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?

Growing in Good Soil: A Sermon on Passionate Spirituality for May 3, 2015

When I was in middle school a new church came to my town. It built a huge building on the outskirts of the city. They had rock bands playing for all the services. And they had big video displays with indoor pyrotechnics.

And once a year, to attract the teenagers, they had this group of traveling evangelists come in for this sort of modern day tent-revival. They were a group of Christian bodybuilders, and they would do things like tear phone books in half, or break handcuffs in two, all while Christian rock was blaring loudly. And they would then say that they were able to do these things not because they were strong, but because Jesus Christ was giving them the strength to do it.

My parents were less than impressed, and were clear they didn’t want me anywhere near the place. But, a lot of my classmates went and loved it. And that church grew and grew. In fact it grew so much that one of our neighbors joined and began having loud prayer meetings in their backyard. (I still remember my dad grilling on the barbecue and shaking his head while one was happening.)

Really, all that church taught me was what I wasn’t looking for in church. And so when I went looking for a church later on, all I really knew was that I wanted to find something as different as possible.

So you may be wondering what this has to do with today’s passage. Jesus uses a lot of metaphors to talk about our relationships with God. Here he uses the image of a growing vine and God as the vinegrower. And Jesus talks about how God prunes us. The parts of the vine that are growing well, and bearing good fruit, God allows to flourish. And the parts that no longer produce fruit, God cuts back in order to allow new life to grow.

It’s that image of God as a gardener that I really love. I’m only recently learning about gardening, and I’m learning about the importance of good soil and of cultivating what is thriving, and pruning what isn’t anymore. And I’m learning about what goes into making the whole plant grow.

I like that image because it’s so organic, and it makes sense to me. You let what naturally works well happen, and you make space for that. And if you do it well, you find that the whole plant grows healthy and strong.

I also like that image because I believe it’s true for churches too. And I believe it’s a good metaphor for a process our church is starting to undertake.

You may remember that back in January I was gone for about a week to Arizona for my annual continuing education time with the Next Generation Leadership Institute of the UCC.And this year we studied a program called “Natural Church Development”, which is a church growth program. And, frankly, I was skeptical. I’ve heard about a lot of consultants who promise to come in and help your church grow if you only pay them thousands of dollars. It rarely works.

But this seemed different. It wasn’t about selling anything. It was just a way of thinking organically about church growth, taught from pastor to pastor. And the success rate was impressive. 80% of churches who undertake and complete this program see a 50% increase in their growth rate. And so after talking with colleagues who had used this same program, I proposed it to the church council back in January, and they agreed that we should try it.

In February we had thirty of our church leaders take a survey. The program asks for only thirty people to take it, and so we were strategic about whom we asked, because we wanted a real diversity of people in terms of gender, age, background, and so forth.

The survey asked questions designed to measure what are called “quality characteristics” of churches. These are traits that they have found growing and healthy churches around the world, from Catholic to Protestant to evangelical to Orthodox all somehow have in common, despite their differences.

The quality characteristics of Natural Church Development. (Copyright NCD)

The quality characteristics of Natural Church Development. (Copyright NCD)

The eight characteristics are (and don’t worry…you don’t have to memorize these): Inspiring worship, gift-based ministry, empowering leadership, loving relationships, effective structures, need-based evangelism, holistic small groups, and passionate spirituality.

The principle of this program is that if you concentrate on those things, if you make sure that the soil you are planted in is good and that the parts of the vine that are growing well can flourish, your church will naturally and organically see growth.

So, the survey results back. And, I don’t know about you, but when I get an evaluation there’s always this minute of panic, like “what will it say?” And then there’s always this minute of wanting to be defensive, like “that’s not true…they don’t really understand”. But then, if I give it a little time, I’m able to see the truth of the feedback, and to say “okay, how can I use this to grow?”

So, when the results came back, I went through that process in my head. I agreed with the good stuff. The survey said our maximum factor, our strongest score, was in inspiring worship. We also did well in other areas like gift-based ministry, effective structures, empowering leadership and loving relationships.

But then came the other shoe, and what is called our “minimum factor”. That “minimum factor” is very important because that’s the thing in this process your church then turns to and decides to work on. That’s the gardening project, so to speak.

And for us, that minimum factor was “passionate spirituality”. Our score was not bad, but everyone does have to have a minimum score in one area, and that was ours. That’s where we have the greatest opportunity as a church to improve, and get even better.

