A Church Beyond the Binary

Note: this post was originally published in 2015 on New Sacred. I’m reposting what I said then here as a resource for those who are discussing the gender binary at General Synod. 

“There is no longer male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” – Galatians 3:28

I preach most Sundays, so the days when I have a chance to sit in the pews and worship are few and far between. They are also most welcome. I need to sometimes step off the chancel, join my voice with the congregation, and hear another preach the Word.

But several times in the recent past, while I’ve been deep in worship, I’ve suddenly come across something in the liturgy that has made my prayers jerk to a halt. It seems innocuous enough, but every time I see it, it completely stops me in my track. It comes up in calls to worship and joint liturgies, and it looks something like this:

Men:
Women:

In other words, men are asked to read one line, and then women the next. And like I said, this may not seem like it should be a problem. After all, I’m all for looking at liturgy in a new way. Dividing a room between different voices can help to hear the story in a more powerful way. But, dividing it by binary gender may have some unintended consequences, particularly for trans* and gender non-conforming individuals.

I attended a worship service at a longtime ONA church recently. This is a congregation that goes out of its way to publicly welcomes trans* individuals. And I sat next to another friend who, like me, is also gender non-conforming. Worship was great until we hit that one litany:

Men:
Women:

And then we weren’t sure what to do.

Popular opinion holds that there are two genders: male and female, men and women. But the reality of gender is that many people live between the two.

The progressive church has started to make good and necessary strides towards affirming trans* folks, but too often still falls into a gender binary while doing so.

We might accept that some people transition female-to-male, or male-to-female, but we are still wrestling with the fact that for others, living between binary genders is our final destination, not some sort of indecision.

Worship is particularly difficult for us in those moments when the liturgy is split between male and female. I generally keep silent. And I’ve known others, who were in the midst of a transition, and who were not out to others in the congregation, who felt torn between reciting the lines for the gender they are known by, and the gender they know themselves to be.

To do one is to deny a self-truth. To do another is to out yourself at a time not of your own choosing.

And worship isn’t the only challenging time for gender non-conforming Christians. Even my own very progressive denomination struggles with non-binary gender. For instance, several years ago a denomination form asked for one box to be checked for gender: male, female, FTM, or MTF. (Note: I’ve continued to see this since then.) The first problem was that a trans man is a man, and a trans woman a woman. They shouldn’t be required to say anything more. But the second was that for some of us, there wasn’t a box.

In another example, in my denomination, national leadership positions are often times rotated by gender. A man holds an office for one term, and a woman the next. This pattern is repeated. This is even written into the bylaws of some parts in my church. I know the reason this came to be. Women were often not included in church leadership, and this was a way to remedy it. But the unintended outcome has been that those with non-binary genders are either left out, or forced to declare one gender or another in order to be included.

So how do we break our dependence on gender binaries in the church? With just a little awareness, respect, and creativity.

If you want to try out that two-part liturgy or song in worship, come up with a non-gendered way to split the voices. Try high voices and low voices. Or right side and left side. Or balcony and floor.

If you want to achieve gender diversity in leadership roles, lose the forced binary and ask instead that leadership reflect gender diversity in different ways. Look past two terms, to multiple ways of understanding, and make sure that leadership can be inclusive of men, women, and those who might identify in other ways.

And finally, look at the ways your church life might inadvertently leave others out, or signal to visitors that there are no places for them.

Are members divided into the men’s fellowship and women’s fellowship? Sure, sometimes those spaces are welcome for some, but do these divisions leave others out? Do you have gender neutral restrooms available? Are we all “brothers” and “sisters”, or are we all simply “beloved”?

When you talk about equal marriage do you use same-sex and same-gender interchangeably without realizing they are not always the same thing, and that neither is more accurate than the other?

And when concerns about these things are raised, are they laughed off or dismissed as “politically correct” or “not important”? Or are they seen as part of the fundamental welcome that each church, and each church body, should be extending to all of God’s children? Because the reality is that if we really want to be an “open and affirming” movement, this is the next big frontier. How your church responds will matter for years to come.

Our Story: Sermon for the 379th Anniversary of the Congregational Church in Exeter, April 2, 2017

An audio recording of this sermon is available here.

When you’re telling a story, there are two ways to do it. One is that you can focus on a very short period of time, like a year, or even a week. Those can be great stories. James Joyce’s Ulysses might just be the best work of Twentieth Century fiction and that takes place entirely in one day.

But on the other end of the spectrum, there are the stories that take not just years, but generations, and centuries, to tell. We read from a book of those stories every Sunday. The Bible spans centuries, and we can never forget that some of the central characters were separated by long spans of time. From Moses to Paul, for instance, was probably about 1300 years.

So that’s a really long story. And near the end of the story told in the Bible, there’s the start of a new story. The passage from the book of Acts that JD read this morning is about how the Christian faith started spreading and growing, and how Christ’s disciples and new converts to the faith began to form into a community.

The passage tells us that the believers “devoted themselves” to the teachings, and to praying, giving to others, sharing fellowship, eating together, praising God, and growing in number. In other words, they became the church.

That’s the larger story that we are a part of today. Because nearly 2000 years ago the first Christians learned that community mattered, we know to gather in this community, and to live out our faith with one another. This is the story of the church in every age and in every place.

But every church that has ever been formed, every community that has ever gathered around the story of Christ, has its own story too. And it’s the story of this community, and what God has done in it, that I want to talk about a little today.

exeter church logo triple vertical-1A few years ago a pastor friend down in Florida was talking about old churches. He was saying to a group of New England pastors, “You know, they’re really old…they’ve been around since the 1800’s!”

There was a little suppressed laughter and he was like, “wait…I forgot…how old are your churches?”

And then the roll call started. Late 1700’s. Early 1700’s. Late 1600’s. And I very humbly said, “Oh, you know, 1638.”

People are always surprised to hear just how old we are. We’re not the oldest church in continuous existence in New England. The first comes from 1620. But we are close. 379 years ago tomorrow, our church, and by extension the entire town of Exeter, was founded.

It’s worth noting that this story does not start joyfully. The people who came here to Exeter were in a real sense religious refugees. The Rev. John Wheelwright had been kicked out of Massachusetts for the heresy of being too focused on the love and grace of God.

So, that dour old Puritan in the painting down in the vestry? He was the fun one.

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Rev. John Wheelwright

Around the same time Wheelwright’s sister-in-law, a woman named Ann Hutchinson, was also kicked out. So, Hutchinson went south to what is now Rhode Island and Wheelwright and his band of followers came here to a place no one back then wanted to go: New Hampshire.

They settled on the banks of the Squamscott and they started to build a new community. And back in Puritan times, if you wanted to have a town, you had to have a church. There was no separation of church and state back then. They were essentially one and the same.

That’s the start of our story. A few years later this area came under Massachusetts’ control, and Wheelwright, still persona-non-grata, had to move on. But the church stayed. And even though it had some rocky years at first, it took root. And so did the town. And because of that, 379 years later we are still here.

Think of those 379 years. Think of everything that has happened in that time. This parish predates American independence by 138 years. A signer of the Declaration of Independence was a part of this very church.

Later in 1781 John Phillips and other church members took seriously the need for education and founded what is now Phillips Exeter Academy. And in the next century this church took a stand against slavery, and committed itself to abolition.

In the 20th century this church sent young people off to World War I and World War II. Later it sent its pastor off to march with Dr. King at Selma. It watched the Cold War come and go, and society rapidly change. And all the while, it endured, here at the heart of Exeter. And the story went on.

But that is only part of the story. Because this church has survived a lot of change inside its doors too. First, there’s the physical change. For instance, did you know that we are in the “new building”? This is actually the fifth church building, built recently, in 1798.

This church has also seen its fair share of changes involving clergy, and their role. When this building was first built, there was no second floor sanctuary. Instead, you came in the front doors and sat in pews in what is now the vestry. But the pastor would stand about where I am now. And he, always a he, would look down on his congregation, and preach to them for hours.

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The church in the later 1800’s.

