Getting ‘Woke’: Sermon for March 26, 2017

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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?

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.

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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?

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?

The Prodigal in All of Us: Sermon for March 6, 2016

All through my 20’s, I was fortunate enough to have a mentor. From college to seminary to ordination and beyond, she was always there, carefully balancing gentle encouragement with the not-so-gentle directness of one who could see through excuses with x-ray vision. In other words, she was excellent at her job.

Throughout college, and throughout seminary, she was there for me, helping me to focus and to think about my future. And after seminary I took a chance and applied to a PhD program, in the exact same field as hers incidentally, and was accepted. When I drove off to school to start that doctoral program she told me how proud she was of me.

But there was just one problem: once I got there I hated it with every fiber of my being. Every day in graduate school made me feel like I was a square peg being pounded into a round hole. So, finally, I left.

Driving away I felt incredibly free. I also felt so worried that I had disappointed my mentor that I didn’t write or call to tell her. Embarrassed at what I thought she would see as my failure, I all but disappeared for the next few years.

This week’s Scripture tells us about a son who asked for his father’s inheritance early, went off to the big city, and promptly hit rock bottom. He was so afraid that his father would be ashamed of him that he took a job feeding pigs for a stranger. One day out in the fields, hungry and humiliated, he realized that even his father’s hired hands were treated better than this.

And so, he set off for home, expecting no welcome but hoping for just enough grace to be treated fairly as a servant, and not as a son. He was, after all, a disappointment.

I often worry that churches are too full of people who are not disappointments, and too full of people who can easily resonate with that older brother who feels cheated when the younger one comes home without any consequences.

Churches are often filled with people who pay the bills on time, call their parents regularly, and change the oil in the car long before the check engine light comes on. In short, people who have never been disappointments.

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“Return of the Prodigal Son” by Rembrandt

These are the sort of folks who can resonate with the angry brother who has stayed and worked on the farm while his younger brother wasted the family’s money in the city. The ones who are mad that now that same brother is home again, dad just can’t wait to give him another chance.

Except the reality is that even when we look like we have our lives together, even when we look to all the world like the loyal son or daughter, we have all been disappointments at one time or another. We have been prodigal sons who have hit some kid of rock bottom. Maybe no one has known it but us, but we have known it. And it has shaken us to our core.

In truth both brothers live inside of us, the responsible one and the prodigal one. It is an uneasy coexistence made worse by the reality that neither is perfect, and that both make real mistakes. The dutiful brother’s lack of compassion and grace when his brother returns is indeed worth our attention. But he’s not the only one.

Of all the places in our life, church should be the one place where we can all admit that we are sometimes the other brother too. Even when others admire the highlight reels of our lives, each of us knows that there is a lot sitting back there on the cutting room floor. We need a place where we can say that, and hear that from others too.

In Lent we get honest about the fact that we sometimes disappoint God. The good news is that we also get to hear this truth: God is waiting to come running down the road, and welcome us back. Dutiful son, prodigal son, or a little bit of both…God knows us already, and God can’t wait for us to come home.

I don’t know what the prodigal son was feeling when he walked up the road to his father’s house that day, but I do know what I felt when I opened my email and typed a message to my old mentor after so many years. I know what it is like to wait for a response I was not sure would come. I know what it is like to be prepared for the worst.

It is because I sent that message, though, that I also know what it’s like to find the one you have disappointed running down the road to you, embracing you, and welcoming you home.

The greatest gift I received from my mentor that day was her telling me she was not disappointed in me in the least for quitting my PhD program. As she put it, she would have only been disappointed had I stayed in a place where I was not being true to the person God had created me to be. The hard truth, though, was that she was disappointed in me for one thing: I hadn’t given her the chance to tell me that all those years ago.

The reality is that we have all disappointed people who have loved us. God included. That’s real. But so is grace, and the thing about grace is that those moments of disappointment do not define us. Unless, of course, we are so scared of our loved ones’ rejection that we choose to let them.

