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?

Shepherds and Sheep Dogs: Sermon for April 25, 2015

When I started seminary years ago, I never expected that as a minister I would spend so much time thinking about sheep.

More Bible passages than I ever realized have to do with sheep. “The Lord is my shepherd…” Jesus separating the sheep and the goats. Jesus as the lamb of God. Jesus leaving the 99 sheep behind to go after the one that is lost. The prophet who said that we were all like sheep who had gone astray…the list goes on and on. There are literally dozens of Bible verses about sheep.

Fiber artwork by Kathy James.

Fiber artwork by Kathy James.

And here’s the thing about sheep…they’re not that bright. They sort of follow the leader and do what they’re told. There’s a reason that when we are talking about people who blindly follow others we say that they are like “sheep”.

And that’s why sometimes all this talk of Jesus as the “Good Shepherd” bothers me. Because if Jesus is the shepherd that means that we are sheep. And, really, I don’t want to be a sheep. Do you?

To put it in context, in today’s Scripture Jesus is doing a lot of talking about sheep. Jesus says the sheep will follow the shepherd. And he talks about how a good shepherd is unlike a sheep thief. A good shepherd guides us, instead of devouring us. A good shepherd cares for the sheep, even putting themselves at risk to save the sheep. And Jesus says that this is what he himself is: the Good Shepherd.

So, for those of us who do not want to be sheep, how do we wrestle with that? Do we accept that we are, at least metaphorically, these sort of not-so-bright animals? Or do we reject all of this “Good Shepherd stuff?

And there’s another layer to this has always bothered me too, and that’s that the “shepherd” language doesn’t just stop with Jesus. Christian ministers are often referred to by this title of pastor. And if you go back to the roots of that word, “pastor” has a very particular meaning. It’s a derived from this Latin word: pascere, which means to shepherd. In other words, in a congregation the pastor is the shepherd and the people are the sheep.

You might be feeling a little offended by that right now. That’s okay. I would too. You probably don’t want to be sheep anymore than I do.

But I tell you this because it was in wrestling with what it meant to be a pastor that I came to understand what it meant to follow Christ as a “shepherd”.

And that’s because, despite the title, it is Jesus, and not the pastor, who is ultimately the “Good Shepherd”. It is God who leads us through the valley of death to safety. It is God who makes sure our cup runs over. It is God who brings us into green pastures and leads us beside still waters. And it is God’s house, not the pastor’s, in which you will dwell forever.

In other words, it’s not about the pastor, or anyone else who claims to be the shepherd. It’s about Jesus Christ.

When my old conference minister in Vermont, Lynn Bujnak, was called to her ministry there she wrote something interesting in her candidating materials. She wrote that she didn’t see herself as a shepherd, because in Christ we already have one of those. But she did see herself as a pretty decent sheep dog.

A sheep dog can do a good job gathering us in. They can find the ones around the margins, and help lead them back to crowd. They can guide the way. They can push us forward. They can sound the alarm is something is wrong. And they can be pretty useful and helpful.

But as good as they are, they are replaceable. And they should be. In the 375 years of this church there have been a lot of pastors, a lot of sheep dogs, but there’s only ever been one Good Shepherd. And that’s good news.

Almost a year ago to the date, I stood at this pulpit for the first time and preached my candidating sermon for you. And then I went over and sat in the church offices while you prayerfully discerned whether or not you wanted me to be your new sheep dog.

And when I went home to Vermont, back to a church I loved filled with people I loved dearly, I told them I was leaving. And then I opened my lectionary for the next Sunday and found that, like today, it was Good Shepherd Sunday, and this was the passage. And so that Sunday I preached about the Good Shepherd, and how I genuinely believed that he was leading me in a new direction. And how I genuinely believed that he was guiding them into something new too.

“You’ll get a new sheep dog,” I told them. “But I’ve always just been the middle man. The Good Shepherd was here long before me and will be here long after I am gone.”

A year later, I truly believe God meant for me to come to this place. And I see God doing new things with my former congregation, and I rejoice for them. And I am reminded once again that there is a Good Shepherd, and it is not me.

But in the moment, in those days of saying goodbye, and saying “yes” to something new, it wasn’t that easy to trust in that truth. I genuinely felt called here, and yet, it was scary. I liked my old pasture a lot. I wondered if I would like the new one. I kept saying to myself, “I think this is God’s will, and I don’t think I’m making a mistake…but what if I am?”

Maybe you have been there. Maybe you have felt led in a new direction. Maybe you have felt God calling you to something new. And maybe you have been scared to death, and unsure of yourself. Maybe you’ve wondered, “God, what are you doing? Why are you moving me somewhere else? I was just getting comfortable in this pasture!”
You are not alone. I think we’ve all been there. We have all been nudged by God out of our comfort zones and into the unknown. And that can be incredibly hard.

Jesus is the Good Shepherd. I really believe that. And he wants what is best for us. But wanting what is best for us does not mean that Christ always want what is easy, or comfortable, or convenient for us. In fact, often what is best for us is none of those things.

And so, God guides us. God nudges us out of what we’ve always known, through the gates to something new, and into new pastures. And, here’s the catch: unlike sheep…we have had a choice about whether or not to follow.

But in some ways, that makes it even harder. I was saying at the beginning that I never knew how much I’d have to deal with sheep as a pastor. Because sometimes I literally have to deal with sheep.

This past Christmas was a good example of that. A few weeks before Christmas we realized that in all the transition, we had forgotten to order the sheep for the live nativity out front. And so, we got a hold of the shepherd and we scheduled them, and on the night of the nativity we waited patiently out front…and we waited…and waited.

It turns out that the sheep were stuck in traffic, and then lost. And right as we had given up hope, and the shepherds and angels and wise men were coming out on the grass, the truck turned into our driveway, scraping the curb as it went, and parked.

And then the shepherd got to work. She put this fence up in no time flat, and she opened the back of her trailer, and all the sheep, entirely unaware of the rush, filed out in this orderly line and went right into the little pasture she had made for them without a second thought. And at the end of the night they went right back in. That whole preconceived notion of the sheep being mindless followers? Those sheep proved it for me.

