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.

Preparing the Armor of Light: November 27, 2016

A year ago right about this time I had breakfast with a friend of mine who grew up Jewish. We were talking about the coming holidays and she asked me about Advent. “You know,” she said, “I always thought Advent started on December 1st, but I’m hearing now that it actually starts in November.”

“That’s right,” I said. “It starts four Sundays before Christmas, so that means it usually starts the last week of November.”

“So here’s my question,” she replied. “If Advent starts in November, why does my chocolate Advent calendar always start on December 1st? I only get 24 pieces of chocolate.”

After I informed her that she was being cheated she nodded sagely and said “Aha! I knew it.”

I’m not sure what happened after that, but I think she may have gone back to the store to file a complaint.

It’s true that Advent usually starts in November, and today is in fact the first Sunday of Advent. So, if you have one of those December 1st-starting chocolate Advent calendars, it is liturgically appropriate, perhaps even necessary, for you to go out today and get some additional chocolate.

But today is more than just the start of Advent in the church. That’s because on the first Sunday of Advent each year, something big happens. Today we begin a whole new church year. This is, in fact, the church’s new year’s day.

For those who were thinking it was January 1st, let me explain, because there’s a good reason for this. The church year is the cycle we follow that tells the story of Jesus’ birth, life, death, resurrection, and reign. And if we waited to start a new year on January 1st we would miss this important early stuff. We’d miss Mary learning she was having this baby. We’d miss Bethlehem and the manger. We’d miss Jesus’ birth itself.

And we’d miss Advent, which is our preparation for everything that is about to happen. And Advent matters. Not just for chocolate calendars, but for something much sweeter than that.

This morning we read a text from the letter to the Romans written by Paul. He tells the Romans, “You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light…put on the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Paul is issuing a wake-up call to the Romans. He’s telling them that something big is coming and that it’s time to get ready. He tells them to put on armor. But he’s not talking about literal armor here. There’s no metal and no shield.

Paul talks about “armor of light.” I like that image. I like the idea of clothing ourselves not in the garments of isolation and impenetrability but in something that illuminates. I like the idea of shining in a world where so much is shrouded in darkness.

1006084_237267106479277_264921106_nAnd this is where Paul’s wake-up call comes in, because before we can get dressed in our armor of light, we first have to wake up. We have to look around and see what is happening. And if ever there were a time for God’s people to wake up, this is one of them.

I have been despairing of the state of the world this fall. I know many of you have been too. The mean-spiritedness, the fear-mongering, the scapegoating, the anger and violence. There are times that I wish Mr. Rogers were still alive and that he’d get on TV and remind us all how to act. But even if he did, I fear that he’d be mocked and belittled too.

There are days that I wake up and I feel like I’m living in a world that I never knew I lived in, and like I’m seeing it for the first time.

But the reality is that I, like you, have always lived here. And while I think I’m far from naive, the privilege I carry in so many ways means I’ve been insulated from so much of the pain and the darkness.

And so, like Paul says, it’s time for me to wake up. And it’s time for me to be one of the people who puts on the armor of light and by my very being proclaims a better way in the darkness.

And Advent is about a better way. This first Sunday of Advent, in particular, is about hope. And we’re not talking about cheap hope here. This isn’t the kind of hope that comes from anything you can buy on Black Friday, or some promise from a politician, no matter how great it might sound.

This is about real hope, the kind that comes dressed not in the newest styles or the trappings of some political campaign, but wrapped in the clothes of a newborn baby and placed in an old manger. If that sounds ridiculous, it is, because this is ridiculous hope, the kind that defies every expectation and brings with it demands that will change everything.

Including you, and including me.

That’s important to note because Advent isn’t just about waiting for Christmas. It’s not like being in a long line at the checkout counter, trying to distract ourselves until we reach the counter. This isn’t a passive season. Rather, Advent demands our participation. It demands we wake up, and we prepare for what is about to happen. It demands nothing less from us than a willingness to wear the armor of light.

And as beautiful as that armor might be, know that sometimes it is very hard to wear. There is so much in this world that would try to snuff out that light, to extinguish it. You will be told that it is pointless to wear, that there is no hope, that the darkness has triumphed too fully for your light to shine.

Don’t believe that. Wear that light anyway.

There’s a story about a lumberjack who was once asked how he would chop down a tree if he only had five minutes to do so. He replied, “I’d spend the first two and a half minutes sharpening my axe.”

That’s good advice. Preparation matters. Being ready matters. Being sharpened so that we can be effective matters

On Christmas we proclaim the birth of a child who would change everything. And, we commit to being Christmas people, people who would spread the light and the joy of that child to the world.

Christmas is the time when Christ is born anew in all of our hearts, and when his light shines through us. Advent is the time when we prepare for that light.

To put it another way, Christmas is when we join with the newborn savior to start chopping down the overgrowth of hatred, violence, mean-spiritedness, oppression, and false hope. But Advent is when we sharpen our axes.

And so, how will you sharpen yourself this Advent? How will you prepare to wear this armor of light in a world that needs your light?

That is your challenge this week. As a new season, a new year, begins, what is your Advent resolution? How will you prepare yourself for Christ’s birth and for the coming of the light that you will be asked to wear in this world?

How will you wake up, sharp and bright, and be a person of hope?

Whatever you choose, know that Christmas is coming. And so, keep awake, and get ready. It’s a new year, and it’s the perfect time to start something amazing. Amen?

Organic Fruit: Sermon for June 26, 2016

When I meet new people and they ask what I do for work, there are a few typical responses. The first is that people will tell me about their own faith. Those are good conversations. The second is just awkward silence. Maybe the person will say “oh, that’s interesting” and change the subject. But the third is what is always the most entertaining: people will tell me, in great detail, and with varying degrees of hostility, why they are not religious.

That’s fine. I listen, but I rarely give them the fight they are looking to have. But there’s one argument I hear often that I just never understand. People tell me that Christianity is all about the church trying to control people. They say faith is just about people telling other people what they cannot do.

That always entertains me because, as you know, if I tried to tell this congregation what it could not do, I probably wouldn’t be here very long. I suspect that is true for most clergy. That’s good. Because the job of the church is not to forbid people from doing things.

Instead, it’s about teaching Christ’s message. And it’s about sharing a Gospel that is not about control, but is about possibility. It’s not about making people prisoners of religion, but helping them to find freedom in God’s grace.

