Hold On and Protect This Good Thing: Sermons for the Vermont Conference of the UCC’s Annual Meeting, 2017

II Timothy 1:3-14

3 I’m grateful to God, whom I serve with a good conscience as my ancestors did. I constantly remember you in my prayers day and night. 4 When I remember your tears, I long to see you so that I can be filled with happiness. 5 I’m reminded of your authentic faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice. I’m sure that this faith is also inside you. 6 Because of this, I’m reminding you to revive God’s gift that is in you through the laying on of my hands. 7 God didn’t give us a spirit that is timid but one that is powerful, loving, and self-controlled.
8 So don’t be ashamed of the testimony about the Lord or of me, his prisoner. Instead, share the suffering for the good news, depending on God’s power. 9 God is the one who saved and called us with a holy calling. This wasn’t based on what we have done, but it was based on his own purpose and grace that he gave us in Christ Jesus before time began. 10 Now his grace is revealed through the appearance of our savior, Christ Jesus. He destroyed death and brought life and immortality into clear focus through the good news. 11 I was appointed a messenger, apostle, and teacher of this good news. 12 This is also why I’m suffering the way I do, but I’m not ashamed. I know the one in whom I’ve placed my trust. I’m convinced that God is powerful enough to protect what he has placed in my trust until that day. 13 Hold on to the pattern of sound teaching that you heard from me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 14 Protect this good thing that has been placed in your trust through the Holy Spirit who lives in us.

Part One: Delivered Friday, April 28, 2017

I have to confess, I didn’t know much about hope chests.

When I was asked to speak and preach this weekend, I was told that annual meeting was going to be centered around this image of a hope chest. Now, I’d heard of hope chests before. I vaguely knew that they were this sort of idea from generations past and somehow the related to marriage.

Like we were told before, hope chests were given to young women to be essentially collection points for things that they might use in their married life. Linens, clothing, kitchen items…they all went in.

Hope chest is one name for them, but there were others. In some places, they were called “dowry closets”, because this was what the young woman was chipping in to the marriage. And, my favorite, in other places they were called “glory boxes” because what greater joy in life could a young woman aspire to than being married?

I mean no disrespect to marriage with that, as I’m happily married and it is the greatest joy of my life. And I get the idea of getting ready to start a home together. When Heidi and I married we went to Crate and Barrel and made our gift list just like a lot of other couples.

But that said, I think it’s important for us to name when things don’t seem quite right, and telling young women to put all their hope and joy into a box, and in the form of worldly goods, to somehow be opened later just feels a little sexist. And beyond that, in 2017, it feels really outdated. Hope chest was never in my vocabulary growing up, nor will it be in the vocabulary of most people around my age or younger.

And then I read that in more recent decades, as late as the 1990’s, they were recalling chests made in 1912 because they were a hazard. Hope chests have often been recalled because too many children have gotten stuck in them and have had a hard time getting out. And I thought, “oh my goodness, these things traumatize children…this is a horrifying image”.pexels-photo-221004

So I wondered what to do with hope chests this weekend. And I also wrestled with what to do with this Scripture.

The second letter to Timothy isn’t one of the most well known texts. We are told that it is a letter sent from Paul and addressed to Timothy, his protege. But these days scholars aren’t sure whether or not Paul really wrote it at all. They say it could have been written by a student of Paul’s in Paul’s style.

So, we have hope chests, a sexist, antique, public health hazard. And we have a letter that may or may not have been written by Paul.

Okay…challenge accepted.

As I got closer to this weekend, I kept thinking about this text, though. When I preach in the parish I can usually read a text on Tuesday morning and know pretty much the larger theme I’ll be preaching about on Sunday morning. But this one was a little more slippery.

First, the author is talking about the faith that Timothy has received from his mother, and his grandmother, Eunice and Lois, and about how that faith is not a timid faith, but is powerful and loving. It’s a strong faith, and it is rare in Scripture that we are explicitly told that any women have strong faith. I don’t know Eunice and Lois, but I don’t think they were the kind to box up their glory with the linens.

