John Calvin and the Love That Will Not Let Us Go: Sermon for October 22, 2017

This is the third sermon of four in a sermon series for the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. To begin at the beginning, please click here.

Throughout this month we’ve been talking about the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. 500 years ago, on October 31, 1517, Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany. He was not the first person to ever talk about reforming the church, but his posting came at just the right moment, and they were like a spark that lit a powder keg.

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Portrait of Young Calvin

Luther is a huge figure in the story of the Protestant Reformation, and so we’ve spent the last two weeks talking about him. Today though, for the third sermon, we’re going to switch gears and talk about another early reformer named John Calvin, and how he launched a movement from which our very own church is descended.

Today’s Scripture comes from Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. You’ve probably heard the words before, especially this verse: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Nothing can separate us from God’s love. I wanted to start with that today because that was what John Calvin truly believed. I also wanted to start with that, because John Calvin gets a bad rap. That’s especially true if all we remember about him is what we learned in our high school history classes about the movement he started, which is often called Calvinism.
First, who was John Calvin. Calvin was born in France, to a father who worked for the Catholic church. He was born in 1509 which means he is about a generation younger than Luther. He was only 8 when Luther posted those 95 Theses on the church door. Calvin grew up with the expectation that he would be a priest, but when he got to university, his father decided he should be a lawyer instead.

That means that, like Luther, Calvin was a law student when he started to have his spiritual transformation. Anything to avoid taking the bar, I guess.

Calvin did become a lawyer, but he kept thinking and writing about faith and the church. And he soon broke completely with the Catholic church. When his mentor, Nicholas Cop, who was also a reformer, delivered a speech that was deemed heretical, he had to flee from France. Calvin, who was a known friend, had to go into hiding and then flee too. The two ended up in Switzerland.

This is where Calvin really began his reform work. He wrote a book called The Institutes of the Christian Religion that continues to be read today. Later, in Geneva, Calvin ends up becoming a pastor to the reforming church there. In Geneva, Calvin sought to influence both church and state, and he was sometimes a divisive figure. But it’s something that he taught as a pastor that I want to bring up here, because you probably have heard of it, and if you have you probably don’t like it very much.

Calvin believed in predestination. How many of you remember reading about that in school and thinking it was an absolutely horrible idea? I did too. The way it was taught to me in school was that God decided before we were even born what we were going to do, and whether we were going to go to heaven and hell. A person could live a good and holy life, I was taught, and still be damned. I thought this was horrific.

In seminary, though, I learned what Calvin had really meant. Like Luther, Calvin was pastoring people who had been deeply traumatized by the idea that they had to work, or buy, their way into heaven. They were anxious and fearful. And so Calvin began to teach something in line with the Bible passage we read today: if God loves you, nothing you do can separate you from the love of God. In other words, there is nothing you can do to lose your salvation if God has already decided to save you. There is nothing so bad that you can do that can cause you to go to hell.

Predestination is not the same thing as God deciding your every movement. We are not pawns on a chess board whose moves are planned our in advance. Instead, predestination was meant to be an assurance to an anxious people that they could stop being afraid. To be fair, Calvin didn’t believe everyone was going to go to heaven, but he did believe that if you were asking whether or not you would, that was a good sign that you were. It sounds terrible in our present-day context, but we have to understand that it was absolutely liberating in Calvin’s time.

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Reformation Wall in Geneva.

The good news that came out of that was about grace. John Calvin, like Luther, taught that we were saved by grace alone. There was nothing so good that we could do to work our way to salvation, and there was nothing so bad we could do to work our way out.

Where I agree with Calvin is that I believe we receive God’s grace. We don’t receive it because we deserve it, because that’s not grace. We receive it because God loves us so much that God could never abandon us. Where I disagree with Calvin, and where many Reformed Christians disagree with him, is the idea that only some people receive God’s grace. I believe we all do. To put it another way, as many others have said before me, if there is a hell, I believe that God’s love means that it is empty. I believe that because I believe that grace is real.

And so the question that remained for people of faith was this: How do you respond to the grace that you have been given?

The churches that John Calvin inspired are often called “Reformed churches”. This is different from other churches of the Reformation, like the Lutheran church. Reformed churches believe that the grace of God, and our response to God’s grace, is central to what it means to be a Christian.

And so with that in mind, think about the grace you have received in your own life. Looking back, where do you see God’s love active in your life? Is there a time when you have felt God’s hand supporting you, and lifting you up? Was there ever a time when your heart was opened to a new idea that changed everything? Were you ever so broken that you didn’t know how to go on, but somehow you were able to rise again?

That’s grace. That’s God acting in this world to lift us up. And for Calvin that same grace extended beyond this world. Calvin believed God’s grace was so strong that “nothing, not even death” could ever separate us from God’s love.

This is the kind of grace that we sing about when we sing “Amazing Grace”. “Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come. ’Twas grace that brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.” There’s a reason this is such a powerful song for so many. When you’ve truly experienced grace, you are moved by lines like that in a profound way because you know that it is true.

John Calvin would begin his services with the same Psalm that we began with today, Psalm 124. “If God had not been on our side,” he would preach, “the flood would have swept us away.” We would be destroyed. But God’s grace was there for Calvin, and just as surely, it is there for us.

And so, how do we respond. Calvin believed that the only proper response to the grace of God was this: gratitude. If we know that we are loved by God, and that we have received God’s grace, what can we ever hope to do, but to say “thank you”. No other response is enough.

And so how do we say “thank you”? That’s where our own daily lives matter. We say thank you to God by how we live. We live our lives out as a thank you to God. We do the right thing, and we participate in good works, not to help ourselves, but to say thank you. We take care of our neighbors, and our world, and we work for peace and justice because we are loved by a God who wants these things for all of us.

When we live our lives in this way, as lives of gratitude and thanksgiving, everything changes. Our outlook on the world changes. Our concern changes. Our hope changes as well. We become more attuned to God’s will, and less focused on ourselves. We become joyful participants in the world, eager to say “thank you” to God with all that we do. We become God’s hands here on earth, and in every action, we praise God.

This is what John Calvin taught us: that love does not let us go. Nearly 500 years later we, his spiritual descendants, carry on. The church we are in today might not be that recognizable to him, but my hope is that the grace we know, and our response to it, might be.

Next week I’ll be talking about how we get from John Calvin to a 21st century church in Exeter, New Hampshire, and what it means that the church is still reforming, all these centuries later. For now, though, remember this: Nothing, not even death, can separate us from the love of God. God’s grace will never leave us, and God’s love will never let us go.

 

Martin Luther and the Courage to Reform: Sermon for October 15, 2017

To read the previous sermon in this series, please click here.

Last week I ended with what I think was my first ever sermon cliffhanger, cutting off right as the action was about to happen. Maybe it wasn’t as dramatic as a tv show during sweeps, but the story I’m telling takes more than one week to tell, and that was the natural midpoint.

This is the second in a four week sermon series on the Protestant Reformation. The actual Reformation took decades to unfold, but we date the anniversary back to one event that happened 500 years ago this very month on October 31, 1517. That was the day that Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg church.

And that’s what our cliffhanger was last week. Just to recap, last week’s sermon was about the young Martin Luther. We talked about how as a boy Luther was scared to death of breaking the rules. He came to see God as a scary and angry figure, as quick to punish as an irate school master. The young man grew up and became a law student, and one day he was caught in a thunderstorm that was so violent that he promised God he would become a monk if he survived.

