Being Perfect: Sermon for February 19, 2017

When I was in graduate school I had a position as a teaching assistant for a class of seminarians. My job was to lead a discussion section of the class, and to help the students to understand their papers and tests. And one semester I was assigned to a new professor who, in retrospect, was probably trying to prove herself as a serious teacher.

Every professor assigned a lot of reading, but this professor assigned an impossible amount. Hundreds of pages each week. It was too much for even the TAs to read, and we knew the material and the concepts already. The new students had at least three other classes and usually an internship too, and it didn’t take long until they were all falling behind and coming to the teaching assistants for help. These were high-level students used to thriving in school, and they were drowning

With the professor’s blessing we decided that we would teach a workshop on how to get through a lot of reading quickly. So, one afternoon we taught them how to scan, how to find central themes and how to outline. Most students walked from the room feeling relieved and like they could keep up.

Afterwards the professor asked how it had gone. She wondered if the students now felt a little more confident about keeping up. I told her that I thought they’d be fine, and that they just needed some skills. And then I said something else. I said, “You know, I think they thought you expected them to read every single word of those hundreds of pages.”

She looked at me affronted. “But I DO expect them to read every single word.”

When I read about Jesus’ words to the crowds this week, I’m reminded a little of that class. This is the last week we are looking at the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ big speech to the crowds. And Jesus is not setting the bar low. He tells the crowd that these are the things they need to do:
If someone strikes your right cheek, offer them your left.
If someone takes your coat, give them your cloak too
If asked to go one mile, go a second mile
If someone wants anything from you, give it to them
Love your family, your friends, but more than that love your enemies and pray for them
And then Jesus delivers this bottom line: be perfect, therefore, as your father in heaven is perfect.

Be perfect. When I think about being perfect, I think a little about that class that I TAed, and I think about unrealistic expectations, and harsh graders. And when I think about being perfect in the spiritual sense, I picture God as a divine professor, checking through my work and saying “it is very clear to me that you did not read every single word of the assigned reading.”

I think a lot of us might wrestle with an image of God that’s a lot like that. God as the ever-demanding, ever-critical, authority figure. The parent you can never please. The teacher who is always disappointed. The client who always complains, no matter how hard you work.

Maybe, at its worst, God as our own critical inner voice, bent on reminding ourselves how much we are messing everything up.

It would be easy for me right now to say “but God’s not like that. That’s human beings. God is love.”

But then we have Jesus here, telling us to be perfect. And somewhere deep down that’s unsettling, because we all know that we don’t measure up to perfect, and we never will.

And so that’s when it’s important to remember that God is a little different from our critical fourth grade teacher, or the coach who always yelled at you when you missed the free throw. God is’t a divine task master at best, and bully at worst. God is different.

I think about that grad school professor from the beginning, and about how she demanded perfection. And, truth be told, grad school is a little about hazing. There’s a lot of “I had to do this, so you will too.” And, honestly, she was trying to get tenure, which is another kind of hazing in and of itself. She was trying to prove that she was perfect too, and being a tough teacher was a part of that.

But the life of faith is not about jumping through hoops, or looking good on paper. It’s not about reading every page. Instead, it’s about this: it’s about progress.

In recovery communities like AA there is a slogan: “progress not perfection”. The idea is that you shouldn’t focus on getting every single thing right. If you do that things are bound to go wrong, and it’s too tempting to just give up. Instead, just focus on doing a little better, one day at a time.

I think that makes sense for the spiritual life too. No one, this side of heaven, is ever going to be perfect. But that doesn’t mean that we get to just throw up our hands and give up. Instead, it means that a little at a time, we get better. We become more generous, more patient, more compassionate, and more loving.

And, if we are doing it right, we also extend all of those things to ourselves. Because in a world that too often seems to demand the unrealistic, we could all stand to treat ourselves with a little more generosity, patience, compassion, and love.

We cannot batter ourselves into perfection. And there’s nothing in destroying our selves that will glorify God.

This week I was remembering something from when I was a kid, and thinking about what it means to be perfect, and to fail. I grew up about 40 minutes from Cape Canaveral where NASA launched all of it’s rockets. We were close enough whenever a shuttle launched we’d all know it was happening and go outside to see it.

There were other launches too, though, that didn’t rate the same sort of hype. Regularly satellites would be sent up on unmanned rockets from the Cape. And one afternoon late in elementary school I was riding my bike down the street when I saw the familiar arc of a rocket coming up over the trees.

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Delta GOES-G satellite launch, 1986.

I stopped and watched. It kept climbing higher and higher. And then, all of a sudden, far up in the air, it started to go to the side. And then it spun on itself. And this didn’t look quite right. A minute later there was a flash of light and the rocket was no more. Mission control had pressed whatever button they press to cause the rocket to self-destruct.
Later, talking to my dad, I realized how many tens of millions of dollars, if not more, had gone into building that rocket and that satellite, how many hopes had been attached to it, and how now it was just a bunch metal sitting off the coast at the bottom of the ocean.

“So what will they do?”, I asked my dad.

“Well,” he said, “they’ll try again.”

All of us mess up sometimes. But my guess is that you’ve never been the one who caused a spaceflight worth tens of millions of dollars to self-implode.

The irony is that even if you have been, NASA would forgive you and try again.

Why? Because you keep trying. You keep learning from your mistakes and building on what you learned, and you dare to try again.

If NASA can forgive a broken satellite, perhaps God can forgive our brokenness too. And perhaps we can head back to the drawing board, figure out what went wrong, and try again.

Here’s the good news: while spaceflight might require absolute perfection, life does not. We get to get it wrong sometimes. And we get to know we are forgiven. The only thing that we can’t do is stop trying. Amen?

Better Than a Bumper Sticker: Sermon for April 24, 2016

When I lived in Atlanta, a lot of churches had bumper stickers that members would put on their cars as a form of advertising. Other Christians would just put another ubiquitous symbol, the Christian fish, on their bumper. Decorating your car in order to tell the whole world you were a Christian was apparently a big deal for a lot of people.

At about this same time I was getting ready to head off to seminary, and a friend of mine was working as a barista in a coffee shop. She would frequently tell me stories of customers who were rude to her and to her co-workers. These were people who would yell at the staff for minor mistakes, get angry when their orders were taking too long, or complain about prices.

