Good King Wenceslas: Sermon for May 14, 2017

An audio version of this sermon may be heard here or downloaded as a podcast on iTunes.

Acts 7:55-60
7:55 But filled with the Holy Spirit, Stephen gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.

7:56 “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!”

7:57 But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him.

7:58 Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.

7:59 While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”

7:60 Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.

When I was 8, I started taking piano lessons. I was given a stack of those lesson books that kids get, with the very simple songs that you can sort of plunk out with one finger. And I remember being very excited about it because it was a Christmas one, and I knew these songs, and so as I was finding the right key with one finger I could sing the words.

So, jin…gle bells…jin-gle…bells. Or, we wish you a mer-ry Christ-mas…

But there was one song I didn’t know, and it had these words I didn’t understand: “good King Wen-sa-les? Wen-ces-las? looked out….on the feast of Ste…phen.”

Who was King What’s-his-name? And what was the “feast of Stephen”? In my 8-year-old mind I thought it was some physical place that the king was looking at out his window. And I had no idea what any of this had to do with Christmas.

My piano aptitude never really progressed much past those books, but my theological training did. So years later I would read the text from today, and I’d learn who Stephen was, and that the Feast of Stephen was actually a feast day that takes place on the day after Christmas.

So, why did Stephen have a special day? Well, you only get a feast day by being a saint. And Stephen is not just a saint, but is also commonly recognized as the first martyr of the Christian faith. He was a deacon in the early church and that alone put him in danger because he was professing a faith that was considered blasphemous. And when he was brought to trial, instead of recanting or saying something to save himself, he instead doubled-down, and gave this long speech to the religious authorities that ended in him accusing them of not following the law.

The court and the crowd were enraged, and they attacked Stephen, and stoned him to death. Deacon Stephen became the first Christian to die for his faith, and in doing so he became a martyr and a saint.

So, next time the nominating committee asks if you might like to be a deacon for this church…just remember that the job has gotten a little less dangerous over time.

The reality is that few of us, especially in our American context, will ever have to die for our faith. But back then, being a Christian was akin to accepting a death sentence. And those who died for their faith became martyrs.

We hear that word now and we probably think of it in two ways: one, as great heroes who die for their faith and beliefs. Those are people like Dr. King, Bishop Oscar Romero, or Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

But we might think about it another way too; a negative way. Maybe you’ve known someone who always seems so put upon and needlessly self-sacrificial, and always seems to be begging other people to notice it. You might roll your eyes and say, “Ugh, that guy is such a martyr.”

Chances are good that you don’t want to see yourself as a martyr in either of those ways. You may love your faith, and work for goodness in the world, but you probably don’t want to end up dead. Likewise, you probably don’t want to be the person that people dismiss as having a martyr complex either. You probably just want to be a good person who gets through life unscathed.

Fair enough. But it’s important to know what that word “martyr” really means. The Greek word the New Testament uses is μαρτυρία (marturia) which literally means “witness” or one who gives “testimony”. A martyr, in the literal sense of the word, is not someone who dies, but someone who bears witness to a greater truth.

For Christians, this means being a witness to the greater love of God. And in a world like the one we have today, where there is so much hatred, violence, and worship of false idols, it means showing the people around you that there is another way to live.

In a real way that is what Stephen was doing in front of the religious authorities. Every religion everywhere has seen corruption and hypocrisy at times, and the ones who were judging Stephen were not immune to that. They were so comfortable in their own understanding of their faith that they heard Stephen’s witness to Christ, his testimony, as a threat. And so, they killed him.

As Christians we, as much as Stephen, are called to witness to God’s love and justice to the world. And, like Stephen, our testimony will sometimes fall on ears that do not wish to hear it. Unlike Stephen, that probably does not mean that we will be in any mortal peril. But, that means that sometimes we will be ignored. Other times we will rejected. And sometimes we will pay a price for refusing to compromise our beliefs and values.

That’s a good sign. Because if your Christian faith does not require you to stand up against the injustice of our world from time to time, something is wrong.

But the good news is that when you are being witnesses to God’s love, when you are giving your testimony, others just might notice. It was that way for a young man named Saul who was at the council that day. Saul was what we might today call a “company man”. He bought into the ideas of the ruling religious authorities, and he believed that anyone who challenged them was dangerous.

That day, as the crowd killed Stephen, they laid their coats at his feet. And Saul just stood there, and watched.

We don’t remember Saul for this moment though. Instead we remember him by the name he came to be known as: Paul. It is Paul who, perhaps more than anyone else, carried the testimony of Christ’s love and grace to others. After his conversion, he became an unparalleled witness to the Gospel.

And while we are taught that Paul’s change of heart came in a flash of blinding light while walking down the Damascus Road, I wonder if maybe it didn’t start on this day, when he heard Stephen, and he saw a man willing to die for what he believed in. Maybe it came when Stephen called out to Jesus to not judge the ones who killed him, and showed Christ’s love and grace to the very end.

I think it might have happened that way, because I think that’s how faith happens for most of us. We come to believe not because we study our way to faith, or even pray our way there, but because people in our lives are witnesses to God’s love, and because we see that witness, and we want to follow along.

On this Mother’s Day I think about that, and I recall some statistics I saw a few years ago. People were trying to figure out why some kids grew up to value their faith as adults, and others didn’t. And what they found was this: the biggest influence in whether a child would grow into a person of faith was not the particular church in which they grew up, or the pastor, or the young group, or anything like that. It was this: the parents.

82% of kids whose parents “talked about faith at home, attached great importance to their beliefs, and were active in their congregations were religiously active as young adults.” By contrast, just 1% of those whose parents attached value to their faith were religiously active at the same age.

In other words, faith starts with mothers, and fathers, and parents. And it continues with every adult who is in a young person’s life. It is the job of those people to be witnesses, and to testify by the way they live to what really matters.

This world is in need of a new generation who can live lives full of God’s grace and love. We need witnesses to a better way. We need morally courageous young people who can transform the brokenness of our world. And our faith can give them the tools they need to do this work. It’s our job not to hide those tools, but to show them how to use them.

I’ll close with this. At the beginning I was talking about the song, “Good King Wenceslas” and the Feast of Stephen. It turns out that King Wenceslas was a real guy, but he was really only a duke in what’s now the Czech Republic. And legend has it that one day he did look out his window, on December 26th, and he saw a beggar, or as the song says, “a poor man, gathering winter’s fuel”.

What the song doesn’t make clear is that the man was very far away, and the weather was very bad. But Wenceslas was a good man, and he wanted to help the man. And so he set off, along with his page, his assistant, to give the man money.

It was so cold and snowy, though, that it was tough going. Wenceslas’s page wanted to turn back and go home. But the king told him, “I’ll walk in front of you and make the path. Just walk in my footsteps. It will be easier, and warmer for you, and you’ll know the way to go.”

That’s the work of a witness, and that’s the work of anyone who cares about who comes after us. We clear the path, and we lead by example. We show by our lives what is important, and we teach the next generation how to walk this path. And we do this because Stephen and Paul and Wenceslas and a host of other witnesses, sometimes known only to us, showed us the way first. And we do this because what was done for us, we are now called to do for others.

Wolves in Shepherds’ Clothing: Sermon for May 7, 2017

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John 10:1-10
10:1 Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit.

10:2 The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep.

10:3 The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.

10:4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.

10:5 They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.”

10:6 Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.

10:7 So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep.

10:8 All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them.

10:9 I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.