Luther did survive, and he kept his promise and became a monk. It was in the monastery that he began to read the Bible himself, something that not many people in that day and age had a chance to do. And in the monastery Luther began trying to reconcile the God he knew in Scripture, and the grace and love of God, with what was being taught by the church of his day.

One of Luther’s greatest frustrations was the selling of indulgences. People could buy these for themselves, or for a loved one who had died. They were told that if they paid, their sins would be forgiven. You can imagine how these were abused. If you were scared to death of going to hell, church could sell you forgiveness. Or, if your mother had died, and you were worried she was stuck in purgatory, it was pretty easy to say “you know, if you really loved your mother, you’d pay a little to be sure she went to heaven”.

The church already had quite a bit of wealth, but back in Rome they were just breaking ground on a brand new cathedral, one we know today as St. Peter’s. The sale of indulgences funded that new cathedral’s construction. And so indulgence by indulgence, brick by brick, fearful believers were building a new basilica.

Martin Luther didn’t think this was right. More than that, he didn’t think it was faithful to Scripture and to who Jesus really was. And so he wrote his 95 Theses, his 95 statements about faith and the abuses he saw, and he posted it to the church door. And that’s where we left off last week.

This week we read a passage from 1 Timothy. It’s a letter from Paul, or at least someone who is speaking in Paul’s style, to another young man of faith. Timothy was a young pastor who was just learning what it meant to keep the faith and be courageous. Paul was his mentor. And the words in this letter are ones from a mentor to a timid student who is trying to figure out who they are. Timothy is told, “fight the good fight of faith”.
They are words that could have been said to the young Luther as well. He was now 34 years old, not so far removed from the timid and fearful young man he had been. And I don’t think he wanted to fight. But now he was in the fight of his life.

I use those words cautiously because I don’t like glorifying violence. But there are times when standing up for what we know as true means that others are going to want to fight against us. Being courageous does not mean wanting to fight. Being courageous means telling the truth when something is wrong, even if it means that we will have to enter a fight we’d rather not be a part of.

Luther could have stayed quietly in the monastery, keeping his new found knowledge of God’s love and grace to himself. But as he looked at what the church was doing, he knew he couldn’t be silent. And he knew that as soon as he spoke he would be in the fight of his life. He also knew that the odds were stacked against him.

But he posted the theses anyway. And after they were posted, more people kept reading them. They started to get around. And then the local bishop saw them, and he passed them on to the Pope. And the Pope was not happy, especially because they needed those indulgences Luther was railing on about to build St. Peters.

The next year, in 1518, Luther was charged with heresy. He found protection, for a few years, under a prince called Fredrick the Wise who was sympathetic to his ideas. In 1521, though, the Emperor called Luther to appear before him, and Luther had no choice. And so four years after he had posted those ideas to the church door, Luther was finally called to answer for them.

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Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms by von Warner

You might remember from your history classes an event called the “Diet of Worms”. Funny name aside, this is where Luther takes his stand in the good fight of faith. And there’s a popular version of this story, and then the more likely version. The popular one goes like this: Luther is called before the Emperor and asked to recant, and say he was wrong. Luther refuses to do so, and shouts out “Here I stand! I can do none other!”

It’s a great story. But historians tell us it might not be exactly true. That’s okay, though, because the more likely story is even more powerful. Historians say that on the first day of the Diet, Luther appeared before the council. His books and writings were laid before him, and he was asked a simple question: Did you write these?

The answer, of course, is “yes”. But Luther doesn’t say that. Instead he asks to be given time to reflect and pray. This is pretty far from “here I stand”. But the next day Luther comes back. And he’s asked again if he wrote these books. And this time he says yes. And he is asked whether he will recant. And he says no. In fact, he says this:

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.

In other words, “Here I stand…I can do none other.”

Luther’s words only convince the council that he is a threat. He is declared an outlaw and heretic, which means that anyone was allowed to kill him. And as he leaves the council he is immediately kidnapped. Fortunately, his kidnappers were sent by the friendly Frederick the Wise. They keep him safe, and they bring him to a castle in Wartburg. He grows a beard and assumes the identity of a man named “Squire George”, and goes into hiding.

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Actual photo of Martin Luther translating the Gospels from Greek.

It’s in Wartburg that Luther does what might be the most radical thing of all. He takes the New Testament, a book that your average German has never heard in the German language, and he translates it from Greek. He translates it not into the scholarly Latin which can only be read by clergy and academics, but into German. And for the first time, your average person in the pews could hear the stories of God’s love and grace for themselves, and not just as the church wants for them to hear them.

Over time Luther started to find more public support. His ideas were spreading, and he kept writing and encouraging reformation. At one point Luther encouraged all the priests, monks, and nuns to leave their cloisters. One of those nuns who leaves, Katharina, goes on to be his wife. He even becomes a father, having six children. Eventually the Emperor got distracted by other pressing issues, and Luther was left alone. He kept writing and ministering until his death in 1546. And 500 years later, we still remember his life, and his legacy.

Because of Martin Luther, you and I are here today, doing church together in a very different way. We are a member of a Protestant denomination that seeks to understand the Scriptures in light of God’s grace and love. We explore the big questions of faith together, with the church and pastor as teacher, and not tyrant. We do not believe that we are saved by our good works, but that we do good works because God’s grace has already saved us.

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Katharina Luther by Cranach the Elder

And, like Luther, we take up the call to be courageous in our faith. We fight the good fight of faith in our daily lives, not by violence or aggression, but by standing fast in what we know and believe about God. We live out our faith in this world, gratefully serving others with love, because we know already that we are loved by God.

Today we are baptizing the newest member into the faith. They are about to start a journey of their own. Today we will be making vows to support them, and to help them to grow in this faith, so that one day, they too may be courageous. The line from Christ to this font has traveled through so many spiritual ancestors who have taught us what it means to live out the faith. Martin Luther is one of them.

And so, as we come to the font again today, we remember our own baptisms. We remember a God who loves us into courage. And with Luther and all of the others, we proclaim the good news of God’s love and grace saying “here we stand…we can do none other.”

Martin Luther and the Fear of Breaking the Rules: Sermon for October 8, 2017

The following is the first sermon in a four week sermon series celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.

You don’t have to be a Christian to know who Martin Luther was. Anyone who cares about history knows that he was the man who symbolically began the Protestant Reformation when he walked to a church in Wittenberg Germany, and nailed his 95 Theses up there on the door for all to see.

Later this month, on Halloween day actually, the world will celebrate the 500th anniversary of Luther’s actions. This is a major historical event for everyone, but for Christians, and for Protestant Christians in particular, this is huge. Because Martin Luther lived, and spoke, and acted with courage, the shape of Christianity looks very different than it did back then.

Martin Luther changed the world. He was a mighty figure whose reputation has grown over the centuries. And I love reading about Martin Luther, because his life is so inspiring to me. But what really made me love Luther, what really drew me in, was learning about Martin Luther, the child and the young man. Because every great person who changes the world is first a young person, and what happens to them in those earliest years is what makes them who they are.

This morning we read the story of the Ten Commandments as our Scripture. I’ve preached about the Ten Commandments and what they mean for us today many times, so I’m not going to do that today. But I did want us to read them because they symbolize something that was important in young Martin Luther’s life: rules.