And there is something about that that just is so much easier than what it’s like for us. Sheep have no real choice in the matter. They go where they are told, they eat what they are fed, and they stay within the fences that their shepherd puts up for them. You don’t have to make a lot of decisions as a sheep.

But you and me? That’s different. We are more than sheep. We get to make choices. And if we are too cautious, if we are unsure, if we want to stay put out of either fear or stubbornness, we can do that.

But, when our other option is to follow the Good Shepherd, why would we want to stand still?What do we have to lose?

The reality is that I think we all choose to follow something, whether we admit it or not. We can follow Jesus, and we can dare to break out of the pastures we have always known and into something new. Or, we can follow something else, or someone else. We can follow popular opinion. Or, we can follow fear. We can follow uncertainty. We can follow negativity and self-doubt. We can follow comfort and complacency.

But no matter what we do, even if we are just standing still, we are still followers. Because even if we are leaders, we all still follow something. And here’s the most important part: we are defined by what we follow.

And so, how are you going to be defined? Who or what are you going to follow? And who or what deserves that kind of trust or loyalty?

In the end, I know I am more than a sheep, but I also know that there is no other way I want to be defined than as a follower of the Good Shepherd. I know this because every time I have willingly followed, even when I’ve been afraid, he has led me to something better than I could ever imagine.

My hope is that if you choose to follow the Good Shepherd, that will be true for you too. My hope is something will catch you, and connect with you, and lead you to go deeper, and to follow the one who will never forsake us. My hope is you find Christ, or at least a glimpse of him, in prayer and song and silence. And my hope is that this community will help you to find Christ’s love in a new and uplifting way, and that we may be fellow followers, and fellow travelers on the path.

Because we are not sheep. But we do know a pretty Good Shepherd, and he’s holding the gate open for us to follow. Amen.

In the Crowd: A Homily for Palm Sunday, 2015

Mark 11:1-11
11:1 When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples

11:2 and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it.

11:3 If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.'”

11:4 They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it,

11:5 some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?”

11:6 They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it.

11:7 Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it.

11:8 Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields.

11:9 Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!

11:10 Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

11:11 Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

The first time I ever heard about Palm Sunday, I was confused. I’ve talked before about how I didn’t really grow up in the church, so I went to my first Palm Sunday service during my senior year of high school.

You might remember that I grew up mostly in Florida. And we had palm trees everywhere. We had a bunch all around our yard, and we would climb them the way kids in other places climbed oak trees. At Christmas some people even put their Christmas lights up on them. And when it was time to clean up the yard, we had to cut those branches down all the time. And I remember there being so many that we would fill up trash bag after trash bag and then haul them to the curb for the trash truck.

So, to be honest, growing up I thought Palm Sunday must be some sort of local Florida celebration like a Blueberry or Apple Festival, and I had no idea why we were celebrating it in church.

18124_920677677984831_3958351675566877247_nI understand what Palm Sunday is all about now. I know it’s the entry into Holy Week. And, because there are no palm trees here in southern New England, every Lent we pay a company to send us a box of palm fronds. The same kind we had way too many of in my neighborhood growing up. That irony is not lost on me.

But palm leaves, they’re an essential part of this story today. Scripture tells us the Palm Sunday story in two places, John and Mark, both of which we read this morning. And in them we hear about how Jesus, who had been preaching and teaching all over the surrounding towns for the past few years, gaining followers and generating excitement, was finally walking onto the biggest stage of all, the one where he was set to become a legend in his own time: Jerusalem.

And the people there had heard that he was coming. They wanted to be a part of it and they went out to meet him. And they greeted him like this: they threw their cloaks in front of the colt he rode in on, and they took palms from the nearby trees. And as he rode in they waived them and they shouted “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”

Now, it may not sound like much to us today, those palms and those shouted “hosannas”, but back then they were greeting Jesus like he was a rock star. He was unlike anything they had ever seen before. Because the palm fronds they were waiving were more than just green leaves. At that time you waived palms as a symbol of victory or triumph. They were literally signs of hope, being held high for Jesus and all to see.

And those shouts of Hosanna literally meant “save us!” Because the people who were gathered by that road, they needed saving. They were being brutally oppressed by the Roman Empire on one hand, and held down by religious leaders who didn’t always want what was best for the people on the other. And the people who were there believed that Jesus had come to change all of that, maybe even by force. They didn’t know what was coming, but they knew it had to be better than what they had always known.

I talked about the crowd greeting Jesus like a modern-day rock star, and that has some resonance for me. About six months after my first Palm Sunday service I went to see a production of Jesus Christ Superstar, the rock opera about the final week of Jesus’ life. And I was struck by something in particular. The performers who play “The Crowd” serve as a sort of chorus for the play. They are the ones who shout “Hosanna” during one of the first songs, yelling “Hey JC, JC, won’t you fight for me? Sanna hosanna hey superstar.”

But by the end of the play those same actors, that same crowd, is shouting something different. When Pilate tries to release Jesus instead of killing him, the same crowd that shouted “save us” on Sunday is shouting back “crucify him…crucify him” on Friday.

I don’t think that Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote the scenes that way because he didn’t have enough actors to play two different crowds. I think he wrote them that way because he knew that sometimes, even with the best of intentions, our fears get the better of us, our hopes seem misplaced, and our loyalties fail us.

It was about the time that I saw that concert that I realized that it wasn’t enough just to refrain from actively participating in injustice. I realized that in order to be truly faithful, we have to make a decision to not just stand by and watch it happen. Because when we are a part of a crowd, and we do not speak up, in so many ways we may as well be yelling “crucify him” with the people around us.

When we see a bully terrorize someone, and we do nothing, we are not siding with kindness. When we watch someone being harassed, and we don’t dare to speak up, we are not being allies to them. When we see injustice happening around us, but we think we have no power to change it, we are a part of the reason that injustice can thrive.

I don’t know exactly why the crowd turned against him that week, but I wonder if it isn’t because of the same reason all of us fail to speak out when we know we should: they got scared. The one they thought was there to save them, the one they greeted with palm leaves and scattered coats, seemed to be just another disappointment. He didn’t overthrow the Romans. He didn’t fight back. He didn’t even say much. He just went to the cross without much to show for it. He didn’t save them

At least, that’s what they thought. But that’s a story for next Sunday. For now, though, I’ll just say this. He did not save them in a way that anyone expected. There were no weapons and no wars. But a victory was coming. One that deserved all the palm leaves in the world. But one that no one in the crowd that day could ever imagine.

