Translating the Gospel: Sermon for Pentecost, June 4, 2017

Earlier this year I was researching my mom’s grandparents, my mom’s mom’s family, and I found my great-grandfather’s application for citizenship in this country.

My grandmother’s parents emigrated from Italy in the early 1900’s and they settled in Maine. They had died long before I was born so I never met them. But I found my great-granddad’s citizenship paperwork, complete with this picture of this big, bulky guy, and I texted it to my sister and said “well, I know where I got my build from.”

I then wondered what my great-grandmother looked like, but no matter where I searched, I couldn’t find anything. So I called my mom and asked, “Is there a reason that your grandmother maybe never became a citizen.” And she said, “Oh yes…she never learned to speak English.”

That surprised me because my grandmother grew up speaking Italian, but also spoke English. The same was true for her brothers and sisters. But their mother had grown up in Italy, and in Portland she lived in a community where you only needed to speak Italian. Even at church the priest spoke Italian. She had little exposure to English and never learned.

But my mom had always talked about her grandmother and how she loved her grandchildren. And, none of them had learned Italian. So, I wondered how the kids knew that. But my mom said that even though she didn’t speak much English, there were always other ways she could show her affection and love.

Today is Pentecost Sunday. This is the day that we in the church celebrate the Holy Spirit, and the way it arrived. Fifty days after Easter, and soon after the Ascension of Jesus Christ, the disciples were gathered together. You have to imagine they were a little confused. They’d been through this emotional whiplash. First Jesus was dead, then somehow he was alive, and now he was gone again. Before he left, though, he told them all to continue to tell his story, so they must have been sitting there thinking, “Okay, what now?” and “How do we do this?”

Scripture tells us that just then “a mighty wind” rushed through the room, and “tongues of fire” appeared over each of their heads. And, suddenly, they could speak languages they’d never known.

They went out into the city and met people who had come to Jerusalem from every place they could imagine. This would be like standing in the middle of the international arrival terminal at Logan, hearing all the different languages around you. And they began telling the story of Jesus, and of what had happened. And the people were like, “Wait, they’re all from Galilee. How do these guys know my language?”

A few folks were skeptical. They looked at the disciples and said, “they must be filled with new wine.” The technical translation for that is, “these guys are drunk”. But Peter hears this and says, “hey, we’re not drunk” (actually, he says, “it’s only 9am”, which I’ve always kind of loved”). But, Peter says, something has indeed happened. A new era has begun, and this small handful of disciples, this earliest church, has a story to tell.

What happened to the disciples was that the Holy Spirit had arrived. When we talk about God, or the Trinity, the Holy Spirit normally comes last. We get God who is the creator, the parent, the one who made all of us. And we get God who is Jesus Christ, who lived and died and rose again. But that last part, God the Holy Spirit, that’s harder to explain. It is literally amorphous.

And yet, it’s probably the Holy Spirit that we encounter most in our lives. It’s the Holy Spirit who Jesus promised would be there for the disciples, leading them, supporting them, and guiding them, even after they no longer saw him. And it’s the Holy Spirit who guides us still, and who lifts up our hearts when we need to know that God is still with us.

It’s this first gift of the Holy Spirit to the church, though, that is so powerful, and so important for us still. The disciples get the ability to speak the languages of others. They get a way to tell the story of Jesus, and what they’ve seen. And now it’s no longer just their story, but the world’s.

And the most important things about this is that they were the ones who started to speak other languages. How much easier would it have been for the Holy Spirit to say, “okay, I’ve touched every person in Jerusalem, and now they all speak your language, so go out there and tell them the story.”

But that’s not how it works. Instead it’s the disciples who are changed. It’s the church that has to learn new languages.

That’s a good reminder for us today because sometimes in the church we think everyone just needs to learn our language. You know, if people out there would just get onboard and come through the doors, and make an effort, they’d know how to talk like us.

But in a time when church is increasingly optional, that’s doesn’t happen. For many people, we may as well be speaking a foreign language in here. For some of them that’s confusing, and for others that may be downright frightening. So when people dare to walk through the doors of our church, that’s why it’s so important that we spell out in plain language what we are doing here.

