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. 

Making Community in the Wilderness: A Church Anniversary Sermon for April 8, 2018

This week, the town of Exeter had a birthday. On Tuesday, April 3rd, Exeter was 380 years old. That’s a pretty big celebration on its own, but for those of us who are a part of this church, it’s even bigger. When the earliest towns in New England were being settled back in the 17th century, you could not have a town until you first had a church. This was back before separation of church and state, of course. So back on April 3, 1638, not only did the town have to be chartered, but so to did a church. This church.

new_town_seal_10So, this week, The Congregational Church in Exeter turned 380. That’s pretty amazing when you think about it. To put that in perspective, we’re talking about roots that go back to just 18 years after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. Just eight years after the founding of Boston. And that’s 56 years before the Salem Witch Trials and138 years before the Declaration of Independence.

In other words, we’re old. But, in the scheme of the larger story of the church of Jesus Christ, we’re actually pretty young. And that’s where today’s Scripture comes in on this first Sunday after Easter Sunday. 

Today we turn to the book of Acts. Acts is the book of the Bible that tells about the very earliest church and how they became church. After Jesus’ resurrection, after that first Easter, the disciples started to have to figure out how to live together and share this experience that they had with others. They became the very first church. 

The passage from today tells us a little about how they lived: 

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.

With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.

In other words, they were one body, with one task: share the message of Christ’s resurrection. They lived as one unit, sharing everything they had, and they focused their all on the mission at hand. That was what it meant for them to be church.

So, next week, bring your bank account information and check books, and we’ll get started.

So, I’m kidding about that part. But, I read this passage and I realize there are some things that churches could learn from that first church. First, the ideas, as the passage says, that a church should be “of one heart and soul”. Now, by that I don’t mean that we should all believe the exact same things, or give up who we are as individuals. But I do mean that a church should be bound together by more than the fact that we all come to the same building on Sunday mornings. 

There has to be something bigger than that keeping us together. And I think that thing is the story that we gather around every week, and what it points to, which is the love and grace of Jesus Christ. We may struggle with what we believe, how we believe, or how to live in the world because of it, but at the heart of our life here together is simply that: the Gospel, the good news, of God’s love as found in Jesus Christ. Without it, there’s not much point in us being here. 

Acts tells us that the first church “gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus”. That might sounds like they were a little bit preachy. Fair enough. But I think their task was more than just saying what they had seen. And I think that task is the same one that you and I still have to carry out today. 

21314839_1664971753555416_1075856799694847201_nYou see, I believe that to be a Christian is to be called to testify to the good news of Resurrection. In other words, our job is to tell the Easter story again and again to a world that needs to hear it. Because, like I said last week, the Easter story is this: First, God became one of us and lived as one of us. Second, God’s love and grace were so threatening that the world tried to kill it. And third, God’s love and grace refused to die.

That’s the story that you and I are called to tell, just like those early disciples were. But we don’t tell it by standing on street corners and shouting it. We don’t push it onto others, insisting that they believe as we do. We don’t use our faith as a weapon. Instead, we do this…we live our lives in such a way that we are constantly witnessing to God’s love and grace. We do out best to love others, to stand up for the voiceless and marginalized, to take care of the least of these, and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. That is the testimony our faith asks of us.

It was a testimony the earliest members of this church tried to live as well. See, we would be remiss if we forgot our history, and for our church that means remembering that once this church was a church full of religious refugees.

In some ways that was true of many early New Englanders. They disagreed with the Church of England. Some, like the Pilgrims, were separatists who wanted complete freedom from that church. Others, like the Puritans, true to their names just wanted to “purify” the church from practices they didn’t agree with. That didn’t go over well, so some came across the ocean to Massachusetts, a place where they could more freely practice their faith.

But even in Massachusetts, even in a community of spiritual refugees, there was a right way and a wrong way to believe. And one man, John Wheelwright, ended up on the wrong side of things. He was a Puritan minister, like all the others, but instead of always preaching about the judgement of God, Wheelwright was more inclined to preach about God’s grace. 

That made him some enemies. They thought he was preaching heresy. And so, eventually, the other ministers and the authorities in Massachusetts had had enough. They banished him from the colony, and they sent him out to the absolute worst place they could think of: New Hampshire. 