Today’s reading is about that. This passage from the Epistle to the Galatians. Paul had come to this community and he had taught the people there all about God, and Jesus, and God’s love for them. Paul had taught a Gospel of grace. He had taught them about Jesus, a man whose compassion and love for the world had transformed the world. And he had taught them about being his disciples.

And then, after he left to go on and start other churches, the Galatians had been on their own. And that’s when other teachers had come to the church. And they started telling the Galatians, “you’re doing it all wrong”. And there wasn’t a Bible at this point, because it hadn’t been compiled yet. But there was the law of Moses, the law that the Jewish community had followed for centuries. And most Christians at the very beginning had been raised in that law and saw that as the authority. The Galatians were Gentiles, and so they didn’t know about it. And so these new teachers were saying to the Galatians, “the law clearly says this is what you should do.”

And so, this church that had been taught about grace and about Christ’s love by Paul, all of a sudden was adopting the ways of their new teachers. And they were doing things like arguing about whether they should all get circumcised, and whether or not they had to prepare their food a certain way. And it was causing a rift in this new church.

Paul hears about it, and he writes this letter. And this letter is probably the angriest letter that Paul sends to any of the churches.. He tells the Galatians, “look, I know the law”. Paul had been a lawyer, he had been raised in a family that followed the law, and he had been so committed to it that he had even persecuted the early church before his own conversion. He even says, “look, I was a zealot”. And he tells them this to show them that if anyone is going to say to them “Scripture clearly says” or “the law clearly says” he would know better than anyone.

Paul was speaking to a church 2,000 years ago. But, his words could just as easily speak to churches everywhere today. Because that misconception I talked about early on, about people who think religion is about control? That didn’t come from nowhere. There are indeed churches who teach Christian faith that way.

But Paul tells us that that’s not what following Christ is all about. Instead he talks about faith as getting free. He lists a number of things that can hold us back: anger, fighting, jealousy, idolatry, and more. And he tells us that those are the things that make us less free. They hold us back. They tie us down.

Instead, he says, we are called to turn away from those things. Not because someone is making us, but because when we do, new life is promised to us. Paul talks about how the Scriptures condemn these things because they “enslave” us. They don’t tell us not to do these for no reason. Instead they give us warning signs to help guide us in a better direction, and out of captivity. They unchain us.

In other words, this faith is not about being controlled. It is about learning how to turn away from what controls us.

Paul even gives us a way of knowing that we have been unchained. These are the directional signs that tell us we are going the right way. He talks about something called the “fruits of the Spirit”.

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Here’s the list of those fruits: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

In short, things that almost all of us wish we had, and wish we exhibited to others.

Nothing on that list is about control. These fruits of the Spirit are the fruits of freedom. These are the signs that we have given ourselves, not to the law, but to the Gospel. They are the good and outward signs that Christ is growing within us.

And, like any fruit, they are signs that we have been planted in good soil.

I didn’t realize how much soil mattered to producing good fruit until I lived in Vermont. One of my favorite places to go fly fishing there was a stream in the Green Mountain National Forest near where I lived.

It was way out in the woods. And as you followed the dirt roads further into the woods, you would pass these old cemeteries filled with those who are long dead and whose descendants have moved on. There was this old schoolhouse, unused for a hundred years, sat on the side of the road. The once lively towns have been officially dissolved by the state. The bitterly cold and rocky terrain simply proved too difficult to live in, even for the heartiest of Vermonters. And that’s saying a lot.

But if you drove a little further, there was an orchard full of apple trees. Some farmer planted them in the 1800s, and they still bear fruit. Today they are allowed to remain because they provide ready food for the bears and other area wildlife to eat.
I am always amazed by that. Long after human beings gave up on the land and moved on, somehow those same acres manage to bear fruit every fall. The people who planted it, and their children, and grandchildren even, are all dead. But the soil is not. It feeds the trees, and each year a bounty comes once again.
That’s the power of good soil. It is always capable of rejuvenation and growth. Because of good soil in our lives, what is planted in it can remain a source of blessing for others long after our life is over.
It’s the same way with the fruits of the Spirit. They grow in us because first we cultivate good soil. We make room in our soul for God to plant these things, and if we give them good soil, they will grow. They will be the fruits of our spiritual lives. They will be the organic byproducts that come when we choose another way. They are signs of our freedom.
That’s one reason why I believe cultivating good soil is so important. It’s one reason that I’ve invited you all to join me on the New Testament Challenge this summer. I’ve been encouraged to see how many of you have taken me up on that. That’s wonderful because that means that together we are cultivating rich, spiritual soil.

It’s also important because this morning we are once again celebrating a baptism in our church. Scarlett is going to join the larger family of God, and we are going to make promises to help raise her in the faith. Like every young person here, she needs people who bear these spiritual fruits in their lives. We are called to be her examples of faith.

And so, may we bear good fruit. Not because we have to. Not because anyone is telling us we must. But because Christ’s love and grace have touched us so deeply that we can do nothing less. Amen.

Being One. Being Many.: Sermon on Orlando for June 19, 2016

Last Sunday morning, when we walked into church, we knew that another tragedy had occurred. Our country has become strangely conditioned to the news of mass shootings. Somehow the horrific has become all too commonplace.

We hear the news of another town, Blacksburg, Newtown, Aurora, San Bernardino, and automatically those places become synonymous in our mind with senseless violence.

Last Sunday, as I put on my robe and stole, I knew that my hometown had joined the list.

We didn’t know how bad it was until after worship though. By the time I took that robe and stole off, there was an alert on my cell phone. It told me that 49 people had lost their lives. It was the deadliest mass shooting in American history. In the sickly competitive rankings of death tolls, Orlando was now first.

I spent the day waiting for names, wondering if any friends were there. In the end, none of mine were lost. And I thanked God for that. But then I realized my good news was other’s devastation. Because it’s always someone’s hometown. It’s always someone’s friends.

After church I found your moderator, Alison, and asked if I could have her blessing to hold a candlelight vigil on the front lawn that night. We put out the word and on only a few hours’ notice people came, and spoke, and prayed. We held our candles against the darkness, and proclaimed that nothing, not even this horror, could extinguish their light.

The next day I looked at the lectionary readings for this morning, and found that this week’s came from Paul’s letter to the Galatians. It contains this remarkable line: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

And it felt like somehow the lectionary knew ahead of time. Somehow it knew that this morning we would be doing two things: trying to make sense of a tragedy, and baptizing a child of God.