The worst days, though, were when she had to work the drive-thru. People were particularly rude there, perhaps because they felt like they had more distance from the employees and more anonymity. But there’s one thing they couldn’t hide: those bumper stickers on the backs of their cars.

And so one day my friend said to me: “You know, every time someone in the drive-thru line is rude to us, I just look at the back of their car…and it’s always one of your people.”

Ouch. And yet, you can’t argue with what she saw. We all fall short from time to time, but the behavior of those people in the drive thru line who professed to love Jesus so much was a little less than loving when it came to everyone else.

The irony, of course, is that Jesus was pretty clear about this whole love thing, and he was very clear it wasn’t meant to only be for him.

In today’s passage, Jesus tells his disciples “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

In other words, Jesus tells us that the way people will know we are his followers is simply this: how well we love.

It means the measure of who we are as Christians is not what we say on Sunday mornings or whether we wear a cross around our necks or anything like that. We don’t profess our faith by symbols because Jesus says none of those things will identity us as his followers. To put it another way, talk is cheap. So are bumper stickers or Facebook memes or anything else that requires little more than passivity from us.

But action…action isn’t cheap. And it also isn’t easy.

Love isn’t either. Not the kind Jesus is talking about here, anyway. It’s easy to love our families, and our friends, even when they do things that hurt us. It’s harder to love the people we don’t like very much.

Don’t believe me? Think of the political candidate in this presidential election that you most dislike, the one whose values are so antithetical to yours. Now think about loving them.

It’s not for the feint of heart, is it? And yet, Jesus requires nothing less of us. We can disagree with one another, we can think the other is dead wrong, we can find nothing in common with them…and yet, if we are serious about following Jesus, we have to love them.

Now expand that out even further. We are called not to love just people, but whole groups of people. We are called to love this whole world. And in that sense, love is not a feeling alone, but it really is an action. It is our way of relating to the world, and it’s the world’s way of knowing who we really follow.

And yet, too often Christians are not exactly known for their love.

But have you ever noticed that a lot of people don’t trust Christians? I’ve been at dinner parties before where someone, before they knew what I did, made a comment about all clergy being con artists and all Christians being hypocrites.

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Christians protesting against equal marriage in New York, 2011.

 

They talk about all the bad things that have been done in the name of our faith: wars, discrimination, the treatment of women. Even now friends of mine are quick to remind me that new laws aimed to reinforce discrimination in places like North Carolina and Mississippi were authored by Christian.

I sort of understand what they’re saying about the hypocrisy. In a way it’s a good sign, because people know we are supposed to be better than that. People know we got our marching orders from a loving Christ who wanted us to be loving as well.

And the truth is this: we are hypocrites. We are, not because we are Christians, but because we are human. And being human means none of us is always the person we want to be.

But our job as Christians is to try anyway. It is to not only say the right things on Sunday mornings, but to live them out every of the week.

We won’t always get it right. None of us do. We may have the best of intentions, but when the rubber meets the road, it’s hard.

When we actually have to give up our time to go volunteer at the food pantry or anywhere else,we may sometimes find other things to do. When we are asked to open our checkbooks and help out, we might rationalize that we really would rather use that money for something fun. After all, we worked hard for it. When that friend comes to us needing someone to lean on, we might make excuses on why we can’t get together.

And yet, we try. And that’s a noble endeavor, to try to make sure your actions reflect who you say you are, and reflect the love of a Christ who first loved us.

That matters for our life together as a church too. A church should ideally be the kind of community where if someone walked through the doors, without us saying a word about what we believed, they would know we were Christians.

After all, that old song says, “they will know we are Christians by our love”. It doesn’t say, “they will know we are Christians because we say so.”

It means as well that churches exist not just for ourselves, in fact, not even primarily for ourselves, but for others. It means that when we measure who we are as a church community, we should start by asking what we have done for our neighbors, and for those who would hope to see the love of Christ.

That’s not always easy. And yet, if we are going to claim the title of Christian, it’s not optional. The world has plenty of self-avowed Christians. It needs more followers of Christ.

And so my question to you is this: how are we going to be people not of word and speech, but of active love? How are we going to be the people that our world needs us to be?

I think we as a church are already doing a lot to make sure we are not just paying lip service to the Gospel. We have missions we support. We give generously to the greater church. We open our doors to those who ask. And we have more ideas in the works.

But just as our community is always changing, God’s call to us is evolving as well. God is opening new doors to us so we can better serve our neighbors and our world. And as we talk as a community about what comes next for us, as we prepare for the church retreat this Saturday, I’m excited about what God is doing with us.

I know also that God has a plan for each one of us. I know God has brought you here today first for worship, but then also for service. The love of Christ may have gotten you here today, but God doesn’t want your Christian journey to end here in a church pew. God has something greater in store for you beyond these doors.

And so, every week the journey of faith starts here. But this is not where it ends. Think of your pew as your launching pad. Here we say, and sing, the words of our faith, we get ready to become people of loving action. And when you leave here, you go out into a world that needs that action. It’s a world that needs followers of Christ, not just Christians n name only.

The good news is you’re not in this alone. We are a community of people who want to do just that. We want to be people of action, not just words. But we need you, and we need everyone who comes through our doors. You are all a part of God’s call on this church, all a piece of the divine puzzle, and all important. God is ready to do great things in this church. Are you ready for God to do great things in you as well? I hope the answer is yes. For all of us, and for the world. Amen?

Love is Patient, Love is Kind…and Love is Not Control

“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.Love never ends.” – 1 Corinthians 13

From the time I graduated from college, until the time I was married, I lived mostly on my own. Even when I had roommates early on, we had separate rooms and our own personal space. And I really liked my space. I was very particular about it. Which is why, when I found myself engaged and about to be married at the age of 36, despite all the love and excitement and certainty I was doing the right thing, I wasn’t so excited about sharing my space.

But, I believe in love, and so I told my spouse, who was moving into my house, this is our home. I don’t want you to feel like it’s mine. So make yourself comfortable, and do whatever you need to do to make it feel like home.

That wasn’t a good idea.

