Unquenchable Joy: Sermon for December 14, 2014

1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

5:16 Rejoice always,

5:17 pray without ceasing,

5:18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

5:19 Do not quench the Spirit.

5:20 Do not despise the words of prophets,

5:21 but test everything; hold fast to what is good;

5:22 abstain from every form of evil.

5:23 May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.

5:24 The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.

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The third Sunday of Advent, like each of the Sundays in Advent, has a traditional theme. The first week we talked about hope, last week about peace, and this week we focus on joy. And as we get closer and closer to Christmas, joy seems to surround us. It’s right there in our Christmas carols, and on our cards and decorations. Joy feels natural this time of year.

And so it is easy to hear texts like the one we read today from the letter to the Thessalonians and agree. Hear the words again: Rejoice always! Pray without ceasing. Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Jesus Christ for you!

It’s easy to see why this is the text that churches read on this third Sunday of Advent. It’s all about joy, and who doesn’t like to hear about joy this time of year? And so, as we light our candles, we can boldly proclaim our joy in our words, and in our prayers, and in our songs. Christmas is almost here, and we are joyful.

But, what about those times when joy feels impossible? What do we say then?

Two years ago today I was getting ready to preach about joy. It was the Friday before the third Sunday in Advent. I had been married less than a month before, and I still hadn’t come down. I was on top of the world. Joyful beyond words. And that day we were at the grocery store buying things to make Christmas cookies. And when we got home I was planning to write a sermon that would have rivaled George Bailey’s joy at the end of “It’s a Wonderful Life”.

And we had just cleared the check-out line when I looked down, and there was a text from my mom. It just said: “It’s so horrible about all those children in Connecticut.” I had no idea what she was talking about, but within minutes the full horror of what had just happened in Newtown, Connecticut started to sink in.

The next two days, like most clergy I know, I went back and forth between the TV screen, and a blank computer screen. Because I knew I was supposed to preach about joy, but how do you talk about joy in the face of something so terrible?

I think that in the church we sometimes don’t do a very good job of acknowledging the realities of the world. We talk about hope, and peace, and joy, and love. But do we also talk about the hard things that are happening in the world? Things like violence? Things like tragedy? Things that defy understanding?

Too often we don’t. We gloss over those things and focus instead on the brighter, or happier stories. And then we wonder why people worry about whether they will be welcome in church. Because if we don’t acknowledge the pain and suffering in the world, and instead just say “be joyful”, how can anyone tell us their stories? How can they talk about when they are mourning? How can they talk about when they are depressed? How can they talk about losing their job and scrambling to make ends meet?

To deny what is happening in the world is not a Christian response. It’s the opposite of a Christian response, in fact. Because Christ never told us to not tell the truth about life. He never told us to only be happy or carefree or bright all the time. Instead, Jesus told us to bind up the brokenhearted, tell the truth, and stay near those who suffer.

That’s one reason we have our Blue Christmas season here. Because we know that hard things happen, and that sometimes it might feel like there is no room for that in the Christmas season. Because some years the holidays are just plain hard. We understand, and we make room for that. Because whatever you are going through in your life, you are welcome in church. And you are welcome to carry those things that are hard into this space as well. Because if you can’t bring them here, where can you bring them?

But, at the same time, the church has an obligation. And that is to not just acknowledge the brokenness of the world, which we must do, but to also go one step forward and proclaim that it doesn’t have to be that way. There is another way. And in Advent we point to that fact, and we point with hope to the future, and to the way Christ is coming into this world.

The passage we read from Thessalonians reminds us of that. It’s important to remember the context of this letter that tells us to “rejoice always”. Like many of the Apostle Paul’s letter it was sent to a church that was going through a time of uncertainty. They were figuring out how to be some of the first followers of Jesus Christ at a time when no one understood them and what they were doing. And professing your faith in Christ, at that time, could often come with harsh penalties. And so Paul was writing this letter to them to encourage them, and to remind them to continue to live in hope and joy, even when it was hard to be hopeful and joyful. And he tells them “don’t quench the Spirit.” In other words, do not let anything extinguish your joy.