So, for those of us 2,000 year later, in a place where our only palms are shipped in from another country, and in a time where with 20/20 hindsight we know how this story ends, how do we shout “hosanna”? And how do we welcome Jesus into our midst today?

Between you and me, while the palm leaves are nice to have, I don’t think Jesus much cares what we are waiving when we decide to welcome him. Here in New England we could do the same thing the people of Jerusalem did all that time back and just use what is handy. So we could use maple branches, or pine boughs. Or snow shovels, if you prefer. We could throw confetti or shoot off fireworks.

Or, we could do one better, and just open our hearts, and on this Palm Sunday, invite Jesus in. And we could say “hosanna”. “Save us”. From whatever it is we need to claim victory over in our lives, from whatever struggles we are facing. From whatever is keeping us as just one of the crowd, and from being a disciple. Hosanna, Lord. Save us.

Let’s start the welcome today. But let’s not end here. This week we will be journeying with Jesus through Holy Week, from today to Maundy Thursday, and from Good Friday until Easter Sunday. Step out of the crowd. Step into the hope of a victory that no one would ever believe. Join us. And together let us shout out a hope that will turn into a promise: Hosanna, Lord. Save us. Hosanna. Amen.

John 3:16 and Soundbite Faith: Sermon for March 15, 2015

John 3:14-21
3:14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,

3:15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

3:16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

3:17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

3:18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.

3:19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.

3:20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.

3:21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

So, I’ve talked before about how I love watching football. This has been something I’ve done my whole life on Sundays. And when I was a lot younger, a little after I learned to read, I used to watch the people in the stands holding signs for their favorite teams or players.
And there was one sign in particular that I would see at every game I watched and I just didn’t quite get. It just said “John 3:16”. And I didn’t know who John was, or why he had such a funny number, but all I knew is that a lot of people who went to football games really liked this John 3:16 guy. I didn’t know if he played quarterback or defense, but I thought he must be the most phenomenal football player ever.
john-3-16-21It was much later that I actually understood they were talking about a Bible verse, and later than that when I read what John 3:16 actually said. But even without the words, John 3:16 has become sort of a symbol of visible Christianity.
Sports games. Hats. T-shirts. Bumper stickers. Tattoos. Whatever it can fit on, people have put it there. I’ve even heard of some preachers in other traditions who preach on this verse in every single sermon they give.
And you may well know the verse by heart: “For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only begotten son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.”
It’s a good verse to know. It talks about the depth of God’s love and sums it up in one line. Martin Luther himself even called it the “Bible in miniature.” And on the surface, the posters and the sermons may even tell you that this verse it so important that it’s is pretty much all you need to know about Christianity.
But you’ll notice we didn’t just read John 3:16 morning.
Instead, we read the whole passage. We went beyond the soundbite and to the substance. Because this passage lifts up the idea that we need God’s light to overcome the darkness in life. And it lifts up hope.
And that’s only the small part we read today. If we went back and read the rest of the chapter, we’d read about Jesus meeting Nicodemus, a pharisee who came to him in the night because he was starting to believe, and we’d know the words here are being directed to him, a man struggling with doubt.
Or go back even further, and read the entire Gospel of John, one of the four Gospels. Or read all four Gospels, each telling the story in a different way.
Go even further and get the whole New Testament, the whole story of Christ’s life and death, and resurrection and the early church. And then, look at the whole Bible. The Old and New Testaments, the story of God’s involvement in creation from the beginning.
And you could go even further than that. Because after the last words that would become Scripture were written, God still continued, and still continues, to act in the world.
John 3:16 is a good verse. But it’s not the beginning and end of Christianity. It’s a verse in a chapter of one of dozens of books in the Bible, each one of which has to be understood in light of when and why it was written. And each one of which must then be understood only in light of the overarching message of all of those books taken together, which is all about God’s love.
But sometimes with the Bible it’s easier to throw out a Bible verse and not give any context, or nuance. That can go badly.

