Journey Through Lent: Day 12

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Daisy, sleeping in the upstairs window last year.

I just got home. When I came down the road, I looked up to the window on the second floor, the way I always do, expecting our cat, Daisy, to be there watching. I knew she wouldn’t be, of course, but for just a second, I forgot.

I did not set out to be a cat person. When my wife and I first started considering dating, Daisy was part of the package. It was not long after that Daisy moved in with me, while my then girlfriend moved into seminary housing that didn’t allow pets. My friends joked that I must really be in love.

The cat and I spent a few months avoiding one another. And then we reached a sort of detente, likely fueled by the realization that neither of us was going anywhere. And then, a funny thing happened, I began to really love her. She was my buddy, and my companion. She sat with me while I wrote sermons, followed me from room to room, and headbutted me constantly until I would pet her.

But this morning my wife and I stood in the vet’s office and said goodbye. Daisy has had cancer for a few months now. It was localized at first, and the vet assured us that her quality of life wasn’t suffering. She said we would know when it was time. And, late last week, we did. I called to make the appointment, and then we spent a few days feeding her all of her favorite things, and saying goodbye.

In the end, it was both horrible and beautiful. Our vet is wonderfully kind and patient, and she let us bless Daisy before she gave her the sedative. We stayed with her the whole time, thanking her for being such a good friend to us. We told her it was okay to go. We told her we loved her. And then, she went home.

The other day I said to myself, “I don’t want to ever get another cat. This is too hard.” But then I realized the hard truth: everything we truly love will at some point or another bring us pain. That’s the reality of life. People, and animals, that we love will die. Or, even worse, they’ll disappoint us. Or hurt us. Or leave us.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t love them anyway. Because if we shut ourselves down to love, and to connection with others, we may as well be dead ourselves.

I loved Daisy, and my wife, who had her before she ever knew me, loved her even more. She had adopted her from a shelter eight years ago. Daisy had been abandoned while pregnant and abused. Every time we picked up a broom to sweep the kitchen she would grow terrified and run and hide. She had experienced the worst of what humans could do to her. And yet, she found it in her heart to trust again, and to, I believe, love us. Her ability to love and trust again, despite the pain and fear she had felt, is not lost on me.

In Lent I am particularly aware of loss. I am aware that we are preparing for the pain of the Passion, and the loss of Good Friday. But, I am also aware that we are preparing our hearts for what comes next: the triumph of love over the worst that the world can do. And the world can indeed do its worst; and it does. It will break our hearts. It will bring us to our knees. It will take our breath away, along with all we love. And yet, none of those things will have the last word in the end. Because, in the end, love rises again.

I give thanks for “all creatures great and small” and to the Creator who teaches us love through them. Thank you, Daisy. I love you still.

Journey Through Lent: Second Sunday

Pro and anti-gay marriage equality advocates, New York State Capitol, summer 2011.

Pro and anti-gay marriage equality advocates, New York State Capitol, summer 2011.

One morning last summer I was working at my desk at the church. It was one of those days when pastoring felt so wonderfully fulfilling and joyful. I had been looking out at the forest behind the church, when suddenly I looked down and saw I had a voicemail on my phone.
 

When I played the message, I was immediately overwhelmed by the anger of the person speaking. A man from town, whom I had met briefly, had recently figured out that I, the pastor of the local church, was gay. He was calling to tell me his feelings about that fact. As his message went on, the venom kept spewing, punctuated only by slurred words. It was about ten in the morning, and I wondered whether he had turned to liquid courage (or liquid anger) in preparation for this phone call.

Curiously, unlike many of the other hateful messages I’d received before, he left me both his name and his phone number, and invited me to call back. I never did, which I sometimes regret. I don’t deliberately expose myself to the anger of hate-filled people, but on the other hand, how sad must one’s life be that you have to angrily call a person you barely know and berate them for who they are? He probably needed a pastor to talk to, but he probably wouldn’t have let me be one to him anyway.

Not taking on the anger of others has been an important part of my spiritual growth. There was a time when a message like this would have been painful. I would have dwelled on it, and let it dictate my mood for days. Now, though I can’t say the bigotry of others doesn’t affect me, I no longer let it control my emotions. I’ll admit that I felt some anger at the man who left the voice mail, but I also felt something much stronger. I felt compassion. And I wished for him that he would find peace; the kind of peace that keeps a person from being so angry at the world that they have to lash out at someone they barely know and don’t understand.