That’s why we write the words of the Lord’s Prayer in the bulletin. That’s why we announce the hymns. That’s why we try to explain the sacraments. We have to be translators because otherwise we may as well be speaking Galilean.

IMG_5015And sometimes this goes beyond literal language to other ways of telling our story. As you arrived today you may have noticed that we have a rainbow flag out in front of the church today. Church council voted unanimously to place it there during the month of June. In doing so we are recognizing two things. First, we are remembering what happened in Orlando at the Pulse Nightclub a year ago this month. Second, we are flying it because June is Pride month for LGBTQ people, and we are standing in solidarity with the LGBTQ community.

About twenty years ago now this church voted to become Open and Affirming, which is a term that itself needs translation. Open and Affirming in our tradition means that we welcome and affirm people of all sexual orientations and gender identities. So, you know, and I know, that this is a step this church has taken. And you know, and I know, that it is safe for an LGBTQ person, or their friends, or their family, to walk through the doors of this church.

But here’s the catch. The average person walking or driving by probably doesn’t know that. And if they are a person who is LGBTQ, or who loves someone who is, they probably don’t know that this is a safe place. That’s understandable. Most churches aren’t, so why should this one be any different?

I know that’s a question for some in our community because people have asked me, “Would I be welcome there?” And I’m often like, “Okay, look at me…I’m the pastor.” But even with that…they don’t know for certain.

So imagine this. Imagine you are wondering who we are. Maybe you’re the parent of a gay kid. Maybe your best friend is trans. Or maybe you’re a middle school kid who is figuring out who you are, and who is wondering whether God really loves you. And imagine that you are riding in a car, looking out the window, and you see the big white church on Front Street, and you notice that flag. And imagine that in your heart, in a new way, you know for the first time that maybe God really does love you.

Even if you never come through the doors of the church, you hear that this story is for you too. That’s the power of Pentecost. That’s the gift of the Holy Spirit, and it’s a gift that is given to us not to keep to ourselves, but to use to share the story of God’s love with the world.

We become stronger every time we share our story. And we become stronger every time someone new walks through our doors because they bring their own gifts with them. That church that gathered in the Upper Room at Pentecost, all of twelve people strong, has grown to be a church of over 2 billion people worldwide today.

It didn’t get there by us all sitting in our pews, speaking our own language. It got there because the Holy Spirit taught us new ways to tell the story, and open our doors wider, and to invite people in. And so now is our turn. Let us be Pentecost people in all we do, sharing the Gospel of God’s love and grace in every language we can find.

 

Our Story: Sermon for the 379th Anniversary of the Congregational Church in Exeter, April 2, 2017

An audio recording of this sermon is available here.

When you’re telling a story, there are two ways to do it. One is that you can focus on a very short period of time, like a year, or even a week. Those can be great stories. James Joyce’s Ulysses might just be the best work of Twentieth Century fiction and that takes place entirely in one day.

But on the other end of the spectrum, there are the stories that take not just years, but generations, and centuries, to tell. We read from a book of those stories every Sunday. The Bible spans centuries, and we can never forget that some of the central characters were separated by long spans of time. From Moses to Paul, for instance, was probably about 1300 years.

So that’s a really long story. And near the end of the story told in the Bible, there’s the start of a new story. The passage from the book of Acts that JD read this morning is about how the Christian faith started spreading and growing, and how Christ’s disciples and new converts to the faith began to form into a community.

The passage tells us that the believers “devoted themselves” to the teachings, and to praying, giving to others, sharing fellowship, eating together, praising God, and growing in number. In other words, they became the church.

That’s the larger story that we are a part of today. Because nearly 2000 years ago the first Christians learned that community mattered, we know to gather in this community, and to live out our faith with one another. This is the story of the church in every age and in every place.

But every church that has ever been formed, every community that has ever gathered around the story of Christ, has its own story too. And it’s the story of this community, and what God has done in it, that I want to talk about a little today.

exeter church logo triple vertical-1A few years ago a pastor friend down in Florida was talking about old churches. He was saying to a group of New England pastors, “You know, they’re really old…they’ve been around since the 1800’s!”