I carried that passage with me this week. Most of you know that early Tuesday morning I flew to Orlando with my friend and fellow trauma responder Chris. The next day we were joined by three other trauma responders from New England UCC churches. And over the next few days, we were on the ground in Orlando with two missions. First, to be helpful wherever we could. And second, to observe what was happening and to report back.

I am thankful that I went with your blessing. In a real sense, you lent your pastor out to Orlando this week. You shared me with this place. When we went to the vigil sites in our clergy collars, and talked with people who were mourning, you made that possible. When we hugged someone who had lost a friend, you the people of Exeter were there too. And when we stood at a funeral on Thursday, blocking any protestors that may come, you stood with us.

Paul is right. In Christ we are no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female; for all of us are one in Christ Jesus because we are a part of one body. And last week this part of the body shared its resources with another part. That is remarkable, and that is what Paul was talking about.

13466499_10101216654147178_4874541647657160548_nBut I want to raise a word of caution here. Because as much as we are indeed one in Jesus Christ, that does not mean that we are all the same. And though we respond as one body, that does not mean that this body of Christ is not diverse, or that those differences don’t matter.

The reality of what happened is this. A man, filled with hatred or self-loathing or whatever compelled him to think that he should take this course of action, chose deliberately to walk into a club where LGBTQ people were gathered. His father tells us that he had been disgusted by seeing two gay men kissing. And so he took his rage, and he went to one of the safest places that LGBTQ people in Orlando can go. And he took their safety away.

As someone who grew up gay in Orlando, that took my breath away. It brought me to my knees. These were my people.

And yet in other ways they were not. Because the other reality is this: 96% of the people who were victims were members of the Latinx community. This was Latin night, and for many who were there, this was the only place in their lives that they could be fully themselves, both Latinx and gay.

I am not Latinx, and so this week I kept reminding myself that there would be times when I would need to step back, and let others speak. Let others lead the way. Trust others, who were a part of both communities, to know how to respond. Because as much as we are all part of the same body in Christ, our differences still exist.

And they should. They are what make us Christ’s body. Because if Christ is God in human form, then of course Christ’s body should show the vastness of God and God’s people. And this week, the parts of Christ’s body that spoke Spanish and danced to the merengue while loving whomever they loved were the ones who were targeted. We can’t forget that. We can’t fail to name that.

Why? Because right now in Orlando, there are victims whose families refuse to claim their bodies because they are gay. And right now in Orlando there are survivors of the club who won’t go to the places designated for counseling because they have undocumented status and they are afraid of being turned over to immigration for deportation. That has already happened to some survivors, by the way.

It matters who they were. And it matters that we lift them up and love them for who they were.

This week I saw so many slogans. “Orlando strong.” “Orlando united.” But the one I connected with the most was this: “Somos Orlando”, or in English “we are Orlando”.

I have gone back and forth about using it. The part of me that stands in solidarity with the Latinx community in Orlando wants to say “Somos Orlando”. But the part of me that grew up in arguably the whitest, most comfortable suburb of Orlando, speaking only enough Spanish to get through my high school language requirement, wants to be careful not to appropriate what isn’t mine.

In the end, when I say “Somos Orlando” I say it only in this sense: “Somos Orlando” because I am a part of the body of Christ, and last Sunday morning a part of Christ’s body was broken again on a dance floor in Orlando. And I stand with Christ’s broken body today.

But in saying that, I can never forget, can never minimize, the fact that it was bodies that did not look like my own that were targeted. We can never forget that. And we can never allow that to be forgotten by others.

And now we also must now stand up, so this does not happen again. We have to stand up and say whatever part of Christ’s body that is going to be targeted next, in whatever town and whatever place, and for whatever reason…we are going to try to stop it.

That’s why it feels appropriate on this Father’s Day to tell you this story. 22 years ago, my father called my college dorm room from Orlando and told me my mom had told him I was gay. My dad is a Southern man, and a career government agent. And this was 1994. I didn’t know how this would go.

To my surprise, he said this to me: “That’s okay. And let me tell you something; there are going to be people who try to hold you back or target you for who you are. You can’t let them.”

He didn’t know it at the time, but he was giving me words for my Christian journey. Because if we are following Christ, we can’t let anyone hold anyone else back or target them for who they are. We have to work for a world in which we are equally valued and protected as children of God.

And so we are going to work for a world where hatred does not win. We are going to work for a world where violence is not the answer. We are going to stand up against the interests of death and destruction, and call out our love of what can kill us and kill others. We are going to be Christ’s body, a body that has again and again been broken open. We are going to change this, because Christ requires nothing less.

And like my dad taught me, we have to teach the children we know the same thing.

And so perhaps that is why it is so fitting that we are baptizing Trudy today. We are making her a part of Christ’s body. We are taking her to the waters of baptism, and she is receiving this sacrament that will forever change her. And because of that, Trudy will grow up to be someone who cannot be silent in the face of events like this. She will be someone who will stand in the broken places, and help to repair this far-too-often broken world.

Today Trudy remains herself. She is Trudy, a young child from Exeter, New Hampshire. But today she also becomes something more. She becomes one with this body that is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. And a body that is no longer gay nor straight, white nor Latino, Exeter nor Orlando either.

May she, and may we all, love this body enough to fight for every part of it. And may we love, by not erasing but by lifting up, all that makes us different, and all that makes us beautiful. And may we all work to keep this body from being broken again. Amen?

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?

Love is Patient, Love is Kind…and Love is Not Control

“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.Love never ends.” – 1 Corinthians 13

From the time I graduated from college, until the time I was married, I lived mostly on my own. Even when I had roommates early on, we had separate rooms and our own personal space. And I really liked my space. I was very particular about it. Which is why, when I found myself engaged and about to be married at the age of 36, despite all the love and excitement and certainty I was doing the right thing, I wasn’t so excited about sharing my space.

But, I believe in love, and so I told my spouse, who was moving into my house, this is our home. I don’t want you to feel like it’s mine. So make yourself comfortable, and do whatever you need to do to make it feel like home.

That wasn’t a good idea.

Only a few days after living together, I was at a daylong meeting, and I got home tired and hungry. I walked into the kitchen and opened the cupboard for a coffee mug. And my coffee mugs were not there. And then I opened THE silverware drawer. And the silverware was nowhere to be seen. And then tried to find a bowl, and the coffee mugs were where the bowls had been.