Only a few days after living together, I was at a daylong meeting, and I got home tired and hungry. I walked into the kitchen and opened the cupboard for a coffee mug. And my coffee mugs were not there. And then I opened THE silverware drawer. And the silverware was nowhere to be seen. And then tried to find a bowl, and the coffee mugs were where the bowls had been.

FullSizeRenderNothing was where it was supposed to be. And I made mention of that fact to my spouse, who quickly reminded me of what I had said about it being OUR house.

And that’s when I got, in a very real way, that as much as I was madly in love, marriage was going to be a whole lot different than living alone. It was going to be wonderful and exhilarating and fulfilling, and it was also going to mean I couldn’t find a thing in my kitchen.

I think about weddings and love and the marriage that comes after the wedding every time I hear this passage. Most of us have been to a wedding where these verses, “Love is patient…love is kind…” are read. And they’re very nice, very pretty words about love.

The problem is, they weren’t written for a wedding. In fact, I think if most would-be newlyweds knew where these words came from, they might be a little reluctant to use them in their wedding. Because, far from advice to new couples, this was Paul’s letter to the church in Cornith, and he was telling a bunch of church people to stop fighting with each other.

This isn’t about romance at all…it’s about churches behaving badly. And that’s probably not the vibe you are looking for at your wedding.

And yet, there is some good advice there for us all. Corinthians acknowledges the hard truth: to love somebody, or something, means that they are going to challenge your way of thinking. They are going to shake up the calm and complacency of your life. They are going to make things complicated.

But if it’s really love, romantic or otherwise, they are also going to make things better.

And that’s where the “love is” statements come into play. Listen again, because this isn’t just about how you treat your spouse. It’s also about how you treat your kids, and the rest of your family. It’s about how to treat your neighbors and your fellow church members. It’s about how to treat the world.
“Love is patient, love is kind, love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

I think you can sum these words up in another way too. And that is that if you truly love someone or something, you cannot control them. Love and control are not the same thing. Instead, you can only control your actions and reactions.

We all need that reminder at times. I do too. Just like getting married taught me that my life was in very real ways about more than just my preferences now, even if that just meant where things went in the kitchen, being a part of any relationship or any community teaches us the exact same thing. It’s always bigger than us.

This is especially true in the church, where it is never just about us, but is always first and foremost about God and God’s will for us.

And yet, we are human. And that means sometimes we struggle to love God, and to love one another. And Paul knew that when he wrote this letter to a church in Corinth, and reminded them what love looked like.

Now, I’m aware that me saying all of this on our annual meeting day might have some of you curious right now. “Uh oh, is something wrong?” “Is there some sort of controversy about to come up?”

Not that I know of. (And now would be a good time to say so if you do.)

But this is annual meeting day for a lot of congregations today, and I am praying hard for a lot of churches and colleagues today, because I know that this is going to be a rough afternoon for them.

That’s to be expected, because love, even in the church, is not always easy. And sometimes we love something so much that we try to control it. But that’s not real love. And that’s why even God in God’s perfect love, who could control this world, refuses to do so. God loves us too much for that.

Three and a half years after getting married my kitchen still looks very different from the way I used to set it up. But here’s the strange thing: I’m okay with that. Heidi’s the cook, not me. And she should be the one who sets up that space, because she’s the one who uses it. So now, I’m content to just know where things were moved to, and to eat all the delicious meals that she makes.

When I got married, I gave up some control of my life, right down to my kitchen cabinets. It wasn’t just about me anymore. But what I get in return from loving someone, is so much better, and so much more incredible.

Likewise, when I confessed my faith in Christ as a young adult, I began to let go of some my own ego and my own desires, and I put them back in God’s hands. I said, “God, show me your will for me…and help me to love you enough to follow.”

That’s what each of us does when we confess our faith. And that’s what each of us does when we become members of a church. Together we say that we will put the big choices in God’s hands, and we will love one another and love God enough to patiently try to figure out what God is asking us to do next. Patiently. Kindly. And lovingly. Because love is always worth it.

I’ll close with this. In a few moments, we are going to baptize a new baby, a new child of God. And I cannot tell you what her life will look like 20 years from now. I cannot tell you who she will become, or what she will believe, or how she will live.

We cannot control who she will become. Not even her parents can. And we shouldn’t. Because that’s not love.

But I can tell you this: God already loves her. And today we will literally pour the waters of that love over her.

And so our responsibility as the church is the same responsibility that we have for anyone who walks through those doors, and the same responsibility we have for one another: guide her, help her discern God’s will for her, and remind her that God loves her, and that her greatest calling in life is to love God, and love God’s world.

We will teach her this because God has taught us that love is always, always, worth it. Amen?

Breakfast with Jesus: Sermon for April 19, 2015

John 21

21 After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. 2 Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. 3 Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

4 Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. 5 Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” 6 He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. 7 That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. 8 But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.

9 When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. 10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” 11 So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. 12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. 13 Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14 This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16 A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17 He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. 18 Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” 19 (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

One Sunday when I was preaching at my last call I looked out in the congregation and saw the face of someone I knew, but had never seen in church before. I knew she had a spiritual life of her own, but I also knew that she wasn’t so sure about churches or about Christianity.

We had developed a growing friendship through some other friends in town, and she had been curious about what I did for work, and so I had invited her to come to church some Sunday. And, to my great surprise, she had taken me up on the offer.

A few days later I asked her what she thought about the church. And she told me, “I liked the people, I liked the music, and I even liked what you said. I would consider coming back, but for one thing. I don’t really mind the God-talk, but do you think you could talk about Jesus a little less?

I told her no, that Jesus was there to stay. And she said, “yeah, I thought so,” and we let it go at that.

The sad thing is, I sort of understood where she was coming from. In her life she had heard people talking about Jesus in ways that never felt meaningful or sincere to her. Jesus had always been this figure she had seen as judging her, or someone her parents or priests appealed to in order to get her to behave, or someone that friends told her she needed to accept as her personal savior or else she would never get to heaven.

And I get how that can make you a little wary. Growing up in the South, a lot of my friends would talk about having a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ”. So much so that when someone asked me, “Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?” I knew it was time to get away, because someone was about to try to convert me.