I often wonder what Jesus felt like when people spoke against him. Let’s be clear, neither I nor you are Jesus, but Jesus knew what it was like to be us. Jesus knew what it was like to be hated. He knew what it was like to be the object of anger. And he knew what it was like to be attacked for no good reason. He felt it in ways few of us ever will. But more importantly, he knew what it was to love anyway. He knew what it was to have grace anyway. He knew what it was to hear the worst of what the world thought of you, but to not let it dictate what came next.

In Lent I think about that a lot. I know that peace is possible. A voicemail like this one would have compelled me to a bottle of whiskey in the past. Years later, it’s a reminder that no matter what someone says to me, grace is bigger. I can’t control the anger of others. I can’t make them love me. I can’t make them accept me. But I can choose what I do next. To me, that’s a lot of what Lent is about. It’s seeing the journey that Christ took within himself, free from the judgements of the world outside. And it’s seeing how, in spite of all those things, he was still called to do one thing: to love. And love he did. Even when it cost him all he had known.

I want to be able to love like that. I’m nowhere close yet, but maybe I’m getting better. And in Lent that’s what I pray for: the ability to love others, even when it’s the last thing on earth I can imagine. I love that man who called me that day and said those hateful things. I can’t say I like him much; but I love him. And I love him enough to pray that maybe one day he’ll find enough peace in his heart to love people like me back. Maybe it will never happen for him. But I give thanks for what has happened in me.

Journey through Lent: Day Two (Valentine’s Day)

The pew at Old South Church in Boston where I proposed to my wife.

The pew at Old South Church in Boston where I proposed to my wife.

Last night the congregation I serve held its Ash Wednesday worship service. We prayed, and sang, and received communion together. And then we received the ashes that signify the start of Lent. Finally we reflected in silence on how we would observe Lent, and we asked God for strength and wisdom during this time. I left feeling everything that Ash Wednesday evokes in us: recommitted, penitent, meditative, and finite.

But this morning the world woke up to Valentine’s Day, a day that at first glance may seem pretty antithetical to the previous one. Here is the day when we spend so much on flowers, candy, dinners out, and cards. Those who are in relationships are often so worried about getting it right. My first Valentine’s Day with my now-wife, I called her friends to consult just to make sure I was doing it right. (They assured me, rightfully, that she would care far more about a genuine sentiment than how much I spent.)
But what does any of this have to do with Lent?
I don’t believe that you have to have ever fallen in love in order to understand God’s love. But for those of us who have, and who have had a good experience of it, our love for our partners is often one way to better understand God’s love for us. Just like a parent’s love for a child is a way for them to better understand the way God loves us too. If we were to put all the loving experiences in our lives together, and catalog all the ways we have loved others and been loved ourselves, we still wouldn’t be able to comprehend the enormity or the complexity of the way God loves us. It is too big, and it is too wonderful.
I believe Lent is about learning how to love. In Lent we try to better love our neighbors. We try to better love our God. And we even try to better love ourselves; God’s beloved. If Valentine’s Day helps us to do that, then it has a place in faith, and it has a place in Lent. May God’s love bless you especially this day, and may it bless all whom you love.

Ash Wednesday: Sermon for February 13, 2013

(Note: this sermon contains pieces of my Ash Wednesday essay “It’s Not About Me” found in Huffington Post and previously on this blog.)

ashwednesdayIf you go to a bookstore, and you look at the religion section, and especially the Christianity section, you’ll see a theme. Yes, there will be Bibles and other holy books, but more often than not, the section will be overrun with books all purporting to do one thing: to make your life better.

I don’t begrudge that. I think that if faith helps you to lead a more meaningful, more joyful, or more peaceful life then that is indeed a great thing. But, I’ve often wondered whether those of us who are both Christians and people of great privilege, and most of us who are Americans are, sometimes start to see our faith as one more element in our “be a better me” plans. Like a diet, or an exercise regimen, or get out of debt quickly program. I sometimes wonder if our faith becomes one more fashionable accessory, a key to a good life for us and us only only.

I think about that a lot during Lent, especially during the time when we are asked to decide what sort of Lenten observance we will take on this year. And, like many of you I think about “giving up” something: meat, or caffeine, or Facebook. And I’m not saying those may not be valuable things to give up for some. Only you can be the authority on what you struggle with the most. But Lent leaves me wondering if “giving up” is what it’s really all about.

