Gained in Translation: Sermon for Pentecost, 2015

Before I became a parish minister, I was a chaplain. I was working for a hospice on the South Shore of Massachusetts, and I had one patient down near New Bedford, where many of the older population still speaks Portuguese fluently.

Whenever I went to see this patent at their nursing home, this other resident on her unit would see me in the lobby and start shouting at me in Portuguese. And I had no clue what she was saying, but it was obvious to me that she was upset, and so I always just apologized and got out of there as quickly as possible.

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

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

Pentecost by He Qi.

Pentecost by He Qi.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One night when I was on call as a hospital chaplain, I received a page, and I was asked to come meet with a man whose wife had just given birth and who now was not doing well. And he was an Orthodox Christian originally from the Middle East. He spoke English fluently, and had been in this country a long time. And we were talking and I asked him, as I always did in these situations, if he wanted to pray.

He said “yes”, and took my hand and I was about to start praying, as I always did, but instead he started. And in Arabic he prayed this impassioned, heart-felt prayer for his wife.

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

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

And you don’t have to leave the country to find people who haven’t. You don’t even have to leave Exeter. Just look at the news. A few weeks ago there was a poll out talking about how fewer and fewer people considered themselves religious now. It made the front page of major papers. And New Hampshire is the second least-religious state in the country. And “nones”, those who do not claim a religious tradition, are the fastest growing demographic group.

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

For decades now too much of the church has stood still, angry at the world that no one understands us anymore. No one speaks our language. We complain about that fact, and we have plenty of things to blame, everything from parents to over scheduled kids to sports on Sunday morning, but the reality is that few people are going to spontaneously show up at our doors asking to learn our language.

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

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

And, more importantly, we have to have something to say. Gone are the days when people are going to come to church out of obligation. And I think that’s a good thing. But what that means is that the people coming through our doors are looking for something deeper. They are looking for community. They are looking for meaning. And, more than anything, they are looking for a spiritual connection.

The Holy Spirit is what we in the church have to offer. We as Christians believe that God speaks to us and leads us through the Holy Spirit. It is our companion and guide through life. It is what gives us comfort when we need it, and courage when we are done being comforted. Jesus called it the paraclete, which means “advocate” or “helper”. The Holy Spirit is our advocate and helper. Why would we not want to claim that and share that?

That’s one reason that we are doing this Natural Church Development process, and we are looking seriously at what it means to reclaim “passionate spirituality”. Because in this world where so many say that they are “spiritual but not religious”, if the church can’t do “spiritual” well, we may as well close our doors. There’s no point unless we are gathered around something bigger than ourselves and led by a Spirit bigger than our own; a Holy Spirit, the same one that came on Pentecost all those centuries ago.

Because so long as we are actually trying to God’s will for us, so long as we are actually following where the Spirit leads us, we aren’t some forgotten dinosaur speaking some lost language. We’re alive, and we have something to offer. And there are people who want to hear about it. They want us to make the connections, they want us to be translators, they want to know. But if we try to hide that light, that fire of Pentecost, under a bushel, then what we have will be lost in translation.

And so, on this Pentecost, on this birthday of the church, we can make a choice. Because Pentecost didn’t just happen 2000 years ago. It happens still. And on Pentecost we are given an incredible gift in the Holy Spirit. It’s one that will never wear out, never grow too small, and never fail to amaze us if we only let it.

But here’s the catch: we can’t hold on to that gift only for ourselves. It must be shared. And if you have really received it, it will be shared through you. In fact, it probably has been already, and with God’s help will be again. You will be the translator of all God has to give this world.

And so this Pentecost, unwrap your gift. Delight in it the way you would any good gift. But don’t stop there. Share it with a world that has a deep spiritual hunger. Learn to speak the language of the ones who thirst for spiritual depth. And follow the Holy Spirit into all the places God has already prepared for you to go. You just may find that behind every corner a never-ending birthday celebration waits. Amen?

God’s Vision: Sermon for July 7, 2013

1045224_686248381390642_1363256859_nScripture: Luke 10:1-11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some of the things I saw and heard:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Growing Up a “None” Taught Me about Church

I was raised a “none”. That is, I was raised outside of organized religion, in a spiritual-but-not-religious home. I hear that “nones” are all the rage now, so I just want to point out for the record that for once in my life I was ahead of the fashionable curve.

I obviously did not stay a “none”. I’m a pastor in the United Church of Christ and I try, for better or worse, to live my life according to the teachings of Jesus Christ. I am a Christian, not because I was told by family that I needed to be one, but because the faith spoke to me in a way nothing else did.

