Georgia, Alabama, and Jesus: Sermon for May 19, 2019

One of the least understood Christian holidays must be Maundy Thursday. Most of it is about the name. People don’t get it. They ask, “What does “maundy” mean anyway?” Or sometimes they think people keep saying “Monday Thursday”, which makes no sense at all.

The explanation of what it really means is actually pretty interesting, but it involves a quick language lesson:

The word “maundy” comes from a Latin word: mandatum. And mandatum means “mandate” or a “commandment”. And when we talk about “Maundy Thursday” we’re talking about “mandate Thursday”. We’re talking about the night that Christ told his disciples exactly what he expected of them.

So, Maundy Thursday was over a month ago…why am I talking about it today?

When I opened up this week’s lectionary, the calendar of readings that we follow in the church, here was that same passage that we traditionally read on Maundy Thursday. It threw me. Why are we reading it again? But then I started to think, “Maybe there’s something here worth paying attention to more than once a year”. 

The passage tells the story of how Jesus has gone to Jerusalem for the Passover. He’s gathered his twelve disciples there at the table. And he knows what is going to happen. He knows that by the end of the night one of them will betray him to the authorities. One will deny him three times. And all of them will leave him alone in his hour of greatest pain.

And yet, there he is. Breaking the bread and pouring the cup. Eating with them. Blessing them. Getting down on his knees and washing their feet, showing them his love and grace and compassion, in a time when we might have better understood his wrath or anger.

In a world where we are often surrounded by messages of retaliation, or vengeance, or eye for an eye cries for justice, it’s a different message. Jesus had done nothing wrong. He’d lived a life of non-violence, he’d healed the sick, raised the dead, and freed the captives. He’d brought hope and life to those who needed it the most.

And in the end, he knew that he was not about to be thanked. He was about to be killed. Because in the end, the goodness, and the kindness, and the compassion he had brought were more of a threat to the Roman authorities than any weapon or any army. He so radically upset the status quo that they decided their only choice was to kill him.

And that’s where that word “maundy” comes in. Because what do you do if you’re Jesus? What do you do when it’s the night before you are going to die? What do you do if  you have to tell the people you love the most, the ones who followed you, the ones who sometimes make big mistakes, how to keep moving in the right direction after you’re gone? What is the one thing you are going to tell them?

The mandate, the mandatory thing Jesus tells us to do in this passage is this:

“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.”

The irony is that sometimes, especially in the public arena, Christians aren’t very loving people. In fact, sometimes those who share our faith aren’t even kind people. 

There are times when people ask me what I do for work, and as soon as I tell them I can see a wall go up. There are a lot of reasons for that, but one of the big ones is that they have been treated unkindly in the name of the Christian faith. I get it. If all I’d felt was pain at the hands of Christians, I wouldn’t want to get to know a Christian minister either.

The reality is that sometimes we Christians are our own worst public relations people. Jesus told us that our love for one another, our kindness, would be the mark of how people would know us. It would be our identification card. And yet, sometimes Christians do just the opposite.

I debated about whether to talk about what I’m about to talk about today, but I know it has been on a lot of your minds this week, and there are times when not talking about the hard things is a form of pastoral malpractice.

Over the last years, some of you have shared old, deeply painful experiences with me related to what I’m talking about. I’m honored you have trusted me. And I know this week has brought many of those memories up. 

Because this week we heard about what is happening in the South, especially in Georgia and Alabama. There the right to choose is being eroded. And in those places it is primarily Christian groups, people using the name of Jesus Christ, who are driving this agenda.

Now, I understand that there are good Christians who are pro-life, and good Christians who are pro-choice – perhaps those two exist even here in our own church. Our own denomination’s stance, along with a number of other denominations, is that everyone should have the right to choose. In fact, ministers in the UCC were active even before Roe v. Wade, helping to connect abortion providers with those who needed them.

But I also know there are those who really believe abortion is immoral. I disagree, but I respect it. And I know people who live out their pro-life commitments by genuinely caring for parents both before and after childbirth. They also don’t end their concern for the child after birth, but advocate for them in every arena.

But these laws in Georgia and Alabama? They’re just plain cruel. In Alabama, for instance, not even survivors of rape or incest are allowed to seek abortions. That means children who have been sexually abused will be forced to carry their pregnancies to term. And survivors of sexual assault can now be jailed for longer than their rapists.

And these bills won’t just stop in the South. They will make their way to every state, including ours. Back alleys will be the norm once again. And, of course, abortions will not stop…they just won’t be safe anymore.

Because this isn’t how you stop abortions. This is just how you make them criminal. If you really wanted to stop abortions you would fund family planning initiatives. You’d teach sex education. You’d make sure people had access to contraceptives. You’d work to stop sexual abuse and assault. You’d make sure that every baby could have enough food, and shelter, and medical care. 

But this isn’t about stopping abortions. This is about exerting control, and instilling fear.

This week I remembered a time about twenty years ago when a friend of mine had to go to one of those Georgia clinics. I have to admit that I was still working out what I thought about abortion back then. I had qualms. And when my friend asked me if I would go with her, I think she saw a split second of hesitation. 

That’s when she said to me the thing that made it all clear: “I just need you not to judge me right now…I need you to support me”

And so, I did. I went with her, and held her hand, and realized that in that moment my calling as a Christian was to be kind to her, and to love her, as she made an excruciating and frightening choice

And it was excruciating and frightening, even for me. Going into that clinic in a city where clinics had been bombed was unsettling. And this was in a Georgia where she had every legal right to do what she was doing. That Georgia does not exist today. And I know that today there are many there who are afraid. 

Right now you might be agreeing with me, or you might not be. You might be saying, “Why are you preaching about politics?”

But I hope you hear me that I’m not trying to preach about politics, and certainly not about partisan politics. You will never hear me endorse a politician or political party at church. Vote however your conscience dictates. But hear me that I’m trying to preach about our faith, and how it tells us to treat others. Because I don’t believe that right now the Christians who are driving these laws in the South are being very loving. 

My friends who live down there, who are afraid? They don’t either. 

Friends sometimes ask me “How can you be a part of the church? How can you be a part of a group that does things like this?” And, I get it. Sometimes it must seem like by staying in the church, I’m siding with the oppressor. And this is just one example out of many of the ways that people have used Jesus Christ to bully and intimidate those with little power. 

But in the end, I remember what Jesus said. “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.”

And I want to follow that Jesus. I want to follow the one who said that the only identification card we need as Christians is our own loving kindness. I want to follow the one who I think would often be appalled by what is done in his name.