Sometime in the 1800’s things changed and the sanctuary was moved upstairs, and the pastor rightfully was brought to the same level as the people, both physically and symbolically. (The sermons became a lot shorter too.)

In all this church, excluding interims, has had 38 senior pastors. Each has had their own style, and each has influenced the direction of the church. And no matter whether they were beloved or their tenures were rocky, they were not the church. And when they left, the story went on.

There have been challenges too. Like the fact that or a large part of our history this church was supported by the taxes people paid to the town. We were the only church, and you had to belong, so everyone was taxed and that’s how the pastor got paid and the building stayed open.

But in the 1800’s, when there were more faiths in town, that ended. And the church was absolutely panicked about it. They thought for sure that this would be the end. But instead, people dug deep, and gave. And in the end they gave more willingly in gifts than they had ever given grudgingly in taxes. And the story went on.

There was also the time this church split it two. In 1748, in the heart of the Great Awakening, theological differences were so great that this church split into First Parish, which was more orthodox and remained here, and second parish, which was just down the street by the Academy.

They remained separate for 170 years, not rejoining one another until 1918 or, as I like to think of it, until everyone who remembered why they were fighting was dead.

That’s one reason that we have our name. Once the churches rejoined, we became one. And so was no longer First Congregational Church of Exeter, or Second Church, but only The Congregational Church in Exeter. And the story went on.

Later we added the initials UCC, for United Church of Christ. The Congregational Churches merged with another denomination in 1957 to form the UCC. But there was plenty of debate. New England Congregationalists have a healthy suspicion of hierarchy, and cherish independence. Still, we joined, and became connected with another larger story.

1473964586467In recent years, this church has been called to take other stands as well. Like in 1996 when the question of whether we should become an Open and Affirming congregation, one which welcomed people of all sexual orientations or gender identities, came before the church. You have to remember that this was truly a different time. The decision to become ONA led to some leaving the church. And yet, sometimes you have to move forward and do the next right thing, even if not everyone is onboard. Because that’s the work of faith. And even then, the story went on.

And so, this morning we sit here in this place, and we remember that the story did not begin with us. We are here because generations of faithful people tried their best to be God’s church here in Exeter. We are here because a cast of characters we will never know wrote a story that was rich enough to last centuries.

But hopefully we are also here because we want to be a part of the story. We are here because in some small way we are hoping to write our own sentences and paragraphs into the story of this church.

You and I get to write this chapter in the story of the Congregational Church in Exeter. And, God willing, long after we are gone, others will be writing this story too. Because this isn’t just our story. It’s the story of John Wheelwright, and it’s the story of John Phillips. But it’s also the story of unnamed women who kept the doors open. It’s the story of children who were raised in this church, and in the faith. Children whose names we will never know, and children who grew up to be men like Harry Thayer.

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Singing “Happy Birthday Dear Church” before cutting the birthday cake.

And it’s the story of generations left to come. My hope is that generations from now another pastor will be standing at the pulpit of this church and preaching about this church’s birthday. Neither they nor the people they serve will probably know our names. But they will know us. They will know us by our works, and they will know us by the story that, with the help of God, we have written for them. The one that they will then take their turn writing.

I pray that the story we leave to them is one worth reading, and one worth telling. And I pray that what we do today will make it possible for them to truly write a masterpiece. We are so very fortunate to be a part of the story of the Congregational Church in Exeter, because long after we are gone, the story will go on.

And so, Happy Birthday, Congregational Church in Exeter. And may God bless us with many more.

On Presbyterians, Exiles, and Apologies

Behind my desk there are two framed certificates on the wall. One is from 2001. It is reads “Certificate of Ordination as Minister of Word and Sacrament, Presbyterian Church (USA)”. The other is from 2010. This one reads “Certificate of Ordained Ministerial Standing, United Church of Christ”.

When I transferred my ordination to the UCC in 2010, I wasn’t sure what to do with that first certificate. The Presbyterian Church had trained me to be a pastor at one of its denominational seminaries. It had shaped me as a candidate for ministry. I had been a member of PCUSA churches, interned in a PCUSA congregation, and served honorably for over eight years as a PCUSA minister.

But, in 2010, I left.

I didn’t want to. I loved being Presbyterian. I can still tell you all about the Book of Confessions, and my favorite parts, from Heidelberg to Barmen. I love the Presbyterian commitment to education and loving God with our whole mind. I am deeply Reformed, down to the bone.

And I am also gay.

In 2010 I had to make a choice between the church I loved and my life. I knew, for my own mental health, that I could no longer be a part of a church that asked me to either abide by an unfair ordination standard applied only to same-sex relationships or to remain silent about it in certain settings if I chose not to abide.

I have been out since I was 18. I never hid that fact. But I lived within the strictures of the PCUSA’s ordination standard. I did this not out of shame, but out of a sense that I could not ask someone to partner with me and live in the shadows. As even my father told me when it became time for me to leave the PCUSA, it wouldn’t be fair to someone I loved.

When it became clear that change was not coming fast enough, I had to ask myself questions about staying. I came to understand that remaining in the PCUSA would be fundamentally damaging to me, and to my sense of integrity. And so, reluctantly, I left.

Within a year of leaving the PCUSA I met my now-wife. We dated openly, celebrated our engagement publicly, and married in a church of my new denomination. When DOMA was overturned, and when the Supreme Court later made equal marriage the law of the land, we rejoiced with the whole-hearted support of our denomination. I have come to understand what it means to be accepted and loved by my church, just as I am.

rainbow-sealYou might think that after all that I am angry at the PCUSA.

For a while I was. I think I had good reason. But then, I wasn’t. As much as my treatment, and the treatment of every other LGBTQ person in the church, was unfair, I still love the Presbyterian Church deeply. I hang my ordination certificate in my office so that every day I will see it and remember the gifts I received from the PCUSA. And I rejoiced when the PCUSA took steps to include LGBTQ people in leadership and marriage.

Over the past few weeks, though, I have felt some of those old feelings of frustration return.

There is an overture being considered in the PCUSA right now which calls on the denomination to apologize for its past treatment of LGBTQ individuals because “there will be no chance for healing and reconciliation until the PCUSA admits its mistakes and makes a statement of apology”.

The Covenant Network, which believes itself to be an ally to LGBTQ people, has come out against the statement. (For historical perspective the Covenant Network also urged past delays on votes which could have included LGBTQ people in the ministry sooner out of concerns for “unity”. As a PCUSA seminarian at the time I had a hard time with that stance as well.) Other PCUSA “allies” have also spoken against the apology saying it does not have consensus or that it will create further division.

Let me say first that division has already been created. The fact many LGBTQ Presbyterians are now exiles in other denominations should tell you that. Those of us who were forced to leave will not have a voice on Presbytery and General Assembly floors, and so I urge you to listen to what we have to say now. We are, literally, not in the room.

Beyond that I hear some say that the apology is “forced”. If a minority of GA made the majority apologize, it would indeed be forced. But this is an overture that will require a majority voice. If a majority of the delegates at GA find this is appropriate, then they will represent the majority will of this connectional church. The same thing happened when LGBTQ people were banned from ministry, and yet this same argument was not made.

I hear others say it won’t matter to LGBTQ people. Curiously, I have not heard this from LGBTQ people. (And particularly not from any of us who lived through the worst of the ’90’s and ’00’s as candidates or clergy.) As an LGBTQ person, I can tell you it would matter to me. I will personally be okay without an apology from the PCUSA. I’ve done my work. But, I would find the apology deeply meaningful and healing. I would also see it as the start to real reconciliation between those of us who have left and our former church, as well as a sign of healing for those who have stayed, and their partners.

I have also heard people ask “have we apologized to other groups” such as women and African-Americans, who also bore grave injustices at the hands of the Presbyterian Church. No. You haven’t. You should do that, by the way.

Mostly, though, I believe in this overture because I believe in the power of making amends. In the recovery community one of the major steps towards healing and wholeness is looking at the people you have hurt and saying “I’m sorry”. Until you do that, you can’t really heal. And I want health and healing for the PCUSA. There is so much good that the PCUSA does in this world, and so much more that it could do. The world needs a healthy Presbyterian Church.

