Gathering Around a Vision: Sermon for September 10, 2017

I’ve come to understand New England summers. I grew up in a place it was warm most of the year so summers weren’t a big deal to us. Actually, they were so hot we wanted to stay indoors.

But here in New England summers are beautiful, but they are also short. And that means that you have about 10-12 weeks to do the vacationing and outside exploring that you’ve waited to do all year.

That means that during the summer, we are scattered to the winds. I know members of this church have, literally, been across the country and around the globe this summer. But now, there’s a chill in the air, the leaves, believe it or not, are starting to change, and we have returned to our nests here in Exeter.

And this morning, for the first time since early June, we are back in the pews at 10am on a Sunday, the choir is in the loft, our church school orientation is happening, and we are about to kick off a whole new church program year. And so, wherever this summer has taken you, I say this: welcome home!

I was thinking about what to preach about on this Gathering Sunday. What Bible story sums up what it means to be church together? There are so many good ones, but what I kept coming back to was this: the Greatest Commandment.

Jesus was asked a question by a lawyer who was trying to trick him. If the lawyer could get him to say something blasphemous, then Jesus could be charged with a crime. So they ask him, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” And Jesus answers, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

To me, that sums up both what it means to be a Christian, and what it means to be the church. Love God. Love yourself. Love your neighbor.

I see those three challenges as the legs of a three-legged table or stool. If you kick any one of the three out, the table cannot stand. You need all three to have a stable foundation. That’s because each one of the three depends on one another.

You cannot really love your neighbor until you learn to love yourself. And you cannot say that you love God if you do not try to love your neighbor. And, I believe that you cannot really love yourself until you realize that you are created by a God who loves you wildly, a God who is worthy of our love and devotion.

Learning how to balance those three great loves is what we do in church. And so, I want to talk about how we try to do all three, and how we can build on that love this year. And so, for the purposes of this sermon, I want to talk about “loving yourself” in the corporate sense. I want us to talk, not about “I”, but about “we”, and who we are as the church together.

So first, the love of God. The best way we show our love of God is by doing what we are doing right now: worshipping. When we come here on Sundays our first task is to give praise to God. Worship isn’t about the music, or the sermon, or even the community, though those are hopefully meaningful to us too. It’s about telling God that we love God, and looking for the ways God is speaking to us still.

When we have a relationship with someone we love, we invest time in that relationship. We talk to our spouse, we make time for our families, we give of ourselves to our friends. So, it just makes sense that if we love God, we will make time for God in our lives. Sunday worship is a huge part of that, because we get to spend time not only with God, but with others who love God. But that’s not the end of it.

This fall there will be some new opportunities to get to know God better. Starting in October we will have a Bible study every Wednesday night. We will be talking about the Scripture for the next Sunday’s sermon. You don’t have to come every week, just come as you are able, but give this a try. The Bible is often so misunderstood. It can seem so intimidating. Come and learn why it doesn’t have to be.

We are also forming a group that will take another kind of spiritual journey. Several adults asked me after last year’s Confirmation Sunday whether we ever do adult confirmation classes. The short answer is “no”. Confirmation is a step baptized youth take in which they “confirm”, or agree with, the baptism that their parents chose for them. So, adults, by virtue of being baptized or joining the church, essentially make the same vows.

But that doesn’t mean that adults don’t have questions. And it’s become clear that a lot of you might want to have a similar kind of class that breaks down our belief and teaches it in a deliberate way. That’s true especially for those of us in younger generations. Many of you, like me, didn’t grow up in the church and didn’t get this kind of class. Others want a class so that they can decide whether or not to be baptized. For whatever reason, there’s a hunger for this kind of spiritual journey. And so, we are forming this class now. If you are interested, please let me know.

So those are some ways we can love God, what about how we love ourselves as a church community? Well, the first step is deciding to be a part of this community. Community is important in every aspect of our lives, but church community is crucial for our spiritual journeys. Having companions on the path helps us to draw closer to God. And so this year, think about the ways that you can allow yourself to really be a part of community. Are you holding back? If so, what’s keeping you there? What would it mean to take a risk, and dive in with both feet?