And I want to be a public witness for that kind of love. I want to show our neighbors and our world that the Christ I follow is not one who issues painful, punishing mandates. The Christ I follow had only one mandate: to love

I believe in the mandate. And I believe it’s my job to fiercely love this world enough to want it to be fair, and just, and kind. And I think that sometimes that means that we who are Christians cannot be silent anymore. And we cannot allow our faith to be co-opted in the public arena. Not now. Not when lives are literally at stake. 

In New Hampshire we are in a unique position. Every four years the eyes of the nation turn upon us and we have an early chance to influence the agendas of the people who are running for the highest office in the land. 

So, no matter your party, no matter your political belief, I want to call on you to not squander this chance. Instead, speak about your faith this year. Speak about what you believe. Speak about what you believe Christ would have us do

But as you do it, do this…do it with kindness…do it with fairness…do it with love. 

This is our chance, as Christians, to change the narrative. Moderate and progressive Christians are rarely the ones chosen to be talking heads on the evening news when it comes to matters of faith. That’s because we’ve been too quiet. But that can change. That must change. Our moral voice, our voice of Christ’s love, is needed more than ever.

And may there come a time, soon and very soon, when they know we are Christians not by our laws, but by our love. 

This Isn’t How This Was Supposed to Go: Sermon for Easter 2019

If you came here last Easter, you might remember the children’s sermon.

Let me remind you. I was trying to talk about surprises, and how Easter was a big surprise because Jesus was dead, and then rose again. So, I had these candles. They were just regular birthday cake candles. I lit them one by one, and then blew them out. 

That’s where the trouble began. It turned out that the matches burned more quickly than I expected, and some ashes fell on the floor. The candles did too, and wax dripped everywhere. The end result is that my friends tell me I’m not supposed to use fire anymore in children’s sermons.

But the big problem came during the finale. I had one of those trick birthday candles that you blow out and then they re-light themselves. The idea was that, just as Christ wasn’t supposed to rise again, the candle wasn’t supposed to light itself again.

And so I blew out the candle, and waited. And waited. And nothing happened. 

I always worry about what kids take away from children’s sermons, but I worried about this one in particular. Did I ruin some kid’s faith? Years from now are they going to think this whole Easter thing is a hoax because the candle didn’t come back on?

But that day mostly I just walked away from that whole thing thinking “This isn’t how this was supposed to go.”

That’s actually not a bad place to start on Easter morning. Because this story is, at its core, one about things not going the way they were supposed to go. On that first Easter morning three women were going to the tomb to do what they couldn’t on the day that Christ died. It had been the Sabbath, and so they hadn’t been able to prepare the body for burial until now.

But when they got to the door, and it was open. They heave stone had been rolled away. And when they went inside there was no body. And they were deeply upset because this wasn’t how this was supposed to go

But, they were used to that…because Jesus’ life hadn’t gone the way it was supposed to go. His friends and disciples had thought that he was something special. He was supposed to change everything. He had brought them such hope. They thought he could he be the Messiah who would change everything. And yet, in the end, the world destroyed him. On Good Friday the powers that be killed him, and buried him. That wasn’t the way it was supposed to go at all.

And now all they wanted to do was give him the proper burial he’d been denied, but they couldn’t find his body. They couldn’t even let Jesus rest in peace. And that wasn’t how it was supposed to go either.

But as they went into a tomb, they saw two men in dazzling clothes. Angels. And they asked them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen”.

It was unbelievable. Quite literally. Because when the three women went back to the rest of the disciples, they didn’t believe them. One, Peter, had to go see for himself, and he found the same thing they did And you can almost picture the women being like, “Really, Peter? We already told you he wasn’t there.”

But, that wasn’t how it was supposed to go either. Women weren’t supposed to be trusted with news like that. Surely if Jesus were to come back he’d go tell the men first, right? I mean, they were the important ones. Nothing about this was making sense.

I think about that first Easter morning, about how nothing was going the way it was supposed to go, and I think about this world. Because, truth be told, this world is broken It is not bad, because nothing God creates is bad…but it is broken

The planet itself is in crisis. We are at a critical turning point. The world is filled with war and violence…early this morning attacks on churches in Sri Lanka killed hundreds of people. Meanwhile from Pittsburgh to New Zealand to Parkland, senseless violence and bigotry reign supreme And all around us, unkindness and incivility continue to rule the day, even at the highest levels. This is the example that we are giving to our kids. This is the world that we are happening on to the next generation, essentially saying to them “this is your mess to clean up”.

And sometimes, I imagine God looking down on God’s good creation, full of so much promise and potential, and saying, “This isn’t how this was supposed to go”. 

The reality, though, is that on some level that’s always been true of this world. After all, Jesus was the living embodiment of God’s love and goodness, and look what happened to him? Not even Jesus could escape being broken by this world

And yet…that was not the last word.

Because on Easter morning, when those three women went to the tombs, expecting only to see the broken body of this man they had loved so deeply…he wasn’t there. And these angels were talking about how he was alive. And absolutely none of it made sense, because no one comes back from the dead This wasn’t how it was supposed to go.

But yet, it was true…he was risen…he was alive. The world had done its absolute worst to Jesus. But in the end, God’s love was stronger than that. God’s love was stronger even than death. 

The angels ask the women “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” In their defense, I think they were just doing what made sense. It was the last place they had seen him. I think about that question, though, and I think maybe it was the angels, not the women who didn’t understand.

I think the women, who unlike the angels lived in this world, knew that sometimes you look for the living among the dead because there are so many broken places around us. 

And I think that they were pretty incredible, because they dared to go to one of those broken places and do this small act of kindness, this taking care of Jesus’ body, because they knew it was just a small sign of love, of mercy, and of justice. 

Why do you look for the living among the dead? Because sometimes we have to dare to do so. And because they did, because they were the first who dared to go to find Jesus, they were the first ones to know something amazing had happened

I’ll close with this. I grew up in a staunchly evangelical area. People would often invite others to church by asking, “Have you found Jesus?” And those of us who weren’t really into that would often ask, in fake seriousness,“Why? Is he missing?”

I don’t think Jesus is missing now anymore than he was that first Easter morning. I think he’s still around, showing us that God’s love is bigger than the worst the world can do. I think he’s doing some unexpected things. And I think that if we aren’t careful, we could miss them pretty easily

The reality is that the signs of resurrection are all around us. They’re in the people who know who overcome great obstacles. They’re in the hope that new generations bring. They’re in signs that maybe the world can change for the better. And I believe God is behind that. 

I think God is saying, “This isn’t how this was supposed to go…and so now we are going to fix this”

That’s the message of Easter.  And so the work for us becomes the same as the work for those three women that morning: Go and tell everyone what you have seen. God’s love could not be destroyed. God’s love has won the day. Christ is risen, and so now may we rise.

Because that is how it’s supposed to go.

