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

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

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

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

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

No pressure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advent Stories: Sermon for December 7, 2014

Mark 1:1-8
1:1 The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

1:2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way;

1:3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,'”

1:4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

1:5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

1:6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.

1:7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.

1:8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Advent2

I don’t watch a lot of movies. I really have never been good at sitting still long enough. But there is one exception: Christmas movies. Right now there is a stack of them next to our TV: It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol, Charlie Brown Christmas, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Elf, Christmas Vacation…the list goes on. And each December I probably spend more time than the rest of the year combined watching movies.

I’ve found that the same is true for others too. There’s something so special about the Christmas stories we grew up with, and even the ones we’ve come to know as adults, that they become a part of the way we celebrate the holidays.

But as much as I love them, there’s a catch…and that’s that I don’t think all of our favorite Christmas stories are really Christmas stories at all.

I’ll come back to that. But first, we have this story from Scripture about another character: John the Baptist. It’s traditional that on the second Sunday of Advent churches read about John, and about how he lived out in the wilderness where he ate locusts and wild honey, and wore camel’s hair, and shouted at people to “prepare the way of the Lord”.

So, you know, really Christmasy. He doesn’t sound like he was a lot of fun to be around. Actually, he sounds a little more like the Grinch or Ebenezer Scrooge. And yet, this is in many ways exactly the text we need to read this time of the year.

Because Advent is about preparation. It is about, as John puts it, preparing the way of the Lord and making the Lord’s paths straight. And John doesn’t mean literal paths by that. He doesn’t want us to build sidewalks or pave roads. He wants us to do something much harder.

John is telling us to clear the way for God to come into our hearts and into our lives. “Prepare the way of the Lord. Make the path straight.” In other words, get ready. Make some room for God.

That can be hard to imagine during the midst of the busy run-up to Christmas. We all have things to do this time of year. Presents to buy, cookies to bake, decorations to put up, cards to send. We may be busier than ever. And now John, this guy with his camel hair, wants us to add one more thing to the list. And that’s pretty easy for him to say. His shopping list consists of only two things: locusts and honey.

But, what if he’s right? What if you and I are being asked to prepare the way of the Lord? And what if it’s not just something to do on top of everything else we do to get ready for Christmas? What if it’s the point of this whole season and nothing else really matters?

Part of how we prepare the way of the Lord in this Advent season is by reflecting on the four traditional themes of the season. Last week was “hope”. And today is “peace”. But this story about John the Baptist, this guy who is sort of out there raving in the wilderness, at first glance might not sound like it has much to do with peace at all, so you might be wondering, “why do churches read about him this week”?

I think the answer to that has to do with how we understand what “peace” means. So, how would you define peace? It is the absence of war? In one sense, yes. And I would love for us to learn how to live without war. This world has too many wars, including ones being fought right now. This year, as I’m thinking about what peace means, I’m also thinking about a friend of mine who is deployed to Afghanistan right now. And as he spends this Christmas away from his family, I’m thinking about a world in which he would never have had to go.

I believe that Jesus, the Prince of Peace, wants that kind of peace for the world. But I don’t believe peace stops there. Because peace means more than not just firing a weapon, or raising a fist. And Jesus himself showed that.

Because the child we wait for this season, the one who would be called the Prince of Peace, is also the guy who grew up to angrily flip over tables in the Temple. He didn’t believe in the kind of false peace that comes only in the absence of armed conflict. And that’s because he wanted more from us than peace without justice.

And so when Jesus walked into the Temple and saw a system of money changing and usury that manipulated the faith of people and exploited the poor, he literally turned the tables on it. And in doing so, he taught us all that real peace cannot come when some are being oppressed. Real peace only comes when every child of God is treated justly.

So, already peace is a tall order: the absence of violence, and the absence of injustice. But, what if there’s even more to it?

There is a song you may have heard: “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.” There’s also that prayer from St. Francis that we recited at the beginning of our service: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.”

What if we got absolutely serious about that? What if we decided that we ourselves were going to be the place where peace starts. And, even harder, what if we committed to creating peace within our own selves?