As for me, I have made my peace with the Presbyterian Church. I have looked at my resentments and forgiven the PCUSA for the pain. I have found gratitude for the good gifts I received from the PCUSA; gifts that continue to inform my ministry every day. I have claimed my own “serenity to accept the things I cannot change and courage to change the things I can”.

Perhaps in writing now I am exhibiting that I still don’t have the “wisdom to know the difference”. I don’t know if these words will have any effect on anyone. And yet, as a product of the Presbyterian Church, and as one who still deeply loves the church, I offer them for the consideration of those who still dwell within its walls.

And I also say this, expecting no reciprocity but remaining hopeful that perhaps someday it will come: When I made my ordination vows I fully intended to remain a Presbyterian minister until the day I died. For my part in not remaining faithful, I am sorry. Having had to leave continues to grieve me more than you know.

On Throwing the Baby Jesus Out with the Bath Water

I love the United Church of Christ.

I do. After growing up a “spiritual but not religious” “none” at the tail end of Generation X, I found my way into Christ’s church at the age of 17 and was baptized. Eight years later I was ordained in the Presbyterian Church (USA), a church I also love deeply. Because I was openly gay, though, in 2010 I felt that I needed to transfer my ordination to a church that could openly affirm all of me.

The United Church of Christ was that place, and for the past six years I have served as a UCC parish pastor, a delegate to General Synod, a member of Association and Conference committees, and as someone actively involved on the national level.

But I’m not writing as any of those things today. Today I’m writing as this: a disciple of Christ who wants to be a part of a church seeking to love God and follow Christ in this world.

The Gospel is radical. It requires us to acknowledge first and foremost not just who we are, but WHOSE. For those who would call themselves Christians, that means acknowledging that we belong to God and that we are claimed by the love and grace of Jesus Christ.

That’s why we call our denomination the United Church OF CHRIST.

Which is why I’m shaken by a recent piece of marketing (I can’t bring myself to call it evangelism) from my denomination. A new meme circulating on social media proclaims us the “United Church of ‘I’m a Very Spiritual Person.'”

12592230_10153339764751787_1236073688534807391_nSo, first of all, I’m not exactly sure what the message is supposed to be in this ad, which is already troubling from a marketing perspective. But I suspect what we are trying to do is reach out to the “spiritual but not religious” folks, or the religious “nones” out there who are numerous in Generation X and the Millennial crowd.

Like I said, that was exactly what I was growing up. And so I think I’m qualified to say that this ad just doesn’t speak to me. In fact, it turns me off now, and it would have turned me off as a spiritually seeking young adult.

Why? Because it conveys the message that the United Church of Christ is a place where nothing will be required from me. I don’t have to believe in God (or even try). I don’t have to develop a relationship with Jesus. I don’t have to be a disciple in the world. I can just say “I’m really spiritual” and that’s enough.

The only trouble is, there are a million places that exist for those who just want to be “spiritual”. You can engage your spirit in a yoga class, book group, therapist’s office, arts class, and more. Those are all great things, by the way. But they are very different than a Christian church.

Another meme recently put out by the UCC asked, “What do you need most on Sunday mornings?” The possible answers: music, community, love, inspiration, donuts. Again, all great things, but none of them are in any way unique to church. In fact, I’d wager you could find just as good or better examples of most of those things outside of the church doors.

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I come to church to worship God. I come to experience the awe that comes in knowing of Christ’s grace. I come to hear the Word and receive the sacraments. I come to be better equipped to serve God’s world.

I don’t come for the donuts.

And neither will other Gen Xers and Millennials.

At this point it might be tempting to say, “Hey, it’s just a meme. Calm down.” But this is more than just a meme. This is a prevailing trend in our denomination, as well as other mainline denominations, that has been going on for years. It’s the slow and steady rejection of theological depth and meaning in favor of what is easy and popular.

My concern is that as we try to market ourselves to a sort of lowest common spiritual denominator, we are forgetting that churches are unique places in a culture where commitment is increasingly devalued. In church we are asked to seek not our own will, but God’s. We are asked to serve not ourselves, but Christ. We are called on to receive from a tradition that is radically transformative, and not watered down.

That is counter-cultural to what my generation has heard for its whole existence. It’s Niebuhr’s classic idea of Christ transforming culture. And, if the church is to be “marketed” to the spiritual seekers under 40, this is our strongest “selling point”. The days of obligatory church attendance are over. If people fill our pews again it won’t be because we are offering something they can get anywhere else. It will be because we are sharing a Gospel that challenges and sustains them.

There is a tradition in recovery communities like Alcoholics Anonymous that the program grows by “attraction not promotion”. There are no ads for AA. Instead, people join because they meet others in recovery, see the good in their lives, and decide they want to be a part of something like that.

I think the church needs to relearn that concept. I’m a big believer in social media, but in the end social media doesn’t hold a candle to the power a disciple of Christ has to live a life that witnesses to God’s love and grace.

And so, I have a radical proposal. What if as a church we invested less in ad campaigns and overhead, and instead created resources that helped to raise up a denomination full of Christ’s disciples? What if we invested in developing Christian growth materials that congregations could use? What if we took the theological seriously, and trained our future pastors to talk about their faith, and explain why it matters? And what if we rooted our outreach not in our own anxiety about the church losing members, but in our joy over what Christ has done in our lives and what Christ calls us to do in the world?

I believe God has great plans for the United Church of Christ. But I also believe we can never hope to claim them if we continuously insist on throwing the baby Jesus out with the bath water. Now’s the time to try something new. Now’s the time for us to try something truly radical. And it starts with remembering that we are the United Church OF CHRIST, and that’s an amazing thing.

The Gifts of Exiles: Stewardship Sermon for 2015

Jeremiah 29

4 Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

10 For thus says the Lord: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. 11 For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.

Once a year, every October, I preach a sermon that feels like the church equivalent of a NPR pledge drive.

If you listen to public radio you probably know what I mean by that. During pledge drives the programs get cut short and instead people ask you to give money so that the station will stay on the air, and in return you get a mug or a tote bag.

It’s no one’s favorite time of the year, and yet, it has to be done. But if enough people give quickly enough, you even get to go back to your regularly scheduled program ahead of time.

I joked that that was how I was going to do my sermon this morning. I’d pass out pledge cards and when we hit our goal I’d stop preaching and you all would get tote bags.

We didn’t go that route. And that’s for the best because what I am talking about is not an interruption from our regularly scheduled program…it is our regularly scheduled program. And that’s because stewardship, the wise and prudent use of what God has given us, is not a distraction from the spiritual life. It is at the heart of the spiritual life.

That’s because stewardship is not about paying the bills or meeting the bottom line on a budget, though, we’d like to do that. It’s about gratitude. And it’s about hope, and investing in that hope.

Last year I told you stewardship was like planting seeds. If you plant generously, you will reap generously. And you all planted generously. We not only met our pledge goal, we surpassed it. And in the past year this church has been able to do new things that have changed lives.

And so here we are again this year, with a new budget and new dreams. And a little while back we received our stewardship materials from the United Church of Christ’s national offices, and the theme for this year sounded fitting: Trust in the promise. It was drawn off of this Scripture passage from Jeremiah: “For surely I know the plans I have for you…to give you a future with hope.”

Sounds good. Who doesn’t want to trust in hope?

But then I read a little of the surrounding passage and I realized that these words come from a less than hopeful time. They’re from a letter sent by the prophet Jeremiah to the Jewish people who had been exiled from their homes, and were living in Babylon. And he’s telling them, you are going to be in exile a long time. Long enough that you need to put down some roots. Build houses. Start families. Love where you’re at.

And, I confess, that changes the passage a little for me. Because it’s no longer “everything is going to be great”. Now it’s “you’re not going home anytime soon”.

I don’t know about you, but it doesn’t exactly inspire me to open my checkbook.