10:10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

So, I don’t know about you, but I don’t spend a whole lot of time thinking about sheep and shepherds. I don’t own sheep, I don’t know what they eat, how they spend their days, or what they like. I think they are kind of cute from afar, with their fluffy coats and their “baaing”, but that’s about it.

I don’t even really like wool sweaters, because they make me itch.

And I also don’t know much about being a shepherd, I wouldn’t know how to take care of actual sheep. I think you have to sheer them, and feed them, and keep them safe from wolves, but that’s about it. I’d make a lousy shepherd.

So, all this sheep language in the Bible is over my head sometimes. Even though I love the beauty of the 23rd Psalm – the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want – I can’t really relate to it from my 21st century context. And that’s true even though I am a pastor, and the literal meaning of “pastor” is shepherd, or keeper of the flock. And, truth be told, you might not like being called sheep all that much either.

But today’s is a sheep-heavy Scripture reading. Jesus is teaching his disciples about these sheep who are penned up behind a gate. And he’s talking about the shepherd, who comes in through the gate and takes care of them. But he’s also talking about others who are not the shepherd. He calls these people “thieves” and “robbers” and talks about how they sneak in to destroy the sheep.

Jesus finishes by telling them that he is the real shepherd, the one who not only comes through the front gate, but who is the front gate. And he says that because they know the shepherd’s voice, the sheep will follow him, and not the voices of the thieves and robbers, and they will have abundant life.

So, I did not major in sheep studies in college. But I did major in English. And if my English major taught me anything, it was that sometimes a sheep is not just a sheep.

pexels-photo-227691The reality of the Bible is that it is a deeply metaphorical book. Jesus taught the people using examples from the life they knew. They understood the metaphor of a shepherd and sheep. But had Jesus lived today, my guess is he would have told this story using completely different metaphors, ones that we could relate to better.

So hear this story not as one in which Jesus is a literal shepherd and we are literal sheep, but as metaphor. Hear it as Jesus, who loves us so much that he wants to keep us from being destroyed. And hear it as one about the forces of destruction in this world, which too often come to us as wolves dressed in shepherds’ clothing.

Jesus tells us that he comes through the front gate of the sheepfold, which is where the sheep are gathered. He does not sneak in under the railing. He doesn’t pretend to be what he is not. Instead he is authentically and fully who he is. And because of this, we learn his voice, and when he leads us out of the gate, out of our safe places, and into the world, we follow.

But there are others who want us to follow them too. Jesus calls these the thieves and robbers. And I at first though these were the same thing, but I learned that they are not. It’s not important to remember the details here, but I found this interesting. In the original text thieves is κλέπτης (kleptes) which is where we get the word “kleptomaniac”. These are the stealthy ones who take by deceiving us. And then the robbers are λῃστής (lacetase). These are the ones who take by force through overt, violence.

And here is where I believe we 21st century people might understand this metaphor a little better. Because the reality is that we live in a world of modern-day thieves and robbers. Some do come like robbers, trained in violence and trying to steal away our peace through overt threats. But too often they come as thieves, the wolves in shepherds’ clothing, luring us away from what is good and using us for their own ends.

Too often we live in a kleptomaniacal world. Anything that can be used for good – our hearts and minds, our time and money, our love and health, our understanding and compassion – are stolen away by those forces that enter our lives not through the front gates, but by crawling under fences, and blending in, until we think they are supposed to be here.

Jesus calls these things “the strangers”, or ἀλλοτρίων (allotpeon). And I want to be sure to emphasize that he doesn’t call them this because they are unknown or different from us. Jesus always told us to welcome the stranger in Scripture, but when he did that he used the word ξένος (xenos), or other. It is the rejection of these people that he warned us against. We call that xenophobia, or fear of the other.

That’s not the kind of stranger Jesus was talking about here. This is about the other kind of stranger, not the one who is unknown to us, but the one to whom the values Jesus taught us are unknown. Things like goodness, love, mercy, and grace. Things all the major faiths of this world teach. Instead, the strangers to these values – including some who would even call themselves Christian – serve not the forces of life, but the forces of destruction. They wish us harm.

Jesus says, “the thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

Jesus wants us to have abundant life. He wants us to thrive. But in a world where we are promised everything if we just pay enough money, or cast the right vote, or sell out for just long enough, the thieves and robbers have somehow convinced us they want that abundant life for us too.

They don’t. They don’t love us and they don’t want abundant life for us. And, truth be told, even if they did, they wouldn’t know the first thing about how to deliver it, even if they did.

Instead, it is our shepherd who can bring us to the place of abundant life. And here is where we have to think with 21st century minds. Because while we may not have had literal shepherds in our lives who have guarded us from evil, and guided us to green pastures, we have had both protectors and encouragers. Maybe they were parents or teachers, coaches or mentors, friends or good neighbors. Whatever they were, they loved you enough to keep you safe, and lead you on.

And so, the Lord is my shepherd. But the Lord is also my parent, my teacher, my coach, my guide, my protector, my encourager.

And I need all of those in this world. And my guess is you may too.

160829_a20072

Copyright, Paul Noth, The New Yorker

We need those because, as Jesus says, the sheep will not follow a stranger because they do not know their voice. But my fear is that these days the thieves and robbers are so familiar that we just might mistake their voices for that of God. And I’m afraid that we just might unwittingly follow them out of the sheepfold, and into destruction.

And so that’s why I want to learn to know my shepherd’s voice when I hear it. And I want to know when I’m hearing a bad imitation, and I want to stay away, and reject the powers of destruction.

I want to learn my shepherd’s voice because I want to follow that shepherd when I hear it. I want to follow because Jesus doesn’t tell the disciples that he is going to keep them there in the safety of the sheepfold forever. Instead, he wants them to follow him out into the world. He wants to become the gate through which they walk, and he wants to lead them into the places that the world needs them.

And yes, sometimes that will even mean that we will “walk through the valley of the shadow of death” but even in those places we “shall fear no evil” for the Good Shepherd is with us.

This world needs people who will follow the shepherd and be shepherds for the world. We live in a time with more than its fair share of thieves and robbers. And we live in a time that requires deep moral courage.

Now more than ever, we are called out of our places of safety, and into the world. And so now more than ever, we must reject the voices of the wolves in shepherds’ clothing, and learn to listen together to the voice of the only shepherd who truly wants us to have abundant life.

Recognizing Jesus on the Path: Sermon for April 30, 2017

An audio recording of this sermon is available here or can be downloaded as a podcast at iTunes.

I like to think that I’m perceptive. When I was in middle school I had a teacher who would praise me for that. “You are so perceptive…nothing gets past you.”

So I began to think that was true and that I had a gift for recognizing what was around me. And I got to be a little too comfortable with that idea. Surely, if there was something important for me to notice, I wouldn’t miss it.

Except here’s the thing…adulthood has taught me that I’m not as perceptive as I’d like to think. I’ve had a few times where I have failed to even recognize people when they are right in front of me, usually because they are in places where I didn’t expect to see them.

Like the time I was on a quick overnight trip to Washington, DC, and I was riding the Metro thinking about one of my best friends from college who lived there now, and how I should really look her up. And the train pulled into the station, I hopped out, and I walked right past this woman in the crowd going the other direction.

I looked right at her, even made eye contact. But I just kept going. And I got about ten steps past her when it clicked. We turned back around at the same time. And, of course, it was her.

Then there was another time, and I told this story once at a summer service, when I spent an entire breakfast with Aretha Franklin sitting at the next table. I was so engrossed in conversation, though, that I didn’t even know it until she left and the waiter said “Do you know who that was?”

Like, really, how do you miss Aretha Franklin?