So, that’s how this church got here. A minister talked so much about grace that he and his followers were forced to move here. Last year I said this about Wheelwright, but it still holds true: “You know that dour looking Puritan in the portrait down in the vestry? He was the fun one.” 

So, that’s how we got here. And 380 years later, despite everything that has happened in our world, and in a country that didn’t even exist yet, and in the walls of this church, we are still here. We are a very old church. But, we are also a very new one. We are new, because you and I are here now, and now it’s our turn to write the history of this place, this church that has been handed down to us by people who dared to testify to God’s love and grace. And this place that we are only temporary caretakers of, that we will one day hand on to others. 

And so, how do we be the church together? How do we remain of “one heart and soul” and work to testify by our words and deeds to God’s love and grace. As I wrap up today, I want to leave you with four ways I propose that we do that.

First, we make church a priority. We come on Sundays, and we worship together. We put it on our schedule, and we give our spiritual lives enough importance that we show up for this the way we would show up for anything else that’s important in our lives. And while we’re here, we get to know each other. We stay and have a cup of coffee. We talk to someone new. We become a part of this place.

That leads us to the second task: we invest in our community. I never want anyone to feel like there are things they have to do at church, but the reality is that there is a lot that we do as a church, and we all have to chip in a little to get it done. And so, we serve on committees. We teach Sunday school. We usher, or serve in the nursery, or greet people at the door. We give financially to the ministries of this church. We make a commitment of our time, talents, and treasure to this place because we believe it matters.

Third, we keep growing. Our spiritual learning does not stop when we are confirmed. We have to keep growing in our faith. And so, we are called to study Scripture, to pray regularly, to think about our faith in new ways, and to stay curious about what we believe and what it means to the world.

And, finally, we take our faith beyond our doors when we leave on Sundays. We serve on a church ministry, like Seacoast Family Promise or cooking dinner for the Salvation Army shelter, for instance. Or, we take our faith into our daily lives, advocating for change in our communities, standing up for those who have no voice. Or we take it into our homes and offices, treating people the way Christ calls us to treat them, living our lives as people of grace and faith. 

In other words, through all we do, we become one heart and one soul, with one another, and with Christ. Make church a priority, invest in church, grow spiritually, and take your faith with you all week long. I’ll be talking about these in the coming months, but today I ask you to reflect on these things. Because the ones who came before us did them, we’ve been here 380 years. Now, I don’t know what the world will be like in 380 years from today, but I do know that this place is good, and I do hope the Congregational Church in Exeter is a part of it. 

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.

After Christmas: Sermon for December 31, 2017

It was a really great Christmas Eve here at the church this year. At the 4pm service the youth and college-aged adults led an unrehearsed Christmas pageant featuring angels, shepherds and their sheep, and a real, live baby Jesus.

At the 8pm service the choir sang and the hand bells played and I preached a sermon about keeping Christmas in your heart all year by letting the light of Christ shine each day. At the end of both services, as always, we dimmed the light, lit our candles, and sang “Silent Night”. Then we walked out into the night and found the streets lined with luminaries.

It was one of those quintessential Christmas moments. Leaving church that night it felt like the world had changed a little. It felt like maybe this year would be the one when the light and meaning of the season would feel close all year long. The next day, Christmas, felt like that too. And the next day after that as well.

But then late in the week, we had to go to Target to pick a few things up. And as we walked through the front doors, I expected that all the Christmas decorations would still be there. The trees would be up, the carols would be playing, the lights would be on. But I got about five feet into the store and realized that it wasn’t still Christmas at all. In fact, four days after Christmas, they were setting up the Valentine’s Day displays.

So much for the twelve days of Christmas. The retail world will go on no matter what, and it won’t be too long until Christmas is out of our minds for another ten months or so, too. And by the time we make it to next Christmas Eve, the whole cycle will begin again.

Some of that’s natural. We can’t stay stuck in one season all year long. But I’m always a bit unsettled by how quickly we shift out of Christmas and on to something else. And that’s why I love the tradition of the church year, and how no matter what is happening outside the church doors, inside the church we celebrate this full season of Christmas. We keep singing carols, we keep the wreaths up. We light the Christ candle.