FullSizeRenderNothing was where it was supposed to be. And I made mention of that fact to my spouse, who quickly reminded me of what I had said about it being OUR house.

And that’s when I got, in a very real way, that as much as I was madly in love, marriage was going to be a whole lot different than living alone. It was going to be wonderful and exhilarating and fulfilling, and it was also going to mean I couldn’t find a thing in my kitchen.

I think about weddings and love and the marriage that comes after the wedding every time I hear this passage. Most of us have been to a wedding where these verses, “Love is patient…love is kind…” are read. And they’re very nice, very pretty words about love.

The problem is, they weren’t written for a wedding. In fact, I think if most would-be newlyweds knew where these words came from, they might be a little reluctant to use them in their wedding. Because, far from advice to new couples, this was Paul’s letter to the church in Cornith, and he was telling a bunch of church people to stop fighting with each other.

This isn’t about romance at all…it’s about churches behaving badly. And that’s probably not the vibe you are looking for at your wedding.

And yet, there is some good advice there for us all. Corinthians acknowledges the hard truth: to love somebody, or something, means that they are going to challenge your way of thinking. They are going to shake up the calm and complacency of your life. They are going to make things complicated.

But if it’s really love, romantic or otherwise, they are also going to make things better.

And that’s where the “love is” statements come into play. Listen again, because this isn’t just about how you treat your spouse. It’s also about how you treat your kids, and the rest of your family. It’s about how to treat your neighbors and your fellow church members. It’s about how to treat the world.
“Love is patient, love is kind, love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

I think you can sum these words up in another way too. And that is that if you truly love someone or something, you cannot control them. Love and control are not the same thing. Instead, you can only control your actions and reactions.

We all need that reminder at times. I do too. Just like getting married taught me that my life was in very real ways about more than just my preferences now, even if that just meant where things went in the kitchen, being a part of any relationship or any community teaches us the exact same thing. It’s always bigger than us.

This is especially true in the church, where it is never just about us, but is always first and foremost about God and God’s will for us.

And yet, we are human. And that means sometimes we struggle to love God, and to love one another. And Paul knew that when he wrote this letter to a church in Corinth, and reminded them what love looked like.

Now, I’m aware that me saying all of this on our annual meeting day might have some of you curious right now. “Uh oh, is something wrong?” “Is there some sort of controversy about to come up?”

Not that I know of. (And now would be a good time to say so if you do.)

But this is annual meeting day for a lot of congregations today, and I am praying hard for a lot of churches and colleagues today, because I know that this is going to be a rough afternoon for them.

That’s to be expected, because love, even in the church, is not always easy. And sometimes we love something so much that we try to control it. But that’s not real love. And that’s why even God in God’s perfect love, who could control this world, refuses to do so. God loves us too much for that.

Three and a half years after getting married my kitchen still looks very different from the way I used to set it up. But here’s the strange thing: I’m okay with that. Heidi’s the cook, not me. And she should be the one who sets up that space, because she’s the one who uses it. So now, I’m content to just know where things were moved to, and to eat all the delicious meals that she makes.

When I got married, I gave up some control of my life, right down to my kitchen cabinets. It wasn’t just about me anymore. But what I get in return from loving someone, is so much better, and so much more incredible.

Likewise, when I confessed my faith in Christ as a young adult, I began to let go of some my own ego and my own desires, and I put them back in God’s hands. I said, “God, show me your will for me…and help me to love you enough to follow.”

That’s what each of us does when we confess our faith. And that’s what each of us does when we become members of a church. Together we say that we will put the big choices in God’s hands, and we will love one another and love God enough to patiently try to figure out what God is asking us to do next. Patiently. Kindly. And lovingly. Because love is always worth it.

I’ll close with this. In a few moments, we are going to baptize a new baby, a new child of God. And I cannot tell you what her life will look like 20 years from now. I cannot tell you who she will become, or what she will believe, or how she will live.

We cannot control who she will become. Not even her parents can. And we shouldn’t. Because that’s not love.

But I can tell you this: God already loves her. And today we will literally pour the waters of that love over her.

And so our responsibility as the church is the same responsibility that we have for anyone who walks through those doors, and the same responsibility we have for one another: guide her, help her discern God’s will for her, and remind her that God loves her, and that her greatest calling in life is to love God, and love God’s world.

We will teach her this because God has taught us that love is always, always, worth it. Amen?

Why Church Matters: Sermon for January 24, 2016

In 2000 a political scientist named Robert Putnam published a book about the decline of social involvement in the United States called “Bowling Alone”.

He wrote that now we “sign fewer petitions, belong to fewer organizations that meet, know our neighbors less, meet with friends less frequently, and even socialize with our families less often.” He went on to say, “We’re even bowling alone. More Americans are bowling than ever before, but they are not bowling in leagues. Between 1980 and 1993 the total number of bowlers in America increased by 10 percent, while league bowling decreased by more than 40 percent.” In other words, even as bowling got more popular, more and more people were “bowling alone”.

The book was about a whole lot more than bowling, though. Putnam showed that from their peak years until 1997 almost every major group you can think of lost significant membership: the Freemasons (-71%), the American Legion (-47%), Red Cross volunteers (-61%), the PTA (-60%), Rotary (-25%), and the General Federation of Women’s Clubs (-84%).

In other words, we have become a society of un-joiners, disconnected and adrift.

That stands in sharp contrast to the message Paul gives to the church in Corinth in today’s Scripture reading. Paul tells them that the church, the body of Christ, is literally like a body. And like a body has many different parts, hands, feet, eyes, ears, heart…so does the body of Christ. And each of us is one of those parts, each of us belongs to that body, and we all have an essential part to play.

That’s why a lot of times this Scripture is read to mean “the church needs you”. We tell people that they play an important role in the body of Christ, so that’s why we need them here. And, that’s true. The church’s body needs you, and the church needs the person who God has created you to be.

But there’s a flip side of that too, one that maybe we don’t hear about as much. And that’s this: we need the church.

That’s counter-cultural, because we may be a culture that bowls alone, but we are religion-ing alone too. Church attendance has dropped precipitously over the past five decades, and I believe that is because church decline is in a very real way associated with social disengagement as a whole.

Today there are plenty of voices out there telling you that you can connect with God on a hike, or over brunch, or at a party with a bunch of friends. And I’m not saying that’s not true, but at the end of the day, the solitary spiritual life is just that: solitary. And I don’t think God calls us out only to leave us alone. What Paul is saying today proves that.