Now the truth is, I was already a Christian. I did have a spiritual life, and I did follow Jesus. But it wasn’t because I had ever had the sort of revelatory, sudden conversion experience that my more fundamentalist classmates told me I had to have, but because I’d always had this sort of quiet, questioning faith that had grown over time

And my only exposure to churches were in the kind that often get jokingly called the “frozen chosen”: Congregational, Presbyterian, Episcopalian. The ministers there emphasized God’s love for us, and mission, and trying to live a good life, just like we do here every week. But we rarely talked about what it means to have an actual relationship with Jesus. We knew who we are were and that God loved us, but we just didn’t talk what it meant. And, truth be told, some might say the same about those of us who are members of the UCC today.

And often, we are just fine with that. We have our faith, and it is a good faith, a well-reasoned and deep-thinking one, and it sustains us. But sometimes even we who are the frozen chosen need something more. Sometimes we need a relationship that goes deeper. And thats where Scripture passages like today’s come in.

Not long after the Resurrection, a little while after that first Easter, the disciples, Jesus’ friends and followers, were gathered. And Peter was among them. And you have to remember what’s been happening with Peter. On the night before Jesus died, Peter had done exactly what Jesus told him he would do, and the very thing Peter had said he would never do: he had denied that he was a follower of Jesus. Not just once, but three times.

After Jesus had died he had been crushed by the weight of his grief, and the weight of his own betrayal. And it was only now, in these first confusing days when it looked like Jesus might be back, that he was starting to understand what that meant. Because if Jesus had come back, how amazing would that be? But, if you are Peter, and Jesus is back, and you had denied him, how awkward would that be? Can you imagine what he must have been thinking? “What am I going to say to Jesus when I see him?”

Scripture tells us that Peter tells the others, “I’m going fishing”. I get that. He probably needed to do something to clear his head. And a few of them go out in their boat, throwing the fishing nets out again and again and each time they pull them up and find nothing.

10273557_10152954505737538_7593581376163540580_nAnd then a man calls to them from the shore, “try the other side of the boat”. And they do, and this time it is so filled with fish that they can’t even bring it up. And that’s when they realize who that man standing on the shore is.

Can you imagine being Peter in that moment? This is the moment you’ve both been waiting for and been scared to death of. He sees Jesus there, and he doesn’t even wait for the boat to head back. He jumps into the water, and goes to the shore to meet Jesus there.

And this is the part of the story that I’m always struck by. When Peter gets there, Jesus doesn’t yell at him. He doesn’t chastise him for his lack of faith, or call him a coward. He doesn’t tell him to get lost, that he had had his chance. Instead, he says this: “Come and have breakfast.”

I sometimes wonder if we have a hard time talking about our relationships with Jesus not because of what we will sound like to others, but because of how scary that kind of intimacy can be. It’s a little easier to talk about this creator God who made everything and who is so very different from us. Maybe even distant. But it’s harder to talk about someone who actually lived as one of us, and felt the same feelings as all of us, and who knows the truth about us, good and bad, and who still loves us anyway.

In Jesus, God becomes human. God becomes like us. And we are able to know God not as the CEO who gives us orders. Not God the lawyer with a bunch of statutes for us to follow, neatly bound together. Not even God the heavenly father. But God, standing there on the beach, cooking breakfast.

If Jesus ever showed up in my kitchen, I’ll be honest, I wouldn’t be asking what was for breakfast. I’d probably be so dumbfounded and scared I wouldn’t know what to say. And I think that’s normal. Because relationships can be scary when it’s just us everyday people. But really having a relationship with Jesus? God incarnate and you? That’s a whole other level.

And yet, Jesus shows us what it can be like. Because he invites Peter to breakfast.

Can you imagine that? You expect to be persona non grata, and instead you get breakfast. The very one you denied, the one who knows the worst about you, isn’t angry. He doesn’t reject you. Instead, he’s cooking you fish to eat, and telling you to pull us a seat to his table. And he loves you. All the stuff from the past, all the mistakes, they don’t matter. He loves you.

And that may be the scariest part of all. The fact that we are loved no matter what. The conviction that grace is real, and that we can’t somehow mess things up so badly that we lose it.

The first time I really understood that, the first time I realized that no matter what God still loved me, it was actually a little terrifying. Knowing that God’s grace was for me, and for everyone, was overwhelming. But then, it was profoundly freeing. Because God’s love went from something I had to earn to something that was there. All I had to do was let it in, and believe that I was loved.

That’s amazing. But it’s also not the end of the story. Because Jesus’s love does not depend on me. I can choose what to do because of it. I can choose to do nothing. I can just accept it and not really think about it much. But, when you are truly loved, and you know that you are truly loved, can you really just do nothing?

I think the answer is “no”. Because I think love always transforms us, and I think that when we know we are loved, we are never the same again. And I think that Peter knew that too.

When Peter sat down to eat breakfast with Jesus, Jesus asked him a question: Peter, do you love me?

Peter says, “yes, Lord, I love you.” And Jesus says to him “feed my sheep” or, as we might say it, take care of my people and guide them.

A clear cut mission. But then a second time Jesus asks him the same question. “Peter do you love me?” “Yes Lord,” Peter says, “you know I love you.” “Then feed my lambs.”

And then a third time, “Peter, do you love me?” And this time Peter is hurt, and he wonders “why doesn’t he believe me?” And he says, “yes Lord…you know everything…you know that I love you!” And once again Jesus says, “feed my sheep”.

He asked him three times. I don’t think that’s because Jesus didn’t believe him. I think it was because Peter didn’t really believe himself. Peter had denied Jesus three times. And so Jesus asks him three times if he loves him. And in those questions, there’s a certain grace. An assurance that as many times as we want away, God will call us back just as many times. Whether it’s three or three hundred or three thousand. God will always ask us to return in love.

When we think of the great saints of the church, Peter is up there at the top. The guy who ran away from Jesus on the night he was betrayed was the same guy who jumped into the water and ran onto the shore when he saw him again. And he was the one that Jesus named Peter, or rock, saying “you’re the rock upon whom I will build my church”.