And we keep telling the story too. Today we read a passage from Luke that talks about Christ’s birth. In particular it talks about some of my favorite characters from the Christmas story, who are also perhaps the most overlooked of all of them: the shepherds.

The shepherds aren’t as impressive as the angels. They don’t come traveling in on camels with gifts in hand like the wisemen. They’re not even infamous like the inn keeper who had no room for Mary and Joseph. They’re just a bunch of regular Joes who were out in the field, trying to work and sleep and keep the sheep from being eaten.

And yet, when Jesus was born, they’re the ones that the angels come to tell about it. Not kings. Not priest. Just a bunch of shepherds who are both terrified and amazed. When the angels leave, they decide to go see this Jesus for themselves. And they find him just as the angels said they would, just born, and wrapped up in the manger.

And when they meet Mary and Joseph they, the lowly shepherds, tell them everything that the angels had said. And everyone who heard them speak was amazed by it. And Mary heard their words, and Scripture tells us that she “treasured them in her heart”.

It must have been an amazing moment. It was the sort of encounter that would be a hundred times more amazing than the spiritual high of leaving church on Christmas Eve, carols sung and candles lit. They had seen actual angels in the fields. They had gone and met this new born baby. They had experienced it all for themselves.

And then, Scripture tells us that they went back out into the fields, and kept on being shepherds. Yes, they were also praising God and giving thanks for it all, but at the end of the day they were right back there with the sheep. They had seen the most amazing things, felt the greatest joy of their lives. They had been fundamentally changed by it all. But out in the fields, the sheep still needed tending, and life still went on.

It’s sort of like how today, no matter how great Christmas might have been, you’re still going to need to restock the paper towels and the laundry detergent a few days after Christmas. And you’re still going to walk into Target, feeling the joy of the Christmas spirit, and you’re going to walk right into a wall of pink cards and red candy hearts.

And shepherd or shopper, you’re going to wonder how you carry the wonder of what you have seen into a world that seems unchanged.

But, that’s the challenge on the life of faith. We have these moments of absolute joy, or light, or understanding. We recommit ourselves to the journey. We say we will carry the light of the Christ candle all year. And then, we meet the world, in all of its mundane busy-ness. And we figure out how to live as transformed people within it.

There is a saying in Buddhism: before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.

In other words, in the aftermath of even the most amazing experiences, you still have to keep doing what you have always done. You still chop the wood. You still tend the sheep. You still buy paper towels in a store covered in pink and red hearts.

It’s not the world that has changed. It is us. In Christmas, if we open our hearts wide enough, we are transformed by the love and light of Christ. If we are lucky, we have twelve days to really celebrate that before our world goes back to normal. If we are realistic, we have two or three. But that doesn’t mean that we have to go back too.

Instead, we can be the changed people who now change the world for the better. I don’t know what the shepherds did when they got back to their sheep, other than I’m sure they kept on being shepherds. But I do wonder what else they did. Did they tell others what they had seen? Did they share the light of Christ by sharing the story? Did their lives change just a little? Did the small daily acts they had always done take on deeper meaning?

My guess is that they did. I believe that because I don’t believe you can experience God without being changed. And when you are changed, your world is as well. When you are changed, you become a force for good in a world that needs that goodness right now.

Because you and I are Christmas people, we have been transformed…and so now we transform the world. Tonight, ring in a new year. Celebrate. Enjoy yourself. But tomorrow, remember the light that you held on Christmas eve. Remember your promise to let it shine all year. And then, let it shine. Shine it in the darkest of places. Shine it for others who need to see it. Make the world a little brighter, and a little warmer. That’s how you will know that Christmas has changed you, and that is how Christmas will change the world.

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?

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.

 

The Fall of a Sparrow: Sermon for June 25, 2017

You can listen to this sermon here or subscribe to the Congregational Church in Exeter’s sermon podcast on iTunes.

Matthew 10:26-31, 38-39
10:26 “So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.

10:27 What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.

10:28 Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

10:29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.

10:30 And even the hairs of your head are all counted.

10:31 So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.
 
10:38 Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.