Risen Together: Sermon for Easter Sunday, 2018

On very rare occasions, Easter falls on April 1st. Or, as we often call it, April Fool’s Day. So, as we were preparing for worship today many of us who are clergy wondered if that meant we needed to make our sermons funny. 

My spouse is a pastor as well so we started to tell each other bad Easter knock-knock jokes as a way of preparing. Mine was this:

Knock knock.

Who’s there?

Not Jesus!

Yeah…they groaned at the sunrise service too.

So, don’t worry, I’m not going to tell any more of those, but I’ve heard a lot of people saying this year that Easter is an April Fool’s story in the sense that when everyone thought Jesus was dead and buried and that hope was gone, God’s love and grace had the last laugh. It’s as if Jesus jumped from the tomb with confetti and yelled “April Fools”!

But the Gospel story we read today reminds me that it didn’t happen quite like that. You see, that first Easter, Jesus wasn’t playing a joke on his friends, hiding out in a tomb, waiting to surprise them. Jesus was plain and simply dead. The worst that the world could do had been done to him. He had been betrayed, abandoned, beaten, and crucified. 

On Friday night they had hastily buried him before the Jewish sabbath began, which is what his faith required. It had needed to be done so quickly that they hadn’t been able to prepare his body fully before the sun set. And so on Sunday morning, after the sabbath had ended, three women, three friends of Jesus who had loved his dearly, went back to his tomb to finish.

As they were walking there, they thought about the big, heavy stone that had been rolled across the entrance to the tomb, and they asked themselves, “who will roll it away for us”? It was far too heavy for them. And as the tomb came into view, they saw something that only compounded their grief and fear; they saw that the tomb was open. And looking inside, they couldn’t find Jesus. And they assumed that something even worse had happened, and that his last resting place had been disturbed. They wondered why, even in death, Jesus couldn’t find any peace.

But then, they saw a man sitting there dressed in white. And he said to them, “Do not be alarmed!” 

Now, that’s probably the most unhelpful thing you could say in that situation. “Do not be alarmed.” And yet, the man knew why they were there. He said, “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. 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.”

Scripture tells us that the three women were “seized” by “terror and amazement”, and that they ran from that place. 

That’s fair. If I went to my friend’s grave and someone said, “oh, they’re not dead anymore” I think I might be running too. At the very best, I might think that someone was playing a particularly cruel April Fool’s Day joke on me.

But this was no joke. There was no prank. This was something different entirely. This was Resurrection. The world had done its best to destroy God’s love and grace, embodied in Jesus Christ. But God’s love and grace refused to stay in the ground. God’s love and grace triumphed over even death. 

That was the first miracle. But the second was this; the second was getting the world to believe it.

Like the three women at the tomb, we hear a truth that we can’t yet fully process or believe. A hope rises in us, and we begin to wonder, “Can this possibly be true?” “Can what was once destroyed live once more?”

It’s no wonder that the three women had trouble believing. And it’s no wonder that we sometimes do too. Because though we live nearly two thousand years later, though we know what our faith teaches, though we know that the stone was rolled away, and Jesus was not there, sometimes that is still as hard for us to believe as it was for those women at the tomb. 

That’s no surprise. That’s no surprise because we live in a world that is sometimes so broken. We live in a world where children are afraid to go to school, where neighbors distrust neighbors, and where corruption and abuses of power speak louder than kindness and understanding. 

It has often been said that Christians are Easter people living in a Good Friday world. We are people who believe in the promise of new life, but we live in a world where we are surrounded by pain and suffering. 

I get that, but I wonder if the truth isn’t closer to this. I wonder if we don’t live in a Good Friday morning so much as we live in a very early on Sunday morning – before anyone has heard the good news – world. I wonder if we live in a world much like those women did on that morning, when they had heard an unbelievable story, and were running from the grave terrified and amazed, and yet, they dared to hope that maybe, just maybe it was true.

I think that for those of us who want to follow a Resurrected Christ, we live like Jesus’s friend did in those earliest hours. We live in the hope that these rumors of Resurrection are true, even as we acknowledge the reality of the world around us. We live as people who come at dawn, prepared to weep, and yet who are met with the baffling evidence that perhaps something amazing has happened. 

And so, we start to spread the news. Tentatively at first, and to one another.

“Christ is risen?” We ask, in hushed tones. 

“Could it be true? Is Christ risen?” Our friends whisper back.

And later, dumbfounded, the first ones to see him would begin to tell one another. “It’s true. Christ is risen.” 

And slowly, the news begins to sink in. “Christ is risen. Christ is risen! Alleluia! Christ is risen!”

And we respond to one another, “Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!” 

And then we begin to tell the world, “Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!”

For Christians, the work of our life is to live in such a way that we witness to the victory of God’s love and grace, even in the face of the brokenness of the world. We spread the good news of resurrection not by what we say so much as by how we live, and how we work for new life in this world. We live in such a way that even on the hardest days, we can proclaim through our every action that “Christ is risen” and that there is hope.

A funny thing happens when you live that way. You start to see hope and resurrection everywhere you look.

Last night I went to a meeting held in a nondescript room here in town. A friend of mine just celebrated one year of sobriety, and she was celebrating by speaking and getting her medallion. And as I listened to her speak, all I could think was “Alleluia! Christ is risen, and she is risen too.”

And then about a week ago, I watched some high school kids do some amazing things, standing up for themselves and for their classmates in the face of violence, and all I could think was “Alleluia! Christ is risen, and they are risen too!”

And so often I sit in my office talking with someone who has survived something unimaginable, someone who is still fighting day to day to believe that the Resurrection is true, even for them. And though they might not yet believe it yet, I can still see it, and I think to myself, “Alleluia! Christ is risen, and they are risen too.”

Recently someone who has found their way out of their own metaphorical tombs, told me this: “Resurrection is real and can never be taken away.”

That’s true. That’s true for me, and that’s true for everyone. Even you, the person who might be sitting there today, wondering if it’s even true for you. It is. “Christ is risen, and you are risen too.” It’s not an April Fool’s joke. Just like Christ, your resurrection is real, and it can never be taken away from you.

Thoughts, Prayers, and Palms: Sermon for Palm Sunday, 2018

So once again it is Holy Week in the church. Once again we have come to the last days of Lent, and we stand on the verge of the holiest time of the entire church year. And today is Palm Sunday, the start of a week that will include the beautiful intimacy of Maundy Thursday, the sorrow of Good Friday, and finally, the joy of Easter morning.

And this day, is so odd when you look at it from the outside. On the Sunday before Easter Christians go to church and they get palm leaves that have been shipped in from out of state, and they wave them in the air and shout “Hosanna” and if this is your first time in church on Palm Sunday, the whole thing must just look bizarre.

