Georgia, Alabama, and Jesus: Sermon for May 19, 2019

One of the least understood Christian holidays must be Maundy Thursday. Most of it is about the name. People don’t get it. They ask, “What does “maundy” mean anyway?” Or sometimes they think people keep saying “Monday Thursday”, which makes no sense at all.

The explanation of what it really means is actually pretty interesting, but it involves a quick language lesson:

The word “maundy” comes from a Latin word: mandatum. And mandatum means “mandate” or a “commandment”. And when we talk about “Maundy Thursday” we’re talking about “mandate Thursday”. We’re talking about the night that Christ told his disciples exactly what he expected of them.

So, Maundy Thursday was over a month ago…why am I talking about it today?

When I opened up this week’s lectionary, the calendar of readings that we follow in the church, here was that same passage that we traditionally read on Maundy Thursday. It threw me. Why are we reading it again? But then I started to think, “Maybe there’s something here worth paying attention to more than once a year”. 

The passage tells the story of how Jesus has gone to Jerusalem for the Passover. He’s gathered his twelve disciples there at the table. And he knows what is going to happen. He knows that by the end of the night one of them will betray him to the authorities. One will deny him three times. And all of them will leave him alone in his hour of greatest pain.

And yet, there he is. Breaking the bread and pouring the cup. Eating with them. Blessing them. Getting down on his knees and washing their feet, showing them his love and grace and compassion, in a time when we might have better understood his wrath or anger.

In a world where we are often surrounded by messages of retaliation, or vengeance, or eye for an eye cries for justice, it’s a different message. Jesus had done nothing wrong. He’d lived a life of non-violence, he’d healed the sick, raised the dead, and freed the captives. He’d brought hope and life to those who needed it the most.

And in the end, he knew that he was not about to be thanked. He was about to be killed. Because in the end, the goodness, and the kindness, and the compassion he had brought were more of a threat to the Roman authorities than any weapon or any army. He so radically upset the status quo that they decided their only choice was to kill him.

And that’s where that word “maundy” comes in. Because what do you do if you’re Jesus? What do you do when it’s the night before you are going to die? What do you do if  you have to tell the people you love the most, the ones who followed you, the ones who sometimes make big mistakes, how to keep moving in the right direction after you’re gone? What is the one thing you are going to tell them?

The mandate, the mandatory thing Jesus tells us to do in this passage is this:

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

The irony is that sometimes, especially in the public arena, Christians aren’t very loving people. In fact, sometimes those who share our faith aren’t even kind people. 

There are times when people ask me what I do for work, and as soon as I tell them I can see a wall go up. There are a lot of reasons for that, but one of the big ones is that they have been treated unkindly in the name of the Christian faith. I get it. If all I’d felt was pain at the hands of Christians, I wouldn’t want to get to know a Christian minister either.

The reality is that sometimes we Christians are our own worst public relations people. Jesus told us that our love for one another, our kindness, would be the mark of how people would know us. It would be our identification card. And yet, sometimes Christians do just the opposite.

I debated about whether to talk about what I’m about to talk about today, but I know it has been on a lot of your minds this week, and there are times when not talking about the hard things is a form of pastoral malpractice.

Over the last years, some of you have shared old, deeply painful experiences with me related to what I’m talking about. I’m honored you have trusted me. And I know this week has brought many of those memories up. 

Because this week we heard about what is happening in the South, especially in Georgia and Alabama. There the right to choose is being eroded. And in those places it is primarily Christian groups, people using the name of Jesus Christ, who are driving this agenda.

Now, I understand that there are good Christians who are pro-life, and good Christians who are pro-choice – perhaps those two exist even here in our own church. Our own denomination’s stance, along with a number of other denominations, is that everyone should have the right to choose. In fact, ministers in the UCC were active even before Roe v. Wade, helping to connect abortion providers with those who needed them.

But I also know there are those who really believe abortion is immoral. I disagree, but I respect it. And I know people who live out their pro-life commitments by genuinely caring for parents both before and after childbirth. They also don’t end their concern for the child after birth, but advocate for them in every arena.

But these laws in Georgia and Alabama? They’re just plain cruel. In Alabama, for instance, not even survivors of rape or incest are allowed to seek abortions. That means children who have been sexually abused will be forced to carry their pregnancies to term. And survivors of sexual assault can now be jailed for longer than their rapists.

And these bills won’t just stop in the South. They will make their way to every state, including ours. Back alleys will be the norm once again. And, of course, abortions will not stop…they just won’t be safe anymore.

Because this isn’t how you stop abortions. This is just how you make them criminal. If you really wanted to stop abortions you would fund family planning initiatives. You’d teach sex education. You’d make sure people had access to contraceptives. You’d work to stop sexual abuse and assault. You’d make sure that every baby could have enough food, and shelter, and medical care. 

But this isn’t about stopping abortions. This is about exerting control, and instilling fear.

This week I remembered a time about twenty years ago when a friend of mine had to go to one of those Georgia clinics. I have to admit that I was still working out what I thought about abortion back then. I had qualms. And when my friend asked me if I would go with her, I think she saw a split second of hesitation. 

That’s when she said to me the thing that made it all clear: “I just need you not to judge me right now…I need you to support me”

And so, I did. I went with her, and held her hand, and realized that in that moment my calling as a Christian was to be kind to her, and to love her, as she made an excruciating and frightening choice

And it was excruciating and frightening, even for me. Going into that clinic in a city where clinics had been bombed was unsettling. And this was in a Georgia where she had every legal right to do what she was doing. That Georgia does not exist today. And I know that today there are many there who are afraid. 

Right now you might be agreeing with me, or you might not be. You might be saying, “Why are you preaching about politics?”

But I hope you hear me that I’m not trying to preach about politics, and certainly not about partisan politics. You will never hear me endorse a politician or political party at church. Vote however your conscience dictates. But hear me that I’m trying to preach about our faith, and how it tells us to treat others. Because I don’t believe that right now the Christians who are driving these laws in the South are being very loving. 

My friends who live down there, who are afraid? They don’t either. 

Friends sometimes ask me “How can you be a part of the church? How can you be a part of a group that does things like this?” And, I get it. Sometimes it must seem like by staying in the church, I’m siding with the oppressor. And this is just one example out of many of the ways that people have used Jesus Christ to bully and intimidate those with little power. 

But in the end, I remember what Jesus said. “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

And I want to follow that Jesus. I want to follow the one who said that the only identification card we need as Christians is our own loving kindness. I want to follow the one who I think would often be appalled by what is done in his name.

And I want to be a public witness for that kind of love. I want to show our neighbors and our world that the Christ I follow is not one who issues painful, punishing mandates. The Christ I follow had only one mandate: to love

I believe in the mandate. And I believe it’s my job to fiercely love this world enough to want it to be fair, and just, and kind. And I think that sometimes that means that we who are Christians cannot be silent anymore. And we cannot allow our faith to be co-opted in the public arena. Not now. Not when lives are literally at stake. 

In New Hampshire we are in a unique position. Every four years the eyes of the nation turn upon us and we have an early chance to influence the agendas of the people who are running for the highest office in the land. 

So, no matter your party, no matter your political belief, I want to call on you to not squander this chance. Instead, speak about your faith this year. Speak about what you believe. Speak about what you believe Christ would have us do

But as you do it, do this…do it with kindness…do it with fairness…do it with love. 

This is our chance, as Christians, to change the narrative. Moderate and progressive Christians are rarely the ones chosen to be talking heads on the evening news when it comes to matters of faith. That’s because we’ve been too quiet. But that can change. That must change. Our moral voice, our voice of Christ’s love, is needed more than ever.

And may there come a time, soon and very soon, when they know we are Christians not by our laws, but by our love. 

What if God Didn’t Mean it at All?: Sermon for April 15, 2018

Many of you know that before I was a parish pastor, I was a chaplain at a children’s hospital, working mostly in the emergency room. I spent a lot of my time sitting with parents who were scared and waiting for some good news. And while I as there, I heard people, people who were trying to be helpful, say some of the most amazingly thoughtless things.

“God has a plan,” they’d say to these parents. Or, “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.” Or, “this is God’s will…we can’t understand it.”