I’ll give you two examples. At my seminary there was this guy who was a reluctant seminarian. He didn’t want to be there. He didn’t know why he needed to got o school to preach. And he figured he knew all he had to know. And he took a New Testament class and the professor was trying to get them to read passages of Scripture in context and to use all the tools he was giving them, and to even debate the meaning of the text.
And he had no time for this. He’d get to feeling like his faith was being threatened and he’d just quote John 3:16 and say that was all he needed to know. And I don’t agree with the teaching style here, but one day the professor had had enough. And he burst out, “I’ve heard enough about John 3:16” Have you ever read John 3:15? Or 3:17? 3:18? Have you ever read anything beyond this one passage?
The professor didn’t want soundbites. He wanted his students to not create their own little versions of the Bible and discount the rest. That’s a good caution for all of us, because we often create our own favorite Bibles, full of only the verses we love. And that’s dangerous.
Which brings me to the second story. A few years ago billboards went up quoting a single Bible verse, and it wasn’t John 3:16. Instead it was a verse that most of us like to pretend isn’t in the Bible. It says, “Slaves be obedient to your masters”.
The Bible does say that. A letter written by Paul to another culture at another time has that line, and I wish it didn’t. And a few years ago an American atheist group put that verse up on billboards so that people would read it and understand why, in their eyes, religion, and belief in God, is wrong. And honestly, that’s pretty compelling. If that’s all you know about the Bible.
I believe people are free to believe as they want, and I’m not preaching against atheists here, because honestly some of the most moral people I know are atheists. But what I am preaching against is taking one verse, pulling it out of context, slapping it on a billboard, and saying it speaks for all of Christianity. Because it clearly doesn’t. It’s lazy intellectualism. It’s reasoning that wouldn’t pass muster in a freshman year logic paper. And yet, in our soundbite culture, it gets people talking.
But we can’t condemn it too harshly. Because we Christians sometimes do the same thing. We find a few verses that support whatever it is we support, or condemn whatever it is we condemn, and we latch onto them. We live in the black or white, instead of living in the nuances.
We’ve created a culture in which people believe that you can either accept every verse of the Bible on its own and without debate, or you have to throw the whole thing out. There used to be this bumper sticker I’d see in the South a lot: “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” And it used to make my blood pressure rise everytime I’d see it. Because the Bible says a lot of things, some of them contradictory, and we have to wrestle with that.
The good news in that is that there’s a lot of room in the valley between “God so loved the world,” and, “slaves be obedient to your masters”. But it takes a lot of work to live there. It’s not easy. It’s nuanced. It’s takes work. It’s sometimes uncertain and tenuous.
But it’s faithful. And it’s worth it.
We live in a soundbite culture. The message has to fit the billboard, or the t-shirt, or the five second preview of the news. But the thing about slogans and soundbites is we grow weary of them. We don’t believe them for very long, especially if they don’t generate real action. And the people who hear them finally grow disillusioned, and move on to something else.
It’s the same with faith. I find it interesting that we are getting more and more evidence that the largest group of new non-believers are former Christian fundamentalists. People who once lived in a world that couldn’t tolerate nuance when it came to faith are now leaving that world and going to one that cannot tolerate nuance when it comes to doubt.
That makes some sense, because fundamentalism is fundamentalism, regardless of what you believe in. And if all you’ve ever learned is that the only way to have faith is to believe a list of things without question, then when you leave of course you think there is no place for you than in a culture of disbelief.
That means that what we do in churches like this one can matter a great deal. We engage the questions, live in the nuance, and believe that Christianity cannot be explained in soundbites, but instead must be understood in the journey.
We can be a safe haven for those who care to look for the substance under the slogans. A place where those who feel disillusioned by the debates about faith can actually come and dig deeper, and find how God is calling them to practice it. A place where youth and young adults don’t have to choose between their faith and their reason, or experience, or friends. A place where we don’t ask you to check your thoughts, or even your doubts, at the door.
I’m not sure how you squeeze that all onto a sign at a football game. It probably wouldn’t fit. In fact, several years ago our denomination, the UCC, tried to get a commercial all during the Super Bowl that had a similar message: God is still speaking. It was, oddly, even after they raised the millions needed to put it on TV, rejected for being potentially offensive. Have you seen Super Bowl commercials? That’s what’s offensive?
`Apparently so. So, for now, we have to spread the message another way. Which is by how we embody Christ in how we live. In the end, the way you live out your faith journey, both the things you know for certain, and the things you’re still working out for yourself, is going to be the message you send to all of those who are looking to find fellow travelers on the journey God has prepared for us. The good news is that the love of God for the world as it is embodied in one of you will always speak louder than it will on a sign, or a t-shirt, or a billboard. For those tangible reminders of how God so loved the world, those of us who see them are always thankful.
And so, live the chapter, not just the verse. And live the book, not just the chapter. And live beyond the book, and for a God who so loved the world, that God wants us to love back with our heart, and soul, and mind. Amen.

Why Are We Here: Part IV – To love. Sermon for 8 February 2015

“Love is patient, love is kind… It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things…And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”

Where have you heard that before?

If you said “at a wedding” you are not alone. You’ve probably heard it at countless weddings, and maybe even your own. And it’s not bad advice. If you want a marriage to last you need to have patience, and kindness, and all the other good stuff this passage tells you about.

But here’s the secret about this text. As much as we hear it at weddings, as much as it gets engraved on everything from engagement rings to wedding invitations, it was not written about marriage. It wasn’t even written about romantic love at all. So, if you worried that maybe this was a pre-Valentine’s Day sermon on love this morning, don’t. Because this is a sermon on a whole other kind of love.

10494762_877906185595314_459548515296640538_nTo explain you have to go back to the source, and back to where this comes from, which is a letter sent by the Apostle Paul to the church in Corinth, a church he himself had founded and built up before moving on in his ministry. And he is writing to them to about a whole bunch of things that Paul thought they were doing wrong. And in particular he is worried that they are fighting amongst themselves and getting away from the beliefs that he taught them, especially the ones about God’s love and about loving one another. And so he writes them this letter that includes these famous words on what love is and what it is not.

But we read this today, especially in English, and without the rest of the letter or the context, it sounds like it is talking about romantic love. And so, it sounds like the sort of thing you want to read at a wedding, or to describe the way you feel about someone.

But, the trouble is too often we keep this text confined to weddings. That’s too bad because this text is about something even bigger than the love we share in marriage. This text is about being loved by God, and loving God.

Here’s why I say that. In English, we really only have one word for “love”. We love our spouses. We love our parents. We love our friends. We love our kids. We love God.

But in the language Paul was writing in, Greek, there’s more than one word. There’s “eros”, which is about romantic love. And there’s “philos”, which is about brotherly love, like in the word “Philadelphia”. And there’s “storge” which is about familial love.

But then there’s this fourth word for love: “agape”. And agape is unlike any of the other kinds of love out there. Because agape is the kind of love that God has for us. And it’s about the way that we in turn are called on to love God.

Now, you don’t have to remember any of that Greek I just talked about, but remember this: when Paul wrote this letter, it was that last kind of love that he kept writing about: agape love. And agape gets a little lost in translation. Because it’s not the kind of love you celebrate with red hearts on Valentine’s Day. It’s not even the kind when you tell your family and friends you love them. Because it’s a kind of love that is even more demanding, and more incredible, than that.

The first thing about agape love is that it is not earned. God’s agape love is for us, and it remains whether we love back or not. It’s selfless. It’s grace-filled. It’s generous. And it’s so hard that probably the only one who has ever really done it consistently is God.

And if you want to know more, just read the text again: Agape is patient. Agape is kind. Agape bears all things, agape believes all things, agape hopes all things, agape endures all things…And now faith, hope, and agape abide, these three; and the greatest of these is agape.”

That is God’s love letter to you. That is God saying how much God loves you, and also how God loves you. God’s love is agape love, and it doesn’t get any better than that.

For the past four weeks, ending this morning, we’ve been asking the question “Why are WE here?” or “What does it mean to be the church together?” And we’ve talked about how we are here because God has brought us here, we are here to learn, and we are here to change. And today we are talking about the last reason: we are here to be loved, and we are here to love.