Canon 70D 1101That’s fair. This is one of those church traditions that requires some explanation. And so, we go back to the Scriptures, back to the original story of Jesus and the palms. Jesus and his disciples had been ministering in the countryside, in the smaller towns and villages, for awhile now. And people have started to talk about this Jesus guy, and how he teaches, and how he heals, and how something is special about him.

But now, they are heading to the big city: Jerusalem. Jesus sends a few of his disciples ahead of him and asks then to bring back a colt. And Jesus rides on this colt, through the streets of Jerusalem, and the people who have heard about him, they run out into the streets and they spread their coats out in front of him. And they take palm leaves, and they put them on the road too.

Palm leaves were symbols of victory and triumph, and so the fact the people wanted to lay them in front of Jesus means that they knew something was special about him. Because life in Jerusalem at that time, especially if you were just an ordinary Jewish person, and not a Roman citizen, was not good. You were oppressed. You were treated as lesser-than. You were despondent.

But then, here comes this guy, one that everyone has been talking about, one that brings a hope you have never known. And you wonder if maybe he’s the one. Maybe he is the king, for the messiah, or the savior that you’ve heard about your whole life long. Maybe he is coming to make everything better.

And so, you take these symbols of victory, these palms, and you line his path into the seat of power, this Jerusalem, this Washington or New York or what have you, and as he rides into town, you shout out your hope. Hosanna! Hosanna! And what you are literally shouting is this: “Save us. Help us. Rescue us.”

We tell this story now and sometimes we think this was a parade of some sort, but if it was, it was different than any we’ve seen. It was not a celebration so much as it was a statement, and a call for change. It was the people going out into the streets and saying “change is coming….change has to be coming….and maybe it’s this guy.” It was the crowd saying, “this is our new hope.”

I was thinking about that yesterday on the streets of Portsmouth. This year Lent began with a horrendous tragedy. On Ash Wednesday we learned that a gunman had killed seventeen people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Florida. That night, at our Ash Wednesday service, we prayed for the victims, and we prayed for a world where children did not have to be afraid anymore.

And, I confess, as I prayed, I was feeling incredibly cynical. Losing 13 people in Columbine, Colorado hadn’t changed anything. 26 first graders and their teachers in Newtown, Connecticut hadn’t changed anything. 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando hadn’t changed anything. 58 in Las Vegas? Nothing. This wouldn’t be any different either.

But, these kids at Parkland? These kids proved me wrong. Because these kids? They’re not sitting idly by. They’re not shutting up. They’re refusing to be seen and not heard. And it’s amazing.

One of these young people, a survivor of the shooting named David Hogg, was describing the role that he and his friends were now playing. And, to paraphrase, he talked about how country was broken. Because it has to be if we allow children to be gunned down in schools. And he said that we adults don’t know how to use our democracy.

And then he said it was like when your parents couldn’t figure out how to use their iphone…and you try to tell them how to do it. You coach them through it and say “now do this”. But finally, they’re not actually fixing the problem and so finally you just say, “Give me the….phone and let me handle it.”

29512296_1864634403589149_4241526480576250524_nThat’s what’s happening. They’re handling it. And so yesterday, around this country, students let us out into our houses and into the streets. News reports indicate that yesterday’s march in DC may have been the largest of all time. And across the country, smaller marches took place everywhere. In fact over in Portsmouth, Market Square was so packed that I couldn’t even make my way from the back of the crowd to the front where the contingent from our church had landed. That was okay, because blocking my way was a crowd of high school students, packed in too tightly for us to move.

It was awesome. These kids are awesome. And they are rightfully getting a lot of credit for what they are doing. They are heroes.

But, they aren’t the ones to save us. Nor should they be. Because we failed the kids, and they had to do this for us. But, as David Hogg said, “I shouldn’t have to! I’m 17.”

He shouldn’t have to. No kid should have to. They should be planning their prom and thinking about college. This work of keeping the world safe for them? That should be the work of adults. The kids shouldn’t be saving us. The kids shouldn’t even be having to yell to us “save us”. The kids should be kids.

And so, how do we let them be? How do we let them be not just when it comes to this particular kind of destruction, but to all the ways our culture of death and pain reaches them all to young? How do we proclaim another way to them? How do we proclaim another way to us?

I think it starts with this. I think it starts with us holding our palms up, and shouting out to God that ancient word: Hosanna! “Save us…rescue us…help us.”

Because here’s the thing. I know that right now it is very popular to dismiss the phrase “thoughts and prayers”. And, I get why. After a tragedy too often we hear talking heads sending “thoughts and prayers” to those who were impacted without doing anything else. Those thoughts and prayers help nothing.

But, “thoughts and prayers” get a bad rap sometimes. Because if we want to change the world, it’s going to take thoughts and prayers. But the trick is that it’s going to take the kind of thoughts and prayers that require something of us. A thought with no followthrough is just half a thought. A prayer that things would change without any intention to help make them change isn’t a prayer at all.

Thoughts and prayers are not the problem. Meaning what we think, meaning what we pray, that is.
On Palm Sunday, we are invited once again to choose what, and who, we believe will rescue us. And we are invited to lay down our palms, our symbols of victory, in front of him. And when we have put down our signs of readiness, when we have lined the road with them, then we will show him the path that we have made for him into our hearts, and into our towns, and into our world.

Our palms are our invitation to Christ to come into our hearts, and use us to be a part of the healing of the world. They are our signs that our faith will be put in a savior who taught a Gospel of love and peace, change and non-violence, and who asked us to follow. They are symbols of readiness to be people of true thoughts, true prayers, and true actions.

And so, once again, I raise my palm, and I say “hosanna”. Rescue us, Jesus. Save us. Help us. And know, Jesus, know that this time we are ready to work alongside of you.

 

Learning to Fish: Sermon for January 21, 2018

When I was back in high school I saw a movie called “A River Runs Through It”. If you’ve seen it you know it’s about two brothers who live in Montana in the 1920’a and the story of their family. And you know that it’s all told through the lens of fly fishing. The brothers, and their father, are shown in shot after shot, knee deep in a river, casting lines against a beautiful backdrop.

It always looked so peaceful to me; almost Zen like. And I decided that if I ever lived in a place where you could fly fish, I would learn. So when I found myself living in the mountains of Vermont, I decided to give it a try. I went down to the fly fishing store, brought a fly rod and reel, took a lesson on land, found a river.

I confidently waded in, and cast my line. The fly fell right on the surface of the water, the trout rose up immediately to take it, and I reeled it in all set against the backdrop of beautiful green mountains and a blue sky.

