Between Sundays: A sermon for Palm Sunday, and beyond.

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Matthew 21:1-11
21:1 When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples,

21:2 saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me.

21:3 If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.”

21:4 This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,

21:5 “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

21:6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them;

21:7 they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them.

21:8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.

21:9 The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

21:10 When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?”

21:11 The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

Today is the only day of the church year where you come to church and we give you not only your regular bulletin, but this palm frond too. If you aren’t expecting it, that probably seems a little odd.

Your palm fronds mean of course that it’s Palm Sunday. Which means we are getting close to the end of Lent, and are starting Holy Week. Next Sunday you’ll hopefully be here to help up celebrate the holiest day of the Christian year, Easter.

But today we have these palms to contend with, and what, from the outside, must look like a very strange tradition.

On Palm Sunday we remember Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. We remember how he rode into the city on a donkey, and the crowds were waiting for him. They had heard about him. They loved him. They threw their coats on the ground, and spread their palms out on the road, and they cheered as he came in. They were looking for the Messiah and they were sure it was him.

So all these centuries later we Christians gather in churches and collect these palms and wave them. We celebrate a great parade that took place long ago, the coming of the Messiah to Jerusalem. And we are so, so close to Easter. We almost want to take this day as a warm-up, a celebration before the big celebration.

And if you read the story today knowing nothing about what happens between Sundays, you could. But you all know that something happens between Sundays. And the story isn’t as straight-forward as it seems. Stories about Jesus seldom are.

When I was in college I saw a production of Jesus Christ Superstar. The musical traces the events of Holy Week and I was struck by the crowd, the chorus of singers that followed Jesus. As they waived palms on one Sunday they shouted his praises and sung and called out to him. But as the week went on, they changed. And by Friday, those same people once shouting their admiration were calling for his death.

It’s always stuck with me. That change in feeling. I think of it every year during Holy Week. Jesus goes from the exalted one to the one who is offered up as a sacrifice by the crowd. There’s something fitting about the fact that in many churches the palms from Palm Sunday are saved until the following Ash Wednesday, when they are then burned and turned into the ashes we wear as a symbol of our humaness and fraility and mistakes. Sometimes we turn from Christ, and we get it wrong.

We don’t like to dwell on that. We don’t like to dwell on the reality that Christ was betrayed, and denied, and abandoned. We like to stick with the Palm Sunday and Easter joy, not the Maundy Thursday and Good Friday pain.

Holy Week, fittingly, is the holiest week of the church year. It’s also the busiest. And many pastors, whether we admit it or not, know that when we announce the extra services that week there’s sort of a heavy sigh.

I get it. We’re all busy. Sunday morning feels hard enough for many good Christians. Thursday night, after a long day at work, is even tougher. You just want to go home, have dinner, and either tackle the pile of laundry or have a few precious hours to yourself. You probably don’t want to take the car out one more time, drive to church, and sit through another service, and one that’s not so joyful at that.

No one will blame you if you don’t. No pastor I know takes attendance, and, truth be told, we clergy all have our own Netflix queue and stack of unfinished novels that we might longingly look at on our way out of our own doors. But the occupational hazard of being clergy means we can’t call out on Holy Week. Which means the messages of the stories we hear on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday can’t go unheard by us.

That’s good because what we hear about Jesus on those two nights is the same as what we hear every day in our offices. But we don’t talk about that much. Because most churches are good at doing Sundays. But sometimes not so good at acknowledging what comes between Sundays.

On Sunday mornings we often focus on the joy. We sing uplifting hymns. We hear hopeful sermons. We smile. We shake hands. We dress up. We talk about grace and blessings and gratitude. That’s not a bad thing.

But when many of our parishioners leave on Sunday, they step into a different world. Between Sundays I visit with people who are facing a struggle that few in their lives  understand. They’re sick or injured. Dying or bereaved. Or depressed, heart-broken, betrayed, alone, and wrestling with doubt.

And if you come to church on Palm Sunday and Easter, you might not think we in the church know anything about that. But if you come between Sundays, you’ll find a faith that knows what that is like. More than that, you’ll find a God who knows what that is like.

To me, the most comforting part of Holy Week is not the waving of triumphal palms on one Sunday morning, or the flowers and joyous hymns on the next. It’s what happens in between.

It’s Jesus on Maundy Thursday sharing a table with the people he loved the most. It’s him washing their feet, and showing that the mark of a true leader is whether they can serve others.  And it’s Jesus still loving those disciples even though he knew that, at best, they would abandon him, and at worst, they would betray him. And it’s Jesus in the garden, alone, heart-broken, and struggling between what he wanted to do and what he knew he had to do.

And on Good Friday, it continues. The world turns against him, and the ones who cheered his entry in Jerusalem instead cheer his death. He suffers. He calls out to a God who does not seem to answer. He doubts. He feels pain, and loss, and grief. And in the end he loses the life he knew.

I’m sometimes asked by those who are going through a difficult time whether God is angry when they have doubts, or when they wonder why God doesn’t seem to be answering prayers. They ask if God understands when we suffer, or when we feel alone.

When they do, I point first not to the Christ of Palm Sunday or Easter, but to the Christ of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. The one who lived as one of us. Who loved as one of us. Who doubted as one of us. Who suffered as one of us. And who died as one of us.

And only then do I point to the Christ who rose again, and overcame the worst that the world could throw at him.

I sometimes worry that we forget the lessons of Holy Week the rest of the year. Some churches even cancel mid-week services due to low attendance, and instead roll all the stories into a “Passion Sunday” service on Palm Sunday. But when we forget Holy Week, I wonder if we are losing that time we once had to sit with Christ in his own human struggles? And I wonder if when we lose that time, we lose our ability to learn to sit with others in their struggle, and with ourselves in our own?

But what would Christian life look like if we took that time. What if we became known not just as the people who knew what to do on Sundays, but the ones who knew how to stay with you when your life was falling apart, just as Christ asks us to do on Maundy Thursday? Or the ones who could stand by and still love and respect you even when you call out your doubts, as Jesus did on the cross? What would happen if we weren’t just know for our Easter Sunday celebrations, but for our Thursday night solidarity? Our Friday afternoon compassion?

We have the capacity to be those people. We have it because Christ has called us to be those people. All we have to do is be willing to make the journey with him. Not just on Sundays, but on the days between. The world has plenty of Sunday morning Christians. It needs a few more of the weekday ones.

Today, we wave our palms. We shout Hosanna. We look ahead to the Resurrection. But when you leave, consider taking them with you. Consider keeping them this year as a reminder of who we are on Palm Sunday. And then, when the times get hard, and the week grows tougher, look at them as a reminder of who you could be. Not the person in the crowd who yells out what everyone else is yelling, but the person instead who believed what they said on Sunday, and who will follow Christ on this journey. Even a journey that continues between Sundays.

Christ is waiting for us there. May we join him on this holy path. Amen.

The Danger of Building Bigger Barns – Sermon for August 4, 2013

image14Every UCC pastor participates in the pension fund for our denomination. The idea is that years from now when we retire we’ll have enough put away so that we can live. When I came here three years ago I had to get set up in the pension program and we called the UCC offices and had them send me a registration packet.

It arrived and it was, literally, about an inch thick. There were brochures about all sorts of different funds and investment strategies. I was lost. I had no clue whether I was supposed to have an aggressive approach to investing or a semi-aggressive one or balanced or conservative. I panicked. Finally I called family members with a better head for investments than me and took their advice.

I know more about investing now, but the fact remains that for most of us the idea of investing makes us uneasy. We often don’t know if we’re doing it right. Are we putting enough away? Are we putting it in the right places? Will there be enough for us down the line?

These are not new problems. They apparently were very much present even 2000 years ago when a man called out to Jesus from the crowd saying, “Tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”

Even Jesus seems a little reluctant to talk about it. He tells the man, “Who made me the arbitrator?” But he goes on. He warns, “”Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

And then he tells this story: There was a man who had some land and he was doing very well. He had a lot of crops, a high yield. But he realized he didn’t have enough room to store it all. So he takes down his barns, and he builds even bigger ones in their place. He says to himself, I’ve got it made. I’ve got enough for years now. I’m going to relax and eat, drink and be merry.