When it comes down to it, Jesus only needed two sentences to sum the law up for his followers. First, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength”. And second, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself”.

Those of us who try to be disciples of Christ are really good at trying to add our own words or interpretations to his, but in the end Jesus really made it pretty clear. If you want to follow him, and if you want to be a Christian, then your only job is to love.

Love and ashes don’t often go together in our minds. But this time of year, it’s the ashes that remind me of what Jesus tried to teach us about love.

Ash Wednesday comes early this year, and with it comes the beginning of Lent, the season when we disciples turn our hearts towards Christ and seek to reconciled to him. And while the stores start stocking plastic eggs and Easter baskets, we do something that is completely counter-cultural: we go to church, and we smear ashes on our foreheads, and we remind one another that everything we know is only temporary.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.

What used to be a heart-stopping reminder for me has instead become a moment of refocusing. In the big scheme of things who we are as individuals is finite, and fleeting. But who we are together, and who we are to God, is what matters, and what truly defines us, even when we are gone.

In Lent we remember the great truth: it’s not all about us.

I was thinking about that this week. Like many of you, I was stunned to hear the news of the Pope’s resignation the other day. I didn’t know Popes could resign! But the more I read about his decision, the more I understood it and respected it. We may not be Catholics, but we can learn a lot from other Christians, and I think we can learn a lot from him too. When it became clear to him that because of health he could no longer function in his role the way the position demands, he stepped aside. He made it not about him. He made it about the church, something bigger than him.

That speaks to me in Lent because each Lent I feel myself called back to community, both human and divine, by that message: it’s not about me. And when that calling comes, so does the reminder of those two commands of Christ: love God, and love others as you love yourself.

This is why I think that if our Lenten discipline is only about us, and what we will allow ourselves, we miss the point. Instead, what if we embraced Lent as an opportunity to show our love for God and others? We spend so much time focused on ourselves and on our own importance, but what if we used these forty days focus on something else? What if we took those days and dedicated each to reminding ourselves that it’s not about us as individuals, but it’s about God, and it’s about all of us together?

This Lent I’m giving myself a challenge. I’m calling it my Lenten “It’s Not About Me” Challenge. Here’s how it works: Each day I want to do at least one thing that either strengthens my connection with God, or shows my love for my neighbor.

That might sound like a lot at first glance, like it’s just creating one more piece of work in our already crammed schedules. But what I’m advocating isn’t about creating additional burdens. It’s about being more conscious of what we are already doing, and using our time in a way that connects us with others and with the Holy other.

When we start doing that, the daily walk turns into an opportunity for prayer. The trip to the grocery store yields a few more cans of soup for the food pantry. The extra hour of sleep on Sunday morning is turned aside for a chance to join your community in worship. And a few extra dollars turn into donation that makes a difference. We don’t have to turn the world on its axis. We simply have to turn our attention outward, and make the small things matter in big ways.

This is my challenge to myself, and no one is obligated to join me. But, I am asking you to consider what you will be doing differently this Lent, and asking how it is that what you choose will show your love of God, and will show your love of neighbor. Not because it will make you a better person, but because it will be a tangible reminder of Christ’s love for others.

I’ve had plenty of blessings in my life, and plenty of grace from God. I hope you have too. And in the end Lent can be a journey of recognizing those blessings, and blessing others. Because it’s not a journey that’s about me, or you. It’s a journey that’s about God. And we are invited. And that’s the best invitation that you can ever receive. Amen.

Not About Me: Day One (A Journey Through Lent)

379246_10151246708651787_459997397_nI received ashes about an hour ago. My partner was on her way to Boston to assist in Old South Church’s Ash Wednesday observances, but she ashed me first. Later today she will be joining other clergy and seminarians as she stands in front of the church and offers ashes to the busy pedestrians on Boylston Street. And now I’m sitting here in the office of my small town church in Vermont, ashes on my forehead, waiting to see if any parishioners who can’t make our evening service will drop by for ashes.

Our contexts today are very different, but our hopes are the same. Maybe the people we touch with ash will stop for a minute, reflect on the day, and feel the tug on their hearts from God that comes every Lent, beckoning them back to the divine relationship.

We impose the ashes on one another with the the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” And Lent is all about returning. Not just back to dust, but to what makes something extraordinary out of that dust. Lent is all about returning to the creator, and returning towards the way that God’s son showed us. A way of love. A way of reconciliation. A way of hope. A better way.