But then I thought about it some more. And I thought about what it means to live in exile, and about how maybe we all know a little something about that.

Because the reality is that I think we’ve all felt that way sometimes. We’ve all felt cast out of our homes, our comfortable places, and into a world that sometimes doesn’t make sense. We’ve been cast out of “the way things used to be” and into a world that is changing more rapidly than perhaps any time in its history. And we’ve been cast into a new place, one where we sometimes long for what we used to know.

And yet, someone is telling us to get used to it. And to plant ourselves in it. And to trust in a promise, a future with hope.

That’s hard to hear when you are an exile. That’s hard to hear when the world is confusing, when you are anxious, or when you don’t know how things will end. And that’s hard to hear when you are being asked to give.

Because, really, if we want to make sure people give, I should be getting up here and saying “everything you love is going to remain exactly the way you like it”. I should be saying, “whatever your favorite thing is about church, give generously and that will never change”. Or, “give today, and you will never feel like an exile again.”

But I’m not. Because I can’t promise that. Because that’s not church.

The reality is that church changes. Every church does. Churches change, or they die. And so we make room for new generations. We invest in their futures. We open their doors wider. And we learn to live in a new time, and a new reality. Even in exile. And because generations of people who have passed through these doors have done that, right here in Exeter, you and I are here today.

And that’s remarkable. Because I want to tell you a secret about those people who built this church: they were exiles too.

I mean that in the metaphorical sense. They were people of changing times who learned to trust in a future that God was building for them. But I also mean that some of them were literally exiles.

Rev. John Wheelwright

Rev. John Wheelwright

The man who founded this church in 1638, the Rev. John Wheelwright, was an exile from, of all places, Massachusetts. (Actually, maybe that resonates.) He had made some enemies in Boston, among the ruling clergy of the time. Why? Because he preached too much about grace. And they ran him out of the colony and here to New Hampshire, to a rugged frontier, where he planted this church and the town of Exeter.

But he is not the only exile in our church family tree. I want to tell you a story about three Scottish young men who found their way to Exeter in the 1650-60’s. They did not come willingly. They had left their homes in Scotland as soldiers, and they had been captured in battle during the English Civil War. And people were so afraid they would rise up again that they sent scores of them off to the new world, where they could never be a threat. Teenagers, sent away from all they knew, never to see it again.

They became indentured servants. And by different routes three of them ended up here in Exeter. They went to work for a man named Nicholas Lissen, who had three daughters. And one by one, they married those daughters. And along the way Lissen, and his three Scottish sons-in-law, John Bean, Henry Magoon, and Alexander Gordon, helped to build this church into what it is today. And even now, if you look around you see those names around this church, on old pew charts and in the cemetery. And you see how three men in exile helped shape us into who we are today, over 300 years later.

Can you imagine that? Can you imagine how they were taken from the family and life they’d always known, sent halfway around the world, and how they still managed to find a future with hope? Can you imagine what it must have taken for them to find the love of God in a new place? And can you imagine how, when they had every right to be afraid and bitter and dejected, they instead became invested, and they instead turned their exile into hope?

We still get calls from the descendants of those three men fairly regularly. People call the church and say, “I’ve traced my family tree back to Exeter, and there was this Scottish prisoner of war there in the 1600’s…do you know anything about them?”

And I say, “yes I do”. I know, for instance, that the Beans went on to found a little company in Maine called LL Bean. But, for me, the best story is about the Gordons. Because one of those men, Alexander Gordon, now has a ninth great-grandchild who a little over a year ago you happened to call as your pastor.

ClergyTartanCrossI didn’t know that when I was called here. I learned about Alexander shortly after. And that’s one of the reasons I wear a tartan stole so often in the pulpit. It’s in honor of a young man who was taken from the life he knew, brought to a place where he trusted in hope, and who built something that endures even still today. It’s in honor of an exile, who trusted in the promise.

If he could invest in this church, then I can too. If he could find a home here, than so can we all. Because we are more than exiles. We are ones to whom a great promise has been given, and we are planting the seeds now that will feed not just us, but our children, and grandchildren, and generations to come. With every commitment, with every pledge, with every act of good stewardship, we are saying that this is our home, and that we trust God has a future of hope for us.

And God does have a future of hope. We have seen God working in our midst in this past year, and I know God will work with us still. I know God has great plans for the Congregational Church in Exeter, and I know that something amazing is happening here.

And so, I ask you to consider the decision you have to make. Consider how you will use some of what God has given you to invest in this hope, and trust in this promise. Consider how you can give to this church, this home of hopeful exiles. Because all of us are working our way towards a home we have never seen before, one in which we live with God and with one another in peace and joy. We are going home together, and we are rejoicing on the way.

And like I did last year, I’m going to tell you a few things I think you should know. First, I give too. Like you I sit down with my family and I figure out what I can give to the church. It’s important to share that because I want you to know that this is not about paying bills or meeting a bottom line, though those things are important. This is about saying “thank you” for this amazing place, and saying I want it to be around long after I am gone.

I also want you to know that I do not know who gives, or who gives what. I have told our church leaders not to tell me. What you give is your spiritual decision, made between you and God. I hope you give as you are able, and I hope you give with generous hearts. In fact, I simply assume that you all do. And if you don’t, that’s okay. But, please know this, there is hardly anything better than giving joyfully to a place you love. Not because you have to, not because we need to meet some bottom line, but because your love of this place, and your hope, compels you.

Finally, I’ll close with this. Last weekend you may remember that I was in Canada, as our denomination joined with the United Church of Canada in full communion. But before we did we had dinner with our Canadian counterparts, and we exchanged lapel pins from our churches.

And I was sitting across from a gentleman from the First Nations. And he gave me not just his lapel pin, but also this four directions pin symbolizing his heritage. And he told me, “We’ve done so much more in this church to address what happened in the past. And now it’s your church too. And it’s your work too.” And he put the pin on my lapel.

That’s what church does. It pins its hopes on Christ, but also on the people of Jesus Christ. And it calls us to do the work together. The hopes of this church have literally been pinned upon you. You are now marked by the promise. It’s your work too. But the good news is that it is joyful work that you are being called to today. And so search your hearts, search your souls, and find your hope. And then, together, may we exiles choose to build our home on this rock. Amen?

“Your Silence Will Not Protect You” – A Sermon on Esther for October 11, 2015

I’m often asked why there are so few women in the Bible. Sure, there are some. There’s Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Mary Magdalene. There’s Eve, of Adam and Eve, and Martha who cleaned the kitchen while others surrounded Jesus. There’s Sarah and Abigail, Hannah and Elizabeth, and more.

There are actually a fair number of women mentioned in the Bible, but the tricky thing is they are usually not at the foreground, and sometimes they don’t even have names. They are mentioned in passing, or as someone’s spouse, but rarely in their own right. And so when I hear people, especially our younger girls, ask me where the women in the Bible are, it takes some explaining.

When the books of the Bible were written society was, of course, very different. Women were not their own people. They did not have the rights that women do today. And when they did act with agency our courage, it wasn’t always treated as a good thing. And even though it is very likely that Jesus’ disciples included more than just the 12 men he gathered around itself, the Bible doesn’t tell us much about them. It took something incredibly huge for a woman to get her due in the Bible.

Scroll of the Book of Esther, Royal Ontario Museum

Scroll of the Book of Esther, Royal Ontario Museum

But there are two books in the 66 book Protestant canonical Bible where that pattern is reversed. Both are named after women. One is Ruth, a book about a woman who converts to the Jewish faith. Ruth later refuses to leave her new beliefs behind when her husband dies. She is an unlikely hero, a convert who upholds the law with a vigor most born into the faith do not.

But as much as I like the story of Ruth, it’s the other book named for a woman who never fails to capture my imagination and awe. And that’s the story of Esther.

Esther was an orphan, a Jewish girl growing up with her cousin Mordecai in exile in the Persian empire. And the king at the time gets frustrated with his queen, who won’t do what he says. So he gets rid of her and looks for a new queen. And Esther is just the woman to fill the role. But her cousin tells her, whatever you do, don’t tell him you are Jewish. That will put you in danger.