Except, Jesus says, the man’s life is demanded of him that night. And now what good does all that stored up grain do? And who does it belong to? He ends by telling us that it’s the same as those who store up things for themselves but are not rich in their relationships with God.

Unlike the man who builds a bigger barn so that he can horde his wealth, Jesus reminds us that we have to take the even longer view. We have to look not just at our lives, but at the life eternal. We have to look past what we can forsee, and look at what we don’t even understand yet. And then we have to fill our barns only as much as we need.

Do we take what we have and do we store it up in barns? Do we cram those barns with far more than we could ever use? Do we sit back and say, “Now I have enough…now I can relax?? Because the reality is, no matter how much we get, we will never have “enough”. We will always think that we need more.

I was reading an article from the New York Times recently. It was about storage units, the kind where you take the stuff you can’t fit anymore in your house and put it into a small room that you rent. And if you’ve ever been to a storage unit place, you know that there are row after row of these little rooms, each renting for a pretty good monthly sum.

The article was talking about how even in a recession, in a time when a lot of other industries are having to downscale, the storage market is growing. There are new ones opening up all the time. The article offered a statistic that blew me away: “by the early ’90’s, American families had, on average, twice as many possessions as they did 25 years earlier.”

When you think about that, it sure does say a lot about who we are, and what we value. It says a lot about what we hold on to, and what we invest in. And it says a lot about where we put our faith. We are building bigger barns, and we are, quite literally, storing up the stuff that won’t save us.

There’s a phrase you may have heard before: you can’t take it with you. We all know it. And we know that the subtext is that we can’t take the money or the things or anything else that we have accumulated in this life on to the next. And that’s true.

Yesterday we had Shirley Meade’s funeral here at the church, and we had a time of sharing where the people who had come could tell stories about what they remembered about her. And the one thing that kept coming up time and again was her generosity. People were saying what she had done for them, and what she had given to them. It struck me that not a one cared how much she may or may not have had stored away…all they cared about was what she did with it. And she was remembered for it.

But this is not a lesson that applies just to life and death. It’s a lesson for ministry as well, as in the ministry that we are all engaged in together. You can’t take it with you if you truly want to follow Christ. You can’t be so tied down to the stuff that you want to hold on to, both literally and figuratively, that you are afraid to follow Christ to the new places you are called.

I think that the Wilmington church knew that. They knew God wasn’t done with them yet, and they knew that there was a lot of ministry left in them. And so, rather than storing up their treasure in a building they loved, but that they didn’t need anymore, and rather than keeping their money tied up in its upkeep, they decided to let go, and to follow Christ.

It’s a powerful lesson, and it can guide us now. What fears are holding us back from doing the work we want to do? How are we building bigger barns, and packing them to the rafters, when we should be sharing our abundance with others? What are we holding onto out of fear that we might not get it again? What are we treating like a limited resource, instead of a gift given by God for us to share?

This isn’t just about money or stuff, though it is about those things too. This is about all that we are given. It’s about our time. It’s about our talents. It’s about our love. And it’s about not being afraid to use it. You may remember that song from when we were kids called, “This Little Light of Mine.” One of the lines is, “Hide it under a bushel? No. I’m going to let it shine.”

It’s the same way with all we are given by God. “Hide it up in a barn? No. I’m going to share it with God.”

I’m talking about using the barn to store what you need, but not making that barn your god. Not making your fear and anxiety over not having enough in the future dictate your whole life. And not making the need to fill that barn to the rafter dictate your happiness. It will never be enough. There will never be a barn that is big enough to hold all the things our fears want us to hold onto…unless you let go, and trust in God’s abundance.

This morning and this afternoon, this parish is going to partake in two meals together. The first is already set for us. It consists only of a loaf of bread, and a cup of grape juice. It’s nearly the simplest meal you can think of, and yet, it is the one Jesus chose for us. When you think about that, it’s pretty amazing. God incarnate got to set out a meal for us to eat for centuries, one in which Christ would be spiritually with us, and it wasn’t a four course dinner from a well-known chef. It was just a humble meal. And it was enough.

Then later, we will share another meal together. Our all church picnic is taking place out on the grounds. Last night I went to the grocery store and bought some stuff for the church just in case we didn’t have enough or people forgot to bring something. And I was worried that I hadn’t gotten enough, and I was going to go back and get some burgers, but then it struck me: when have I ever been to a church potluck where there hasn’t been enough? At this church, we typically have the opposite problem. I can’t remember a time I haven’t been sent home with a plate of extras.

But every time, every single time, we worry….will there be enough?

That’s not atypical. Everyone does it. I’m sure it happens at every church. But, eventually, we can’t ignore the fact that more often than not we are living in abundance. We have far more than we will ever need. And we have been blessed with more than we can use. And so we have two choices…build a bigger barn? Or decide that we will trust in the God who has blessed us so deeply enough to open our doors, release our fears, and bless others with us. Amen.

God’s Vision: Sermon for July 7, 2013

1045224_686248381390642_1363256859_nScripture: Luke 10:1-11

It’s good to be home. Most of you know I’ve been gone the past two Sundays. The first week was for a good friend’s wedding in Indiana, but the next week was spent not on vacation, but in service to the greater church.

I’m sometimes asked about the three letters after our church’s name: UCC. What do they mean? Well, to tell you very briefing, until about 56 years ago we were part of a denomination called the Congregational Church. That’s why our name is West Dover Congregational. But 56 years ago that denomination joined together with another one to create something new: the United Church of Christ, or the UCC.

And every two years delegates from across the country gather in a different location in order to worship and to reflect and to vote on church matters. From local churches like ours people from all over come to do the work of being the greater church together. And that’s where I have been for the last week.

One day last week I was sitting in one of the big plenary meetings and I was listening to one of our denomination’s executive ministers speak. And she was talking about her favorite Bible verse about ministry. And she read this line: “After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go.”

There are two things about what she said that struck me. First, that we are sent as representatives of Christ to the world. And second, that we are not sent alone. I thought to myself, “I should really preach on that passage when I get back”.

The thing is, as I’ve told you before, I’m a lectionary preacher. That means that I follow the common calendar of readings each week and preach on those passages. And as much as I wanted to preach on this other passage, I wanted to stick to the lectionary and I didn’t want Alan to have to change the hymns without much notice.

But then, I opened this week’s lectionary…and there it was. The same passage. And though it may have been a happy coincidence, I’m not one to ignore what might be the moving of the Spirit. And so, today we hear this Good News.

And it is good news, because one thing I have to be consistently reminded about when it comes to the life of faith, is that there are no lone rangers on this path. We can’t go it alone. It’s part of why when someone tells me they are “spiritual but not religious” I get a bit concerned. Because there is absolutely nothing wrong with being spiritual, but there is also absolutely nothing about being religious that keeps you from being spiritual. At our best we are both spiritual and religious, which means that we are both spiritual and connected with a community that is bigger than just ourselves.

But you probably already know that. And that’s why you’re here this morning. You’re not off doing something else. You’re not at the mountain, or doing errands, or out eating Sunday brunch. You’re here, in a place where you have to live your faith with others. A place where sometimes you might get frustrated, and sometimes you might get uplifted, but where you are never alone.

That’s the beauty of church: Jesus does not send us out on our own, he sends us out with others.

What’s true for people is, I believe, true for churches. We are one church here in southern Vermont, serving our community and trying to live a life of faith together. But we are not alone. I’m sometimes asked, “what is this UCC?” or “what have they ever done for us?” “Why don’t we just do our own thing?” And, the most passionate, “why do we send them money?”

And I could give you a lot of responses to that, but the best I know is this: because we are better together, and because Jesus did not send us out to do his work alone.

This past week, I was reminded that we are not Lone Rangers. We are not just a church in the Deerfield Valley of Vermont. We are not a church without connections. We are not on our own. Instead, we are one part of a national church of over one million members and over 5,000 local churches a lot like ours. Which means that across the country today, from Brattleboro to Chicago to Atlanta to Maui to Seattle, the other churches that we have been sent out with to do the work of Christ are worshipping and fellowshipping and figuring our how to do the same work of loving God and neighbor that we are trying to do.