Today I’m starting my Lenten discipline in the form of a challenge to myself. I’m hoping that in Lent my thoughts and my actions will help return my attention to God, and to God’s people, again and again. I invite you to join me, in whatever way works for you. Even if you have been away from church, or away from faith, for sometime, it’s not too late.

God will always welcome your return. So, why not today?

Journey Through Advent – Day 19

IMG_0211Today I’m working mostly at home. I’m writing the liturgies for Christmas eve, finalizing details for the service, and doing other things that don’t require me to be either at the church, or on the road. This means I’m sitting by the Christmas tree, listening to carols, and getting to enjoy the season.

As an added bonus, my wife is baking cookies behind me in the kitchen. So far she’s made sugar cookies and chocolate crinkles. Gingerbread, peppermint meringues, and peanut butter blossoms are on deck for later. Which means that as I write, the wonderful smell of Christmas cookies is all around me.

This time of year, we have reminders of Christmas joy and cheer all around us. The lights, the trees, the cards, and, yes, the cookies, are all little reminders of joy. And just as the smell of cookies are a reminder of what is to come, the joy of the Christmas season is a reminder of the world that God wants us to be.

But the reality is that right now, this world is not the world that God wants for us. The last week has reminded us of that in the most horrific of ways. God wants a world where all of God’s children are loved and respected and live in peace. We’re not there. No where close.

But every so often we get a foretaste of what it could look like. And it is good. Last week, in the aftermath of the greatest trauma, the clergy of Newtown came together to pray for their community. Priests, ministers, a rabbi, and an imam, all offered their prayers. And as I watched, I couldn’t help but think that this is what God wants for us. In the midst of unshakeable grief, we are coming from our respective traditions, and offering comfort in the best ways we know how.

By contrast, some religious leaders are using this tragedy as a way to push their own agendas. Instead of comforting the afflicted, they are further afflicting them. They blame the shooting on everyone from gay couples to those who advocate religious freedom to divorced couples. And their words, far from glorifying God, lead us away from the world that God wants for us.

This Advent season, test the voices that you hear that claim to be speaking for God. Are they voices of comfort? Of hope? Are they pointing you to God’s love, and giving you a small taste of the world that God wants for us? Or are they sowing division, and pain, and hatred?

In our hearts, we know the voices to follow. They’re the ones that, even when they are at the center of tragedy, still find a way to speak with compassion and peace. We heard them in Newtown. They are the religious equivalents of all the things that remind us God’s love in this holiday season. They are a sign of a better world to come. And they deserve our attention.

Journey Through Advent – Day 11

29671_389906276786_3698836_nThe other day I went to the post office in Newton, Massachusetts. I parallel parked on busy Beacon Street and, just as I was about to get out, a car came up on the drivers side, stopped, and then parked. The driver popped out, looked at me, and said in an annoyed voice, “I’ll just be a minute.” The woman in the car ahead of me was attempting to pull out of her space, and pointed out the the driver that she was now stuck. “I’ll just be a minute,” repeated the driver, and she ran into the post office with some letters.

Longer than a minute later, after mailing her envelopes, and checking her post office box, she emerged again. Issuing no apology, she hopped into her car and drove away down the busy road. Finally, the woman in front of me could leave, and traffic could go on unhindered.
I get frustrated at drivers who inconvenience everyone because of their own selfishness. Often times it comes because they feel so busy and important that they can’t stop and see how their actions are affecting the people around them. I’m not sure what this driver was in such a rush to get to, but it struck me that had she waited a couple of seconds, the car in front of me could have left and she could have taken her space and not been rushed. But when we are so focused by our own “needs” and busy-ness, we often don’t see the simple solutions that could make things better for everyone. In the end our actions communicate to other people the message that, “I am more important than you.”
In the run up to Christmas we often feel stressed out, and like we have a hundred things to do. At our worst, we focus only on our own list of tasks, and overwhelmed feelings, and not on the people around us. The result is that we can act in ways that, if we truly took a look at them, would appall us.
But Advent can be the antidote. Instead of buying into the stress, anxiety, and pressures of the season, we can instead chose to focus on truly preparing our hearts for Christmas. This time of year I like to remember the four traditional themes of Advent: hope, peace, joy, and love. I try to make sure that my actions align with those four themes. But, before that can ever happen, I have to make sure that I am cultivating those things inside of myself.
This Advent, what are you doing to help yourself feel hopeful? Peaceful? Joyful? Loving? It may feel selfish this time of year to take time out of busy schedules and concentrate on our own spiritual life, but my guess is that if we all did it, the world would be a kinder, more considerate place. The paradox of Advent is that in the busiest time of the year, we are asked to slow down, to reflect, and to prepare our hearts. Maybe that’s not an accident. Maybe that’s what we need to most right now.