And it is my hope that everything we do as a church is done because of agape love, both God’s for us and ours for God.

So, the first thing I think we are called to do as a church is to acknowledge that God loves us, and that God loves everyone. And in return, we are called to love God back with that same kind of fierce love. Because when we are loving at our highest level, it is agape love. And though we may not ever get it exactly right, because sometimes love is hard work, we keep trying.

And part of the way we love God is by sharing God’s love with others. And we start here, with one another. We are all called to do the work of loving each other with agape love. We are called to support each other in hard times, to rejoice in good times, to faithfully work together to overcome challenges, and to find ways to be the church together for years to come.

And sometimes that will be easy. But sometimes it will be hard. And when it is, that is when we have to go back to the first things and remind one another, first, that we are all loved by God, and, second, that the best way we can love God back is by being loving to one another.

That doesn’t mean we will always agree. That doesn’t mean the path is always clear. That doesn’t mean it’s easy. But it does mean that when we hit an impasse, we have to go back to God, and to love, and then try again.

We try to model that for the kids each week. They are starting a new unit on this same text today, but this is something we try to do every week when they come up front. Each time they do we talk to them about something related to faith, and to be honest I have no idea how much they retain and how much they don’t. A lot has to do with age, and we get a large age range up here. I’m sure some of the older ones went away last week understanding the analogy between church and being a team, and some of the younger ones went away still wondering why the pastor was throwing a football in the sanctuary.

And that’s okay. Because the most important thing I want them to learn on Sunday morning is just this: God loves them, and their church loves them. If they leave here not knowing that, then we have failed. But if they leave this sanctuary on Sundays only knowing that, then we have done something right.

That doesn’t stop when you get to be too old to come up here, by the way. If you are leaving church not knowing that God loves you, and that this church does too, then we are failing you too. But if you are leaving church each Sunday and all you know about your faith is that, then sometimes that’s enough.

And it’s also enough to take the next step, which is this: to love the world.

I talk a lot about how we are not here for ourselves. We are here for all of God’s creation. We are here for mission. We are here to serve. And we are here because the best way for us to love God, is to love others.

To put it more succinctly, first we are loved, then we learn how to love, and then, we love outside of ourselves.

And when our agape love has no walls, when it has no boundaries, nothing is impossible with God. We can serve our town, and we can serve our world. We can do big things. We can live in faith and not in fear. And we can change lives. And we can do all of these things simply because God has loved us first.

And so, maybe this isn’t exactly God’s Valentine to us. But what if this text is as close as we get? What if this text is about how Christians are supposed to love God, love each other, and love the world? What if this is the playbook on how we are supposed to do it? And what if maybe, just maybe, these are our marching orders:

“Love is patient, love is kind… It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things…And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”

Love is that easy, and it’s that hard. But we know how to do it. We know how to do it because we were loved first. Our only challenge is to not be loved last. Don’t let God’s agape love end with you. Pass it on to a world so desperately in need of a love that can change everything. And if you do, then you can do so with the knowledge that you are truly be loving God back. 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/

Why are we here?: Sermon for January 18, 2015

So, I’m going to ask you a question that is going to sound better suited for a college philosophy course than worship: Why are you here?

I don’t mean in the big, existential sense of why are you alive, or here on earth, or why does any of this exist. I mean in a very simply sense: why are you here at church this morning?

After all, you have other options, you know. You could be home, sleeping in right now. You could be out running errands at the grocery store or doing home repairs. You could be at brunch, sipping coffee and eating Eggs Benedict. You could be in so many places right now other than sitting in the pews at church on a three day weekend. And yet, you are here. Why?

10494762_877906185595314_459548515296640538_nNow, don’t get me wrong…I’m glad you are and no one is asking you to leave. Far from it, because I hope you keep coming. But in this season after Epiphany, this time before Lent when we are still remembering the Light that just came into the world at Christmas, it’s as good a time as any to ask yourself that question: Why am I here?

So, unless choice was taken out of the equation, and your parents brought you here today, take a moment to ask yourself that. Because in an age where no one goes to church simply because “everyone does it” anymore, you choose to come anyway. Something has brought you here today, even if you can’t exactly explain it.

And so I’m going to ask you this question about why you are here a few different ways this morning. But before you answer that, let’s start with the Scriptures.

I normally only preach on one text, but this morning we read two. The first is from the first book of Samuel, and it talks about a young prophet of the same name. He’s been taken to the temple and his life has been dedicated to serving there. And one night it’s growing dark, and he can’t see well, and he starts to fall asleep. And then there’s a voice: “Samuel, Samuel.” He runs to Eli, the priest he works for, but Eli tells him “I didn’t call…go back to bed.” Again, he starts to slip into sleep and hears, “Samuel!” He runs to Eli who tells him, “I didn’t call you this time either.” So he goes back. And then a third time, “Samuel, Samuel.” And this time Eli catches on. And he tells him, if you hear it again, say this, “Speak, God…for your servant is listening.” And God does.

So, that’s the first story. The second comes from the New Testament, and the Gospel of John. In it, Jesus begins to call his disciples. He goes to a man named Philip and he calls to him and says, “follow me”. And he does. And then Philip goes to his friend Nathaniel, and he tells him all about Jesus, and even though Nathaniel doesn’t quite believe it, Philip tells him “come and see”. And he does, and he finds out that everything Philip said was true.

Both stories are about calling. They are about God speaking to people who never expect to be spoken to by God. In Samuel’s case he hears God’s voice directly. In Philip’s he is called directly by Jesus. And in Nathaniel’s, it’s Philip that God uses to call to him.

In the United Church of Christ, the wider church we are a part of, we have a saying. We say, “God is still speaking.” That means that God didn’t just speak to people like Samuel or Philip or thousands of years ago. God speaks to us today. And sometimes our job, as God’s people, is to learn to say, “speak God…for your servant is listening.” And, sometimes, our job is to drop everything when we hear Jesus saying “follow me”. And sometimes, it’s just to repeat God’s call and to tell the ones we love the most, “come and see”.

So this leads me back to the question: Why are you here? First, why are YOU here? We each have our own answer to that question, but I believe each of us is here, in Christian community for a reason. Because just like Samuel, and Philip, and Nathaniel, I believe that God called you. I don’t know how God called you, but I believe God called you.