I’m not sure about you, but that makes me feel good. I like knowing that we don’t have to go it alone. I like knowing that we are not off alone with no one to journey with us. I like knowing that if we get too far off in the weeds there are others to gently call us back. And I like knowing that because we are part of the greater church, our church is working in places we don’t even know about to do the work of Christ.

Scripture tells us that Jesus sent the disciples out to all the places he himself had intended to go. I believe one of those places was West Dover, Vermont. And one was New York City. And one was Omaha. And one was LA. And he didn’t send us alone.

Over the past week I’ve been inspired by hearing the stories of the places where the United Church of Christ, our church, has gone and what we have done there. General Synod is sort of like a big family reunion where everyone comes back and tells their stories, and everyone leaves challenged to do greater things.

Here are some of the things I saw and heard:

  • In a generation where we mourn youth not being involved in church, I saw youth serving as delegates to the General Synod, speaking about their faith, and being leaders.
  • In a time of mainline decline, there have been over 200 new UCC churches in the past four years. That is a staggering number.
  • In a time of war, United Church of Christ chaplains are serving in the military hospitals of Afghanistan, ministering to troops who have been injured.
  • In a time of increased natural disasters, the people behind UCC Disaster Relief, the same ones who came to our aid two years ago, are there every time.
  • And during Synod, 10,000 of these hand-knit scarves, created by knitters at churches across the country, were given to delegates for free. Or, I should say, for a promise. Each person who took a scarf made a pledge to stand up against bullying in their communities, and to work to protect those who have been bullied.

And these are only a few of the things I saw. And they are all possible because we are a part of this greater church and we support this denomination with our prayers and commitment and giving and dedication. There are places that Jesus has sent us to that you and I may never get to personally, but because we are a part of a larger church, that means that someone is getting there. Someone is doing the work. And they are not alone.

Some of you know that at Synod I was elected, along with 35 others, to the new United Church of Christ Board, a sort of board of directors of our denomination. This means that twice a year I will be gone for a few days for a meeting in Cleveland where I will join with the other board members in trying to help our greater church to remember this Scripture: that we have been sent out, not alone, to the places Christ himself intended to go. I appreciate the support so many of you have given me, and I appreciate that you are loaning me to the greater church for these meetings. You will surely be in the room with me.

But beyond that, I give thanks for all that we are doing as a church because it doesn’t just change our own lives, but it changes the lives of the people in the communities that surround us. And because we are a part of an even greater church, our work doesn’t just stay in southern Vermont.

Because you are a part of this greater church, right now in Afghanistan there are UCC chaplains ministering wounded soldiers at hospitals.

Because you are a part of this church, somewhere at some parish there is a kid who has been bullied hearing about these scarves and what they represent and how his church will stand up for him.

Because you are a part of this church, people who are recovering from natural disasters are getting a little more help than they would otherwise.

Because you are a part of this church, 200 new UCC churches will join together in worship today.

Because you are a part of this church, missionaries around the globe are teaching schools and bringing clean water and medicine and shelters to those who need it.

Because you are a part of this church, students at UCC seminaries across the country are preparing for ministry in churches like ours.

And because you are a part of this church, you are not going out to the places Christ calls us to alone. You are going out with a family that is one million strong, and that is committed to doing this work.

The theme of General Synod this year was “God’s Vision”. And when you came in today you got slips of paper that said “God’s vision: __________.” That blank was intentional. It’s for you to fill in. It’s for you to decide how you will be a part of helping the UCC to live into God’s vision for us. There are as many right answers as there are those of us who call ourselves a part of the UCC. And I would love to hear how you would fill in that blank. I would love to know how you will fulfill that connection.

Our connections are a blessing. Whether to those of us sitting here in these same pews in Vermont, or to those who are across the country. They all strengthen us, and they all help us to strengthen others. May God bless these ties that bind us, and may God bless the entire church, including this one. Amen.

Unlikely Disciples and the Roadmap of Grace: Sermon for June 16, 2013

"Anointing His Feet", by Wayne Forte

“Anointing His Feet”, by Wayne Forte

Soon after I moved to Massachusetts, I met a friend whose Christian life really impressed me. She was involved heavily in her church and she did a lot of outside ministry work too And she carried herself with a humility but also a quiet certainty of who God was and who she belonged to.

I attributed it to the fact that she had grown up with a parent who was in the clergy. I thought surely that was what had shaped her faith and her interests. And one night we were talking and she was telling me about some of the ministries she was involved in. And one of the ones to which she was most devoted was a ministry to people in prison. And so, I asked her what had caused her to get interested in prison ministry.

She replied, simply: prison

What I hadn’t know until that point was that she herself had done time. As a young woman she had battled a serious addiction. And one night she made the choice to get high, and she stole a car. And she ended up going from a well-known New England prep school to serving several years in a Georgia prison

I was thinking about her when I was reading this text because this is the classic text about unlikely disciples. Jesus is invited to a Pharisee’s home to eat dinner, and you should always be a little wary of dinner invitations from Pharisees, because it’s probably less about getting to know you, and more about looking for what you’re doing wrong

And on this night, something scandalous happened. A woman, who was apparently known to be a sinner, came into the dinner party. She had a jar of expensive oils with her. And on the ground she wept and washed his feet with her own tears. And then she anointed them with the oil.

The Pharisees were aghast. This was all the evidence they needed that this man was not a prophet. If he were, he would have known who she was, and he would never have let her come near him.

But of course he does. Jesus lets everyone come to him. He allows her to bathe his feet with her own tears. Tears shed for a life ill lived. Tears shed for a redemption that is to come.

And he uses it to teach them.

Jesus asks Simon about a man who forgives two debts. One is small. And the one who is forgiven does love the man who does it. But one is big, and how much more does that person receive in the forgiveness? The one whose life is changed most drastically will become the one who most loves the one who forgives.

For the woman who was washing his feet, who probably was Mary Magdalene, there had been a life of bad choices. And yet she was one of the first to recognize the grace that was in Christ. So much so, that it is she, not the disciples, who anoints Jesus for the first time. Her debt had been large, and now she saw it being forgiven purely out of Christ’s love for her.

Sometimes the people who need grace the most are the first to really understand it when it’s offered. And sometimes they are the people who we never would have expected.

In college our chaplain was a man named Sammy. And he had gone to seminary in New York City during the 1950’s, but afterwards he returned back to south Georgia, where he had grown up. And one of the reasons he came back was that he wanted to work for civil rights.

One Sunday he delivered a sermon about segregation to his entirely white congregation. And afterwards someone came up to him and said, “some people aren’t too happy about your sermon.” And the same guy said, “you see that man over there? He’s the head of the Klan here in south Georgia.”

From that point on Sammy and the head of the Klan butted heads, and it was made clear to Sammy that he was not wanted there. And then, one night, he got a call. It was the Klan leader asking him to meet him out at a bar on the highway. This was the sort of bar where there was a lot of drinking and fighting and sympathy for the Klan, and he was a little worried about why he was being called out there.

But when he got there, the Klan leader was sitting at a table. And he was broken. And he told him how he couldn’t stop drinking, and how his wife was leaving him, and how his whole world was falling apart and now he was questioning everything about how he had lived his life. And he said to Sammy, “Reverend, would you pray for me.”

And Sammy looked around at the bar and said, “Here?”

And the man replied, “Pastor, don’t you believe in Jesus?”

This man whom he had disagreed with in every possible way taught him something about the grace of God that night. First, that no one is beyond it. And second, that Jesus is everywhere waiting for us to accept it. Even in that south GA roadside bar, and even to a Klansman.

Sometimes the best representatives of Jesus’s grace are not people who have led perfect lives. Sometimes they are people who have struggled to make the right choices. Sometimes they have a past. Sometimes there are things that seem shameful. But they are often the best witnesses to the fact that Jesus’s grace can find you, no matter where you are.

For the disciples this was an issue. They were already facing problems. And now the face of the movement, this man they followed, was letting this woman with a past touch him in front of the Pharisees. It didn’t look good. Surely there were “better people” who could attest to who Jesus was.