10:39 Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

In high school, like most teenagers, I had to read Hamlet. And, like most teenagers, I wasn’t so sure about this Shakespeare guy. We read a lot of his plays, and as much as the teachers told us they were relevant to our lives, the language was so archaic that it felt like another world.

In the play’s final act there’s a scene, as the action is about to come to a head, when Hamlet tells his friend, Horatio, that he has a bad feeling about how it’s going to go. Horatio basically says, “if something feels weird, let’s not go through with this.” But Hamlet replies, “Not a whit. We defy augury.” Now, that’s the Shakepearean way of saying, “I’m not superstitious.” And then Hamlet delivers this line: “There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow.”

In college I was an English major, so I had to read more Shakespeare, but I can’t say that I ever really fell in love with it the way my professors hoped. But this week, as I thought about this text, that phrase kept coming back to me. I kept thinking about what it meant.

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A sparrow who really wanted my breakfast.

Shakespeare knew the Bible, and he’s having Hamlet use the words of today’s Scripture passage. Jesus is talking to his disciples about fear and life, and he uses the example of sparrows. Sparrows are little, tiny birds. You could buy two of them for a coin back then. They would seem insignificant to anyone who was listening. But, Jesus tells them, if even a sparrow falls to the ground, God knows about it.

Jesus asks them, “aren’t you worth more than a whole bunch of sparrows?” To put Hamlet’s quote, “there is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow” another way, “If God is paying attention to sparrows, God is paying attention to this moment.”

I’m going to stop here and say that I do remember that Hamlet it a tragedy. It doesn’t end well for him, so you might be thinking “okay, if you are telling us to be unafraid, this is a really bad example.” Fair enough. But I still think there’s a little hope here for us.

Jesus uses this sparrow story when he’s talking to his disciples about fear. He tells them that the hidden things in life, everything that causes pain or destruction, will one day be revealed. For his disciples, who lived with the fear of death, that was powerful. It meant that the whole corrupt system was going to be exposed. To quote a Johnny Cash song, or at least one he covered, Jesus was saying, “What’s done in the dark will be brought to the light.”

When things in the world feel wrong, when it feels like things are being done behind closed doors that will hurt us or others, it’s a good reminder that God knows those things, and God will not let them go unexposed and unanswered.

But this is also a good reminder that sometimes we are the ones called to do the work of confronting the injustice in our world. When we stand in the face of what is wrong, and wonder “where is God”, often the question we should be asking ourselves is “what does God want me to do about this?”

That can feel scary, but more than that, it can feel hopeless. We are one of billions. None of us have endless assets or mighty armies at our fingertips. We may feel like we can’t change things in our own neighborhoods, let alone the world. It may seem that the risk we have to take to stand up to what is wrong is more likely to backfire than to succeed.

pexels-photo-326642Our lives can feel so small. And the irony in that is that if we do nothing, they are indeed. But if we choose to resist our fear, and do what is hard, they become larger than we can imagine. Jesus tells his followers to take up their cross and follow him. He says that if you want to save your life, you have to lose it, and if you lose it for his sake, you will find it.

In other words, if we do nothing, if we try to lay low and protect ourselves, the counterintuitive truth is that we will lose our lives. I’m not saying by that that we will stop living, but we will lose the reason that we live. We will start to lose our very souls. But if we step up, and take the risks that Christian life calls us to take, we just might find new life. In fact, we just might thrive.

There is a story about Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church. Before his consecration, he received a number of threats on his life, so much so that he wore a bullet-proof vest under his vestments for the ceremony. His family was concerned, and so he calmed them by telling them about all the preparations that had been made to ensure that he would stay safe. After telling them this, though, he said this: “I need you to hear, I believe that there are things in life that are worse than death.”

Living a life full of fear is worse than dying. And we are all going to die. The question is, “how do you want to live?” Or, as the poet Mary Oliver writes: “Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. And if that’s true, then there is a special providence in the rise of one too. Today we are baptizing Charlotte, not yet 8 months old. She’s not quite as small as a sparrow, but she’s close.

