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.

“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?

That We May All Be One: World Communion Sunday, 2015

A couple of weeks ago I received an email from Pastor Hatie Soyzayapi. Soyzayapi is the pastor of the church in Pfizda, Zimbabwe with whom we are in partnership. United Church of Christ churches from all over New Hampshire have each partnered with a congregation from the United Church of Zimbabwe and we have called this initiative the Ukama partnership. Ukama is a word in the Shona language meaning friendship, and through this project we hope first to form friendships between churches divided by continents and an ocean.

And every couple of months I hear from Pastor Soyzayapi. He tells me about what is going on in his congregation and in his community. And he always reminds me that his church is praying for us here in Exeter. But this time, Soyzayapi asked me a favor. He asked that this week in particular we would pray for Pfizda.

This is the start of the farming season in Zimbabwe. The country is south of the equator so as we here in New England are harvesting all that we have planted, they are doing the mirror image and planting in order to prepare for a harvest. And this week, they are praying in particular that the planting will be successful. And Pastor Soyzayapi asked us to pray in particular for the seeds they will plant, and for rain to come.

I wrote back and told him we could do that, and we will do that during this service. But what I didn’t realize until after I’d already written back is that today of all days is fitting for us to lift up these prayers. That’s because today is celebration called “World Communion Sunday.”

I’ll come back to that in a minute. But first, I want to lift up today’s text from the Gospel of John. In it Jesus is doing something that Scripture often doesn’t record. He’s praying, not in front of others, but for others. And he’s praying in particular for his disciples and asking for God’s guidance and blessing for them. And he prays for all who believe in him and asks “that they may all be one”.

It’s a bold prayer. It was bold when he was just dealing with twelve disciples. But it’s particularly bold in today’s context. Because while there are roughly 2.2 billion Christians in the world, we are divided into an ever-expanding list of denominations, organizations, and traditions. Roman Catholics, Orthodox Christians, and Protestants make up the three major movements, but even within those broad categories there are so many divisions.

UCC-UCCanada_LogosIn the United States, for instance, there are at least 217 different denominations. The UCC, for perspective, is somewhere around the twentith largest American denomination in terms of number of members, with right around one million people. And in this town alone, we have Catholic, Episcopal, Methodist, Lutheran, Baptist, Presbyterian, evangelical, and non-denominational churches.

And we have our reasons. We have different understandings of the Gospel, different thoughts on who should be allowed to be members and who should be able to serve as clergy, different views on who can take the sacraments and who cannot. And I am profoundly grateful that a place like the UCC exists, because it is my church home.

But on the other hand, I sometimes wonder what Jesus would say if he came back, and he stood here on Front Street among our churches, and saw that his followers all gathered in different houses of worship with little interaction at all. I wonder if he would think of that prayer from centuries ago about us all being made one. And I wonder if he would say, “guys, this is not what I meant”.

That phrase, “that they may all be one”, that is the official motto of the United Church of Christ. Sometimes we think it’s “God is still speaking” but really it’s that passage from John, that hope that the people of God will overcome differences and join together in the work that needs to be done in this world.

The UCC took that motto in 1957 when the Congregational Church, the denomination whose name we still bear, joined with a predominately German-American movement called the Evangelical and Reformed Church. Somehow New England Yankees and mostly midwestern and mid-Atlantic German-Americans were able to gather around the same table and say “you know, our theology isn’t all that different, and we might just be better together.”

When the denominations merged I think that was a shining moment for the body of Christ, a sign that God’s people can come together by building a bigger tent. And it’s one that I hope will be repeated again and again, until we are reconciled with our brother and sisters in the faith, and until we are all one in Christ.

And that’s the hope of World Communion Sunday. It was started in this country in the 1930’s and is now celebrated in Orthodox, Protestant, and Evangelical churches not just here but around the world. Today in churches everywhere Christians will be sharing in the feast of Holy Communion together, and we will all be lifted up into the glorious feast that has been prepared for us.

But as we eat of it, and as we celebrate, we must remember that there is more to do. And we must let the meal we share strengthen us for the work of reconciliation.

There was a time when if you came to church, it was not guaranteed that you would be able to take communion. In some churches you had to be examined in the days before Communion by the minister or deacons and, if you were found worthy, you’d be issued a token for the sacrament. A sort of religious “admit one”. And even in the Puritan churches here in New England, before you could take the sacrament you had to sign the church covenant and be a member.

That’s not the practice here. We welcome every person to the table. Adult or child. Devout believer or faithful doubter. UCC member or first time visitor. That’s because this is not our table. It’s Christ’s. And who are we to turn anyone away from his table?

But as open as our table is, we need to remember, this table before us is only one small leaf of a table that extends across denominational lines, across traditions, across borders, across oceans. It is a small part of the same table at which the people in Pfizda sit. It is a part of the same table that sits on then churches of the Native American reservations in the Dakotas where much of today’s Neighbors in Need offering will end up. And it is part of the same table as the other churches in our town.

It is an infinitely big table, and it is ever expanding. There is always room.

Two weeks from today, I’m not going to be with you. I’ll instead be with the rest of the United Church of Christ board traveling back from Canada. The day before we are going to cross the border at Niagara Falls and meet our counterparts from the United Church of Canada there.

Together we are going to be signing an agreement that will bring our two churches into full communion with one another. That means that the UCC and the United Church of Canada will agree that we share the same basic beliefs, the same understanding of the sacraments, and that we will freely share our clergy, among other things.

It’s a big step towards all being one. One that we have also taken in recent with the largest American branches of the Presbyterian, Lutheran, Reformed, and Disciples traditions. One that I hope we will keep taking with other churches as well.

That’s something big to celebrate on this World Communion Sunday. But on the other hand, the fact we even need to have a World Communion Sunday, that we need to name that we are bound by this sacrament to one another despite our differences, shows just how far we have to go. Because we should never have to have a special day to say that. It should just be known.

I’ll close with this. There was a time when this church knew what it was to be divided. From 1638 to 1748 there was only this church, First Parish. Some people in our town still call this church First Parish. But in 1748, the Congregationalist in this town split over what we would now think was a pretty small dogmatic matter. And then there was First Parish and Second Parish, just a few blocks down.

It took until 1918 for those churches to get past it, and join back together. And then there was neither First Parish nor Second Parish anymore. There was just the Congregational Church in Exeter.

Almost a hundred years later, we are one. Our spiritual parents and grandparents and great-grandparents stitched one congregation out of two, and made the tent bigger. They proved that, truly, they could all be one. And the fact we are all here today is all the proof we need that they were right.

The work of our time won’t be about getting rival Congregational churches together. It will be about reaching out to our Catholic friends, our Baptist friends, our Episcopalian friends and saying “we look different, and we are different, but at our core, we follow the same Lord”.

That’s reason enough to find ways to sit at the same table. And that’s reason enough to try to answer Christ’s own prayer, and to pledge that we will strive that, someday, we may all be one. 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?

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?