And then there’s this long section about not being ashamed of his faith, and of remembering what Paul taught him. And the author writes this:

I’m convinced that God is powerful enough to protect what he has placed in my trust until that day. 13 Hold on to the pattern of sound teaching that you heard from me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 14 Protect this good thing that has been placed in your trust through the Holy Spirit who lives in us.

And that was what really struck me. Let’s say that Paul did write this, and if not, let’s say that someone who knew Paul and Timothy really well and knew the love the two shared for one another wrote this. Paul had mentored Timothy in the faith. He had been in so many ways his spiritual father. He talks about Timothy crying when they last saw each other. It’s clear that this is a deep love, like that of father and son.

When this letter was written Paul was probably in prison, and he and Timothy couldn’t be face to face. They may never have seen one another again. So can you imagine Timothy getting this letter, and hearing Paul, or someone writing for Paul, saying “hold on…protect this good thing” that God gave to me to give to you?

I told you earlier about how I didn’t grow up in the church. So, when I became someone who decided to follow the Gospel, my parents weren’t the people I could turn to for guidance. Now, don’t get me wrong, they are good, moral people. But they’re not people of faith, and so we were in fundamental ways not speaking the same language.

But I needed those people. And so I had to find other spiritual mentors and guides along the way. And here’s where I remember the advice that Mary Luti gave that I talked about earlier: if you want to really learn how to be a Christian, the best way to do that is by studying the life of someone whose faith you admire.

In college, and in seminary, I had two people like that. The first was Sammy, who was my campus minister. Sammy was one of those people Luther would call a “little Christ” to so many others. He loved people, and he loved the Gospel. And his greatest sermons were preached not from the pulpit, but by the way he lived his life. At a time when I could have felt so disillusioned by this messy, frustrating, and exclusive place we called church, he taught me how to be a Christian. He taught me to, as Paul would say, “hold on” and “protect this good thing”.

Carol was the second. Carol was, like me, openly gay. And she was also an ordained minister who became my mentor. And where Sammy was the one who would just roll his eyes and tell me God still loved me when I got in trouble in college, Carol was the one who would let me know that God still loved me, but I made some really bad choices sometimes. But from her too, I learned to “hold on” and “protect this good thing”.

I needed both of them. I still do, truth be told, but at that point in my life, when I was still figuring out who I was as a person and as a Christian, I needed them more than ever.

Earlier I was talking about Erik Erikson and how he believes that before we ever great any kind of good works in the world, we first have to understand our identity – who we are. But there’s something else that he said, and that was that we also had to understand intimacy. We had to know “whose” we are, to use Bob Pazmino’s language.

Carol and Sammy loved me. They taught me that I was God’s. But they didn’t do that in an abstract way. They taught me that God loved me because I knew that they loved me too. It wasn’t an academic, intellectual exercise. It was a relationship that transformed me, and that taught me about God in the process. And I’m thoroughly convinced that if I hadn’t had them both in my life, my faith wouldn’t be half of what it is today.

Discipleship demands relationship. It needs authentic connection. It settled for nothing less than for people caring about one another, and pointing the way to the one who loves us beyond measure. And, most importantly, it demands a relationship with Christ. Not as “my own personal relationship with Jesus Christ” as an individual experience, but as a relationship with a community of believers who can be like little Christ’s to one another, helping each other to hold on, and to protect what is beautiful.

Sometimes in our churches, we hear those two commands differently than how they are intended: “hold on” and “protect”. We hear them and we take them to heart. And so we do hold on, and we do try to protect things.

We hold on to and try to protect the things that don’t matter. We hold on to our buildings until we’ve spent our last dollar. We protect old ideas that aren’t working for us believing we are somehow saving the faith. We hold on to what makes us comfortable. We protect our ideas of how church should look.

And sometimes those things are held so tightly that we can’t seem to loosen our grip on them. And sometimes we start to worship them more than God. And we take them, and we put them in something that we think will protect them. We lock them away in containers of our own making for safe keeping.
We take our hope, and our glory, and we lock it away. And eventually, we start to care more about the vessel, than what’s in it. And that’s when we know that we have lost our way.

It doesn’t have to be that way, though. Because sometimes the best way to hold on to something, sometimes the best way to protect it, is not by locking it up. Sometimes the best way is to take it out, and share it with others.