What the Saints We Knew Taught Us – Sermon for All Saints’ Sunday, 2012

Candles lit in memory of loved ones at West Dover Congregational Church.

Candles lit in memory of loved ones at West Dover Congregational Church.

Mark 12:28-34
12:28 One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?”

12:29 Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one;

12:30 you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’

12:31 The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

12:32 Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’;

12:33 and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’ –this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

12:34 When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question.

Being a saint is hard work. I’m not speaking from experience here, but rather from observation. This is what I’ve learned: You have to be perfect. You can’t make mistakes. You can’t have a bad day when you lose your temper, or get frustrated at your neighbor. You have to give away everything you own. You have to spend every night cooking in a soup kitchen, or reading to people in hospital beds, or toiling away at a second job so you can give every penny you make to the poor. You also can never enjoy yourself. If you find happiness even for a moment, you’re probably sinning, and you should immediately confess to God and go do some more volunteer work. Also, you need to pray. A lot. Like ten hours straight each day. Minimum.

And if you do all this, maybe, just maybe, after you die (and you will likely die a torturous, slow, martyr’s death) you will be immortalized with a stone statue or a stained glass window in a church somewhere. And you will be called “Saint So-and-so”. But, really, you shouldn’t even hope for that, because hoping to be a saint is probably a sin too.

When you think about saints, maybe you think about something similar. Perfect people who lead lives of exemplary holiness. People who lead often joyless lives, and have horrific deaths. People who we look at as being extraordinary. People we can never be. Most of us, we believe, are not cut out for sainthood.

But maybe that conventional definition, that idea of the holy, untouchable saint, isn’t what being a saint is really all about? Maybe there’s an everyday sainthood that we might know more about than we think? And maybe today, on All Saint’s Sunday, it’s the perfect time to think about those everyday saints whom we have known.

The Scripture passage today tells the story of a man who came to Jesus asking what the greatest commandment, the greatest rule for life, was. And Jesus gives him an answer that tells us a lot about what true sainthood looks like: you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’

The man answers him, “you’re right, teacher. And, you know what, doing what you just said matters more than all the burnt offerings and temple sacrifices and everyday rituals we’ve been taught to do.” Now, you have to remember, that was blasphemy. The man was rejecting the common religious knowledge of the time. So Jesus was faced with a choice about how to respond to the man. And yet, he doesn’t tell him he was wrong. He tells them this: you are not far from the kingdom of God. In other words, you’re getting it right. You understand what true faith looks like.

It’s a good reminder for those of us who want to know what true sainthood looks like. Being a saint isn’t about religious rituals or leading joyless lives. Instead, being a saint is about living a life of joy. A life in which you love God with all that is in you, heart and soul, mind and strength. And then loving your neighbor with that same kind of love. It’s not about being perfect. It’s about loving perfectly. It’s not about following the letter of the law. It’s about believing in the spirit of the law. Believing in the law of loving God and loving others. And it’s about acting out that belief in all you do.

Today is All Saints’ Sunday. It’s a day where we remember all of the saints who have come before us. And from the outset, we might think it’s a day where we are supposed to look to the example of all the saints we’ve heard about: St. Christopher, St. Francis, St. Patrick, St. Peter, St. Paul. Maybe we’ll even acknowledge some soon-to-be venerated saints like Mother Teresa.

But that’s not the real meaning of All Saints day. Because sainthood is not about some list somewhere of the most extraordinary people ever. Sainthood is about the everyday people who have used their lives to love God, and to love others. In our religious tradition, All Saints day is about all of those we have loved, and lost, who loved us and who by their love taught us to love God.

You’ve known some saints. Maybe they were parents, or grandparents. Maybe they were teachers, or coaches. Maybe they were neighbors or friends. Maybe they were spouses, or children. You loved them, and you learned from them. You learned by example about loving God and loving your neighbor. And you miss them. That’s what today is about.