In the musical Jesus Christ Superstar the scene is played out like this, with Judas singing these words:

It seems to me a strange thing, mystifying
That a man like you can waste his time on women of her kind.
Yes, I can understand that she amuses,
But to let her kiss you, stroke your hair, that’s hardly in your line.
It’s not that I object to her profession,
But she doesn’t fit in well with what you teach and say.
It doesn’t help us if you’re inconsistent.
they only need a small excuse to put us all away.

Judas was right. They only needed a small excuse. But he was wrong about the rest. No one could preach to the grace of Christ more than this woman could. And so when he sings about “wasting your time on women of her kind” he couldn’t be farther off the mark. Unfortunately, that’s how society, and often the church, sees some people sometimes. As wastes of time.

But they are not wastes of time, but are often the best witnesses to Christ’s grace. Last week I told you the story of a ministry in Nashville called Magdalene House, and the business the women run called Thistle Farms. I didn’t tell you what some people in Nashville often said about this ministry. Things like, “Why waste your time and the church’s resources on these prostitutes. Use it on “nice” people.”

This church was the sore spot for the diocese. Never got funding, etc. They were sort of ashamed of it.  Yet this program changes lives. Women who had been left for dead are now self-sufficient, healthy, and full of hope.

And they also become witnesses.

I participated in a baptism service for them once in a river. You could almost feel the release of the past, and the river could have been their own tears. And I wondered, why are these women’s stories not plastered in every church in the diocese? This is grace. This is what the Gospel is all about.

We’re the church and this is what we do. We welcome people with a past. Because there are things in all of our lives that we regret. The ones who accept Christ’s grace belong here the most because they are some of Christ’s best witnesses to the Resurrection, because they themselves have been resurrected.

The thing that I’m always struck with about people who have truly been transformed by God’s grace is that they don’t deny where they came from. They may not tell you about it all the time, but they don’t deny where they were. Part of that is because they’ve come to realize no matter where they were, Jesus was already there. They never would have found a way out if he hadn’t been there, offering his grace.

Hhe was there in prison with my friend who served time. he was there in the roadside bar with the klansmen. and he was there on skid row in Nashville with the women who were trying to escape a life of addiction and being treated as commodities. And he’s there in all the dark places of our lives.

Our affiliation with the UCC teaches us that. The United Church of Christ has a slogan: No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here. And that’s the truth of the Gospel. We are welcomed no matter where we have been. And we are welcomed because where we’ve been is not where we are ultimately going.

Our past brought us here today, and it informs our journey. But it does not dictate it. Only Christ does. And grace is our only roadmap on the journey of life.

If it can find the young woman in prison, the alcoholic at the roadhouse, and the women on the streets, then surely it can find us. And it is only when we truly receive that grace, that we can truly follow Jesus. Without it, the words of the Gospel are hollow. But with it, they are everything. May Christ’s grace illumine even the darkest corners of our lives, and bring us all to the table with him. Amen.

Rise: A Sermon on Everyday Resurrections – June 9, 2013

nain - tissot-resurrection-nain777x561When I was a kid, I knew exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up: I really wanted to be a pilot. I was convinced that I was going to go to one of the service academies and then I was going to learn to fly. My bedroom had pictures of airplanes on the walls, and I even was a Civil Air Patrol cadet. I knew that flying was going to be my life.

But one day, when I was about 12, I went to the eye doctor. And he was asking me about school and what I wanted to do when I grew up, and I told him that I wanted to be a pilot. And he immediately said, “But you can’t be a pilot…you don’t have 20/20 eyesight!”

I was heartbroken. It sounds so trivial now, but at age 12, I really thought my life was over. And in a way, it was…not my actual life, but the life that I had always seen myself living.

Today’s reading from the Gospel is about something more serious. It’s about a young man whose life, to everyone who knew him, literally seemed to be over. He is walking into a town and he runs into a funeral procession. A young man has died, and he’s being carried out of town.

And the man’s mother, who is also a widow, is weeping. And Jesus sees her and he says “don’t cry”. He goes and touches the platform they are carrying the body on and he says “young man, I say to you, rise”. And the man sat up, and started to talk.

Scripture says the crowd was “seized with fear”. That’s fair. If I saw that at a funeral I’d probably be a little afraid too. But then, when the shock wore off, they all began to praise God and to understand who Jesus was and what he was capable of doing. And slowly the news about Jesus began to spread.

The Christian faith is centered around the concept of resurrection. It’s why Easter is the most important day of the church year for Christians. Jesus himself defeats the grave, and lives again. And we tend to think that resurrection is something that happened only to Jesus.

But then there are stories like this, where resurrection happens to someone else. It’s still because of Jesus, but it’s not Jesus. And someone whose life was over, rises again. There are a few examples of this in Scripture, where Jesus brings new life where it seemed like there was no hope.

But the really good news for you and I is that resurrection doesn’t have to be so dramatic or literal as someone rising again from the dead. Most often, resurrection happens when we think that there is no hope. It happens when we feel like our lives are over. It happens when we think, “I’m as good as dead”.

But this is such a huge part of what it means to know Christ. It means that when our life feels like it’s over, God’s love and grace somehow get the last word, and we find that we somehow live again.

Sometimes that’s in small ways. I told you that story about how I wanted to be a pilot as a kid and one eye exam crushed those dreams. I look back now, and am thankful that’s not the route I took. It’s clear that, though my 12 year old self thought my life was over, God had other plans. And, frankly, better plans.

(And, to tell you the truth, now as an adult I don’t really like flying. I hate running into turbulence on a airliner, so being a military pilot probably wouldn’t have worked out so well.)

But there are more serious examples of resurrection too. When I lived in Nashville I learned about a ministry founded by an Episcopal priest there. They reached out to women who had been sex workers. Some had begun to be trafficked when they were only 11, 12, or 13 years old. They had known unspeakable violence, dehumanization and abuse, and many had turned to alcohol or drugs as the only way to deal with that trauma. Some had as many as ninety arrests. Most had come to believe that there was no other life they could live, and there was no hope.

But this priest said to them “there’s a way out. There was no judgement, no condemnation. Just hope. And the women moved into community together, and they got sober, and then they started working together on building a business called Thistle Farms. They made candles, bath soaps, lotions, and more. And they were able to learn a new way to support themselves, and to give back to the other women in the community. And the program has something like a 90% success rate, which is unheard of in recovery programs.

In the eyes of society, in the eyes of everyone who saw them, even in their own eyes, these women were as good as dead. And yet, what has happened to them is nothing short of a resurrection. What has happened to them is what happens when Jesus says “rise”, and you can do no other.

Maybe you’re hearing this story and you’re thinking “that’s pretty incredible, but my life isn’t that dramatic”. And maybe you’re also thinking one of two things: first, that you don’t have any need for resurrection. Or, second, that you do but for whatever reason resurrection can’t happen to you.

To the first point, I’m convinced that at some point in all of our lives we will need resurrection. Whether it’s fighting back from being sick, or getting out of a relationship that’s not good for us, or climbing back after losing a job or a business, or living again after grief, or recovering from addiction, or just finding hope when it feels like we are as good as dead…we will all need resurrection at some point. And if you haven’t needed it yet, or if you’re not needing it now, I hope you never will. But my guess is that at some level, at some point, we all do.

And the second issue is that you might think it can’t happen to you. You might look around and see other people climbing back from something. You might think that things change for them, but not for you. And you might think that you are too far gone to deserve the grace and the hope that others are receiving.

But grace and hope come regardless of whether or not we deserve them. They come because God loves us, and because God is capable of bringing resurrection to us no matter what. And sometimes, it’s just a matter of recognizing that resurrection when it comes.

Sometimes that’s hard to do. When the young man first sits back up, Scripture tells us that the people all around him are “seized with fear”. That’s fair. If I went to a funeral and the guy I was there to remember sat back up I’d probably be seized with fear too. But then they realize what happened and who did it and slowly they begin to glorify God, and to tell everyone that they know.

When resurrection happens in our own lives, it’s often less dramatic than a guy sitting up at his own funeral. But that doesn’t mean that it scares us any less. It’s pretty easy to be “seized with fear” when we suddenly see signs of new life.