And in the case of our faith, that’s the only possible way to hold on and protect it. Unless we are daring to take it out, and love God and other people with it, we will lose it. And unless we are willing to let down our guard be broken open, to be loved beyond measure and to then love with than same ferocity, we will never be able to protect the beautiful gifts that we have been given.

So what’s in your hope chest? What’s in your church’s? What in this denominations? What has been looked away for too long? What needs to be let out of the box and into the world? What is suffocating our faith? Those are the questions we must answer.

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An illustration of the sermon produced on Friday evening by Kurt Shaffert.

About a year ago, almost to the week, I got a message that Sammy had slipped into a coma in Georgia and wasn’t expected to make it. I flew down to Atlanta for his funeral, and I sat in a church filled with generations of students. And I looked out at the congregation and thought about how the faith Sammy lived, even after he was gone, still thrived. I hold onto that faith, and I protect it.

And that same week down in Georgia, my mentor Carol and I met early nearly every morning to have breakfast. And each day, in between the eggs and grits, she kept teaching me the faith, just as she has for over 20 years now, and just as I hope she will for years. I hold onto that faith too, and I protect it.

And these days it’s my job to love other people into faith. It’s my work to give them something that they can hold on to and protect. It’s my job not because it’s the job of a pastor, but because it’s the job of a Christian. And that means it’s your job too.

The people who loved us into faith did not give us these things so that we could lock them away for safe keeping. They entrusted them to us because they wanted us to use them, and to create real hope and glory in the world. Our job is to do just that, and to teach one another, and those who will come, about the hope and glory that comes from Christ. If we do only that, the rest will take care of itself.

Part II: Delivered Saturday, April 29, 2017

Last night we were talking about this same Scripture and about this guy named Timothy, who was a beloved spiritual son of Paul, the great apostle. And we talked about this letter that Paul had sent him from prison, and this fatherly advice to “hold on” and to “protect this good thing” that we have been given.

And we were talking about hope chests, and about how too often we try to hold onto and protect our hope by boxing it up, rather than using it, and sharing it with others. We talked about how it was time to take everything out of the box, and use it, because it’s no good to us, and it’s no good to others, stuck in there.

And we were talking about these two concepts from Erik Erikson, identity and intimacy, and how you have to know who you are and whose you are, and about how before you can go out into the world and create any kind of real change, you yourself have to be transformed. Only then can you, and can we, do truly generative work in the world.

So I was thinking about Timothy, who was loved into the faith by Paul and others, and who now was being given these heavier responsibilities to carry. And I was thinking about how he was standing at a turning point. He had to figure out how to hold on and protect the good things he had been given.

As I was reading this Scripture again this line stuck out at me: “Because of this, I’m reminding you to revive God’s gift that is in you through the laying on of my hands. God didn’t give us a spirit that is timid but one that is powerful, loving, and self-controlled.”

It’s Paul’s reminder that “God didn’t give us a spirit that is timid” that I think he knew Timothy needed to hear. And to know why, you have to sort of follow Timothy throughout the New Testament. You have to know that Paul had once written to the church at Corinth ahead of Timothy and said, “When Timothy comes, see that you put him at ease among you, for he is doing the work of the Lord.” In other words, “Hey, Timothy can be a little shy, a little timid, so make him feel at home because he’s a good guy.”

In other places Paul talks about Timothy’s stomach aches and how he gets sick a lot, and he tries to help him to feel better. He even tells him to drink a little wine to help his stomach, which I think was probably more about quieting his nerves a little bit. The overall picture is of a young man who was sometimes a little reserved, and a little unsure.

But he was also the guy who Paul trusted with some big things, because Paul knew that Timothy was faithful, and that with the help of the Holy Spirit he could do them. And so with his mentor in jail, awaiting what they all knew would probably be his martyrdom, Timothy is standing on this turning point, and he is wrestling between courage and timidity.

To put it another way, he is holding on to the good things that he has been given to protect, and he is having to make a decision about whether to box them up for safekeeping, maybe for someone else to use, or whether to step up, and trust in the power of the Holy Spirit to give him the strength he needs.