That doesn’t mean that you are no longer an individual. Each of us has come to the church on our own journey, our roads now converging together. But as members of these communities we call church, we choose to bind part of our journey together. That’s why I am here. That’s why you are here. That’s why each of us is here.

And that’s also what religion is all about. But religion often gets a bad rap.

You can hear that fact in the voices of the people who tell you they are “spiritual but not religious”. The insinuation is often that spirituality is good and pure, untouched by the constraints and failures of human organizations (or maybe even humans themselves), and religion is messy.

But the reality is that everyone has a religion, even those who claim only to be spiritual. Whether we admit it or not, has a system of beliefs or values that defines our life, for good or ill. Each of us is tied to either that which lifts us up, or the baggage that pulls us down. In that sense we might do religion by ourselves, but we can never really do it alone.

Our religions are as varied as we are. We can worship in the church of career advancement, or in the tabernacle of addiction. We can devote ourselves to hobbies, or make sacrifices on the altar of beauty. We can serve money as our ultimate god, or even devote our full faith to the idea that nothing exists beyond ourselves.

Religion is everywhere. At its best our religion can make us better people, the kind who serve not just ourselves but the world. At its worst it can make us self-obsessed narcissists.

It’s the communities we are a part of that can make a difference. They’re places where we are bound together with one another. They are also the places where we’re asked to do something quite counter-cultural: make a commitment.

There’s a debate going on in clergy circles about whether we should do away with formal membership in the church. Jesus never required people to sign a membership roll, some reason, and people just aren’t “joiners” anymore anyway.

And yet, community and commitment go hand in hand. Community, at its best, requires something from us. It is not just enough to be consumers, but in a society where consumer culture reigns supreme, that’s a radical idea. Even the church has too often shaped itself around the needs of “church shoppers” and those who seek entertainment first on a Sunday morning.

We’re often wary of asking people to make a commitment for fear that we will scare them off. And so, we trash the membership roll. We sheepishly hand out pledge cards telling people to fill one out if they feel like it. We tell confirmation students that they can skip worship for Sunday morning soccer practice and still get confirmed.

Which is too bad, because in a real way commitments make us clarify our priorities, and our sense of identity.

Recently I realized just how much so when I turned away an opportunity to join a local service club. Not only did membership in this club require attendance at weekly meetings, but members were expected to make up for weeks they missed by attending the meetings of neighboring clubs.

I have to admit I was impressed by the idea that membership required something. In the end, I knew my schedule wouldn’t let me make the commitment. But in an unintended way, the club’s demands for my commitment forced me to clarify what really mattered to me.

I think we’re often reluctant to make similar requests for commitment in the church because we are afraid of rejection. If we ask for people to clarify their priorities, they just may discover that church is not one of them and leave for good. And that terrifies us.

That’s too bad, because community requires the sort of commitment that has the power to deepen our faith in ways we can’t imagine. It can even define us in powerful ways.

Each week, in my weekly email to you, I start with the same salutation: Dear Church. I worry at times that it sounds a bit impersonal. I could say “Dear members and friends of the Congregational Church in Exeter”, for instance. But I believe that “Dear Church” is actually the most warm and personal greeting I can use.

That’s because the church is who we are. Church is not a place we go or a group we join. It is the community that ties us together, and strengthens us for the lives our faith calls us to lead. Each of us is the church. And, paradoxically, none of us can be the church alone.

As Christians we believe that the church is the living body of Christ, active and alive in the world. If you are going to follow Jesus Christ, the one who called his disciples into community, why would you not want to be a part of that body in some form?

But the truth is that hasn’t always been easy for me, and maybe it hasn’t for your either. As an young Christian I wrestled with congregations. They always seemed to be messing things up and making mistakes. They were messy and frustrating. They seemed to be magnets for hard personalities and people on power trips. I truly believed that if Jesus came back the last place he’d be caught dead in was a church.

Things changed for me when I was able to acknowledge that church was indeed a frustrating, messy, diffi10403016_827092474010019_3062638086161016394_ncult place filled with imperfect people. Including me. And so was the first church that Jesus called to surround him. Jesus never planted himself in the midst of perfect people. He always chose works in progress. The key is that he never chose them alone. I think he knew we’d need more than ourselves.

I’ll close with this. I was once listening to Mary Luti talk about how we learn to be followers of Christ. Despite her own deeply academic background, she didn’t tell us to read more books, study harder, or attend more seminary classes. Instead she said this: find someone whose Christian life you admire and study them instead.

I realized in that moment that this simple practice was exactly how I learned what it meant to be a Christian. It didn’t matter how many degrees in theology I pursued. It mattered that I had people in my life who lived their daily lives in ways that glorified God.

I thought of a mentor of mine who in my 20’s taught me to live in faith and not in fear. I thought about the way she talked about her own faith journey, and about how it shaped her priorities. And I thought about how even things that had seemed insignificant at the time, like the ways she showed up for me when I needed it, or the words she used when she prayed, had taught me powerful lessons about God.

And I realized a simple truth: I’m a follower of Jesus Christ, but I’m also following in the footsteps of a mighty cloud of witnesses who have walked these same roads. So are we all.
Without the community surrounding us, and binding us to one another, we become lost so easily. But when others light the way for us, we find that the paths we can take to follow Christ are all around us, and we have multitude of willing companions on the journey. We are one body. And we need one another. Amen?

Gifts for the Beloved Community: Sermon for January 17, 2015

1 Corinthians 12:4-11

12:4 Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit;

12:5 and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord;

12:6 and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.

12:7 To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.

12:8 To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit,

12:9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit,

12:10 to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues.

12:11 All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.
In 1963, a young man stood in an empty space, waiting. Everyone had been told when to arrive, but aside from a small group of his friends and supporters, no one had come. People had told him this would happen. They had said it was a bad idea, that it was too soon, that he didn’t have the authority to do it, or the resources he needed. From the highest reaches, the word had come down: call it off, because you will only hurt your cause.

The young man was the Rev. Martin Luther King, and the place he was standing was the National Mall, right in front of the Lincoln Memorial. The date was August 28th, and there was supposed to be a march on Washington that day. But that morning, no one was there.

