When It Feels Like Jesus is Asleep at the Wheel: A Sermon on Charleston for June 21, 2015

Like many of you, I’ve spent the past few days thinking about Charleston. Wednesday night people were gathered at a church. They were studying the Bible, and they were praying. And when a young man came in, they expanded their circle and let him in to their fellowship.

There are no words that adequately describe the tragedy of what happened next. And it will be a long process of discernment as we as a society decide how we respond to the evil we saw in Charleston. And for those of us who are people of faith, there is another question that I’m hearing, too: Why did God let this happen?

It’s a fair question. The nine victims were in God’s house, studying God’s Word, and lifting prayers up to God. They were welcoming the stranger, the way that Jesus asked of us. And they were, by all accounts, good and kind people who lived out their faith. No one deserves what happened, but of all people, why them?

By chance, the lectionary this week brings us a story of another time when the people of God were in the midst of danger. The passage and sermon title had been chosen before Wednesday evening, and they, unfortunately, became more relevant this week.

The Gospel we read today tells the story of how the disciples are crossing the sea in a boat. And we are told that Jesus is with them, but that he is asleep. A storm rolls in and the rain and wind start to beat against the boat, until it starts to take in water. The disciples think the boat was about to sink, and they are about to die. And they start yelling at the sleeping Jesus, waking him up and shouting, “Don’t you care that we are dying!”

Copyright, NBC News

Copyright, NBC News

“Don’t you care that we are dying?” Wednesday night I thought about those words, not for myself but for those nine souls in Charleston. “Jesus, don’t you care that they are dying? Don’t you care about your own people, gathered there in your own church?”

I think through the centuries, in many more places than that boat on a Galilean sea and a church basement in Charleston, good people of faith have asked that question. “Jesus, don’t you care? Why do you let bad things happen to good people? Why aren’t you stopping it?”

Like I said it’s a fair question. And those disciples in the boat, they at least got a response. When they woke Jesus up and yelled their question to him, he took action. He spoke to the storm and the sea and said “peace, be still”. And when he did, the rain and the wind died, and they were safe.

The disciples, they got a happy ending. But today I don’t tell you this story to say “everything is going to be okay”. Because the end of the story has not yet been written for us.

But I do tell it, because I believe that it reminds us of something very important: Jesus does not will for God’s people to suffer. What happened on Wednesday night in Charleston was not God’s will. It’s not what was supposed to happen.

Instead, it was what one angry, racist, violent young man chose to do. It was the horrible way that he chose to exercise his free will. It was his turn away from the message that Jesus gave us all, one of peace and love for our neighbor. And it was choosing an act of evil, even after being shown the love of strangers.

And it is horrifying. But, it is not unprecedented.

When I went to college in Atlanta, I would drive by Dr. King’s old church in the Sweet Auburn neighborhood. And I’d drive by The Temple, a Jewish synagogue that had been bombed in the Civil Rights movement. And I’d drive by other houses of worship that had been targeted decades before and think about the kind of hatred that would drive someone to carry out an act of violence against a peaceful place of worship. I’d think about how strange it must have been to have lived in that era.

But, as we know now, that era isn’t over. And I should have known better, even at age 18. Because the truth is, I knew racism was alive and well. I grew up in the South and I remember my friends from well-educated “good families” repeating the racist epithets of their parents while we played outside. I remember classmates who shaved their heads and started to wear neo-Nazi insignia. And I remember Confederate flags on the front of cars, or in front of fraternity houses on my college campus, hung by people who called it “heritage”.

Much like the disciples sailed a sea that was sometimes violently restless, I grew up in the South sailing a sea that was far too often disturbed by the undercurrents of hate. But unlike the disciples, who sailed waters that were unsettled by the weather, when we encounter racism it does not come from a natural place. We are sailing on a human-made sea of hate. It does not have to be there.

And like the disciples, we can call out to Jesus to ask him to calm the storm. But unlike the disciples, this storm is one of human making. And it will not be calmed by our silence. That didn’t even happen for the disciples; why should it happen for us?

Instead, it is our job to not just call out to Jesus, but to live out the values he taught us. It is our job to calm the stormy sea by choosing to speak up against hatred and bigotry. It is our job to love our neighbors, no matter who or where they are. And it is our job to reject silence when words are needed. We need to name racism for what it is: not a breach of social etiquette. Not a political concern. Not a relic of a bygone era. But instead, something that we must resist. Something that is a sin.