I think about those stories whenever I read today’s Scripture. Because this is a story of missing what’s right in front of you. The disciples are walking down the road to Emmaus talking about Jesus. And you have to remember, this was later on the day of the first Easter. They haven’t seen the resurrected Christ yet, but they’d heard rumors.

Then a third person starts walking down the road with them and asks “what are you talking about”? And they say, “you haven’t heard about this?” They tell him about Jesus, and how they had pinned all their hopes on him only to see him arrested, and dead and buried. And they tell him how some of the women had found the empty tomb and how the angel had told them that he was alive, but no one knew what was happening yet.

pexels-photo

Jesus was known in the breaking of the bread.

And when they are done telling the man this, he begins to teach them about faith. And when they get to Emmaus, the disciples beg him to stay for dinner and eat with them. And it is only when they get to the table, and only when the stranger takes the bread and breaks it, that Scripture tells us their eyes were truly opened and they realized that they had been in Christ’s presence the entire time.

I like this story because it makes me feel better to know that there are others who miss the obvious. My guess is that the two disciples in this story were no slouches either. They knew Jesus. They probably thought they would have recognized him anywhere. And yet, they were looking right at him and missing him. And it’s not that they didn’t see him…seeing is overrated in some ways. It’s that they didn’t recognize him.

I think this happens more that we like to admit. We think we see what’s right in front of us, but our vision is a little off. It takes a little extra nudge for us to really get it. And, we think we would know if God was walking with us on our journey.

That last part is sometimes the hardest. Because the reality is that we are all on a journey. None of us, no matter how much we want to, gets to stay in one place forever. New things happen, unexpected things happen, hard things happen. The disciples walking that road knew about that.

Their lives had been turned upside down, and they didn’t know what was going to happen next. They were afraid, and anxious, and they weren’t sure whether they could let themselves be hopeful. And so when Jesus joined them on the road, they couldn’t, or maybe they wouldn’t, see what was right in front of them.

There’s a story of a man who was blind and who decided to sail across the ocean. And he was interviewed for a news program by a pundit who believed he was foolish and that he was so limited by his abilities that he didn’t even understand what he was doing. And after a while the sailor replied to him, “Wow, for a guy who can see, you sure don’t have a lot of vision.”

I think about the times in my life when my eyesight has been fine, but I have not recognized Jesus. And that’s because Christianity is not about how well we see with our eyes, but how well we recognize God in our hearts.

We Christians call ourselves “Easter people”. Because unlike these disciples walking down the road, we know how the story ends. We know Christ is risen. But that day, on that first Easter, the disciples didn’t have the benefit of knowing that.

But after Jesus reveals himself they say to one another “weren’t our hearts burning within us when he was talking to us”? Only when they went deeper than their sight, and listened to their hearts, did they recognize God among them.

Now, you may be saying “when did I ever physically walk with Jesus, and see him face to face”? The disciples at least got that chance. Why don’t I? And you’re right, I’ve never found myself sitting down to dinner with Jesus there in the flesh right across the table. But that doesn’t mean he hasn’t been there. They key is trusting the burning in your heart enough to recognize it.

And a big part of that, of staying perceptive to the world around you, is about remembering what’s important, and not getting distracted.

This weekend I was keynoting the annual meeting of the Vermont Conference of the UCC. At meal times I’d sit with different groups of people and they’d start to recognize me. “Hey, are you the one whose speaking?” “Hey, are you the one who wrote this book?” And when I said “yes” we’d start talking, and we’d have these great, lively discussions.

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I did not make this.

And then one meal I was sitting next to a six year old. And we were talking a little bit. And then out of no where he asked me this question, “Hey, are you the one who made the chocolate cake?”

And I said, “No, I’m sorry.”

And he said, “Oh.” And then…crickets. He was clearly all done with me.

I tell you this story, though, because I like his focus. He really liked that chocolate cake, and he was going to find the person who could get him more. And if that wasn’t you, he was going to keep looking.

So often in life we get distracted from the things we really want to find. We walk down our Emmaus roads and are so caught up in details and stresses of life, and in just getting to the next destination, that we fail to remember that we are on a bigger journey. And so, when God comes and literally walks next to us, we don’t even realize it.

The challenge is to spend out lives looking for the presence and love of God with the same focus as a six year old looking for cake. And when we find distractions along the way, you know, like boring people who don’t know where the cake is, we have to be able to keep our eyes on the prize, and refocus. We can’t let anything deter us from our vision.

God is not a cake, of course, no matter how great it might be. But God is something even sweeter. God is the one who can give our lives their greatest meaning. God is the one who can love us so much, that we will know how to love one another. And in a world filled with so many distractions, we have to learn to be perceptive enough to recognize God’s presence.

Because what if the kingdom of God is already surrounding us, and we just have to have the heart to recognize it? I believe it is. I believe the kingdom of God exists in many places in this world, and I believe Exeter is one of them. And I believe Jesus is already with us on this journey, and has been for many years. And because of that, I believe that we will never walk alone.

When God Jumps In: Sermon for Easter, 2017

An audio podcast of this sermon is available here or on iTunes

There’s a story about a guy who falls in a hole.

A man is out walking one day and all of a sudden he trips and falls into this deep hole. He lands at the bottom and no matter what he tries, he’s stuck. So he starts to call out to the people that he knows are passing by.

“Help me!” He says. “Get me out of here!”

Eventually someone comes by. She looks down at him and he says “help me”. She’s says “okay”. And she’s a doctor, and so she writes him a prescription and throws it down to him.

sky-ditch-eye-holeStill stuck, he waits for the next person to come. And this time it’s a minister. And he looks down in the hole and the guy says “help me”. So the minster says, “I’ll help you”. And he says a prayer for him and then moves on.

But down there at the bottom of the hole, the man is still stuck.

I’ll come back to that story, but first I want to talk about the story. That story is the reason we’re all here today. On Easter morning we proclaim an incredible truth. It starts with this: nearly 2,000 years ago, Jesus Christ was dead and buried.

And three days later, early in the morning, his friends were still devastated. And so they went to his tomb. But when they got there they found that the heavy stone that blocked the door had been rolled away, and Jesus wasn’t where they had left him.

They were, understandably, distressed. That’s because in the moment they didn’t know that the fact Jesus wasn’t there is the best part of the story. Because the world had done the absolute worst that it could to Jesus. It had put him in the ground, and closed the tomb. But Jesus would not stay put. Love would not consent to remaining buried. Light would not tolerate being snuffed out.

Put another way, Jesus was down at the bottom of the hole, but he wouldn’t stay there.

That’s good news for us. And that’s good news for the guy from that first story, the one who was there at the bottom of his own hole, looking for a way to get out. The doctor couldn’t save him. The minister couldn’t save him. No one could save him, and things looked bleak.

But then a third person came by. And, if you’ve ever watched the show The West Wing you might have heard this story before. The third person was the guy’s friend. And when the guy saw him from the bottom of the hole he yelled out “Friend! You have to help me.”

And so the friend did what the best of friends do. He jumped into the hole himself.

Now the first guy couldn’t believe it. “What are you doing?” he asked. “Now we’re both down here.”

“Yeah,” said the second guy. “But I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out.”

The most stunning part of the Easter story, the most amazing part of our faith, is this: God loves us enough to jump into the hole with us and to show us the way out.

In the church we believe that Jesus was more than just a great guy, though he was certainly that. We believe that Jesus is nothing less than God-with-us. Jesus is God loving this world so much that God chooses to actively participate in our world.