What sort of amazing love, and amazing grace, is that? One minute you can be the one who denied Jesus three times. And the next, you are the one he loves so much that he trusts you to do something amazing. And all of this takes place over something as mundane and everyday as breakfast.

This is a story about a saint, but it’s not just a story for saints. It’s a story for us all. Maybe we won’t be invited to breakfast on the beach, but there are little signs all around us that we are still invited to the feast. There’s a chair for us, and the table is overflowing with the grace and the love of God. And all we have to do is say “yes” to the host who wants to get to know us better. Amen?

The Love Mandate: A post for Maundy Thursday

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” – John 13: 34-35

No one really uses the word “maundy” anymore in their daily lives. Which is why today can seem a little murkier than some of the other holy days in Lent. We get Ash Wednesday, and Palm Sunday, and Good Friday…but what’s “Maundy Thursday”?

10001453_10151948036261787_1162216634_nThe word “maundy” comes from a Latin word: mandatum. And mandatum means “mandate” or a “commandment.” And when we talk about “Maundy Thursday” we’re talking about “mandate Thursday.” We’re talking about the night before he died, when Christ told his disciples exactly what he expected them to do next.

And if you read a book or watch a movie about almost anyone else, you might think the lead character right about now would be saying something like “avenge my death” or “make sure there’s payback” or “don’t let them get away with this … strike back.”

But this isn’t any other story. This is a story that turns everything on its head. Instead, the mandate that Jesus gives is this:

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

It’s not my job to rename Christian holy days. But if it were, I might change the name of Maundy Thursday. I might change it from this word that none of us really know anymore to something we would all understand. Something like “Love One Another Thursday” or “The Last Thing Christ Really Wanted Us to Know Thursday.”

There’s a song that many of us learned as children: “and they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love…and they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”

It might not sound all that radical…but it is. It’s a song that reminds us of Christ’s true mandate. And it’s still the gauge of how well we are following him. Because, if we take Christ’s word for it, love is more than our mandate as Christians. It’s our calling card.

Prayer

God of love, help us to remember the mandate that Christ has given to us, on this sacred Thursday, and always. And God, may they know we are Christians by our love. Amen.

Why Are We Here: Part IV – To love. Sermon for 8 February 2015

“Love is patient, love is kind… It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things…And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”

Where have you heard that before?

If you said “at a wedding” you are not alone. You’ve probably heard it at countless weddings, and maybe even your own. And it’s not bad advice. If you want a marriage to last you need to have patience, and kindness, and all the other good stuff this passage tells you about.

But here’s the secret about this text. As much as we hear it at weddings, as much as it gets engraved on everything from engagement rings to wedding invitations, it was not written about marriage. It wasn’t even written about romantic love at all. So, if you worried that maybe this was a pre-Valentine’s Day sermon on love this morning, don’t. Because this is a sermon on a whole other kind of love.

10494762_877906185595314_459548515296640538_nTo explain you have to go back to the source, and back to where this comes from, which is a letter sent by the Apostle Paul to the church in Corinth, a church he himself had founded and built up before moving on in his ministry. And he is writing to them to about a whole bunch of things that Paul thought they were doing wrong. And in particular he is worried that they are fighting amongst themselves and getting away from the beliefs that he taught them, especially the ones about God’s love and about loving one another. And so he writes them this letter that includes these famous words on what love is and what it is not.

But we read this today, especially in English, and without the rest of the letter or the context, it sounds like it is talking about romantic love. And so, it sounds like the sort of thing you want to read at a wedding, or to describe the way you feel about someone.

But, the trouble is too often we keep this text confined to weddings. That’s too bad because this text is about something even bigger than the love we share in marriage. This text is about being loved by God, and loving God.

Here’s why I say that. In English, we really only have one word for “love”. We love our spouses. We love our parents. We love our friends. We love our kids. We love God.

But in the language Paul was writing in, Greek, there’s more than one word. There’s “eros”, which is about romantic love. And there’s “philos”, which is about brotherly love, like in the word “Philadelphia”. And there’s “storge” which is about familial love.

But then there’s this fourth word for love: “agape”. And agape is unlike any of the other kinds of love out there. Because agape is the kind of love that God has for us. And it’s about the way that we in turn are called on to love God.

Now, you don’t have to remember any of that Greek I just talked about, but remember this: when Paul wrote this letter, it was that last kind of love that he kept writing about: agape love. And agape gets a little lost in translation. Because it’s not the kind of love you celebrate with red hearts on Valentine’s Day. It’s not even the kind when you tell your family and friends you love them. Because it’s a kind of love that is even more demanding, and more incredible, than that.

The first thing about agape love is that it is not earned. God’s agape love is for us, and it remains whether we love back or not. It’s selfless. It’s grace-filled. It’s generous. And it’s so hard that probably the only one who has ever really done it consistently is God.

And if you want to know more, just read the text again: Agape is patient. Agape is kind. Agape bears all things, agape believes all things, agape hopes all things, agape endures all things…And now faith, hope, and agape abide, these three; and the greatest of these is agape.”

That is God’s love letter to you. That is God saying how much God loves you, and also how God loves you. God’s love is agape love, and it doesn’t get any better than that.

For the past four weeks, ending this morning, we’ve been asking the question “Why are WE here?” or “What does it mean to be the church together?” And we’ve talked about how we are here because God has brought us here, we are here to learn, and we are here to change. And today we are talking about the last reason: we are here to be loved, and we are here to love.

And it is my hope that everything we do as a church is done because of agape love, both God’s for us and ours for God.

So, the first thing I think we are called to do as a church is to acknowledge that God loves us, and that God loves everyone. And in return, we are called to love God back with that same kind of fierce love. Because when we are loving at our highest level, it is agape love. And though we may not ever get it exactly right, because sometimes love is hard work, we keep trying.

And part of the way we love God is by sharing God’s love with others. And we start here, with one another. We are all called to do the work of loving each other with agape love. We are called to support each other in hard times, to rejoice in good times, to faithfully work together to overcome challenges, and to find ways to be the church together for years to come.

And sometimes that will be easy. But sometimes it will be hard. And when it is, that is when we have to go back to the first things and remind one another, first, that we are all loved by God, and, second, that the best way we can love God back is by being loving to one another.