About that same time Mordecai uncovers a plot to kill the king, and foils it, and Mordecai is made an advisor to the king. But the king has another advisor too, a man named Haman. And Haman loves power. He expects everyone to bow down to him. But Mordecai, Esther’s cousin, refuses. And this enrages Haman so much that he decides to kill not just Mordecai, but every Jewish person.

When Mordecai discovers this he goes to his cousin and begs her to get the king to intercede. But the wife of the king can’t just go to her husband. She has to be summoned first. So she has Mordecai tell all of the Jewish people to fast and pray for her for three days. And on the third day, she takes a risk, and she goes to the king and invites him to a feast. And he accepts. And at that feast she invites him back again to a second one.

In the meantime, Haman is still angry. Mordecai still won’t bow down to him, and so he is so mad he starts to build the gallows on which to hang him. And that same night, the king can’t sleep. And he’s looking for anything to put him to sleep. And so he has the court records read back to him. Anything to sleep right? And he discovers that he had never rewarded Mordecai for helping him.

And so everyone ends up back at the second feast. Esther, the king, Haman, and Mordecai. And at that banquet, Esther tells the king the truth about who she is. She tells the king that Mordecai is her cousin, and like her he is Jewish. And she tells the king that Haman wants not just to kill Mordecai, the man who had saved him, but all of the Jewish people as well.

And the king, knowing now who is wife is, and knowing that he still owes Mordecai for saving his life, decrees that the Jewish people can now stand up for themselves against attacks. And Mordecai takes a prominent position in his court. And Haman, the man who would have killed an entire people, ends up suffering the same fate he wished for Mordecai.

That’s the story of the book of Esther. It’s one that every year our Jewish brothers and sisters celebrate during the festival of Purim. Purim is a festive day. It’s when the faithful throw feasts, dress up in elaborate costumes, and drink. In some cases, a lot. A Jewish friend of mine in college told me once that Purim was the only day of the whole year when it was considered acceptable to get drunk.

We don’t have a holiday like that in the church, if you were wondering.

But, the fact the story of Esther is celebrated with such joy and celebration is something that should not be overlooked. Because Esther, is about as close to a female superhero as we get in the Bible. She not only saved herself, and her cousin. She saved her entire people.

And she did it in the most amazing way. She didn’t do it with fancy weapons. She didn’t do it with an army. She didn’t do it with a costume or a cape. She did it by doing this: standing up and telling the truth.

Esther told the truth to a king that she knew did not want to hear it. She told it knowing that it could have gotten her killed. She risked everything to tell it.

And the most amazing part is that she didn’t have to.

Esther had all that she needed. She was the queen. She had wealth. She had relative safety. She had the protection of the king. All she needed to do was keep her mouth shut, and she would have guaranteed that safety for herself.

But Esther couldn’t do that. She couldn’t see her cousin killed, and she couldn’t see her people exterminated. And so, even though it was a risk to even go into the king’s presence and invite him to that feast, she did. She took her own life into her hands and dared to stand up and in front of the powers that be in order to save others.

And then again at the feast, Esther stands up and tells the king, tells the world, her truth. And once again she is taking her life into her hands. But she manages to save her people. And all these centuries later, her people still celebrate her.

But when her cousin had first come to her and asked her to do this thing, when she stood trembling in front of the king, when she opened her mouth to speak those words, she didn’t know how things would turn out. Not only did she stand to lose her life, but she held the lives of her people in her hands.

So why did she do it? Why not just be quiet, and let someone else be the hero?

Audre Lorde, the poet and civil rights activist, has an often quoted line: “Your silence will not protect you.” That has become a sort of rally cry for many different movements over the past few decades. Your silence will not protect you, so refuse to stand down, refuse to be quiet, and refuse to hide.

I think that her quote could use one qualifier. I think the truth is closer to this: your silence will not protect you…for long.

Because we have all been silent sometimes when we have wanted to call out our truths. We have all seen something unjust without speaking up. We have all, at times, waited for others to be the hero. And in those moments, we have been safe.

But if we are honest with ourselves, that safety does not last long. It lasts only as long as it takes for our conscience to catch up with us. And only as long as it takes to see the toll that our silence has taken on others. And then, we really understand, that our silence will not protect us, just as it will not protect others.

Pastor Martin Niemoller, who lived in Nazi Germany, once wrote a statement about his own silence in the face of the

Pastor Martin Niemoller

Pastor Martin Niemoller

atrocities he was seeing:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Niemoller ended up spending seven years in a concentration camp. In the end his silence did not protect him. But he survived the camps, and he became reflective about his silence. And part of his legacy became regretting that silence, and apologizing for it. In fact, after the war, he wrote that whenever he met a Jewish person, he said this: ‘Dear Friend, I stand in front of you, but we can not get together, for there is guilt between us. I have sinned and my people has sinned against thy people and against thyself.’

Downstairs this morning our elementary-aged children are learning the story of Esther. They’re learning it in a fun, age-appropriate way with crowns and costumes. But I hope that, at some level, they’re learning more than that. I hope they are learning that in the end, God made them for more than silence. God made them for courage.

I think our Jewish friends are right when they throw a party every year and retell this story. And I pray for our kids that if only they can learn what Esther learned. If they can learn to be people of courage and not people of silence, then I think that means today’s lesson will have been learned. that means we are raising children who will make this world a little better. If that happens, then surely that is worth a celebration. Amen?

Faithful Work, Faithful Welcomes: Kim Davis, Aylan Kurdi, and all of us.

The following was preached as a sermon on September 6, 2015 at the Congregational Church in Exeter, NH.

James 2:1-4, 14-17
My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

When I started seminary, all the area churches came to campus to try to persuade the new students to worship with them. There happened to be a lot of churches from our denomination in town, and they always wanted seminarian members.

One of my classmates went to worship that Sunday at a church where most visitors did not stay for long. He found a pew somewhere in the middle of the congregation, and he sat down and got ready for worship to start. And that’s when a woman came down the aisle, and tapped him on the shoulder.

“Young man,” she said, “you are sitting in my pew! I’m going to have to ask you to move.”

Up until then I didn’t think that actually happened in real life, but it did. And my classmate, a very kind man, got up and gave her his seat. But that’s not the end of the story. Because the woman who had displaced him somehow found out that he was a seminarian visiting for the first time. And now she was embarrassed.

She came up to him and said, “Had I known you were a visiting seminarian, I would never have asked you to move!”

Today’s reading reminded me of that story. Like last week, we are in the Epistle of James, and this week we read this: “if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges?”

In other words, if anyone treats one stranger differently than another, especially over something as trivial as clothing, then that person is judging them. And it is not the place of a person, and especially of a Christian, to treat other children of God with anything less than dignity and respect.

That was the greater injustice of what happened to my classmate that day at that church. It’s one thing to be asked to move by someone who really likes their pew. It’s not what I hope would happen to a church visitor, but it’s the lesser of the problems here.

The greater was that the woman who did it was only sorry because she found out he was a seminarian, and she was embarrassed about the way she had treated a future member of the clergy, rather than the way she had treated a child of God.

The irony is that when it comes to making someone feel unwelcome in a church, seminarians and clergy are really your last concern. We’re coming back to some church regardless. We’re sort of a captive audience, no matter what you throw at us.

But what if he had been someone who for years had been trying to work up the courage to walk back into church? What if he had felt unwelcome before? What if he had felt so far from God that stepping into those doors had been an act of faith in and of itself? What then?

The way we treat people in our churches is just the start, though. It’s what we do in the world outside of our church doors that really matters. Because like I said last week, our actions speak louder than words. And our actions tell others what we really believe more than any statement of faith. And how we treat other people, particularly those who have nothing to give us, says the most of all.

I’ll tell you another seminary story. At my seminary we paid most of our tuition by working a few hours a week around campus. And one of the places most of us rotated through was the refectory, the seminary dining hall. And I almost always had the breakfast shift. I’d get up around 6am and sort of stumble over to the kitchen and serve eggs and bacon to the few of my classmates who got up in time.