It’s no coincidence that today, All Saints’ Sunday, is also our fourth Sunday in our sermon series on giving. Because today we are asking who in our taught us how to give. Who showed us what it meant to love by giving? Who was always there when we needed them? Who was generous with their love and their time and their compassion? Who rose to the occasion when you needed them the most, and gave selflessly of all they had? My guess is that if all of us take a minute to think about who the saints of our lives really were, we will think of the most generous people, in every sense of that word, that we have ever known.

We are continuously blessed by the generosity of others. Both people we have loved in our own lives, and people who loved God, and loved us, even though they knew they would never meet us.

This church is an example of that. This building was built in 1858 by people none of us ever met. 150 years ago they gave of the little that they had to build this meeting house for our community. If you look at these pews, you’ll see small plaques with names engraved on them. Those are the names of people who bought these pews as a way of sponsoring the building of the church. They bought the glass in these windows too. You can see the way the glass waves a little, because glass does that over 150 years. That glass was their offering to their neighbors, and to you. You can look at this communion table which sat in the Wilmington church for decades, perhaps over a century, and you can see their care for their house of worship. It’s a legacy we now remember here as well.

But not all of the gifts to this church came 150 years ago. People who are still members of this congregation made the decision decades ago to add a back room to the church. They lifted the church up and added a basement. They put heat in the church because the old stove that used to sit right up here threw out so much smoke that, one member from decades ago told me, you couldn’t see the pastor when he preached.

This is what the saints of this church and the Wilmington Church did for us. They gave us these gifts because they wanted a community of faith to prosper here. And I’m not just talking about the building. The building is just one physical example. What they did spiritually, what they did to build this church up into a community of believers, is far more important. They loved God, and they loved their neighbor. Even their neighbor they would never live to meet.

It’s an incredible testament to what it means to be a saint. And it’s only one very small corner of the world. Because if I asked you to tell me about the saints in your life, you would tell me equally incredible stories of people who gave freely, and who changed your life. And the really extraordinary thing is, one day, if we are lucky, people will share the same sorts of stories about us. Because the choices we make today, the love and generosity we exhibit to the world, can touch not just those who surround us now, but those who will remain long after we are gone. We are not yet saints. But one day, we, like all others who leave this world for God’s, will be. And maybe people will be remembering us on some All Saints’ Sunday. But for now, we remember others.

This morning I set up some tea light candles around the communion table, and around the communion table that we brought up from the Wilmington Church. In just a moment I’m going to give you all a chance to remember, by lighting a candle, the saints in your own life. We will then have this physical reminder of them when we celebrate communion today. Communion is a time when we are connected not just to one another, but to God, and to the saints of all times and places. Today we remember that more than ever. May the candles be a physical reminder that the saints are still with us, and that we have not forgotten them, and that death is not the final word.

Now I’ll invite you, as you’re so moved, to come forward and light a candle, or two, for those you have loved and lost who were saints to you…

Hurricanes and Judgement: Thoughts on the One Year Anniversary of Irene

West Dover, Vermont

Tonight I’m watching Hurricane Isaac as it bears down on the Gulf Coast. Seven years after Katrina, Isaac has the potential to re-devastate an area that’s still recovering, and still will be for years.

I’m watching these developments as I read the results of a poll from the Public Religion Research Institute and the Religion News Service which shows that 44% of Americans see an uptick in natural disasters as “evidence of what the Bible calls the ‘end times’.” Narrow that polling body to white Christian evangelicals, and that number increases to 67%.

Right now I’m thinking about those two things as I sit in my living room in southern Vermont. One year ago tonight I sat here and called my congregational leaders and we reviewed the weather forecast and reluctantly decided to cancel church services the next day. By the middle of the next morning, Hurricane Irene had devastated the community where we live.

That night I stood with friends and neighbors and parishioners in a street filled with upended asphalt, twisted metal, and busted glass. I spent two years as a trauma chaplain in a pediatric hospital in Atlanta, but I had never seen devastation like I saw that night. It looked, quite literally, like a bomb had gone off.

The next Sunday I told my congregation that, contrary to what 44% of Americans think, God did not send the flood to our town as a punishment, a warning, or a judgement. I still believe that. Others do not. We’ve had our fair share of bad theology here in Vermont. Missionaries disguised as trauma counselors. Judgmental Christian “leaders” calling us to repent for the sins that caused the flood. Even the Westboro Baptist Church had us in their sights.