There’s a word that I’ve come to associate with inner peace: serenity. Reinhold Niebuhr, the well-known UCC minister and theologian, even wrote a prayer about it that you probably know: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Serenity does not mean that everything is perfect. It does not mean that things are even good or comfortable. It simply means that in the midst of everything, we have a sense of peace. And for those of us who are Christians, that means a sense of connection with our God, and with Christ, the Prince of Peace.

In that way, reading about John the Baptist on this Sunday of peace is maybe not so strange after all. Because what John is asking us to do is to get ready for God. John is saying prepare your heart, and mind for Christ’s coming. Unclutter the path that God will take, remove the obstacles you have placed there, and open yourself up to the peace that only Christ can bring.

Prepare the way of the Lord, because that’s how you find peace in yourself. And if you don’t have that peace, how can you ever except to bring it to others?

And that’s important because so much of what John the Baptist was doing out there in the wilderness was witnessing to the one who was to come. John knew he was not Christ. He knew something bigger than him was coming. Just like you and I are not Christ, but we witness to what we believe by the way we live our lives. And in Advent we prepare ourselves for the work of witnessing to God’s hope, and peace, and joy, and love, that we are asked to do all year. We prepare the way of the Lord inside of us, that we may prepare the way of the Lord in a world that so desperately needs all of those things that only Christ can bring.

And so, here’s where I want to go back to those Christmas movies and specials I talked about at the beginning. Remember how I said they weren’t really Christmas stories? I say that not because they are not Christmas-themed, but because most of them are really Advent stories. And that’s because most of them are about someone who learns to prepare the way of the Lord in their heart by making a change.

Even when everything is coming down around George Bailey, he learns to see the world through grateful eyes. Ebenezer Scrooge sees the truth about himself, becomes a compassionate and kind soul, and changes his miserly ways. Charlie Brown hears Linus recite the Christmas story, and he learns what Christmas is all about. And even the Grinch hears the Whos down in Whoville singing despite the fact he stole Christmas, and his heart grows three sizes that day.

Those are their Advent stories. Each has an Advent that prepares them for Christmas. And each arrives at Christmas day different than they were when the season of Advent started. They are, in some way, transformed. And transformation is what Advent is all about.

So what is your Advent story? How are you going to be transformed this year? How are you going to prepare and make straight the way of the Lord?

You don’t have to be visited by the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future. You don’t have to have to go to Whoville. You don’t even have to have Charlie Brown’s sad little Christmas tree. All you have to do is this: open your heart, and make a little space for the Prince of Peace. Prepare the way of the Lord, and the Lord will show you the rest. Amen.

What an alum to do when their alma mater is wrong?: Thoughts on Columbia Theological Seminary’s housing policy

What’s an alum to do when the alma mater they love does the wrong thing?

I’ve been asking myself that for the last few days, because I wholeheartedly believe that my seminary, a school I love and treasure, has sided against justice and God’s love, and for fear and inequality.

I am a two-time alum of Columbia Theological Seminary, one of the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s ten seminaries which is located just outside of Atlanta. When I graduated from seminary eleven years ago the Presbyterian Church was still debating the role of gay and lesbian ministers. It hasn’t been until the last year that the door has been opened in some places (though not all) to openly gay and lesbian, non-celibate, clergy. The church is still debating the legitimacy of same-sex marriages, even as partnered clergy are now serving openly. The inclusion of LGBT people is far from full or perfect, but the Presbyterian Church has come a long way in the past decade.

As a student I remember our LGBT group being denied the use of the chapel for a National Coming Out Day Service. We were told that people just weren’t ready for it, and that there were fears that donations would be withheld. I was incredibly saddened by the administration’s decision. But when the service did take place, at a professor’s house instead, the room was packed with supportive students and faculty. (Eventually the annual service was allowed in the chapel.) That night, and with each passing year, we sensed that things were changing, and that justice would not be denied.

Which is why I was surprised to find that my seminary has just reaffirmed its denial of equal housing for same-sex couples. In a letter dated April 20th, Columbia’s president wrote that at the present time committed same-sex couples will not be allowed to live in “married housing” on campus.