This means that God is not some divine chess player in the sky who moves us around like pawns, occasionally making us fall into holes. Instead, God chooses to be on the board with us. It means that God doesn’t just come to the edge of the holes that are of this world’s making, but God loves us enough to jump in with us, and show us the way out.

And that is what Jesus did in his life. In a time when injustice, cor

Easter guy in hole

A picture drawn by a child in church during the Easter sermon on Sunday: The friend who jumps in the hole.

ruption, and cruelty reigned, he jumped down into the hole. And on Easter morning, he got back out.

Now, we hear this story today, and we have the benefit of 2,000 years of hindsight. You came to church this morning knowing how it goes. It’s no surprise to us that the tomb is empty, and Christ is risen.

But to the women who went to the tomb on Easter morning, it was more than a surprise. It was shocking. Jesus wasn’t there, but an angel was telling them, “Jesus has been raised from the dead. Go tell the others, and Jesus will meet you.”

It sounds impossible to them, but they go anyway. And Scripture tells us that the women “left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell” the others.

I love that phrase: “with fear and great joy”. I love it not because I like the idea of being afraid, but because I believe we can all relate. I love it because fear and joy are the natural reaction to the surprise of resurrection.

They had no idea what was happening. But they did know that it was something big. They didn’t have words to describe it yet, but in their hearts they had started to believe that resurrection was possible. And so, they ran.

And it was while they are running that they meet Jesus along the way. And seeing him, they know that it’s all true.

Like I said, we have hindsight faith. We are not surprised by resurrection the way that those disciples were. But maybe we should be. Maybe the news that resurrection is possible should be that jarring to us. Maybe it should cause us run quickly, ready to tell the world, wrestling between our fear and joy every step of the way.

But then again, maybe in some ways resurrection really does still sometimes surprise us. And maybe when it does we understand Easter more clearly than we ever could, even on a beautiful Easter morning.

Have you ever been down in a hole? Have you ever been there wondering how in the world you would ever get out? Have you ever felt like the people who are walking by aren’t really getting it? And have you ever had an experience of grace, maybe one where you felt God nearby, or maybe one when someone else jumped in the hole with you and showed you the way out?

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The sun coming up over the Squamscott River on Easter morning.

 

If so, you get what resurrection means. You get what it means to balance fear and joy as you climb your way out. And you get that those two things are the essential elements of hope.

I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that it was only when the women were running with that hope, with the first inklings that new life might be possible, that they ran into Jesus.

I don’t know about you, but I need hope like that. I need to know that somewhere between my joy in life and my fear for the world, resurrection is true. I need to know that I worship a God who loves not just me, but the whole world enough to jump down into the darkest places with us. Because in days like this, when so often it feels like the whole world is stuck down at the bottom of an ever-deepening hole, who better to show us how to get out?

But more that that, every time we are shown the way out, every time we are given a little taste of resurrection, we become a part of this work too.

Martin Luther once said that it was the job of Christians to become “little Christs” to one another. That’s a tall order, and I know I’m never going to get that exactly right.
But I think I know what he meant by that. I think he meant that in a world where too many fall through the cracks and into deep holes, it’s our job to be like Christ, and to jump in after them. It’s our job to say “hey, a friend of mine once showed me the way out too.”

And so, maybe right now more than ever we who would follow Christ are called to be the people who jump into some pretty deep holes.

When violence and war drive some down into the depths, we jump in with them, and we work for peace.

When fear and ignorance shut the doors of our hearts to others, we jump in, and we open them wide again.

When addiction drives down our friends and our communities, we jump in, and we support recovery.

And whenever injustice causes any beloved child of God to be pushed into a hole, we jump in, and we work to make it right.

Resurrection happened on that Easter morning all those centuries ago. But it didn’t end that day. Resurrection is happening still. The work that Christ began on Easter morning continues. But the really amazing thing is that Christ no longer does it alone. He calls us to do this work with us.

On Easter we decide: will I stay here, unmoved by resurrection? Or am I ready to jump in?

May we always have just enough joy to allow us to conquer our fear, and to give us just enough hope to take the plunge.

Save Us: Sermon for Palm Sunday, 2017

An audio version of this sermon may be found here, or as a podcast on iTunes here.

Back in Advent, when we were getting ready for the birth of Jesus at Christmas, we read the story of John the Baptist. You might remember John. He lived out in the wilderness and ate locusts and honey and wore the camelhair clothing. He was sort of this eccentric character who told everyone to “prepare the way of the Lord” and get ready for the birth of a new king.

The song we sang during the children’s time in December reminded us of that. I won’t sing it, but remember how it went? “Prepare the way of the Lord, prepare the way of the Lord, and all people shall see the salvation of our God.”

That was the beginning of Jesus’ life. The faithful telling us to get ready for Jesus, and to get things ready for Jesus.

Fast forward to today, the start of Holy Week, the most important time in the Christian year. And while John the Baptist is gone by this point in the Gospel story, he words ring back and ring true: “prepare the way of the Lord”. Get ready, because he is coming.

All those years ago, as Jesus was starting what would be his last week of life, he and his disciples made their way to Jerusalem, the holy city. And the people heard he was coming, and so they went out and they lined the road. And as Jesus entered on a donkey they threw down what they had in front of him, including palm leaves like the ones you have today.

pexels-photo-207239.jpegNow, up here in New England, we don’t have palm branches all around us. We have to order them in, and the Fed Ex guy brings them to us neatly packed in a cardboard box. This always cracks me up because I grew up in Florida and we had palm leaves everywhere. When you did yard work you had to get rid of these things, and they are big and bulky. You couldn’t give them away.

I had no idea we could have sold them to y’all in northern churches.

But that tells you a little about what was happening in Jerusalem. These were not wealthy people and they didn’t have much. But they knew there was something about Jesus and they wanted to welcome him. And so they used what was readily available, and free; things like these palm leaves, and they spread them out on his path.

Had Jesus come to New Hampshire, we wouldn’t have been welcoming him with palm leaves. This time of year maybe we’d throw out road salt instead, thawing the ice on the road in front of him. Maybe we’d wave empty branches. Or maybe we’d throw our Red Sox hats and bring him Dunkin coffee.

Who knows? The point is, they were doing what they could with what they had. And that wasn’t a lot. Because back then, in Jerusalem, the Jewish people were not in a good place. The Roman empire was occupying Jerusalem and oppressing the people. And many of the religious leaders, like religious leaders in every faith, were not a whole lot better. They would exploit others and work in their own best interests, and not that of the people.

And so when word about Jesus started to spread, when it became clear that there might be something about him that was different, they began to hope. Maybe this was the one that Scripture called the “Messiah”. Maybe he would be the one to break the stranglehold that Rome had on Jerusalem. Maybe he would purify a Temple that had become a house for money changers. Maybe he would bring change.

That’s why they lined the streets and cheered as he rode into town. And that’s why they shouted “hosanna!” which literally means “save us”. “Save us, Jesus, because we need help.”

Last year the Rev. Quinn Caldwell, a friend of mine who also writes for the UCC’s Daily Devotionals, wrote a piece for Palm Sunday about a custom I’d never heard of before. In Latin America there is a tradition of preparing “alfombras” for Palm Sunday and Holy Week. Alfombra literally means “carpet”, and these are elaborate carpets, of a sort, that are created in the streets. People use materials like sand and sawdust and flowers, and they work for days making the beautiful, intricate displays. Some are as much as a mile long.

They do this because during Holy Week processions take place through the streets, and often Jesus is depicted. And so, like the people who threw palms in his path, and like John the Baptist said, they are preparing the way for the Lord. They are putting something beautiful and soft in front of him as he travels on to his hardest days. And with every grain of sand laid, every flower put in place, they are saying “hosanna”…”save us”.