Martin knew that the world had rules. God had rules. The church had rules. His school had rules. And he was deathly afraid of breaking any of them. Part of the reason why was a system that had been set up at his school. Throughout the week one of the boys in his class would be chosen to observe all the other boys in secret. You never knew who it was, or when they were near you.

If a boy broke a rule and the boy who was the observer saw it, he would write it down. At the end of the week the observer would turn in his list of rule breakers to the headmaster. And the headmaster, armed with this intel, would then beat each boy for the rules he had broken.

Can you imagine being a boy in that class? Can you imagine young Martin on Fridays, unsure what the teacher did or did not know? Can you imagine him wondering if he would be beaten that day, and how bad the beating would be?

51WbSZBr3gL._SY346_Over 400 years later the field of psychology would come into its own, and would tell us that we form our earliest images of God based on the adults who are in authority around us when we are children. Our parents and our teachers, for instance. Erik Erikson, the famed psychologist, would go on to write a book called “Young Man Luther” all about Martin as a boy and a young man. He wanted to figure out what had made Martin into a man willing to face down the powers of the church. And this story is one he retold.

The same Martin who as a boy had been so scared and anxious about rule breaking and punishment at school grew up to be a young man who was scared and anxious about rule breaking and punishment when it came to his relationship with God. Martin became consumed with fear that he was going to be punished by an angry God who had been marking down his every mistake.

And his church didn’t help. The church of his day emphasized God’s wrath and punishment, and capitalized on it. The fear of hell drove people to engage in elaborate forms of penance. Churches even sold “indulgences”, payments you could make to the church in order to be forgiven for your sin. The church knew that they could market to the fear of good people in order to fund their own coffers.

And unlike today, there was no other church. If you were a German in the 1500’s, you were a Catholic because that’s all there was. You couldn’t go down the street to the church on the next block. The Catholic church was your one connection to God, and to heaven.

It’s important to stop here and note too that this was a very different world from ours, and a very different Catholic Church than the one that we know today. Corruption has existed in every denomination at one time or another. The fact the Catholic church was the only game in town made it easier for bad practices to flourish. You may have heard the phrase “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”? That’s what happened here. People just thought it was normal.

One of the outcomes of the Protestant reformation was that Catholicism had its own reformation where many of these practices were changed. It’s important that when we talk about what happened 500 years ago we make every attempt not to malign our Catholic siblings, or their faith, nor that we believe we who are Protestants are above corruption.

That said, this was the church that Martin Luther knew. And it was the church that was there for him when another fearful event happened in his life. Martin had grown up into a bright young man, and he had begun to study the law. He was well on his way to being a lawyer when one day in 1505, when he was about 22 years old, he was caught walking in a terrible thunderstorm.

The storm was so bad, with lightning crashing all around him, that he thought for sure that he was going to die. In his absolute terror, Martin calls out to God, and he makes a promise: God, if you save me, I will become a monk. He survives. And Martin is good to his word. He leaves school and he joins the monastery, and he begins to study to be a monk and a priest.

It was fear that got Martin into the monastery, but it is the monastery that teaches Martin that maybe he didn’t quite understand God. One thing that you have to realize about Martin’s time is that everything you knew about God and Scripture and the church was taught to you by the clergy. The printing press had just come into being about 75 years prior, and its spread was slow. Moreover, even if you could read, most books weren’t in German. The Bible in particular was written in Latin. Only the most scholarly of Germans, like the monks, could have even read it.

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Martin Luther as an Augustinian monk.

But here was Martin, finally getting to read it. And, as he read the Gospels, as he read Paul’s letters, as he read of a God who loved God’s people, it didn’t quite square with what he had always been told about God. Here in the Bible was a story about a God who is not waiting to punish us at the end of our lives like a school master at the of the week. Here is a God who loves us, and who loves us so much that God gives us the grace of forgiveness.

Martin’s whole life he had been taught that the only way he could be saved from eternal punishment was by his works. If only he was good enough, if only he worked hard enough, if only he bought enough indulgences, took on enough penance, then maybe…maybe…God would save him from punishment. But now he saw that this wasn’t who God really was.

Twelve years after that day in the thunderstorm, twelve years of learning and unlearning so much, Martin Luther walked through the town of Wittenberg towards the church in town. At about two in the afternoon he reached the doors of the church, and posted his 95 Theses. Legend says he “nailed” them to the door, but that makes it sound a little more dramatic than it probably actually was. In actuality the church door was a lot like a well-read bulletin board of a few decades ago. Maybe even like a Facebook page today. If someone had something they wanted to share, something they wanted others to discuss, it was not uncommon for them to tack it to the door of the church for others to see.

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The doors of the Wittenberg church as they look today.

That’s not to say, though, that what Martin did that day was not courageous. The 95 Theses are really just 95 statements about who God was, and what that meant for the church. Martin knew that in the eyes of the church they would make him a heretic, and perhaps even cost him his life. But Martin had come to understand God’s love and God’s grace, and he felt compelled to share it with others, and to reform his church, even if it meant his whole life was about to change. And once it was done, there was no going back.

Next week we’ll talk about what happened next, and how it changed everything…and still changes everything even for us today…

Marching Down the Walls: Sermon for October 1, 2017

I learned to march when I was about 12 years old. You might hear that today, knowing me, and think I’m talking about marching against some sort of social injustice. It would make sense if you think that, but I’m not talking about that kind of marching.

In middle school I really thought I wanted to go to one of the military academies. And so, I joined the Civil Air Patrol. And the first night I went to a meeting, they taught us how to march. We learned to stand there, first, at attention, not moving. Then we learned how to move. We learned how to march in formation, moving at a brisk pace, turning on a time. Column lefts, and column rights.

pexels-photo-279991I didn’t end up going the military route, but I always appreciate the discipline I had learned as a military cadet. Marching made sense to me. Stay aware, listen for the next movement, and keep moving as a unit. You will make it to your destination together. Those lessons helped me later on when I started to work for justice and equality. I began marching in a very different way, but with the same sense that if we stayed together, we would make it to where we needed to be.

Today’s Scripture lesson is one about marching, too. The Hebrew people have been walking for a long time. They’ve walked out of the land of Egypt, where they were oppressed, and out into the wilderness of Sinai. For forty years they followed Moses, who told them that he was leading them to the promised land. It takes so long that by the time they finally get close, Moses dies. He only gets to see the promised land from afar.

Before he dies, though, Moses appoints a new leader. His young assistant, Joshua, is chosen to lead the people into the promised land of Canaan. Joshua brings the people into the land, and to the gates of a city named Jericho. This is the place God has promised them, but this will not be easy. The people in Jericho do not want Joshua and his people there. In fact, Scripture tells us that the people inside the walls of Jericho fear the Israelites and even God.

Meanwhile, outside, Joshua’s folks are trying to figure out what to do. The walls are tall, the gates are locked, and they have no clue how to get in. But God tells Joshua what to do. Look, God says, take your soldiers, and circle the city. Have seven priest with seven trumpets lead the way, and take the ark of the covenant with you. Do this for six days.

And then, on the seventh day, circle the city again, not just once but seven times. Once you have, blow the trumpet, and have everyone shout, and then…the walls of Jericho will come tumbling down.

And so that’s what they do. For six days they march around the city, and blow the trumpets. And on the seventh they do it seven times, and the people shout, and the walls do indeed come down. The Israelites get their city.