I think about Timothy, and I think about the mainline church. We have been given such a good thing in our faith. And we have held on to it. But sometimes we have also had a spirit of timidity. We have been afraid of risk and been afraid of failure, just as he must have been. And so sometimes we’ve needed this kind of reminder that the faith that we have been entrusted with is not a retiring one, but is one that is as Paul says “powerful, loving, and self-controlled”.

And that means that it is also a faith that is going to demand something of us. Yesterday I talked about Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the “cost of discipleship”. If we truly want to follow Christ, we can’t be complacent and timid. We have to sacrifice our comfort, and be willing to confess that there are worthy of sacrifice.

Yesterday one of you came up to me after the keynote and we were talking about the example I used from Gene Robinson yesterday, and you said that you thought I was going to tell another story, one I’d actually never heard before. And you told me that when Gene Robinson was about to be consecrated as a bishop, his daughters were scared to death of what might happen to him. With good reason.

And so he sat down with them, and he told them about all the precautions that had been taken to protect him. He told them that a lot of people were working together to make sure he was safe. And then he told them this. He said something to the effect of, “And I need you to know, I believe that are some things that are worse than death.”

For the church, and for Christians, if we really want to find our lives, we have to be willing to lose them. We can be afraid, but we cannot be too timid to act. And so we need to call on the power of the Holy Spirit, just as Paul told Timothy to do, and we need to take out everything that we have stored away in our hope chests, and we need to be ready to be the church. But before we can do that, we need to know who and whose we are, and we need to draw on that strength in all that we do.

I’m telling you this today because this world is not in a good place. War, poverty, fear-mongering, exclusion, hatred, and the willful neglect of one another reign supreme across the globe. And between this annual meeting and next I don’t know what will happen. I truly believe we are at a crossroads in history, a moral turning point where we are either going to respond successfully as the people of God, or we are going to become truly irrelevant.

Now more than ever, we need to remember who and whose we are. And now more than ever, maybe we need to hear the story of Timothy, a timid young man who was loved into a faith that made him strong.

When he got this letter, he was standing at his own crisis point. He was deciding what kind of Christian he was going to be. And I think Paul was writing this to him, praying that he would remember who he was and trust in the Holy Spirit enough to make the right choices, and to be bold in his faith.

There are stories about the rest of his life that tell us that Timothy did just that. Timothy lived to the age of about 80, a good long life back then, and he became a witness to God’s love and to the Gospel. He was the Bishop of Ephesus, and he took some unpopular stands against the pagan worship practices of the day.

1013016_614340468589772_307607125_nOne day he stood in front of a procession in honor of the goddess Diana. The crowd was carrying a large idol, and they were so angry with him for blocking their path that they beat him, dragged him through the streets, and killed him. He became a martyr for the faith.

We hear that with 21st century ears and we think, “just let them have their parade…don’t die for it.” But put that in 21st century terms. Think of the things that culture makes an idol: money, war, power. Think of the social ills those things create: greed, violence, hatred and xenophobia.

And now think of standing in front of them, and saying you are not going to rule this world anymore.

That’s the work of the church. It’s to face down everything that keeps this earth from being as it is in heaven. And it’s to be courageous, even when we want to be timid, because we know who and whose we are.

And so, hold on. Hold on to the good things, because this world needs them now. And protect them. Protect the fire that has been ignited in you. And let it burn in you, that we may be a light to the world.

Seeing the Forest for the Trees: Sermon on Galatians for May 29, 2016

So, when I was growing up my dad was a really good golfer. Almost scratch. And when I was about eight years old he started taking me to the driving range with him. We’d hit buckets of balls, and then practice chipping and putting.

It was only a couple of years later, after I had practiced a lot of hours on the driving range, and learned enough to put it all together, that he let me near the actually course. His rule was that if I was going to play, I couldn’t slow down the pace of play for whomever we played with. I had to keep up.

He would secretly relish when we got paired with two strangers who would look at me and sigh when they saw they’d be playing with a kid. He’d always have me tee off last, and then he’d send me to the first tee and say “you can out drive them”. I always loved the subtle smile on his face when I did.

Golf became my sport, and I played competitively in high school. But there was one part I wasn’t good at, and the biggest problem for me wasn’t my putting or my driving or my iron shots. It was what was happening in my own head.