That doesn’t mean we will always agree. That doesn’t mean the path is always clear. That doesn’t mean it’s easy. But it does mean that when we hit an impasse, we have to go back to God, and to love, and then try again.

We try to model that for the kids each week. They are starting a new unit on this same text today, but this is something we try to do every week when they come up front. Each time they do we talk to them about something related to faith, and to be honest I have no idea how much they retain and how much they don’t. A lot has to do with age, and we get a large age range up here. I’m sure some of the older ones went away last week understanding the analogy between church and being a team, and some of the younger ones went away still wondering why the pastor was throwing a football in the sanctuary.

And that’s okay. Because the most important thing I want them to learn on Sunday morning is just this: God loves them, and their church loves them. If they leave here not knowing that, then we have failed. But if they leave this sanctuary on Sundays only knowing that, then we have done something right.

That doesn’t stop when you get to be too old to come up here, by the way. If you are leaving church not knowing that God loves you, and that this church does too, then we are failing you too. But if you are leaving church each Sunday and all you know about your faith is that, then sometimes that’s enough.

And it’s also enough to take the next step, which is this: to love the world.

I talk a lot about how we are not here for ourselves. We are here for all of God’s creation. We are here for mission. We are here to serve. And we are here because the best way for us to love God, is to love others.

To put it more succinctly, first we are loved, then we learn how to love, and then, we love outside of ourselves.

And when our agape love has no walls, when it has no boundaries, nothing is impossible with God. We can serve our town, and we can serve our world. We can do big things. We can live in faith and not in fear. And we can change lives. And we can do all of these things simply because God has loved us first.

And so, maybe this isn’t exactly God’s Valentine to us. But what if this text is as close as we get? What if this text is about how Christians are supposed to love God, love each other, and love the world? What if this is the playbook on how we are supposed to do it? And what if maybe, just maybe, these are our marching orders:

“Love is patient, love is kind… It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things…And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”

Love is that easy, and it’s that hard. But we know how to do it. We know how to do it because we were loved first. Our only challenge is to not be loved last. Don’t let God’s agape love end with you. Pass it on to a world so desperately in need of a love that can change everything. And if you do, then you can do so with the knowledge that you are truly be loving God back. Amen.

Nothing: Sermon for July 28, 2014

Romans 8:

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?…No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

"Paul Writing His Epistles"

“Paul Writing His Epistles”

So, when I was growing up, I was pretty sure I was going to hell.

It’s sort of funny now, given my profession, but growing up in the South hell got talked about a lot. There were billboards and t-shirts that people used to scare you into faith. And my fundamentalist friends taught me that if you even did one thing wrong, you deserved hell. And I wasn’t a bad kid, but I knew I did a lot of things wrong, every day, so surely I was heading right to hell.

So I decided I would look for a solution that would keep me away from eternal damnation. And I asked my friends what I needed to do. And some said I needed to join the Baptist Church and get baptized in the lake and Jesus would forgive me. And others said I needed to join their church and learn to pray the right way, and I’d be fine. And others said I had to convert to a very strict sect of Catholicism or else I was a goner. And I remember them saying only members of their particular denomination would be saved.

I finally snapped out of it when I realized that everyone I talked to thought that everyone else I talked to was going to end up in hell.

But those questions about God never really went away, though, and when I got to be a little older, I started to read the Bible for myself. And the Bible, to me, was a scary book. I’d heard it used in ways that made it clear that God didn’t love certain kinds of people. I’d heard people say it told women that they were inferior. I heard it used to justify the horribly anti-Semitic things said to my Jewish friends. And I really didn’t want to read it for myself because I was scared to find out that maybe it really did say those things, and maybe God really was ready to damn us all.

And above all, one part of the Bible scared me to death. The letters from Paul, or the epistles. Because where I grew up, whenever someone was saying that God hated something or someone, they seemed to be quoting the apostle Paul.

Which is why it’s surprising that it was in reading’s like today’s from the letter of Paul to the Romans, that I learned not to be afraid of God anymore.

Paul is writing a letter to a church he has never been to before, the church in Rome. And he is introducing himself and telling them what he believes. He is trying to tell them who God is, and how to be the church together. And, we can’t forget this, he is writing to people who are afraid.

They are afraid of what it means to be followers of Christ in a time when that was not considered a good thing to be. And more than that, they’re afraid of getting it wrong. They’re afraid that they are not believing the right way.

It’s to this very scared church that Paul writes this letter, but he could be writing that to any of us who have ever wondered about where we stood with God. And he asks, “if God is for you, who can be against you?” And, “who can condemn you?” And, “what can separate you from God’s love?”

And his answer is this: nothing.

Nothing can separate you from God’s love. Paul writes, “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Nothing. You may have noticed in the bulletin that that was today’s sermon title. “Nothing.” So, that’s not a typo, or a sign I didn’t get the title in on time. It’s the take away.

And through the centuries people have taken that message away from this text. Martin Luther, centuries ago, was a man who was terrified of God’s judgement. Even though he was a monk, he struggled to believe that God really loved him. And then he read the Bible for himself, a revolutionary act in those times, and he read this letter from Paul. And some say this very passage helped to spawn the Protestant Reformation.

Later on others like John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, and Karl Barth, deep in the turmoil of World War II, would read this passage and find God’s love and assurance. This is a passage that changes something. It’s a passage that changed me, and maybe it changes something for you too. Maybe it makes God’s love a little more sure.

Last week in my sermon I talked about “thin places” and “thick places”. Thin places are the places where we feel God and God’s love very close to us. Thick places are the ones where God feels so far away. I believe both of those places exist for all of us.

But here’s what I believe does not exist: disconnected places. Because even in the thickest of places, God remains with us, and nothing, as Paul would say, can separate us from God’s love.

My cousin told me a story recently about her father who was a front-lines infantry soldier with the 10th Mountain Division in World War II. That particular division saw some of the worst fighting of the war. And, like most soldiers, he was not a man who went into the Army because he liked war or what comes with it.

And he told her that as he was fighting on the front lines, he would keep repeating the Lord’s Prayer over and over to himself. “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name…” Over and over, in what was surely one of the thickest places imaginable. And even as horrible as it was, he knew God was still with him, and still loved everyone there.