Maybe that’s happened to you too. Maybe you have seen something start to turn around, and it has scared you to death. Maybe you weren’t expecting it, and now that things are changing it means that you actually have to respond and get involved and get excited. And maybe you have found that resurrection is sometimes both wonderful and highly inconvenient.

A friend of mine was diagnosed with HIV in the “bad old days” when anyone who was given that diagnosis was not expected to survive for long. And so he did what a lot of others he knew were doing at the time: he prepared to die. He quit his job, moved away, spent all his money, drank heavily, and got ready for the end. He didn’t think it would take long.

But then something happened. His doctor had him try out a mix of new medications. It was called a cocktail. And he started to get better. He still had the virus, but he was not as sick. And then he started to get to a place where it became clear he wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon. And then the virus became virtually undetectable.

He realized he was going to live. Resurrection was happening. But almost in the same breath he realized that that meant he had change the way he was living. He’d been so busy preparing for death that now he had to go back out and get a job, and save some money, and stop drinking, and start making plans for what was now clearly a long future. And it terrified him. He was “seized with fear”. But slowly, with God’s grace, he started to rebuild. And he worked to create his own resurrection. And I look at his life now, and it’s pretty incredible. It’s as though Jesus has been standing there, saying “rise”, and he could do no other.

When resurrection comes to you, my guess is that at first it will look mighty inconvenient. And it is. Because you haven’t been expecting it. And you might be “seized with fear”. That’s okay. Feel the fear, and then participate in your own resurrection, building something new with God. You may have thought your life was over, that you were as good as dead, but God has other plans.

They might surprise you, or frustrate you, or throw everything you expected off, but in the end, you may find yourself praising God’s love and grace in ways you never expected. Resurrection is real. I know, because I’ve heard about it, I’ve seen it, and I’ve lived it. And it’s frightening. And it changes everything. But it is always worth it. Always.

Jesus once said, and he says to us still: Rise. Amen.

What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger?: Sermon for May 26, 2013

Text: Romans 5:1-5

When I was in my freshman year at my college, I was in a leadership program. It was a little like Outward Bound, we climbed rocks, and did high ropes courses, and pushed ourselves past what we thought that our limits were. And the joke throughout the whole trip, whenever we were about to do something that seemed dangerous or impossible, was that someone would say, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”.

It was a good joke for the weekend, but for a while after that trip I began to really embrace that way of thinking. Young adult years are often full of change, and it seemed like a good life outlook because it meant that everything was an opportunity for growth. Whenever I faced something difficult or challenging I just shrugged and said, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”.

And then I finished college, and then seminary, and took a job as a chaplain at a children’s hospital. And all of a sudden things got a little deeper and a little more real. I spent a lot of time with parents who had lost, or were loosing, children. And I saw their utter devastation. And all of a sudden, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” sounded pretty trite. Because these parents, they were alive but, at least in the aftermath, they weren’t any stronger. In fact, the exact opposite was true. This wasn’t the challenge of a rock wall set up to build character. This was something far more devastating, and far less deliberate.

At first reading, today’s passage from Romans sounds sort of live that motto I heard back then. Paul gives us this sort of chain reaction where he tells us that suffering leads to endurance, and endurance leads to character, and character leads to hope. And this passage could be mistaken to mean, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. Just live through something tough, and you will be better for it

But the meaning is much deeper than that. Paul is writing to the church in Rome, where he has never visited before, and he is telling this community about himself. And he is talking to a divided people. Some members of the church there come from the Jewish community and believe that the law they have known their whole lives most be upheld. And others are Gentiles, and they don’t understand why they are being told that they have to get circumcised and keep certain commandments. And the community is divided, which means that is is susceptible to false teachings. And so Paul writes this letter to the Romans to talk about grace and how we are not saved by what we do, but instead by what God does for us. And he writes this particular part about hope.

Now, hope is something you can’t buy, and yet hope sells like nothing else. The people who write ads know this, and so we will buy anything that promises us a sliver of hope from a new medication to a new laundry detergent to a political candidate. But Paul is talking about something deeper here. The sort of hope you can’t buy. Authentic hope, which comes from God.

And we have this very brief passage about hope that out of context is misleading. It seems to say that you will be better for your suffering. And on some level, ultimately, that may be true. But we have to be careful not to reduce it to “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” And we have to be sure that we are not saying that God wills suffering upon us to teach us lessons or to make us better people

In the wake of the tornado this week in Oklahoma, it’s important that we make that distinction. After every disaster, natural or human-made, there are always a few voices that pop up in the media saying that God did this and that this happened for a reason. Usually they say it’s because God wants to teach us something. That’s always rubbed me the wrong way.

One of the best sermons I ever read came from a minister named William Sloane Coffin. And he was preaching the Sunday after his beloved son was killed in a motorcycle crash. And he tells this story about the first days after the crash and how a woman he didn’t really know came in carrying these quiches she had baked for him, and she sighs and says “I just don’t understand the will of God.”

He was grieving, and it rubbed him the wrong way, and he got up and flew after her and said, “I’ll say you don’t.” And he went on to say that God doesn’t go around causing accidents and crashes because it’s God’s will. Coffin says God doesn’t go around with a hand on a trigger waiting to inflict pain. And he says finally that when his son’s motorcycle went into the water, “God’s heart was the first to break”.

It’s a good reminder. God does not make tornados hit Oklahoma. God does not give children cancer. God does not will us to kill one another. God does not cause car accidents. Instead, diseases happen, wars are fought, and accidents occur. And in the midst of it, God cries with us.

At this stage in Paul’s life, he had suffered mightily. He had lost everything, been imprisoned, and been beaten. And yet, he had found hope. Not through his suffering, but through the knowledge that God had upheld him in the midst of it. And it was that knowledge that made him such a convincing advocate.

It is because of what he had endured that he was able to talk about how suffering had transformed him, and had shaped his character, and had given him hope. It was not suffering for suffering’s sake. It was instead a place where God’s grace became most real to him. Strength did not come from pain, but from an experience of finding hope in that pain.

I don’t believe that everything on earth that happens is God’s will. I’ve stood in too many Emergency Rooms with grieving parents to believe that. But I do believe that nothing happens in God’s world that God cannot transform in some way for good.

When I was in seventh grade, a neo-Nazi subculture began to flourish in the area I was in school. It was sickening and it was deadly. And I had an English teach who announced one day that we would have a guest speaker. That day a woman with a slight accent came to speak to my class, and she told us the horrors she had seen in her life and about what the reality of human evil can do. And she rolled up her left sleeve, and showed us all that tattooed numbers that had been given to her on the day she arrived at a concentration camp

God did not will the Holocaust. God did not will her suffering. But in the aftermath of what was then unchangeable, God’s grace worked through her to give her strength, and to testify to what unchecked hatred could do. To show those few who embraced a movement they did not really understand what its logical end was. God had not willed her suffering, but God had transformed her character and used it to give the world hope.

The same is true in many of our lives though, thankfully, usually less dramatically so. Think of the people you most respect. Do you respect them for what they were easily given in life? Or do you respect them because there is something in their life that they overcame and were so transformed by that it affected who they were?

The people I respect most, have not had easy lives. They are the people who have faced adversity, and have been transformed by grace.They’ve overcome injury, or addiction, or hatred, or fear, or pain. And have tried to share the hope they received with others.

My dad would be embarrassed if I told you this story, because he’s not the kind who tells stories like this, but it’s Memorial Day weekend, and I just spent a week with him, and he’s on my mind.

Growing up I knew my dad had been in Vietnam during the Vietnam War. I had always assumed he had a desk job. Only in last ten years or so I learned that wasn’t the case. And sometimes he was really in the thick of things.

I asked him once, “Were you scared”? Because as far as I knew at that point my dad had never been scared of anything in his life. And he looked at me and said “of course I was scared”.

I realized then that this man who had always taught me to stand up to prejudice, to be myself, to forge ahead even when I was scared, who had taught me about hope, actually knew what he was talking about.

I think that’s what Paul may have been talking about. Because the people who have walked through the hardest things in life, the people whose characters have been tested the most, and the ones who ultimately emerge with hope, are the ones who manage, by God’s grace, to bring hope to the world.

What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.

No.

What doesn’t kill us, simply doesn’t kill us.