There was a little suppressed laughter and he was like, “wait…I forgot…how old are your churches?”

And then the roll call started. Late 1700’s. Early 1700’s. Late 1600’s. And I very humbly said, “Oh, you know, 1638.”

People are always surprised to hear just how old we are. We’re not the oldest church in continuous existence in New England. The first comes from 1620. But we are close. 379 years ago tomorrow, our church, and by extension the entire town of Exeter, was founded.

It’s worth noting that this story does not start joyfully. The people who came here to Exeter were in a real sense religious refugees. The Rev. John Wheelwright had been kicked out of Massachusetts for the heresy of being too focused on the love and grace of God.

So, that dour old Puritan in the painting down in the vestry? He was the fun one.

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Rev. John Wheelwright

Around the same time Wheelwright’s sister-in-law, a woman named Ann Hutchinson, was also kicked out. So, Hutchinson went south to what is now Rhode Island and Wheelwright and his band of followers came here to a place no one back then wanted to go: New Hampshire.

They settled on the banks of the Squamscott and they started to build a new community. And back in Puritan times, if you wanted to have a town, you had to have a church. There was no separation of church and state back then. They were essentially one and the same.

That’s the start of our story. A few years later this area came under Massachusetts’ control, and Wheelwright, still persona-non-grata, had to move on. But the church stayed. And even though it had some rocky years at first, it took root. And so did the town. And because of that, 379 years later we are still here.

Think of those 379 years. Think of everything that has happened in that time. This parish predates American independence by 138 years. A signer of the Declaration of Independence was a part of this very church.

Later in 1781 John Phillips and other church members took seriously the need for education and founded what is now Phillips Exeter Academy. And in the next century this church took a stand against slavery, and committed itself to abolition.

In the 20th century this church sent young people off to World War I and World War II. Later it sent its pastor off to march with Dr. King at Selma. It watched the Cold War come and go, and society rapidly change. And all the while, it endured, here at the heart of Exeter. And the story went on.

But that is only part of the story. Because this church has survived a lot of change inside its doors too. First, there’s the physical change. For instance, did you know that we are in the “new building”? This is actually the fifth church building, built recently, in 1798.

This church has also seen its fair share of changes involving clergy, and their role. When this building was first built, there was no second floor sanctuary. Instead, you came in the front doors and sat in pews in what is now the vestry. But the pastor would stand about where I am now. And he, always a he, would look down on his congregation, and preach to them for hours.

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The church in the later 1800’s.

Sometime in the 1800’s things changed and the sanctuary was moved upstairs, and the pastor rightfully was brought to the same level as the people, both physically and symbolically. (The sermons became a lot shorter too.)

In all this church, excluding interims, has had 38 senior pastors. Each has had their own style, and each has influenced the direction of the church. And no matter whether they were beloved or their tenures were rocky, they were not the church. And when they left, the story went on.

There have been challenges too. Like the fact that or a large part of our history this church was supported by the taxes people paid to the town. We were the only church, and you had to belong, so everyone was taxed and that’s how the pastor got paid and the building stayed open.

But in the 1800’s, when there were more faiths in town, that ended. And the church was absolutely panicked about it. They thought for sure that this would be the end. But instead, people dug deep, and gave. And in the end they gave more willingly in gifts than they had ever given grudgingly in taxes. And the story went on.

There was also the time this church split it two. In 1748, in the heart of the Great Awakening, theological differences were so great that this church split into First Parish, which was more orthodox and remained here, and second parish, which was just down the street by the Academy.

They remained separate for 170 years, not rejoining one another until 1918 or, as I like to think of it, until everyone who remembered why they were fighting was dead.

That’s one reason that we have our name. Once the churches rejoined, we became one. And so was no longer First Congregational Church of Exeter, or Second Church, but only The Congregational Church in Exeter. And the story went on.

Later we added the initials UCC, for United Church of Christ. The Congregational Churches merged with another denomination in 1957 to form the UCC. But there was plenty of debate. New England Congregationalists have a healthy suspicion of hierarchy, and cherish independence. Still, we joined, and became connected with another larger story.