It may be tempting, here in New England, to think this is not our work. On Thursday, as I rang our church bells in remembrance, I thought about how different our context is here in Exeter than it is in Charleston. I wondered really what we could do from so far away.

But as I was sitting there, I was convicted by a story that the Rev. Bob Thompson told this past year when he came to a We the People lecture to talk about racism. Despite growing up in West Virginia, Bob said, “Exeter, New Hampshire is the only place I’ve ever been called the “n-word”.” And it didn’t just happen once.

And so, we have work to do. We have work to do because we are human beings and concerned citizens, but we also have work to do because we are Christians. And because just like Jesus calmed the storms by saying “peace”, Jesus taught us what it means to be peacemakers. And he was always clear that the peacemakers are the ones who work for justice for all God’s people.

So how do we start? I think the story tells us a little about that. Because the thing that has always struck me about this passage is the fact that Jesus did not calm the storm from back on the dock. He was not waiting for them there on the opposite shore. Instead, in the wake of a horrible storm, Jesus was right there with them, in the same boat.

And so that’s the hope in this story. Jesus does not ask us to do this alone. But Jesus does ask us to get in the same boat, and go where he is going.

Scripture tells us that other boats were out there on the sea that day. The same is true for us. There are a lot of boats out there. There are boats of anger. Boats of fear. Boats of vengeance. Boats of denial. And I’ll admit that sometimes they look pretty attractive.

But when it comes down to it, this is the only boat I want to be in. Because this is where Jesus is at the helm.

That doesn’t always mean that it will be smooth sailing. Because, be warned, no one said that following Jesus would be easy. Sometimes it costs everything. But like Jesus himself said after he stilled the storm, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”

I want to be in that boat. And I want to have faith. I want to have that faith because on Wednesday night, not even bullets could destroy the faith of Emanuel AME church. And not even bullets could stop their hope.

So much so that when the shooter was arraigned on Friday morning, when he was brought into the courtroom where the families of his victims sat, their faith and their hope lived. And even in the face of a man who had done such an evil thing, they were able to say something to him that no one expected: “I forgive you”. Again and again they said it. And they said “May God have mercy on you.” And “we will pray for you”.

If they can say that, if they can stay in the same boat as Jesus even when no one could blame them for jumping ship, I can say the things that I sometimes don’t. I can say “that’s not funny” when I hear a racist, xenophobic, or a bigoted joke. I can tell the truth when I hear someone spread misinformation. I can say speak up when it would be easier for me to say silent. And I can say the things that will help to cause change. Because we never know who is listening, and we never know how much power our words, or our silence, might have. And if the families of those lost can say the things they did to the man who killed their loved ones, this is the least I can say from my place of comfort.

That’s my pledge in the wake of Charleston. You can choose the same, but that is your choice. But if you do, let’s pray for one another. Let’s pray that we will be the peacemakers on a sea that sometimes seeks to destroy us all. Let’s pray that we can stay in the same boat as Jesus, even when the waves get rocky. And let’s pray that one day soon we will find the other shore.

But today, let’s first pray for the souls that were lost. The martyrs of the faith. The ones who gave their lives doing exactly what Christ asked of them: transforming their minds, lifting their voices in praise, and welcoming their neighbor with open hearts. And let us do so by speaking their names and keeping our silence for a moment:

Sharonda Coleman-Singleton
Cynthia Hurd
Ethel Lance
Susie Jackson
Depayne Middleton
Clementa Pinckney
Tywanza Sanders
Daniel Simmons
Myra Thompson

(Silence.)

Prayer: O God, whose son stilled stormy seas, we lift up these names and these lives to you. And we lift up our hearts to you as well. God, transform them, and give us the strength and the will to silence the storms of hatred, and to speak words of peace, justice, and reconciliation. Amen.

Shaking Up the Living in the Valley of the Dead: Sermon for April 6, 2014

Ezekiel 37:1-14

37:1 The hand of the LORD came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the LORD and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones.

37:2 He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry.

10003447_10151948032596787_1474327605_n-137:3 He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord GOD, you know.”

37:4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD.

37:5 Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.

37:6 I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the LORD.”

37:7 So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone.

37:8 I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them.

37:9 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.”

37:10 I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.

37:11 Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’

37:12 Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel.

37:13 And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people.

37:14 I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the LORD, have spoken and will act,” says the LORD.

A few years ago, when Heidi and I got married, we had a little logistical problem. When I had been the only one living in the house, there had been plenty of room for my clothes in the closet and in the one dresser. But when Heidi moved in that changed, and we started needing more space.