You see, when I hit a bad shot, which happens to every golfer, even the pros at least once a round, I had trouble rebounding. I’d miss an easy putt and then be so rattled that I’d miss the next. Or I’d slice the ball wide right and be so angry at myself that I didn’t take the time to line up my next shot the right way.

Before long I’d be walking up the fairway, beating myself up for the shots I didn’t make instead of getting my head back in the game so that I could make the shots I could. I lost whole rounds this way, despite the fact I could have easily rebounded from one bad shot by remembering all the holes I had ahead of me.

Despite my dad coaching me to do otherwise, I had an amazing ability to forget the entire game, and get lost in the shot. Or, to put it another way, I was never able to see the whole forest, because I sent too much time focused on the trees.

It’s golf that I think about when I read this passage in Galatians. Because, like me on the golf course, these were people who in stressful moments could not see the forest for the trees.

The churches in the region of Galatia had been taught early on by the apostle Paul. He had taught them that salvation came through faith and grace, and not by works. And more than anything else, he taught them that it came from following the teachings of Jesus, and nothing more.

The thing about Paul was that although he was Jewish, and had been raised to be devout, his ministry was not to the Jewish people. That made him different from many of the other apostles. Instead he sought out the Gentiles, and told them about Christ.

This meant his ministry was different. He wasn’t talking to people who already knew the Hebrew Scriptures and about the God they worshipped. The new converts didn’t follow those customs, and they weren’t looking for a Messiah. Mostly they followed other religious practices and philosophies. So that meant his teaching looked a lot different than the teachings of the other early apostles.
And in Galatia that meant teaching them about Jewish tradition, but not asking them to convert to Judaism. And when Paul had left that region he thought that they got it. They needed to understand the tradition, but they were called to something different.

Except after Paul left, other teachers came. And these teachers told the Galatians that in order to be real Christians you first had to convert to Judaism. And so there were all these debates in the churches over things like what you could eat, when to observe the Sabbath, and even if the adults now needed to be circumcised.

And, like all church arguments, it was getting bitter. But more importantly, it was distracting them from what really mattered. They had forgotten who they were.

That’s why Paul is so angry in this letter; perhaps more angry than in any other he wrote. He tells the Galatians that he is “astonished” at how quickly they’ve forgotten what he taught them. He says that they are following people who “pervert” the Gospel and confuse them. And he tells them hat he proclaimed the Gospel he received from God, and that it is a Gospel of grace.

In other words, while you are debating the finer parts of the law, you are missing the larger message of Christ’s love and grace. You have forgotten the forest, because you now only concentrate on one or two trees.

This emphasis on legalism, and on secondary things, did not end in Paul’s time, of course. Churches still do it today and ironically, they often do it using the very words of Paul. Women, be silent in church, for instance. Or they twist his words into a condemnation of gays and lesbians. Or, not so many years ago, into justifications for slavery or segregation.

Christians have done horrible things in the name of our faith, and in the name of Jesus. And almost every time it has been because the Gospel of grace that proclaims God’s love for us has been supplanted by a gospel of pettiness that forgets the bigger picture.

So right now it would be easy to say “well thank goodness we are not like those other Christians”. We are, after all, a progressive church in a progressive denomination. We have been Open and Affirming for over twenty years. We responded to the Civil Rights movement. We stood up for the abolition of slavery in the years before the Civil War. We were even founded by people who eventually broke away from the Church of England in order to focus on what they believed really mattered.

Paul’s not talking to us, right?

Except, maybe he is. Because progressive and mainline churches, despite our social witness, still sometimes manage to spend way too much energy on our own small section of trees, forgetting the reason we are even in this forest at all.

Every church needs to have infrastructure to operate. We need committees. We need a budget. We need to talk through the big questions of how we best use our resources, and where. But churches, particularly churches that are relatively comfortable which, make no mistake, this church is, sometimes can get so tied up in what is secondary that we forget what is primary. We forget why we are really here.

To put it another way. We worry so much about the shot that we just played, or maybe even the one we are about to play, that we forget about the whole game ahead of us, and why we’re even on this course in the first place.

That’s okay. We’re human. God knows, literally, that I do it too. I can get so focused on details that I forget what matters.