Our circumstances do not make or break our relationship with God. Whether they are in our control or not, God never leaves us. And no matter what, God’s love, and nothing and no one else, gets to have the final say.

When my cousin’s father got older he began to show signs of dementia. And when he got the most confused and scared he would start reciting the Lord’s Prayer again. And sometimes he couldn’t remember the words. And so my cousin wrote them down for him, and he carried them in his pocket, and even when he couldn’t say them, he knew they were there. And he knew God was there too. (Note: I’m thankful for the permission my cousin Gail gave me to share this story, which she also previously shared in Guideposts.)

Nothing, could separate them. And this is true for all of us. There will not be a moment in our lives, or in what is to come, when anything or anyone or any circumstance can separate us from God’s love. And that is good news.

But as good as that news is, that doesn’t mean we are off the hook. Because that news means that God’s grace is real. And grace is scary. Because being loved by God, no matter what? That means that there is some part of your life that you have no control over at all. You get grace, whether you want it or not.

And so here’s what comes next. You have you have to decide what you want to do about it. And I believe the Christian life is all about that choice. It’s not about being good so that you get into heaven. It’s not about being scared into faith by people preaching a fiery hell. It’s just this: knowing you have received God’s love and God’s grace, and deciding what to do next.

And here’s what Martin Luther and all the others throughout the centuries who have read this passage and been changed by it have said: I choose to live my life in gratitude. And I believe they are right. I believe that the Christian life is all about our gratitude for what we have been given. It’s about living our life as a “thank you” to God. And it’s about choosing to live focused on the abundance that God has given us, and not on our fears or insecurities. Because not even those things, as big as they may be, have the power to separate us from the love of God.

So, when you walk out the doors today, how will you live in gratitude this week? How will you respond to the “nothing” which changes everything? And how will you share that love with the world? What will you give back out of what you’ve been given? What can you do with your life to say “thank you.”

It’s a question we all have to ask ourselves individually, and then we have to ask it too as a church. How will we live in gratitude for God’s grace? As a community, how will we say thank you to God in our life together? And how will our gratitude serve to bless our community and our world.

That’s the question that will determine the kind of church we will be for years to come. And that’s the one that we have to continuously work together to answer. Because when someone looks at us and asks, “What kind of church are you?” we want to know how to answer that. We want to be able to say, in our words and in our actions, “we are a church that knows God’s love and shares it”.

And when they ask, “What keeps you from living into God’s grace?” and “What stops you from sharing the abundant blessings that God has given you?” this is the only answer we should ever allow ourselves to give: “Nothing”.

Amen.

Questioning Advent: Day 22 – Perfect Love Casts Out Fear

Today is the fourth Sunday of Advent, the Sunday when the church lights the candle on the Advent wreath that stands for love. I find each of the four themes we focus upon in Advent to be meaningful, but I confess a strong sentimental preference for this fourth Sunday. I’ll tell you why.

photoTwo years ago today I was in the throes of a love I had never experienced before. (Actually, I still am…but this is about two years ago.) And so on December 22, 2011, I asked the woman who is now my wife to come with me to the Prudential Center in Boston. Together we rode the elevator to the 50th floor observation deck of the Prudential Tower, and we looked out over the city of Boston and beyond.

This was the second time we had been there together. The first hadn’t gone so well. I’m not afraid of much, but on that first visit I had discovered that I was not particularly fond of 50th floor observation decks. We had made it around the glassed-in floor that day, but only because I refused to look down and couldn’t wait to get back on solid ground.

But this night was different. The sun was slowly setting on Boston, and as we walked around the observation deck I pointed out all the places that meant something special to us: the seminary where we met, the Boston Common, the first place we had said “I love you”, and more. And then, standing there fifty stories up, I told her, “You make me feel like I can do all the things that terrify me.”

I didn’t ask Heidi to marry me there. Instead we walked two blocks down the street to Old South Church, her church, where we were attending a weeknight worship service in the chapel. But before we went in, we took a detour to the sanctuary, the place where she and I had spent time sitting and talking early on in our relationship. We we stood up to go, Heidi turned around for a second. When she turned back I was down on one knee. And there, in that sanctuary where we had both learned so much about God’s love and our own love, she said “yes”.

That night Heidi and I were asked to light the Advent wreath during worship. We lit the fourth candle; the love candle.

In Advent we talk about love and sometimes we make it sound like some big theological concept. But, really, love comes pretty naturally. When we love one another, we experience just a small taste of what God’s love for us is like. And in Advent we await a love that is so deep, and so unrelenting, that the same love came down and became one of us, that we would know that love even better.

In the first letter of John there is a line that says, “perfect love casts out fear”. I think that’s true. I also think that love, as I told Heidi, makes us believe we can do all the things that terrify us. And I think that’s what happens when we truly understand at our core that God loves us. The fear is gone, and nothing stops us from doing what terrifies us. And, even better, nothing stops us from spreading that same love to others.

At least that’s what the fourth Sunday of Advent teaches me.

Question: How would you love, in every sense of the word, if you were unafraid?

Prayer: God, thank you for the gift of love you have given us through Christ. God, may your love for us overpower our fear until all that remains is you. And then, filled with your love, may we share that love with others. Amen.

The Bible Clearly Says…: Sermon for June 2, 2013

Martin Luther, by Cranach

Martin Luther, by Cranach

Earlier this week I was reading a news article about a social issue, and the reporter had interviewed a pastor. And he was talking about this issue and he said, “the Bible clearly says that this is wrong”. And I remember thinking to myself, “actually, I don’t think that’s what the Bible says at all.” In fact, I think that the Bible says the exact opposite.

And it made me think about how many times I had heard that line: “the Bible clearly says”. And it made me think about the ways that we become confident that we are right, and the ways we can take what is meant to be a message of grace and hope and love for one another and instead turn it into at best a tool to justify our own worldview, and at worst a weapon used to impose that worldview on others.

I was thinking about that when reading today’s text. The passage we read today comes from the very beginning of the Epistle to the Galatians. “Epistle” is just a fancy word for “letter”, really, and this is a letter that Paul wrote to a church that he had started.