Today we wave our palms, and we say the same thing too. But we don’t do this just as a reenactment. This isn’t just something that happened two thousands years ago. This is real life, and this is about the salvation that we need too.

The situation is different for us. The Roman government is gone and we don’t have money changers in the Temple, because now there is no Temple. But if we look around, we might find that there’s plenty that might look familiar to the people who lined the roads.

Because even two thousand years later, we human beings still look for salvation in the wrong places. We yell “save us” and there are plenty of people and things who are ready to tell you they can do it. But in the end, no politician will save you. Nothing you buy will save you. No drink or drug will save you. No new job or big promotion will save you. That’s not how salvation works.

Instead, salvation looks like this. It looks like Jesus riding into Jerusalem, not down a red carpet, and not pulled in the finest coach with a team of horses, but over palm leaves and on the back of a donkey. And, to put it in modern terms, it doesn’t come by the sword, with Jesus on top of an armored tank division, taking the government by force, but rather by this man who was ready to face down the forces of death unarmed.

Jesus really doesn’t look much like a man who could save the people. In the end he can’t even save himself. And yet, it is in his dying that the stage is set for his greatest triumph. It is in his resurrection that we are given new life.

The work of salvation that was started all those centuries ago still goes on because Jesus didn’t suddenly change everything as expected. He was much more subversive, and much more powerful, than that. And because of that we get to be a part of it too.

And so, like generations before us, we prepare the way for what Christ is doing now. We build our own alfombras for him to travel over, creating beauty and meaning as a pathway to a better way. We shout “hosanna”, “save us”, by our very actions.

We stuff our Heifer boxes and send them off, and we prepare the way. We take care of our earth and all of God’s creation, and we prepare the way. We take care of the sick and suffering, and we prepare the way. And we gather here week after week, worshipping God and loving one another, and we prepare the way.

As I told you earlier, after worship ends we are going to stay in the sanctuary in order to take a quick all-church photo. I know it’s tempting to get down to coffee hour or get out the door to start your Sunday, so I promise this won’t take long. But please, stay. Choose to be in the photo.

The picture we are about to take is one of a community that has gathered together not because we are the same, but because we love Christ the same…and so we love the world in the same way too. This is our own alfombra, beautiful because each of us is a piece of the mosaic. And it is our own “hosanna”, our own call to Christ to use us in his saving work.

We all are called to prepare the way. And we all need the reminder that we are not alone in that.

Getting ‘Woke’: Sermon for March 26, 2017

To listen to this sermon as a podcast, please visit: https://exeterucc.podbean.com or subscribe here on iTunes .

Ephesians 5:8-14
5:8 For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light-

5:9 for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true.

5:10 Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord.

5:11 Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.

5:12 For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly;

5:13 but everything exposed by the light becomes visible,

5:14 for everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”

Last night I was sitting in the living room at 8:30, trying to read something, and suddenly Heidi proclaimed “it’s Earth hour!” And she then went around the house shutting off all of our lights.

Things like this happen sometimes, and I’ve learned to just roll with it, but I of course asked, “Honey, what’s Earth Hour?” The subtext of that was, “honey, when can I get back to reading my book?” And Heidi explained that Earth Hour was a designated time when those who care about the environment were being asked to turn off all their lights and electronics for one hour to conserve electricity.

Okay, fair. I could do it for one hour. (And, honestly, it provided me with a much-needed intro to this sermon.) It also reminded me that in the course of human existence, this whole luxury of having light all through the night, and at the flip of a switch, is really quite new. A lot of us have great-grandparents or even grandparents who were born into a world lit solely by candles and lanterns.

So, sitting there in the dark last night, and thinking of all those dark nights of centuries past, I started to think about the Ephesians, and about what this text that we just read might have meant for them.

Paul, or one of his surrogates, writes to the church in Ephesus and says to them “live as children of light”. He says, “once you were in darkness, but now you are light”. And he wasn’t talking about flipping a lights witch there, at least not literally. The letter was talking about what had happened spiritually within them.

We don’t live in the literal dark often, but the Ephesians did. The night was something that was often feared because you literally couldn’t know what was around you in the dark. And so when Paul was talking to them about darkness and light, they got it in a way that you and I might not understand quite so dramatically today. They had been living in a metaphorical darkness, and now the light of Christ was shining all around them.

When Paul had come to Ephesus, in what is modern-day Turkey, he started this new church, and then others took over and helped it to grow. And Paul had come back at one point and lived with the Ephesians for three years before going back out again. There’s some question, though, about whether Paul really did write this letter. It might have been Paul, but it may have been someone writing it for Paul.

At any rate, the letter is written by someone who knows that the Ephesians were once people who didn’t know God, but who now did. And these are instructions on faith to this church, and to other churches, telling them how to live with one another, and how to live in the world.

And the big message here, in today’s text, is that the Ephesians had been changed. They had moved from spiritual darkness to light, because they now knew the love and grace of Christ. And so now they are “children of light” whose job is to live in the light, and shine the light for others. And, like I said, that metaphor would have resonated with them, because light could be truly life-saving back then. They didn’t take it for granted.

Nearly two thousand years later, we do. Last night, when I wanted to keep reading my book but couldn’t, it made me appreciate light more than I normally do. But 99.9% of the time, I don’t have to worry that there will be light when I flip the switch in my house. So, this light and darkness stuff, it’s not earth-shattering to me. I don’t often live in darkness.

But here’s the catch: sometimes I do. Sometimes we all do.

I’m talking here about metaphorical darkness. I’m talking about the ways in which I don’t really understand what’s going around me, and I am complicit with systems of injustice or inequity. I’m talking about the ways in which I have grown too comfortable with what should not be.

The author of this letter writes, “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly; but everything exposed by the light becomes visible…”

SpotlightLast Sunday some of us gathered here in the sanctuary after worship and we watched the movie Spotlight. Many of us are aware of the sexual abuse of children that took place at the hands of clergy in the Boston Archdiocese. And it’s easy to blame the priests who committed these horrible acts and to stop there.

But Spotlight tells the story of the Boston Globe reporters who unveiled a deeper, and even more troubling, truth. As the reporters were investigating these priests they learned that their superiors had knowledge of what was going on. And they learned that instead of removing these men from the priesthood, they instead moved them from parish to parish, giving them access to new victims. And that betrayal of the people by those in power became the even bigger story.

It’s not lost on me that the name of the team of reporters who investigated these acts was “Spotlight”. They were shining a light on what was hidden, and bringing it out of the darkness, even though the pressure on them not to reveal this, from the church and others, and even from inside themselves, was sometimes crushing.

Because they shined that light, though, literally thousands of survivors were finally heard. Old practices that allowed abusers to thrive were ended. And the whole institution was forced to face what had happened, and figure out how to never let it happen again.

Now it’s important for me to say here that this isn’t something that just happens in Catholic Churches. Protestant churches have had their fair share. So have schools. So have other institutions. And we are in a time of reckoning where we are shining the light and telling the truth about what happened, and in the end we will be better for it.

There’s an old adage: “Sunlight is the best disinfectant”. That’s true. And there’s another one I love as well: “We’re as sick as our secrets.”

Both remind us that sometimes truth is painful. Sometimes doing the work of shining a light in the dark places is deeply uncomfortable. But if we want to live as children of light, we cannot live in fear of what lurks in the darkness. We cannot be afraid of the truth.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that lately. I’ve been thinking about it as we live in a world where “fake news” and “alt-truth” have somehow made it into the lexicon. We seem to have entered a period of darkness in so many ways. Truth and light are not en vogue.