And a few times a year the doctoral students, clergy members, would come to campus for intensive classes. They’d come to breakfast every morning, and mostly they were very pleasant. But one woman was not.

Each morning she’d work her way through the line barking orders at us. And each morning we’d fill her plate and roll our eyes and say nothing. But one morning a classmate of mine was in line before her. And he and I got to talking about an exam we had both just taken in a class.

I saw her eyes get big. And she said, “Are you students here?”

“Yes,” I told her, “Everyone who serves the food is a student here.”

Now she looked downright panicked. And all of a sudden she found her manners. Because now it occurred to her that she was being rude not just to a nameless server, but to her future colleague.

There’s an old saying that if you really want to know whether or not you should date someone, that them to dinner and watch how they treat the wait staff. I believe that. And that day in the refectory, I was pretty disillusioned about the clergy. And if seminary is dating, ordination is marriage. And I didn’t want to marry into that.

I didn’t want to be the sort of person who treated people differently based on what they could or could not do for me. I didn’t want it to matter whether or not they were like me. I wanted to love the way Jesus did, and does. I wanted to love my neighbor as myself. And I wanted to let that love to speak volumes about my faith. I didn’t want to be a hypocrite.

But the reality is that I am.

I don’t mean to be. It’s not intentional, anyway. But, I am. And it only took two things this week to remind me of that fact.

The first was watching the county clerk in Kentucky who, despite court orders, will not grant same-sex couples marriage licenses. And let me say first, that I think she’s dead wrong. I don’t think she’s being persecuted, and I don’t think her legal consequences have anything to do with her faith. I think this has to do with her being a civil servant who is using her position to impose her religion on others, and to deny their civil rights. Couples like Heidi and me. Couples like others in this church.

And so when people started to talk about what a hypocrite she was, and how she’d been married four times herself, I joined in. And when they said they hoped she would rot in jail, well, I didn’t go that far, but I understood the anger because I know what it’s like to not have my own marriage recognized.

But when they started to talk about her clothes. And her appearance. And when they made fun of her for being from Kentucky…well, that’s when it got a little less funny. And that’s when I thought about what would happen if she walked into my church, and whether I would give up my pew to her, and see her for the child of God that she is.

That was my first reminder.

Drawn by Rafat al-Khateeb

Drawn by Rafat al-Khateeb

The second was this. A picture of a lifeless child on a beach in Turkey. A refugee. A child who was not rich. Who did not possess the right passport. Who was seen, at least in the abstract, as a burden on the society his family risked their very lives to join.

And the first thing I thought about were our kids here at the church. And how much I really love them. And how this boy was the same age as some of them. And I thought about how I’d do anything in my power to save one of our kids from harm. And I thought about how this boy needed someone to do that for him too.

And then I thought about all the children throughout the world like him. Children on rafts coming from Syria. Children crossing the border into our country. Children right here in Exeter. And I thought about how all Jesus said was that we should welcome the children. And how he never added any qualifiers about which children.

Every child needs someone. Every child needs more than someone. They need all of us. And they need our moral courage.

The fact so many were more outraged this week by the fact that a government employee was asked to do her job than they were by a child who lost his life tells us just how much we miss the point sometimes.

Because we can talk about our faith all day, but unless we are doing something because of that faith, unless we are changing the way we interact with the world, then it’s just lip service. Because James is right: Faith without works is dead

James asks us, “What good is it… if you say you have faith but do not have works?…If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”

What good is it? What good is faith if it doesn’t change the world? What use is it if it only comforts us? What’s the point if we only pay attention on Sunday morning? If that’s the sort of faith we aspire to, faith on life support, then it’s time to let it die.

Because that’s not faith at all.

But if that’s not what we are looking for, if that’s not what we think God wants for us, the good news is that there is a better way. But it’s going to take a little work. And it’s going to take a little moral courage.

Scripture tells us that God is “our refuge and our strength”. And we often repeat that. We believe it. But we can’t just believe it for ourselves.

And so here is our faithful work. It is to fling open wide the doors of our church. Yes, our literal downstairs doors, but even more so the doors of our hearts. It is to welcome everyone in. And it is to offer them our pews, and to deny a seat to no one.

I believe God gives us strength for the work our faith requires of us. And I believe God uses us to give refuge to the world. Refuge, because the world is filled with refugees both in the literal and spiritual sense. And they are all fleeing the same hardness of the world. And they are all hoping to find more than just hardness in our hearts. They are hoping to find people of compassion. People of mercy. People of faith.

The name of that child was Aylan Kurdi. And I hope Aylan would have found a pew here. And the name of that clerk is Kim Davis. And I hope Kim would find a pew here. And the name of that woman who kicked the seminarian out of her pew, and the one who was rude to the kitchen staff…well, I don’t know their names. But I hope they would find a pew here. I hope this, because I hope that I, with my imperfect faith, would find a pew here too.

Yes, faith without works is dead. But faithful work…the sort of work that intentionally opens the doors to all, and treats each one with dignity? That work brings new life to the world. And to us all. And there’s always room for more. Amen?

If You Could Ask God for One Thing….

Note: the following was delivered as a sermon on Sunday, August 16, 2015 at the Congregational Church in Exeter, NH.

There’s a story you may have heard before about two women, and one baby. Both women claim that the child is theirs, and that they are the rightful mother. But one is lying, and it remains up to a wise king to decide which one.

The king listens to both women, and comes up with a fair and equitable solution: cut the child in half, and give half to each woman.

One woman says, “That’s fine. This way the baby will be neither hers nor mine.”

But the other cries out, “Give the baby to her. I’d rather she have the baby than anything happen to him.”

The king declares that the woman who would rather surrender her child to another than see him hurt is the child’s mother. Because a parent who would see a child destroyed for their own selfishness is no parent at all, but a parent who would willingly relinquish a rightful claim so they child may live? That is love. That is the true parent.

That story has been retold through thousands of years in books and plays and movies. But all of those retellings come from this one story, written in Scripture long ago. And it’s the king in the story who gets our attention. The one who orders a child to be divided in half, a horrible and brutal solution.

Prophet-SolomonBut the king, of course, never has any desire to harm the child. Because he knows that a parent who truly loves a child will never sacrifice that child to their own jealously or greed. And it’s that king’s wisdom that saves the day.

The king in this story is King Solomon, sometimes known as Solomon the wise. The Bible describes his wisdom and his discerning mind again and again. It tells us that leaders of other nations, like the Queen of Sheba, sought him out and came to ask for his advice. And he ruled his kingdom as a wise leader, who sought God’s wisdom in all he did.

It’s natural to think that Solomon might have been born wise. Maybe he was just a smart, precocious kid with wise parents. But, though he might have been bright, he didn’t grow up surrounded by paragons of wisdom.

Solomon was the son of David, a great king for sure, but not always a wise one. David was a strong king. He fought Goliath with just a few stones and a slingshot. But he was also a king who had serious lapses in judgement. Like the time he saw Bathsheba sunbathing on a roof, and wanted her so much that he had her husband killed in battle. He was a powerful king, but not a wise one.

Ironically, it was that very relationship, David and Bathsheba, that produced Solomon. And when the time came for Solomon to replace his father, God called to him and asked him the question all of us might jump at: “Now that you’re going to be king, what do you need? What do you want me to give to you?”

Think about that question for a minute. God is offering you anything. What do you say? What do you ask for? Money? Fame? Power? Security? Love?

All of the above? Or none of the above?

In the end that was what Solomon asked for. None of the above. Instead he said to God this, “Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?”

Solomon knew that he was in over his head. He was just a young man and he was being asked to lead God’s people, and he was rightfully terrified. And so when God offered him anything in the world, Solomon forgets about money or power or all the rest, and he asks only for this: wisdom.

God is so impressed with Solomon’s request that God says, “it’s yours”. And God even ends up giving Solomon all the other things he didn’t ask for, riches and power, because God is loves Solomon for choosing wisdom instead.