The timing left me particularly dumbstruck. Earlier in the day I had received my latest issue of Columbia Seminary’s alumni magazine. I was pleasantly surprised to find an announcement of my engagement to my fiancee, Heidi. I then came home to this letter, posted by a classmate. I was struck by the irony of the fact that my engagement was recognized by alma mater, but that my marriage would not be deemed suitable enough to warrant my partner and I on-campus housing were I still a student.

It’s a bit of a mixed message, especially coming from a school whose faculty always taught me to err on the side of justice, compassion, and love. My professors at Columbia spoke out on behalf of their LGBT students, often at risk to themselves professionally. They taught that God’s love trumped human fear. They exhorted us to learn to read the Scripture with every tool available to us, and to understand the contexts of passages written two thousand years ago. They challenged us to stand up for what was right in the face of the easier wrong. They were, and they remain, among my strongest role models for ministry.

But the administration of Columbia has acted in a way that belies all I was taught by my professors. They have literally cast LGBT families off campus, and forced seminarians to make a choice between living with their classmates or their families. They have created an unequal community. They have reiterated, even in the face of a changing denomination, a policy that is reactionary and anything but visionary.

A little over ten years ago now I knelt on the floor of the chapel at Columbia. My friends and classmates put their hands on my head and blessed me as I was ordained as a minister. I chose that chapel for a reason. I wanted to carry what I had learned at Columbia with me all the days of my ministry. I wanted to remember what it was to live in a community that might not always agree, but that at least tried to make space for the other. And I wanted to remember what is was to live in a community that didn’t shy away from the hard discussions, and that admitted when it was wrong.

I’d like to think that place still exists. I think it does. But I know that right now I and my family could not live there. I think that there are a lot of other families like mine out there. And I think that Columbia is the less for excluding us. But more than that, I think we are the less for losing a place like Columbia. I hope this separation doesn’t last much longer, because God’s got real work for us to do and we need each other.

“Different Kind of Business, Different Kind of Owner” – Sermon for Sept. 18, 2011

Like many of you, I’ve had reason to talk to FEMA this past week. We were concerned about a few very minor things with the church building, and we wanted to be on the safe side, so we registered. One step in the registration was having to sit at that table, and call in to a call center somewhere to talk to an agent. When I got her on the phone, the conversation went something like this:

Her: Are you the business owner?
Me: No. I’m the pastor.
Her: Well, who owns the business?
Me: Well, we’re a church, so not a business, so no one owns us.
Her: (Increasingly confused.) I’m going to need a business owner’s name.

I was trying to be respectful of the fact that these people are working very hard to help us in a natural disaster, and are doing a good job. So, even though there were so many possible snappy responses about who owned the church, I just explained once again that there was no “owner” of the business. The matter was finally settled when it was accepted that while I was not the “owner”, I was the “responsible party”, and that was good enough.

The part of me that was seeing some humor in all of this, though, really wanted to answer her “owner” question with something like, “well, I guess that would be God. Or, you could put in Jesus Christ, which in the computer might look something like Christ, Jesus. And no, I don’t have his taxpayer ID number either.” In the end I decided not to subject her to either a theological commentary or my humor.

But, I was thinking about that encounter a little when I read this week’s Gospel passage. Jesus tells a parable about a business owner. He talks about the owner of a vineyard who hires workers for the day. In the early morning he goes out and finds people who will work and agrees to pay them a living wage. They go out to the fields and start to work.

Around nine he goes to the square and finds more people, and this time he says “I will pay you what is right”. They go out to the fields too. He does this again at noon, and then at three. And at five he goes out and finds people who haven’t been hired yet, and he hires them and sends them to the fields.

Now, when it comes time for everyone to be paid, he starts with the ones who came at 5pm. And they get a full day’s wages. Now, can you imagine being those folks who were hired at 9am? The people who were hired eight hours later got a full day’s wage. They must have been waiting thinking, “If they got paid for the full day, we are surely going to get even more!”

Except they don’t. They get the full day’s wage that they agreed on earlier in the day. And they grumble about how unfair it is. You get the same pay whether you worked one hour or nine, hard hours.

The owner of the vineyard answers, “I did you no wrong. I paid you for the day. Are you angry because I was generous and gave what was mine to give to the others? The last shall be first. And the first shall be last.”