And that’s why this summer I want to try to do better with that. Summer is a time when things slow down a little at church. We have fewer meetings, a lot of our ministries go on hiatus for a few months, and we all take a deep breath.

That’s wonderful Sabbath time. And it’s also a time we can use to refocus, and to take in the bigger view. We can remind ourselves that the shots we’ve taken are one small moment in the larger game.

logo-smThat’s why this summer I have a challenge for you all. Downstairs, in the Vestry, there is a table set up with dozens of New Testaments. They are Common English Bible translations, both scholarly and readable. And they are free for the taking, and there are enough for everyone to have one. There’s also a piece of paper to take. And on it you will find a description of what I am calling the Congregational Church in Exeter Summer New Testament Challenge.

Here’s the idea. Take a New Testament and from now, Memorial Day weekend, until Gathering Sunday, right after Labor Day, take the time to read it. If you only read a little a day, you can do that easily.

Here’s why: By the time we convene for a new program year this fall, I want us to take time to remember who we are, and why we are here. I want us to read the story of our faith, from Jesus through the days of the earliest churches, and realize that we are not alone, and that we are a part of a long line of people doing our best to follow Jesus. And I want us to stop, soar above the day-to-day, and see the forest for the trees.

I’ll be taking this challenge with you as well. And my hope is that it will be a little like those days I spent on the driving range, learning the basics of the game, and learning how to tee back up when I hit a bad shot and try again. This is about learning how to focus on what really matters, and leaving behind what doesn’t.

May this summer be one in which you explore the whole forest, and learn to love it for what it is, without getting lost in the trees. Amen?

Inseparable: A sermon on God’s love, Norway, and us all.

Every Sunday in worship, right after we confess our sins together, I ask you, “Who is in a position to condemn us?” And I then say, “only Christ, and Christ so loved us that he gave himself for us. In Jesus Christ we are all forgiven. Thanks be to God.”

 

That line is from a prayer book, but that prayer book took it from this passage that we are reading here today. These words to the Romans that brought them comfort and hope two millenia ago continue to bring us comfort and hope today. They assure us, as the passage reads, that nothing, not “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.”

 

That’s good news for us humans who will do everything in our power to try to separate ourselves from the love of God. We are born with our hearts turned towards God and, no matter what we do or how we try to ignore it, we are at our best when we stay turned that way our whole lives. And yet we do all we can, maybe even sub conciously, to create a separation and to fill it with everything in the world that is bad for us.

 

And we are creative. We can find a hundred ways to move away from God without even realizing it. Yet in the end, no matter what happens, God decides that separation is no obstacle. And the love of God always wins.

 

I was thinking about that this week. It was hot out there. You’ve heard a born and raised Southerner who prides themselves on not admitting to Yankees that their weather is hot say it is hot. So, it was hot. And when I finally gave up I went down to the Rock River in Dummerston and jumped in.

 

I had never swam there before, and I wasn’t expecting the current to be so strong. I’m a pretty good swimmer, but I found places where I could swim with all my might and not make any progress back upstream. But if found that if I stopped fighting, and let go and let the water do what it was made to do, I realized the current would take me right back to a safe place.

 

The love of God is a lot like that. We try our best to fight our way upstream, swimming against the unstoppable current of God’s love, but we find that when we just let go and accept it we are safe. And that current keeps moving downstream, and in the end even we can’t dam it up. It always wins.

 

Paul knew that when he wrote to the Romans. He knew that no matter how horrible things were, no matter what utter devastation and tragedy would befall us, God’s love would in the end win.

 

And that’s the sort of passage you need on a day like today. A day when we are still asking “Why?”

 

Last Friday a man detonated a car bomb in the middle of Oslo killing at least seven people. He then walked into a youth camp and killed 89 more. We immediately began to ask why. And the answers that have come so far are more related to you and I than we’d like to believe.

 

The man who carried out these acts was a Christian. And he points to the faith he claims as the reason he felt compelled to kills dozens of people. And he wasn’t a madman. He wasn’t someone who snapped and went on a rampage. He was methodical and deliberate and deadly. He was, quite simply, a terrorist. A Christian terrorist.