Paul had come to this community and he had taught the people there, who were not Jewish like many of the other early Christian people, all about God, and Jesus, and God’s love for them. Paul had taught a Gospel of grace. He had taught them about Jesus, a man whose compassion and love for the world had transformed the world. And he had taught them about being his disciples.

And then, after he left to go on and start other churches, the Galatians had been on their own. And that’s when other teachers had come to the church. And they started telling the Galatians, “you’re doing it all wrong”. And there wasn’t a Bible at this point, because it hadn’t been compiled yet, so they weren’t saying “the Bible clearly says”. But there was the law of Moses, the law that the Jewish community had followed for centuries. And most Christians at the very beginning had been raised in that law and saw that as the authority. And they were saying to these new Christians, “the law clearly says this is what you should do.”

And so, this church that had been taught about grace and about Christ’s love by Paul, all of a sudden was adopting the ways of their new teachers. And they were doing things like arguing about whether they should all get circumcised, and whether or not they had to prepare their food a certain way. And it was causing a rift in this new church.

Paul hears about it, and he writes them a letter. And this letter is probably the angriest letter that Paul sends to any of the churches. And he lays it out to them, starting with these first lines. He tells the Galatians, “look, I know the law”. Paul had been a lawyer, he had been raised in a family that followed the law, and he had been so committed to it that he had even persecuted the early church before his own conversion. He even says, “look, I was a zealot”. And he tells them this to show them that if anyone is going to say to them “Scripture clearly says” or “the law clearly says” he would know better than anyone.

And he tells them, “you know what I taught you” and people are trying to confuse you. He says to them, “I’m not trying to please other people. I’m trying to please God. And regardless of what the people coming in telling you what the law clearly says, don’t forget the real message of grace I taught you.”

Paul was speaking to a church 2,000 years ago. But, his words could just as easily speak to churches everywhere today. Because Christianity is caught in this tension about how we read the Scripture. And this has always been happening to some degree, but in our country the Bible is sometimes used as a political football, meant to justify or not justify whatever big issue is up for public discussion.

And I’m always fascinated when people say “the Bible clearly says this is wrong” or “the Bible clearly says this is right”. Because when it comes to practical matters, the Bible doesn’t clearly say a whole lot. Because the Bible is not just one book, it’s a collection of books, and it’s no secret to those who read it that often those books leave the reader with even less clarity than they had coming in.

And sometimes that means that the Bible has been used to justify some pretty heinous things. In the 1800’s in the South, Christian preachers used the Bible to justify slavery. The Baptist Church split into the American Baptists, the ones we have up here, and the Southern Baptists because the ones down South said “the Bible clearly says it’s okay to have slaves”. The same with the Presbyterians, the Episcopalians, the Methodists, and others, though they all later reconciled.

Fast forward to this century, and the Bible was used again to justify segregation in the South. It was used to fight giving women the right to vote. It’s used to keep science out of classrooms, and it’s used to in dozens of other ways. Someone is always willing to stand up and say “the Bible clearly says…” And God help you, literally, if you try to tell them otherwise.

It’s easy to get intimidated in those situations. Especially if you’re not someone who has devoted a lot of your life to studying the Scripture. It’s easy to feel like the other person must know what they are talking about. That’s especially true if you hear people quoting chapter and verse from memory.

But, that doesn’t mean that you don’t have something to say too. Because here’s what I believe. The Bible doesn’t clearly say much, but it does clearly say this: that God’s love for us is far bigger than anything we could imagine, that Christ taught us how to reflect that love to the world in our lives together, and that the Holy Spirit continues to guide us in every time and place.

That’s the test I use when someone says to me, “the Bible clearly says…” I go back to Jesus, the man who said love God and love your neighbor was the full extent of the law, and I ask myself whether that particular person’s interpretation of the Bible is in agreement with the way Christ asked us to love the world. And, often, I find that it’s not. And so I read the Scriptures for myself instead.

Now, you may disagree with me. And that’s okay. Because the clergy do not hold a monopoly on the Bible. The Bible, and the legacy of Christ, belong to you as much as they belong to me. Clergy are trained in a certain way, and we learn tools that help us to understand the Scripture, and we can be good resources for helping to interpret them. But in the end, this book belongs to each of us, not just some of us.

Martin Luther, the great reformer who helped to launch the Protestant Reformation, really believed that was true. He had been a priest in a time when only priests and a few others could read the Bible. That was literally true because, first, not many people could read. Second, the printing press hadn’t been invented yet, so there wasn’t much to read. And, third, what was available was often in Latin and not the language of the people.

Part of the Protestant Reformation, the movement that brought churches like ours, was the idea that everyone should be able to read this book. And printing presses were invented right at the time Martin Luther was doing his work, so the timing was perfect. And all of a sudden, it was possible for everyone to have a Bible. And not just a Bible printed in Latin, but one printed in German, their own language. And those early Lutherans and other early Protestants stressed education for this reason. They wanted everyone to be able to read this for themselves. They wanted Christianity to be a religion that promoted education, and that wanted you to use your mind and read for yourself. They didn’t want to control the Bible; they wanted to open it up so that everyone could claim it.

Which means that this is your Bible too. Our church isn’t known as one full of Bible-thumpers. We don’t walk around telling people what the Bible clearly says. I hope we don’t start doing that. But we are people of this book as much as any other church is. It’s ours too. And that means that we can claim it, and read it for ourselves, and find out what is really says, not just what talking heads on TV or people with an agenda say it says.

I think I started reading the Bible because I’d been told so many times what the Bible clearly said and I wanted to see for myself. And what I found was not a scary book full of rules. What I found was grace, and compassion, and a witness to God’s love. Ironically, it’s a big part of what made me go to seminary.

And you too are free to explore. So, how will you do that? Will you read the Bible for yourself? Will you come to a Christian education class? Will you start a prayer group? Will you go to a Bible study?

Today in the visioning process we are going to be talking about some of the ways that the church can help you to do that, and so I hope you will stay and tell us what would be helpful. This book, this faith, is yours as much as it is anyone else’s. You have as much claim to the name of Christian as anyone, whether you carry a Bible in your hand, or not. That means that the doors of faith have been flung open wide to you. How will you walk through? Amen.