I would hear these things, and I would always tense up and try to keep quiet until the “helpful” friends were out of the room. Then I’d tell the parents that I was sure God had not meant for their child to get hurt or sick or abused, and I’d explain that sometimes when friends don’t know what to say they say the first thing that pops into their head and makes themselves feel better. 

One day I was sitting with a mother whose child had been injured by a stranger who had broken into her school. She was distraught, and her friend kept saying to her, “It’s okay…it’s okay…it’s okay.” Finally she broke, and yelled out, “It’s not okay…it’s not okay…it’s not okay.”

I was pretty proud of her. She was telling the truth, a truth that I believe God would have believed as well. God does not will bad things to happen to children, and God did not think this was “okay”.

It’s because experiences like that that I have trouble with today’s passage. In particular, I have trouble with one of the last lines we read today: you meant it to harm me, but God meant it for good.

This comes from the story of Joseph, which the elementary students have begun reading in church school. As you know, I like to preach on whatever they’re studying so that we will all know the story, and can all help them with it. And it’s this part of the story in particular that I want to talk about, because I don’t want us as a church to create another generation of people who witness tragedy and call it God’s will. I think we can do better than that.

But first, to remind you of the story, Joseph was the son of Jacob and Rachel. He had ten older half-brothers, all of whom thought their father loved him most of all. Jacob didn’t help to reassure them when he gave Joseph a special coat of many colors, either. The brothers grew more and more jealous, and after Joseph had a series of dreams in which they were shown bowing down to him, they decided something needed to be done.

At first, they decided to kill their brother. But one brother, Reuben, said “no, let’s not kill him. Let’s just sell him into slavery instead” And so that’s what they did. They sold him off  and they brought back his coat covered with goat’s blood, gave it to his father, and said he had been killed.

But Joseph wasn’t dead. He ended up in Egypt where his ability to interpret dreams gets the attention of the Pharoah. He predicts a coming famine, and so the Pharoah begins to store up grain in advance, which no one else does. So when the famine comes, people come from other lands looking for food. And one day, Joseph looks out and sees his own brothers there. He’s no longer a boy, though, so they don’t recognize him. And for a while he pretends not to know them

It goes on like this for a while. Joesph even sets them up to look like thieves, and tricks them into bringing their father and youngest bother to Egypt. But when they are finally all there, Joesph tells them who he is. And he feeds them and keeps them safe during the famine. And his father is overjoyed, and before he dies he blesses Joseph.

But now, the brothers get scared. They knew Joseph wouldn’t do anything to them while their father was still alive. But what about now? They beg Joseph not to harm them, the way they harmed him. And that’s when Joseph says these lines: “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you meant to harm me, God meant it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.”

Joseph is a good person. A forgiving person. I wrestle with whether or not I could be that forgiving. But more than that, I have always wrestled with that line: “God meant it for good”. It sounds too much like those people in the hospital.

Photo_of_The_Rev._William_Sloane_Coffin,_Jr._(1924-2006),_Senior_Minister_of_The_Riverside_Church,_New_York,_NY_(1977-87)

Rev. William Sloan Coffin

And I remember a story that William Sloan Coffin, a minister who was once the chaplain at Yale, once told. Coffin’s son Alex was killed in a car accident at the age of 24. A week later he got up into the pulpit and told the story of people who had tried to comfort him. In particular he recounted how one woman, loaded down with quiches she had brought, off-handedly said to him, “I just don’t understand the will of God.”

Distraught and heartbroken, he lit into her. “I’ll say you don’t, lady”, he told her. He went on to say that God was not some sort of “cosmic sadist” who makes these things happen. Instead, he said, when his son died, “God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break.”

I think that’s true. I believe that when we are hurt, God hurts with us. And that’s why I don’t believe that God wills bad things to happen to us. And I don’t believe God wanted Joseph’s brothers to sell him into slavery.

If you go back to the original Hebrew of this text, you find that what we read as “God meant it for good” actually translates more accurately to something like “God devised it for good”. I hear that as “God used if for good”. 

I don’t believe God ordains bad things to happen so that later on more bad things won’t happen. I don’t think we are chess pieces being moved around without free will. Joseph’s brothers had complete control over what they were doing. But I do believe that, no matter what, God can meet us in our suffering, and God can transform it for good. 

That means that God does not give us cancer, or crash cars, or make the people we love betray us. But it does mean that God can be beside us in even the worst of situations, and God can help us find a way through. God can bring new life after destruction. That’s literally what Easter, this season, is all about. 

Now, I don’t mean that in a naive way. Joseph’s brothers should never have done that to him. And especially when what has been done to us intentionally, we have to be allowed to name that. But in the aftermath, we can become hard, bitter, and hateful people, slow to forgive and quick to lash out. In other words, we can become exactly like the people who have hurt us, which means that we will likely become people who hurt others.

Or, we can accept that what was done to us was wrong and, knowing that God is with us, knowing that God can help us to transform even the worst of it, we can choose to be better. We can become Joesphs in a world of jealous brothers, finding ways to transform the trauma into hope and new life. 

We will all be Joseph from time to time. But, truth be told, sometimes we will also be the brothers. Truth be told, I’d rather be the noble Joseph even with all the pain than the conniving brother. But none of us is perfect, and so there’s also the question of what to do when we find that we ourselves are the brothers. And I’ll leave you with this story. 

Alfred_Nobel3

Alfred Nobel

In 1867 a man named Alfred Nobel patented his new invention. It was a a mix of nitroglycerin and explosives that came to be called “dynamite”. It was a new, more deadly, way to make war, and Nobel’s invention would bring him plenty of money.

But then, in 1888, his brother died. And the newspaper, thinking it was Alfred who had died, ran an obituary for him instead. The headline, translated from French, was this: “the merchant of death is dead”. It went on to read that, “Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday.”

Nobel was horrified that this was his legacy. He realized what he had done. And so, he took the money that he had made from his weapon of war, and donated it in order to form a new series of prizes for contributions to humanity. The greatest of all of these awards we know today as the “Nobel Peace Prize”.

When it comes to metaphorical “brothers of Joesph”, Nobel took the cake. And yet, even he could change his legacy. Even he could transform what he had done into a small source of hope for a broken world.

That’s true for me, and that’s true for you. Whether you are Joseph, a brother, or a little bit of both, God is not done with us yet. What ever has happened to you, whatever you have caused to happen, it does not have to be the last word. As long as we breathe, God can always help us to turn things for good. 

Making Community in the Wilderness: A Church Anniversary Sermon for April 8, 2018

This week, the town of Exeter had a birthday. On Tuesday, April 3rd, Exeter was 380 years old. That’s a pretty big celebration on its own, but for those of us who are a part of this church, it’s even bigger. When the earliest towns in New England were being settled back in the 17th century, you could not have a town until you first had a church. This was back before separation of church and state, of course. So back on April 3, 1638, not only did the town have to be chartered, but so to did a church. This church.

new_town_seal_10So, this week, The Congregational Church in Exeter turned 380. That’s pretty amazing when you think about it. To put that in perspective, we’re talking about roots that go back to just 18 years after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. Just eight years after the founding of Boston. And that’s 56 years before the Salem Witch Trials and138 years before the Declaration of Independence.

In other words, we’re old. But, in the scheme of the larger story of the church of Jesus Christ, we’re actually pretty young. And that’s where today’s Scripture comes in on this first Sunday after Easter Sunday. 

Today we turn to the book of Acts. Acts is the book of the Bible that tells about the very earliest church and how they became church. After Jesus’ resurrection, after that first Easter, the disciples started to have to figure out how to live together and share this experience that they had with others. They became the very first church. 

The passage from today tells us a little about how they lived: 

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.

With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.

In other words, they were one body, with one task: share the message of Christ’s resurrection. They lived as one unit, sharing everything they had, and they focused their all on the mission at hand. That was what it meant for them to be church.

So, next week, bring your bank account information and check books, and we’ll get started.

So, I’m kidding about that part. But, I read this passage and I realize there are some things that churches could learn from that first church. First, the ideas, as the passage says, that a church should be “of one heart and soul”. Now, by that I don’t mean that we should all believe the exact same things, or give up who we are as individuals. But I do mean that a church should be bound together by more than the fact that we all come to the same building on Sunday mornings. 