So we did what any newly-wed couple did in the aftermath of the big day: we went to Ikea and we bought some dressers. Many of you have probably been to Ikea, but if you haven’t let me explain. The idea is that the furniture is fairly inexpensive, in part because it comes unassembled. You load these flat boxes in your car and drive them home and find yourself faced with dozens of pieces and bags full of nuts and bolts and washers.

And, I like to think I’m pretty handy. I have helped to build actual furniture, and I know my way around a toolbox. But this took forever. There was a lot of try to bang things into place, a log of getting frustrated, and a lot left over pieces. And I’m still not sure where those were supposed to go.

I was thinking about that because while I was reading today’s Scripture. The prophet Ezekiel was a priest who had been exiled along with many of the rest of his people to Babylon. And people would come to him and he would share his prophecies.

And these were a people who needed two things: honesty, and hope. And in his prophecies Ezekiel brought both. First he told the truth. He talked about the exile, and he talked about the ways that the people had fallen short of God’s expectation. He talked about how they were in a place that they never expected, and about how everything had changed.

But then he also talked about hope. He talked about how one day they would return to Jerusalem from Babylon, and the temple would be rebuilt, and they would find new life. And he had this vision that is perhaps his best known: the valley of the dry bones.

Ezekiel is led by God to this valley that is filled with bones. Layers upon layers. And there is no sign of life anywhere. And it looks like the epitome of hopelessness and death and destruction.

And God says to Ezekiel, “do you think these bones can live again?” I would probably have said “they look pretty dead, God”. But you should probably never count God out in these things. Even still Ezekiel doesn’t say, “yes, of course, you are God, anything is possible for you.” Instead Ezekiel just says “oh God…you know”. Hardly a ringing endorsement, but a start.

God tells Ezekiel to start to prophesy. In other words, start talking about the future Ezekiel. And as he does, God starts working too. The bones come together and connect again. And then they become flesh and blood again. And then, God tells Ezekiel to keep talking, and something incredible happens. They are filled with breath again, and the ones that moments ago had just been bones stand up and breathe, and are filled with new life.

God tells Ezekiel that the bones were symbols of the people of Israel, who had fallen mightily. And God shows him that they will be brought back to their feet. They will find new life. They will live again. God promises that. God gives them hope.

Now it’s hard to compare my little dressers to an entire people. But here’s what both stories tell me – putting things together is hard work. Sometimes you get stuck. Sometimes you don’t think there’s much of a chance to get things right. Sometimes you get frustrated and wonder if it is all worth it.

But sometimes, despite all of this, you know that you have to keep trying. And you have to keep putting all the pieces together. And that’s what I want to talk about today, because I believe that every Scripture we read has insights for our lives, and this is no exception. And I think this passage could be used to teach us about a lot of things: our personal lives, our families, our friends. But today I want us to think about what it means for those of us who are trying to be the church.

I’ll say this first: church is sometimes hard. Community is hard. Learning to live together and work together and serve God together is sometimes hard. It’s true in every church I know. There are good times when everything seems to be going well. And there are tougher times when it might feel like we are all trying to assemble the same dresser together, and nothing is coming out right.

And those are the times when you wish that God could just say the word, and all the pieces would come together like those bones in that valley, and new life would be breathed into all of us. Well, here’s the reality. I think we can. I think we can ask God to do all those things, and I think God will do them. But I think God needs us to do some work too.

God didn’t tell Ezekiel “just stand there and watch this”. God said to Ezekiel, “prophesy”. And, like I said, God was telling Ezekiel to talk about the future. God was telling Ezekiel to tell the truth, but to also tell the hope. Only when that happened did God start to show him what was possible.

And so, I want to ask those of us who love this church, those of us who love this church, what does this have to do with being church. Because I’ve said it many times, as have many others: church is not something we do one hour a week. Church is who we are every hour of every day. We are the church.

And with that in mind, I want us all to think about this question together: what’s the difference between being a church-goer, and being a disciple?

Think about that for a minute…how are those two different? Let me start by saying this…there’s nothing wrong with being a person who goes to church. I’m glad that you all do, and I’m glad you are here. And, really, to be a disciple, I think you need to be a church goer because I think that we who would follow Jesus all need a community of Christian faith.

But being a church-goer is not the same as being a disciple. Anyone can come on Sunday and sit in the pew for an hour and then leave. And that’s fine. But being a disciple is a whole lot harder.