The story of Jericho is a lot of fun in church school. We can have the kids march around in a circle, and blow instruments. Then they can shout out, and we can knock over some boxes. It’s an easy story to reenact. But for those of us upstairs this morning, we don’t get to march around and blow trumpets, or knock walls down. We just get to try to figure out what this story means to us today.

I realized this week that I had never preached on Jericho before. Not at this church, and not at any other church. And as I was thinking about it this week, I had no idea at first about how to relate this to our lives. (I briefly considered reenacting this upstairs too, but I thought that might be a little much.)

In time, I came back to marching. I remembered the discipline of learning how to keep marching that I learned as a military cadet. And I remembered the passion of marching for justice that I learned as a young adult. And I thought about those Israelites who kept marching around Jericho, and how they needed a little bit of both.

I wonder if they wondered why they were doing this. Why did they have to march around the city, blowing trumpets? Why did they have to do it not just one day, but for seven days? And on that last day, why did they have to circle not just once, but seven times? Why did it take the marching, and the shouting, for God to let them enter the city?

And then I started to think about the kind of walls that surround Jericho. Scripture tells us that the people who lived inside of them were afraid of the Israelites and of God. And so they built these walls that were tall and thick, and they vowed that no one would be able to knock them down. Even if the Israelites brought hammers and rammed the walls, nothing could make them fall.

But the Israelites didn’t need hammers. They didn’t need to even touch them. In the end, all they needed was this: their feet, their voices, and a little time. When they had all three, the walls that fear had built up crumbled into dust.

And that’s where the relevance for today comes. Because we live in a world where a lot of walls have been built up over fear. Dismantling these walls is not an easy process. Sometimes it can take so long, and be so tedious. But with everyone who joins in the march, and raises their voice, we come one step closer to shouting down the walls.

I think of some of the walls we have known. Recently my older sister was telling me a story about growing up in small town Virginia. On Saturdays they would go to the movie theatre downtown. Reflecting back now she realizes that something happened without anyone ever saying why. When the teenagers would arrive, the white kids would sit downstairs in the theatre, and the black kids would go up and sit in the balcony.

She realizes now why that was. It was a decade or so after segregation has been officially ended, but the legacies of Jim Crow still prevailed in the rural South. That’s just the way it had always been, and despite what the law said, people weren’t changing just yet. The walls had not yet tumbled down.

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A counter march in Boston.

I thought about her story and I thought about a march I participated in about a month ago. In the aftermath of Charlottesville, a similar rally was rumored to be happening in Boston. Like some of you, I went down to Boston Common to be part of a counter-rally against racism. That day the original rally did take place. Only a few dozen people showed up in the end. They were vastly outnumbered by the counter-protestors. They held their rally and then, with the protection of police, left the park.

Just after they left, the march against racism made it to the park. We stood on a hill and watched it come in. Thousands of people streamed into Boston Common. Looking down the street, all you could see were blocks upon blocks of marchers. Shouting words of hope, they entered the gates, and the walls, or at least a small part of them, came tumbling down.

There is a lot of work to do when it comes to dismantling inequality, but I believe that if Jericho teaches us anything, it teaches us to keep marching, and keep shouting out the truth. The movie theatre that my sister sat in the early-1970’s Virginia was not so long ago. And there are still plenty of places where that kind of thinking is allowed to go one, safely ensconced behind the high walls of fear.

But this is not what God wills. And so people have begun to fall into the ranks with one another, and have begun to circle those walls, speaking the truth until they fall. And one day, if we keep marching, they will.

This is only one wall, though. There are walls everywhere, just waiting for us to bring them down. The good news is that we can. We can do it if we stay in formation, keep raising our voices, and keep following God. The fear that builds up barriers to understanding might look powerful, but in the end it can be brought down by our refusing to stay silent, and refusing to stop marching.

One of the reasons I believe in church is because I need a community to march with me through life. I need to be surrounded with others who can blow the horn, and raise their voices, and testify to the love of God that we know. None of us does the work alone. We make walls fall when we refuse to leave one another isolated.

We are circling some mighty walls these days. They have been standing for far too long. The good news is that the crowd that surrounds us is growing, we are marching towards justice, and we are speaking the truths that we know. The walls will fall, and when they do, we will rejoice.

For now, we keep marching, with God, and with one another. Amen?

A Big Fish Story: Sermon for September 24, 2017

Some of the best and best-known stories of the Bible are the ones that leave us asking, “Now come on…did that really happen?” Today is one of those stories. It’s the story of Jonah, one of the early prophets, and about what happens when he tries to run away from God.

So, what’s the one thing we all know about Jonah? He gets swallowed by a whale, right? Jonah and the whale. It’s another one of those stories we hear as kids: there was a guy named Jonah, he got thrown overboard from a ship, a whale swallowed him, and then a few days later the whale let him go.

We teach this story in Sunday school every few years because it’s a great kids story. There’s God, there’s a big whale, and everything turns out fine in the end. But there’s this one hitch: the kids aren’t so sure they believe it. I know that, because when kids are suspicious about whether or not you are telling the truth, they ask a lot of questions. And they’ve got questions about this Jonah guy.

For example: What kind of a whale was it, exactly? How did Jonah stay alive in its stomach? Wasn’t it dark? How could he breathe? And finally, is this really true? Did it really happen?

In other words, they don’t buy it. They’re smart kids, and they’re not so sure this story is true.

So right about now, you might be wondering, “Then why do we keep telling our kids these stories”? And maybe the bigger question is this: why do we keep telling ourselves these stories? We are not mindless. We know the difference between fact and fiction. So, why do we insist on reading stories like Creation, and Noah’s Ark, and Jonah and the whale? Why not just stick with Jesus and the things he said?

It’s a good question. And it’s one I’ll at least start to answer with words that one of you shared with a while back. Many of you know that Lois Royal is a master storyteller who has spent time listening to a lot of other storytellers share their stories. And she said something once that made me think. She said, “a story does not survive, unless there is something about it that is true.”

She’s right. Because we don’t repeat stories of any kind that don’t have at least some kernel of truth in them. And Jonah is a well-repeated story. Long before it was ever set down on paper for the first time, it was being told. In fact, it’s been around for the better part of three thousand years ago. And we still tell it today, because there’s something about it that rings true to us. And, though that whale is memorable, this truth of this story really has nothing to do with a big fish.

Listen to the story again: There was once a man named Jonah. One day God asks him to do something he does not want to do. God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh, a city where no one was living the way God wanted them to live, and to tell them to change. But Jonah doesn’t want to, so he decides to run in the other direction and get on a ship bound for another city.

And here’s the first reason why this story is true: because we all run away from God. It’s true. We’ve all done it. We’ve all at some time in our lives been asked by God to do something hard. Maybe we’ve been asked to go deeper in our spiritual lives. Maybe we’ve been asked to take a stand. But whatever it is, we’ve said “no way”. And we’ve run. I’ve done it. And maybe you have too.

And that’s why, whales aside, this is a true story.

But it doesn’t stop there. Jonah gets on the boat and midway through the journey, a storm comes. The others start to panic. They throw the cargo overboard. They start to pray. And when that doesn’t work they even cast lots to try to figure out who is responsible. And when it becomes clear that it’s Jonah, they ask “where are you from and what are you doing here”?