So what did I say on that Sunday two days after Newtown, two years ago? I’ll tell you this first, what I said did not make everything better. And it didn’t erase the pain of what had happened. It probably even sounds a little ridiculous now, but bear with me. Because that day the best I could think about to say was to talk about the color of a candle.

You may notice that today’s candle on the Advent wreath isn’t blue like the other three. It’s pink. The traditional color for Advent is purple, which is meant to represent what is royal, like the coming Prince of Peace, but also to show repentance, and the turning away from what is and towards something better. And churches used to take this very seriously, and the four weeks before Christmas for centuries were very somber and penitent.

But the story goes that in the midst of the dark winters and more reflective Advents of years past, churches thought that about now people needed a little glimpse of what was coming. And so they made the third candle pink, which is supposed to be sort of a mix between the purple of Advent and the white of the Christ candle that we light on Christmas eve.

And they called this Sunday “Gaudette Sunday” which means “rejoice”. And so, we light the pink candle because just as the white mixes with the purple and transforms it, we are waiting for Christ’s light to break into our world and bring the joy that feels so elusive. We stand here in the real world, at the junction of where pain and hope meet, and we look for something better. We long for joy. And we sing, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”, oh come God, and be with us.

And we do something else too. We proclaim, just by being here, what joy really means.

The other night in our Advent discussion group we talked about “joy”, and we asked if it’s possible to be joyful even when maybe things in the world around you aren’t so great. And one of you said something like this: “I’d like to believe that the joy that comes from Christ is not so that shallow that the world can give it or take it away.”

I think he was right. Because if joy can be lost or gained so quickly, it’s just happiness. Not a bad thing, but not such a long-lasting thing sometimes. But the joy that comes with Christ sticks around. It’s there in the best of times, but it’s even there when times are hard. You can be a joyful person and still cry alongside the world. Because being joyful means you know it isn’t supposed to be that way, and you believe it can be better.

About a year and a half ago, a few months after Newtown, the Boston marathon bombing happened. We were married at Old South Church, the church right at the finish line of the Marathon that sustained some damage in the explosions, and just a few months before we had stood only feet from where the bombs went off to take our wedding photos. And when we watched the coverage on the news, I felt like someone had punched me in the gut.

About a week later, before they even opened the streets back up, we went down to Boston for Old South’s first worship service in the aftermath. And I spent some time walking around the streets there by Copley Square. Police tape blocked off a lot of the area, but every time there was a barricade there was also something else. People had taken chalk and written messages on the sidewalks. Messages of hope. Messages of healing. Messages of peace. I walked the streets reading them.

And there was one message that captured me in both it’s simplicity and its depth. There, on the sidewalk, in blue chalk, someone had written simply “light overcomes darkness”.

I think that’s when I stopped feeling like someone had punched me, and I started to remember that violence and anger and destruction don’t get to have the last word. Only God does, and God sent Christ to this world not just so that we might live, but so that we might have a deep abiding joy.

And so, here we are, on one the shortest days of the year. The longest darkness. And we are here because somewhere inside of us we believe that it is true. We believe that the light will always overcome the darkness. And we believe in the miracle that is about to come into this world.
On Christmas Eve we read a passage from the Gospel of John, one that the person who wrote that chalked message on the sidewalk may or may not have know: “The light shines in darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. In other words, Christ is the light of the world, and the worst that the world can do is still not enough to extinguish that light. And if that light cannot be extinguished, than neither can that joy.

And so, our job as followers of Christ is to spread that light, and spread that joy. Because joy is different than just a feeling. Joy is a way of living as people following the light of Christ into the world. Claiming joy is an act of faith, and living with that joy is an act of revolution in a world that could use a little joy right now. God’s gift of joy is there for us all to claim, not just in the good times, but especially in the bad.

And so, and as we watch and wait this Advent, be witnesses to the light of Christ, and the joy it brings. And live as the people who believe that this joy, and the child who brings it, can change the world. If you do that, you’re halfway to Christmas already. Amen.

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The Starting Line: Sermon for Easter Sunday, 2014

 

Matthew 28:1-10
28:1 After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb.

28:2 And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it.

1510920_863175217031290_4861732632584423079_n28:3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow.