1473964586467In recent years, this church has been called to take other stands as well. Like in 1996 when the question of whether we should become an Open and Affirming congregation, one which welcomed people of all sexual orientations or gender identities, came before the church. You have to remember that this was truly a different time. The decision to become ONA led to some leaving the church. And yet, sometimes you have to move forward and do the next right thing, even if not everyone is onboard. Because that’s the work of faith. And even then, the story went on.

And so, this morning we sit here in this place, and we remember that the story did not begin with us. We are here because generations of faithful people tried their best to be God’s church here in Exeter. We are here because a cast of characters we will never know wrote a story that was rich enough to last centuries.

But hopefully we are also here because we want to be a part of the story. We are here because in some small way we are hoping to write our own sentences and paragraphs into the story of this church.

You and I get to write this chapter in the story of the Congregational Church in Exeter. And, God willing, long after we are gone, others will be writing this story too. Because this isn’t just our story. It’s the story of John Wheelwright, and it’s the story of John Phillips. But it’s also the story of unnamed women who kept the doors open. It’s the story of children who were raised in this church, and in the faith. Children whose names we will never know, and children who grew up to be men like Harry Thayer.

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Singing “Happy Birthday Dear Church” before cutting the birthday cake.

And it’s the story of generations left to come. My hope is that generations from now another pastor will be standing at the pulpit of this church and preaching about this church’s birthday. Neither they nor the people they serve will probably know our names. But they will know us. They will know us by our works, and they will know us by the story that, with the help of God, we have written for them. The one that they will then take their turn writing.

I pray that the story we leave to them is one worth reading, and one worth telling. And I pray that what we do today will make it possible for them to truly write a masterpiece. We are so very fortunate to be a part of the story of the Congregational Church in Exeter, because long after we are gone, the story will go on.

And so, Happy Birthday, Congregational Church in Exeter. And may God bless us with many more.

Does “All Are Welcome” Really Mean “All Are Welcome”?: Some tips on finding a welcoming church

From time to time someone will email me asking for help in finding a church. Quite often they are looking because they experienced some sort of rejection from a former faith community. If I know of a a church in their area that is truly welcoming to all, I’ll share that information. But often I know nothing about their particular city or town, and I don’t feel comfortable recommending a church without at least some information.

29671_389906276786_3698836_nOne thing I do caution spiritual seekers, particularly those who are LGBTQ or who have had other experiences of rejection in the church, about is to be “wise as serpents, and gentle as doves” when it comes to what a new church claims. Just about any church out there will tell you “all are welcome”. But what does that really mean?

All are welcome could mean this: we will not turn you away at the door. You can come in, sit through the service, and maybe even have coffee afterwards. Depending on the church, you may be greeted warmly and genuinely, or you may get subtle (or not so subtle) signals that people don’t think you belong. My hope is that the latter will never happen to you at a church, but if it does run!

So what happens when you go to a church and people do seem to welcome you? Maybe they have even been enthusiastic about the welcome. What if they have not only shared the coffee and the cookies, but they’ve invited you back for worship next week and Bible study on Wednesday? This is when you might be tempted to say, “Great! I’ve found my church!” And maybe you have. In fact, I hope that you have.

But for those who have in some ways been marginalized by the church, this is where you might want to ask some explicit questions about what that welcome means. You want to find out now; not a year down the road.

There’s a church near me that claims that they welcome all. And I believe that people in that church genuinely would be glad to see anyone come through the doors. In fact, a few local gay folks have even asked whether they would be welcomed in church, and the answer has been “yes”. But being welcomed to attend and being welcomed into the full life of a church are two very different things.

In the case of this particular church, for instance, women are not invited to hold leadership positions. Additionally, while they might welcome LGBT people to attend and worship with them, they believe that being gay is a sin. A gay couple could be welcome to attend, but they could never get married in that church. In fact, they may be pressured to somehow “change” their sexual orientation. This will all be done under the guise of “love the sinner, hate the sin”, and with the belief of the church that they are legitimately being welcoming.