21314839_1664971753555416_1075856799694847201_nWe believe that anyone who walks through these doors and calls this their church is a part of this community. But we also offer a way to formally become a part of this church by choosing to be a member. Membership is not about paying dues or anything like that. Church membership is a way of saying “this is my church…this is the place, and these are the people, I choose to be with as I search for God’s will for me.” Our next Joining Sunday will be October 22nd. If you are ready to make the leap, and join us officially, please let me know.

Beyond joining, we love our church community by serving. Think about how many people serve on a typical Sunday. Deacons, ushers, welcomers, coffee hour folks, church school teachers, childcare, youth group volunteers, choir, musicians, sound, and more. Part of being the church means being willing to serve. This is a form of love for one another. We give of our time, and our energy, to help one another to grow in the faith. There are so many ways we can all serve. And service feels good. It is rewarding to be a part of a community, and to give back. This fall what’s a way that you can serve?

Finally, loving our neighbors. If we don’t love our neighbors, we can’t say that we really love God. I’m really proud of the way this church seeks to serve our neighbors, near and far. Yesterday we sent off a big shipment of goods to our sister church in Zimbabwe. Throughout the year we take up special offerings for the wider church, and for Church World Service, Heifer Project, and more. We work with Seacoast Family Promise, cook meals for the Salvation Army, knit prayer shawls for people who need comfort, stock food pantries, assemble Thanksgiving and Christmas baskets, and more.

And we are looking for new ways to serve, too. Mission and action is exploring serving a meal out of our church for people who need it. We continue to look for ways we can live into our environmental and open and affirming covenants. And, an ad hoc group is looking at how this church can support immigrants and refugees. I love the way that we are never content with just doing what we’ve always done before. We are always growing, always looking for the ways the God we love wants us to love others.

And so, welcome back. Welcome back to a place where we love God, we love one another, and we love our neighbors. There are so many ways for us to do this together, and you are invited to participate in each one of them. So my question to you is this: How will you love this year?

It is my honor to be your pastor, and I love this church and all of you. I love this place because I know we honestly try our best to love God and neighbor. As we enter a new program year, may our love for one another grow, and may this community be blessed.

Jesus’ Hardest Words: Sermon for February 12, 2017

It’s good to be back in the pulpit this morning after being sidelined for the last couple of weeks. I’m grateful to Heidi Heath and Alex Simpson for stepping in to preach while I recovered from my concussion.

I’m particularly grateful because they both preached on the same larger subject that I’ll be talking about this morning, and so in a real way I’m just building on the foundation that they’ve already put in place over the past two weeks.

As timing would have it, these multiple voices came in the midst of one of the most significant and dense parts of the Bible. For a solid month the lectionary gives us Gospel readings from the Sermon on the Mount.

Now, Jesus was a interesting sort of teacher. Most of his big lessons came not from lectures or speeches, but from stories and from questions. Jesus was much more likely to teach something important by telling a parable, like the ones about the Prodigal Son, or the Sower and the Seed. Or, he would let the people figure out the truth for themselves by asking them questions and having them come to a conclusion.


Carl Bloch’s painting, “Sermon on the Mount”

What he was unlikely to do was exactly what he does do here, and that is to effectively preach. And yet, one day he saw crowds gathering and he went to the top of a mountain, and he began to teach the people. Later Christians would call this the “sermon on the mount”, but I like to just think of it as “Jesus’s big sermon”. This was the time that he laid bare so much of what it would mean to follow him.

The passages that Heidi and Alex preached about are well known to us. They are calls for Christians to live as examples of God’s love in the world, and to take hope, even when it seems like the whole world is stacked against goodness and kindness.

But then, right after those words, comes this passage. And there’s a lot in this passage that makes me nervous. First, if you are angry with someone, says Jesus, you will be judged. Later, if you look at someone with lust in your heart, you are committing adultery. Or, if your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out. Or, if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off. Or, if you marry a divorced woman, you are committing adultery. And in a lot of these, Jesus is talking about going to hell. Or finally, don’t swear. Just say, “yes or no”. Nothing more.

So, things don’t look so good for me here.

I mean, I’ve been angry before. To be honest, I think I had every right to be angry. And, frankly, I’ll be angry again. It might be righteous anger about some great social injustice, but it could just as easily be about someone cutting me off in the Starbucks drive-through.