In Lent we are called home by a God who will come running down the road just to hold us once more. We turn away not from life, but from those places in life in which we are not true to whom God has created us to be. In this season we find that our failures are indeed real, but that God’s love is so much bigger and better than what we could have imagined.

Maybe the only way we could ever truly disappoint God is by believing that we have messed up too much to ever be loved by God again. But even then, even when we refuse to give God a chance, I’ll bet that God still will somehow still find us. And in that moment we will once again be welcomed back home. Amen?

The Urgency of Lent: Third Sunday of Lent, 2016

I never seem to have enough time. Perhaps you can relate to that. I try to squeeze everything in, but I always wish for just one or two more waking hours in the day.

Wednesday was like that for me. I had a day that started with an obligation in Boston in the morning and ending with two meetings here at night. The thing is, I really wanted to get to the YMCA to work out. But at the only time I could have possibly gone, I had a conference call.

IMG_7962So I came up with a brilliant idea. I’d plug my headphones into my phone, put myself on mute, and listen to the call while I lifted weights. So there I was, trying to listen to the meeting, and balancing heavy weight all at the same time, and I thought to myself…maybe this isn’t the way it’s supposed to work.

That’s when I got to thinking about priorities. One of the lessons I try to teach our youth is this: Never give the best of yourself to someone or something that can never love you back.

I’ve been surprised at how much that advice resonates with young adults. Not only does it become the measure by which boyfriends and girlfriends are judged, but it becomes a metric for the larger questions in life too. Questions of meaning take center stage.

Most surprisingly, though, it also generates discussion in their families about the way precious resources, like time and money, are used. I have been amused that it is those discussions, more than any about dating or sex or love, that trouble their parents.

We don’t talk about idolatry much, despite the caution against it throughout Scripture. That is ironic given that idolatry flourishes in our culture. We have not yet started building literal golden calves, but we have all spent plenty of time worshipping at equally dangerous altars. Money, success, popularity, greatness, security…they are powerful gods. And in worshipping these gods we have too often driven ourselves to the point of living overwhelming lives.

In Lent we are called to turn away from what can never love us back, and toward that which can. Counter to the narrative we often write for ourselves, though, we are not called by a patient God who speaks to us casually or without urgency. Instead, we are called by a God with time-sensitive conviction.

In this week’s Scripture Jesus tells a story about a fig tree, a gardener, and a land owner. Year after year the tree fails to bear fruit. Tired of wasting good soil, the land owner tells the gardener to cut it down. But the gardener refuses to give up, and negotiates a one year reprieve for the tree. They pledge to take care of it and shore it up with good soil. If even after all of that it does not bear good fruit, the gardener says, then you can cut it down.

I often want to ask the people I know who feel overwhelmed “Why do you keep living like this? Why do you make the choices that leave you overextended and exhausted? Do you want to live a life utterly devoid of abundant new fruit?”

Or, put another way, “Why do you give the best of yourself to the things that can never love you back?”

I think we all want to believe that we have infinite time to start loving the right things, and bearing good fruit. But despite the urgency that defines the rest of our lives, scheduling everything from the car pool to the 401k contribution, we fail to respond to Christ’s call to transformation with anything other than hesitation. There is always tomorrow, after all.

In Lent, though, Christians are called to live with spiritual urgency. We have to proclaim boldly with our choices that our transformations can no longer wait. We have neglected bearing good fruit for far too long, choosing instead to focus on what will not bring us joy.

The good news is that there is great freedom in no longer having to wait to focus on what matters the most. Now is the time to put the first things first; no excuses.

This urgency does not come from a fear that God will smite us. I do not believe that God wants to destroy us the way the land owner wanted to destroy the dormant fig tree. But I do believe that Christ spoke with urgency because he knew how quickly most of us are destroying ourselves. And I believe God wants before for us than that.

One of the few fairnesses of life is the fact that each of us is given an equal 168 hours per week.
It is those 168 hours that somehow baffle us all though. I know of few people who feel they have enough time to do everything they need to get done, let alone do anything they want to do. It does not matter how many modern conveniences we have, we just will never have enough time.