But, for me at least, there was an issue with that. I heard “passionate spirituality” and I had some preconceptions of what that looked like. I was right back there in my hometown with the church with the screaming guitars and yelling evangelists and the exuberant prayer meetings. And my first instinct was to run.

Because I saw what happened to my friends who went to that church. I saw how their faith was exciting and new for a few years, and then they sort of left it behind. Or, I saw how others used what they learned at that church to bully people who weren’t like them by saying they were concerned for their souls. I saw how sometimes a person’s sincere Christian convictions seemed to be inversely proportional to how loud they were about their faith.

And, I don’t know about you, but I didn’t want our church to become like that. There are dozens of churches surrounding us where you can find that. But what there are not are many churches like ours where you can come with your heart, and head, and hands, and connect with God, and with the world in a thoughtful, often more quiet, way.

But then I had to go a step further, and I had to really examine what they meant by “passionate spirituality”. And I talked to others, and came to understand that my preconceptions were all wrong. I heard “passionate spirituality” and I automatically assumed it meant becoming something we are not. But what I found was something very different. I found that it was about being who we are, but even better.

It turns out that passionate spirituality is not about the way you worship. You can find passionate spirituality in mainline Protestant churches like ours, in Catholic churches with a formal liturgy, and even in quiet Quaker meetings.

It’s also not about specific beliefs. You don’t have to subscribe to a set view of the God, and sign on the dotted line. And it’s not about being loud or flashy or being the next big thing.

Instead, it’s about this. It’s about being passionate about your spiritual journey, the same way that you are passionate about the other things that matter in your life, and it’s about being rooted in your relationship with the divine, and able to connect that to all that you do.

I am passionate about my marriage, for instance. I love my spouse. I am dedicated to my marriage. I work on it, and value it and make it a priority. What you don’t hear me doing, though, is shouting out to everyone who will listen how awesome marriage is and how everyone needs to get married and if you want to do marriage right you need to do it the way that I do. In fact, if I did that, you might wonder if the marriage was really all that strong to begin with.

But, even if I’m not shouting about it, it’s important to me. It gives me life.

The same is true of my spiritual life. My spiritual connection with God is my guiding force in life. It helps me to make the big decisions that matter. It is always with me. And it is because of my faith that I live the way that I do, and make the choices I do on a daily basis. And it is only when I am being fed spiritually that my faith thrives.

Likewise, as a church, it is because of our connection with God that we are able to do amazing things. It is because of our faith that we feed the hungry. It is because of our faith that we care for the planet. It is because of our faith that we work for justice in the world. And it is because of our faith that we come here each Sunday, and we love one another.

It is because we are planted in good soil that we are able to do good things in the world. That soil is the soil of our faith. And we make it good soil by connecting with God spiritually. That is what roots us. That is what feeds us and gives us passion for the work we will do.

But when we let that soil grow dry, when we stop growing spiritually, when we stop nurturing what grounds us and roots us, we find that we are like a vine that has stopped growing, and one that will no longer bear good fruit.

I have known churches like that. Churches that are so busy that they forget why they are there in the first place. Churches that lose their connection with the spiritual, and lose the passion that once drove them. People don’t tend to stay long in those churches because they get so burned out trying to work in dry soil.

But I don’t think that’s us. I think we have good soil here. And I think it can be even better, and that as we grow spiritually what we have planted will grow as well. And in the end we will see it, and we will know that it was growing in us all along, just waiting for the soil to be even better.

And so, I’m excited about this journey. I hope you are too. And I hope that you will join me on Saturday morning for our retreat. We are about to do some gardening, and we need your hands to help till the soil, and plant the seeds. Amen?

Addiction, Recovery, and the Church: Coming this summer to Star Island

I’m excited to share that this summer I am going to be the Speaker of the Week for the United Church of Christ gathering on Star Island. I’ll be speaking on addiction, and what 12 Step recovery communities can teach the church about spirituality, ministry and life together. The conference will be held from Saturday, August 1st to Saturday, August 8th on the island.

IMG_3288If you’ve never been to Star Island, you are missing out on an amazing place. The island is a part of the Isle of Shoals, a group of small islands off the coast of New Hampshire, and stranding the line with Maine. Star is independently owned by a corporation of United Church of Christ and Unitarian-Universalist individuals, and is a non-profit organization. It is a strikingly beautiful place, and the community that gathers is warm, inclusive, and welcoming.

Discussions about addiction and recovery have taken on new importance in faith communities, across denominational lines. Come and learn more about how recovery principles can inform, and complement, the life of the church.