Dr. King started to wonder if his doubters had been right. Other civil rights leaders had told him the march would never succeed. Even President Kennedy had asked him not to do this. But he had pressed on anyway, and now, with the Mall empty in front of him, it looked like everyone had been right.

This morning we read a passage from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. In it, Paul tells the church in Corinth something that every church that has ever existed needs to hear: Now concerning spiritual gifts, he says, I want you to understand…there are many gifts, but they come from the same God. There are many ways to serve, but they all serve God. It doesn’t matter if you are a healer, or a teacher, or a preacher, or a prophet…every gift or ability you have, it comes from the same place. And what’s more, Paul says, every good gift is to be used for what he calls the “common good”.

Paul was writing this letter to a divided community. He had heard that they were dismissing one another’s gifts and their need for one another. And so he wrote them this letter and he talked about how each one of us receives good gifts from God. And each of these gifts is important. And he tells the church members, use your gifts not to serve yourselves, but to serve the common good, or what Dr. King might have called the “beloved community”.

I think Paul could have just as easily been writing to the people surrounding Dr. King as he planned this march. The ones who said to him, “it’s too soon”, or “you can’t do this”, or “you’re going to fail”. I think he could have been saying to them “not so fast…because this man has been given a gift from God. Don’t dismiss this gift because it doesn’t fit into your timeline. Don’t reject it because it makes you uncomfortable and afraid. Let him use his gift because you are about to see something amazing.

gty_march_on_washington_martin_luther_king_ll_130819_33x16_1600That day as Dr. King stood on the Mall, a car finally arrived. Some people got out and walked over, and he must have thought “well, at least someone came”. But he asked them about their trip, and they said something unbelievable. They told him they would have been there earlier, but the roads were packed. The highways were filled…people were coming to Washington from all over.

You know what happened next. You know that around 250,000 people came that day. You know that Dr. King gave a speech that told the world about his dream. And you know that day that the country reached a tipping point when the passage of the Civil Rights Act became inevitable.

But the most amazing part of that story to me is that even when everyone was telling him “no”, Dr. King pushed ahead and decided to march anyway.

I don’t know how someone decides not to listen to every negative voice that surrounds them. But I know Dr. King did it. And the best I can figure is that he did it because he knew God was going to show up at that march no matter what, and he knew that God had given him the gifts to make something great happen.

But how did he know? I think that’s the more important question. I think Dr. King knew he had those gifts the same way that virtually all of us come to know of our own gifts: someone told him. And someone told him not to waste them.

That is wisdom each of us needs to hear. Because while we might not think we have any gifts, and certainly not the kind that Dr. King had, the truth is that each of us has been given extraordinary gifts by God. We just don’t always know it. Or, even worse, we know it but we are too scared to use them.

I always try to be careful to talk about sin in ways that won’t make people flee the building. But I think when we fail to name something we give it even greater power over us. Like Hermione Granger talking about why she would say “Voldemort” when others wouldn’t, we should be reminded that sometimes “fear of the name only increases fear of the thing itself”.

And so, I want to talk about wasting our gifts in terms of sin. Paul Tillich, echoing centuries of relatively privileged and self-assured theologians, wrote that pride was the cause of every sin. And that’s true sometimes. But not long after he said that, a group of women theologians challenged him. They said that when you’ve spent your whole life being told that you are in some way special, perhaps your pride does make you stumble. But for those who have spent their whole life being told what they cannot do, it’s not pride that causes us to not use our gifts. Instead, it’s the exact opposite. It’s our self-doubt, and our belief that we are somehow lesser than others.

Often that’s what keeps us from using every good gift that God has given to us. And, yes, that’s sin. Not in the sense that we are evil people, but in the sense that God wants something more from us, something better for us, and we are letting our fears come between us and God.

And so, here are the questions: What gifts has God given to you? And what gifts have you resisted claiming?

Put another way, if you believed truly in your heart and mind that God had given you your gifts and you would not fail, what would you be doing with them?

I’m asking you these questions not just because I want you to have the joy of finding God’s gifts inside of you. This is not about living your best life ever. I’m asking them because God did not give you these gifts only so you could use them for yourself. God gave them to you, like Paul says, so that you can put them to use for the common good.

The world needs those gifts right now…perhaps more than ever. It would be a mistake to think that the time for heroism and courage is in the past. It would also be a mistake to think that injustice is a thing of the past, or that the Civil Rights movement fixed everything.

Our world is in need of people who have gifts. It’s in need of people who have the courage to use them. Our gifts are like the puzzle pieces that God has given to us to fill in the places of suffering in our broken world. And when we hold them back, they do us no good, and they are denied to others.

And so, we cannot hide them. No matter how big or small they are, no matter how insignificant they may feel to us, or how inconvenient using them might seem. These gifts are not just ours; they are for the world, and we cannot keep them to ourselves anymore.

I’ll close with this. In the movie Selma, which followed Dr. King in the weeks leading up to the march over the Pettus Bridge and into Alabama, there’s a powerful scene in which Dr. King is strengthened and empowered by the gifts of another. His life is being threatened, his family is living with terror, and once again, two years after the march in Washington, he is trying to lead people out of their fear and into their faith.

And so he picks up the phone, and dials a number. And on the other end of the line we see the great Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson pick up. And he asks her to sing him a song, and right then, in the dead of night, her voice soars:

“Precious Lord, take my hand
Lead me on, let me stand
I am tired, I am weak, I am lone
Through the storm, through the night
Lead me on to the light
Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home.”

In the end Dr. King’s gifts would change this country, and this world. Even as they cost him his life. And yet, he could do no other.

But he did not do it alone. He was surrounded by others who had gifts; like the ability to sing a hymn over a telephone line in the dead of night with a power that could make you believe that God was close.

If that is true for a man with the gifts Dr. King had, how much so is it true for us? And how much so is it true for all of those who need our gifts?

If there is any simple way to honor the legacy of Dr. King, and all who had the courage to fight for freedom, it is this: have the courage to give the world the gift that God has given to you. Do not keep it to yourself. Share it for the common good, and share it to build the beloved community. Amen?

Called Into the Waters: Baptism of the Lord, 2016

When I was a senior in high school I was in this European history class, and we spent a lot of time studying the Protestant Reformation. One afternoon the teacher was trying to show us how the Reformation still shaped us all these centuries later, and so he went to the blackboard and he wrote a list of religious traditions and denominations. And then he turned to us, and one by one, he asked each of us to tell him our faith.