But God’s grace in the face of our struggles is what ultimately makes us stronger. And through that grace, in the most difficult of times, we find endurance. And in that endurance we find character. And it is that character that gives the world hope. Amen.

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No Longer Lost in Translation: A Sermon for Pentecost, May 19, 2013

Holy Spirit Coming by He Qi

Holy Spirit Coming by He Qi

A few years ago, when I was working as a hospice chaplain on the South Shore of Massachusetts, I had one patient down near New Bedford. And whenever I went to see them at their nursing home, this other resident on her unit would see me in the lobby and start shouting at me in a foreign language. I had no clue what she was saying, but it was obvious to me that she was upset, and so I always just apologized and got out of there as quickly as possible.

One day I went back and the same thing happened. Only this time there were people around. And one of the aides said, “Do you know what she’s saying?” I said, “no, but whatever I did I’m sorry.”

And then she told me that the woman was speaking Portuguese, and that she was a little confused thought I was a relative of hers, and that when she saw me she wasn’t mad at all; she was excited. And she was yelling joyfully to me about how glad she was to see me. After that day I would always say hello to her, and I understood now that when we talked, though I couldn’t understand her, she was happy.

I learned then that translation matters. It can change everything. And today’s story is about translation too. It’s ten days after the Ascension, and the disciples are together, trying to figure out what to do next, now that Jesus is gone.

And all of a sudden a rushing wind, with tongues of fire, fell on them. And suddenly, the disciples, all of whom were Galileans all just speaking the same language, were speaking languages that they had never known before. People from other places were nearby and they heard it and they could understand what they were saying, and they asked “how come we are hearing this in our own language”?

Some didn’t even believe it; they said “they must be drunk.” But Peter gets up and he says “look, it’s only 9am..we’re not drunk”. Instead, something new has come, and everything has changed.

In the church we call this the Pentecost, which is translated to mean “fifty days”, as in fifty days after Easter. And we call that mighty rush of wind that came down the coming of the Holy Spirit. And we call this the birthday of the church. This is the day when the gift of the Holy Spirit was given to the disciples, and the church was born.

I’ve always found that interesting. Because, intuitively, it might not make a lot of sense. Shouldn’t Easter be the birthday of the church? After all, it’s the day Jesus rose again and appeared to the disciples. Maybe you could even argue that Christmas, with the birth of Christ, should be the day of celebration? Or, maybe Maundy Thursday when Jesus tells the disciples how to love one another?

But the tradition of the church is that Pentecost is the church’s birthday. And I think it’s because that was the day the disciples went from being this sort of loose band of followers of Jesus, standing around wondering what now, to being equipped by the Holy Spirit to minister not just to their own, but to the whole world.

And I think it says a lot that on its day of birth, when the Holy Spirit came down, the first gift that the disciples realize they have is the gift of being able to speak in new languages. The ability to translate the message to others.

I told you that story earlier about translation, and how it helped me to know what was being shouted at me in Portuguese. But translation doesn’t always have to be literal. Sometimes we learn to speak, and to understand, the language of others even when we don’t have the words.

One night when I was on call as a hospital chaplain, I received a page, and I was asked to come meet with a man whose wife had just given birth and who now was not doing well. And he was an Orthodox Christian originally from the Middle East. He spoke English fluently, and had been in this country a long time, though. And we were talking and I asked him, as I always did in these situations, if he wanted to pray. And he said “yes”, and took my hand and I was about to start praying, as I always did, but instead he started. And in Arabic he prayed this impassioned, heart-felt prayer for his wife.

And I have no idea what those words were that he was saying. But in that moment, without knowing a word of Arabic, I knew exactly what he meant.

If the Holy Spirit were to sweep into this place again today, and give us all a birthday gift, because we are all the church, I think we would get the same gift the disciples got. And I don’t mean by that that we would all be able to speak Spanish or Chinese or Russian or Arabic, per se. Rather, I think we would learn how to speak in new ways to those who haven’t heard about God’s love in language that they understand yet.

And you don’t have to leave the country to find people who haven’t. You don’t even have to leave the Valley. Some of you have heard me talking about how Vermont is sometimes called the least religious state in the country. And “nones”, those who do not claim a religious tradition, are the fastest growing demographic group.

And yet here we are in the church, speaking a foreign language. There was a time when everyone knew what the Lord’s Prayer, the doxology, and all of our other church words meant. There was a time when most people knew our language. But they don’t anymore. And that is new, but it’s also not necessarily bad. And that also doesn’t mean that ours is not a language worth sharing.

For decades now too much of the church has stood still, angry at the world that no one understands us anymore. No one speaks our language. We complain about that fact, and we have plenty of things to blame, everything from parents to Facebook to sports on Sunday morning, but the reality is that few people are going to spontaneously show up at our doors asking to learn our language. Especially not if we alienate them by judging them.

But do you notice something about the Pentecost story? When the Holy Spirit comes, it;’s the disciples who learn the new language. All the other people there don’t suddenly speak the disciples’ language: instead the disciples learn to speak theirs.

I think maybe the Holy Spirit is trying to tell us something. We can’t wait for others to talk the way we talk. Instead, we have to learn their language. We have to learn what is important to them. We have to be able to communicate in the ways that matter to them. We have to be willing to make the connections. It’s what the church has been doing since its first days, and it’s what we are still called to do today.

And sometimes the smallest points of connection, the smallest shared words, can make all the difference. I’ll give you an example. The other day I was at a meeting and I spent the whole time sitting next to this woman I’d never met before. And after the meeting we were talking, and I don’t think I have much of a Southern accent anymore, but I do have one tell: I say “y’all”. And as soon as I said that she got excited and said “where are you from?” And I told her, and she told me she was from Alabama, and immediately we had this connection.

All it took was one little signal that we spoke the same language, came from the same place, and had the same background. It’s not so different when it comes to faith. We aren’t some forgotten dinosaur speaking some lost language. We’re alive, and we have something to offer. And there are people who want to hear about it. They want us to make the connections, they want to know.

So, what languages are we speaking well? And which could use a little tutoring? What languages do our neighbors speak that we don’t speak quite as well? We live in a ski town. Should we learn to speak “ski” a little better? Our church’s front door is literally on one of the major motorcycle routes in the northeast. Should we be able to speak “biker” a little better? We live in a time when youth and younger adults are tied to their Facebook and Twitter accounts. Should we speak social media a little better? What other languages could you and I brush up on?

That’s the question that the church needs to ask itself today. Because Pentecost didn’t just happen 2000 years ago. It happens still. And that gift is our to receive. You and I can speak in more languages than we realize. So, happy birthday, church. It’s time to unwrap our present and share it with the world. Amen.

Peace Called Beside Us: Sermon for May 5, 2013

"Dove of the Holy Spirit" by Bernini

“Dove of the Holy Spirit” by Bernini

Every Sunday, at the very end of worship, I stand in the back of the sanctuary and offer the final blessing. I use words that are nearly 2,000 years old, and that are shared by Christians of all times and places: and now may the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be always with you.” And then, together, we all say “Amen”.

And when we baptize someone in this church, we do so using words shared by the universal church: I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. And we anoint the person with oil in the name of the Creator, the Redeemer, and the Sustainer.

And each Sunday we sing the the Gloria Patri and the Doxology and we sing “to the Creator, and to the Christ, and to the Holy Ghost”.

We talk about the Trinity a lot in our life together, which is to say we talk about who God is, and what God does. We know that God is our creator, our father and mother, the one from whom we come. And we know that Jesus Christ is also God and the one who redeems us. And then, we know there’s this third one we talk about.

Have you ever worked with someone who you’re not really sure what they do, but you know they are somehow really important? That’s sort of how a lot of Christians feel about the Holy Spirit. We know the Holy Spirit is important, in fact we know the Holy Spirit is God, but unlike God the Creator, or Jesus Christ, we don’t quite know what it does.

Jesus was speaking to his disciples for one of the last times before his Ascension, and he was talking about the time when he will no longer physically be with them. And he tells them that he is giving them an “Advocate”, the Holy Spirit, who will teach them and remind them of him.