So, how do you determine that a church really is as welcoming of everyone as they claim? My first suggestion is this: ask a lot of question. Ask about the role of women in the church. Ask explicitly about whether gay and lesbian couples will be blessed and accepted as equal in the eyes of the congregation. Ask about who is allowed to hold leadership roles in the congregation. And then ask more questions. If there is something you are scared to ask, that probably means it’s even more important than you think that you go ahead and ask it.

So, here are some examples of what to ask. And here are the responses you should get before you commit yourself to any church. And remember, in this case “welcome” doesn’t just mean “you can come to worship”. Welcome means that you invited into the full life, sacraments, celebrations, and ministry of the church. Don’t settle for anything less:

Am I welcome if I’ve never been to church before? YES!

If I’m a single parent? YES!

If I don’t believe the earth was created in six 24 hour days? YES!

If I’m divorced? Or if I’m divorced and remarried? YES!

If I didn’t grow up in this denomination? YES!

If I believe there is truth in science? YES!

If English isn’t my first language? YES!

If I’m gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender, or I love someone who is? YES!

If I’m in recovery from addiction? YES!

If I like to read “Harry Potter”? YES!

If my spouse/partner is of a different faith? YES!

If I’ve never been baptized? YES!

If I bring my small children? YES!

If I have to work most Sunday mornings? YES!

If I’m more comfortable wearing jeans and a t-shirt to church than a suit? YES

If I take the Bible seriously, but not literally? YES!

If I am a person with a disability? YES!

If I believe all people are created equal? YES!

If I’m a youth or young adult? YES!

If I believe women should be ordained? YES!

If I drink alcohol? YES!

If it’s been a while since I’ve been to church? YES!

If I prefer classic rock to Christian rock? YES!

If I’m a seasonal resident and not here all year? YES!

If I vote for Democrats? Or Republicans? Or any other political party? YES!

If I’ve made some big mistakes in my life? YES!

If I can’t afford to put anything in the offering plate? YES!

If I have doubts? YES!

These are just a few. What would you add? Leave a comment to let others know.

 

What God Sees, and What We Miss: Sermon for March 30, 2014

1 Samuel 16:1-13

16:1 The LORD said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.”

16:2 Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me.” And the LORD said, “Take a heifer with you, and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the LORD.’

16:3 Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do; and you shall anoint for me the one whom I name to you.”

16:4 Samuel did what the LORD commanded, and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling, and said, “Do you come peaceably?”

16:5 He said, “Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the LORD; sanctify yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice.” And he sanctified Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.

16:6 When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the LORD.”

16:7 But the LORD said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.”

16:8 Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. He said, “Neither has the LORD chosen this one.”

16:9 Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, “Neither has the LORD chosen this one.”

16:10 Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, and Samuel said to Jesse, “The LORD has not chosen any of these.”

16:11 Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.”

16:12 He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The LORD said, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.”

16:13 Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the LORD came mightily upon David from that day forward. Samuel then set out and went to Ramah.

David Anointed by Samuel, from a synagogue in Syria, 15th Century. (This image is in the public domain.)

David Anointed by Samuel, from a synagogue in Syria, 15th Century. (This image is in the public domain.)

When I was growing up, I was always the youngest. I was the youngest of all my siblings, by far. The youngest of all my cousins. Most of tine time I was even the youngest in my class. I’ve joked that growing up I had a permanent reservation at the children’s table.

I think that’s why I like this story so much. It is a quintessential youngest kid story. Samuel has been appointed by God to go and anoint the new king. And God tells Samuel that the king will come from among Jesse’s sons.

So Samuel goes to Jesse’s house and says, “I need to meet your sons”. And Jesse’s seven oldest sons are brought in. Now, it’s important to note that in these days seven was a very highlly valued number. Seven was the ideal number, the one that signified perfection. So when Jesse had seven sons, that was something to be especially proud of in his society.

But the thing is, Jesse also had an eighth son. David. David was the youngest, and the smallest, the unexpected one, and no one really expected much out of him. So when Samuel came to anoint the new king, they didn’t even bother bringing him into the house. They just left him out in the field to watch the sheep.