I used to be a church-goer. But later on, I tried to become a disciple. I don’t always do it well, but I try. And here are just a few things I have learned in my own walk about being a disciple, and not a church-goer:
When I was a church-goer, it used to be about going to church. Now it’s about being the church.
When I was a church-goer, it was about how the church was spiritually feeding me and meeting my needs. Now it’s about how the church can feed and meet the needs of others.
When I was a church goer it was about seeing how others in the church weren’t measuring up to my expectations for them. Now it’s about seeing how I can help be the church with them.
When I was a church-goer it was about being with my friends. Now it’s about being a part of communities where not everyone gets along but we work together anyway.
When I was a church goer it was about how the church could pull together enough resources to fund a building and a budget and a bunch of line items so that we could sustain ourselves. Now it’s about how the church can use those resources to build a thriving ministry that reaches everyone.
And when I was a church-goer, it used to be my church. Now it’s God’s church.

Those are just a few. Maybe you can think of some of your own as well. And in all these things, this is what I have learned: being a church-goer is a lot easier than being a disciple. But being a disciple is the most rewarding thing I have ever tried to do. I say tried there, because I’m still stumbling along…and I’m not getting it right even half the time. But then again, the original disciples weren’t either. And yet, they kept trying.

I’ll close with this. In a few moments we will be receiving Communion together. And Communion is really about community and reconciliation. Our reconciliation with Christ, and our reconciliation with one another. We all sit at the same table, and we are all lifted up by Christ to sit at a much larger table with believers we do not even know. And, sometimes, we even sit at that table with other disciples with whom we might rather not sit. But like those bones in the valley, God sometimes joins us once again. God somehow calls us into new life. God puts us back together. God brings hope.

As we who would be disciples approach the table today, may God lift us up the way God lifted up those dry bones. And may we be knit together and stood up on our feet and given the breath of life. Because we are disciples. And we have work to do. Amen.

Journey Through Lent: Days 33-34

When we think about our lives, and we think about our life budget, not just our financial budget, but the whole real thing of our time and talents and heart and compassion, is it balanced?

I ask that like there’s a finite limit of resources there, and like they all have to be put in the right line items, but things like love and compassion are not finite, so let me rephrase: does the budget of your life reflect the sort of person you believe God is calling you to be? If you were to look at where what you have, in every sense of the word, goes…would you like what you saw?

One of the challenges and blessings of Lent is that we are asked to take an accounting. We’re not being audited from the outside. Instead, we are asked to open up the books of our lives, take a look, and see if they match the person that we want to be. Or that we claim to be. And then, if they don’t, we try to figure out how to make everything reconcile.

And reconciliation, being reconciled, is what Lent is all about. Lent is about taking account of our relationship with God, and making the changes necessary to ensure that our actions line up with God’s will for us. It’s about balancing the real budget of our lives in ways that align with what we truly believe. It’s a continuous process, but it’s one that we can commit to in earnest in Lent. So why not this Lent? God is waiting for us to be reconciled, and to live a truly rich life.

Ash Wednesday: Sermon for February 13, 2013

(Note: this sermon contains pieces of my Ash Wednesday essay “It’s Not About Me” found in Huffington Post and previously on this blog.)

ashwednesdayIf you go to a bookstore, and you look at the religion section, and especially the Christianity section, you’ll see a theme. Yes, there will be Bibles and other holy books, but more often than not, the section will be overrun with books all purporting to do one thing: to make your life better.

I don’t begrudge that. I think that if faith helps you to lead a more meaningful, more joyful, or more peaceful life then that is indeed a great thing. But, I’ve often wondered whether those of us who are both Christians and people of great privilege, and most of us who are Americans are, sometimes start to see our faith as one more element in our “be a better me” plans. Like a diet, or an exercise regimen, or get out of debt quickly program. I sometimes wonder if our faith becomes one more fashionable accessory, a key to a good life for us and us only only.

I think about that a lot during Lent, especially during the time when we are asked to decide what sort of Lenten observance we will take on this year. And, like many of you I think about “giving up” something: meat, or caffeine, or Facebook. And I’m not saying those may not be valuable things to give up for some. Only you can be the authority on what you struggle with the most. But Lent leaves me wondering if “giving up” is what it’s really all about.

When it comes down to it, Jesus only needed two sentences to sum the law up for his followers. First, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength”. And second, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself”.

Those of us who try to be disciples of Christ are really good at trying to add our own words or interpretations to his, but in the end Jesus really made it pretty clear. If you want to follow him, and if you want to be a Christian, then your only job is to love.