When Jonah confesses that he’s running away from God, they know why there is a storm. And they know nothing is going to get better with Jonah in the boat. And in the end even Jonah himself knows this, and he tells them “throw me overboard…it’s the only way you’ll survive”. And so they do.

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Actual photo of Jonah’s whale.

Jonah probably thought that was going to be the end of things, but it wasn’t. Because God sends a “big fish”, which we call a “whale”, to swallow him. And for three days Jonah is inside the whale. And it takes him three days, but finally Jonah calls out to God and says “okay…I’m here…use me…I’ll go to Nineveh!”

And here’s the second reason this story is true: because God sends us whales.

Now I don’t mean literal whales. But I do mean that God sends us second chances. God sends us places where we have to slow down for a little while and think about how we ended up like this. And God waits patiently with us until, three days or three years or three decades later, we decide that we have had enough, and we can’t do it our way anymore. God sends us whales because in the end, God doesn’t let us go. Even when we try to throw ourselves overboard, God still has a grip on us.

When Jonah prays and tells God that he will go, the whale spits Jonah back out, onto dry land. And Jonah goes to Nineveh, and he tells them to change, and despite the fact Jonah thought it was hopeless, they do it! And God says, “I will not destroy Nineveh because they listened.”

Now, this would be a good end to the story. Jonah runs. Jonah gets swallowed by the whale. Jonah ends up doing what he didn’t want to do in the first place. And in the end everything works out.

But it’s not the end because Jonah isn’t happy about this. Jonah had been through a lot on his way to Nineveh. Jonah had been in the belly of the whale. He had just been minding his own business when God had come to him, and it had not been easy for him. And now Nineveh, the city that could do nothing right, gets off scot-free. It sure doesn’t seem fair to Jonah.

And so Jonah tells God this: “I’m mad at you”. In fact Jonah says to God, “I am so angry with you that I could die”.

And here’s the third reason this story is true: because, whether we admit it or not, I think almost all of us have been mad at God before.

Have you? I know I have. Maybe I haven’t been as angry as Jonah was in that moment, but I’ve wondered “God, what are you doing? I did everything you wanted me to do, why didn’t everything work out like I wanted.

The truth is that if we have a real relationship with God, a deep one, we will probably get angry at times. The trick is learning how to stay connected with God even when you are angry because Scripture shows us that part of living a life of faith is caring enough to get angry from time to time.

After Jonah tells God that he is so angry he could die, God responds. God causes this tree to grow over Jonah to protect him from the sun while he sulks. And God waits.

Now that would be a lovely place for the story to end, but Jonah doesn’t get off that easily. Because after Jonah has been angry for a while God decides maybe Jonah has been angry a little too long. Because that happens with us too. And so God… makes the tree die. And Jonah is out in the sun, with no protection.

And God says, “Jonah, are you still angry?” And Jonah, angrier than ever, says, “I’m still angry…angry enough that I could die”.

And so God talks to Jonah once more and says this: Jonah you’re mad about one tree dying. I just wanted to save a whole city. 120,000 people, each of whom I loved. Was that so wrong?

And that’s where the book ends. With God having the last word.

And here’s the final reason why this is a true story: because God’s love always has the last word. Even if it’s God’s tough love.

The book of Jonah, at its heart, is a story about God’s love. It’s about God loving Nineveh enough to want them to turn back to God. And it’s about God loving Jonah enough that when Jonah ends up in the ocean God sends a way for him to live.

And it’s also about God loving Nineveh enough that God does not destroy them. And it’s God loving Jonah enough to protect him with a tree. And it’s God loving Jonah enough to say “okay, you’ve been angry long enough…now listen to me.” And in the end, it’s about God’s love having the last word, even when we don’t want it to.

I will always think of whales when I hear the name “Jonah”. I can’t help it. It’s just the story we all know. But I will also thing about this: I will think about what it means for a story to be true. And I will know that, somehow, this is a true story. It’s true enough that it keeps being told. And it’s true enough that the truth can change our lives.

In the end, that’s how you know you have a story worth repeating. And that’s why one day, years from now, the children of this congregation will probably tell their kids about Jonah and the whale. I hope that they do, because true stories like this are always worth sharing.

Dead Water, and a Better Choice: Sermon for September 17, 2017

Today we kick off church school, which means that our elementary students are looking at a new story. They usually do this the first Sunday of every month. Allan tells the story in worship and then they go downstairs and learn more through hands-on learning and play.

One of the ways we try to connect with what they are doing is that on the days they start a new story, I preach about it up here. That way families might be able to talk about it more, and understand it together. So, today we are doing that, and we’re looking at the story of the Woman at the Well, and Living Water.

Back when I lived in Vermont, I took up fly fishing. It looked like this amazing, relaxing experience in nature, and I thought, “How hard can it be?” So I bought all the equipment, and I went to the nearby forest and found a stream, and I cast my line. It was going to be just like “A River Runs Through It”.

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It was not like “A River Runs Through It”.

Except it wasn’t. Even when I did manage to land the line in the water, I never caught anything. I tried all these different places, every river or lake I could imagine, all with no luck. Finally I went back to the store that sold me the fly rod, and I talked to the manager who was also a fishing guide. I asked him what I was doing wrong. I told him all the places I had tried, and how I hadn’t even seen a single fish, let alone caught one.

Finally he nodded his head and said: “You’re fishing in dead water”. He explained that “dead water” is water that is either too polluted, too unexposed to sunlight, or too cut off from any healthy sources. The places I’ve been fishing all fit the bill. It wasn’t until I learned to stay away from dead water that I fish.

Dead water is a lot easier to define than something that sounds like it should be its polar opposite: Living Water. We talk about Living Water in the church a lot, and it’s sort of insider language. Dead water is pretty literal – what is dead cannot support life. But Living Water is a metaphor, and that means it’s a little tougher to pin down.

Today’s Scripture is about two things: living water, and a woman who met Jesus. To understand this story you first need to know something about the times. In Jesus day, the Jewish and Samaritan people didn’t associate with one another. In fact, the Samaritans were looked down upon. It would have been pretty unheard of for a good Jewish person to approach a Samaritan for anything, especially a Jewish man and a Samaritan woman.

And yet, that’s exactly what happens here. Jesus is traveling from Judea to Galilee, and he has to go through Samaria. He is thirsty, and so he stops at a well where a woman is drawing water out and he asks her, “Can I have a drink?”

And she knows how odd this is. She says to him, “Why are you, a Jewish man, asking me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?”

Jesus says to her, “If you knew who I was, you’d be asking me for Living Water.”

At first the Samaritan woman is as baffled by this Living Water stuff as you and I might be. She says, “Um, you don’t have a bucket, and this is a really deep well…so, how are you going to get me water.”

But Jesus tells her, “The water in this well? You’ll drink it and be thirsty again soon. But the water I’m offering to you? It’s eternal life, and you’ll never be thirsty again.”

Living Water is what Jesus offered to her, and it’s what he offers to us even today. It’s the promise of spiritual life. The living water Jesus offers quenches our thirst for something greater than ourselves, and it sustains us, helping us to follow him. It’s not the kind of water we can get from a well or a tap. It’s water that only God can give us.

And in this story, the amazing thing is that Jesus doesn’t just offer it to those who are like him. It would be easy for him to say, “You know this is just for people like me,” but he doesn’t. He crosses a line that most wouldn’t cross in order to reach this Samaritan woman.