And so, that’s why it matters more than ever that we are children of light. And it matters more than ever that we tell the truth. And the first truth, for those of us who would follow Christ, is this: this world belongs to God above all, and so do we. Christ alone is Lord, and Christ alone deserves our ultimate allegiance.

And if that’s true, Christ alone can show us how to live as children of light.

George Orwell, the author of 1984 and Animal Farm, once wrote that “in a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”

That’s an amazingly true statement in and of itself. But long before Orwell said it, Jesus said this, “And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.”

That is also true. But, as President James Garfield once observed, “The truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable.”

He was right. Because sometimes knowing the truth, and seeing things as they are, is a lot like waking up really early in the morning, and having to get to work, when you’d much rather still be sleeping in your comfortable bed. It is inconvenient, and it is uncomfortable. And yet, sometimes it is necessary.

The author of the letter writes, “Sleeper awake.” They write, “everything that becomes visible is light. Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”

numbers-time-watch-whiteIn other words, “Wake up.” Or, to put it in 2017 terms, “get woke”. Be aware of what is happening around you and in the world. Be aware of the places where the darkness lies heavy. Do not shy away from learning about injustice. Don’t pretend that inequity doesn’t exist. Resist the urge to choose the easier path of ignorance.

Instead, refuse to hit the snooze button just one more time. Turn off the alarm, put your feet on the floor, and turn on the light. Because the world needs your light now more than ever.

And after we “get woke”, it’s our job to “stay woke”. It’s the work of our faith to not move through the world unaware. It’s our job to know what is going on around us, and to shine a light on that which is in darkness. It’s our job to stand up and tell the truth, even when it is frightening and no one else is ready to do it.

That’s what it means to follow Christ. That’s what it means when we read on Christmas that “the light shines in darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it”.

Last year a few of our middle schoolers taught me about a new concept. We were talking about bullying, and they were saying that at their school they are encouraged to not be “bystanders”, but to be “upstanders”. In other words, when they saw something wrong happening, it was there job to stand up and say something.

In this world, we are called to be children of light. And that means we are called to be upstanders. But the only way to remain on your feet, is to stay woke. That is our work together. And that is the work of faith.

And when you think about it, that’s not a bad job to have. Amen?

Now on iTunes: A new sermon podcast.

A few years ago I podcasted my sermons regularly, and enjoyed hearing feedback from those who listened. Then the podcasting service I was using shut down, and I started publishing my manuscript instead.

Lately I’ve been listening to more podcasts, including sermon podcasts, and really enjoying it. I’ve realized that listening to a sermon appeals to many people more than reading one. (Though, I know that’s not true of everyone, so I’ll keep publishing the manuscripts too.)

Additionally, some of my church members who travel part of the year or who are can’t make it to church due to illness, wanted the church to make sermons available online. So, we did.

The Congregational Church in Exeter now has a podcast on PodBean. The feed is being picked up on iTunes as well, so there are two ways to listen and download. To find us on iTunes visit:

 

https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/sermons-from-the-congregational-church-in-exeter-ucc/id1217918294?mt=2

Or, if you’d rather use PodBean, visit: https://exeterucc.podbean.com

A few notes on my preaching style for those who are curious: first, I preach “on lectionary” about 90% of the time. Sometimes I go off lectionary for a special event, but I like the idea of preaching on the same text as churches across the ecumenical spectrum.

Second, I don’t preach especially long sermons. Some are only about twelve minutes. I figure that’s plenty of time to get to the point, and make it matter for our daily lives.

Third, I start at the Scripture, and not at a theme. I believe in making the Scripture relevant to life. So these are less sermons on a topic, and more sermons on a text. I also usually only focus on one Scriptural passage.

So, that’s my preaching style. I hope that these sermons might speak to others, and convey God’s love and grace. Check it out and let me know what you think!

Leaving Pharaoh Behind When You Don’t Have a GPS: Sermon for March 19, 2017

Growing up I wanted one thing perhaps more than all others. I wished for it, hoped for it, prayed for it, and it never came. When I got to college I would occasionally catch glimpses of it, but it wouldn’t last long. And when I thought about my future, I would dream of living in a place where I could see it all the time.

IMG_4196

It snows a lot where I live. Happy spring!

What was it I was looking for? Snow. I was looking outside during the blizzard this week and I thought, “Hey, I got my wish!”

I know that this probably sounds funny to those of you who grew up in New England, but down South we have very little snow. And in Florida, where I spent most of my time growing up, we had none. There were no seasons. Every day was the same.

When I first decided to move to New England about ten years ago I didn’t do so for snow. I did it because it was the right choice for me, and it meant that I could do ministry in a region where I could be myself. But I must say that the snow was a nice perk. I couldn’t wait for changing seasons.

And then one day my first year, I had to stop for gas in the middle of the day. I got out of the car, and it was cold and snowy and wet. The wind cut through me like a knife. I had never experienced cold like that, or even thought it was possible. And I stood there pumping gas and shivering and thinking to myself, “Why in the world did I ever leave the South?”

So, in some small way, I can sympathize with the people in today’s Bible passage. They had a much more compelling reason to leave home, though. These are the Israelites who after generations of living in slavery in Egypt, after years of back-breaking work, had finally been able to leave. They had followed Moses out across the Red Sea and they had entered the wilderness, looking for the Promised Land.

And, as you know, this didn’t go exactly according to plan. The people who had left Egypt probably thought that Moses had a map that would take them where they needed to go, and they would be there in no time. What they didn’t expect is that they would be wandering, and wandering.

When it became clear that they weren’t getting anywhere anytime soon, people started to look at Moses and wonder if he knew what he was doing. He had told them God was leading him, but they weren’t so sure about that. And on top of that, they were getting thirsty. They didn’t have any water to drink.

And so they went to Moses and said to him, “Hey, why did you make us leave Egypt? Just to kill us?” Because back home in Egypt they may not have been free, but at least they had water.

And so it’s understandable that in this moment, so far away from the only home they’ve ever known, away from food and water, away from a Promised Land that they’re not sure even exists, and that they’re really not sure Moses knows how to find, they start to wonder why they ever left Egypt in the first place.

Moving from one region of the country and leaving a captor in search of freedom are two very different things. I’m not trying to compare them. But I do know what it’s like to make a change in your life, to run into obstacles, and then to wonder whether maybe things hadn’t been so bad back where you came from.

The fix for my problem was simple. I bought a thicker jacket and after a while I learned to really love the change of seasons here. And I know that moving north opened up a world of opportunities for me that wouldn’t have been available at that time in the South.

But for the Israelites it wasn’t so easy. They really thought that this change they had made might kill them. Yes, being Pharaoh’s captives had been terrible, and no they hadn’t liked it, but at least back in Egypt they didn’t have to worry about dying of dehydration. At least back there they knew what to expect.

I get that. I think we all have our own Egypts, and our own Pharaohs. We all have times and places in our lives where things aren’t ideal, but at least we know what to expect. We might not like it much, but captivity is somehow less scary than the wildness of freedom.

But here’s the catch: we all have our own promised lands too. They’re there waiting for us. But in order to get there we have to let go of what is holding us back. We have to tell our Pharaohs that we are leaving. And we have to head out in the wilderness and look for a place that no GPS can find for us.

And sometimes, that takes a long time, and we have to cut our own trail to get there.