The unfortunate reality is that because of that, our spiritual life often suffers. Instead of being our basic foundation, spiritual practices somehow become luxuries that we squeeze in only if we have enough time. Church is great, but we have to fix the roof Sunday morning. Prayer would be wonderful, but who has the time to sit around with their eyes closed and talk to God? It would be interesting to read the Bible one day, but these financial reports from work have to be read first.

I get that. Pastors are not immune and, despite literally being surrounded by church all day, I sometimes catch myself feeling disconnected from my spiritual life. But I have also noticed how that spiritual disconnection is unsustainable.

So often we look around to find that we are no longer bearing spiritual fruit. It is in those moments that we can become our own gardeners, cultivating the space and the good soil needed to once again grow in abundance.

That will not be easy, though. It is going to take a shifting of priorities, and the deliberate reapportionment of some of our 168 hours. But one lesson that focusing on spiritual growth has consistently taught me is this: no matter what other demands are made of us, we make time for what really matters to us in life.

Billy Graham once said that if you really want to find out what you worship, you should look at your checkbook. I think there’s wisdom in that. But in our over scheduled world, I’d say this instead: if you really want to find out what you worship, look at your calendars and planners. That will tell you the truth.

It the end, I believe that God wants us to have new life, and that this life will only happen when we start telling one another the hard truth: the clock is ticking, the time is now, and life is too short to waste another minute on what can never love us back.

So back to the story I was telling you. The conference call came to an end while I was bench pressing. No one on the other end was so much the wiser. But that’s when I heard someone say on the other end, “Emily…are you still there? Would you close us with prayer?”

And so right there, in the middle of the free weight area of the YMCA, I took the phone off mute and prayed out loud. My guess is a few fellow lifters were looking at me funny. But maybe it was the reminder I needed that sometimes it’s time to slow down, switch gears, and focus on what matters.

That moment illustrated to me in a very real way that God doesn’t always wait for us to be in the ideal place to get our attention. God is calling us now. And sometimes it’s urgent enough that we need to put down our heavy lifting, rethink our priorities, and pick up. Amen?

Ash Wednesday vs. the Primary (A Homily About Being Told What We Don’t Want to Hear)

So, it may just be me, but if feels like there are less people here in New Hampshire than there were yesterday. The cable news vans are gone. No one is speaking at town hall. Even the commercials are off the air.

For campaigns the run-up to yesterday’s Primary began a year ago, or more in some instances. And, despite the fact I have voted in every major election I could have since I was 18, I have never felt more popular as a voter than I did in the past few months in New Hampshire. Everyone wanted a minute of my time. Everyone wanted to tell me how they would make things better. And everyone wanted to tell me exactly what I wanted to hear.

But today, one day later, no one is telling me what I want to hear anymore. At least, not here in New Hampshire. The show has moved on to Nevada and South Carolina, and people will be hearing exactly what they want to heard state by state throughout the spring.

Now, before we New Hampshirites feel too badly about being left behind, I want to argue that maybe the timing of this year’s Primary, and this year’s observance of Ash Wednesday, is incredibly poetic for us. Overnight we have gone from being told all the things that we want to hear, and all the ways we are wonderful and powerful and important, to perhaps the one thing that more than anything else we don’t want to hear: that we are mortal.

“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

It’s not a slogan that’s going to win any elections. No one is going to put it on a bumper sticker or a yard sign. It’s not something we like to acknowledge. And yet, maybe it is the one thing that we need to hear more than anything else in the world.

The reality is that this world is bigger than we are, and has been around far longer than us as well. And one day, when we draw our last breath and return to dust, the world will go on. At some level, no matter how comfortable we might be with that, it’s still a little terrifying.

And so this ritual that we take part in once a year? It’s terrifying too. Put it in plain terms: earlier today I took the left over palms from last year’s Palm Sunday service, and I burned them on the front steps of the church offices. Then, Cat and I mixed them with oil. And in just a few minutes I am going to invite each of you forward, and smear these palm ashes on your forehead in the shape of a cross while telling you that one day you are going to be dust.