No, not really. Everything up to the point where I found the river is true. What really happened is this: I stumbled my way down the bank, half fell into the river, saved the cell phone I had somehow thought it was a good idea to bring at the last, finally found a place to stand in the river, tried to cast, got my line stuck in a tree, fell in the river again, and finally, cold and wet, gave up for the day.

The next time wasn’t much better. Neither was the next, or the next, or the next. Fly fishing went from the relaxing hobby I had imagined to a vexing fixation that frustrated me every time I tried to the point where I nearly gave up. What was the point in learning how to fish, anyway?

It’s fishing that I think about when I hear today’s story. At least four of the twelve disciples were fishermen, after all. One day two of them, the brothers Simon (later Peter) and Andrew were out on the water casting the net. Jesus said to them “follow me and I will make you fish for people”. Immediately they dropped the nets and followed. And then just down the road they met another two brothers, James and John, who were out fishing with their father. Jesus called to them, and immediately they followed too.

I’ve always been struck by how readily they did that. All of a sudden, just like that, they dropped their fishing nets and got out of the boat. I would like to think I would do the same if Jesus came to town and said “follow me”, but the reality is I’m not so sure. I think it would take some convincing for me to leave everything I knew and loved. I’d have to know that this was the real deal.

But then I remember that these four fishermen, they got to see Jesus there in the flesh. They experienced him in a way that you and I do not. They were told directly by him that now they were going to be doing another kind of fishing, not for what lives in the water, but for other people.

Meanwhile, you and I, we get asked to do the same thing, only without the benefit of having Jesus walking right there with us in the flesh. And, if you’re here, some part of you wants to follow him. Some part wants to put down the nets and get out of the boat, and do what he asks. But unlike those disciples, we have to learn to do that in the lives we already know, without the benefit of being able to turn to Jesus and say “what do I do?”

That can be hard. A friend of mine told me a story a few years back. He was in a job where he was highly valued; one he liked a lot. He knew that he was on his way towards a promotion. But one day, his boss asked him to do something that was unethical. For a few days he wrestled with it. He told himself that everyone did it. He reasoned that he probably wouldn’t be caught. He rationalized that doing it would get him the promotion, and that once he got it, he would have more power to change things for the better.

And maybe all of those things were true. But on the other hand, he knew it was wrong. He knew that doing it would eat away at his sense of integrity, and self-respect. And he was also a person of faith, someone who wanted to follow Jesus. And he knew that in that moment he was called to do the right thing, the hard thing, and to let go of the nets and walk away.

That was a hard call. Because we all hold onto our own nets and fishing lines. We all clutch tightly to them, and the promise they hold. These are the tools of our trade, the things that can bring fish into our boats, and money into our pockets. But there are times when Jesus tells us to drop them, and to follow him instead

The theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer left a safe and comfortable teaching job in an American seminary to go back to his native Germany. Bonhoeffer helped to lead the resistance to Hitler, and was later martyred for his role. Before that, though, he famously wrote that there is a “cost of discipleship”. Following Jesus means that sometimes we have to let go of what feels comfortable, or secure. Being a disciple means making a choice every day about what you will hold onto, and what you will leave behind

It also sometimes means making a choice between being comfortable, and being uncomfortable. That’s what it means to be courageous: to choose the harder right, even when it feels hard.

I was thinking of that yesterday. I know from your Facebook many of you attended a women’s march. And marching for what you believe in is an important act. For many of you, it is even an act of faith. You are speaking out because this is what it means to you to follow Christ. But what happens when the crowd is gone, the signs and pink hats are put away, and it’s just you, standing in a boat, holding on to nets that offer you a sense of security?

What happens on Monday morning, when you are back in the office, standing alone and not in a supportive crowd? What happens in the moment when you hear someone say something that is unfair, or bigoted, or untrue? What happens when you have the option to stay silent, and just ignore it, or to speak up, and confront it?

The moments when we are asked to choose between comfort or action? Those are the moments in our lives when we are called by Jesus to follow him. What we do next, whether we drop the nets or we hold on, will tell us whether or not we are willing to be disciples.

I think back to learning how to fish. I kept trying for a couple months, and I got nowhere fast. And then one day I went back to the store where I’d bought my equipment. I asked for help, and a very kind guide showed me what I was doing wrong. I practiced. I spent a lot of time in my front yard, practicing casting, and drawing strange looks from every car that drove past.

But then, one day, I went back to the river. I waded in without falling. I cast without getting tangled in a tree. My fly hit the water, and a trout rose up to take it. I reeled it in, surrounded by the most beautiful backdrop, took it off my line, and let it swim back out into the current. Somehow I had gone from a splashing, bumbling mess to someone who actually looked like they knew what they ewer doing.

I think about those four fishermen, those four disciples, whom Jesus called that day. They knew how to fish, but did they know how to follow? Scripture tells us that for quite some time, they were splashing and bumbling messes too. They got it wrong. They felt fear. They ran away when things got hard. They even pretended they didn’t know Jesus.

But then, later, they got it right. They kept trying. They kept learning. They kept practicing their casts and wading into new rivers. And in the end, those disciples, those messy and clumsy followers, they became the ones who kept the faith alive. They shared it with others who shared it with others who shared it too. And because of them, today here we are.

Later in the service we are baptizing a new baby. He is going to have his splashing and bumbling days too. So are we, by the way. But it’s our job to teach him how to fish. It’s our work to support him as he learns. And it’s our duty to teach him how to be courageous. We start with this: by teaching him that some nets are worth dropping, and some adventures are worth going on.

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?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Auditing Our Hearts : Stewardship Sermon for November 12, 2017

There’s a story about a small Mennonite church that I recently heard Malcolm Gladwell, the Canadian writer, tell. Mennonites are relate to the Amish, but are usually more comfortable with modern-day innovations like cars and electricity. They share some core beliefs, though, like a commitment to non-violence. They also share a belief that once you are baptized as an adult, and a church member, you are expected to tithe.

Tithing is often understood as giving ten percent of your income to the church. That’s certainly true in Mennonite communities. And Gladwell’s story was about two farmers that were church members. And one farmer looked at the other’s land and business and house, and then he looked at the church giving records, which were open to everyone, by the way, and he didn’t think things added up.

And so, he went to the other farmer and he said, “You know Sam…I don’t think you’re actually giving ten percent of your income to the church.” The other man said, “I am, Jake.” And Jake said, “Yeah, Sam…I’m not sure I believe that’s true. So, I’m going to need to take a look at your finances.”

And here’s the crazy part: Sam lets him do it. Jake looks at all his business transactions and home records, and he finds that Sam is indeed tithing. And here’s the even more absurd part: at the end, there’s no ill will between Sam and Jake. Why? Because this is actually a pretty common practice. If you are a church member this is what you sign up for in the Mennonite tradition.