Love and ashes don’t often go together in our minds. But this time of year, it’s the ashes that remind me of what Jesus tried to teach us about love.

Ash Wednesday comes early this year, and with it comes the beginning of Lent, the season when we disciples turn our hearts towards Christ and seek to reconciled to him. And while the stores start stocking plastic eggs and Easter baskets, we do something that is completely counter-cultural: we go to church, and we smear ashes on our foreheads, and we remind one another that everything we know is only temporary.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.

What used to be a heart-stopping reminder for me has instead become a moment of refocusing. In the big scheme of things who we are as individuals is finite, and fleeting. But who we are together, and who we are to God, is what matters, and what truly defines us, even when we are gone.

In Lent we remember the great truth: it’s not all about us.

I was thinking about that this week. Like many of you, I was stunned to hear the news of the Pope’s resignation the other day. I didn’t know Popes could resign! But the more I read about his decision, the more I understood it and respected it. We may not be Catholics, but we can learn a lot from other Christians, and I think we can learn a lot from him too. When it became clear to him that because of health he could no longer function in his role the way the position demands, he stepped aside. He made it not about him. He made it about the church, something bigger than him.

That speaks to me in Lent because each Lent I feel myself called back to community, both human and divine, by that message: it’s not about me. And when that calling comes, so does the reminder of those two commands of Christ: love God, and love others as you love yourself.

This is why I think that if our Lenten discipline is only about us, and what we will allow ourselves, we miss the point. Instead, what if we embraced Lent as an opportunity to show our love for God and others? We spend so much time focused on ourselves and on our own importance, but what if we used these forty days focus on something else? What if we took those days and dedicated each to reminding ourselves that it’s not about us as individuals, but it’s about God, and it’s about all of us together?

This Lent I’m giving myself a challenge. I’m calling it my Lenten “It’s Not About Me” Challenge. Here’s how it works: Each day I want to do at least one thing that either strengthens my connection with God, or shows my love for my neighbor.

That might sound like a lot at first glance, like it’s just creating one more piece of work in our already crammed schedules. But what I’m advocating isn’t about creating additional burdens. It’s about being more conscious of what we are already doing, and using our time in a way that connects us with others and with the Holy other.

When we start doing that, the daily walk turns into an opportunity for prayer. The trip to the grocery store yields a few more cans of soup for the food pantry. The extra hour of sleep on Sunday morning is turned aside for a chance to join your community in worship. And a few extra dollars turn into donation that makes a difference. We don’t have to turn the world on its axis. We simply have to turn our attention outward, and make the small things matter in big ways.

This is my challenge to myself, and no one is obligated to join me. But, I am asking you to consider what you will be doing differently this Lent, and asking how it is that what you choose will show your love of God, and will show your love of neighbor. Not because it will make you a better person, but because it will be a tangible reminder of Christ’s love for others.

I’ve had plenty of blessings in my life, and plenty of grace from God. I hope you have too. And in the end Lent can be a journey of recognizing those blessings, and blessing others. Because it’s not a journey that’s about me, or you. It’s a journey that’s about God. And we are invited. And that’s the best invitation that you can ever receive. Amen.

Not About Me: Day One (A Journey Through Lent)

379246_10151246708651787_459997397_nI received ashes about an hour ago. My partner was on her way to Boston to assist in Old South Church’s Ash Wednesday observances, but she ashed me first. Later today she will be joining other clergy and seminarians as she stands in front of the church and offers ashes to the busy pedestrians on Boylston Street. And now I’m sitting here in the office of my small town church in Vermont, ashes on my forehead, waiting to see if any parishioners who can’t make our evening service will drop by for ashes.

Our contexts today are very different, but our hopes are the same. Maybe the people we touch with ash will stop for a minute, reflect on the day, and feel the tug on their hearts from God that comes every Lent, beckoning them back to the divine relationship.

We impose the ashes on one another with the the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” And Lent is all about returning. Not just back to dust, but to what makes something extraordinary out of that dust. Lent is all about returning to the creator, and returning towards the way that God’s son showed us. A way of love. A way of reconciliation. A way of hope. A better way.

Today I’m starting my Lenten discipline in the form of a challenge to myself. I’m hoping that in Lent my thoughts and my actions will help return my attention to God, and to God’s people, again and again. I invite you to join me, in whatever way works for you. Even if you have been away from church, or away from faith, for sometime, it’s not too late.

God will always welcome your return. So, why not today?