There has to be something bigger than that keeping us together. And I think that thing is the story that we gather around every week, and what it points to, which is the love and grace of Jesus Christ. We may struggle with what we believe, how we believe, or how to live in the world because of it, but at the heart of our life here together is simply that: the Gospel, the good news, of God’s love as found in Jesus Christ. Without it, there’s not much point in us being here. 

Acts tells us that the first church “gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus”. That might sounds like they were a little bit preachy. Fair enough. But I think their task was more than just saying what they had seen. And I think that task is the same one that you and I still have to carry out today. 

21314839_1664971753555416_1075856799694847201_nYou see, I believe that to be a Christian is to be called to testify to the good news of Resurrection. In other words, our job is to tell the Easter story again and again to a world that needs to hear it. Because, like I said last week, the Easter story is this: First, God became one of us and lived as one of us. Second, God’s love and grace were so threatening that the world tried to kill it. And third, God’s love and grace refused to die.

That’s the story that you and I are called to tell, just like those early disciples were. But we don’t tell it by standing on street corners and shouting it. We don’t push it onto others, insisting that they believe as we do. We don’t use our faith as a weapon. Instead, we do this…we live our lives in such a way that we are constantly witnessing to God’s love and grace. We do out best to love others, to stand up for the voiceless and marginalized, to take care of the least of these, and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. That is the testimony our faith asks of us.

It was a testimony the earliest members of this church tried to live as well. See, we would be remiss if we forgot our history, and for our church that means remembering that once this church was a church full of religious refugees.

In some ways that was true of many early New Englanders. They disagreed with the Church of England. Some, like the Pilgrims, were separatists who wanted complete freedom from that church. Others, like the Puritans, true to their names just wanted to “purify” the church from practices they didn’t agree with. That didn’t go over well, so some came across the ocean to Massachusetts, a place where they could more freely practice their faith.

But even in Massachusetts, even in a community of spiritual refugees, there was a right way and a wrong way to believe. And one man, John Wheelwright, ended up on the wrong side of things. He was a Puritan minister, like all the others, but instead of always preaching about the judgement of God, Wheelwright was more inclined to preach about God’s grace. 

That made him some enemies. They thought he was preaching heresy. And so, eventually, the other ministers and the authorities in Massachusetts had had enough. They banished him from the colony, and they sent him out to the absolute worst place they could think of: New Hampshire. 

So, that’s how this church got here. A minister talked so much about grace that he and his followers were forced to move here. Last year I said this about Wheelwright, but it still holds true: “You know that dour looking Puritan in the portrait down in the vestry? He was the fun one.” 

So, that’s how we got here. And 380 years later, despite everything that has happened in our world, and in a country that didn’t even exist yet, and in the walls of this church, we are still here. We are a very old church. But, we are also a very new one. We are new, because you and I are here now, and now it’s our turn to write the history of this place, this church that has been handed down to us by people who dared to testify to God’s love and grace. And this place that we are only temporary caretakers of, that we will one day hand on to others. 

And so, how do we be the church together? How do we remain of “one heart and soul” and work to testify by our words and deeds to God’s love and grace. As I wrap up today, I want to leave you with four ways I propose that we do that.

First, we make church a priority. We come on Sundays, and we worship together. We put it on our schedule, and we give our spiritual lives enough importance that we show up for this the way we would show up for anything else that’s important in our lives. And while we’re here, we get to know each other. We stay and have a cup of coffee. We talk to someone new. We become a part of this place.

That leads us to the second task: we invest in our community. I never want anyone to feel like there are things they have to do at church, but the reality is that there is a lot that we do as a church, and we all have to chip in a little to get it done. And so, we serve on committees. We teach Sunday school. We usher, or serve in the nursery, or greet people at the door. We give financially to the ministries of this church. We make a commitment of our time, talents, and treasure to this place because we believe it matters.

Third, we keep growing. Our spiritual learning does not stop when we are confirmed. We have to keep growing in our faith. And so, we are called to study Scripture, to pray regularly, to think about our faith in new ways, and to stay curious about what we believe and what it means to the world.

And, finally, we take our faith beyond our doors when we leave on Sundays. We serve on a church ministry, like Seacoast Family Promise or cooking dinner for the Salvation Army shelter, for instance. Or, we take our faith into our daily lives, advocating for change in our communities, standing up for those who have no voice. Or we take it into our homes and offices, treating people the way Christ calls us to treat them, living our lives as people of grace and faith. 

In other words, through all we do, we become one heart and one soul, with one another, and with Christ. Make church a priority, invest in church, grow spiritually, and take your faith with you all week long. I’ll be talking about these in the coming months, but today I ask you to reflect on these things. Because the ones who came before us did them, we’ve been here 380 years. Now, I don’t know what the world will be like in 380 years from today, but I do know that this place is good, and I do hope the Congregational Church in Exeter is a part of it. 

Thoughts, Prayers, and Palms: Sermon for Palm Sunday, 2018

So once again it is Holy Week in the church. Once again we have come to the last days of Lent, and we stand on the verge of the holiest time of the entire church year. And today is Palm Sunday, the start of a week that will include the beautiful intimacy of Maundy Thursday, the sorrow of Good Friday, and finally, the joy of Easter morning.

And this day, is so odd when you look at it from the outside. On the Sunday before Easter Christians go to church and they get palm leaves that have been shipped in from out of state, and they wave them in the air and shout “Hosanna” and if this is your first time in church on Palm Sunday, the whole thing must just look bizarre.

Canon 70D 1101That’s fair. This is one of those church traditions that requires some explanation. And so, we go back to the Scriptures, back to the original story of Jesus and the palms. Jesus and his disciples had been ministering in the countryside, in the smaller towns and villages, for awhile now. And people have started to talk about this Jesus guy, and how he teaches, and how he heals, and how something is special about him.

But now, they are heading to the big city: Jerusalem. Jesus sends a few of his disciples ahead of him and asks then to bring back a colt. And Jesus rides on this colt, through the streets of Jerusalem, and the people who have heard about him, they run out into the streets and they spread their coats out in front of him. And they take palm leaves, and they put them on the road too.

Palm leaves were symbols of victory and triumph, and so the fact the people wanted to lay them in front of Jesus means that they knew something was special about him. Because life in Jerusalem at that time, especially if you were just an ordinary Jewish person, and not a Roman citizen, was not good. You were oppressed. You were treated as lesser-than. You were despondent.

But then, here comes this guy, one that everyone has been talking about, one that brings a hope you have never known. And you wonder if maybe he’s the one. Maybe he is the king, for the messiah, or the savior that you’ve heard about your whole life long. Maybe he is coming to make everything better.

And so, you take these symbols of victory, these palms, and you line his path into the seat of power, this Jerusalem, this Washington or New York or what have you, and as he rides into town, you shout out your hope. Hosanna! Hosanna! And what you are literally shouting is this: “Save us. Help us. Rescue us.”

We tell this story now and sometimes we think this was a parade of some sort, but if it was, it was different than any we’ve seen. It was not a celebration so much as it was a statement, and a call for change. It was the people going out into the streets and saying “change is coming….change has to be coming….and maybe it’s this guy.” It was the crowd saying, “this is our new hope.”

I was thinking about that yesterday on the streets of Portsmouth. This year Lent began with a horrendous tragedy. On Ash Wednesday we learned that a gunman had killed seventeen people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Florida. That night, at our Ash Wednesday service, we prayed for the victims, and we prayed for a world where children did not have to be afraid anymore.

And, I confess, as I prayed, I was feeling incredibly cynical. Losing 13 people in Columbine, Colorado hadn’t changed anything. 26 first graders and their teachers in Newtown, Connecticut hadn’t changed anything. 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando hadn’t changed anything. 58 in Las Vegas? Nothing. This wouldn’t be any different either.

But, these kids at Parkland? These kids proved me wrong. Because these kids? They’re not sitting idly by. They’re not shutting up. They’re refusing to be seen and not heard. And it’s amazing.

One of these young people, a survivor of the shooting named David Hogg, was describing the role that he and his friends were now playing. And, to paraphrase, he talked about how country was broken. Because it has to be if we allow children to be gunned down in schools. And he said that we adults don’t know how to use our democracy.