So, you all brought your financial records to church today, right?

I’m kidding. But next Sunday is indeed pledge Sunday. You received, or should have received, a mailing from the church. In it we included letters from Rebekah, your stewardship chair, and from me, as well as some answers to frequently asked questions about giving and a narrative budget.

We also included your pledge card. And we are asking each household to prayerfully consider how you might be able to financially support the church in 2018 and then write their pledge on that card and turn it in next Sunday. We do this not because we will then hold you to that number, and hector you for payment, but because we are trying to set a responsible and realistic budget for 2018, and it helps to know how people hope to support us in the coming year.

We got one of those cards at our house too, and as we are figuring out how we are getting ready to fill it out, I’ve found myself drawn to the story we read this week. Jesus and his disciples are at the Temple and they are watching people bring their gifts to the Temple’s treasury. Supporting the Temple was an important part of religious life, and some people would make a real show out of giving their gifts. They would show their generosity and importance by giving as publicly as possible.

But in the midst of this came a woman who was a poor widow. She had very, very little. And as she came up to the coffers, she was only able to give two small copper coins that weren’t worth much at all. The wealthy people, and even the not-so-wealthy ones, were probably watching this and scoffing. What good were a few pennies going to do the Temple? But Jesus had another take.

Jesus tells his disciples that the widow has given more than all the wealthy people combined. The reason why? She had next to nothing, and so she gave a gift that was extremely generous given her circumstances. The wealthy folks? They had almost everything, and the gifts they gave, even as big as they were, meant very little to them.

I’m drawn to that story as I am making decisions about giving for next year not because we have little, but because we have much. Our household is certainly not a wealthy one, at least in the American meaning of that word. We still have to be careful about spending, and we still send a significant portion of our money off each month to pay our student loans. But, at the end of the day, we are pretty fortunate.

Sometimes, though, it doesn’t feel that way. Sometimes, like when a pledge card comes in the mail, it feels a lot easier to claim that there isn’t enough to go around, and that we are being quite generous enough, thank you. In fact, it’s pretty easy to tell myself that we are very generous people, supporting not only the church, but also other places we care about, like our alma maters or non-profits.

But then a few years ago, I started to do what that one Mennonite farmer did to the other. Only, I did it to myself. I pulled out my tax returns and I looked at what we had made. And then I pulled out our records on giving, and I looked at how much we had donated. And I was surprised. I didn’t think we were at ten percent quite yet, but I thought we must be close. But the numbers didn’t lie. We weren’t anywhere near ten percent. We weren’t even at five.

Unlike the Mennonites, we don’t talk about giving much in the church. We’re afraid of looking money-hungry or scaring people off. Truth be told, my college asks for my money a whole lot more than my church does. And, though I love my college, they have an over $6 billion endowment. While I’m glad to give, I’m not kidding myself that my small yearly donation is keeping them afloat.

But church is different, not just because we don’t have a $6 billion endowment, but because this is more than just a donation. The church is not an outside institution for which I have an affinity, no matter how great. The church is a group of people, you and me, who are trying to make sure that this community will exist to praise God, teach the faith, and serve others.

Giving to the church is about more than a tax-deductible charitable donation. It’s an act of discipleship. It’s about saying that this is your community of faith, and that you are willing to invest what you have been given back into it.

Since my discovery of my own true giving habits a few years back, we have been trying to be more deliberate about being generous in my household. Each year we try to increase the percentage of what we give away. And what we have found is that this is not just a financial decision; this is a spiritual one. And it’s about a whole lot more than ten percent.

The reality is that the idea of the ten percent tithe sort of evolved over time. There’s nothing in the Bible that says you really have to give ten percent. You could give less. You could also give more, by the way. I find percentages useful because it helps me to judge what I’m giving based on my income level in a certain year, but you might have some other way that works for you, and that’s fine.

But what has become important to me is the idea that not just ten percent of what I have belongs to God, but that one hundred percent does. Deciding how I use my resources, including money, has become a spiritual decision. What I spend, what I save, what I give all have spiritual component for me. I try to be a good steward, a good manager, of everything I’ve been given.

And here’s where I remember that story of the widow, who came to the Temple with her two copper coins, and I wonder about what her own spiritual decisions around having enough, and giving enough, were like. She had every excuse to keep those coins. Some might even say that should should have kept them. Maybe her giving even seems a little reckless for a woman with so little.

But here’s what I think happened: I think that she made a spiritual decision about whether or not she had enough. And I think she thought she did, and so she decided that she could give a little away. And in that giving, I think she found joy.

Her gift was greater than any other gift given that day. Not because it was a large one, but because it was an extravagant one. She gave more extravagantly from her limited resources than those who were able to give without much thought from their own wealth. In the end, she was the most generous, and she was the one who truly understood what it was to have “enough”.

Giving is at its heart about making a spiritual decision about whether or not you have enough. The more I’ve been willing to be honest about what I have, the more clearly I’ve been able to understand that I have more than enough. The more I have understood this simple fact, the more I have been able to give. And the unexpected blessing in that is that in that giving Heidi and I have a sense of greater simplicity and purpose, and of greater joy. And even still, I know that our gifts are nowhere near as generous as the poor widow’s.

I’ll close with this, as I do every year. I do not know who gives to the church, or what they give. I do not wish to know. I hear from pastor friends that this is a rarity these days. You are supposed to “know your donors” so that you can cultivate them. But you are not donors. You are the church. And I trust that each one of you is giving as you are able, and in accordance with what you have been given. No one will be asking you to open up your financial books here at the church.

But this year, as you make a decision about what you can pledge to give, I ask you to let the story of the widow’s extravagant generosity be your guide. And I ask you to remember the story of those two farmers, and to sit down with yourself, open up your own books, and ask whether what you see before you represents your spiritual commitments. And then, make your pledge. Whether it is two copper coins, or something more, make this spiritual commitment with a joyful heart.

Dead Water, and a Better Choice: Sermon for September 17, 2017

Today we kick off church school, which means that our elementary students are looking at a new story. They usually do this the first Sunday of every month. Allan tells the story in worship and then they go downstairs and learn more through hands-on learning and play.

One of the ways we try to connect with what they are doing is that on the days they start a new story, I preach about it up here. That way families might be able to talk about it more, and understand it together. So, today we are doing that, and we’re looking at the story of the Woman at the Well, and Living Water.

Back when I lived in Vermont, I took up fly fishing. It looked like this amazing, relaxing experience in nature, and I thought, “How hard can it be?” So I bought all the equipment, and I went to the nearby forest and found a stream, and I cast my line. It was going to be just like “A River Runs Through It”.

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It was not like “A River Runs Through It”.

