelists be led off in handcuffs on the evening news. A few years later I would look around at my more outwardly devout neighbors who maybe weren’t living in such devout ways when they thought no one was looking. And I began to get a little disillusioned with religious people. And it struck me then that maybe not everyone’s words and actions lined up.

But years later, I’ve developed a little more sympathy for the Pharisees and the other hypocrites of the world. And that’s because I know now that I am at times a hypocrite too. And, more than likely, so are most of us. Perhaps my everyday hypocrisies aren’t as newsworthy or spectacular as the ones on the front pages of the paper, but they are there. More than I like to admit.

The truth is that I call myself a Christian, a follower of Christ. I say everyday that I will go to work in the vineyard. And most days I at least make it there. But some, I don’t. Because this is what I think working in the vineyard looks like. I think it looks like choosing to follow Christ, even when we are afraid, even when there are other things we would rather be doing, even when it’s hard.

I say I want to do that, but some days I know my own fears and limitations hold me back. I get distracted. I put my trust and faith in other things. I get it wrong. And I know that some days I am so busy serving other things, that I never make it out to serve in the vineyard. I’m too busy checking things off my to-do list instead.

This is not just a clergy problem. This is a problem most of us who want to follow Christ have. We have the best of intentions when we are asked to go out into the vineyard, but good intentions don’t always get us out there. And, slowly, we begin to realize that maybe, just maybe, we are hypocrites too.

And this is where I am reminded of those “Choose Your Own Adventure” books I talked about. Not because I think we are all headed for certain destruction. If so this would be the most depressing sermon ever. But instead because I think each day we get to make a new choice.

In the books one bad choice ends hope for you. But in the life of faith, we make bad choices all the time. And the good news is that God’s grace somehow reaches us even when we wander away from the vineyards. And, yes, even when we are hypocrites.

Every Sunday in church we say the prayer of confession together. And at first glance that might seem like a bit of a downer. Some churches, to be honest, have jettisoned it altogether because they don’t want anyone to feel bad about themselves, especially not visitors who might never come back. .

But to me the prayer of confession is about this: it’s about telling the truth. It’s about saying that sometimes we get it wrong, and it’s about believing that God can still use us anyway. When you think about it, church is probably one of the only places in our lives where we can so easily admit to being wrong sometimes.

I think there is some real grace in that.

I wonder about the son who tells his father that he will not go to work in the vineyard. I wonder if other days he, like the other son, told him that he would. And I wonder if he never made it there either. I wonder if on the day he was asked, he finally decided to tell the truth. And maybe that act of truth telling set him free to do more than just have good intentions.

Another minister I know shared a photo this week of a church’s sign. It read in big letters, “This Church is Not Full of Hypocrites!” A little defensive sounding at first, really. But then at the bottom it said this: “There’s always room for more!”

I think that’s what the church is about sometimes. It’s about admitting that we mess up. And it’s about sharing the good news of God’s grace with one another, assuring one another that God can still use us, and deciding to go together out into those vineyards. The church has never been about being perfect. Our purpose is not to exist as a club for saints. Instead, the church is a place for real people, living real lives, and facing real choices, who all the while are trying to follow Jesus Christ in this world.

It’s about understanding that God has given us grace. And it’s about responding to that grace. And, to me, the best way to respond to grace is always in gratitude. It’s about choosing to live a life of gratitude in a world that often gives us a lot of other choices about how to respond. That’s what the church is all about.

So getting back to choosing your own adventures. This morning I borrowed my sermon title from a song by Bob Dylan. In it he gives this long list of things that you might be: an ambassador, a rock and roller, a banker, or even a “preacher with your spiritual pride”, but he says no matter who you are “you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”

It may just be a song, but he’s right. We all end up getting to choose what, and who, we are going to serve each day. We all get asked that question every morning when we wake up, the same one asked of the two sons: Will you go to work for me today?

And it doesn’t matter where our day takes us. It doesn’t matter our profession, or our age, or what we have or don’t have in our bank accounts. It doesn’t even really matter what you say when you are asked. All that matters is this: When you decide which vineyard to go to that day, and there are a lot to choose from, will you choose one that will never be able to love you back? Or will you choose the vineyard that belongs to the one who loved you first, and always?

It’s like what I told our kids today in the children’s sermon: never give the best of you to something that can never love you back.

And so, in this book that is life, make good choices. But even if you don’t, don’t worry. There’s always tomorrow. And the pages can always be turned back. And no matter what you will still be welcome in this place where day after day we keep trying together to choose the one we want to serve. Amen.