I love this story because it goes against so much of our popular culture. In a time when we watch reality TV and read about people who are famous for being famous, this story reminds us that the true treasure is never given to those who seek things only for themselves. Instead, it is given to those who go a little deeper than that. People like Solomon, who want the wisdom to do the right thing, not just for themselves but for those they serve.

I love the idea of wisdom as a gift from God. Something we can ask for. A spiritual blessing. And something that our world needs now more than ever.

I think about the lack of wisdom we have in our culture sometimes. Because wisdom isn’t particularly valued. Success is, in all of its material forms. But not wisdom. Make a million dollars and everyone respects you. Drive a fancy car, or own a big house, and you’ll get noticed. Get the big promotion, and everyone will know you won.

But seek only to be wise? Not so much.

I was listening to a conversation recently in another context where a parent was talking about their son who was now in college. She was saying that he was majoring in philosophy. And another person at the table piped up and said, “A philosophy major?! What’s he going to do with that? He should be majoring in finance or STEM! He’ll never make any money.”

And I thought to myself, is that what we’ve come to? That being an English major is a mark of failure? And God forbid you are a religion major or a philosophy major. What will you ever accomplish with that?
And I thought about how wisdom is not valued in our particular culture. Deep thinking isn’t coveted. Moral questioning is scoffed at, and ethical questions are only considered so long as they don’t impact the bottom line. And young people who choose to devote themselves to the big questions, are met with resistance.

“Where did we go wrong? Our kid is an English major!”

(I can say that because I was an English major.)

But what if we, as people of faith saw the pursuit of wisdom as a part of our spiritual lives? What if we saw seeking knowledge, asking the big questions, and seeking God’s will, as central to the life of faith?

I don’t just mean in terms of being book smart. I’ve spent enough time in academic settings to know that can have a PhD and be very smart but also not very wise. I mean in terms of seeking God’s presence and God’s desire for us in our daily lives.

I’ve talked before about my love for Reinhold Niebuhr’s short prayer that has come to be known as the Serenity Prayer: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

I think of that prayer not so much as the serenity prayer, but as the wisdom prayer. God, teach me to be wise enough to know what I can do in this world, and wise enough to know what I cannot. Because if I know the difference, I will know your will for me. I will know where to focus my energy. Make me wise, so that I may make this world better.

What would it mean if we were to teach ourselves that? What would it mean if we were to teach our children and young people that? What if we taught them that seeking God’s wisdom mattered more than anything?

I’ve been reading this book by a Washington Post reporter called “Overwhelmed: How to Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time.” It’s excellent so far. And this week I read this shocking statement, “The average high school kid today experiences the same level of anxiety as the average psychiatric patient of the 1950’s. And perhaps more disturbing, scientist are finding that when children are exposed to stress – often stemming from the overwhelm of their parents – it can alter not only their neurological and hormonal systems but also their very DNA.”

In other words, we have created a culture that is literally making our kids sick and rewiring our children’s brains, and not for the better.

And that is because though we may have a culture of smart phones and advanced placement and conspicuous consumption, we are not very wise. We focus on what doesn’t matter first, and on what does matter if we have the time. We do the opposite of what Solomon did. We ask for all the things he didn’t, without asking for the wisdom to know what they are really worth.

I think there’s a sweet irony to the fact that Solomon didn’t ask for money or power, but he got them anyway. They came in an organic way, a product of having his priorities in the right place. And that’s how he was able to keep them.

There’s an article in this weekend’s Washington Post about happiness, and how to find it. An experiment was done to find what activities helped people to become happy, and maintain that happiness. And the findings were interesting. More than taking classes, playing sports, engaging in civic duties, or even volunteering, participating in a religious community was the most correlated with maintaining ones happiness.

I don’t think the goal of coming to church is to be happy. But I think it is to know God, and to seek wisdom of God. And I think that, like Solomon’s wealth and power, our happiness becomes an organic byproduct of that quest for wisdom, and of that desire to know God’s will for our lives. Because I think when we strip away all the stuff of the world, all the “shoulds” and “musts” and desires to get ahead, replace them only with a desire to know God’s will for us, we are reshaped and, in the best sense of the word, re-formed.

I think about the young people the book talked about, and the anxiety and stress that they live with, often picked up from watching the adults they love and respect the most. And I think about what our culture would look like if we valued seeking God and God’s wisdom more than seeking anything else.

And I think about the two women, and the baby, who came to Solomon. And how one mother was willing to destroy a child to get what she wanted. And the other was willing to let go of everything in order to save them.

I think there’s a lesson there for all of us. As individuals. As a church. As a community. As a world. Without wisdom, we will destroy what we love the most. But if we seek God’s wisdom, we will make the hard choices that will allow the next generation to thrive.

Today we will go to God in prayer once again. And in a real way I believe God is asking us the same question God asked Solomon: what do you need? Choose your answer carefully. And wisely. Amen.

The Danger of Building Bigger Barns

Note: This was originally preached as a sermon at The Congregational Church in Exeter on August 9, 2015.

Every UCC pastor participates in the pension fund for our denomination. The idea is that years from now when we retire we’ll have enough put away so that we can live. And when I started my first pastorate in the UCC I had to get set up in the pension program, so I called and had them send a registration packet.

It arrived and it was, literally, over an inch thick. There were brochures about all sorts of different funds and investment strategies. I had never done this sort of investing, and I was lost. I had no clue whether I was supposed to have an aggressive approach to investing or a semi-aggressive one or balanced one or conservative. I didn’t know which sort of investment to choose, or what my target date should be. I panicked. Finally I asked a friend with a lot more experience to help me out. I just handed over the pamphlets and said to her, “I’d like to be able to retire one day.”

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

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

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

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

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

11258358_10100963415948558_6094224018528029828_nUnlike the man who builds a bigger barn so that he can horde his wealth, Jesus reminds us that we have to take the even longer view. We have to look not just at our lives, but at the life eternal. We have to look past what we can forsee, and look at what we don’t even understand yet. And then we have to fill our barns only as much as we need.

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

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

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

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

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

I’m always struck by that when I do funerals. Often people eulogize the person who has died by telling stories about them. And the one thing that keeps coming up time and again is always about that person’s generosity. People remember what the person gave to them, and not usually in terms of material things, but in terms of time, or attention, or love. And it always strikes me that no one cares about how much the person may or may not have had stored away. I’ve never heard a eulogy talking about how much money, or how big a house someone had, and how that defined them. But I’ve heard so many that talk about generous hearts and spirits.

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

When I was in Vermont I initially pastored two congregations, in a yoked parish. One was doing okay. And one was quite small, and wrestling with the fact that they needed to close. In the end, they had a significant amount of money in the bank. But they had very few people left in the pews.

And they had a choice. They could either horde their money for themselves, and keep on going until they had spent their last dollar. Or they could choose another, radical option.

They knew God wasn’t done with them yet, and they knew that there was a lot of ministry left in them. And so, rather than storing up their treasure in a building they loved, but that they didn’t need anymore, and rather than keeping their money tied up in its upkeep, they decided to let go, and to follow Christ. They donated their money to the church down the road. And they gave their building to a congregation that had lost theirs. And they took their faith and joined with another church.

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

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

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

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

I was thinking about how sometimes churches have trouble doing that. Even in our simplest acts. Like every time I go to a church potluck. It doesn’t matter the church. There’s always one fear: will there be enough food to go around? But then I remember: when have I ever been to a church potluck where there hasn’t been enough? At this church, we typically have the opposite problem. I can’t remember a time I haven’t been sent home with a plate of extras.

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

As people of faith we can’t ignore the fact that more often than not we are living in abundance. We have far more than we will ever need. And we have been blessed with more than we can use. And so we have two choices…build a bigger barn? Or decide that we will trust in the God who has blessed us so deeply enough to open our doors, release our fears, and bless others with us. The choice is ours. And the choice is yours. Amen.