Learn more here: http://starisland.org/conferences/2015-conference-listing/star-gathering-1-ucc-family/

Peace Called Beside Us: Sermon for May 5, 2013

"Dove of the Holy Spirit" by Bernini

“Dove of the Holy Spirit” by Bernini

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Journey Through Lent: Day 20

IMG_0001Today is the twentieth day of Lent. (Sundays don’t count towards the forty days.) You are exactly half-way through. What started not so long ago on Ash Wednesday is heading towards Holy Week, and to Easter morning.

I don’t much like half-way points. I’m a procrastinator, so they were always somewhat meaningless to me. In school a teacher would say “by this point you should be halfway done with writing your paper” and I’d say to myself, “oh, right, the paper…I should get on that.”

Seriously, I wrote my wedding vows the morning of the service.

So, the mid-way part of Lent doesn’t work for me as some sort of measure. For some Christians it does. Today they are saying “I’m halfway there….just twenty days left until I can eat meat/drink coffee/mainline sugar/log on to Facebook again.”

And, if that works for you, great. But for those of us who are procrastinators, now is as good a time as any. Even if you didn’t get on board back on Ash Wednesday, it’s not too late. You can still commit to making this a holy Lent. Because, the richest part of Lent is still to come.

So, use this halfway mark as you will. Make it a mile marker to show how far you’ve come. Or, use it as a place to reboot, and refocus. Commit to running this race through the Passion that is to come, and with the passion that comes with wanting to be there in the hardest hours. Just as is true with the whole of the Christian journey, it doesn’t matter when you started. It only matters where you are now, and where you are headed.

Journey Through Lent: Day Thirteen

734901_10100241701604888_144840975_nWhen we woke up today, the snow was already heavy. It coated the window, and was coming down hard. A few online checks told us that the schools were closing (a rarity for Vermont) and that roads were messy. And with that, my wife decided to abandon her drive to Boston and declared it a snow day.

I like snow days. I grew up mostly in Florida, so they weren’t a part of my lexicon. But Heidi grew up in the snow belt of upstate New York. On the rare occasions that school was canceled for snow, she was excited. It was a “bonus day off” when she could read or be with friends or go out and play in it.

I like snow days because I like the idea of having to slow down unexpectedly. It’s like an unexpected sabbath; a break in the calendar that opens us up to spontaneity. Stress seems to dissipate, at least for a little while.

I’ve come to view days like this as a gift from God, and as a reminder that we don’t always set the agenda. Our best laid plans are sometimes rendered useless by forces beyond our control. And in the gap that is created for us, we have the opportunity to create something new. Something that matters more. A memory. A meal. A time for recharging.

In Lent, we can participate in the spiritual equivalent of a snow day. We can slow down our lives just enough that we make room for what really matters. We discard the busy agendas we have set for ourselves, and replace them instead with room for the holy. At first, it may seem like an inconvenience, or one more thing that will distract from our limited time. But, in the end, we will be grateful for giving ourselves permission to enjoy the space. And, if we are really lucky, the change in priorities might just stick. Sort of like the snow falling here in Vermont today.

Lent, Mud Season, and Making Room for the Mess

The other day I stepped onto my driveway and my duck boot sunk down in mud deeper than my ankle. I knew it was the start of mud season here in Vermont, that mythical fifth season between winter and spring when mud covers everything. Our dirt roads turn to mud, our shoes are coated, and our pant cuffs show tell-tale signs. The mud gets everywhere.

I didn’t know about mud season until I moved here two years ago. People explained to me that the ground freezes so hard in the winter that it’s still not thawed when the piles of snow start to melt in early spring. The water has no way to go back down into the ground, so it stays on the surface, mixing with the dirt and making a mess of everything.

That’s fitting for Lent, which most years conveniently overlaps the mud.

In Lent we face the parts of our spiritual life that are the messiest, thickest, and the most inconvenient. We often find that even if we can hide the mess from others, we can’t hide it from ourselves. Like mud, it gets everywhere.

It is the mud season of our souls. The time when when look deeply at what’s inside of us, and start to find the places that we are trying to keep frozen and impenetrable to God’s grace. We all have them. They’re filled with fear, anger, prejudice, resentments. It’s easier when we keep them hidden and frozen because we know that once they see the light and start to melt we won’t be able to control the fallout. I think that’s why we are often so reluctant to really dive head first into Lent. Deep down we know that letting God into the deepest parts of our soul can make things messy.