12715285_10101107105583378_7085126143383140490_nMaybe it’s no wonder that this isn’t the service that draws the big crowds. Easter and Christmas make sense to us, but this day? Not so much. And every year, no matter what church I’ve been at, I always overhear people who say they won’t come to this service.

And that’s okay. But I always feel a little sad about that because the truth is that Ash Wednesday, as much as it makes us hear a hard truth, also teaches us something beautiful. Ash Wednesday, like the Apostle Paul, says that nothing, not even death, can separate us from the love of God.

And if you are really listening closely, it also tells you this: we are more than we think we are.

The one from whose love we can never be separated is the one who created us, and it is to that Creator that we will someday return. When you think about that, that is an amazing comfort. It’s a reminder that “in life and in death we belong to God”, and there can be no better source for hope or joy than God.

But this is about more than just where we are going. On Ash Wednesday we must not dwell on death but instead embrace this life too. And so, on this day we are reminded most of all about two things: whose we are, and how to live in this world knowing that.

In that sense Lent is about something that might scare us even more than the thought that one day we will be dust. That something is “humility”.

Humility isn’t an easy thing for us to think about. We hear it and we conflate it with humiliation, or a brutal way of putting someone in their place. In that light we might think that this whole ritual tonight is a kind of religious humiliation where we are told we are dust and physically marked as such.

But this is humility, not humiliation. And those are two very different things.

Far from ripping us down, true humility is about being what some would call “right sized”. It’s about knowing that, to be sure, we are not God. But it is also about knowing that we are loved by God and marked as God’s own children. These ashes are not marks of shame; they are marks of our own identity.

They are also signs in a world where out-of-control egos reign supreme, and where people will rush to tell us exactly what we want to hear, that God loves us too much for that. God won’t let us settle for what gives us happiness for the moment. God wants us to have real, sustaining joy.

The crosses are our signs that we are not our own, but we aren’t for sale either. We belong only to God, and we trust only in God’s promises. Beyond that, they signify that we are here not for our own agenda, or even a party or group’s agenda, but only in order that we would find God’s agenda for us and for all of God’s children. The ashes are a reminder of who we are, and who and whose we serve.

Like I said, none of what I’ve just told you would ever win an election. A cross of ashes is never going to replace a catchy campaign pin. But then again, we’re being called to something a little bigger here. Something that existed before any of us, and something that will go on long after. That may not be the words that we want to hear, but they are the words we need to hear. And they are the words that can begin the process of transforming us this Lent, if only we will let them. Amen?

New Still Speaking Writer’s Group Devotional Book for Lent

Re-Lent_-_web_largeIt’s hard to believe, but Lent is right around the corner. This year the Still Speaking Writers’ Group has once again released a devotional book for the season. Re-Lent is available for purchase now at UCC resources, and features a new devotional written by a member of the Writers’ Group for each day of the season. These devotionals are great for either individual use, or for small groups in your congregation. Check it out here: http://www.uccresources.com/products/re-lent-2015-lent-devotional-the-stillspeaking-writers-group?variant=1088054032

Between Sundays: A sermon for Palm Sunday, and beyond.

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Matthew 21:1-11
21:1 When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples,

21:2 saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me.

21:3 If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.”

21:4 This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,

21:5 “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

21:6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them;

21:7 they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them.

21:8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.

21:9 The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

21:10 When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?”

21:11 The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

Today is the only day of the church year where you come to church and we give you not only your regular bulletin, but this palm frond too. If you aren’t expecting it, that probably seems a little odd.

Your palm fronds mean of course that it’s Palm Sunday. Which means we are getting close to the end of Lent, and are starting Holy Week. Next Sunday you’ll hopefully be here to help up celebrate the holiest day of the Christian year, Easter.

But today we have these palms to contend with, and what, from the outside, must look like a very strange tradition.

On Palm Sunday we remember Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. We remember how he rode into the city on a donkey, and the crowds were waiting for him. They had heard about him. They loved him. They threw their coats on the ground, and spread their palms out on the road, and they cheered as he came in. They were looking for the Messiah and they were sure it was him.