And then he said it was like when your parents couldn’t figure out how to use their iphone…and you try to tell them how to do it. You coach them through it and say “now do this”. But finally, they’re not actually fixing the problem and so finally you just say, “Give me the….phone and let me handle it.”

29512296_1864634403589149_4241526480576250524_nThat’s what’s happening. They’re handling it. And so yesterday, around this country, students let us out into our houses and into the streets. News reports indicate that yesterday’s march in DC may have been the largest of all time. And across the country, smaller marches took place everywhere. In fact over in Portsmouth, Market Square was so packed that I couldn’t even make my way from the back of the crowd to the front where the contingent from our church had landed. That was okay, because blocking my way was a crowd of high school students, packed in too tightly for us to move.

It was awesome. These kids are awesome. And they are rightfully getting a lot of credit for what they are doing. They are heroes.

But, they aren’t the ones to save us. Nor should they be. Because we failed the kids, and they had to do this for us. But, as David Hogg said, “I shouldn’t have to! I’m 17.”

He shouldn’t have to. No kid should have to. They should be planning their prom and thinking about college. This work of keeping the world safe for them? That should be the work of adults. The kids shouldn’t be saving us. The kids shouldn’t even be having to yell to us “save us”. The kids should be kids.

And so, how do we let them be? How do we let them be not just when it comes to this particular kind of destruction, but to all the ways our culture of death and pain reaches them all to young? How do we proclaim another way to them? How do we proclaim another way to us?

I think it starts with this. I think it starts with us holding our palms up, and shouting out to God that ancient word: Hosanna! “Save us…rescue us…help us.”

Because here’s the thing. I know that right now it is very popular to dismiss the phrase “thoughts and prayers”. And, I get why. After a tragedy too often we hear talking heads sending “thoughts and prayers” to those who were impacted without doing anything else. Those thoughts and prayers help nothing.

But, “thoughts and prayers” get a bad rap sometimes. Because if we want to change the world, it’s going to take thoughts and prayers. But the trick is that it’s going to take the kind of thoughts and prayers that require something of us. A thought with no followthrough is just half a thought. A prayer that things would change without any intention to help make them change isn’t a prayer at all.

Thoughts and prayers are not the problem. Meaning what we think, meaning what we pray, that is.
On Palm Sunday, we are invited once again to choose what, and who, we believe will rescue us. And we are invited to lay down our palms, our symbols of victory, in front of him. And when we have put down our signs of readiness, when we have lined the road with them, then we will show him the path that we have made for him into our hearts, and into our towns, and into our world.

Our palms are our invitation to Christ to come into our hearts, and use us to be a part of the healing of the world. They are our signs that our faith will be put in a savior who taught a Gospel of love and peace, change and non-violence, and who asked us to follow. They are symbols of readiness to be people of true thoughts, true prayers, and true actions.

And so, once again, I raise my palm, and I say “hosanna”. Rescue us, Jesus. Save us. Help us. And know, Jesus, know that this time we are ready to work alongside of you.

 

Learning to Fish: Sermon for January 21, 2018

When I was back in high school I saw a movie called “A River Runs Through It”. If you’ve seen it you know it’s about two brothers who live in Montana in the 1920’a and the story of their family. And you know that it’s all told through the lens of fly fishing. The brothers, and their father, are shown in shot after shot, knee deep in a river, casting lines against a beautiful backdrop.

It always looked so peaceful to me; almost Zen like. And I decided that if I ever lived in a place where you could fly fish, I would learn. So when I found myself living in the mountains of Vermont, I decided to give it a try. I went down to the fly fishing store, brought a fly rod and reel, took a lesson on land, found a river.

I confidently waded in, and cast my line. The fly fell right on the surface of the water, the trout rose up immediately to take it, and I reeled it in all set against the backdrop of beautiful green mountains and a blue sky.

No, not really. Everything up to the point where I found the river is true. What really happened is this: I stumbled my way down the bank, half fell into the river, saved the cell phone I had somehow thought it was a good idea to bring at the last, finally found a place to stand in the river, tried to cast, got my line stuck in a tree, fell in the river again, and finally, cold and wet, gave up for the day.

The next time wasn’t much better. Neither was the next, or the next, or the next. Fly fishing went from the relaxing hobby I had imagined to a vexing fixation that frustrated me every time I tried to the point where I nearly gave up. What was the point in learning how to fish, anyway?

It’s fishing that I think about when I hear today’s story. At least four of the twelve disciples were fishermen, after all. One day two of them, the brothers Simon (later Peter) and Andrew were out on the water casting the net. Jesus said to them “follow me and I will make you fish for people”. Immediately they dropped the nets and followed. And then just down the road they met another two brothers, James and John, who were out fishing with their father. Jesus called to them, and immediately they followed too.

I’ve always been struck by how readily they did that. All of a sudden, just like that, they dropped their fishing nets and got out of the boat. I would like to think I would do the same if Jesus came to town and said “follow me”, but the reality is I’m not so sure. I think it would take some convincing for me to leave everything I knew and loved. I’d have to know that this was the real deal.

But then I remember that these four fishermen, they got to see Jesus there in the flesh. They experienced him in a way that you and I do not. They were told directly by him that now they were going to be doing another kind of fishing, not for what lives in the water, but for other people.

Meanwhile, you and I, we get asked to do the same thing, only without the benefit of having Jesus walking right there with us in the flesh. And, if you’re here, some part of you wants to follow him. Some part wants to put down the nets and get out of the boat, and do what he asks. But unlike those disciples, we have to learn to do that in the lives we already know, without the benefit of being able to turn to Jesus and say “what do I do?”

That can be hard. A friend of mine told me a story a few years back. He was in a job where he was highly valued; one he liked a lot. He knew that he was on his way towards a promotion. But one day, his boss asked him to do something that was unethical. For a few days he wrestled with it. He told himself that everyone did it. He reasoned that he probably wouldn’t be caught. He rationalized that doing it would get him the promotion, and that once he got it, he would have more power to change things for the better.

And maybe all of those things were true. But on the other hand, he knew it was wrong. He knew that doing it would eat away at his sense of integrity, and self-respect. And he was also a person of faith, someone who wanted to follow Jesus. And he knew that in that moment he was called to do the right thing, the hard thing, and to let go of the nets and walk away.

That was a hard call. Because we all hold onto our own nets and fishing lines. We all clutch tightly to them, and the promise they hold. These are the tools of our trade, the things that can bring fish into our boats, and money into our pockets. But there are times when Jesus tells us to drop them, and to follow him instead

The theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer left a safe and comfortable teaching job in an American seminary to go back to his native Germany. Bonhoeffer helped to lead the resistance to Hitler, and was later martyred for his role. Before that, though, he famously wrote that there is a “cost of discipleship”. Following Jesus means that sometimes we have to let go of what feels comfortable, or secure. Being a disciple means making a choice every day about what you will hold onto, and what you will leave behind

It also sometimes means making a choice between being comfortable, and being uncomfortable. That’s what it means to be courageous: to choose the harder right, even when it feels hard.

I was thinking of that yesterday. I know from your Facebook many of you attended a women’s march. And marching for what you believe in is an important act. For many of you, it is even an act of faith. You are speaking out because this is what it means to you to follow Christ. But what happens when the crowd is gone, the signs and pink hats are put away, and it’s just you, standing in a boat, holding on to nets that offer you a sense of security?

What happens on Monday morning, when you are back in the office, standing alone and not in a supportive crowd? What happens in the moment when you hear someone say something that is unfair, or bigoted, or untrue? What happens when you have the option to stay silent, and just ignore it, or to speak up, and confront it?

The moments when we are asked to choose between comfort or action? Those are the moments in our lives when we are called by Jesus to follow him. What we do next, whether we drop the nets or we hold on, will tell us whether or not we are willing to be disciples.

I think back to learning how to fish. I kept trying for a couple months, and I got nowhere fast. And then one day I went back to the store where I’d bought my equipment. I asked for help, and a very kind guide showed me what I was doing wrong. I practiced. I spent a lot of time in my front yard, practicing casting, and drawing strange looks from every car that drove past.