It’s not surprising that Christians are so wary of the mess. We learn it from the very institutions dedicated to nurturing our faith. In the church we often prefer the neat, bright, and convenient to the reality that life is messy, and hard, and imperfect. We err on the side of keeping the surface clean, rather than digging deeper.

It’s why we don’t talk about the hard stuff in many churches. It’s why instead of having honest, life-changing, deep discussions, we often dwell on what’s easy to agree upon, or what is so inoffensive to anyone that it is uninspiring. We don’t talk about addiction, or depression, or economic justice, or inclusion of LGBT people, or any other topic that might cause division, even though there are many for whom talking about any one of those things would be a lifeline. Instead we create a church culture that is the spiritual equivalent of keeping up appearances.

People have come to believe church is a place where we want you show up in your Sunday best, rather than with mud on your shoes. I think that’s one reason churches are a lot more packed on Easter morning than on Good Friday, or any other day than Lent. We’ve taught church goers that we know how to find God on the best of days. But we rarely talk about how to find God on worst of them.

Which is why maybe we need the mud. Maybe we need the mess. Maybe we need the season where on the surface everything looks like it’s going to hell, but deep down we’re opening ourselves up to something new.

I’ve never seen a thriving church that hasn’t at some point in their life together been willing to risk letting God’s grace disrupt everything. They heard about the members they would lose. They heard about the donations that would dry up. They heard the cautions. And then they did it anyway. And new life sprang up.

I’ve often found that the most vital churches are the places that do Lent the best. They’re the places that don’t shy away from acknowledging the messiness of the spiritual life that, regardless of whether or not we’re talking about it, we’re all experiencing anyway. They become the churches that journey with parishioners as they go through their own spiritual mud seasons. And those parishioners become the ones who turn that place into something vital. Something life-giving. Something that has a lot to do with Resurrection.

I’ve been watching the people around where I live. They’re Vermonters. They’re used to things being messy. And so they also know what happens when the earth thaws, the water recedes, and spring breaks forth. This time of year sweetness comes in the maple syrup being cooked down from sap in sugar houses, and new signs of life come as nature wakes up. They know that after things get messy, they get good.

It’s taught me a lot about what Lent can be for the church. It can be the time hearts thaw the way the earth does, old barriers to God’s love melt away, what’s unknown is allowed in, and new life emerges in us all.

It can get muddy, but God can do incredible things with that mud.

“Resolutions” – Sermon for New Year’s Day, 2012

Luke 2:22-40
2:22 When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord

2:23 (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”),

2:24 and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

2:25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him.

2:26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.

2:27 Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law,

2:28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,

2:29 “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word;

2:30 for my eyes have seen your salvation,

2:31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,

2:32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”

2:33 And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him.

2:34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed

2:35 so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed–and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

2:36 There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage,

2:37 then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day.

2:38 At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

2:39 When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth.

2:40 The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

Someone asked me once why the church acknowledged January 1st as the start of the New Year. According to Christian tradition, the new church year started back on the last Sunday of November, which was the first Sunday of Advent. According to that tradition, the significance of today is not that it’s New Years, but that it’s the first Sunday after Christmas. So, aside from changing over our calendars, why does this day matter inside the doors of this church?

It was a good question, and one I wasn’t so sure about. The church year having started over a month ago, it seems redundant to talk about a new year again a month later. And so I researched, and found out that really, this tradition of January 1st as New Years is fairly new, in the big scheme of things. The Gregorian calendar wasn’t introduced until the 1500’s, and in England the first of the year, until the 1750’s, was in March. Russia even held out with the old Julian calendar until the 20th century. And one thing is sure. Jesus, as a good Jewish rabbi who followed the Hebrew calendar, was not popping open champagne at midnight on January 1st.

So why does it matter? Why should January 1st have any more meaning for the worship of the church than the start of the fiscal year months from now?

It’s a question I pondered when reading today’s text, which on the surface seems to have little to do with the New Year. In it, Jesus goes to the Temple in Jerusalem for the first time. And when he comes Simeon, who is this old, wise, holy man, takes him into his arms, and he knows who he is. And Anna, an old, holy woman who stayed in the temple and prayed all the time, sees Jesus and begins to praise him. And Joseph and Mary, already aware that their child is somehow different, leave the Temple with their eyes open.

And that’s what a new beginning, in the truest sense of the word, is all about. Because when Simeon held the child, his eyes were opened to who he was. When Anna saw him, she knew in her heart that something new was happening. When Joseph and Mary walked out that door, their whole lives had changed. It was, spiritually, a new year for them. And everything was going to change.

