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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To the Guy Flying a Confederate Flag in Exeter, New Hampshire

I saw your truck parked in front of the Rite-Aid, right by the Dunkin Donuts. Two large Confederate flags were attached to the back of it, waving in the wind. The American flag was, incongruously (and in violation of the flag code), in the center. And, I have to confess, I don’t get it.

Part of me wanted to ask obvious questions: You know you are in New Hampshire, right? And, you know New Hampshire was not a part of the Confederacy?

11709431_400316456841007_5791455240479926301_nI ask this because I’m not so sure you do. Here we are in a northern town, a place that gave her sons up to the Union Army and lost them on the battlefields of the Civil War. A place where locals organized early against slavery and led the charge against it across the country. A place where 150 years ago that flag would have been seen as a symbol of treason.

I grew up in the South where I saw plenty of Confederate flags. My college campus had a small Confederate cemetery on it and every Confederate Memorial Day (do you know when that is, by the way?) they’d be decorated with those flags. And I lived in a state where that Confederate emblem was on the flag for far too long.

Some people say it’s heritage. I don’t buy it. I have Confederate soldiers for ancestors, and I’ve never felt the need to honor them by flying that flag.

I also know it wasn’t even the Confederate flag. It was the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia. (My ancestors’ unit, by the way.) And I know that even the Daughters of the Confederacy advocated not using that flag anymore back in the 1920’s. And I also know that it didn’t really make a comeback until the 1950’s when a Supreme Court decision let African-American children go to school with white children.

Do you think that flag has been flying in front of the South Carolina capitol since 1865? It hasn’t. It was put there for one reason only: racist defiance in the face of integration.

I think you believe that the flag brands you as a “rebel” or somehow honors your outlook on life. It doesn’t. It brands you as a racist. You may not think you are one, but flying that flag is a racist act.

I know that right now you are saying, “But I’m not a racist!” “Heritage, not hate!” But this isn’t your heritage. It’s mine. And it is hate. And it is racism. And every time you put that flag on the back of your car, we all go back in time a little. And the past wasn’t so great for many of our neighbors.

The present isn’t so great either, by the way. Because in a time when nine African-American churchgoers were massacred at their church by a man wearing that flag, and in a week when seven black churches have been burned with little media attention, those flags tell everyone that you couldn’t care less about what is happening. Others can suffer, so long as you get to wear your flag. It’s like showing up at a funeral and dancing on the grave.

Is that the kind of man you are? One who doesn’t care who is being hurt, so long as you get to show off your flags on your truck?

You aren’t being a rebel. And you aren’t being courageous. And you won’t be on the right side of history.

But here’s the good news: it doesn’t have to end like that. You can stop flying the Confederate flag. You can honor your ancestors here in the North by learning why they were willing to give their lives to fight against that flag. And you can honor my ancestors down in the South by saying you are willing to learn from their mistakes.

Please. Our town doesn’t need those flags. And, if you look inside and find your better self, you’ll find that neither do you.

A few words about comments:

1. For those asking why I didn’t personally speak to him, I’ve only seen him while he was driving and couldn’t figure out how to get him to stop. My wife was in the car alone when she took this picture. Given the racist, sexist, and homophobic slurs I’ve received in comments (deleted) from people claiming to be his friend, I’m glad she didn’t stop. But I’d welcome him to come talk to me.

2. Post away but use your full, real name (First and last) or else I will delete your comments without reading.

3. My mom’s side is from NH and has been for 13 generations. Dad’s is from the South. So don’t tell me I don’t belong in NH.

4. No one is forcibly taking your flag from you. I am saying consider the message you are sending. A part of me wishes every racist would carry that flag so they’d be easy to identify. But I also hope everyone who really, truly does not want to be racist will decide to stop flying it.

5. Because some of the comments I received used derogatory and bigoted terms, I’m moderating comments now (because disagreement is fine but I refuse to host those words on my page). I’m also away for the weekend with my wife so your comment may take a couple of days to appear.

Thanks! 

Blessed for a Reason: Sermon for November 16, 2014

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.

I’m a bit of a history buff and so when I first moved to Exeter this summer I bought some books on the history of the town. One book I bought was put out by the historical society and it featured these two or three page snippets of Exeter history. And one story in particular caught my eye.

It was about the end of official tax support for churches, and in particular the loss of town funds to support this church. You see, New Hampshire, like most former colonies, had an “established church”. And in New England that was normally the Congregational Church. And if you lived in Exeter, a portion of your town taxes would go to support this church.

That worked here for the better part of 200 years. But by 1819, there was more than one church in town. This church had split into two parishes, there were now Baptists, and there was a fledgling Universalist church. And in Exeter, as in other places, people who worshipped elsewhere didn’t think it was fair that they should have to pay to support this church.