There were a lot of Methodists, Catholics, Baptists, and Episcopalians. A few classmates were Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim. And then there was me. Because he got to my row and called on me, and asked me the question: What religion is your family? And of the entire class, I was the only one who couldn’t answer.

I stammered something about my family being a blend of Catholics and Presbyterians and Congregationalists, but the teacher said I had to give one answer. In the end I think I blurted out “Presbyterian” because we had at least gone to that church a few times on Christmas.

I had been waiting for, and dreading, this day for a long time. I grew up in a place where no one I knew didn’t have a faith tradition. Most were Christian, and they talked about their churches, confirmations, youth groups, and more. But I never said very much, because the truth is of all my classmates whose family was not some other faith than Christian, I was the only one I knew who didn’t have a church. I hadn’t even been baptized.

After school that day, I decided I was never going to be in a situation like that ever again. I was going to have an answer the next time someone asked. And so I drove to a church downtown, and talked to the pastor about being baptized. And I figured that by the time I went off to college in the fall, and I had to fill out demographic forms, I’d have this whole religion thing figured out.

That’s how I got baptized. In retrospect, I don’t think that was exactly what Jesus was looking for back when he told his followers to be born again in the waters of baptism. True, my baptism did not come from an empty place – my faith was real – but it was provoked, quite frankly, by my own embarrassment. And when I received the sacrament later that spring I told very few people about it. Most of my friends had been baptized as infants; I didn’t know what kind of ribbing I’d get as a 17 year old who was doing what babies normally do.

IMG_3213So, that’s my baptism story. I’m telling it to you today because we are hearing two other baptism stories too. The first is the story of Jesus’ own baptism, in which he went to John the Baptist and was baptized by him in the Jordan River. Like John said, Jesus did not need this baptism. But Jesus received it anyway, and as he came out of the river, a voice called down from heaven, “this is my son, my beloved…in him I am well pleased”.

Today is the day that the church remembers Jesus’ baptism every year. And in doing so we are asked to remember our own baptisms, because what Jesus began by receiving his own baptism is what we too are called to receive. All of us who would follow Christ are called to follow the leader into these baptismal waters together.

And today we also tell another story too, that of Lydia. As you know, whenever our church school starts a new unit, I talk about the story in the sermon. And Lydia, coincidentally, is also a compelling story about baptism.

Lydia isn’t a story we tell much in church, which is too bad. Not only is she an example of a powerful woman in Scripture, she is also an example of a person hearing the call to follow Jesus, and responding with an open heart.

The Apostle Paul and his cohort came to Turkey and preached the Gospel, and Lydia heard it and was the first one baptized. Some say that Lydia was the first convert to Christianity in all of Europe.

That’s noteworthy for many reasons, not the least of which is that she was a woman who made this decision for herself. Lydia was in a unique position as a woman who had somehow garnered enough independence that she could make that choice, and she could then even invite these men into her home, something most women would never have been allowed to do.

Lydia had made a living for herself as a merchant who sold purple fabric. And from what little we know we can assume that she was doing well. She had her own money, she had independence, and unlike many women of the era, she had the power to decide who she would follow. She was like a Beyonce song; she was the very definition of an “Independent Woman”.

And so that makes it all the more incredible that she, and she alone, made the decision to be baptized by Paul. She had what she needed, but she still responded to the Gospel in a powerful way. By being the first to step forward and say “this is who I want to follow…baptize me” she became a leader of the growing Christian community. Orthodox Churches have even come to call her the “Equal to the Apostles”. That’s pretty high praise when you think about it.

Lydia’s baptism reminds us that from the very beginning the Gospel has not been restricted to anyone, or withheld from anyone. It’s always been for everyone who has ears to hear it. And the same is true of baptism. It’s there for anyone who wants to share in the sacrament. Even if they are a woman 2000 year ago. And even if they are a 17 year old who is embarrassed in history class.

The truth is that whatever brings us to the baptismal font, no matter whether we were brought there as infants by our parents, or whether we bring ourselves there as adults, the sacrament is the same. And the journey does not end in the waters of baptism. Instead, in those waters we are claimed. We are called God’s own. And we are come to know who we truly are, and whose we truly are.

That’s worth repeating. We learn in baptism whose we are. When Jesus was baptized, God claimed him as he came up from the waters. And when Lydia was baptized, despite all she had accomplished in her life, she truly learned whose she was.

And when I was baptized, even with intentions that weren’t quite right, I was set on a path that has continued to teach me who and whose I am all these years later. And the same is true for every child we bring to this font. Even then, even long before they can understand why we are putting water on their heads, God is claiming them, and we are proclaiming that they are God’s beloved.

In the early church, those who wished to be baptized spent Lent preparing for that baptism. And then, on the night before Easter, at the Easter Vigil, they were baptize and were welcomed into the congregation as full members. That period of preparing was called the catechumenate, and it was a time of learning and getting ready to respond to the Gospel message.

This year Lent begins on February 10th; that’s just around the corner. And this Lent I would like to take a page from the early church. Many of you, particularly many of you who are around my age or younger, grew up in a time when church was optional, and baptism was too. That’s okay. I know what that feels like. And I know what it’s like to wonder what it will feel like to be baptized when all you’ve ever seen are children at the font.

And so this Lent I want to offer a new opportunity for those of you who are interested in baptism, but aren’t sure how to start preparing for it. So, if you are an adult or an older youth who has not been baptized, I’d love for you to join us on this journey by coming to a class each Sunday in Lent, and exploring what baptism might mean for you. And at the end, we will celebrate the baptisms of those of you who would like to receive the sacrament on the evening before Easter, in the tradition of the ancient church.

And, if you have already been baptized, you are not excluded. We do not re-baptize people in the church. Once is sufficient for God’s grace. But, if you would like to take the step of re-affirming your baptism I’d love for you to join us as well. In a way, this formation process will be a little like an adult confirmation class that will end with you renewing your baptismal vows during the Easter vigil and claiming it as your own. It’s a chance to go a little deeper this Lent.

You do not need to make your decision now, but I invite you to open your heart to how God might be speaking to you. Are you being called to even consider baptism? Are you at a place in your life where reaffirming your baptism would have spiritual meaning? Are you at least curious? If God’s love is somehow nudging you right now in your heart, listen to what it is telling you. And join us.

Baptized or not, you are God’s beloved. That’s already true. You are God’s own. The choice you are left with is how to respond to that great love. Like Lydia, at least go hear what the Gospel has to say to you. Because like her, you can make a good life even better. Amen?