But when Samuel starts to look at Jesse’s sons, God makes it clear that none of them is the king. The first one comes, and Samuel thinks, this has to be the king. But it’s not. And then the second. And then the third. Again and again until none of David’s brothers has been chosen. And that’s when Samuel asks, “Are these all your sons?”

And Jesse tells him about David. And someone went out to the fields to get him, and as soon as Samuel sees David, he knows. This is the king.

I’ve always liked underdogs. When I watch football games I almost always root for the underdog. And this story is about an underdog. In fact, David wasn’t even really an underdog because he wasn’t even considered as a possibility. And yet, he was the only one for the job.

This story reminds me that sometimes we have preconceptions about how God works. We expect that God is going to choose someone who looks a certain way or acts a certain way to do God’s will. And when you think about it, why wouldn’t it be David’s brothers? Older, bigger, stronger…it just makes sense.

But God tells Samuel, “don’t look at their outward appearance…look at the heart.”

And David’s heart was strong. This is the one who would defeat Goliath with just a slingshot. The one who would reign as king. The one who is even an ancestor of Jesus.

What if Samuel had never asked Jesse, “are you sure you don’t have another son”? What if they had left David out in the field tending the sheep? What if Samuel had tried to settle for anything less than what God wanted? My guess is that the entire Biblical story would be very different.

It makes me ask, who are we leaving out in the fields today? Some of you read the story of the eight year old girl in Virginia who was pressured out of her Christian school because she was too much of a tomboy. The school told her grandparents that she couldn’t keep cutting her hair short, or wearing the clothes she wanted to wear. They told them that she had to learn to accept her place as a girl and to be more feminine. Thankfully, her grandparents decided that they weren’t going to subject her to that anymore, but they shouldn’t have ever been forced to make that choice.

This was a Christian school. This is a school that says they want to teach children what the Bible teaches. And that’s what this child of God has learned about Jesus…that he doesn’t like the way she dresses. And when you think about it, that is so different than what God tells Samuel in today’s Scripture: don’t look at the outward appearance…look at the heart.

But the thing is, things like this happen all of the time. Sometimes in ways as blatant as the child in Virginia, but other times in more subtle ways. We stop listening to someone’s voice. We dismiss it because they are too young or too new or too old or too…whatever it is that we can’t wrap our heads around. And slowly, we push them out into the fields.

Have you ever wondered who’s out there? And have you ever wondered what they can offer?

What are we missing out on? Whose voices are not being heard? Who is not sitting at our table? It’s a question we as the church have to ask ourselves every time we make a decision. Not just “what do we want or what do we need” but “what do the people who are outside the wall of this church need”?

Last year a family came to the church for help making ends meet. And we have a pastor’s discretionary fund which lets me help our neighbors who are having a hard time, on behalf of our whole church.

The family sent me a thank you email, and I wrote them back and said we were glad to do it. And I also said, “you know…you would always be welcome at our church if you ever want to attend. No pressure, but the invitation is there.”

The email back said, “Thank you…not every church lets just anyone come.”

It was heartbreaking. Because that’s what some people think that church is; a club that one has to be deserving enough to join. And even though you and I know that we welcome anyone who comes through that doors, the reality is some people truly do believe that that’s what church is about. They believe that the church puts people out in the fields, the same way David was left out in the fields.

You really can’t blame folks for believing that though. Because sometimes Christians are our own worst enemy when it comes to getting our message out there.

This is part of why we voted to become an Open and Affirming church. It’s part of why we decided to go on record as being the sort of place where we can honestly say, “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here”. And, no, that won’t make the front page of the papers, or the news rotation on CNN, but it’s every bit as important a piece of news.

People need to hear that church is where you are not judged on worldly things, but you are welcomed because of your heart.

We all need to hear that. Because there’s another piece to this too. And that is, have you ever left yourselves out in the fields? Have you ever thought maybe there’s nothing about you that God can use? Maybe at some level you don’t feel like you really belong. Maybe you think your voice is not important.

But it is.

That’s especially true in church. Because church is not somewhere you go…it’s who you are. You are the church. And church is not a spectator sport. It requires more than one hour on Sunday morning. It requires your heart.