But then, one day, I went back to the river. I waded in without falling. I cast without getting tangled in a tree. My fly hit the water, and a trout rose up to take it. I reeled it in, surrounded by the most beautiful backdrop, took it off my line, and let it swim back out into the current. Somehow I had gone from a splashing, bumbling mess to someone who actually looked like they knew what they ewer doing.

I think about those four fishermen, those four disciples, whom Jesus called that day. They knew how to fish, but did they know how to follow? Scripture tells us that for quite some time, they were splashing and bumbling messes too. They got it wrong. They felt fear. They ran away when things got hard. They even pretended they didn’t know Jesus.

But then, later, they got it right. They kept trying. They kept learning. They kept practicing their casts and wading into new rivers. And in the end, those disciples, those messy and clumsy followers, they became the ones who kept the faith alive. They shared it with others who shared it with others who shared it too. And because of them, today here we are.

Later in the service we are baptizing a new baby. He is going to have his splashing and bumbling days too. So are we, by the way. But it’s our job to teach him how to fish. It’s our work to support him as he learns. And it’s our duty to teach him how to be courageous. We start with this: by teaching him that some nets are worth dropping, and some adventures are worth going on.

Common Epiphanies: Sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany, 2018

In the whole story of Christmas, the wise men get a bum deal. There’s a tradition that if you have a Nativity set, you aren’t supposed to put your wise men out until today, which is when we celebrate the feast of the Epiphany. But the other tradition is that on Epiphany, you’re supposed to put your Christmas decorations, including that Nativity set, away. And so, every year the Wise Men make a whirlwind appearance before we forget about them for an other year.
But today is there big day, and so let’s give them their due. Epiphany Sunday, is the day when we commemorate the three magi, or wise men, making their way to Bethlehem. It is essentially the end of our retelling of the Christmas story. After the twelve days of Christmas, the magi finally make it to the manger, and see Jesus for the first time.
Their journey started long before they finally reached their destination, though. And through the centuries the story has been somewhat embellished. For instance, the three wise men have been given names: Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar. Tradition also holds that they came from distant lands, but no one really knows which. Maybe one was from Persia, maybe one from somewhere on the Arabian peninsula. Maybe another from India, or even China.
But the reality is that the Biblical account doesn’t tell us any of this. It doesn’t even tell us there were three of them. It only tells us that wise men came from “the east”, and they started to ask about this new king who had been born, and they were telling everyone about this star that they had seen. And they followed it to the manger’s edge, and brought the gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Scripture also tells us that King Herod, the king over the region, heard that these guys were in town and they were looking for a newborn king. And this must have been very surprising to Herod because he was the king. And he didn’t know of any others. So he called the wise men to him and tried to find out what they knew. And he asked them to go find the newborn king and report back to him. But the wise men saw through it. They knew that Herod was up to no good. And so, as Scripture says, the magi went home by another road.
So, that’s the story of the Epiphany. And it might not sound all that momentous. We tell this story, and then we sing “We Three Kings”, and then, after one day out of the box, we pack up the wise men, and the rest of the nativity, for another year and we go back to what the church calls “ordinary time”.
I think that’s too bad. Because I think there’s more to the story of the magi than we give credit for. Because even though the wise men only pop up on one Sunday, their story is in so many ways our own story. And that’s because, we’re all looking for a sign. We’re all looking for a moment of revelation. We are all, in some way, waiting for that moment that will make everything crystal clear, and give us all the answers we need. That’s what an epiphany is after all, and my guess is we all want one.
The Wise Men were the first of a long line of people who would seek out God’s love and find it in Jesus Christ. They were the forerunners to you, me, and millions of other seekers. They got there first, but they didn’t get there last. We are on the same journey.
The trouble with that, though, is that we rarely get bright stars in the sky leading the way for us.
That’s something I say most Epiphanies: you don’t get a shining star or angels singing or a loud commotion that gets your attention. And then one year, on Epiphany Sunday, I was in the pulpit in Vermont talking about how I never got the bright lights or big signs. I had just said I have never had an epiphany like that.
And honest to goodness, right at that moment, all the snow that was on the top of the church’s roof thundered down off of it and landed right next to the church windows in a loud avalanche. And we were on top of a mountain. There was a lot of snow. It took a good while for it all to fall, and it was so loud I couldn’t even preach until it was all done.
So, you can view that two ways. One, it was just a coincidence. Or, two, it was a sign that God has an incredible sense of humor. I think both could be true. But regardless of what happened that morning, it made me think. And I began to wonder, what if maybe the signs are actually all around us, but we just keep missing them?
Or, more likely, what if we aren’t missing them, but we just aren’t taking them seriously. And maybe that’s because we aren’t willing to do what it takes to take them seriously?
I think about the wise men, and I think about what it must have taken to see that star, and decide to set out on that journey. Did they look up one day and just know what it meant? Or did they ponder it, and research it, and then decide “this makes no sense whatsoever, but that star means something and I’m going to follow it?” And once they started out on that journey, once they were on their way, sometimes lost, sometimes hungry, sometimes unsure, did they doubt? Did they ever want to just go back home?
And I think about King Herod too. What was it like when his peers, the other kings, came to him asking about the new king that had been born in his own kingdom? What was it like when he knew absolutely nothing about it? And how had he somehow lived under that very same star, and never realized what it meant?
I think that’s the question. Because, whether we realize it or not, I think we all get stars. Some are truly more subtle than others, but I believe God does give us signs. Sometimes they are as obvious as bright stars in the sky, but more likely they come in everyday clothing. The words of a friend. The nudge that comes to us in prayer. The urge we have to open our hearts in new ways. Maybe even the rock bottom we hit when we finally realize we can’t keep doing what we are doing and hope to truly live.
We have a choice when things like that happen. We can shrug them off, and ignore them. Or, we can take them as what they might well be: moments of revelation. Little epiphanies all around us.
But here’s the catch; once you get a little taste of the revelation, once you finally realize why that star looks so bright these days, that means that you are different. And it also means that you will continue to be asked to do something different. And that can be frightening.
When the magi realized that the star meant something big was happening, they couldn’t just sit around at home anymore. They knew they had to start the journey. And they knew they would never be the same.
But Herod, instead of joining the other kings, and making what would have been a very short journey for him? He just stayed home. He chose not to take the journey that could have changed everything, including him.
We get that same choice. When we finally sense what God is doing all around us, when we finally get a taste of revelation, we can set out on a journey that will change us. Or, we can just stand still, and refuse to be changed.
When the wise men finally saw Jesus, they set off on their way home. But, they would never be the same again. They had taken a journey that had changed everything, and had changed them. And when they left, instead of going back to tell King Herod about it, instead of aiding him in destroying the new king who frightened him so much, they instead went home by another road.
Epiphanies, revelations, new ways of understanding things, mean that we are going to out on see amazing things. But they also mean that we are going to have to learn new roads too. Not even the wise men could be guaranteed an easy journey, not even after seeing Christ himself in the flesh. So why should it be any different for us?
But here’s the good news. And that’s that the wise men found each other on the journey. When you think about that, how incredible if that? They didn’t have texts, or email, or phones back then. A letter wouldn’t have made it in time. Instead, they somehow found one another out on the road. And together they made the journey to Bethlehem.
I think that’s good news for those of us who gather back here each week together. Scripture does not speak of one wise person coming to the manger. It doesn’t even speak of people coming on their own, separately. It speaks of people finding one another, and then, quite literally, finding God.
That’s not to say the journey will always be easy. But that is to say that maybe it will be better together. Maybe there’s something about what we are doing here that’s more than just getting together one hour every Sunday morning. Maybe this is the start of an amazing journey, and maybe, just maybe, we are on our way to seeing God together. Amen?

After Christmas: Sermon for December 31, 2017

It was a really great Christmas Eve here at the church this year. At the 4pm service the youth and college-aged adults led an unrehearsed Christmas pageant featuring angels, shepherds and their sheep, and a real, live baby Jesus.

At the 8pm service the choir sang and the hand bells played and I preached a sermon about keeping Christmas in your heart all year by letting the light of Christ shine each day. At the end of both services, as always, we dimmed the light, lit our candles, and sang “Silent Night”. Then we walked out into the night and found the streets lined with luminaries.