First, God called you to God’s self. This was not a one time thing. God calls us to God over and over again, and even if we get off the path sometimes, God calls us back to God. You might not hear it the way Samuel did, with a literal voice in the night. You might hear it through the voices of friends. You might hear it in community. You might hear it whispered around you, like a gentle nudge. But however you hear the call, it’s real. And it’s valid. And even if you aren’t so sure what it’s saying, something about it was enough to get you out the door today and here this morning.

And so here’s my next question: Why are you HERE? I don’t just mean here at the Congregational Church in Exeter. I mean here at any church. Because this is the era of “spiritual but not religious”. There are plenty of voices out there telling you that you can connect with God on a hike, or over brunch, or at a party with a bunch of friends.

And I’m not saying that any of those things are false. But I am saying that I don’t think they are enough. Because at the end of the day, the solitary spiritual life is just that: solitary. And I don’t think God calls us out only to leave us alone.

When Christ called Philip, he didn’t leave Philip alone for long. Right away Nathaniel was called too. And then more and more disciples. The church is here today because Christ knew we were better together, and for generations we Christians have discovered the same thing. And something about that appeals to you enough that you are here, in a church.

That’s true for each of us here today. Each of us has come here on our journey, our roads converging together here. And now, as members of this community, we walk the road together. That’s why I am here. That’s why you are here. That’s why each of us is here.

And so here’s the next big question: Why are WE here? Why have we been brought together in this place.

Some of you read in my weekly email on Friday that today we are starting a new, month-long sermon series that will lead us right to the start of Lent by that same name: Why are WE here? And here’s the big question we are asking: What does it mean to be church together?
What we are really asking here is “What’s our purpose? What are we all about?” And to answer that question, sometimes it’s easier to ask the opposite question: What isn’t our purpose?

I have a few thoughts. These are reminders I have to give myself from time to time, because they are easy to default into, but I’ll share them with you because maybe they are helpful. First, the church is not a club. We may have members and membership rolls and a building and all of that, but we aren’t a club. This is a place where we each belong, but remember that this is also a place where anyone who wishes can also belong. There is no exclusivity here.

Second, with all due respect to all the great civic organizations out there, we aren’t one of those either. We can do good works continuously, and we should and must, but at the end of the day if that’s all we do we may as well just pack it in and join together with all the great organizations out there who do good works everyday.

And third, we are not just a place where we are fed, or entertained. Don’t get me wrong. I want us to leave church on Sundays filling spiritually renewed. I want the music to be uplifting, and the sermon to be memorable. But, I want those things to happen because we were worshipping God together. And because we are being prepared so that we can go back into a world that needs people who will lead lives that testify to God’s love.

That’s true of everything we do together. We do not exist for ourselves. We exist for glorifying God, and for loving the world. All the things we do together, worship on Sunday, committee meetings on Wednesday, music rehearsals on Thursday, all of that is important because all of that is part of what it means to be the church, the body of Christ.

And we, you and I and everyone else here, are the church together. Church is not a place we go on Sunday morning. Church is who we are. And we don’t have to be church alone. We are really, truly, better together. And our life together, no matter what comes up, can always be deeply joyful because of that fact.

And so, over the next few weeks, in the course of worship, the most meaningful thing we do together, we will be exploring why we are here. We will be looking at three things that Christ calls us to do together: to learn, to change, and to love. I’m not saying that’s the sum of the Christian life, but those are good places to start. And along the way, I hope you will keep asking yourself the question: Why am I here? And I hope you’ll then ask the bigger question: And what does it mean that I am a part of this “WE” called the Congregational Church in Exeter.

They are big questions, but they are worth asking. And more than anything, they are worth asking together. I’m privileged that my road has intersected with yours, and that we have found each other in this place. And I’m looking forward to asking them together. Amen.

New Still Speaking Writer’s Group Devotional Book for Lent

Re-Lent_-_web_largeIt’s hard to believe, but Lent is right around the corner. This year the Still Speaking Writers’ Group has once again released a devotional book for the season. Re-Lent is available for purchase now at UCC resources, and features a new devotional written by a member of the Writers’ Group for each day of the season. These devotionals are great for either individual use, or for small groups in your congregation. Check it out here: http://www.uccresources.com/products/re-lent-2015-lent-devotional-the-stillspeaking-writers-group?variant=1088054032

Advent Hope (Or, Why I Quit My PhD Program)

Over the last few years I have written short daily devotionals for each day of Advent and Lent. I enjoyed doing it, but there were times when it felt a bit draining, particularly in the clergy obstacle course that is the season of Advent and Christmas planning.

So this year I am doing something a little different. I am not writing daily posts, but I am committing to blogging. Maybe it will be once a week; maybe more. But, if I miss a day I won’t feel like I’m failing Advent. (Ever feel like you get grades for your liturgical seasons? Just me?)

The sanctuary at The Congregational Church in Exeter. The manger is filled with strips of paper on which the prayers for hope of the congregation have been written.

The sanctuary at The Congregational Church in Exeter. The manger is filled with strips of paper on which the prayers for hope of the congregation have been written.

Today seems as good a day as any to start in Advent because it is a memorable one for me. Thirteen years ago today I was ordained to the ministry of Word and Sacrament. When I knelt in the chapel of Columbia Theological Seminary and my friends and colleagues laid on hands I thought I knew how this journey would go. I was ordained in the Presbyterian Church (USA) to a specific call as a hospital chaplain. I thought I would spend a few years serving as a chaplain, go to graduate school and get a PhD, and then teach in a seminary somewhere. I had hopes, and I was going to work to make those hopes realities.

And for a few years I was on that exact course. I spent hours in a pediatric emergency room responding to the families of children with traumatic injuries. I crammed for the GREs. I earned a second masters degree in systematic theology that would boost my chances of getting into a PhD program. And then, early in 2005, I dropped six PhD applications into the mail and waited.

Here’s the part where you expect me to say I didn’t get in anywhere, and I had to change my hopes. Part of me wishes I had received back rejection letters. But I didn’t. Instead six offers of acceptance came back bringing with them my choice of programs. In the end I picked the one I thought made the most sense and headed off for the ivy tower, ready to join the ranks of the academy. My hopes had been realized.