I think that Jesus was modeling something for us there. If Jesus is willing to cross lines in order to make connections, wouldn’t it make sense that maybe we are supposed to do the same thing? Maybe in our own lives we are being asked to dare to venture past the things that divide us, and meet others where they are.

That’s true for churches too. It’s worth remembering that Jesus doesn’t hang back in his own land, but he goes into a new one, and he seeks this woman out. That’s a good reminder that Living Water is not something that we hoard and keep to ourselves. We share it with others.

That’s why we do a lot of the work of welcoming that we try to do in this church. It’s why we are talking about how we can welcome immigrants and refugees. It’s why the rainbow flag is out front. It’s why we welcome in people who maybe have never stepped into church before in their lives, and we tell them they belong here just as much as we do.

We do it because we were all once the woman at the well, and someone crossed the lines to offer us a kind of water that we didn’t even know existed.

So that’s the first part of the story, how Jesus crossed the lines, but the second part is this: how she then crossed lines of her own. Now, in the Bible, unfortunately, women often go without names. This is no exception. In the Bible this woman is just called “the Samaritan woman” or “the woman at the well”.

But in the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions, this woman was later given a name. It was “Photine” or “Photina” which means “light”. There are legends about her that are worth telling here too. It is said that Photina was immediately converted, which means she realized something was incredible about Jesus. She began to preach right after she met him, which is pretty extraordinary for a woman.

There are stories about her later life too. As she grew in the faith, she shared the same Living Water that had been shared with her with many others. There’s even a story that she converted the daughter of Emperor Nero. In another story, he calls her in, trying to intimidate him, and she just laughs at him. Can you imagine that? A lowly Samaritan woman laughing at the Emperor of Rome.

It’s hard to believe, but Photina had something that the Emperor never did. She had the Living Water that gave her a life he couldn’t imagine. Her life had been changed because of her encounter with Jesus and there was nothing he could take from her, not even her life, that could change that. Legend tells us that Nero did just that, and she was martyred for the faith. And today Photina, the humble Samaritan woman, is remembered by our Catholic and Orthodox siblings as a saint of the church.

She was an unlikely saint. She was just a woman drawing some water up out of a well. But Christ saw her, and recognized her for who she would be. The same is true for you, and me, and for everyone else. Christ sees in us, and in others, what the world sometimes does not. Christ sees our truest and best selves, and he offers us Living Water to sustain us.

That’s a reminder that Christianity is not a faith for the self-assured who have everything they need. This is not a faith for those who have everything together. Jesus didn’t find someone just like him, or someone who had the right degree of social respectability. Instead, he went to the well, where humble and underestimated Samaritan women gathered, and he gave them the most priceless gift that he had to give. And in return, she gave him all that she had.

pexels-photo-289586I started off talking about dead water, and fish, and places where life cannot be sustained because there is no connection. And, even though it’s a metaphor, maybe Living Water is indeed the exact opposite of dead water. In Living Water we are not isolated. We are not left at the well day after day. We are instead invited into connection with Christ, and with one another.

The more we isolate, as people, as a church, as a community, the more we risk cutting ourselves off from the sources of life. But the more we dare to cross the lines, and reach out, the more we find the opposite of death: we find life. Where there is Living Water there is connection and community, with God, and with one another. This Living Water is what will sustain us, this Living Water is what will help us to grow in every way possible, and this Living Water is what will strengthen us to be the people God always knew we could be.

Gathering Around a Vision: Sermon for September 10, 2017

I’ve come to understand New England summers. I grew up in a place it was warm most of the year so summers weren’t a big deal to us. Actually, they were so hot we wanted to stay indoors.

But here in New England summers are beautiful, but they are also short. And that means that you have about 10-12 weeks to do the vacationing and outside exploring that you’ve waited to do all year.

That means that during the summer, we are scattered to the winds. I know members of this church have, literally, been across the country and around the globe this summer. But now, there’s a chill in the air, the leaves, believe it or not, are starting to change, and we have returned to our nests here in Exeter.

And this morning, for the first time since early June, we are back in the pews at 10am on a Sunday, the choir is in the loft, our church school orientation is happening, and we are about to kick off a whole new church program year. And so, wherever this summer has taken you, I say this: welcome home!

I was thinking about what to preach about on this Gathering Sunday. What Bible story sums up what it means to be church together? There are so many good ones, but what I kept coming back to was this: the Greatest Commandment.

Jesus was asked a question by a lawyer who was trying to trick him. If the lawyer could get him to say something blasphemous, then Jesus could be charged with a crime. So they ask him, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” And Jesus answers, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

To me, that sums up both what it means to be a Christian, and what it means to be the church. Love God. Love yourself. Love your neighbor.

I see those three challenges as the legs of a three-legged table or stool. If you kick any one of the three out, the table cannot stand. You need all three to have a stable foundation. That’s because each one of the three depends on one another.

You cannot really love your neighbor until you learn to love yourself. And you cannot say that you love God if you do not try to love your neighbor. And, I believe that you cannot really love yourself until you realize that you are created by a God who loves you wildly, a God who is worthy of our love and devotion.

Learning how to balance those three great loves is what we do in church. And so, I want to talk about how we try to do all three, and how we can build on that love this year. And so, for the purposes of this sermon, I want to talk about “loving yourself” in the corporate sense. I want us to talk, not about “I”, but about “we”, and who we are as the church together.

So first, the love of God. The best way we show our love of God is by doing what we are doing right now: worshipping. When we come here on Sundays our first task is to give praise to God. Worship isn’t about the music, or the sermon, or even the community, though those are hopefully meaningful to us too. It’s about telling God that we love God, and looking for the ways God is speaking to us still.

When we have a relationship with someone we love, we invest time in that relationship. We talk to our spouse, we make time for our families, we give of ourselves to our friends. So, it just makes sense that if we love God, we will make time for God in our lives. Sunday worship is a huge part of that, because we get to spend time not only with God, but with others who love God. But that’s not the end of it.

This fall there will be some new opportunities to get to know God better. Starting in October we will have a Bible study every Wednesday night. We will be talking about the Scripture for the next Sunday’s sermon. You don’t have to come every week, just come as you are able, but give this a try. The Bible is often so misunderstood. It can seem so intimidating. Come and learn why it doesn’t have to be.

We are also forming a group that will take another kind of spiritual journey. Several adults asked me after last year’s Confirmation Sunday whether we ever do adult confirmation classes. The short answer is “no”. Confirmation is a step baptized youth take in which they “confirm”, or agree with, the baptism that their parents chose for them. So, adults, by virtue of being baptized or joining the church, essentially make the same vows.

But that doesn’t mean that adults don’t have questions. And it’s become clear that a lot of you might want to have a similar kind of class that breaks down our belief and teaches it in a deliberate way. That’s true especially for those of us in younger generations. Many of you, like me, didn’t grow up in the church and didn’t get this kind of class. Others want a class so that they can decide whether or not to be baptized. For whatever reason, there’s a hunger for this kind of spiritual journey. And so, we are forming this class now. If you are interested, please let me know.

So those are some ways we can love God, what about how we love ourselves as a church community? Well, the first step is deciding to be a part of this community. Community is important in every aspect of our lives, but church community is crucial for our spiritual journeys. Having companions on the path helps us to draw closer to God. And so this year, think about the ways that you can allow yourself to really be a part of community. Are you holding back? If so, what’s keeping you there? What would it mean to take a risk, and dive in with both feet?