What’s sad is that some folks, the ones hardest hit and looking for answers, believe this Gospel of Wrath. Bad theology is often the second wave of trauma. And the Christian leaders who perpetuate these ideas move from natural disaster to natural disaster, tragedy to tragedy, spreading the same rhetoric of judgement. From Vermont to Aurora, Colorado to western wildfires, to Oak Creek, Wisconsin, to midwestern droughts, to every other place you can name where blood was shed or destruction widespread, those voices of warning have followed, jockeying for airtime. They have somehow become the predominant public voices of Christian faith.

It’s really too bad they don’t stay around long in one place. Because if they did, they might actually catch a glimpse of God.

Those of us who stuck around past the news cameras and soundbites saw incredible testaments to the love and grace of God. We saw it as good people took seriously the idea that one should “love their neighbor as themselves” and got to work. Some were Christians. Some weren’t. But all behaved in a way much closer to the way Christ commanded us to live than anyone on TV talking about God’s judgment coming in the form of a hurricane.

The people here wasted little time before rebuilding. The next morning they donned masks and bandanas, picked up cleaning buckets and got to work. They cooked meals for the shelter in the high school cafeteria. They gave hours as volunteer firefighters and rescue personnel. They staffed the food pantry in town every day for weeks. And they gave and gave of every resource they had until it hurt.

They didn’t do it for a day. Or a week. Or a month or season. They kept doing it, day after day, no matter what was happening in their own lives. People I knew who had lost almost everything came asking who had it worse, and what they could do for them.

That’s where I saw God this past year. That’s where I saw grace. And that’s where I saw hope.

Tomorrow we will gather at that same place we did last year, at the same time, as the sun goes down here in southern Vermont. But this year the road is repaved, the glass is swept up, and the river has contained itself to its banks once more. We will light candles, and we will offer our memories. But more that that, we will offer our gratitude. Gratitude for strangers, gratitude for one another, gratitude for grace. And more than all of that, we will offer our hope.

I know God will be there tomorrow, because I know that wherever there is hope, there is God. And while the flood “was”, God “is”, and God will be.

God will be there on the Gulf Coast tomorrow too. And God will be there if that storm makes landfall. Not because God wills our destruction, but because God does not abandon us in the storm. And no matter what happens, God will be there in the aftermath.

My hope is that wherever the news cameras flock to next, whether it’s in the wake of the storm or, God forbid, the aftermath of another act of violence, that we will look for testaments to God’s love and grace, and not the destructive voices of those who would use Christ’s name to spread their own judgements.

You know that old song, “They will know we are Christians by our love?” It’s still true. More than ever, and especially in times of destruction or pain. And if you can’t hold the statements of a Christian talking head on TV up to that standard, then don’t allow them to be the only voice out there that is speaking for God. Lives, and hearts, depend on it.

Not a Bad Friend to Have: Sermon for May 13, 2012 on John 15:9-17

We rarely talk about friendship in the church. That’s a bit of an oversight, isn’t it? Because for most of us, friendship matters quite a lot.

I’m blessed to have some really close friends who I know will always be there if I need them. If my car broke down in Massachusetts, I know I could call my friends Kathryn and Becky. If something happened at 4am, I know my college roommate andria would pick up the phone. If I need someone to pray for me, I know I can ask my friend Mykal.

And more importantly, I know that if any of them needed something, they know that they could call me. And they have. I’ve changed tires. Tried to fix broken hearts. Lugged moving boxes. Even posted bail once. Because that’s what friends do.

We are born with one family, but often our friends become our chosen family. Their stories and our own become inseparable, and we become better for knowing them.

We value the idea of our friendships with others, but how often do we think about friendship in terms of our spiritual life? Not just in terms of our friendship with one another, but also in terms of our friendship with God, and God as incarnate in Jesus Christ?

Growing up in the South, 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. That phrase was sort of a code for members of fundamentalist churches looking for new members.

The truth is, I was already a Christian. Not because I had 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, mainline faith that had grown over time

My on,y exposure to churches were in th kind that often get called the “frozen chosen”: Congregational, Presbyterian, Episcopalian. We 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 Christ. We knew who we are were and that God loved us, but we just didn’t talk about it much.

And most of the time, we were just fine with that. Hence the name, frozen chosen.