Except for one thing. I hated academia.

Sure, I’ve never met a PhD student who was thrilled with their life. Graduate work is quiet drudgery. You live in a little apartment while your friends are buying houses. You drink too much coffee and eat too much crummy food. You feel grateful for the meager stipend you are lucky enough to get for being a teaching assistant. And you read. A lot. And you write. A lot. And you try to make your professors happy, but you get a sense that this is going to be a years-long academic gauntlet.

I expected all that. I expected things to be hard, and I was fine with that. But what I didn’t expect was how empty the whole thing would make me feel. I didn’t expect that each class and paper would feel meaningless. I didn’t expect the existential angst that would come from devoting years of my life to a dissertation that would most likely sit in an university library unread. I didn’t expect that I would feel like I was on the sidelines, sitting on the bench, while all my other clergy friends got to play in a game that mattered. And I didn’t expect that I would start to think about how to get through the next 35 years doing something I hated.

It wasn’t until later that I came to realize that, no matter how much we complained, a lot of my classmates actually didn’t hate it that much. I began to realize that they had a legitimate calling to academia. And, more importantly, I did not.

And so, I had to go back to what got me there in the first place. And I realized that becoming a PhD student had little to do with my hopes, and everything to do with my fears.

The reality is that when I was ordained in 2001 the Presbyterian Church (USA) (the tradition in which I was ordained) still prohibited practicing LGBT people from being ordained. (Despite recent news reports to the contrary, this is still the case in many presbyteries.) I had been out since I was 18, a fact that did not change while I was in seminary, and I know my ordination committee was well aware of this fact. (One member pulled me aside to assure me of this.)

And yet, I was never asked whether or not I would abide by the rules as they then stood. It became our little game of chicken. Our own ecclesiastical “don’t ask, don’t tell”.

If I had it to do over today, I might do things differently. But I was 24 when I was approved for ordination, and living in the South. Not even the local United Church of Christ jurisdictions were approving LGBT people for ordination yet. And so, cheered on by professors and well-meaning clergy who assured me I could do more good “inside the system” than outside, I played the game, and I was ordained.

But I knew that there were still things I could not do. I could not pastor a church, because I could not love a congregation the way a pastor must love their church and not be honest with them. Likewise, though I was not yet partnered at the time, I knew in the future that I could not love someone as a partner and ask them in any way to hide who they were in my place of ministry. I knew plenty of clergy who did this, and I saw what it did to them and their families.

And so, even though I loved preaching, even though I loved the parish, I convinced myself that I didn’t belong there. And I instead came up with a new set of hopes; ones revolving around chaplaincy and academia, relatively “safe” places full of LGBT clergy.

But deep down inside I knew it wasn’t my calling. No wonder I was miserable. I had traded in hope for convenience and safety. And hope, real hope, rarely guarantees us either.

I left my PhD program after two and a half years. My only regret is that I didn’t leave earlier. I also left the Presbyterian Church, choosing instead to transfer my standing to the United Church of Christ. And, finally, I went out into the parish, the very place I’d been so terrified to go, but yet the one place I was sure God wanted me.

Along the way I learned something about hope. It’s not about goals or plans or hoping that everything will work out easily and with the least degree of resistance. Instead, it’s about trust. It’s about trusting God enough to believe that God is creating something new and good, and God will make a way for you to do exactly what you are called to do.

And it’s also about knowing that if your hopes aren’t big enough, if they are in any way dictated by fear and not faith, you will end up settling for being miserable.

Thirteen years later, my ministry has taken me to a place I never expected. I’m not at a seminary teaching. I’m also not living with a tacit understanding between self and denomination. And I’m not compromising my hopes anymore.

Instead, I wake up in the morning next to a wife I love dearly. One I will never ask to hide for me. I walk from our home down the street to my study in the church office. I spend my days preaching, writing, praying, talking to parishioners, working for peace and justice, and serving the church and community. But, more than that, I truly believe I spend them (to steal a phrase from the Westminster Catechism) glorifying God, and enjoying God forever. And I am truly, deeply happy.

And now I know. On that day thirteen years ago, I may have had hope, but my hopes weren’t nearly big enough. And so this first week in Advent, when hope is what we think about, that is what I know about the subject: A hope that depends on our fears, and not our faith in what God can do, is no hope at all. And I truly believe that God wants more for us than that.

You Reap What You Sow: Sermon for October 26, 2014 (Stewardship Kick-off)

2 Corinthians 9:6-15

6 The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. 7 Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. 8 And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work. 9 As it is written,“He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor; his righteousness endures forever.”

10 He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. 11 You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us; 12 for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God. 13 Through the testing of this ministry you glorify God by your obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ and by the generosity of your sharing with them and with all others, 14 while they long for you and pray for you because of the surpassing grace of God that he has given you. 15 Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!

So, today is stewardship kick-off Sunday in the church, which means this is the Sunday each year where I preach about why we would like you to give to support our ministries here. Which means that this is the Sunday where I feel like I am one of those people on the NPR pledge drive, and I’m interrupting the things people really want to listen to and instead asking them for money.

I listen to NPR a lot, and I don’t particularly like pledge season. And yet here I am doing the same thing. Except I don’t even have anything to offer you. No tote bags. No fleece vest with our logo on it. No weather alert radio. Not even a chance to win an iPad.

So, you can see why I don’t look forward to this much. In fact, I’ve long told people that the stewardship kick-off sermon is my least favorite sermon of the year. No one likes to ask for money. And no pastor, at least no pastor worth their salt, likes getting up into the pulpit to do it. It feels too much like a televangelist; too greedy.

And yet, it is unfortunately necessary. And that’s why today, even though maybe none of us look forward to it, we are gathered here as a community, and we are gathered around Scripture, and we are talking about stewardship and giving.

1012068_10152318961546787_4013347830413628686_nAt first glance, today’s Scripture lesson might not sound like it has much to do with that. It’s not about money, or time, or talents at all. It’s about seeds and sowing and reaping. Or, to translate that for those of us who aren’t very good at gardening or farming, it’s about planting and harvesting.

Paul is writing to the church in Corinth and he summarizes what he’s telling them by saying, “The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.” In other words, he is saying “you reap what you sow”.