21314839_1664971753555416_1075856799694847201_nWe believe that anyone who walks through these doors and calls this their church is a part of this community. But we also offer a way to formally become a part of this church by choosing to be a member. Membership is not about paying dues or anything like that. Church membership is a way of saying “this is my church…this is the place, and these are the people, I choose to be with as I search for God’s will for me.” Our next Joining Sunday will be October 22nd. If you are ready to make the leap, and join us officially, please let me know.

Beyond joining, we love our church community by serving. Think about how many people serve on a typical Sunday. Deacons, ushers, welcomers, coffee hour folks, church school teachers, childcare, youth group volunteers, choir, musicians, sound, and more. Part of being the church means being willing to serve. This is a form of love for one another. We give of our time, and our energy, to help one another to grow in the faith. There are so many ways we can all serve. And service feels good. It is rewarding to be a part of a community, and to give back. This fall what’s a way that you can serve?

Finally, loving our neighbors. If we don’t love our neighbors, we can’t say that we really love God. I’m really proud of the way this church seeks to serve our neighbors, near and far. Yesterday we sent off a big shipment of goods to our sister church in Zimbabwe. Throughout the year we take up special offerings for the wider church, and for Church World Service, Heifer Project, and more. We work with Seacoast Family Promise, cook meals for the Salvation Army, knit prayer shawls for people who need comfort, stock food pantries, assemble Thanksgiving and Christmas baskets, and more.

And we are looking for new ways to serve, too. Mission and action is exploring serving a meal out of our church for people who need it. We continue to look for ways we can live into our environmental and open and affirming covenants. And, an ad hoc group is looking at how this church can support immigrants and refugees. I love the way that we are never content with just doing what we’ve always done before. We are always growing, always looking for the ways the God we love wants us to love others.

And so, welcome back. Welcome back to a place where we love God, we love one another, and we love our neighbors. There are so many ways for us to do this together, and you are invited to participate in each one of them. So my question to you is this: How will you love this year?

It is my honor to be your pastor, and I love this church and all of you. I love this place because I know we honestly try our best to love God and neighbor. As we enter a new program year, may our love for one another grow, and may this community be blessed.

When Walking on Water isn’t the Goal: Sermon for August 13, 2017

You’ve listened to enough of my sermons by now to know the general way I preach. I usually start with a story, and then I talk about the Scripture, and then I tie it back to the first story, and then say something about how it matters for our life now. I’m predictable. So, I wanted to say upfront that today I’m doing something different. I’m starting my sermon by diving right in to the Scripture. I’ll explain why this week was a little different, but first, the story.

The disciples were in a boat together. They had gone on ahead of Jesus who had stayed in their last place to pray. And they look out and see this figure coming towards them, and they think it’s a ghost, because that’s actually probably more likely than what it really was. Jesus was walking on water; walking out to them.

Jesus tells them, “Don’t be afraid…it’s me.” And Peter, who is just so earnest in times like this, says to him, “Jesus, if it’s really you, tell me to walk on the water over to you.” So Jesus says, “come on”. And Peter does it. He starts walking on water too, and he even makes it a few steps, and then he seems to realize what he is doing. And then a strong wind picks up all around him, and he panics.

He falls into the water, and starts to sink, calling out for Jesus to help him. Jesus pulls him up, and says to him, “you of little faith…why did you doubt?” Jesus takes him back to the boat, the wind dies down, and the disciples start to understand, just a little more clearly, who Jesus is.

I knew that was the Scripture for this morning when I went on vacation two weeks ago. I was sort of kicking it around in the back of my mind as I swam in Gosport Harbor, or looked out at the ocean. And I was going to preach a sermon today about how everything had been fine for Peter until he got too afraid. I was going to talk about how our faith lifts us up, and helps us to do impossible things, but our fear drowns us.

And then, I saw the news. Karl Barth, probably the greatest theologian of the 20th century, said that Christians are supposed to read the Bible in one hand, and the newspaper in the other. In other words, we have to watch what is happening in our world, and we have to figure out how to faithfully respond. And yesterday I was thinking about a story I heard recently.

John Martin had stopped in for his music for today. Some of you know that John’s father, Paul, was the pastor here for twenty years, including the time during World War II. John was telling me about how during the war his father had a civil defense assignment, which was to climb to the top of the old Robinson Seminary just down the street, and scan the night skies for German aircraft. He never saw one, but if he had, his job would then have been to warn the people in town that the Nazis were coming.

I was thinking of that story, and of my predecessor, this weekend. I was thinking about what it means to watch out for the people you love, and to sound a warning to them when something dangerous is coming. I was thinking about that because I’ve spent most of the last day watching and reading the news out of Charlottesville, Virginia.

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Photo credit: Washington Post

I’ve been reading about a mob of angry people surrounding a church with torches – literal torches – and intimidating the people inside of it who were praying before a peaceful protest. I’ve watched a video I didn’t want to see of a car speeding down a street and plowing into a crowd. I’ve heard angry mobs shouting their hatred of anyone who is black, Jewish, gay, and…well…in any way not like them.

These were people proudly carrying flags with swasticas. They were using slogans like “blood and soil”, an actual phrase from Nazi Germany. They were sharing the words of Adolf Hitler as though they were the Gospel. And I thought back to Paul Martin’s task, to stand on the roof and warn his neighbors that the Nazis were coming, and all I could think of is standing in the same pulpit today, the one where he once stood, and how my duty is to say to you, “I’ve scanned the horizons, and the Nazis are here.”

The people who gathered in Virginia yesterday, they were literal Nazis. Like, you could call them that to their face and they would agree with you. And it’s tempting to dismiss them as the fringe. It’s more comforting to think, “well, that’s happening down there…things are different here.” But, these people who gathered in Charlottesville had come from all over the country including, I am sure, New Hampshire, and they don’t see themselves as the fringe. They think they are just the first wave of a movement that will not be stopped.

I was thinking about that, and I was thinking about the story of Peter. I was thinking about how I’ve been reading this story, thinking that the problem was that Peter didn’t have enough faith. And I began to wonder if it the point wasn’t so much that Peter could have walked on water if he had been faithful enough, but that, just maybe, the point was that Peter wouldn’t have been so scared of going into waters had he not doubted that Jesus would be there with him.

I say that because, more and more, I think the point of being a Christian is not to stay safe and dry. I think following Christ means getting out of our boat, and diving in, unafraid of the deep waters, and what lies beneath.

Peter wants to walk on water. He wants to do something special, something that keeps him above the abyss. He wants Jesus to do something for him. He wants a power the others don’t have. But the point of being a Christian is not getting something from Jesus. The point is to follow Jesus wherever he goes, even into the deepest waters.

As I thought about what to say today, I struggled with the temptation to stay in the boat, the way most of the disciples did. We have a baptism this morning, and that is always a joyful occasion, and we could have just talked about that. Or, I could have preached the sermon I was going to preach today, about trusting Jesus, and staying dry.

But then I remembered Paul Martin, and how he would climb up to that roof because he loved his neighbors enough to warn them about the dangers he saw, and I knew I needed to say this today, because the point of Christian faith is not to stay safe and dry, but to dare to get into the deep end and swim. And that means telling the truth when the winds are howling around us.