But sometimes even us frozen chosen need something more. And thats where Scripture passages like today’s come in.

Jesus is talking to the disciples about his relationship with them. And the language he uses is not the kind those of us from the more frozen chosen backgrounds my expect, or even be most comfortable with. It’s not Christ the CEO who gives us orders. Not Christ the lawyer with a bunch of statutes for us to follow, neatly bound together. Not even Christ the teacher, or benevolent religious authority.

It’s Christ, the friend. Christ who calls us friends.

Those folks who used to ask me whether I had a personal relationship with Jesus Christ were not espousing a kind of Christianity I subscribe to, but they also weren’t all wrong. Christ does call us to be more than just servants of him. He calls us to be more than even just disciples. He calls us to be friends.

That idea can take some getting used to. If it’s four am and I have a flat with no spare, I need someone with a cell phone and drivers license. I don’t think Jesus has either. And even if he did, would you call? Or would you want to keep a little comfortable distance? A little space. Boundaries, even.

I think a lot of us put those walls up in our hearts sometimes in our relationship with Christ. We know he’s there. We know he loves us. But do we have the day to day relationship that our friend might want from us?

The reality is I’ve made a lot of late night calls to Jesus. Maybe not via cell, but certainly in my heart. It’s usually when I’ve needed something. Maybe you’ve done the same. I can’t say I’ve always been a good friend to Jesus.

But the thing is, as my relationship with God has deepened through the years, more and more I want to be.

I don’t think that’s an accident. Jesus tells us that before we chose him, he chose us. That grace was offered to us and we had no choice but to accept it. And once that grace gets a hold of you, it doesn’t let go. There is a continuing longing for God that may ebb and f,ow through the years, but that never goes away, no matter how frozen we may appear on the outside.

That’s not unique to our relationship with Christ, you know. Because we have another example of it in our lives.

Today is mother’s day, of course. And it’s fitting that we are talking about this idea of being loved first on this day. Because parents, even as imperfect as every parent is at times, love before they can be loved. They chose to love their children. And children learn to love by being loved.

It’s the same with Jesus. We are Christ’s friend because we first were his. We chose him as a friend only because he first chose us.

Christ tells us, 13No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14You are my friends if you do what I command you.

Christ laid down his life for his friends before we even knew we were. And now he asks us to do the same for our own friends, including him.

So how do we lay down our life for those we love? Fortunately, being a friend to Jesus and being a friend to others are often two signs of the same coin. You find you can’t do one without doing the other.

Now, sometimes laying down your life for your friends, and Christ’s, really means laying down your life. A few weeks ago, with the 100th anniversary of the Titanic sinking, it seems like the story was everywhere. I’ve never been particularly interested in the story, but one thing I saw caught my eye.

it was the story of the priest on the Titanic, Father Thomas Byles. When it became clear that the ship was sinking, he twice turned down a seat in a lifeboat. Instead, he stayed on the deck, and prayed and comforted the people who couldn’t leave, and went down with all of them. He could have saved himself, but instead he decided to be a friend to God by being a friend to God’s friends.

It leaves you wondering, could I do that? Could I pass up a lifeboat twice and instead choose a certain death? Could I embrace that greater love of laying down my life for my, and Jesus’ friends?

I’d like to think so, but thankfully most of us will never have to find out.

But that doesn’t mean we’re off the hook. Because there are a lot more ways than one to lay down your life, and be Jesus’ friend. And very few of them involve actually going down with a ship. Most involve laying down the life you know and instead choosing one of greater commitment to being a friend of Christ.

That’s not always easy. Sometimes being a friend of Christ means you end up making choices that may feel a lot like sacrifices. Sacrifices of time, or money, or prestige. Or sometimes you might find yourself unable to just be happy with the life you thought you always wanted. You find yourself looking for something a little deeper. A little more meaningful. As our friendships with Christ deepen, pure hearts, maybe a little frozen at times, warm and thaw. And everything changes because Christ’s friendship changes everything.

The one thing I know for certain about friendship is this: it tends to be a two way street. What you put in to a friendship, like every relationship, is what you get out. That’s especially true when you know the other person is committed to it. Christ already showed us he is. He did it 2000 years ago when he became one of us. And so now we respond, giving our gifts of gratitude. And what do you get the Friend who has everything? Just our hearts, and our hands, and our lives. He has a lot of work left to do in our world, and a true friend always shows up when a friend needs a hand. Amen.