Today we bring her to the font, and in the waters of baptism she will be claimed as one of Christ’s own. And all of us, her parents, her godparents, and we her church community, are claiming her too. And we are saying that we are going to teach her to follow Christ, and to resist fear, and claim the life that God is calling her to claim. And if we do this well, this will be a courageous child. She may be afraid sometimes, as all of us are, but she will have the courage to do the work of healing and justice that this world needs. We are going to get her ready for that work. We are teaching her how to live.

And so Charlotte, today I say the words of Jesus to you: “Do not be afraid…you are worth more than many sparrows” God’s eye is on Charlotte, and it is on us all. In the face of that, our fear cannot win.

Translating the Gospel: Sermon for Pentecost, June 4, 2017

Earlier this year I was researching my mom’s grandparents, my mom’s mom’s family, and I found my great-grandfather’s application for citizenship in this country.

My grandmother’s parents emigrated from Italy in the early 1900’s and they settled in Maine. They had died long before I was born so I never met them. But I found my great-granddad’s citizenship paperwork, complete with this picture of this big, bulky guy, and I texted it to my sister and said “well, I know where I got my build from.”

I then wondered what my great-grandmother looked like, but no matter where I searched, I couldn’t find anything. So I called my mom and asked, “Is there a reason that your grandmother maybe never became a citizen.” And she said, “Oh yes…she never learned to speak English.”

That surprised me because my grandmother grew up speaking Italian, but also spoke English. The same was true for her brothers and sisters. But their mother had grown up in Italy, and in Portland she lived in a community where you only needed to speak Italian. Even at church the priest spoke Italian. She had little exposure to English and never learned.

But my mom had always talked about her grandmother and how she loved her grandchildren. And, none of them had learned Italian. So, I wondered how the kids knew that. But my mom said that even though she didn’t speak much English, there were always other ways she could show her affection and love.

Today is Pentecost Sunday. This is the day that we in the church celebrate the Holy Spirit, and the way it arrived. Fifty days after Easter, and soon after the Ascension of Jesus Christ, the disciples were gathered together. You have to imagine they were a little confused. They’d been through this emotional whiplash. First Jesus was dead, then somehow he was alive, and now he was gone again. Before he left, though, he told them all to continue to tell his story, so they must have been sitting there thinking, “Okay, what now?” and “How do we do this?”

Scripture tells us that just then “a mighty wind” rushed through the room, and “tongues of fire” appeared over each of their heads. And, suddenly, they could speak languages they’d never known.

They went out into the city and met people who had come to Jerusalem from every place they could imagine. This would be like standing in the middle of the international arrival terminal at Logan, hearing all the different languages around you. And they began telling the story of Jesus, and of what had happened. And the people were like, “Wait, they’re all from Galilee. How do these guys know my language?”

A few folks were skeptical. They looked at the disciples and said, “they must be filled with new wine.” The technical translation for that is, “these guys are drunk”. But Peter hears this and says, “hey, we’re not drunk” (actually, he says, “it’s only 9am”, which I’ve always kind of loved”). But, Peter says, something has indeed happened. A new era has begun, and this small handful of disciples, this earliest church, has a story to tell.

What happened to the disciples was that the Holy Spirit had arrived. When we talk about God, or the Trinity, the Holy Spirit normally comes last. We get God who is the creator, the parent, the one who made all of us. And we get God who is Jesus Christ, who lived and died and rose again. But that last part, God the Holy Spirit, that’s harder to explain. It is literally amorphous.

And yet, it’s probably the Holy Spirit that we encounter most in our lives. It’s the Holy Spirit who Jesus promised would be there for the disciples, leading them, supporting them, and guiding them, even after they no longer saw him. And it’s the Holy Spirit who guides us still, and who lifts up our hearts when we need to know that God is still with us.

It’s this first gift of the Holy Spirit to the church, though, that is so powerful, and so important for us still. The disciples get the ability to speak the languages of others. They get a way to tell the story of Jesus, and what they’ve seen. And now it’s no longer just their story, but the world’s.

And the most important things about this is that they were the ones who started to speak other languages. How much easier would it have been for the Holy Spirit to say, “okay, I’ve touched every person in Jerusalem, and now they all speak your language, so go out there and tell them the story.”

But that’s not how it works. Instead it’s the disciples who are changed. It’s the church that has to learn new languages.