What happened in Charlottesville yesterday was evil, and it was sin. The things they were saying were idolatrous, and contrary to every part of the Gospel. White people are not superior to any other of God’s children. Jewish people are not the enemy of Christians. LGBTQ people are not a threat to this country. Immigrants do not destroy us. Muslims are not terrorists. Women are not inferior to men.

And people of integrity, people who truly love this country and every one of our neighbors in it, will not be silent and allow this to happen.

We think that walking on water is the hard part. It’s not. Walking on water is nothing to

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Vigil at Exeter Town Hall. Photo by Susan Cole Ross

aspire to. It’s just one more way to avoid the real work. Instead, we have be willing to risk jumping in, and diving in to face what scares us. We have to learn to trust that even in the deep waters, especially in the deep waters, God will be with us, making sure we do not drown.

The good news is that others have been in these waters before us. I make it a point to go down into our vault every so often, where we keep all of our church history. This church has been around longer than this country, and there is a lot down there, and just before vacation I spent time reading some worship bulletins from the 1940’s.

I found one in particular from June 4, 1944. It was two days before D-Day, when thousands of Allied soldiers would storm the beaches of Normandy, and begin the liberation of Europe from the Nazis. The people gathered that morning didn’t know when the invasion would begin, but they knew it would be soon. And so printed in the bulletin are these words:

“With all our fellow countrymen we wait the invasion of Europe from England. On the day when that announcement is made, this church will remain open in prayer from noontime until 9 o’clock in the evening.”

I thought about the people who sat in the sanctuary that day, waiting for news and praying for loved ones, and I thought about what they would think had they awakened to the news that we did this weekend. What would they think of young men in Nazi armbands marching triumphantly on American soil? And what would they think of us, if we said nothing?

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Some of the crowd who turned out to support their neighbors in Exeter. Photo by Susan Cole Ross. 

I refuse to try to walk on water anymore, staying safe and dry. Instead, I’m ready to plunge into the waters of my baptism, and resist evil and oppression in every form. This morning we will baptize the newest member of the body of Christ into these same waters. Make no mistake; we are not baptizing her into safety. We are not baptizing her so that she can stay in a boat. We are baptizing her into a life of following a savior who calls us out of silence and apathy, and into the deep end, that we might tell the truth, and love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

As we make these promises to swim these waters with her, let us rededicate ourselves to a life of staying in the living waters, and proclaiming the goodness of Christ over any ideology that would teach us to hate what God has called good.

 

The Fall of a Sparrow: Sermon for June 25, 2017

You can listen to this sermon here or subscribe to the Congregational Church in Exeter’s sermon podcast on iTunes.

Matthew 10:26-31, 38-39
10:26 “So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.

10:27 What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.

10:28 Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

10:29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.

10:30 And even the hairs of your head are all counted.

10:31 So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.
 
10:38 Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.

10:39 Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

In high school, like most teenagers, I had to read Hamlet. And, like most teenagers, I wasn’t so sure about this Shakespeare guy. We read a lot of his plays, and as much as the teachers told us they were relevant to our lives, the language was so archaic that it felt like another world.

In the play’s final act there’s a scene, as the action is about to come to a head, when Hamlet tells his friend, Horatio, that he has a bad feeling about how it’s going to go. Horatio basically says, “if something feels weird, let’s not go through with this.” But Hamlet replies, “Not a whit. We defy augury.” Now, that’s the Shakepearean way of saying, “I’m not superstitious.” And then Hamlet delivers this line: “There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow.”

In college I was an English major, so I had to read more Shakespeare, but I can’t say that I ever really fell in love with it the way my professors hoped. But this week, as I thought about this text, that phrase kept coming back to me. I kept thinking about what it meant.

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A sparrow who really wanted my breakfast.

Shakespeare knew the Bible, and he’s having Hamlet use the words of today’s Scripture passage. Jesus is talking to his disciples about fear and life, and he uses the example of sparrows. Sparrows are little, tiny birds. You could buy two of them for a coin back then. They would seem insignificant to anyone who was listening. But, Jesus tells them, if even a sparrow falls to the ground, God knows about it.

Jesus asks them, “aren’t you worth more than a whole bunch of sparrows?” To put Hamlet’s quote, “there is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow” another way, “If God is paying attention to sparrows, God is paying attention to this moment.”

I’m going to stop here and say that I do remember that Hamlet it a tragedy. It doesn’t end well for him, so you might be thinking “okay, if you are telling us to be unafraid, this is a really bad example.” Fair enough. But I still think there’s a little hope here for us.

Jesus uses this sparrow story when he’s talking to his disciples about fear. He tells them that the hidden things in life, everything that causes pain or destruction, will one day be revealed. For his disciples, who lived with the fear of death, that was powerful. It meant that the whole corrupt system was going to be exposed. To quote a Johnny Cash song, or at least one he covered, Jesus was saying, “What’s done in the dark will be brought to the light.”

When things in the world feel wrong, when it feels like things are being done behind closed doors that will hurt us or others, it’s a good reminder that God knows those things, and God will not let them go unexposed and unanswered.

But this is also a good reminder that sometimes we are the ones called to do the work of confronting the injustice in our world. When we stand in the face of what is wrong, and wonder “where is God”, often the question we should be asking ourselves is “what does God want me to do about this?”

That can feel scary, but more than that, it can feel hopeless. We are one of billions. None of us have endless assets or mighty armies at our fingertips. We may feel like we can’t change things in our own neighborhoods, let alone the world. It may seem that the risk we have to take to stand up to what is wrong is more likely to backfire than to succeed.

pexels-photo-326642Our lives can feel so small. And the irony in that is that if we do nothing, they are indeed. But if we choose to resist our fear, and do what is hard, they become larger than we can imagine. Jesus tells his followers to take up their cross and follow him. He says that if you want to save your life, you have to lose it, and if you lose it for his sake, you will find it.

In other words, if we do nothing, if we try to lay low and protect ourselves, the counterintuitive truth is that we will lose our lives. I’m not saying by that that we will stop living, but we will lose the reason that we live. We will start to lose our very souls. But if we step up, and take the risks that Christian life calls us to take, we just might find new life. In fact, we just might thrive.

There is a story about Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church. Before his consecration, he received a number of threats on his life, so much so that he wore a bullet-proof vest under his vestments for the ceremony. His family was concerned, and so he calmed them by telling them about all the preparations that had been made to ensure that he would stay safe. After telling them this, though, he said this: “I need you to hear, I believe that there are things in life that are worse than death.”

Living a life full of fear is worse than dying. And we are all going to die. The question is, “how do you want to live?” Or, as the poet Mary Oliver writes: “Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. And if that’s true, then there is a special providence in the rise of one too. Today we are baptizing Charlotte, not yet 8 months old. She’s not quite as small as a sparrow, but she’s close.

Today we bring her to the font, and in the waters of baptism she will be claimed as one of Christ’s own. And all of us, her parents, her godparents, and we her church community, are claiming her too. And we are saying that we are going to teach her to follow Christ, and to resist fear, and claim the life that God is calling her to claim. And if we do this well, this will be a courageous child. She may be afraid sometimes, as all of us are, but she will have the courage to do the work of healing and justice that this world needs. We are going to get her ready for that work. We are teaching her how to live.

And so Charlotte, today I say the words of Jesus to you: “Do not be afraid…you are worth more than many sparrows” God’s eye is on Charlotte, and it is on us all. In the face of that, our fear cannot win.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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