28:4 For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men.

28:5 But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified.

28:6 He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay.

28:7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.”

28:8 So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.

28:9 Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him.

28:10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Christians have been exchanging that greeting for centuries upon centuries. It’s the Easter story in one line. It’s why we are here today. And Christians of all backgrounds today, Greek Orthodox to Presbyterian, Roman Catholic to Lutheran, are repeating it in church, and to one another.

I’m not sure if they said it on that first Easter or not, but I’m sure they said something like it. It was Sunday morning, and the sabbath was over. It was the first chance that Mary Magdalene and Mary were able to go to visit Christ’s tomb. Scripture tells us that there was an earthquake, and the women looked up to see an angel sitting on the stone that had been rolled away from the tomb.

The angel tells them, “don’t be afraid”. Which, when you think about it, is probably what they needed to hear most right then. Because it had been a painful few days, filled with fear. They and lost the one they loved, the one who had given them so much hope and meaning. And here they were, at his tomb, and they couldn’t even find him.

So they hear, “don’t be afraid…he isn’t here.” And at first they must have felt like this whole journey had taken one more bad turn.

The angel tells them to look inside the tomb. Look around. Jesus has been raised. He’s going to Galilee. Go! See him there.

Scripture tells us that the women ran from that place. They ran with both “fear and great joy”. They ran to tell the others. And it was only when they had started running, that Christ met them on the road. Again, he tells them “don’t be afraid”. Go, and spread the word.

Scripture tells us that when Jesus saw the women he said, “greetings!” I guess when you are the resurrected Christ you don’t need to use the whole “alleluia, I am risen line”. But that day, I’ll bet the disciples were saying some variation of what we are today: “He is risen”. “Jesus is risen.” “Jesus is back.” “Jesus is here.”

And I’ll bet that like Mary and Mary Magdalene they did a lot of running too. Running to tell each other. Running to find Jesus. Running to go and see the empty tomb for themselves. And through it all they ran with both the “fear and great joy” that Scripture tells us about. Because they just heard the best news in the world, and I’ll bet at some level it terrified them. What if it wasn’t true?

And, even scarier, what if it was? What now?

Sometimes in the church we tend to treat Easter as a finish line. It’s the end of Lent, when we can finally give up whatever Lenten spiritual practices we had. And I’m sure today lots of people will be returning to red meat or candy or coffee. It’s also the end of Holy Week, when churches everywhere have multiple mid-week services. And it even coincides with the end of a long and cold winter, when it looked like spring would never come.

Today with the sanctuary filled with beautiful flowers, with the weather warming up, with the sun out, with the long days of Lent over, it feels like new life is all around us. It feels like we have made it.
And it is. And we have.

But it would be a mistake to think of Easter as the finish line. Because as much as Good Friday was an end in some ways, Easter is just the beginning. And as much as we went deeper in Lent, it wasn’t just a seasonal thing. It was preparation for today and what comes next.

Today is the day where we start running.

I’ll admit, I’ve always had a complicated relationship with running. I’ve never been very good at it, or very fast. But I’ve always admired people who run, particularly the ones who can run long distances. I can’t imagine running a marathon, and I can’t imagine covering 26.2 miles, but if someone chooses to do that, more power to them. It takes discipline and strength and endurance. It takes a commitment that is worthy of recognition.

This past week I went with Heidi to her home church for the one year anniversary service for the Boston Marathon bombing. Old South in Boston sits just feet away from the finish line of the Marathon, where the bombs went off a year ago. And at Old South it has been a year of recovery and a year of finding hope.

Heidi’s pastor, the Rev. Nancy Taylor, started the service by saying this: “The Christian life is like a marathon.”

And she’s right. The Christian life isn’t a sprint. It’s not something done quickly by going to church every Sunday morning, or even by observing Lent for forty days. Instead, the Christian life is a long journey, full of challenge, full of opportunities to quit. There are times when you wonder “is this worth it”?

There are times when you can’t remember why you signed up in the first place. And there are times when you doubt you can go on.

But there are also the times when you decide that as hard as it is, you will keep going. And somewhere out there on the course, filled with fear, but anticipating joy, you find Christ.