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That may seem like a no-brainer to us now, but it was quite a scandal at the time. People believed that doing away with public financial support for the church would lead to the destruction of the church, and even the end of morality itself. In the end, though, people decided that only the people who went to a church should support that church. And this church, like Congregational churches across New England, stopped being the official town church.

So what does that have to do with today’s Scripture from Genesis? The one in which God calls Abram, who later gets the name Abraham, out of the home he has always known and to a new place he’s never seen before? God tells Abram “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing…and all peoples on the earth will be blessed through you.”

That line, “blessed to be a blessing” might sound familiar to you right now, and if it does it’s probably because of this. That line is the Bible verse that United Church of Christ parishes have been using this fall for our stewardship campaigns. So you have seen it on the stewardship letter you received back in October, and it’s right there on your pledge cards.

And I think it was a good choice for those of us who are thinking about giving. I think it’s one to remember, and not just at stewardship time. Because, honestly, I think that’s being blessed to be a blessing is what the Christian life is all about.

But, when someone describes the way in which they are “blessed”, does it ever give you pause? Sometimes I hear people talk about how God has blessed them with a big house or a nice car or some material thing and it just makes me a little uncomfortable. It’s not that I think those things are inherently bad, but I just don’t think of God like that. To me that trivializes God, and makes God sound like some sort of divine Oprah handing out cars and iPads to ecstatic crowds.

And God is bigger than that. And not only is God bigger than that, but I think God expects bigger things from us too. And sometimes the way we talk about our blessings just doesn’t reflect that. And here’s why: being blessed is not about winning. None of us is blessed just to be blessed. That’s not the end goal here. Instead, being blessed is about God saying “here’s a tool…now use it to help others.”

In short, we are not blessed for our own comfort or satisfaction or glory. We are blessed so that we can serve others and glorify God. And because of that, all the things we don’t use in order to serve others and glorify God? Those aren’t blessings. Those are just trophies. And in the end, honestly they aren’t worth that much.

So, what does it mean to live a life of blessing? First, I think it means to live a life of giving, and not just taking. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t good to receive. We have all received grace upon grace from God and from others, whether we acknowledge it or not. But being a blessing means that you can’t stop there.

Because when we receive a blessing of any kind, whether it’s love or health or understanding or resources or anything else, we are receiving grace. It is not earned. It is given freely by a God who loves us. And we have a choice. First, we can take it and use it only for our own good. In other words, we can collect the trophy. Or, we can decide to say thank you to God by turning it into a blessing for others.

I’ve always found that the second is the one that not only brings blessings to others, but blessings back to me. Because, honestly, trophies aren’t good for much other than gathering dust. The joy and light that comes from blessing others is much, much better.

So, what does that look like? Recently I read a story that really spoke to me. It was about a man named Howard Lutnick. Lutnick is the chairman of Cantor Fitzgerald, and so obviously a man of means. And so when he recently made a donation to Haverford College, in the amount of $25 million dollars, it was impressive. But, at first glance, you might not know that it is also a story about being blessed to be a blessing.

When Howard Lutnick was a high school student his mother died. And then, a week after arriving on campus as a Haverford freshman, his father died suddenly too. His sister attended another college and when she went to the administration to tell them she was now suddenly parentless they told her to become a waitress to pay her tuition. But Haverford acted differently.

When his father died, the president of the university called him and just said this: “Howard, your four years here are free”. As he tells it, he had been on campus a week. The school didn’t know who he was or who he would become. They just decided to bless him. And so years later, he turned that blessing into a blessing for others.

Now, you and I, we might not have the salary of the chairman of a large company, and perhaps we cannot afford to make $25 million endowments. (And if you can, I’d love to talk to you after church, by the way.) But that doesn’t mean that we are not capable of blessings others in equally significant ways.

First, we have to first look at the people and places that God has used to bless us. Who has been a blessing in your life? A parent? A teacher? A church? A friend? A school? A choir that sings every Sunday? Next, what would you say to those people and places if you could? And finally, what do you think they would want you to do with the blessings you have received through them?

I think about those people in my life who have been a blessing. I think of my college chaplain. I think of my parents. I think of professors who stayed after class to help me. I think of mentors who showed me which way to go. I think of churches I have known along the way. And I truly believe that God worked through all of them to bless me. And the only way I can fail them, and the only way I can fail God, is by choosing not to pass those blessings on to others. I can choose to live my life in a way that makes me a conduit of God’s grace. Or I can choose to turn off the switch, and barricade myself alone with all my trophies.

In the end, that choice is what stewardship is all about. Because stewardship is not just about money. Stewardship is about our whole lives. It’s about how we choose to live. It’s about gratitude and the way we respond to the grace we’ve been given. It’s about choosing to let our light shine, instead of hiding our light under a bushel.