That’s a good reminder for us today because sometimes in the church we think everyone just needs to learn our language. You know, if people out there would just get onboard and come through the doors, and make an effort, they’d know how to talk like us.

But in a time when church is increasingly optional, that’s doesn’t happen. For many people, we may as well be speaking a foreign language in here. For some of them that’s confusing, and for others that may be downright frightening. So when people dare to walk through the doors of our church, that’s why it’s so important that we spell out in plain language what we are doing here.

That’s why we write the words of the Lord’s Prayer in the bulletin. That’s why we announce the hymns. That’s why we try to explain the sacraments. We have to be translators because otherwise we may as well be speaking Galilean.

IMG_5015And sometimes this goes beyond literal language to other ways of telling our story. As you arrived today you may have noticed that we have a rainbow flag out in front of the church today. Church council voted unanimously to place it there during the month of June. In doing so we are recognizing two things. First, we are remembering what happened in Orlando at the Pulse Nightclub a year ago this month. Second, we are flying it because June is Pride month for LGBTQ people, and we are standing in solidarity with the LGBTQ community.

About twenty years ago now this church voted to become Open and Affirming, which is a term that itself needs translation. Open and Affirming in our tradition means that we welcome and affirm people of all sexual orientations and gender identities. So, you know, and I know, that this is a step this church has taken. And you know, and I know, that it is safe for an LGBTQ person, or their friends, or their family, to walk through the doors of this church.

But here’s the catch. The average person walking or driving by probably doesn’t know that. And if they are a person who is LGBTQ, or who loves someone who is, they probably don’t know that this is a safe place. That’s understandable. Most churches aren’t, so why should this one be any different?

I know that’s a question for some in our community because people have asked me, “Would I be welcome there?” And I’m often like, “Okay, look at me…I’m the pastor.” But even with that…they don’t know for certain.

So imagine this. Imagine you are wondering who we are. Maybe you’re the parent of a gay kid. Maybe your best friend is trans. Or maybe you’re a middle school kid who is figuring out who you are, and who is wondering whether God really loves you. And imagine that you are riding in a car, looking out the window, and you see the big white church on Front Street, and you notice that flag. And imagine that in your heart, in a new way, you know for the first time that maybe God really does love you.

Even if you never come through the doors of the church, you hear that this story is for you too. That’s the power of Pentecost. That’s the gift of the Holy Spirit, and it’s a gift that is given to us not to keep to ourselves, but to use to share the story of God’s love with the world.

We become stronger every time we share our story. And we become stronger every time someone new walks through our doors because they bring their own gifts with them. That church that gathered in the Upper Room at Pentecost, all of twelve people strong, has grown to be a church of over 2 billion people worldwide today.

It didn’t get there by us all sitting in our pews, speaking our own language. It got there because the Holy Spirit taught us new ways to tell the story, and open our doors wider, and to invite people in. And so now is our turn. Let us be Pentecost people in all we do, sharing the Gospel of God’s love and grace in every language we can find.

 

Confirmation Rules: Sermon for May 21, 2017

This sermon is available as a podcast at iTunes

John 14:15-21
14:15 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.

14:16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.

14:17 This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

14:18 “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.

14:19 In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live.

14:20 On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.

14:21 They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”

On the first day of confirmation class this year, I asked the students who had gathered to close their eyes. Then I said to them, “raise your hand if you are here today because your parents told you that you had to come”.

I then told them to keep their hands up and open their eyes. Every hand in the room was raised.

We all laughed, and I was neither hurt nor surprised. I remember being a middle schooler and the prospect of spending Friday afternoons after school at church with some pastor I barely knew would not have appealed much to me either. But they were there, and they were open and willing to listen, and so I gave them my two rules of confirmation class:

First, while being here in confirmation class may not be up to you, being confirmed is solely your decision.

In other words, if your parents are requiring you to be here, that’s okay. Come to class as they ask, and keep an open mind. But if at the end of this you do not want to be confirmed, that’s okay too, and that’s your choice.