That day as Mary and Mary Magdalene ran, they knew something new had happened. That’s why they weren’t feeling just joy or fear, they were feeling both. And if you are here today, on Easter morning, standing at the starting line of another year, if you are serious about this whole Christian faith thing, you will likely feel the same. The joy of Easter morning, and just a little apprehension about what this means.

Because that Resurrection that happened two thousand years ago didn’t just change things for the disciples that day. It changed things for us. And every year we get this reminder of what happened, and what it means. And every year we choose to stand on this starting line once again, and to run.

Monday in Boston they are going to run the marathon again. When you think about it, that’s a show of hope. And if I was going to be running, I think that this year in particular I would be feeling both fear and joy in some intense ways.

The city has, of course, done a lot to commemorate this event, and to prepare for this run. But there’s one thing that happened that has touched me more than all the others. And the idea came out of Old South, that same church that was so touched by all of this a year ago.

A few months ago Old South asked people who knit to knit scarves for the runners who would be coming to Boston. They wanted them in blue and yellow, the colors of the marathon. And they thought if they were lucky they’d get a few hundred, just enough that they could give one to all the marathoners who come to their annual Blessing of the Athletes service.

And so around Boston, and across the country, and even in other countries, knitters went to work. And you should never underestimate knitting circles, it seems, because when all was said and done over 7,000 scarves arrived. The post office had to start making special deliveries in the final days.

And this weekend, as the city prepares again for the Marathon, parishioners are going out into the streets, and they are finding athletes, and offering them a scarf and saying “let us wrap you in courage and strength”. At first many of the runners asked how much they had to pay for them, and then when they were told that they were free and that they had been knitted to give them ever support, they broke down in tears. They knew that someone had taken the time to send love and comfort and courage to them, and it blew them away.

That’s church, y’all. That’s a church finding a way to visibly show a city that Christ’s love is breaking into a place that had been so filled with pain and senseless violence. That’s a church standing, literally, at a finish line the had been torn apart and saying “what now”. And that’s finding your way back to the starting line and deciding to run again. That’s resurrection.

Resurrection happens all the time. We only have to have eyes to see it. But first, we need a willingness to run the race.

Today we are standing at the starting line again. We are preparing to run this race of witnessing to the resurrection for another year. We are going to have times when we run with ease. Times when the course gets tougher. And times when we have to lean on one another to make it up the hill. But, together, come fear or come joy or come both, we can get there.

So, take your marks.

Get set.

And go.

Alleluia! Christ is risen…

Marathons and Cab Rides: One Night in Boston

We have decided to go to church.

That’s how this all starts. It is the one year anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombings and we have decided to go to church to remember.

We are going into Copley Square, on Boylston Street, to Old South Church. The church that sits on the finish line of the Marathon. The place we were married just a few months before bombs clouded it in smoke and ripped apart it’s marathon banners.

There is rarely parking there, and especially not this week, so we park the car and take the Green Line. We ride past Fenway Park and the hospitals where the wounded were treated.

We come up the stairs by the library and cross in front of the freshly painted finish line. We enter the church, draped with blue and yellow scarves knitted by people around the country who wanted to send a little love to the athletes who will run next Monday.

We find seats in the balcony, the one up against the Boylston Street side. And we watch as the sanctuary fills with friends of ours, with strangers, with runners, with members of the local mosque, with the curious.

We pray, and we sing, and we listen. We listen to a Christian pastor pray for victims of a shooting at a Jewish Community Center. We listen to a Unitarian pray for the Catholic dead. We listen to an Imam plead that we not discriminate against gays and lesbians. We listen to a Jewish cantor lead us through “alleluias”.

Nancy Taylor, the senior pastor, tells us that the Christian life is like a marathon. She is right, I think to myself. This isn’t a sprint. This isn’t easy. This isn’t short.

The children’s choir sings, and the adult choir joins in, and eventually the service ends with us all joining together: “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.”

And it is beautiful.

And I would like to linger in that moment for a while. But this is when we learn about what is happening on the other side of the sanctuary wall.

There’s a “situation” happening on Boylston Street. We are asked to leave the church via the back alley. And I wonder if there are protesters outside, or cameras filming or something innocuous.