Except it wasn’t. Even when I did manage to land the line in the water, I never caught anything. I tried all these different places, every river or lake I could imagine, all with no luck. Finally I went back to the store that sold me the fly rod, and I talked to the manager who was also a fishing guide. I asked him what I was doing wrong. I told him all the places I had tried, and how I hadn’t even seen a single fish, let alone caught one.

Finally he nodded his head and said: “You’re fishing in dead water”. He explained that “dead water” is water that is either too polluted, too unexposed to sunlight, or too cut off from any healthy sources. The places I’ve been fishing all fit the bill. It wasn’t until I learned to stay away from dead water that I fish.

Dead water is a lot easier to define than something that sounds like it should be its polar opposite: Living Water. We talk about Living Water in the church a lot, and it’s sort of insider language. Dead water is pretty literal – what is dead cannot support life. But Living Water is a metaphor, and that means it’s a little tougher to pin down.

Today’s Scripture is about two things: living water, and a woman who met Jesus. To understand this story you first need to know something about the times. In Jesus day, the Jewish and Samaritan people didn’t associate with one another. In fact, the Samaritans were looked down upon. It would have been pretty unheard of for a good Jewish person to approach a Samaritan for anything, especially a Jewish man and a Samaritan woman.

And yet, that’s exactly what happens here. Jesus is traveling from Judea to Galilee, and he has to go through Samaria. He is thirsty, and so he stops at a well where a woman is drawing water out and he asks her, “Can I have a drink?”

And she knows how odd this is. She says to him, “Why are you, a Jewish man, asking me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?”

Jesus says to her, “If you knew who I was, you’d be asking me for Living Water.”

At first the Samaritan woman is as baffled by this Living Water stuff as you and I might be. She says, “Um, you don’t have a bucket, and this is a really deep well…so, how are you going to get me water.”

But Jesus tells her, “The water in this well? You’ll drink it and be thirsty again soon. But the water I’m offering to you? It’s eternal life, and you’ll never be thirsty again.”

Living Water is what Jesus offered to her, and it’s what he offers to us even today. It’s the promise of spiritual life. The living water Jesus offers quenches our thirst for something greater than ourselves, and it sustains us, helping us to follow him. It’s not the kind of water we can get from a well or a tap. It’s water that only God can give us.

And in this story, the amazing thing is that Jesus doesn’t just offer it to those who are like him. It would be easy for him to say, “You know this is just for people like me,” but he doesn’t. He crosses a line that most wouldn’t cross in order to reach this Samaritan woman.

I think that Jesus was modeling something for us there. If Jesus is willing to cross lines in order to make connections, wouldn’t it make sense that maybe we are supposed to do the same thing? Maybe in our own lives we are being asked to dare to venture past the things that divide us, and meet others where they are.

That’s true for churches too. It’s worth remembering that Jesus doesn’t hang back in his own land, but he goes into a new one, and he seeks this woman out. That’s a good reminder that Living Water is not something that we hoard and keep to ourselves. We share it with others.

That’s why we do a lot of the work of welcoming that we try to do in this church. It’s why we are talking about how we can welcome immigrants and refugees. It’s why the rainbow flag is out front. It’s why we welcome in people who maybe have never stepped into church before in their lives, and we tell them they belong here just as much as we do.

We do it because we were all once the woman at the well, and someone crossed the lines to offer us a kind of water that we didn’t even know existed.

So that’s the first part of the story, how Jesus crossed the lines, but the second part is this: how she then crossed lines of her own. Now, in the Bible, unfortunately, women often go without names. This is no exception. In the Bible this woman is just called “the Samaritan woman” or “the woman at the well”.

But in the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions, this woman was later given a name. It was “Photine” or “Photina” which means “light”. There are legends about her that are worth telling here too. It is said that Photina was immediately converted, which means she realized something was incredible about Jesus. She began to preach right after she met him, which is pretty extraordinary for a woman.

There are stories about her later life too. As she grew in the faith, she shared the same Living Water that had been shared with her with many others. There’s even a story that she converted the daughter of Emperor Nero. In another story, he calls her in, trying to intimidate him, and she just laughs at him. Can you imagine that? A lowly Samaritan woman laughing at the Emperor of Rome.

It’s hard to believe, but Photina had something that the Emperor never did. She had the Living Water that gave her a life he couldn’t imagine. Her life had been changed because of her encounter with Jesus and there was nothing he could take from her, not even her life, that could change that. Legend tells us that Nero did just that, and she was martyred for the faith. And today Photina, the humble Samaritan woman, is remembered by our Catholic and Orthodox siblings as a saint of the church.

She was an unlikely saint. She was just a woman drawing some water up out of a well. But Christ saw her, and recognized her for who she would be. The same is true for you, and me, and for everyone else. Christ sees in us, and in others, what the world sometimes does not. Christ sees our truest and best selves, and he offers us Living Water to sustain us.

That’s a reminder that Christianity is not a faith for the self-assured who have everything they need. This is not a faith for those who have everything together. Jesus didn’t find someone just like him, or someone who had the right degree of social respectability. Instead, he went to the well, where humble and underestimated Samaritan women gathered, and he gave them the most priceless gift that he had to give. And in return, she gave him all that she had.

pexels-photo-289586I started off talking about dead water, and fish, and places where life cannot be sustained because there is no connection. And, even though it’s a metaphor, maybe Living Water is indeed the exact opposite of dead water. In Living Water we are not isolated. We are not left at the well day after day. We are instead invited into connection with Christ, and with one another.

The more we isolate, as people, as a church, as a community, the more we risk cutting ourselves off from the sources of life. But the more we dare to cross the lines, and reach out, the more we find the opposite of death: we find life. Where there is Living Water there is connection and community, with God, and with one another. This Living Water is what will sustain us, this Living Water is what will help us to grow in every way possible, and this Living Water is what will strengthen us to be the people God always knew we could be.

When Walking on Water isn’t the Goal: Sermon for August 13, 2017

You’ve listened to enough of my sermons by now to know the general way I preach. I usually start with a story, and then I talk about the Scripture, and then I tie it back to the first story, and then say something about how it matters for our life now. I’m predictable. So, I wanted to say upfront that today I’m doing something different. I’m starting my sermon by diving right in to the Scripture. I’ll explain why this week was a little different, but first, the story.

The disciples were in a boat together. They had gone on ahead of Jesus who had stayed in their last place to pray. And they look out and see this figure coming towards them, and they think it’s a ghost, because that’s actually probably more likely than what it really was. Jesus was walking on water; walking out to them.