Learning to Multiply: Sermon for May 10, 2015

I’ve been thinking this week about learning how to multiply. Do you remember when you first learned? I was in about third grade when we had to memorize our times tables. Some were easy. 1×1 is 1. 1×2 is 2. Some got harder like 9×7 is 63. And some I could never remember like 11×12 is 132.

Math was one subject that just never came easily to me. And, when I was already struggling, the teacher introduced this thing we would have do in math class. She handed out these cards with all these multiplication problems on them, and she would say “go” and then you had something like two minutes to do the entire sheet correctly.

It was the most anxiety-producing academic experience I ever had, one that not even my ordination exams in seminary rivaled. And this week I had dinner with a friend, and I talked about what my sermon for today, and about learning how to multiply. And she said, “Did you ever have to do those things…with all the problems that you had to complete in two minutes?”

It became clear that learning to multiply was a traumatic experience for many of us.

And yet, multiplication is about more than just math. It even has a place in the spiritual life. And though we don’t have to do those timed worksheets, we still have to learn how to do it.

Loaves and Fish Roundel Zunti and Doepker, Saskatchewan

Loaves and Fish Roundel
Zunti and Doepker, Saskatchewan

Today’s story tells us a little of why. The story of the loaves and fish is one we hear at least once a year in church. It’s also the only miracle of Jesus that is told in all four Gospels, which I think is a pretty good indicator of its importance. In each of the four tellings the details vary just a little, but the main story remains the same: Jesus is preaching. The people all come out to hear him. And they are hungry. And there are so many that the disciples look out and wonder how they are going to feed them all. And they tell Jesus, “we could spend six months’ wages and we couldn’t afford to even start to feed everyone.”

One of them, Andrew, points out that one boy has five loaves of bread and two fish, but he says “What use is that?”

But Jesus says something different. He takes the boy’s food, and he has the crowd of five thousand sit down. Then he blesses the loaves and fish and sends them out into the crowd. And when all is said and done, not only does everyone eat, but there are baskets filled up with all the extras.

Now, what really happened that day on that hill? There are ways to explain it away. Some say it never really happened. And others say that the real miracle was that once one person decided to share the others around them felt like they could do the same and it turned out there really was enough for everyone.

And, maybe there’s something to that. It does take a small miracle to get over our fear about never having enough and to instead share abundantly with others. But, what I think happened that day, more than anything, had to do with Jesus. And multiplication.

Here’s why. Do you remember your times tables, and the rule about zero? Zero times any number always equals what? Zero. 0 x 1 = 0. 0 x 37 = 0. 0 x 984 = 0. This was a revelation to me. It was like finding out there was a free space in math. You cannot multiply 0 and ever get something else.

But with even a little bit, multiplication can work wonders. Even more than addition, if you want to build something you have to learn to multiply.

Think about the story for a moment. It has always struck me as important that Jesus did not start with zero. Personally, I think he still could have figured out a way for everyone to get fed. But I think there’s something important about the fact that the only thing he initially had to work with were five loaves of bread, and two fish, brought to him by a small child. I don’t think it’s an accident that Scripture tells us about that first, small gift. Because it may not have been much, but it was something.

So, like I said, there are some who believe that what happened next was addition. People opened up their own bags, and added to the common meal. And like I said, maybe that’s true. But, I think what really happened was multiplication. Jesus took what was given, and transformed it into something far greater and better than it could be on its own.

I think that’s what happens when God gets involved in something. I think we bring what we are willing to give, and what we are willing to see transformed. And I believe that God doesn’t just add to it. God takes what we give and multiplies it into something we couldn’t imagine.

To me that is what blessing looks like. It’s not God just giving us more. It’s God creating something new out of what we give, and multiplying the blessing until what we end up with is so much bigger and better than we could imagine.

A small child dared to share what little he had. Jesus did not just say “okay, here’s a few more fish”. Jesus multiplied it so it fed the masses, and there was an abundance left.

The same is true of anything we give to God, and it’s true of our spiritual lives. When we give God just a small part of ourselves, whether in prayer or meditation or service, we find that God gives us back something even better. God gives us a sense of God’s presence, and love and grace. God renews us for the work we do, and gives us joy.

That’s what happens when we stop holding on to things so tightly, whether our time or our gifts or even our fears, and we let go, and let God work with them. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the one who brought the fish and bread to Jesus that day was a child. Because I think children understand in an intrinsic way that we are not transformed by what we hold on to. They understand, because they have not yet learned otherwise, that when we live our lives with our hearts open, incredible things can happen.

It’s that spirit of children, that willingness to let God in, that Jesus himself commended to his disciples. Jesus said unless we become like little children, we will never get it. Unless we learn to put aside our fear and let God work with what we have to give, no matter if people are scoffing on the sidelines and saying it’s not enough, we will never understand how God can multiply our blessings.

I’m always struck by the fact that even while the disciples talked about how few people that boy’s fish and bread could feed, the boy still gave them to Jesus anyway. And I’m struck by the fact that none of the disciples opened up their own bags. And so Jesus used the small gifts of a child to show everyone what he could do.

Too often, we adults depend on the slow and sure gains of addition. We don’t want the risk of handing things over. And even when it comes to growing spiritually we don’t want to invest in something bigger than ourselves when we could just hold on to what little we have, the way some people stash money under a mattress, adding a few dollars every so often. It’s safer that way. You can’t lose anything. Or so we think.

But you also don’t gain that much either. Because you’re just adding, and not multiplying.

There’s a math problem, disguised as a story, that I like a lot. In it, a person is given a choice between two things. He can either have $10,000 a day for 31 days. Or, a penny on the first day that is doubled for each of the next 30 days. In other words, you get a penny on the first day, two on the second, four on the third, and so on.

The choice sounds easy at first. You take the sure thing, the $10,000 a day. Because if you take the other option, even after 21 days, you only have a little over $10,000. You could have had more than that on day two. But if you hang in there, by the time you get to day 28, you have $1.3 million. And by the time you get to the end of the month, when the people who are adding $10,000 a day have $310,000, you have over $10 million.

Unless you are starting with nothing, unless you are holding everything back, multiplication always beats addition. And God’s blessing is like multiplication. It doesn’t settle for just giving us more. It creates real growth.

Yesterday morning, several dozen of us gathered in our vestry to talk about our natural church development focus on spirituality. And many talked very openly about the fact that this feels like new ground. It’s easy to talk about how our week was, someone shared. It’s a lot harder to talk about our spiritual lives. Others shared about how they didn’t feel they knew how to grow spiritually. Others said they needed resources and examples of spiritual practices. Some, who were really honest, talked about being afraid of what it means to embark on a spiritual journey.

I hear all of that. And, you never have to do anything you don’t want to do in this church.

But, I want to offer this image. What if we are all there on that mountaintop with Jesus, hungry, and hoping to be fed. And what if have something small that we can give, something we are so afraid to give up. And what if we are being asked to make the choice not to hold onto it, but to give it to God, and let God bless it.

That’s what deepening your spiritual life is like. You might not feel like you have all that much to give, but you have more than you know. You have it because you, and your spirit, were created by God. And all you have to do is step up, trust your spirit in God’s hand, and get ready to see the ways God can bless you on this journey. Get ready for the ways God will take just a little, and multiply it into a blessing you won’t believe.

I’ll close with this. I have a pastor friend named Jack. This week I was reflecting on something I once heard him say. He asked a group what the fruit of an apple tree is. Most answered “an apple, of course”.

But Jack disagrees. He says the true fruit of an apple tree is not an apple, but another tree.

In our spiritual lives, too often we settle for the apples, because they often feel hard enough to get. But what if God is hoping that we won’t just settle for a quick spiritual snack anymore? What if maybe for too long we’ve been settling for what has been lying around on the ground, instead of believing in the possibility of something better? What if God is waiting to help us plant those spiritual seeds, water them, and watch them grow into a tree of their own? What if God doesn’t want us to settle for a spiritual life that fills us for a few minutes? And what if God wants us to truly plant for a lifetime, and beyond?

The seeds are in our hands. We can hold on to them. Or we can plant them in God’s good soil, watch them multiply, and let them grow. Amen?