I don’t know about you, but that always sounded a little negative to me. It sounds like a threat or a warning, the kind we might get as kids from stern adults. “You reap what you sow, so if you don’t study you’re going to fail.” Or, “you reap what you sow, so if you don’t floss you’ll have cavities.”

Now, all of those things are true, but they aren’t exactly inspiring. It’s more like “do this or else this will happen”. In terms of motivating us to want to do something it ranks right up there with its close cousin, “you made your bed and now you have to lie in it”. And when you apply it to giving, it sounds a lot like some stewardship sermons I’ve heard. Ones where the message could be summarized by this: “You reap what you sow, so if you don’t give to this church, we will not meet our bottom line and someday we will have to close our doors.”

I’ve heard that sermon before. Verbatim. And, I’m here to tell you that it has never inspired people to give more. To tell you the truth, I think it does the opposite. Because if I happened to be a church member sitting out there in the pews and people told me that the only way to save a church was to open my checkbook so we could meet some bottom line on a spreadsheet, I wouldn’t feel particularly inspired to give to that church.

And to be perfectly honest, I hope you wouldn’t be either. And here’s why. A church that is just trying to meet a bottom line on a budget spreadsheet does not deserve your money. A church that exists only to fulfill its own needs and that worries only about maintaining the status quo and its own survival? That church doesn’t deserve anything.

In fact, I’ll go a step further. I would say that giving to a church like that is not only not helpful, but it’s actually bad stewardship. Because of all the places doing good work that you could give to that are out there, giving to one that’s just focused on self-preservation runs counter to building up the kingdom of God and doing Christ’s work in the world. Seriously, do not feel compelled to give to a church that cares only for its own survival because that is not a church. That’s just a clubhouse that is making the rest of us churches look bad.

But, if you want to do something else, if you want to be a part of something more than that, then keep listening. Because I think Paul is right. I think we do reap what we sow. But I don’t hear that as a threat. I hear that as a challenge. And I hear that as hope.

Because this is what I believe about giving. I don’t believe people feel inspired to give because they want to help meet a bottom line. And I don’t think people give because they want to sustain the status quo. I believe people give because they see what could be, and they believe that it is possible.

Paul was writing this letter about planting seeds to a church. And, of course, it wasn’t really about literal seeds and harvests. It was about asking the people of this church to support a new ministry in Jerusalem. And Paul knew that he was asking them to step out in faith and to imagine something that they couldn’t see yet. He wasn’t saying, “hey, look we are already doing this and we need help meeting the budget”. He was saying, “I believe God is calling us to do something new, and I’m asking you give not because you have to, but because you believe in it.”

In other words, this letter is Paul’s stewardship sermon. He is telling the people that something great is possible, but he needs them to help him plant the seeds. And the harvest, the tangible results that will come in a later season, will depend on this: what they are willing to plant now.

You reap what you sow. If you plant a few seeds, you might end up with something to harvest down the line. But if you plant an abundance seeds of hope in the soil of a place that is seeking to serve God in new and bold ways? That’s how you end up with a bountiful harvest. But you can’t get to that harvest by holding back.

And so that’s the question we each have to ask ourselves as members of this church community: What sort of harvest would I like to see? And what am I willing to plant in order to help us get there?

Here’s the harvest I envision. A year from now, and five years, and ten years, and many more, I dream of a church that is growing. I dream of pews that continue to fill a little more each week. I dream of our already great children’s program growing and bringing more kids into our church. I dream of vibrant youth ministry with middle and high schoolers. I dream of adult Christian education opportunities out at RiverWoods and here in our vestry. I dream of joyful Sunday worship and meaningful spiritual growth. I dream of all the ways this church can serve our community here in Exeter, and God’s people around the work.

And I know all these things are possible. First, I know they are possible because with God all things are possible. But I also know they are possible because in the short time I have been here with you, I have see how many of you share that vision. And I have seen the hope that so many of you have for this church.

This is a strong and healthy church, but we are not done with our journey. We have so much potential for growth, so much potential for going deeper, so much potential for service. And in an era when too many churches are living in a scarcity mindset, slashing ministries, and fearfully squirreling away every spare resource they can find, we are instead deciding to live in hope and invest in a future where we know God is waiting for us. And we are heading towards what could well be our most abundant harvests.

But first, we have to plant.

At the beginning of this sermon I told you about how this is my least favorite sermon of the year. I want to amend that. A sermon that asked you for money would be my least favorite of the year. But this sermon is not about asking you for money. Not really. Because this sermon is asking you for something much more valuable. This sermon is asking for your hope. And this sermon is asking you to invest in that hope, and to help plant the seeds we need to plant in order to make our hopes realities.

The reality is that it is up to you and me. UCC churches do not receive funding from the greater denomination like some of sisters and brothers in other churches do. Instead, we sustain ourselves. And so, we each, myself included, receive a pledge card. And we each are called to prayerfully consider what we are going to plant.

I know this is not easy. My family and I are making the same decisions about giving to this church that you are making, and come Stewardship Sunday on November 16th we will be putting our pledge card in the plate too. And I get it. I know what it’s like to pay the bills, and the student loans, and put some in savings, and take care of everything else. And I know what it’s like to voluntarily add something to the list. I know it’s often not easy.

And, it shouldn’t be. Because when we invest in our hopes, that is never an easy leap of faith. When we decide to take that step and plant those seeds, we are stepping out in faith. And for each of us that looks different.

It feels important for me to tell you that I do not know who gives and who does not. I have no idea who the biggest givers are in this church, and I don’t want to know. I also don’t know who is giving an amount that means little to their bottom line, and who is giving an amount that feels big to their modest budget. I don’t know, because that does not impact how I serve each of you as your pastor.

But, I am praying for you as you make this decision. Not because I hope that you will write down a big number. Really, I don’t care much about that. But because I pray you are a person of hope, and I hope that you feel hopeful about our future together. I’m praying that you will find spiritual meaning in your decision to give, and that you will plant those seeds in this good soil. I’m praying that you will sow in faith, and that we will harvest in joy.

We reap what we sow. It’s true. And that is good news. Because I truly believe that we are about to plant something amazing together. Amen?