It was one of those quintessential Christmas moments. Leaving church that night it felt like the world had changed a little. It felt like maybe this year would be the one when the light and meaning of the season would feel close all year long. The next day, Christmas, felt like that too. And the next day after that as well.

But then late in the week, we had to go to Target to pick a few things up. And as we walked through the front doors, I expected that all the Christmas decorations would still be there. The trees would be up, the carols would be playing, the lights would be on. But I got about five feet into the store and realized that it wasn’t still Christmas at all. In fact, four days after Christmas, they were setting up the Valentine’s Day displays.

So much for the twelve days of Christmas. The retail world will go on no matter what, and it won’t be too long until Christmas is out of our minds for another ten months or so, too. And by the time we make it to next Christmas Eve, the whole cycle will begin again.

Some of that’s natural. We can’t stay stuck in one season all year long. But I’m always a bit unsettled by how quickly we shift out of Christmas and on to something else. And that’s why I love the tradition of the church year, and how no matter what is happening outside the church doors, inside the church we celebrate this full season of Christmas. We keep singing carols, we keep the wreaths up. We light the Christ candle.

And we keep telling the story too. Today we read a passage from Luke that talks about Christ’s birth. In particular it talks about some of my favorite characters from the Christmas story, who are also perhaps the most overlooked of all of them: the shepherds.

The shepherds aren’t as impressive as the angels. They don’t come traveling in on camels with gifts in hand like the wisemen. They’re not even infamous like the inn keeper who had no room for Mary and Joseph. They’re just a bunch of regular Joes who were out in the field, trying to work and sleep and keep the sheep from being eaten.

And yet, when Jesus was born, they’re the ones that the angels come to tell about it. Not kings. Not priest. Just a bunch of shepherds who are both terrified and amazed. When the angels leave, they decide to go see this Jesus for themselves. And they find him just as the angels said they would, just born, and wrapped up in the manger.

And when they meet Mary and Joseph they, the lowly shepherds, tell them everything that the angels had said. And everyone who heard them speak was amazed by it. And Mary heard their words, and Scripture tells us that she “treasured them in her heart”.

It must have been an amazing moment. It was the sort of encounter that would be a hundred times more amazing than the spiritual high of leaving church on Christmas Eve, carols sung and candles lit. They had seen actual angels in the fields. They had gone and met this new born baby. They had experienced it all for themselves.

And then, Scripture tells us that they went back out into the fields, and kept on being shepherds. Yes, they were also praising God and giving thanks for it all, but at the end of the day they were right back there with the sheep. They had seen the most amazing things, felt the greatest joy of their lives. They had been fundamentally changed by it all. But out in the fields, the sheep still needed tending, and life still went on.

It’s sort of like how today, no matter how great Christmas might have been, you’re still going to need to restock the paper towels and the laundry detergent a few days after Christmas. And you’re still going to walk into Target, feeling the joy of the Christmas spirit, and you’re going to walk right into a wall of pink cards and red candy hearts.

And shepherd or shopper, you’re going to wonder how you carry the wonder of what you have seen into a world that seems unchanged.

But, that’s the challenge on the life of faith. We have these moments of absolute joy, or light, or understanding. We recommit ourselves to the journey. We say we will carry the light of the Christ candle all year. And then, we meet the world, in all of its mundane busy-ness. And we figure out how to live as transformed people within it.

There is a saying in Buddhism: before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.

In other words, in the aftermath of even the most amazing experiences, you still have to keep doing what you have always done. You still chop the wood. You still tend the sheep. You still buy paper towels in a store covered in pink and red hearts.

It’s not the world that has changed. It is us. In Christmas, if we open our hearts wide enough, we are transformed by the love and light of Christ. If we are lucky, we have twelve days to really celebrate that before our world goes back to normal. If we are realistic, we have two or three. But that doesn’t mean that we have to go back too.

Instead, we can be the changed people who now change the world for the better. I don’t know what the shepherds did when they got back to their sheep, other than I’m sure they kept on being shepherds. But I do wonder what else they did. Did they tell others what they had seen? Did they share the light of Christ by sharing the story? Did their lives change just a little? Did the small daily acts they had always done take on deeper meaning?

My guess is that they did. I believe that because I don’t believe you can experience God without being changed. And when you are changed, your world is as well. When you are changed, you become a force for good in a world that needs that goodness right now.

Because you and I are Christmas people, we have been transformed…and so now we transform the world. Tonight, ring in a new year. Celebrate. Enjoy yourself. But tomorrow, remember the light that you held on Christmas eve. Remember your promise to let it shine all year. And then, let it shine. Shine it in the darkest of places. Shine it for others who need to see it. Make the world a little brighter, and a little warmer. That’s how you will know that Christmas has changed you, and that is how Christmas will change the world.

Something is Coming: Sermon for December 3, 2017

The past few days have been full of seasonal celebrations in Exeter. We had our Christmas open house on Thursday night, which is always one of my favorite nights of the year. The live Nativity is going on out front, the carols are ringing inside, the crowds are streaming through the doors to look at the gingerbread houses, and everything in the church is in a sort of joyful chaos.

Last night we also had the town holiday parade. We walked down to the corner by the bank at around 5, and we staked out a spot. The parade doesn’t even step off from way up on Portsmouth Avenue until 5:30, so we were very early, but the crowd was already swarming. So we stood there, bundled up in our jackets, looking down Water Street, and watching and waiting.

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The parade route, lit up for the season. 

Every year we do this, and every year around 5:45 or so, we start to hear that the parade is almost here. They’ve almost made it to the other end of Water Street. And then, maybe ten minutes later, way down at the turn, we start to see the signs. The blue lights from the police car start to reflect on the buildings. Maybe we can start to hear the band play just a little. And finally, they turn onto Water Street, and it’s there. The waiting is over…the joyful parade is marching into town.

I love Christmases here in Exeter. I love how we celebrate. I went home feeling the joy of Christmas last night. But this morning, here we are in church. And this morning, we are contrasting all that Christmas joy and anticipation with today’s Scripture reading. And let’s be real…today’s Scripture reading is a doozy. Let me read you one of the lines again:
“the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken”
So, if you are looking for a good line for your Christmas cards this year, there you go.

The things is, every year on this Sunday, we read a Scripture lesson with a message like this. Today is the first Sunday in Advent, the first day of a brand new church liturgical year. Every year on this day we start the cycle of stories once again, with these four Advent Sundays where we watch and wait for the birth of Jesus Christ.

This name of this season, Advent, literally means “coming” in Latin. Something is coming, just as surely as that parade was coming last night, something that we cannot yet see, but that will not be stopped. Something that is about to command our full attention.

If Scripture is to be believed, it sounds a bit scary. Everything is about to be shaken up. The sun will stop shining, the moon will go dark, and stars will fall. Even the heaven will tremble. This isn’t the kind of seasonal merry-making we are used to this time of year.

And yet, something is indeed coming. Something that is going to change everything.

You and I know how this story plays out. The “something” that is coming is nothing less that Jesus Christ. Advent is the story of waiting and watching for Christ’s birth. During these four weeks we retell the story of what happened just before then. We talk about John the Baptist, and of his mother Mary, and of a trip to Bethlehem, And on Christmas Eve we gather here, and we talk about his birth, and about how it changed the world.

It’s worth repeating the story each year just for the fact of remembering. But it’s important to remember that this isn’t just about recreating a historical event. It’s not that Jesus was coming and now he’s here. It’s that Christ did come into this world, and that Christ continues to come into this world, time and again, through our own hearts and our own hands. Advent has sometimes been a season of the “already, and not yet”. Christ is already here…and yet in so many ways, Christ is not yet here…not fully anyway.

If you don’t believe that, look at our world. We are living in a time when so much is at stake. This week North Korea launched a missile further than ever before, and the saber rattling between our two countries grew louder. Meanwhile, major decisions are being made in Congress that will impact generations. And across the country, years of silence are giving way to a chorus of “me toos” as people tell their own stories of sexual harassment and assault.

We are standing on the edge of a new day, one that could either be very good, or very bad. We can enter a more enlightened time, when justice and peace and respect for others prevails. Or, we can enter an age where war, and poverty, and inequality regain their footing.