So all these centuries later we Christians gather in churches and collect these palms and wave them. We celebrate a great parade that took place long ago, the coming of the Messiah to Jerusalem. And we are so, so close to Easter. We almost want to take this day as a warm-up, a celebration before the big celebration.

And if you read the story today knowing nothing about what happens between Sundays, you could. But you all know that something happens between Sundays. And the story isn’t as straight-forward as it seems. Stories about Jesus seldom are.

When I was in college I saw a production of Jesus Christ Superstar. The musical traces the events of Holy Week and I was struck by the crowd, the chorus of singers that followed Jesus. As they waived palms on one Sunday they shouted his praises and sung and called out to him. But as the week went on, they changed. And by Friday, those same people once shouting their admiration were calling for his death.

It’s always stuck with me. That change in feeling. I think of it every year during Holy Week. Jesus goes from the exalted one to the one who is offered up as a sacrifice by the crowd. There’s something fitting about the fact that in many churches the palms from Palm Sunday are saved until the following Ash Wednesday, when they are then burned and turned into the ashes we wear as a symbol of our humaness and fraility and mistakes. Sometimes we turn from Christ, and we get it wrong.

We don’t like to dwell on that. We don’t like to dwell on the reality that Christ was betrayed, and denied, and abandoned. We like to stick with the Palm Sunday and Easter joy, not the Maundy Thursday and Good Friday pain.

Holy Week, fittingly, is the holiest week of the church year. It’s also the busiest. And many pastors, whether we admit it or not, know that when we announce the extra services that week there’s sort of a heavy sigh.

I get it. We’re all busy. Sunday morning feels hard enough for many good Christians. Thursday night, after a long day at work, is even tougher. You just want to go home, have dinner, and either tackle the pile of laundry or have a few precious hours to yourself. You probably don’t want to take the car out one more time, drive to church, and sit through another service, and one that’s not so joyful at that.

No one will blame you if you don’t. No pastor I know takes attendance, and, truth be told, we clergy all have our own Netflix queue and stack of unfinished novels that we might longingly look at on our way out of our own doors. But the occupational hazard of being clergy means we can’t call out on Holy Week. Which means the messages of the stories we hear on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday can’t go unheard by us.

That’s good because what we hear about Jesus on those two nights is the same as what we hear every day in our offices. But we don’t talk about that much. Because most churches are good at doing Sundays. But sometimes not so good at acknowledging what comes between Sundays.

On Sunday mornings we often focus on the joy. We sing uplifting hymns. We hear hopeful sermons. We smile. We shake hands. We dress up. We talk about grace and blessings and gratitude. That’s not a bad thing.

But when many of our parishioners leave on Sunday, they step into a different world. Between Sundays I visit with people who are facing a struggle that few in their lives  understand. They’re sick or injured. Dying or bereaved. Or depressed, heart-broken, betrayed, alone, and wrestling with doubt.

And if you come to church on Palm Sunday and Easter, you might not think we in the church know anything about that. But if you come between Sundays, you’ll find a faith that knows what that is like. More than that, you’ll find a God who knows what that is like.

To me, the most comforting part of Holy Week is not the waving of triumphal palms on one Sunday morning, or the flowers and joyous hymns on the next. It’s what happens in between.

It’s Jesus on Maundy Thursday sharing a table with the people he loved the most. It’s him washing their feet, and showing that the mark of a true leader is whether they can serve others.  And it’s Jesus still loving those disciples even though he knew that, at best, they would abandon him, and at worst, they would betray him. And it’s Jesus in the garden, alone, heart-broken, and struggling between what he wanted to do and what he knew he had to do.

And on Good Friday, it continues. The world turns against him, and the ones who cheered his entry in Jerusalem instead cheer his death. He suffers. He calls out to a God who does not seem to answer. He doubts. He feels pain, and loss, and grief. And in the end he loses the life he knew.

I’m sometimes asked by those who are going through a difficult time whether God is angry when they have doubts, or when they wonder why God doesn’t seem to be answering prayers. They ask if God understands when we suffer, or when we feel alone.