That’s a choice we are constantly making with our lives. We choose whether or not to be good stewards of our time, our talents, our treasure. But it’s more than that. We choose whether or not we will use God’s blessings so that we can in turn be a blessing. We have that choice. But we just have to dare to take it.

When Abram was standing there that day with God talking to him, do you think he hesitated? God was giving him a pretty big promise there: I will bless you so that you will be a blessing. But, God was also asking a lot of Abram. He wanted Abram to take a risk and step out in faith. Perhaps we could understand it if Abram had never set out on his journey. But then again, if he hadn’t, where would we be? And how would the story of our faith have been changed if Abram hadn’t chosen to be a blessing?

I was thinking about how God calls us into uncertainty sometimes, and about how that’s when God asks for us to show up in big ways. I was thinking about that while reading that story of this church and how people stopped paying taxes to support us. And I was thinking about how people thought back then that this church would come crashing to the ground, and that would be the end of faith as we knew it.

But that’s not what happened. Instead, in1819 the tax payments stopped, but the Spirit didn’t. Instead, despite all the fear, not only did church attendance go up, but giving did too. And so, almost 200 years laters, you and I, improbably, are sitting here in the same building and still stepping out in faith. The author of the book I read wrote a telling line. She writes, “it turns out New Hampshire folks were never opposed to religion…we just didn’t take kindly to being told what to do with our money. Some things never change.”

And so, I will heed that caution, and I will never tell you what to do with your money, or with any of the other blessings you have received in your life. But I will say this. You have an opportunity do use your life and every blessing in it to do something extraordinary. You have a chance to be a blessing.

Because being blessed does not mean you have won. Being blessed means you are up at bat, and you get to choose whether or not to take a swing. You are the college kid who was blessed for no rational reason when the world dealt him a tough blow. You are a churchgoer in 1819’s Exeter who doesn’t know how the church will remain standing. You are Abram talking to God. And you are here, standing on the threshold of the next part of the journey. And your blessings are yours to do with as you wish. May you use them well, and may the world be blessed. Amen.

The Next Part of the Journey

The Congregational Church in Exeter, NH

The Congregational Church in Exeter, NH

Over the past few weeks I have shared this news elsewhere, but now that the news has been shared with my current congregation, I want to share this here for those of you who follow my blog.

On Sunday, May 4th, I was called as the new senior pastor of the Congregational Church in Exeter, a United Church of Christ congregation in New Hampshire. The Congregational Church in Exeter was founded 375 years ago, and has a rich history of witnessing to Christ’s love in southern New Hampshire. The congregation continues to be vital, and is an important contributor to the Exeter community. This, along with their Open and Affirming commitment, their Eco-Theology covenant, and more drew me to prayerfully consider this call. But it was my meetings with their search committee, and the deep faith and passion for a strong future for the church that they exhibited, that helped me to know that God was calling me Exeter.

Heidi at her seminary graduation.

Heidi at her seminary graduation.

Earlier this month my family had another celebration as well. My wife, Heidi Carrington Heath, graduated with her Master of Divinity from Andover Newton Theological School. After years of coursework, internships, worship services, and ordination interviews, it was a day of profound joy and blessing. And it was also a day of commissioning. God has great things in mind for Heidi. I’ve known that since I met her. And now it will be my turn to stand beside her as she sees where God is calling to her next.

My last day at West Dover Congregational Church will be June 22nd. We will be moving to Exeter the next day, and I will begin ministry at the Exeter church on July 15th. Heidi will be searching for her first ordainable call in the surrounding area as well. In all of this we have both felt extremely clear that we are being called together to make this step in faith, and we are confident of God’s grace.

Signing the pastoral contract after the congregational vote.

Signing the pastoral contract after the congregational vote.

But to be clear, leaving is not easy. For the last four years I have been deeply blessed by the congregation of West Dover Congregational Church. In that time we have nearly doubled in size, we have had a successful Open and Affirming process, we have reached out further to our community, we have maintained the legacy of a sister church who closed, and we have undertaken major capital improvements. It has been an incredibly busy few years. But, more importantly, we have had moments together where I know that Christ was present, and where I know I saw God.

But there comes a time for every pastor when they are called to something new. When that call came for my family it was indeed joyful, but there was plenty of bittersweet there too. We love Vermont, and we love our church. But we also know that God is calling us to the next step. And God is calling West Dover Congregational Church on to the next step too. And for the next part of the journey they will walk with someone else. And for the next part of my journey, I will walk with someone else too. And soon, I know Heidi will walk with a congregation on their journey as well. And God will be with all of us along the way.