We know about new years in the church. We celebrate them all the time in one way or another, because we are constantly looking for the ways that God is doing something new in us and in the world. And if you use that as the benchmark, January 1st is as good a day as any to stop, look around, and decide how you want to work with God in the new year.

And as it turns out, January 1st makes a lot of sense. In Jewish tradition, eight days after a baby boy is born, the family has a bris. Today is the eighth day after Christmas day, so today would be Jesus’ bris. But what makes today special is not that one activity that we all know about that happens at the bris, but the other, which is the naming of Jesus, and his reception into the covenant of Abraham. Churches worldwide celebrate this day, and some call it the Feast of the Holy Name. And the significance is not so much that Jesus got a name, but that the world found out what it was.

New Years can be like that for you too. This is the year when, like the ones there at Jesus’ bris, you can learn who Jesus is, or like Anna and Simeon, you can truly see him and be amazed.

Today can be a start of a whole new phase of your relationship with Christ. It can be the day when you call out that Holy Name, and decide that you are ready for the next part of your life with God. And it can be a day when you make resolutions for the coming year.

We talk about resolutions a lot on New Years. We make a list and we promise ourselves that this year we are going to do better. But the thing about resolutions is that they are more than just a game plan for how things will go; they are signs of what we want for the future. They are symbols of what we want to accomplish. They are our hopes and dreams laid bare. And some years we’re better at fulfilling them than others.

Maybe you’ve made your list already. It may have the typical items: eat better, exercise more, do better at work, get your life organized. And you will, at least for a while, do your best to make those things happen. And those hopes will be there all year, showing up from time to time like those bills in your mail bow for the gym membership that you only used three times.

That’s okay. Be gentle with yourself. Because January 1st isn’t magical. This isn’t the only day of the year that things can change. God has given you 365 days this year to do that. And God can help you use all of them to make the resolutions that matter.

February 2nd is my special day. It’s my sobriety date. And when I look at my big celebrations of the year, February 2nd matters infinitely more to me than January 1st does. And maybe that’s because on February 2nd years ago I didn’t wake up with hope and a plan for how the year would go and with my eyes set towards the future. I woke up feeling crummier than I ever had before, and wondering if God could help me make a resolution and stick to it.

I know some of you have been there too. And like me, you know that we had to be ready to make that resolution, and we had to be ready to ask God to do the next. February 2nd is my new year, because it’s the day that taught me, in the most tangible way, that God’s grace is real.

You may have your own. Maybe it’s your sobriety day. Maybe it’s the day you were married. Maybe it’s when you became a parent. Or maybe it’s when something turned in your soul, and you decided that you wanted to become the person that God created you to be. It could have been January 1st, or February 2nd, or October 4th, or just yesterday. If God could use February 2nd, then God can use any day to change a life. God doesn’t need January 1st, because they all work fine.

But that means that this day is as good as any.

This day is as good as any to make a resolution, not just for the year, but for the rest of your life. And maybe you’ve already joined the gym, or bought the file folders to organize those papers, or set your budget, and that’s great.

But are there other resolutions that you want to make this year? Are there ways that you want things to change in your life? And are any of those ways spiritual? Are any about the way your want to love God in the new year? Are any about how much time you’d like to spend in prayer, or helping those who need it, or just getting to spend more time on your relationship with God? If they are, maybe they are worth being on that resolution list.

They may feel too daunting, or too big. “Be a better Christian,” on the top of the list sounds so unspecific. So hard. You can’t measure that by a scale or a bank account balance. In fact, you probably won’t be able to measure it at all. But chances are, like Anna and Simeon, the people who see you will notice that there is something different about you, and that God is doing something new in you. It may not happen on January 1st or 2nd or 3rd, but it will happen. And, it will continue to happen.

John Wesley started a tradition still found in some Christian churches to spend New Year’s Eve together in prayer. The idea is to reflect on the past year, think about the next one, and focus on your relationship with God. Now, John Wesley was really mostly trying to keep his parishioners out of the bars and streets on New Year’s Eve. But there’s something about that idea that makes sense. Not just for New Year’s Eve, but for any day when you want to start again. Begin it in prayer, and reflection, and decide where you want to go next, and call on God’s name to help you.

May this year be a watchful one for you. May it be one where you learn the name of Jesus, and never fail to see him for who he is, and what he is doing. May it be one where God does new things in your life, not just on one day, but on all of them. And may it be one where you resolve to live with hope, and with love for God. Christ’s blessing be upon you in 2012, and always. Amen.