When they do, I point first not to the Christ of Palm Sunday or Easter, but to the Christ of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. The one who lived as one of us. Who loved as one of us. Who doubted as one of us. Who suffered as one of us. And who died as one of us.

And only then do I point to the Christ who rose again, and overcame the worst that the world could throw at him.

I sometimes worry that we forget the lessons of Holy Week the rest of the year. Some churches even cancel mid-week services due to low attendance, and instead roll all the stories into a “Passion Sunday” service on Palm Sunday. But when we forget Holy Week, I wonder if we are losing that time we once had to sit with Christ in his own human struggles? And I wonder if when we lose that time, we lose our ability to learn to sit with others in their struggle, and with ourselves in our own?

But what would Christian life look like if we took that time. What if we became known not just as the people who knew what to do on Sundays, but the ones who knew how to stay with you when your life was falling apart, just as Christ asks us to do on Maundy Thursday? Or the ones who could stand by and still love and respect you even when you call out your doubts, as Jesus did on the cross? What would happen if we weren’t just know for our Easter Sunday celebrations, but for our Thursday night solidarity? Our Friday afternoon compassion?

We have the capacity to be those people. We have it because Christ has called us to be those people. All we have to do is be willing to make the journey with him. Not just on Sundays, but on the days between. The world has plenty of Sunday morning Christians. It needs a few more of the weekday ones.

Today, we wave our palms. We shout Hosanna. We look ahead to the Resurrection. But when you leave, consider taking them with you. Consider keeping them this year as a reminder of who we are on Palm Sunday. And then, when the times get hard, and the week grows tougher, look at them as a reminder of who you could be. Not the person in the crowd who yells out what everyone else is yelling, but the person instead who believed what they said on Sunday, and who will follow Christ on this journey. Even a journey that continues between Sundays.

Christ is waiting for us there. May we join him on this holy path. Amen.

Shaking Up the Living in the Valley of the Dead: Sermon for April 6, 2014

Ezekiel 37:1-14

37:1 The hand of the LORD came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the LORD and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones.

37:2 He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry.

10003447_10151948032596787_1474327605_n-137:3 He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord GOD, you know.”

37:4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD.

37:5 Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.

37:6 I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the LORD.”

37:7 So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone.

37:8 I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them.

37:9 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.”

37:10 I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.

37:11 Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’

37:12 Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel.

37:13 And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people.

37:14 I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the LORD, have spoken and will act,” says the LORD.

A few years ago, when Heidi and I got married, we had a little logistical problem. When I had been the only one living in the house, there had been plenty of room for my clothes in the closet and in the one dresser. But when Heidi moved in that changed, and we started needing more space.

So we did what any newly-wed couple did in the aftermath of the big day: we went to Ikea and we bought some dressers. Many of you have probably been to Ikea, but if you haven’t let me explain. The idea is that the furniture is fairly inexpensive, in part because it comes unassembled. You load these flat boxes in your car and drive them home and find yourself faced with dozens of pieces and bags full of nuts and bolts and washers.

And, I like to think I’m pretty handy. I have helped to build actual furniture, and I know my way around a toolbox. But this took forever. There was a lot of try to bang things into place, a log of getting frustrated, and a lot left over pieces. And I’m still not sure where those were supposed to go.

I was thinking about that because while I was reading today’s Scripture. The prophet Ezekiel was a priest who had been exiled along with many of the rest of his people to Babylon. And people would come to him and he would share his prophecies.

And these were a people who needed two things: honesty, and hope. And in his prophecies Ezekiel brought both. First he told the truth. He talked about the exile, and he talked about the ways that the people had fallen short of God’s expectation. He talked about how they were in a place that they never expected, and about how everything had changed.

But then he also talked about hope. He talked about how one day they would return to Jerusalem from Babylon, and the temple would be rebuilt, and they would find new life. And he had this vision that is perhaps his best known: the valley of the dry bones.

Ezekiel is led by God to this valley that is filled with bones. Layers upon layers. And there is no sign of life anywhere. And it looks like the epitome of hopelessness and death and destruction.