In other words, we are living in a time that was a lot like the one in which Jesus was born. And just like the people back then, we are looking for hope. We are watching, and waiting, and straining to see signs of what is to come.

Jesus tells his disciples “keep awake”. He tells them they do not know the hour in which something new is coming, something that will topple the order we know and usher in a new era, and so they must stand watch. They must be ready.

All these centuries later, we retell the story of Jesus’ birth using his own words: keep awake. Watch and wait. Something is coming. The theme of the first Sunday of Advent is traditionally “hope”. It’s about the hope that we have that something is indeed coming, and that this something is good.

The Christian church has traditionally believed that Jesus was more than just a really good guy. We believe that Jesus was God in human form. We sometimes call Jesus “Emmanuel” which literally means “God with us”. And so when we sing on this first Sunday of Advent “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” we literally are saying “o come, o come, God…and be with us”.

O come, o come, Emmanuel…come into this world that teeters on the brink, and push us into something better. O come, o come, Emmanuel, and bring us hope.

I believe that hope is coming, just as surely as I believed the parade was coming last night. I believe in that hope not because I have seen the fire trucks and floats of hope come down Water Street yet, and not because I’ve heard the band at full volume. I believe because, when I use all my senses, I can observe the signs that it is drawing near.

They were there on Thursday night, when the cookies that were made and donated by so many of you brought in hundreds of dollars for hurricane relief in Puerto Rico. And they were there yesterday afternoon, when Pastoral Counseling Services began setting up their new offices upstairs in the parsonage, using our space to provide some healing to those in our town who need it. And they were even there yesterday, at Wes Burwell’s funeral, when we gave thanks for the life of a man who was good, and kind, and brave enough to do the right things.

Sam Cooke wrote a song during the Civil Rights era when the signs of hope were beginning to be visible. Unfortunately, that also meant that the backlash against that hope was starting to come too. One night in late 1963, Cooke showed up at a hotel in Louisiana where he had made reservations. When he got to the front desk, the man there saw him and said that suddenly there were no vacancies. He was turned away.

Sam_Cooke_billboard

Sam Cooke, photo from Billboard Magazine

He knew why, and he was angry. And so he went away, and he began to write a song about how he felt, but also about how he hoped. It was called A Change is Gonna Come. He ends the song with these lyrics:

There been times when I thought I couldn’t last for long/
But now I think I’m able to carry on
It’s been a long time coming
/But I know a change is gonna come, oh yes it will.

A change is gonna come. Just as surely as that parade was coming last night. But unlike most parades, you don’t just wait passively for this one, watching it pass you by. This is the kind that you dare to join. It’s the kind that you get in front of, before it even makes it to you. It’s the kind that is driven by hope, and that grows stronger with every soul that enters it.

A change is gonna come, and that change is named “Emmanuel”. As the parade rounds the corner, now is your chance. Will you stand to the side? Or will your hope make you jump in?

Auditing Our Hearts : Stewardship Sermon for November 12, 2017

There’s a story about a small Mennonite church that I recently heard Malcolm Gladwell, the Canadian writer, tell. Mennonites are relate to the Amish, but are usually more comfortable with modern-day innovations like cars and electricity. They share some core beliefs, though, like a commitment to non-violence. They also share a belief that once you are baptized as an adult, and a church member, you are expected to tithe.

Tithing is often understood as giving ten percent of your income to the church. That’s certainly true in Mennonite communities. And Gladwell’s story was about two farmers that were church members. And one farmer looked at the other’s land and business and house, and then he looked at the church giving records, which were open to everyone, by the way, and he didn’t think things added up.

And so, he went to the other farmer and he said, “You know Sam…I don’t think you’re actually giving ten percent of your income to the church.” The other man said, “I am, Jake.” And Jake said, “Yeah, Sam…I’m not sure I believe that’s true. So, I’m going to need to take a look at your finances.”

And here’s the crazy part: Sam lets him do it. Jake looks at all his business transactions and home records, and he finds that Sam is indeed tithing. And here’s the even more absurd part: at the end, there’s no ill will between Sam and Jake. Why? Because this is actually a pretty common practice. If you are a church member this is what you sign up for in the Mennonite tradition.

So, you all brought your financial records to church today, right?

I’m kidding. But next Sunday is indeed pledge Sunday. You received, or should have received, a mailing from the church. In it we included letters from Rebekah, your stewardship chair, and from me, as well as some answers to frequently asked questions about giving and a narrative budget.

We also included your pledge card. And we are asking each household to prayerfully consider how you might be able to financially support the church in 2018 and then write their pledge on that card and turn it in next Sunday. We do this not because we will then hold you to that number, and hector you for payment, but because we are trying to set a responsible and realistic budget for 2018, and it helps to know how people hope to support us in the coming year.

We got one of those cards at our house too, and as we are figuring out how we are getting ready to fill it out, I’ve found myself drawn to the story we read this week. Jesus and his disciples are at the Temple and they are watching people bring their gifts to the Temple’s treasury. Supporting the Temple was an important part of religious life, and some people would make a real show out of giving their gifts. They would show their generosity and importance by giving as publicly as possible.

But in the midst of this came a woman who was a poor widow. She had very, very little. And as she came up to the coffers, she was only able to give two small copper coins that weren’t worth much at all. The wealthy people, and even the not-so-wealthy ones, were probably watching this and scoffing. What good were a few pennies going to do the Temple? But Jesus had another take.

Jesus tells his disciples that the widow has given more than all the wealthy people combined. The reason why? She had next to nothing, and so she gave a gift that was extremely generous given her circumstances. The wealthy folks? They had almost everything, and the gifts they gave, even as big as they were, meant very little to them.

I’m drawn to that story as I am making decisions about giving for next year not because we have little, but because we have much. Our household is certainly not a wealthy one, at least in the American meaning of that word. We still have to be careful about spending, and we still send a significant portion of our money off each month to pay our student loans. But, at the end of the day, we are pretty fortunate.

Sometimes, though, it doesn’t feel that way. Sometimes, like when a pledge card comes in the mail, it feels a lot easier to claim that there isn’t enough to go around, and that we are being quite generous enough, thank you. In fact, it’s pretty easy to tell myself that we are very generous people, supporting not only the church, but also other places we care about, like our alma maters or non-profits.

But then a few years ago, I started to do what that one Mennonite farmer did to the other. Only, I did it to myself. I pulled out my tax returns and I looked at what we had made. And then I pulled out our records on giving, and I looked at how much we had donated. And I was surprised. I didn’t think we were at ten percent quite yet, but I thought we must be close. But the numbers didn’t lie. We weren’t anywhere near ten percent. We weren’t even at five.

Unlike the Mennonites, we don’t talk about giving much in the church. We’re afraid of looking money-hungry or scaring people off. Truth be told, my college asks for my money a whole lot more than my church does. And, though I love my college, they have an over $6 billion endowment. While I’m glad to give, I’m not kidding myself that my small yearly donation is keeping them afloat.

But church is different, not just because we don’t have a $6 billion endowment, but because this is more than just a donation. The church is not an outside institution for which I have an affinity, no matter how great. The church is a group of people, you and me, who are trying to make sure that this community will exist to praise God, teach the faith, and serve others.

Giving to the church is about more than a tax-deductible charitable donation. It’s an act of discipleship. It’s about saying that this is your community of faith, and that you are willing to invest what you have been given back into it.

Since my discovery of my own true giving habits a few years back, we have been trying to be more deliberate about being generous in my household. Each year we try to increase the percentage of what we give away. And what we have found is that this is not just a financial decision; this is a spiritual one. And it’s about a whole lot more than ten percent.

The reality is that the idea of the ten percent tithe sort of evolved over time. There’s nothing in the Bible that says you really have to give ten percent. You could give less. You could also give more, by the way. I find percentages useful because it helps me to judge what I’m giving based on my income level in a certain year, but you might have some other way that works for you, and that’s fine.

But what has become important to me is the idea that not just ten percent of what I have belongs to God, but that one hundred percent does. Deciding how I use my resources, including money, has become a spiritual decision. What I spend, what I save, what I give all have spiritual component for me. I try to be a good steward, a good manager, of everything I’ve been given.