Jesus tells them, “Don’t be afraid…it’s me.” And Peter, who is just so earnest in times like this, says to him, “Jesus, if it’s really you, tell me to walk on the water over to you.” So Jesus says, “come on”. And Peter does it. He starts walking on water too, and he even makes it a few steps, and then he seems to realize what he is doing. And then a strong wind picks up all around him, and he panics.

He falls into the water, and starts to sink, calling out for Jesus to help him. Jesus pulls him up, and says to him, “you of little faith…why did you doubt?” Jesus takes him back to the boat, the wind dies down, and the disciples start to understand, just a little more clearly, who Jesus is.

I knew that was the Scripture for this morning when I went on vacation two weeks ago. I was sort of kicking it around in the back of my mind as I swam in Gosport Harbor, or looked out at the ocean. And I was going to preach a sermon today about how everything had been fine for Peter until he got too afraid. I was going to talk about how our faith lifts us up, and helps us to do impossible things, but our fear drowns us.

And then, I saw the news. Karl Barth, probably the greatest theologian of the 20th century, said that Christians are supposed to read the Bible in one hand, and the newspaper in the other. In other words, we have to watch what is happening in our world, and we have to figure out how to faithfully respond. And yesterday I was thinking about a story I heard recently.

John Martin had stopped in for his music for today. Some of you know that John’s father, Paul, was the pastor here for twenty years, including the time during World War II. John was telling me about how during the war his father had a civil defense assignment, which was to climb to the top of the old Robinson Seminary just down the street, and scan the night skies for German aircraft. He never saw one, but if he had, his job would then have been to warn the people in town that the Nazis were coming.

I was thinking of that story, and of my predecessor, this weekend. I was thinking about what it means to watch out for the people you love, and to sound a warning to them when something dangerous is coming. I was thinking about that because I’ve spent most of the last day watching and reading the news out of Charlottesville, Virginia.

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Photo credit: Washington Post

I’ve been reading about a mob of angry people surrounding a church with torches – literal torches – and intimidating the people inside of it who were praying before a peaceful protest. I’ve watched a video I didn’t want to see of a car speeding down a street and plowing into a crowd. I’ve heard angry mobs shouting their hatred of anyone who is black, Jewish, gay, and…well…in any way not like them.

These were people proudly carrying flags with swasticas. They were using slogans like “blood and soil”, an actual phrase from Nazi Germany. They were sharing the words of Adolf Hitler as though they were the Gospel. And I thought back to Paul Martin’s task, to stand on the roof and warn his neighbors that the Nazis were coming, and all I could think of is standing in the same pulpit today, the one where he once stood, and how my duty is to say to you, “I’ve scanned the horizons, and the Nazis are here.”

The people who gathered in Virginia yesterday, they were literal Nazis. Like, you could call them that to their face and they would agree with you. And it’s tempting to dismiss them as the fringe. It’s more comforting to think, “well, that’s happening down there…things are different here.” But, these people who gathered in Charlottesville had come from all over the country including, I am sure, New Hampshire, and they don’t see themselves as the fringe. They think they are just the first wave of a movement that will not be stopped.

I was thinking about that, and I was thinking about the story of Peter. I was thinking about how I’ve been reading this story, thinking that the problem was that Peter didn’t have enough faith. And I began to wonder if it the point wasn’t so much that Peter could have walked on water if he had been faithful enough, but that, just maybe, the point was that Peter wouldn’t have been so scared of going into waters had he not doubted that Jesus would be there with him.

I say that because, more and more, I think the point of being a Christian is not to stay safe and dry. I think following Christ means getting out of our boat, and diving in, unafraid of the deep waters, and what lies beneath.

Peter wants to walk on water. He wants to do something special, something that keeps him above the abyss. He wants Jesus to do something for him. He wants a power the others don’t have. But the point of being a Christian is not getting something from Jesus. The point is to follow Jesus wherever he goes, even into the deepest waters.

As I thought about what to say today, I struggled with the temptation to stay in the boat, the way most of the disciples did. We have a baptism this morning, and that is always a joyful occasion, and we could have just talked about that. Or, I could have preached the sermon I was going to preach today, about trusting Jesus, and staying dry.

But then I remembered Paul Martin, and how he would climb up to that roof because he loved his neighbors enough to warn them about the dangers he saw, and I knew I needed to say this today, because the point of Christian faith is not to stay safe and dry, but to dare to get into the deep end and swim. And that means telling the truth when the winds are howling around us.

What happened in Charlottesville yesterday was evil, and it was sin. The things they were saying were idolatrous, and contrary to every part of the Gospel. White people are not superior to any other of God’s children. Jewish people are not the enemy of Christians. LGBTQ people are not a threat to this country. Immigrants do not destroy us. Muslims are not terrorists. Women are not inferior to men.

And people of integrity, people who truly love this country and every one of our neighbors in it, will not be silent and allow this to happen.

We think that walking on water is the hard part. It’s not. Walking on water is nothing to

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Vigil at Exeter Town Hall. Photo by Susan Cole Ross

aspire to. It’s just one more way to avoid the real work. Instead, we have be willing to risk jumping in, and diving in to face what scares us. We have to learn to trust that even in the deep waters, especially in the deep waters, God will be with us, making sure we do not drown.

The good news is that others have been in these waters before us. I make it a point to go down into our vault every so often, where we keep all of our church history. This church has been around longer than this country, and there is a lot down there, and just before vacation I spent time reading some worship bulletins from the 1940’s.

I found one in particular from June 4, 1944. It was two days before D-Day, when thousands of Allied soldiers would storm the beaches of Normandy, and begin the liberation of Europe from the Nazis. The people gathered that morning didn’t know when the invasion would begin, but they knew it would be soon. And so printed in the bulletin are these words:

“With all our fellow countrymen we wait the invasion of Europe from England. On the day when that announcement is made, this church will remain open in prayer from noontime until 9 o’clock in the evening.”

I thought about the people who sat in the sanctuary that day, waiting for news and praying for loved ones, and I thought about what they would think had they awakened to the news that we did this weekend. What would they think of young men in Nazi armbands marching triumphantly on American soil? And what would they think of us, if we said nothing?

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Some of the crowd who turned out to support their neighbors in Exeter. Photo by Susan Cole Ross. 

I refuse to try to walk on water anymore, staying safe and dry. Instead, I’m ready to plunge into the waters of my baptism, and resist evil and oppression in every form. This morning we will baptize the newest member of the body of Christ into these same waters. Make no mistake; we are not baptizing her into safety. We are not baptizing her so that she can stay in a boat. We are baptizing her into a life of following a savior who calls us out of silence and apathy, and into the deep end, that we might tell the truth, and love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

As we make these promises to swim these waters with her, let us rededicate ourselves to a life of staying in the living waters, and proclaiming the goodness of Christ over any ideology that would teach us to hate what God has called good.