And so the questions for this church, the questions for every church, are this: Whose voices are we missing? And is one of them yours?

When they finally called for David, what do you think he was thinking? Do you think he was thinking “finally! They finally know what I am!”? Or maybe was he thinking, “there’s some mistake? It’s got to be one of my brothers”?

But it wasn’t a mistake. And in time, David came to know that.

God can do amazing things through you too. And God can do amazing things through the people we haven’t met yet. So, are you out in the fields? Do you know someone who is? It’s time to call them back. It’s time to come home.

And, by the way, there’s no children’s table back at home…the one God invited us to sit at has enough room for everyone. Even you. Amen.

 

“Jesus Doesn’t Reject People” – Sermon for September 25, 2011

Matthew 21:23-32
21:23 When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”

21:24 Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things.

21:25 Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’

21:26 But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.”

21:27 So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

21:28 “What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’

21:29 He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went.

21:30 The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go.

21:31 Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.

21:32 For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.

My grandmother grew up in Portland, Maine in the Little Italy. Her parents were immigrants who had left their homeland to come here carrying little else other than their Catholic faith. Like everyone else in her neighborhood, she was raised in the church and taught that it was the one true faith.

And then, as a young woman in the 1930’s, she met my grandfather. A soldier whose family had lived here for generations, and who was very Protestant. As best as I can figure it, they eloped. And sometime after she went to her priest and told him. He condemned the marriage and told her she would go to hell. The only way she could avoid hell, he told her, was to raise her children as Catholics. Then, maybe, she wouldn’t be damned.

When I heard this story for the first time I realized immediately that my grandmother must have been a pretty courageous woman. My mother and her siblings did not grow up Catholic. The priest did not scare her into compliance. And when you think about the insular, tight-knit community where she grew up, it’s pretty remarkable that a young, religious woman valued her love for her husband over the scare tactics of a clergyman. In the end she trusted her relationship with God over fear.

That’s the story I remembered when I read today’s Gospel. Jesus is entering the Temple, the most holy place in Israel, and he is stopped by the chief priests who want to know why he thinks he should be there. “By what authority are you doing these things,” they ask. And Jesus tells them a parable about two sons. Both are asked to work in their father’s vineyard. And one says immediately that he’ll go, but he never actually does. The other complains and says he won’t go, but then finally does. Jesus asks which one, the one who said he would do the right thing but didn’t or the one who didn’t want to do the right thing but did it anyway, did his father’s will. The priests agree it’s the one who went.

Jesus uses that story to show them how much they are like the son who says he will follow his father’s will but never does. And he tells them that the tax collector and prostitutes, the most looked down upon of society, will enter the kingdom of God before them. He tells them that these least of society, they truly believe.

I want to have the faith of the tax collectors and prostitutes. I want to have the faith of my grandmother. I want to have so much faith that I trust my relationship with God over the clamor of those who want to tell me God does not love me as much as them. I want to trust it over the voices of those who say others are going to hell.

My freshman year of college I had a friend who also later went on to be a pastor. One night after our campus Christian fellowship had worship, we were walking back to the dorms and chatting. As we came close to my dorm he stopped and looked at me and said, “Emily, I love you, but you’re going to hell.”

I’d heard that before. I didn’t really believe it. Not in most parts of my soul, anyway. But it still stung. Now, years later that classmate is now pastoring a church in the town where I grew up. A church where some of my friends who he would have also thought were going to hell attended. And I worry sometimes that some 14 or 15 year old kid will come into his office, and hear the same thing. And one of two things may happen. They’ll either believe it, and believe that God hates them. Or they won’t, and they won’t believe in the church anymore.

I hope neither happens, but I know that more often than not, one or the other does. When my grandmother left the priest’s office that day, she made a decision not to raise her kids in the Catholic Church. But, beyond that, she made a decision not to raise her kids in any church. And so my mother and her siblings didn’t grow up in the faith. In fact, most of her grandchildren and now her great-grandchildren didn’t grow up in the faith. And that’s all for two reasons. First, someone tried to convince her that she had done something so awful that God didn’t love her anymore. And, second, no other church came along and told her that wasn’t true.