And then I check my phone and there are messages from friends asking what is happening outside. There are people on Twitter talking about a”suspicious device”. And they tell those of us who are on the upper balcony that we need to get down now and we need to “get away from that wall”. And that’s when we notice the police officers behind us, evacuating people quickly.

People are calm. No one seems panicked. A child near me says he is scared, but overall we are quiet. We evacuate out in jeans and suits, in hijab and BAA jackets. I can’t say I am scared. I figure it is either a stray backpack left carelessly behind or a sick joke. But I can’t lie and say the hairs on the back of my neck don’t stand up a little.

We walk out into the back alley and to Dartmouth Street. The police officer tells us the Copley T is down. So we walk back to Newbury, past police cars barricading streets, and finally back to the unguarded part of Boylston. We walk to the next T stop, and past the firehouse and the memorials to the two fallen firefighters who served there.

It’s raining hard by now and the wind is gusting. We are soaked by the time we get to the next T where they tell us the whole Green Line is down now. So we walk back down Boylston, and we try to hail a cab.

We walk back past the firehouse, back past blue lights, back past TV cameras. Every cab has a fare. So we keep walking. Up now to Hereford to Newbury. I try to hail more cabs. I try to get a Chinese food delivery car to pull over by mistake. Heidi laughs at me.

And then the detonation.

We don’t know in that second that it was a controlled detonation. We don’t know it was a backpack with a rice cooker and confetti left by some misguided performance artist.

I think “some people live with this everyday…the bombs…the fear…the uncertainty”. That’s my first thought

My second is “check your phone”. A text is there from my Dad, watching it unfold in Virginia: “Fire in the hole…controlled detonation”.

We know now that it is safe. We walk up to Comm Ave. More cabs pass us. The rain beats harder. We stand there, one of us on each side of a corner, trying to get a taxi to stop. Finally one does.

Our driver asks where to. We say Newton Centre. He apologizes for not having much of a voice. We assure him it’s no problem.

And we drive. Down Comm Ave. Down Beacon. We trace parts of the Marathon in reverse. We are holding hands in the quiet. Daft Punk is playing on the radio and it all feels surreally normal.

Somewhere near Boston College I break the silence, saying I liked what the Imam had to say. Heidi agrees. I ask about his mosque and she tells me what she knows. The cab driver turns the music off. I realize he is listening. I wonder if he is assessing whether we are safe before he speaks.

“Can I ask you something,” he says, in his hoarse voice.

“Sure,” we say.

“Are you talking about Imam Webb?”

“Yes.”

“You liked him?”

“Yes, we thought he was very good tonight.”

He takes out his phone, shows us a picture. “Him?!”

“Yep…that’s him.”

He grows excited. “He is my Imam!”

For the rest of the drive he tells us about himself. He has been in Boston for two years. He goes to the mosque for Friday prayers. He is from Dubai. He came because he had throat cancer and the hospital here knew how to treat it.

“Boston saved my life,” he tells us.

We tell him about us, and about the interfaith service. We trade stories. He tells us his name. We tell him we will pray for his health.

When we finally reach Newton we say “peace, my brother”. And we wish him well.

The pastor was right. The Christian life, it is a marathon. But sometimes it’s also a cab ride across Boston on a rainy night on a day when memory and hope are so intertwined.

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Questioning Advent: Day Five – Creating Hope for Others

Copyright, Sotheby's

Copyright, Sotheby’s

My wife Heidi is a member of Old South Church, a United Church of Christ congregation in Boston. If you don’t know Old South, you should check them out. They do amazing things in the city of Boston, including helping the city to heal after the Boston Marathon bombing happened, almost literally, right on their doorstep. Their ministry since 1669 has included everything from hosting planning meetings for the Boston Tea Party to being one of the first churches anywhere to reach out to people with AIDS in the very early days of the epidemic. I’m not sure I know of another congregation that has been so on the cutting edge of ministry so consistently for so long.