If you’re like me, you read this parable and you feel a little uneasy. It doesn’t seem right that the ones who came at 5pm get paid as much as the ones at 9am. It’s not what we’re taught our whole lives. It’s not fair. That vineyard owner had it all wrong.

Except we know that just as in all Jesus’ parables the main character, the business owner, really represents God. And the workers in the vineyard, whether they came at daybreak or 5pm, really represent us. And we know that Jesus is trying to teach us all something about God, and one another.

We like to believe that we will be rewarded, that we can make sure everything will turn out okay, if we just work hard enough. It’s what we have heard since we were in grade school. If we worked hard enough, we could do anything we wanted. And so many of us burn ourselves out, run ourselves into the ground, in order to try to create the future we want.

Now, I don’t fault hard work. I often work long days, and have a hard time disconnecting when I should. I check email when I’m out with friends, I pick up the phone on my day off, I have an inability to shut off. I am, like many of you, a bit of a workaholic.

But, like many of you, I sometimes find that despite my best laid plans, despite my hard work, in the end things don’t always go exactly my way. And sometimes that feels really unfair. Especially when we see someone else get something that we feel like they haven’t earned.

I think I would have been grumbling right along with those early workers that day. What’s the sense of working hard if other people get what they don’t deserve?

And then I think about it more. And I remember that the vineyard owner is God. And I remember that none of us gets what we deserve. Instead, we get a whole lot better.

Throughout the history of our faith, there have been those who have said you can gain God’s love through work. Do the right things, pray the right way, make the right sacrifices, and you can find salvation. It has come up again and again in the course of Christian history.

And yet, that’s not the point of the Christian life. That’s not the point of God’s grace. We don’t do what we do as Christians to earn God’s love. We do what we do because we already have God’s grace, and we are so filled with gratitude for that grace that we can’t help but glorify God through our actions.

We don’t donate to the food pantry to get to heaven. We donate because our souls were hungry for God and we were fed. We don’t build a house with Habitat for Humanity because we fear eternal damnation. We build a house because in God’s kingdom there are many houses, and we are welcome in them all. We don’t hand out water to volunteers to earn God’s love. We hand out water because Christ himself has given us living water.

We do all these things not because we were the workers waiting at the vineyard at sunrise. We do these things because we were the ones God went out and found at 5pm, and we were chosen to go into the vineyards anyways. And we were not treated fairly. We were treated better than fairly. We were treated with grace.

The biggest relief in my life came when I realized I didn’t have to earn God’s love. The biggest relief came when I realized I already had it, that it was inside of me, and that nothing I could do would separate me from it. And that relief, that freedom from the fear of a God who I could never be good enough to be loved by, turned from relief to joy. And from that joy came gratitude.

I still work a lot. It’s a growing edge. But now I don’t do it to earn God’s love. I do it as a response to God’s love. I do it as a kind of paying forward of what has already been given to me. I do it because maybe, if I meet the right person on the right day, someone else will look through what I do, and see what God has done in me, and in you, and in all of us.

There is a phrase that many of us have heard: there but for the grace of God go I. That phrase used to upset me. I used to look at whatever unfortunate person was being pointed out and try to come up with some reason in my mind why what happened to them would never happen to me. That works for a while. Until it doesn’t. And then you find that you are the one who is in need of grace. It’s a humbling experience.

But, in many ways, it can also be a freeing one. It can be freeing to know that in the end, God’s grace is not dependent on us. It’s only dependent on a God who loved us first. You look around at your co-workers in the vineyard, and you realize that that grace is not yours to withhold. And that is often the most powerful example of God’s grace in you. When God’s grace is so great that in your joy you feel compelled to do things that share that grace with others, you know that love has won..

And when you really feel that grace for the first time, when you really believe it, you are free. You are free from fear. You are free from worry. You are free from the illusion that you are always in control. And you are free in another way too. You are free to serve. You are free to give. You are free to love. You are free to labor in a vineyard where all are paid not according to the work they do, but according to what God does. You’ll never find another business owner who will pay you like that.

Now if I could have just written that all in on the forms I had to fill out this week, maybe I could have answered that question I was asked. Who owns this business? Not me, and not you, and not any of us. This is God’s. And it’s not like any business we’ve ever seen before. Indeed, this is the best place we will ever work. Amen.