Those of us who represent the church, and you are among them, have an incredible influence. And it can be used to inspire incredible things. And it can also be used to hurt someone so deeply that they think we are doing it in Christ’s name, and that they believe they have no place here.

When I was a chaplain I was often called to talk to someone who was dealing with some kind of addiction issue. They were often brought into the hospital because they finally had decided to go to rehab, or they ended up needing treatment for some illness the addiction was only making worse. And they would ask for a chaplain to be called.

We would talk and, since they called me, I would ask about whether or not they were involved in any religious community. And more often than not I’d get a response like, “No, they don’t like folks like me,” or “I live in a small town and everyone knows about my problem,” or “I’ve never been a saint. I won’t be welcome.”

I always wanted to say, “that isn’t true, you’d be more than welcome” when I heard something like that. I wanted to tell them that there would be no judgement because there were plenty of people in the pews, and, yes, even behind the pulpit, who had been through the same. But I sometimes found it hard to say that in good conscience because I know that welcome is not always universal. I know that I’ve even heard other clergy, not here in Vermont but in other places, complain about the AA groups that use their churches. It’s hard to have to give someone a cautious recommendation about going to church.

But the sad truth about churches, is that when many people think about us, they don’t think about people who will love them. They think about people who will judge them. And most people in this world get enough of that elsewhere.

Martin Luther rejected the view that we were all either saints or sinners. Instead, he said, we are all simultaneously saints AND sinners. Five hundred years later most churches still haven’t caught on to that. That those of us who come to church on Sunday morning are here both because we need God’s grace AND because God loves us beyond our deepest understanding. And what’s true of us is true of every one of God’s children. And it’s not our place to withhold the church, Christ’s body here on earth, from any of them.

There is a story by an author named Flannery O’Connor. She was a writer from Georgia, and a devout Roman Catholic. She wrote a short story called “Revelation” about a good Christian woman who was very assured about her place in heaven. The story follows her throughout her day as she judges the people she encounters. She enters a doctor’s waiting room and looks around and makes a judgment about everyone there, in her head making racist comments, judging the poor, belittling the appearance of others. And all the while assuring herself that she is “grateful” and a “good Christian”.

At the end of the story she is struck by a religious vision. She sees a line of people ascending to heaven. All the people she had seen that day are in it, and they are following one another up into the clouds. And she is not leading the line into the kingdom of God. She is at the very end of it. And she is shocked.

I see myself in the people she judged. But more importantly, I see myself in her too. Like Luther said, we are all simultaneously saint and sinner. All simultaneously the one who closes the door of welcome, and the one who opens it.

This summer, when I went to the United Church of Christ’s General Synod down in Tampa, we were greeted by a huge banner as we walked in. It read “Jesus didn’t reject people. Neither do we.” The UCC put a number of those banners up all over Tampa that said that. And I remember thinking what it was like, to grow up not even two hours from there, and to sometimes believe that the church was full of people who could never welcome someone who was in any way not like them. And I thought about what it would be like for a kid growing up there now to see those signs, and know that there were people who loved Jesus so much that they loved him beyond what he thought possible.

When I first realized what those signs might mean to the people who saw them, I cried. I’m not a big crier, and it shocked me to cry over a church sign, but I did. And when I realized that the simple act of a church making clear that they welcomed everyone no matter who they were or what they had seen moved me so much, I cried even harder. Because an act of hospitality, an act of welcome on behalf of a church, shouldn’t be so rare that it’s existence shocks us. I cried out of joy for the one who would find Christ’s welcome. And I cried out of pain for a church that has often withheld it.

It doesn’t have to be like that. We are welcoming churches, I believe that. I believe anyone who comes through those doors will be welcome. But I also believe that there are some outside those doors who have been so hurt that they will never dare to come in on their own. And so maybe, the welcome needs to go outside. I’m not saying a big sign on the lawn, though I wouldn’t object. But a big sign in our hearts, a big sign on our faces, a big sign unfurled by the work of our hands: you are welcome here. Jesus would never have rejected you. Neither will we. Amen.