Last spring Old South had an important congregational decision to make. The congregation was the owner of two copies of the first book ever published in the British colonies, the Bay Psalm Book. Published in 1640, only eleven still exist, and only five are complete copies. Old South’s copies have been safely ensconced in the Boston Public Library across the street for some time now, but have remained dear to the hearts of the church. They are a beloved part of their history.

Which is why when the proposal came before the church to sell one copy, it was not an easy decision to make. Was selling one of these books tantamount to selling off their heritage? Were they making a short sighted decision that they would later regret? Were they being good stewards of what they had been given?

In this first week of Advent the church traditionally talks about hope. We talk about the hope that Christ brought to us when he was born in Bethlehem, and we talk about the hope which is to come. And, if we are really looking closely, we even talk about how we see evidence of that hope all around us. But what we sometimes forget is that as important as it is to look for hope, participating in that hope in bold ways is even more important.

Old South voted to sell their Bay Psalm Book. And last week, two days before Thanksgiving, it was auctioned off in New York City for $14.2 million dollars. $13.1 million of those dollars will come directly back to the church, which will use that money to continue to fund their ministries to the city of Boston and to the world. Because they sold the Bay Psalm Book, people will be fed and sheltered, a church that welcomes all will be strengthened, and a witness to the world of Christ’s hope will shine a little brighter.

That’s not to say that this was a decision that cost the church nothing. It is hard to let go of something that you cherish so greatly as this congregation cherished this part of their heritage. But in the end, they took seriously Christ’s call to us to “sell all you own and follow me”. And even as they let go…because they let go…they found hope. And that hope will be shared with others for years to come.

Question: Are you holding on to something in your life so tightly that you don’t have a free hand left to grasp hope?

Prayer: Holy God, you can use anything to create hope. Show us the places and things in our lives that we can use to create hope for others. And then, give us the will to use those things in new ways that we may find Christ’s hope for us, and for the world. Amen.

Flying Out Over Boston: Some Thoughts on Marriage Equality and the End of DOMA

We are flying out today, over Boston, the city where marriage equality got its start. We are flying out over Old South Church, the place where we were married. We are flying in to California, a place where yesterday morning our marriage wasn’t legal. And we are flying to General Synod, the biannual meeting of the United Church of Christ, the church that recognized our marriage before the federal government ever did.

Our marriage certificate from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is packed in my bag. I don’t know why. I know it’s not rational, but I just want to keep it close this week.

Yesterday morning it sat on our coffee table as my wife and I did what we have been doing on many mornings for the last two weeks. With MSNBC on the television, and SCOTUSblog pulled up on the laptop, we sat next to each other on the couch holding hands and praying.

When the decision on DOMA came in, it took our breath away and we broke down sobbing. In a good way. I have never cried for joy harder than I did yesterday morning. My father texted us: One down.

It took seven months and nine days after our wedding for the federal government to recognize our marriage. Every day was a day too long, but we are so aware that we were some of the lucky ones. Couples we know who have been married for years felt the full weight of discrimination for so much longer. And then there are the couples we have known who had at least one partner who didn’t live to see federal marriage equality. We mourned for them yesterday.

Yesterday I thought about all the same-sex couples whose marriages I have officiated as a pastor. I thought about two of our closest friends who were married in Massachusetts and who are welcoming twin boys in a few weeks. Their sons will never know a country that does not recognize their moms’ marriage as equal.

I thought about two other friends from Maine who had to be married in Massachusetts because their state did not yet recognize equal marriage at the time. And I thought about two men I married from California last month who will now return with a marriage that will be honored.

And I thought about all those couples from the South who have flown to Vermont in order to have a legal marriage that they knew would mean very little in their home states. I thought about friends I grew up with back home. They are still waiting, and we won’t forget them.

Last night, as I do many summer evenings in Vermont, I went fly fishing. There was a group of high school students swimming nearby. They were celebrating the end of DOMA and talking about what it meant.

When they got close I told them that my wife and my marriage had become federally recognized that day. They smiled and cheered and congratulated me. And they told me that for most of their friends and classmates, equality is a no-brainer. As one young man told me, in fifty years we are not going to believe that we had to debate this.

That gives me hope, because I can’t imagine having a similar discussion during my high school years. I know the world is changing.