Why Are We Here: Part IV – To love. Sermon for 8 February 2015

“Love is patient, love is kind… It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things…And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”

Where have you heard that before?

If you said “at a wedding” you are not alone. You’ve probably heard it at countless weddings, and maybe even your own. And it’s not bad advice. If you want a marriage to last you need to have patience, and kindness, and all the other good stuff this passage tells you about.

But here’s the secret about this text. As much as we hear it at weddings, as much as it gets engraved on everything from engagement rings to wedding invitations, it was not written about marriage. It wasn’t even written about romantic love at all. So, if you worried that maybe this was a pre-Valentine’s Day sermon on love this morning, don’t. Because this is a sermon on a whole other kind of love.

10494762_877906185595314_459548515296640538_nTo explain you have to go back to the source, and back to where this comes from, which is a letter sent by the Apostle Paul to the church in Corinth, a church he himself had founded and built up before moving on in his ministry. And he is writing to them to about a whole bunch of things that Paul thought they were doing wrong. And in particular he is worried that they are fighting amongst themselves and getting away from the beliefs that he taught them, especially the ones about God’s love and about loving one another. And so he writes them this letter that includes these famous words on what love is and what it is not.

But we read this today, especially in English, and without the rest of the letter or the context, it sounds like it is talking about romantic love. And so, it sounds like the sort of thing you want to read at a wedding, or to describe the way you feel about someone.

But, the trouble is too often we keep this text confined to weddings. That’s too bad because this text is about something even bigger than the love we share in marriage. This text is about being loved by God, and loving God.

Here’s why I say that. In English, we really only have one word for “love”. We love our spouses. We love our parents. We love our friends. We love our kids. We love God.

But in the language Paul was writing in, Greek, there’s more than one word. There’s “eros”, which is about romantic love. And there’s “philos”, which is about brotherly love, like in the word “Philadelphia”. And there’s “storge” which is about familial love.

But then there’s this fourth word for love: “agape”. And agape is unlike any of the other kinds of love out there. Because agape is the kind of love that God has for us. And it’s about the way that we in turn are called on to love God.

Now, you don’t have to remember any of that Greek I just talked about, but remember this: when Paul wrote this letter, it was that last kind of love that he kept writing about: agape love. And agape gets a little lost in translation. Because it’s not the kind of love you celebrate with red hearts on Valentine’s Day. It’s not even the kind when you tell your family and friends you love them. Because it’s a kind of love that is even more demanding, and more incredible, than that.

The first thing about agape love is that it is not earned. God’s agape love is for us, and it remains whether we love back or not. It’s selfless. It’s grace-filled. It’s generous. And it’s so hard that probably the only one who has ever really done it consistently is God.

And if you want to know more, just read the text again: Agape is patient. Agape is kind. Agape bears all things, agape believes all things, agape hopes all things, agape endures all things…And now faith, hope, and agape abide, these three; and the greatest of these is agape.”

That is God’s love letter to you. That is God saying how much God loves you, and also how God loves you. God’s love is agape love, and it doesn’t get any better than that.

For the past four weeks, ending this morning, we’ve been asking the question “Why are WE here?” or “What does it mean to be the church together?” And we’ve talked about how we are here because God has brought us here, we are here to learn, and we are here to change. And today we are talking about the last reason: we are here to be loved, and we are here to love.

And it is my hope that everything we do as a church is done because of agape love, both God’s for us and ours for God.

So, the first thing I think we are called to do as a church is to acknowledge that God loves us, and that God loves everyone. And in return, we are called to love God back with that same kind of fierce love. Because when we are loving at our highest level, it is agape love. And though we may not ever get it exactly right, because sometimes love is hard work, we keep trying.

And part of the way we love God is by sharing God’s love with others. And we start here, with one another. We are all called to do the work of loving each other with agape love. We are called to support each other in hard times, to rejoice in good times, to faithfully work together to overcome challenges, and to find ways to be the church together for years to come.

And sometimes that will be easy. But sometimes it will be hard. And when it is, that is when we have to go back to the first things and remind one another, first, that we are all loved by God, and, second, that the best way we can love God back is by being loving to one another.

That doesn’t mean we will always agree. That doesn’t mean the path is always clear. That doesn’t mean it’s easy. But it does mean that when we hit an impasse, we have to go back to God, and to love, and then try again.

We try to model that for the kids each week. They are starting a new unit on this same text today, but this is something we try to do every week when they come up front. Each time they do we talk to them about something related to faith, and to be honest I have no idea how much they retain and how much they don’t. A lot has to do with age, and we get a large age range up here. I’m sure some of the older ones went away last week understanding the analogy between church and being a team, and some of the younger ones went away still wondering why the pastor was throwing a football in the sanctuary.

And that’s okay. Because the most important thing I want them to learn on Sunday morning is just this: God loves them, and their church loves them. If they leave here not knowing that, then we have failed. But if they leave this sanctuary on Sundays only knowing that, then we have done something right.

That doesn’t stop when you get to be too old to come up here, by the way. If you are leaving church not knowing that God loves you, and that this church does too, then we are failing you too. But if you are leaving church each Sunday and all you know about your faith is that, then sometimes that’s enough.

And it’s also enough to take the next step, which is this: to love the world.

I talk a lot about how we are not here for ourselves. We are here for all of God’s creation. We are here for mission. We are here to serve. And we are here because the best way for us to love God, is to love others.

To put it more succinctly, first we are loved, then we learn how to love, and then, we love outside of ourselves.

And when our agape love has no walls, when it has no boundaries, nothing is impossible with God. We can serve our town, and we can serve our world. We can do big things. We can live in faith and not in fear. And we can change lives. And we can do all of these things simply because God has loved us first.

And so, maybe this isn’t exactly God’s Valentine to us. But what if this text is as close as we get? What if this text is about how Christians are supposed to love God, love each other, and love the world? What if this is the playbook on how we are supposed to do it? And what if maybe, just maybe, these are our marching orders:

“Love is patient, love is kind… It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things…And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”

Love is that easy, and it’s that hard. But we know how to do it. We know how to do it because we were loved first. Our only challenge is to not be loved last. Don’t let God’s agape love end with you. Pass it on to a world so desperately in need of a love that can change everything. And if you do, then you can do so with the knowledge that you are truly be loving God back. Amen.