That’s important, I told them, because your parents brought you to the baptismal font before you were old enough make up your mind about your faith. In doing so they brought you into the community of faith, and we affirmed that you were Christ’s own. But now you are older, and you have the chance to make one of the most important decisions of your adult life. In confirmation we “confirm” what has already been promised for us: we confirm that we accept Christ’s love and grace, and that we will continue to grow in this faith.

So, that’s the first rule. The second is this: your confirmation is not a graduation.

I know what the rule is in some families, spoken or unspoken: get confirmed, and you can choose whether or not you come to church after that. But that’s the exact opposite of what it should be. Because by choosing to be confirmed you are saying that you are committing yourself to being an active part of the community of faith. You are not taking a step back from church. You are taking a step into church. You are saying this matters.

Those are the rules. And I set them out and then tell our youth that if they choose not to be confirmed, that is totally okay. I will not be disappointed in them, and this church will not love them or welcome them any less. The rules are not meant to be restrictive or harsh. If anything they are meant to be loving, and to show where the boundaries are.

But even after all of that, six youth have chosen to be confirmed today. And so I want to hold up to them, and to all of us who would live out our faith, the lectionary Scripture for today. In it, Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” In other words, if you love me, you will follow my rules.

The first question, of course, is which rules?

That’s a question Jesus got asked a lot. In fact, he was once asked, “What is the greatest commandment”, or, what’s the most important rule? And Jesus responded, “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
In other words, that’s what Jesus wants us to do. In fact, Jesus says that if we really love him we will do those things.

But here’s the thing: those things are not easy. First, love the Lord with all your heart, soul, strength and mind. In other words, love God so that you are holding nothing back. Give God all of those things first, before you give them to anything or anyone else.

And then, the even harder piece, love your neighbor as yourself. This is a totally foreign concept to most of us. We are taught to love ourselves first, and those like us second. But Jesus wants more than that. Yes, he wants us to love ourselves, and love ourselves just as deeply as he loves us. But he then wants us to love every other person in this world with the same ferocity and depth. And he wants us to act on that love, and to serve our neighbors first.

So, first, we have to love God with everything that is in us. Then, we have to love ourselves, which is sometimes just as hard. And finally, we have to love the world.

Y’all, that’s not easy. In fact, because we are human, it’s actually impossible to do most of the time. And yet, it’s what Jesus says we have to do if we love him.

And so how do we do it? Well, first, we commit ourselves to it, day after day. And second, we do it together. We do it as people who gather together in a community like this one, and who try, week after week, to get it just a little closer to right.

For those who are being confirmed today, this is the path that you are choosing to take. You are saying you want to try to do these things. And this is too holy, and too hard, a calling for you to embark on alone. And so that’s why I gave you those two rules: first, it has to be your choice. And second, this can’t be the end of your journey…you have to be all in.

The good news is you will have help. You have this church. You have the people who sit in the pews every weeks. You have your families. You have your teachers and youth group leaders and a pastor. And you have a mentor who is going to continue to be there for you.

In the past confirmation mentors have been companions to the confirmands during the year before you were confirmed. But this year we are doing something different. This year your mentors are going to be there for you in the year after confirmation. You’ve already met with them, but you are committing to them, and they are committing to you, to keep this relationship going.

They are going to continue to check in with you, and I hope you are going to go to them as well. Together you are going to walk down this road of faith, and you are hopefully going to teach one another a little more about what it means to love God with your heart, soul, strength, and mind, and what it means to be a part of this church.

And this is also where I want to remind this congregation what we are committing to today as well. Upon their confirmation these six youth will become full members of the Congregational Church in Exeter. Their membership does not come with an asterisk next to their name. They are not junior members. Their standing in this church is exactly equal to your own. They now have full voice and vote in all matters of the church.

As one of you reminded me this week, we ask our confirmands to do more to join this church than we do any adult. They prepare for a year, they wrestle with their faith, and they write a faith statement. These youth are not the future of this church. They are the present, and they carry the gift of a perspective that we need. It’s our job to listen to them and take them seriously. We do that because they have taken this process seriously.

And so, as we prepare to confirm them, and as you prepare to be confirmed, hear the rule of life that Christ has given us all: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and soul, and mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. This is how Christ himself said that he would know we truly loved him.

We all need one another in this work. The good news is that today we gain six more voices to encourage us along the way.