Yesterday my wife and I began to jokingly call each other “Federally Recognized Spouse”. As in, “Federally Recognized Spouse, are you coming back downstairs?” We talked about needing to file an amended 2012 tax return. We then spent the rest of the day working on our gay agenda of doing laundry and packing for our trip. But, lightheartedness aside, when we went to sleep last night we did so a little more equal than we had woken up that morning.

Today, flying out with her at my side, I know that we are only traveling towards a more equal future, and that God’s love is there and that it has been with us all along.

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Where Do We Go From Here: A Sermon by Heidi Carrington Heath in the Aftermath of the Bombings

IMG_0686Note: this is not my own sermon, by one written by my wife, Heidi Carrington Heath. Heidi is a seminarian under care of Old South Church in Boston, the church located at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. The first worship service of that congregation was this Thursday night. Due to the fact the area is still considered a crime scene, Old South worshipped at the neighboring Church of the Covenant. She had already been scheduled to preach before the bombings. This is what she said to a congregation still in shock:

I love to preach at this service.  I had a text all picked out.  My sermon was well planned.  The ideas were percolating.  I knew exactly what I wanted to say to you tonight.   And then, it was Monday.   Beautiful, sunny, Marathon Monday.   It is practically a High Holy Day here in Boston.   I was sad to be away from the city for the first time in a number of years.  While I mumble and moan about the traffic on Patriot’s Day, and the ways it clogs up my commute, I not so secretly love the marathon.  I love what it stands for.   Dedication, hard work, determination, the resilience and perseverance of the human spirit.

This year I was almost through a full day of work wistfully wishing I was spending my sunny afternoon at the marathon when my phone buzzed.   The words on my screen read as if in slow motion.  A text message from one of my best friends said this:  “Hi.  You are going to hear soon there was a bomb at the marathon finish line.  I am okay.  I wanted you to know before the news broke.  I love you.  Don’t worry.”   I read the message over and over almost unable to process it.  Bomb.  Finish Line.  Don’t worry.   It couldn’t be…

I turned on the TV and the images came.  Fast.  Furious.  Heartbreaking.   Our beloved city being attacked in this way.   There was blood and devastation on our doorstep.   It didn’t feel real.   How could this be happening?   My co-workers and I held hands and shared a Kleenex box in the main part of our building as we watched in disbelief.  Almost immediately, I began watch social media and news reports with rapt attention for information of our beloved Old South.    It was a rare moment of joy when I discovered our church was safe.

A well meaning colleague of mine wrote me an email on Thursday night.  She said:  God has a purpose for all of this, we may never understand it, but there is a reason for everything.

I don’t know about you, but I didn’t find those words very comforting.

My words of comfort look a little more like tonight’s scripture passage:  The Lord is my Shepherd.   I shall not want.   (Do you know it?  If so, won’t you say it with me?)  She makes me lie down in green pastures.   She leadeth me beside the still waters.   She restoreth my soul.

Now, I understand where my friend was coming from.  I really do.   When the world feels too hard, too big, too awful to understand, it is our instinct to rush to quick, accessible theology in an effort to make sense of it all when things seem so senseless.    It is somehow easier to attribute the horror of something like a bomb to God than it is to another human being.

But here’s the thing.

I don’t believe that God causes bombs to explode.   I don’t believe that God sends attacks on our city as the result of some kind of celestial revenge for bad behavior, or in a wrath of heavenly anger.   That’s not the God I know and love.

William Paul Young, author of the popular book The Shack says it like this:  Grace doesn’t depend on suffering to exist, but where there is suffering you will find grace in many facets and colors.”

I don’t believe that God causes bad things to happen, but I do believe that God can work for good even in the midst of something unspeakable.

Here are a few examples of what the Holy One looks like to me as she works in our midst…

He looks like a lot like 1st LT Stephen Fiola and 1st Sargeant Bernard Madore of the Massachusetts national guard who ran into the flames when the first blast came to help the injured.

She looks a lot like the countless, tireless first responders who have worked around the clock since Monday.

Or how about the marathon runners who had just run TWENTY SIX POINT TWO MILES and kept running another mile and a half to Mass General Hospital to donate blood for their fallen and injured community?