And God says to Ezekiel, “do you think these bones can live again?” I would probably have said “they look pretty dead, God”. But you should probably never count God out in these things. Even still Ezekiel doesn’t say, “yes, of course, you are God, anything is possible for you.” Instead Ezekiel just says “oh God…you know”. Hardly a ringing endorsement, but a start.

God tells Ezekiel to start to prophesy. In other words, start talking about the future Ezekiel. And as he does, God starts working too. The bones come together and connect again. And then they become flesh and blood again. And then, God tells Ezekiel to keep talking, and something incredible happens. They are filled with breath again, and the ones that moments ago had just been bones stand up and breathe, and are filled with new life.

God tells Ezekiel that the bones were symbols of the people of Israel, who had fallen mightily. And God shows him that they will be brought back to their feet. They will find new life. They will live again. God promises that. God gives them hope.

Now it’s hard to compare my little dressers to an entire people. But here’s what both stories tell me – putting things together is hard work. Sometimes you get stuck. Sometimes you don’t think there’s much of a chance to get things right. Sometimes you get frustrated and wonder if it is all worth it.

But sometimes, despite all of this, you know that you have to keep trying. And you have to keep putting all the pieces together. And that’s what I want to talk about today, because I believe that every Scripture we read has insights for our lives, and this is no exception. And I think this passage could be used to teach us about a lot of things: our personal lives, our families, our friends. But today I want us to think about what it means for those of us who are trying to be the church.

I’ll say this first: church is sometimes hard. Community is hard. Learning to live together and work together and serve God together is sometimes hard. It’s true in every church I know. There are good times when everything seems to be going well. And there are tougher times when it might feel like we are all trying to assemble the same dresser together, and nothing is coming out right.

And those are the times when you wish that God could just say the word, and all the pieces would come together like those bones in that valley, and new life would be breathed into all of us. Well, here’s the reality. I think we can. I think we can ask God to do all those things, and I think God will do them. But I think God needs us to do some work too.

God didn’t tell Ezekiel “just stand there and watch this”. God said to Ezekiel, “prophesy”. And, like I said, God was telling Ezekiel to talk about the future. God was telling Ezekiel to tell the truth, but to also tell the hope. Only when that happened did God start to show him what was possible.

And so, I want to ask those of us who love this church, those of us who love this church, what does this have to do with being church. Because I’ve said it many times, as have many others: church is not something we do one hour a week. Church is who we are every hour of every day. We are the church.

And with that in mind, I want us all to think about this question together: what’s the difference between being a church-goer, and being a disciple?

Think about that for a minute…how are those two different? Let me start by saying this…there’s nothing wrong with being a person who goes to church. I’m glad that you all do, and I’m glad you are here. And, really, to be a disciple, I think you need to be a church goer because I think that we who would follow Jesus all need a community of Christian faith.

But being a church-goer is not the same as being a disciple. Anyone can come on Sunday and sit in the pew for an hour and then leave. And that’s fine. But being a disciple is a whole lot harder.

I used to be a church-goer. But later on, I tried to become a disciple. I don’t always do it well, but I try. And here are just a few things I have learned in my own walk about being a disciple, and not a church-goer:
When I was a church-goer, it used to be about going to church. Now it’s about being the church.
When I was a church-goer, it was about how the church was spiritually feeding me and meeting my needs. Now it’s about how the church can feed and meet the needs of others.
When I was a church goer it was about seeing how others in the church weren’t measuring up to my expectations for them. Now it’s about seeing how I can help be the church with them.
When I was a church-goer it was about being with my friends. Now it’s about being a part of communities where not everyone gets along but we work together anyway.
When I was a church goer it was about how the church could pull together enough resources to fund a building and a budget and a bunch of line items so that we could sustain ourselves. Now it’s about how the church can use those resources to build a thriving ministry that reaches everyone.
And when I was a church-goer, it used to be my church. Now it’s God’s church.