And the word that is used in the original Greek text is “paraclete”. Now, it’s not important that you know that, but what that word literally means is “to call beside”. In other words, God is calling the Holy Spirit to be beside us. To comfort, and encourage, and guide us. And unlike Jesus who was standing there in one place with the disciples, the Holy Spirit will be with us everywhere and always.

And Jesus tells the disciples, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

When Jesus tells the disciples about the Holy Spirit who is about to come to them, he’s telling them that he is going to give them peace. And in a few weeks we are going to read the story of Pentecost, when that Holy Spirit does come, and hear about how that event transformed the church.

But today, we have the story of a group of disciples who know they are about to be on their own again, trying to figure this thing out. And you’ve got to think that they were afraid, and unsure, and asking why Jesus wasn’t going to be right there beside them anymore.

You and I, we know a little about that. Have you ever thought to yourself, “this whole faith thing would be a whole lot easier if Jesus just came down and told us what he wanted?

I sure have. Anytime I make a big decision, I wish I could just ask Jesus, “is this what you want me to do?” I did it before I got ordained, I did it when I was trying to figure out if God wanted me to move here to Vermont, and I still do it whenever something comes up and I don’t know what the right answer is.

Maybe you can relate. Maybe you have been faced with having to figure our how to live as a Christian in this world, and you have had some decision to make, or some hard thing to grapple with, and you’ve wondered “God, where are you, and why aren’t you here telling me what to do next.”

About two years ago we started a discussion down at the church in Wilmington about what God wanted us to do. The town was shrinking, the church had been growing smaller and smaller for over twenty years, and it had become clear to everyone that God was asking us to do something different, and something new. And it was hard, and sad, and painful, and confusing. And we weren’t sure exactly what to do or how to do it.

It was around that time when we asked everyone to pray about it, both by themselves and together. We asked that God would guide us to the right decision. And we looked for God’s peace to be with us in the process. We called the Holy Spirit to be beside us during that process.

And I believe the Holy Spirit was there. We made good choices, choices that ended benefitting both this congregation and St. Mary’s. And we made them because we entered those meetings where we made the tough decisions not the way you might enter a corporate boardroom, but as people of faith, and as the church called together to truly discern God’s will. And in the end, it was hard, but we found peace. And when Jesus tells us “peace I leave with you”, I think that’s what he meant.

I believe the Holy Spirit was guiding us in Wilmington, but I don’t believe the Holy Spirit is only found in churches. I believe we can call on the Holy Spirit in every situation of our lives, and if we listen for what it is telling us, we will feel God’s peace.

Maybe you’ve felt that. In hard times, like when you’ve had to make the very difficult decision about letting a dying loved one go. Or when you’ve had to end a relationship that didn’t feel like the place you should be anymore. Or when you’ve had to leave behind something that you once loved and turn towards something new.

But maybe you’ve had that in not-so unhappy situations too. Like, when you had to pick what college to go to. Or when you had to choose between two job offers. Or you stood at any kind of crossroads and really both options looked pretty good, and you wished God would just tell you which way to go, which next right step to take.

We’ve all been there. It’s called being in discernment, a time when your sort through your options. And what can make this time Holy is calling upon the Spirit to show you where God is leading you.

Three years ago when I had a choice a few years ago between coming to this church, or another church in Maine, both filled with good people who I had already come to care about, I prayed about it. I discerned. And in the end it became clear that God was leading me here. And when I had made that decision, I felt deep peace, and I knew then that it had been the right one.

Next week we start the second part of a visioning process in this church, and each week we are going to have a discussion about one aspect of the church’s life. And this isn’t going to be a time to come into the room and say right off the bat “this is what I think we should do”. This isn’t a business negotiation about getting what you want.

Instead, this is going to be an opportunity to enter into a time of discernment with others in this church. And, together, we are going to call on the Holy Spirit to guide us and to show us what is right for our congregation. We will undertake this process the way we undertake prayer: with open hearts and minds, and with a willingness to let the Holy Spirit lead us to the place God has already prepared.

My prediction is that if we approach this process by deliberately opening ourselves to the Holy Spirit, we will find God’s guidance, and we will find God’s peace. That doesn’t mean the discussions will always be easy. That doesn’t mean there will always be clear consensus. That doesn’t mean that the church we are called to be will end up looking the way we might think. But it does mean that in the end we will find God’s peace waiting for us. By giving us the Holy Spirit, God has given us the tools to do this work. We just have to be willing to use them. Amen.

In the Wilderness with Jesus: Sermon for 17 February 2013

58843_10151249313981787_219319825_nIf you watch carefully in church, the colors here change. Two Sundays ago I stood up here wearing a green stole. Last week it was white. And today it’s purple. And it’s going to be purple from now until Easter. Then it will be white again. (And then red. And then green.)

We clergy sometimes assume that people just know what we are doing. But, I’m reminded that when I first really started going to church I thought that the clergy just sort of wore whatever they wanted on Sunday. Like, they were color coordinating with their shirt, or pants. So, I thought I’d talk a little about why I’m wearing purple today, and what it signifies.

I put the purple on Wednesday night, as we held our Ash Wednesday service here. That same night we put up our Lenten banner, and we received the ashes that symbolize the start of Lent. The purple in the stoles that clergy wear this time of year is a reminder penitence, or mourning, or suffering. We come before God looking for reconciliation, and we follow the journey of Jesus as he was tested, and tried, and ultimately killed for who he was.

Purple is a reminder of what the season is about. It signifies the bigger story. A story that today takes us to this Gospel reading and to Jesus and to the wilderness. Scripture tells us that Jesus went out into the wilderness for forty days, like our forty days of Lent, and there he fasted and was “tempted by the devil”.

As the story goes, Jesus was put to a test. First he was asked, “if you’re so hungry, why don’t you turn this stone into some bread?” But Jesus resists and says, “you don’t live by bread alone.” Then, Jesus is taken up to a high place and looks down on all the world and is told, “You know, if you worship me, I’ll give you all of this.” But Jesus says, “Worship God alone…and serve God alone.” Finally, he is taken up to the top of the Temple in Jerusalem, and the adversary says to him, “If you’re really the son of God…throw yourself off the roof. God will save you.” But Jesus says, “don’t put God to the test”. And after that, the adversary, the devil, left him alone until, as Scripture tells us, “an opportune time”.

Forty days of wrestling in the wilderness. Forty days of fasting and refocusing. Forty days of being tested and tempted and being offered an easier way. And at the end of it, Jesus emerges, and he faces even greater challenges.

You and I know how the story goes from here. We know we are journeying towards Easter. But that also means that know that we are about to journey to the cross. Theologians debate whether or not Jesus knew that at the time. I don’t know if he knew exactly how it would all go down, but I think he knew something big was about to happen. Something that would test his will and resolve and faithfulness. And so, it’s telling that before that time came, he took forty days and went into the wilderness.

For Jesus the wilderness was literal. He literally went into a place where few went, a wilderness area. Sort of like off the beaten path in Green Mountain National Forest, but without the snow mobile trails and the Appalachian Trail hikers. He was out there. But that wasn’t the only wilderness he was facing. It was a physical wilderness, but it was also a spiritual wilderness. It was a place that few people spiritually dared to go.

You and I are, hopefully, not preparing for a crucifixion. But we are here at the start of our own forty days, the forty days of Lent, and we are standing at the threshold of what to the world around us might as well be a wilderness. Lent seems like a foreign concept in our culture, and not just because of the religious associations.

Who wants to go into the wilderness? I’m not talking about camping and hiking, I’m talking about a real wilderness here. A place where we wrestle with ourselves, and our spirit, and our relationship with God? What good is it? You can’t put it on a resume. It doesn’t earn you any money. It doesn’t really make your life easier. It may even make it harder. So why would you do it?

But that’s exactly what Lent asks of us. It asks us for forty days to go into a wilderness place, and to prepare ourselves for the journey of discipleship. It asks us to wrestle with the hard stuff. To pray. To fast. To do something new. To face temptation and choose to follow Christ anyway.

It’s not popular. Easter morning the church will be full of people, some of whom we’ve never seen before but who go to church twice a year, and I don’t begrudge that. But Ash Wednesday, and Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday? Not so much. Everyone likes a party. Not everyone likes setting up for it.