I see it in the countless neighbors and community members who were Christ to each other in these recent days:  offering food, shelter, safety, even the clothes off their backs to help the stranger in a time of need.

This is the God I know, beloved.    Our tender shepherd who does not leave her sheep alone, even and especially in times of great trial.    On a less than ordinary April night when we cry out:  my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?   God is Emmanuel, God with us.   She is living out her promise:  I will be with you always.

That is why we gather here tonight. We gather not to pretend that what has happened on our doorstep did not happen.   But to remind ourselves that death will never have the last word. We gather tonight to be in communion with the one whose rod and staff comforts us in times of great.   We come to rest our weary hearts on the font of God’s still speaking love. We come to be with the one who does not and will not leave us alone.

Smoke may have clouded the finish line one sunny, Monday afternoon.  But it is not the end of the race.  Tonight, we lace up our running shoes, and begin anew.  We walk and run with steps of mercy, love, justice, and compassion.

Though the road seems long, and the journey may make us weary…

Though right now it may seem that we are running up heartbreak hill for miles and miles…

We are not alone.

To that end, will you join hands with the person next to you?  Let us pray.

Holy One,

We have so many questions and so few answers.

Our pain is raw and our tears are fresh.

We cannot see the road ahead.

And yet, we give you thanks for your presence with us in these dark days.

We have seen you move among us in powerful ways.

Help us to turn away from darkness and toward the light that we might see you in one another.

May we seek solace in community, knowing we are not alone.

Amen.

Boylston Street

Boylston Street, as seen from the Prudential Tower, December 2011

Boylston Street, as seen from the Prudential Tower, December 2011

I often park on the finish line of the Boston Marathon. 364 days a year it’s just a paint-worn line on the pavement on Boylston Street. It’s right in front of Old South Church, my wife’s home congregation, and I sometimes joke that it is the closest I will ever get to crossing the finish line of the Boston Marathon.

But one day a year, that line means something else. It’s the destination to which everyone who attempts to run 26.2 miles looks ahead. It’s the place where spirit triumphs over pain. It’s the culmination of months, if not years of training. And, for Bostonians, it’s an icon.

When I saw the pictures of Old South shrouded in smoke this afternoon, I felt like someone had punched me in the gut. I still do.

Whoever placed the bombs at the finish line of the Boston Marathon today knew what they were doing. And they knew that when they were detonated, they would strike a psychic as well as physical blow to the city. They timed this, and they knew what they were doing. They wanted to forever transform that block of Boylston Street from a place of celebration to a place of pain.

They don’t get to do that.

Boylston Street is both beautiful and real. Boston Public Library sits on the corner of the block where the finish line is painted. Copley Square is the next block up. The Prudential Center is the next block down. And on the street a mix of business people commuting, Berklee students playing instruments, homeless people selling newspapers, and tourists meet. And there is no one block in the city that says “Boston” more to me than that stretch of Boylston between Dartmouth and Exeter. When I first saw it, I was immediately in love.

Actually, I may have been more in love with the person I was with that first time I saw it, though I didn’t know it. She’s my wife now. And when I decided to propose to her, I brought her up to the top of the Prudential Center and we looked out at Boylston Street. I pointed down past the finish line to the church where she had taken me that first night. And then, we walked down to that church next to the finish line, and I asked her to marry me.

Five months ago we stood just yards from the finish line as our wedding photos were taken, right after we had said our vows. People walking by on the street congratulated us and wished us well. We could almost feel the love surrounding us that day. That’s what I remember most about that block of Boylston Street.

And that’s what I’m going to keep remembering. What happened today is a tragedy and I will mourn it with Boston and with everyone who has turned their hearts to the city tonight. But whomever it was who tried to blow the block apart, and who tried to forever turn it into a place synonymous with terror and pain…you don’t get to.

Love always wins. I believe that because I believe that God is love, and I believe that God’s love is ultimately impossible to resist. Love wins when we refuse to stop seeing it. And I refuse to stop seeing it. No matter what we learn about the who or the why of what happened today, I choose to believe that in the end “perfect love casts out fear”. In our hearts. In our minds. And on that one city block in the heart of Boston.