Those are just a few. Maybe you can think of some of your own as well. And in all these things, this is what I have learned: being a church-goer is a lot easier than being a disciple. But being a disciple is the most rewarding thing I have ever tried to do. I say tried there, because I’m still stumbling along…and I’m not getting it right even half the time. But then again, the original disciples weren’t either. And yet, they kept trying.

I’ll close with this. In a few moments we will be receiving Communion together. And Communion is really about community and reconciliation. Our reconciliation with Christ, and our reconciliation with one another. We all sit at the same table, and we are all lifted up by Christ to sit at a much larger table with believers we do not even know. And, sometimes, we even sit at that table with other disciples with whom we might rather not sit. But like those bones in the valley, God sometimes joins us once again. God somehow calls us into new life. God puts us back together. God brings hope.

As we who would be disciples approach the table today, may God lift us up the way God lifted up those dry bones. And may we be knit together and stood up on our feet and given the breath of life. Because we are disciples. And we have work to do. Amen.

Dreading Lent: An Alternative Proposal

IMG_2223A few weeks ago I was standing in the check-out line of our village market. The selection of cards by the cash register had just made their changeover from Valentine’s Day to Easter, despite the fact Lent had not yet even begun. That’s not a huge surprise, of course. The Easter candy has been out for weeks now.

But on this day, one of the cards struck my eye. The front read “The best part about Easter is the Lent is over.” They lost the theologian in me right there because, oddly enough, I’ve always thought that the best part of Easter was the whole Resurrection thing. But I opened the card anyway and found this in the center: “I really hate giving up stuff I love”.

My first thought was, “then you’re really going to hate Christianity”. I say that because, as Bonhoeffer and others have reminded us, discipleship is costly. Jesus wasn’t kidding around when he told his disciples to sell all they owned and follow him. Sacrifice is woven into the very fabric of Christian faith.

But my second thought was about how so many people believe that “giving something up” is what Lent is all about. If you are around church folks at all the week before Lent you’ll hear the question “What are you giving up for Lent?” more than a few times. And you’re likely to also hear a list of everyday items: meat, sugar, soda, tobacco, alcohol, chocolate, or even Facebook.

And, if that works for you, go for it. If giving up some sort of indulgence deepens your spiritual walk during these forty days, then no one should tell you not to do it. But, if you’re like most people I know, giving something up for forty days feels more like running a marathon.  For that reason too often people of faith approach Lent with the dread with which most people approach the dentist. By the time they get to Easter Sunday they can’t wait to tear into a Snickers bar or sign back on to Facebook again. And sometimes they have a sense that they’ve run a long race, but nothing has really changed.

Again, maybe it’s different for you, and that separation from potato chips or red meat has deepened your spiritual life in a meaningful way. But, if it hasn’t, I want to suggest that maybe “giving up” is not the only way to observe a holy Lent.

What if instead of giving up you took something on? What if you added dedicated prayer time each morning? Or, what if you committed to reading a couple of chapters of Scripture each day? What if you took on the challenge of going to worship every week during Lent, with no excuses?

And, what if you took something on that could, in some small way, change the world? What if you gave an hour each week to volunteering at the food bank? Or what if you gave up using plastic bottles in order to help the environment? What if you drove less and walked more?

Of course all of these things still require some degree of “giving up”. If you pray or read Scripture, you may have to “give up” some time you’d normally spend online or watching television. If you volunteer some extra hours you may have to give up a few hours of downtime. If you make an environmentally conscious choice you may have to give up the convenience of driving somewhere quickly or grabbing a bottled water.


IMG_2224But you may find you’re giving up other things too. You may find you’re giving up your feelings of hopelessness. You may find you’re giving up your feelings of helplessness. Your feelings of isolation. Your feelings of disconnection. Your feelings of insignificance.

All of those can be pretty incredible things to give up for Lent.

In the end, Lent is not about a forty day marathon of deprivation. It’s about looking inside, finding the places where we feel disconnected to God, and taking up the challenge of going deeper. It’s about walking with Jesus for forty days because we are so overwhelmed by his love for us. And, it’s about preparing for what is next. Because the empty tomb is not the finish line. It’s just the start of a long and wonderful journey. And Lent is a time to get ready.