And that’s okay. It’s a personal choice. But for those of us who choose to follow Lent, and who choose to make this forty day wilderness journey, we discover something meaningful along the way: we’ve often been in the wilderness, but now we’ve found Christ there too.

The reality of our lives is that we spend a lot of time lost. We spend a lot of time facing temptation. We spend a lot of time wrestling with God. And, spiritually, we spend a lot of time being alone with our demons. And Jesus knows what that was like. And so in Lent we have the opportunity to spend forty days not alone, but with one who has been here before.

Are you having a hard time with faith? Jesus knew what that was like. Are you struggling to make a hard choice? Jesus knew what that was like. Are you grieving? Jesus knew what that was like. Are you wrestling with demons? Jesus knew what that was like. Are you preparing yourself for something new, something you don’t know how you are going to survive? Jesus knew what that was like too. And I’m convinced that when we go through these wilderness times God looks at us with nothing but compassion and nothing but love. Because God watched God’s own child, Jesus, go through these days too.

Recently the fire department was called to a house fire in a neighboring town. Lots of departments were called, actually. The people were okay, thanks be to God, though the house wasn’t.

I was thinking about the wilderness that day. Most of you know that I serve as the fire department’s chaplain, which is another way of saying that most of the time I just try to stay out of the way. And by the time I got there, a lot of fire trucks were already there. And the house was up this dirt road that most of the trucks couldn’t get up. And so they were running a hose up this muddy, snowy road.

It was at least a quarter of a mile long. And walking up the road we were slipping, and sliding, and sinking ankle deep into the muck. I kept pulling my shoes up out and putting one foot in front of another. And everyone who walked up the road knew that when they got to the top, the hard stuff didn’t end.

But they also knew they weren’t alone. That they had others supporting them, and that others were on the same path.

I think Lent is a lot like that. It’s one of the only places in our culture, and the best time in our church year, where we can say to one another “we are traveling up a hard path right now…let’s do it together…and let’s do it with one who has been here before…let’s follow him.”

I started out today talking about stoles and the color purple. I talked about how it symbolized struggle and penitence and pain. But there’s something else it symbolizes too. The other side of the picture. Purple has often been called the color of kings, which is part of why we wear it. We proclaim Christ sovereign over our life. Not any other person. Not any other situation or struggle. Christ.

He’s not a typical ruler. He rejects the kingdoms of the world when offered to him. He turns away from domination. He chooses something better. And that’s what I want to give my allegiance to. To the child of God who knew what it was like to be in the wilderness. To a person who knew what it was to feel pain, and grief and doubt. And to a God who chooses us.

In Lent we have the choice to find him into the wilderness, and the option to choose a better way. He’s waiting for us. And so, on this first Sunday of Lent, we choose. Amen.

Don’t Say I’m Just a Kid: Sermon for February 3, 2013 (Scout Sunday)

2012 Scout SundayI entered seminary right after I graduated from college, when I was still 21 years old. And that summer I was called to my first meeting with the committee that would later decide whether or not to ordain me as a minster. I was really nervous, because I was sure I would get asked some sort of confusing theological question, or I’d be asked to recite the books of the Bible or something. I had no idea what to expect.

I the end, the meeting went well. No curveball questions. No unfair expectations. But the committee said they had one concern: I was 21 years old. Wasn’t I too young to know that I wanted to devote my life to God?

It was the last thing I expected them to question me on, because I thought a young person who wanted to serve would be greeted with open arms. I had made this decision so carefully, even throwing away my law school applications to apply to seminary. And I left the meeting approved to go forward, but feeling this sense that I wasn’t being taken seriously because I was young. It’s left an impression on me to this day.

It’s no surprise that we sometimes do not value the voices of young people. We all have experiences of being told we are too young, or of not being listened to. And as kids and as young adults we hate it, and we say we will never do it to others once we are in positions of power. And yet, generation after generation it happens.

The prophet Jeremiah must have known what that felt like. Jeremiah was living in a Judah, a place going through some complex changes. As a people they were deciding what they would worship, and what really matters. And God calls to Jeremiah one day and tells him he is going to be a prophet, which is someone who will tell his people what God wants for them in terms of being just, and being faithful, and turning away from the false things that surround them.

We’re not sure exactly how old he was. Probably a teenager. He was young that when the call from God came, Jeremiah’s first reaction was this: I can’t do this. I don’t know how to speak. I am only a boy.

God answers him, “do not say that you are only a boy, because I am with you.” God goes on to tell Jeremiah that he has been chosen to speak to entire nations, and “to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant”.

My guess is that his entire life up until that point Jeremiah had been told he was too young to really matter. He might have ideas and opinions, but he had to get in line and wait his turn. He had to be old enough for them to be listened to. So when God told Jeremiah, “I’ve got a job for you”, it’s little surprise that Jeremiah’s first answer was “oh, no God…not me…I’m too young.”

But you can’t say no to God. At least, not for long. And in the end Jeremiah went on to be one of the greatest prophets of the Bible. So important that he is recognized today by followers of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam for what he had to say, even though he was “just a boy”.

I was thinking about this reading this week and I was thinking about why it was so perfect for this morning. For those who are visiting, I’ll tell you what I’ve told the congregation before, which is that our readings on any given Sunday are not picked by us. Instead we follow a calendar of readings called the lectionary, which is shared by most Catholic and Protestant traditions. And this week’s story is about a child being asked by God to do great things.

And it just so happens that today is Scout Sunday. Today we invite the Boy Scout Troop and the Cub Scout Pack that this church serves as the charter organization for to join us in worship for a blessing. We also invite others who are involved in any Scouting organizations, Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, Brownies, Girl Scouts, to join us as well, and we celebrate them and ask God’s blessing upon them.

We have all of these young people here, as well as their parents and their Scout leaders and the adults who sit on their Scouting committees, and we have this story of God telling a young person that he is being chosen for something big and something important.

Maybe God is trying to tell us something. Maybe God is saying, “you know, I have some big plans for these young people”. And maybe God is telling us that we should listen to them.

The young people who are here today are sooner than we think going to be responsible for the world that we are creating now. They will be the generation to deal with environmental problems. They will wrestle with war, and with peace. They will decide whether or not to work to end discrimination in every form. They will try to find ways to make sure that their neighbors have enough to get by. They will inherit the world that we leave to them.

Which is all the more reason that we who are adults have a job to do. Not only do we have to help to create the best possible world for them to inherit, but we also have to prepare them for their place in it, and for the hard but good work that they are going to be asked to do.

The Cub Scout pack that we sponsor has been having a lot of fun, but they’ve also been learning a lot that will prepare them for the time when they are called to be leaders. They’ve been learning about what it means to be a good citizen. They’ve been learning how to treat others with respect. They’ve been learning, at a very young age, what leadership means and how to be leaders. And we as a church are supporting them in this work because we believe it matters.

My hope is that the boys who are in our Cub Scout pack now will go on to be Boy Scouts. But, more importantly, my hope is that they will go on to be young people who are filled with confidence in their own abilities. My hope is that when later in their life they get some sort of a calling, some sort of a nudge in a particular direction, they will feel ready to accept it, and they will draw upon what they are learning here feel confident.

That’s my hope for all young people, boys and girls, Scouts or not. That we who are adults would be finding ways to empower then to answer their calling with confidence. That we would teach them what matters. That we would give them the skills that they need for a lifetime. And that we would understand that when we hand them something like a pine box derby car, we’re not cut teaching them how to sand wood or put wheels on a car, we’re teaching them that God created them to do the things they never knew they could do before.

In a few minutes we will be saying a blessing for our Scouts, and for their parents, and their leaders. We have Scouts from a variety of religious traditions today, and so we will honor those differences in the blessing. Whatever they believe, today we are going to ask that they will be blessed them and prepared to serve the greater good in their communities.

But if you offer a blessing to someone, that means you have to take part in it too. So for those of us who extend our hand in blessing, we are also making our young people a promise. We are telling them that we will help them to grow. We will provide the resources they need, within our ability. And, most of all, when God calls them to do something new, we will listen to them and we will support them. Not just because they are our Scouts, but, more importantly, because they are children of God. And God calls even the youngest amongst us to do the greatest things. Amen.