In seminary I was aware of the uniqueness of my situation. Almost all of my classmates had been raised in the church, and most in the denomination of the seminary. A good number had been raised in the homes of clergy parents. They had grown up going to the same church camps, and knew the same people. I certainly never felt unwelcome because I hadn’t, but I was frequently aware of how radically different my journey to faith had been.

But in the last few years, I’ve seen a lot of questions from Christian clergy about how we can reach out to the growing number of “nones” out there. Christians are baffled as to how the church should speak to this alien group. They confuse us. They challenge us. And, if we are really honest, their very existence threatens our sense of security.

That’s not such a bad thing, honestly. We could use the shaking up. But as a former “none” who is watching this, I wanted to offer some insights. These are the top five things I learned from being a “none”:

1. 29671_389906276786_3698836_nBeing a “none” is not always a bad thing.

Truly. People come to faith from a variety of different places. For some that starts on the cradle roll at church, right after their parents bring their infant selves to the baptismal font. But for others of us, we arrive at the church via a different route. We explore other options, not because we are consumers, but because we want to find the place to which we are truly called.

The result is that converts often come to church full of commitment, resolve, and excitement. They also come with different perspective, and without assumptions about how the church should and should not work in the world. Sometimes new Christians can bring fresh ideas to the church. (Just ask St. Augustine, or former Archbishop of Canterbury George Cary, both of whom became Christians at a later age.)

2. “Nones’ are not Godless heathens.

I attended a church conference at a large United Methodist congregation earlier this year and I was shocked to hear a speaker refer to non-Christians as “essentially heathens”. I’ve since heard that word used by others who seem to believe Christian faith is simply a battle for converts. I’m not sure how the “heathens” are supposed to respond positively to that rhetoric.

The reality is that “nones” are not heathens. They are often extremely thoughtful, highly ethical, people who have not yet connected with an organized faith that speaks to them. When I first came to the church at age 17, I already knew I believed in God. I just wasn’t so sure I believe in church. Had someone insinuated that I was a “heathen” because I didn’t possess the same baptismal certificate as my classmates, I likely would have walked out the door.

3. “Nones” aren’t (necessarily) looking for a big conversion experience.

I never had that mountain-top moment that revival preachers always say they had. I never fell to my knees crying. I never had a moment of sudden, clear belief. There was never an altar call. And that’s okay. I didn’t need becoming a Christian to be a melodramatic moment. Instead, I felt a small urging in my soul that called to me to take the next step, to keep asking the questions, and to keep exploring. Conversion was a gradual, and thoughtful experience.

It also was, and is, continuous. Conversion is not a moment. It’s a lifelong process. While there may be moments that a Christian makes a deeper commitment, there are also countless moments of doubt, and of questioning, and of disconnection. These are not crises, but rather markers on the journey. But continual conversion means that a “none”, like any other Christian, ultimately is called to  continue down the path of faith.

4. Churches need to check assumptions about common knowledge.

When I first began attending church at age 17, I was highly embarrassed by the fact I didn’t know the Lord’s Prayer. I remember reading it over and over again to myself, trying to memorize it. (Add to that the fact that not all Christians say it the same way, and I was highly confused.)

Recently I heard someone complaining about visitors to their church that didn’t even know the Lord’s Prayer. She went on and on about how anyone could grow up not knowing the Lord’s Prayer. I felt those old feelings of embarrassment. And so I went home and started printing all the words to the Lord’s Prayer in my own church’s worship bulletin.

“Nones” might not know all the right prayers, or when to sit down and stand up. And, believe me, they are conscious of not knowing. So we who are familiar with the language of church have to be careful that we are not making assumptions about shared language. Explain what might seem foreign. Talk about why you do certain things. You may find that even some lifelong Christians benefit from this.

5. Don’t dumb it down or make it easy.

When I started looking for my faith community there were a lot of options. My town offered plenty of churches that wanted converts, and that handed out pamphlets about becoming a Christian and “making a decision” for Christ. They said it was so easy. Just accept Christ into your heart, and everything else would make sense.

I never went to any of those churches. Instead I went to the places that didn’t try to make it easy. I found the ones that didn’t dumb it down. I didn’t want answers or to be entertained. I wanted to wrestle with the big questions. I wanted to worship in authentic community. I wanted to make the hard choices that faith demands. I wanted to follow Jesus. And I wanted a church that would show me how to do that.

And, at the end of the day, I think a lot of “nones” might like that too.