I’ve talked before about how in my 20’s I wrestled with my drinking, and eventually got sober. I don’t tell this story here to draw attention to myself, but I’m sharing it, first, because I believe it’s nothing to be ashamed of and it’s important to break stigmas around addiction. And I also tell it because I know what it’s like to let a personal Pharaoh keep you in captivity, and away from the Promised Land.

Before I finally got sober, and I’ve been sober for a double-digit number of years now, I got really comfortable living in Egypt. And I started to be way too loyal to a Pharaoh who had no loyalty to me.

When I finally did get sober, I expected everything to be better automatically. I thought, “I’ll be in the promised land in no time.” But here’s the thing: the first two years I was sober were probably the worst two years of my life.

photoSeriously, if you told me I had to go back and relive any period of my life, I’d probably go back to my most awkward middle school years before I went back to those first two years. Everything seemed to go wrong. Nothing turned out the way I planned. Every day was a struggle. I was out there in the wilderness saying, “You know, at least back in Egypt I wasn’t dying of thirst.”

In retrospect, those years probably seemed so bad because for the first time in a long time I was being honest with myself, and I was seeing the world around me honestly too. I was seeing what I hadn’t seen for a long time. And so I kept moving forward, cutting a new path. And year three was pretty good. And year four was even better. And year five was amazing. And it’s been pretty amazing ever since.

But that promised land didn’t come easy.

I think it’s like that for a lot of people who have to make hard changes. Recently I was reading about people who leave abusive partners. Do you know on average how many times it takes someone to leave an abusive relationship and not go back? One? Two? Three? Four?

On average it’s seven times. Seven. And that’s no judgment on the person who is leaving. It is incredibly hard to walk away from someone who says they care about you, no matter how much they hurt you. It’s even harder when you have to walk away with little money or resources. Leaving that behind is as hard as leaving Pharaoh. Harder even, because at least Pharaoh never told the Israelites he loved them.

And those are just a couple examples of the Pharaohs who want to hold us back in captivity, and keep us from the promised land.

Chances are, there has been a Pharaoh in your life too. Maybe there’s one there now. Maybe there is something holding you back from the place that God is calling you to. And maybe you know there is something better out there, but the wilderness you’ll have to cross feels so big and forbidding. Maybe you’re afraid to leave what you know in order to become what you know you are meant to be.

You’re not the first, and you won’t be the last. And the good news is that while it may not be easy, you will not go alone, and you will not go without God.

When the people started to yell at Moses that he was going to kill them all, he went to God. And he said, “look God, these people are ready to kill me. I need help.” And God told Moses to strike a rock with his staff, and that water would then pour out.

Moses did that, and it did, and the people drank. And they were strengthened enough that they could keep on walking, keep on searching for the promised land.

If you are in the wilderness, if you are breaking free from Pharaoh, God is walking this journey with you. And if you need it, God will give you living water, the kind that will see you through to the end. And on those days when you might look back, choose instead to look forward. Because what kept you in captivity is never better than the journey that can take you home. Amen?

Born Again. And again. And again.: Sermon for March 12, 2017

There are some things that define the differences between generations. There are young adults who have never known a world without the internet, for instance, and others for whom this is still a pretty recent phenomenon. Or, there are those who remember rotary phones, and others who would have no idea what to do if one was put in front of them.

There’s another one, and my generation is sort of right on the dividing line for this: library card catalogs. Do you remember having to write papers using a card catalog? You picked your topic, went to those big wooden stacks full of drawers stuffed with index cards, and you looked up all the different books you would need.

That changed while I was in college. Most libraries don’t have those anymore. Now you can use a computerized system, and maybe even pull up what you need at your home. But I’ll never forget being about elementary-aged and being at the library with my friends. And we had some questions. Questions of the type that our parents weren’t ready to answer.

You get where I’m going here.

Schlagwortkatalog

Photo credit, Dr. Marcus Gossler, wikipedia commons image.

So you could innocently enough go to the card catalog, pretend you were looking for something else, and find that card that would send you to a book that would explain everything. And there’s no shame in natural curiosity, but even still, your heart was pounding the whole time, right?

Library card catalogs answered a lot of questions that we couldn’t ask others back in the day. Today we might turn to the internet. But, what if you were a Pharisee, a religious leader, back in Jesus’ day? And what if there was this guy who kept doing these things you couldn’t explain? And what if all the other religious leaders you worked with didn’t like him at all, but you were curious? And what if you needed to find out who he was for yourself?

That was the situation that Nicodemus was in. He was a Pharisee, a religious leader, and he was expected to toe the party line. And the party line was that this guy named Jesus, who kept doing things like turning water into wine and running money changers out of the temple, was bad news.

But Nicodemus was curious. He thought there might be something more to this. But there was no card catalog, no webpage, for figuring out Jesus. And so, he did the only thing he could think of…he went straight to the source. But, like a kid looking in the card catalog, pretending to be doing something else, Nicodemus didn’t go in the bright of day and just ask. Instead, he snuck out under the cover of night, and went to Jesus while everyone else was asleep.

Can you imagine Jesus? He was probably sleeping himself, and now this Pharisee was waking him up asking him questions. He says, “Jesus, I know you’ve got to be a teacher from God, because otherwise you couldn’t do these things. Who are you?”

And Jesus, as usual, doesn’t answer the question. Instead he starts talking about being “born again” or “born from above”. And Nicodemus is like, “What do you mean ‘born again’?” And he actually asks if he’s supposed to reenter his mother’s womb so she can give birth again.

But Jesus tells him, “that’s not what I mean”. And Jesus explains about being “born of the Spirit” and how we have to have a spiritual rebirth, one that changes us. And Nicodemus doesn’t know this at the time, but Nicodemus himself is in the midst of this second birth. He is having a sort of birth pangs brought about by a curiosity that he cannot ignore any longer. He is being changed.

There’s an old saying: “Curiosity killed the cat.” And I have vet bills to attest to the fact that curiosity can at least cause very expensive injuries to the cat. And we humans sometimes take this saying to heart in order to discourage our own curiosity, and sort of keep our heads down.

And, though he wasn’t a cat, Nicodemus’ curiosity was indeed dangerous. If his friends had known what he was doing, it would have cast suspicion on him. It would have changed the way he was seen. That’s why he had to look for answers in the middle of the night.

But curiosity, while generally bad for cats, is actually a really good thing for humans, especially in our spiritual lives. Asking questions is a sign of deep faith. Nicodemus knows there is something about Jesus, and so he goes and tries to learn more. And that’s what we do too.

We get curious, and when we do we sometimes have these encounters with God’s love and grace. We wrestle. We grapple. We try to work out who we think Jesus is, and what that means for our lives. And that work doesn’t always go quickly, or end neatly.

This text is the same way. Nicodemus just sort of disappears in the end. He doesn’t get this big “aha” moment where it all makes sense. Instead, he probably walked away from Jesus more confused than ever before.

That’s not surprising…Jesus can be infuriating like that.

Down South where I grew up there were a lot of people who would talk about being “born again” the way Jesus does here. And, for them, it was often this one, shining moment when all of a sudden they believed and their lives changed and everything made sense.

But I never got that moment. I had times when things made a little more sense, and I felt God’s love, but the curiosity and questions never ended. And like Nicodemus I’ve had that same pattern of getting curious, seeking answers, and then ending up with more questions. And sometimes I’ve had to wrestle with faith and doubt, and fight my way out of the safety of the womb and into new life.

I actually think that’s a good thing. I don’t want my spiritual life to ever come to a terminal point where I have all the answers. That would be boring, intellectually and spiritually.

Instead, I like the idea that we are continuously and gradually being born again. We are living lives of change, in a world full of change, and that means we are constantly having to go back to Jesus and ask the questions that keep us up at night. And we have to keep being born again, maybe not just once, but over and over and over again in many ways.