And here’s where I remember that story of the widow, who came to the Temple with her two copper coins, and I wonder about what her own spiritual decisions around having enough, and giving enough, were like. She had every excuse to keep those coins. Some might even say that should should have kept them. Maybe her giving even seems a little reckless for a woman with so little.

But here’s what I think happened: I think that she made a spiritual decision about whether or not she had enough. And I think she thought she did, and so she decided that she could give a little away. And in that giving, I think she found joy.

Her gift was greater than any other gift given that day. Not because it was a large one, but because it was an extravagant one. She gave more extravagantly from her limited resources than those who were able to give without much thought from their own wealth. In the end, she was the most generous, and she was the one who truly understood what it was to have “enough”.

Giving is at its heart about making a spiritual decision about whether or not you have enough. The more I’ve been willing to be honest about what I have, the more clearly I’ve been able to understand that I have more than enough. The more I have understood this simple fact, the more I have been able to give. And the unexpected blessing in that is that in that giving Heidi and I have a sense of greater simplicity and purpose, and of greater joy. And even still, I know that our gifts are nowhere near as generous as the poor widow’s.

I’ll close with this, as I do every year. I do not know who gives to the church, or what they give. I do not wish to know. I hear from pastor friends that this is a rarity these days. You are supposed to “know your donors” so that you can cultivate them. But you are not donors. You are the church. And I trust that each one of you is giving as you are able, and in accordance with what you have been given. No one will be asking you to open up your financial books here at the church.

But this year, as you make a decision about what you can pledge to give, I ask you to let the story of the widow’s extravagant generosity be your guide. And I ask you to remember the story of those two farmers, and to sit down with yourself, open up your own books, and ask whether what you see before you represents your spiritual commitments. And then, make your pledge. Whether it is two copper coins, or something more, make this spiritual commitment with a joyful heart.

Always Being Reformed: Sermon for October 29, 2017

This is the final sermon in a four week series on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. To start at the beginning, please click here.

Over the past month we have been on a journey through the landscape of the Protestant Reformation in preparation for this Tuesday, All Hallow’s Eve. That day marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther posting his 95 Theses on the door of the Wittenberg Church.

Portrait_of_Martin_Luther_as_an_Augustinian_MonkFor two weeks we talked about Luther, first as a young man, and then as a man who changed the course of Christianity and really the entire world. Then last week we talked about John Calvin, another key reformer. And I told you that this week I was going to talk a little about what all this meant to our own church, and our own faith tradition.

And in order to do that, I first want to turn to the Scripture we read today from the Gospel of Matthew. This is a part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, where he teaches about the heart of our faith.

Jesus talks here about “salt and light”. These were two very valuable things in Jesus day. Salt was useful for many things, not just cooking, and it was not inexpensive. And light, in these pre-electric days, was coveted too. And Jesus talked about how we are called to be the salt of the earth, and the light of the world. We are called to be valuable and useful.

You’ve heard a lot about being the light in this church. You know my affection for the song, “This Little Light of Mine”. I’ve told you before that even though we might think of it as a kids’ song, it’s really a profound testament to what it means to lead a Christian life. And it’s this passage in particular that spells out why:

Jesus says, “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

In other words, “Hide it under a bushel? No! I’m going to let it shine.” It was this very passage that spoke to some of the people responsible for our church being here.

Last week we left off with Calvin and how he started what we now called the Reformed tradition. And like the tradition that descended more closely from Luther, the Reformed tradition expanded too. Soon Reformed churches had spread to the Netherlands, some parts of Germany, and Scotland. Those Scottish Reformed folks would later call themselves “Presbyterians”, and would bring the Presbyterian Church to this country, particularly in the colonies south of New England.

But it was what was happening in England that most shaped us. England was in the midst of its own Protestant Reformation. King Henry VIII had broken away from the Pope’s authority in the 1530’s and the Church of England, or the Anglican Church, had become the official church. That may make it sound like England was a good place for Protestants, but that was only true if you were Henry’s kind of Protestant.

That was a problem for a group of Christians who had been influenced by Calvin’s ideas. They looked at the Anglican Church and they felt like Henry hadn’t gone far enough. They tried to change the church, but they met resistance and were persecuted. Some wanted to “purify” the church. They would later be called Puritans. Others believed the church was beyond repair. They were called Separatists, and they ended up having to flee from England to the Netherlands where they were building a church in exile.

MayflowerHarborYou might know the story that’s coming now. In the Netherlands some of Separatists decided to come to the New World, partially in order to find a place they could worship freely. Before their ship left their pastor, a man named John Robinson, preached a sermon to them. And in it he talked about Luther and Calvin and what we had learned about church from the Reformation.

And then he said these words, “God hath yet more light and truth to break forth from (God’s) word.” More light. The kind of light we cannot hide under a basket. These were the words that rang in the Pilgrims’ ears as they set off on a journey that would end up in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

Likewise, some Puritans who had stayed in England set off for this land too. Settling in Boston and on the north shore, they heard similar words from John Winthrop right before they landed. He said that the “eyes of the world” were upon them and, using Jesus words, that they would build here, “a city on the hill” that would be an example for the world. In many ways Boston became that city to them. It was meant to be a shining example to the world of the faith they embraced.

So, this sounds great, right? Forward-thinking, positive. Lots of light and understanding? Well, yes and no. Certainly it was more progressive than many places but. as was true in every other place where one faith reigned supreme, Massachusetts was a hard place for those who disagreed with what the people in charge said. And one of the people who kept running afoul of the more well-known ministers in the Boston area was a man named John Wheelwright.

You know Wheelwright because he was the founder of our church. His portrait is downstairs in the vestry. And like Calvin and Luther, Wheelwright really believed in the grace of God. He believed in it so much that the folks in Massachusetts thought it was a little too much. And when he called some of the other Puritan ministers out, they were done with him. They banished him to the frontiers of the most terrible place they could think of then: New Hampshire.

Wheelwright.John.AmAntiquarianSocSo that’s how our church got here. It was 1638. Only 18 years after the Pilgrims had landed at Plymouth. Only 74 years since John Calvin had died. Only 121 years after Luther posted his big ideas to the door of a church. In other words, only a couple of generations into the Reformation. This church is 379 years old. That means that we’ve been around for a lot of the 500 years of the Reformation.

And that also means that we know a lot about what it means to reform. I’m not going to go deeper into the church history here. I preached a sermon on that last April for our birthday, and there are a lot of resources available if you want to read more. But I will say that we have never been a church that was not closely tied to the Reformation and to reformation itself. It’s in our very DNA.

There’s a phrase that Reformed churches use quite a bit: “The church Reformed, and always being reformed, by the Word of God.” More simply, “Reformed and always reforming.” The church is always changing. This isn’t change for change sake, but rather purposeful change, change that comes because we are following God into what is next.

To use a UCC catchphrase, “God is still speaking…” That means that we are called to listen, to act, and something to change.

That change is sometimes not easy. John Wheelwright knew that. So did our ancestors in this congregation who decided to support American independence, to work for the abolition of slavery, and to become Open and Affirming. The surest way to make others unhappy with you is to seek to change what needs to be changed. But they did it anyway, because, like Luther, they believed that they could “do no other”.

And so that’s the challenge that we now take up. If the church is Reformed and always being reformed, where is God calling us now? What are we being asked to reform, or to re-form? How will we grow and change for the next 500 years?

The Refomation began 500 years ago, but it has never really ended. The spirit of reformation, the Holy Spirit that guided Luther and Calvin, also guided the Pilgrims and John Wheelwright. And it has guided this church for generations too. And now it guides you and me as well.

And so long as we are following that Holy Spirit into the future God is already preparing for us, we will be on the right path. God is reforming God’s church, and that means God is again and again re-forming us for the work that is left to do.

IMG_6541What remains on this anniversary is the challenge that Jesus issued so many years ago on that hillside. We may not be a city on a hill, but we are a church on the hill, and we have a lot of light in this place. We must now take the light that shines brightly around us, and share it with the world.

It’s time to move aside the bushel basket, or anything else that would dim our light, and instead share the light with the world. No longer can we keep hidden what is meant to be shared. Because the reformation continues, and we are called to be the light. It’s time to take our places in the reformation, and it’s time to let it shine.