And then there’s lust. Remember how Jimmy Carter once talked about lusting in his heart when he was president, and everyone laughed at him. Well, he was a good Baptist, and he was talking about this passage. Truth be told, we’ve probably all lusted at one time or another.

And then there’s this stuff about tearing out eyes and cutting off hands. My eyes cause me to judge others, or to envy them. And my hands…sometimes my hands are idol, and we can’t have that. Other times I’m so proud of the works of my hands that they cause me not to be humble. But, I plan on keeping both eyes and both hands because, frankly, I don’t think any of us would have hands or eyes if we followed this one.

There’s also this divorce passage. I’m not divorced, but I am married to a divorced woman. Does that mean I’m committing adultery? Do I need to go home this afternoon and say “sorry, honey…you’re on your own”?

And then there’s the swearing. I’ve sworn on legal paperwork, and I’ve sworn in far less legally-mandated ways. In other words, everything Jesus talks about here in this passage, I’ve done.

So, I don’t know about you, but reading these I feel pretty sure that I’m probably going to hell.

You too? See you there.

Now, to be honest, I don’t actually think I’m going to hell. I don’t think you are either, by the way. If you want my honest opinion, I’m not sure there is a hell. And if there is one, I think it is this: I think it is the absence of God. And because I believe God’s love and grace are stronger than anything we could ever do, I don’t think that God leaves any of us there.

But there was a time in my life when the thought of hell caused me real distress. I didn’t grow up in a church that damned people to hell. We were Christmas and Easter Presbyterians. But I did grow up in the South where the churches who preached a literal hell were all around, and they were very vocal.

I remember when I was six years old and a kid at the playground told me that if I had ever told a lie in my life I was going to hell. I have no idea what I could have lied about at age 6, but it probably involved taking extra cookies or something. No matter, I was damned.

And then there were those times when I was in high school, and the local megachurch talked about homosexuals and how they were going to hell if they didn’t change. And I knew they were talking about me. And I knew that there was no hope.

I think I may have started studying theology because I wanted to know that I wasn’t damned. Along the way, I came to believe that not only was I not damned, but I was loved beyond measure by a God who is full of grace. I came to see the fear-based churches that had proliferated in my hometown as a sort of anxious reaction to our own understanding of our humanity. We humans are imperfect beings, after all. How could God love us?

I confess, though, that when I read this passage my old fears come back. What if I’m not measuring up? What if I’m wrong? What if the way I’m living isn’t good enough.

What if I’m not perfect?

I’m not, of course. You probably aren’t either.

And here’s where I have one small point of agreement with those fundamentalist churches I used to know: we are indeed imperfect beings. We will sin. We will fall down. But unlike those fundamentalist churches, I don’t tell you this because I believe God is ready to throw us all into the fires of hell. I tell you this because God is ready to welcome us home.

The reality of life is that none of us is perfect. None of us will ever keep even one of the Ten Commandments perfectly, let alone all ten. All of us will disappoint ourselves, and one another. All of us will fail from time to time.

Jesus knew that. He knew that it was inevitable. But he also knew this: he knew that in God there is grace. God is willing to love us “as is”. More than that, God is delighted to love us like that. God may have high standards for us, ones that we try even still to reach, but God does not expect our perfection. God just expects us to keep trying.

And so, that’s much of how I understand the Christian life. There is a way that things should be. This world should be filled with love, kindness, and justice. Were we all perfect, it would be. And then there is the way that things actually are.

And so, it’s tempting in the face of that to throw up our hands and say “well, we will never get it right, so what’s the point”. But that’s exactly when we need God’s grace the most. That’s exactly when we need to hear God saying to us, “it’s okay…keep trying…I still love you”.

And so, we keep trying. And we stay in relationship with God and with one another. And, little by little, the world is transformed.

I used to try to do the right thing out of fear. I feared a God who I thought kept the fires of hell burning.

Now I try to do the right thing out of love, and out of gratitude for God’s grace.

I’m not sure if I’m any better at getting it right from time to time, but I can tell you this: I’m a whole lot more sure that I’m doing it for the right reasons. And I’m a whole lot more sure that God loves me, and that God loves us all. Even when we mess up. Maybe especially when we mess up. God is still there loving us through it. Amen?