Martin Luther King once used the story of Nicodemus to talk about being born again. He said that Jesus hadn’t given Nicodemus easy instructions or said “stop doing this” or “stop doing that”. Instead, Dr. King said, Jesus told Nicodemus “your whole structure must be changed”. This was nothing less than a total shake-up.

Dr. King was talking specifically about how America had to be “born again” and deal with injustice. And that’s a good example of how we as people, and as institutions and communities, must also sometimes be born again, and do what is right and what is good, for the love of God and for the love of the world.

And it is the love of the world that Jesus is talking about. If you’ve ever watched a football game you’ve seen signs with a verse written on them from this very passage. John 3:16: For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but should have eternal life.

There’s a real irony in the fact that this one line, that comes in this passage about the kind of faith that is not easy or simple, has become emblematic of easy and simple faith. Because he whole story of Nicodemus is a little too long for a piece of poster board. But that’s fitting, because our faith journeys cannot fit onto one sheet of paper, or one bumper sticker. They require nothing less than the full length and depth of our lives.

That’s true of all of us, and that’s true of Nicodemus too. We see him only two more times in the Gospels, but in those two appearances we see a man who is in the process being born again. The next time we see him he is making a sort of tentative defense of Jesus when Jesus is in trouble, trying to save him, trying to keep the religious authorities from killing him.

And the last time we see him, he is one of the two men who takes Jesus’ body after his death, and buries it, putting it in the tomb.

I think there’s something meaningful about that. In mourning Jesus death, Nicodemus was showing that he had been reborn. And when Jesus rose again, that new life took on new meaning.

Sometimes curiosity doesn’t kill the cat. Sometimes it saves him. For God so loved the world, that God would want nothing less for us. Amen?

Lenten Stories: Sermon for March 5, 2017

Wednesday night some of us gathered here in the sanctuary for Ash Wednesday worship. I joked then about the overflow crowd. You know, there are three packed services in every church year: Christmas, Easter, and Ash Wednesday.

That’s not true, of course. On Christmas and Easter the church makes some joyous proclamations. Christ is born. Christ is risen. It’s no wonder that the pews are full for each service.

On Ash Wednesday, though, we tell you you’re going to die. So, that’s not really the way to draw in the crowds.

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Lent 2017 Still Speaking Devotional

I get that. And I also get that Lent, the season whose first Sunday we are observing today, is probably the most dreaded part of the church year. Our hymns get a little slower and more introspective. We don’t have flowers in the sanctuary. We put up purple to symbolize repentance from sin. And you can kind of feel the whole church get a little more serious and pensive.

So, if church feels a little different this time of year, a little slower and harder, I get it. It does to me too. And yet, I’ve always believed in the power of Lent to make Easter even more joyous. I’ll tell you why, but first I want to look at the text.

Jesus was led out into the wilderness for forty days to be, as Scripture puts it, “tempted by the devil”. And while he is out there, Jesus faces a lot of temptations. He’s fasting, so he’s really hungry, and the devil says to him “you know, if you just told these stones to become bread, they would.” But Jesus refuses saying “we don’t live by bread alone”.

Then the devil takes Jesus up to the top of the temple in Jerusalem and says, “you know, if you’re really God’s son, you could just jump and he angels would catch you.” But Jesus says, “Don’t put God to the test.”

And finally the devil took Jesus up to a high mountain, one where Jesus could see every kingdom, and he says “all you have to do is worship me, and this could all be yours.”

But Jesus says, “away with you, satan, I will only worship and serve God.” And Scripture tells us that the devil left, and angels came to wait on Jesus.

Jesus was tempted for forty days. And he wasn’t even in the comfort of his home, or his friends. He was along, in the wilderness, wrestling with the powers of death and destruction. And he overcame evil incarnate itself. It’s amazing.

But he was doing all of this not just to prove a point. This wasn’t some kind of spiritual marathon whose medal he would then wear. He was doing this because something even harder was coming. Jesus was doing this because he was preparing to walk down a road that would lead to his betrayal, and crucifixion, and death. Jesus was doing this in order to grow strong enough for what was to come.

It’s no coincidence that our Lent is forty days long too. Because, while we are not preparing for betrayal and death, we are preparing for what comes next. We’re getting ready for Easter. We’re getting ready for that Sunday morning next month when we will come to church and the flowers will overflow the chancel, the choir will sing victorious hymns, and the whole world will feel like it is alive once again.

But, more than that, we are preparing to be the people who will proclaim Easter with our lives. We are getting ready to go out in the world and glorify God by loving the world. We are soon going to be given this joyful work to do, and that’s why right now we have to do the hard work of Lent.

And Lent is hard work. It’s not joyless work, but it is hard. Because Lent is about more than giving up candy, or coffee, or meat, or Facebook, or whatever else. Lent was never just about “giving up” anything. Lent is also not about just praying more, or reading Scripture everyday. Lent was never just about “taking something on” either.

Instead, Lent is about this: growing closer to God. And the way we are often called to do that, is by looking in ourselves, and removing the things that are keeping us separated from God.

Jesus had to wrestle with the devil in the wilderness. I think that in Lent we are called to wrestle with our own demons. We are called into the wildernesses of our lives, maybe even the one within us, to confront the things that tempt us, and that hold us back.

What those things are, what form those demons each of us wrestle with, will be different for us all. Maybe it’s resentment. Maybe addiction. Maybe the judgement of others Maybe self-doubt. Maybe fear. Maybe some combination, some cocktail of pain and regret and alienation from others.

Whatever is in there, whatever we don’t want to face, it’s a good chance that it’s our real Lenten work. And Lent is the perfect time to grow closer to God, and then to get in there and wrestle with our demons, and kick those suckers out.

If we want to get to Easter, if we want to rise up with Christ in the morning, then we have to be willing to face the things that we worry could kill us. We have to be willing to face the wilderness, and rely on God to bring us through. Because we can’t hope to change the world if we cannot face ourselves first.

I was reminded of how important that can be. A friend of mine from college is now a physician working in family medicine. Most years she gives up Facebook for Lent, but this year she decided to do something else. This year she is staying on Facebook in order to write daily posts about her patients, with their permission, and about the choices they are making in their lives in order to live more fully, and serve the world. She is calling them “Lent stories”.

Now, let me say first that while this might sound sort of sweet and sentimental, like a Hallmark card, my friend first practiced medicine as a Navy doctor assigned to care for US Marines in Kuwait during the war on terror. She understands the gritty realities of life. But that’s what makes these so great.

This week she told the story of a patient who came in for a routine medical clearance form so that she could study better environmental practices in Sri Lanka. And then there was the story of the man whose liver transplant wasn’t working, but whose first response when told was “okay, let’s get to work. Let’s fix this.”

There was the story of the mother with three sets of twins. (Yes, three.) She was going back to school. And there was the story of Mrs. S., who after years of abuse from her husband, decided that she and her 12 year old daughter would be leaving him this week. She told her doctor, “We are worth more than that. My daughter deserves more than that and I intend to model behavior that she can be proud of.”

These are stories of hope and transformation. They are stories of overcoming the demons of life and finding new life. And they are Lent stories.

Every one of us has a Lenten story waiting to be told. This is the season where we write it. So what is your Lent story? What is the story that you want to be able to tell the world come Easter morning?

Whatever it is, that’s what the work of Lent can be for you this year. Draw close to God, and then dig deep. Walk into the wilderness, and know that God will be with you every step of the way. Amen?