 

We don’t like that idea. We don’t like thinking that our faith, which has always respected the example of the non-violent Jesus Christ, would be twisted by someone who was filled with hatred. We don’t want to claim him as ours. We want to believe that terrorists belong only to other faiths, and not our own.

 

And yet that’s not true. Of course this man is in the extreme minority of Christians, just as the men who flew planes into the Twin Towers and Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania represented an extreme minority of Islam. He is not indicative of the beliefs of the vast majority of Christians. And yet in the aftermath, in more places than you might believe, our faith is being painted with a broad brush as violent and deadly and inherently wrong.

 

The people who say that…they’re not right. They’re simply reacting to what happened with the same knee-jerk thinking that targets any group after one of its members goes on a violent spree. But how many of us who feel uncomfortable now have done this to other groups?

 

But the even harder question is this: What are we as a church, a worldwide church, doing wrong that someone would so misinterpret the teachings of Jesus this way? Why is a message of love and grace being heard as anything but? It would be easy to dismiss it if this man were the only one to so mishear the message, but he’s not.

 

Today in New York City, the Westboro Baptist Church is spreading it’s message of hatred there and protesting weddings. It doesn’t matter if you agree or disagree with whether people should be marrying today. I’ve always said there are good Christians on every side of that issue. But it does matter that someone claiming our name is standing there telling people that God hates not only them, but all of America. It matters that they are standing at the funerals of fallen service members and, instead of comforting their loved ones with the words of hope from this passage, the words that say that not even death can separate us from Christ, they are shouting that their family members are in hell.

 

It’s easy to dismiss them as well. But for every extremist Christian individual or group that we dismiss, there are a dozen more that we don’t even know about yet. They are claiming our name, and they think that they are right. And in the process people across this country and around the world are thinking that this is what Jesus Christ was all about. Their violence and hatred and mean-spiritedness is not what Jesus died for. It’s what he died to save us from.

 

And so what do we Christians, who stand here reeling from what was done on Friday in our name, do to respond? Do we fight violence with violence? Do we call for the blood of the man who did this? Or, conversely, do we just talk about how terrible it is and pray for the victims and then let it slowly fade into our subconscious?

 

I hope we do none of those things. I hope we choose a third way. I hope we choose a way that is consistent with everything that Christ taught us about grace and compassion and love. I hope we honor who he was, and is, by proclaiming this passage that we read here today to the whole world.

 

Nothing on earth, not death, nor life, not things present, nor things to come, not a gunman hijacking our faith nor a woman with a hateful sign, will separate you or I or anyone from the love of Christ. No matter how hard they try.

 

Jesus loved the young people whose lives were cut short in his name on Friday. He loved them when they were afraid. When they were in pain. When they were confused. This gunman couldn’t change that. And when this happened, as the Rev. William Coffin said about tragedies like this, God was the first of all of us to cry.

 

And today the love of Christ surrounds Norway, and it surrounds our country, and it surrounds the whole world. But the thing about Christ’s love is that it is most often, and best, felt when it is shared between people. Today in Norway, and in a hundred other places where people have been hurt in Jesus’ name, the word Christian may bring with it some pain, and some fear. It shouldn’t be that way.

 

Our job as Christians is pretty easy: be loved and love. Be loved by God, love God and one another. It’s the simplest job description in the world. And the hardest job you’ll ever have. I’ll save you some worry and tell you that you will never get a pink slip. You’ll never be let go in a round of layoffs. For better or for worse, nothing can separate you from this work because nothing can separate you from the love of God.

 

And today there is a world of people who have been hurt by those claiming our name, and they need to know that Christ’s love is real, so it’s time for us to get to work. As you head back out into the world today, I give you these words as your guide. When I first heard this prayer, attributed to St. Francis, when I was 17, I knew it was all I wanted to do with my life. It’s when I really knew I wanted to be a Christian. May they comfort you as you seek to comfort the world:

 

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.

Where there is hatred, let me sow love.

Where there is injury, pardon.

Where there is doubt, faith.

Where there is despair, hope.

Where there is darkness, light.

Where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master,

grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;

to be understood, as to understand;

to be loved, as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive.

It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,

and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.

Amen.