Questioning Advent: Day 13 – Breakfast

294090_808396564688_2465085_nMy wife and I have a routine. Every Friday morning, before we both get to work, we try to have a breakfast date together. Each week we rotate between our favorite breakfast spots around our valley. It’s not a big valley. We tend to go to same places again and again. But there’s one place I’ve never been able to take my wife. At least not until today.

In August of 2011, Tropical Storm Irene flooded our community. Heidi and I hadn’t been together long, and I hadn’t had a chance to take her yet to Dot’s, the iconic small town diner in Wilmington. We had been planning to go the week the storm hit, but we never made it. By the time the rain stopped, Dot’s had been ravaged by the river that flows below it. Later that day we walked the streets around Dot’s, stepping over the pavement the waters had literally ripped from the road.

For the last two years and four months Dot’s has sat closed. The whole building had to be salvaged, moved back from the river, and rebuilt. For a while it wasn’t clear whether or not it would ever reopen. It became a symbol of the flood’s devastation, and the town’s tenuous recovery.

The first Christmas after the flood was hard here in the Deerfield Valley. We are a seasonal economy, based in large part on skiing, and it was a bad year for snow. Add to that the number of people who were rebuilding homes, laid off from businesses, or dreading the next storm, and the holidays took on a melancholy tone. Recovery is a process, and hope is often the last thing to get rebuilt.

In Advent we look for the coming joy, but we don’t ignore the realities of life. We acknowledge that this is often a broken, unfair, and incomplete world. We proclaim that we are a people more in need of hope, peace, joy, and love. We tell the truth. Because, if we know the truth about this world, if we don’t acknowledge that it is so in need of change, why would the promise of a new and better life in Christ mean anything to anyone?

Yesterday morning, the doors of Dot’s opened again. The counter was full. The tables were spread with pancakes and Vermont maple syrup. This morning we drank our coffee, ate the bacon and waffles, and said “hello” to our neighbors. The diner looked a little different, but there it was, perched above that same river and filled with new life. Destruction and disaster did not have the final say.

In Advent we proclaim a message of potential. We tell the story of what is to come. We pray for change. We wait for, and participate in, the birth of something new. We refuse to let devastation have the last word. We rebuild, not in ignorance, but with faith in the potential of the one who came and who is coming to us still. And in our rebuilding, we say “we are ready”.

Question: In your life, what has been destroyed, and what have you rebuilt in faith?

Prayer: God, you will not let the waters destroy us, you will not let the fires consume us, you will not let hatred crush us, and you will not let destruction win. In these season of Advent, help us to build. Let us build up the places of love in our hearts, the places of peace in our relationships, the places of hope in our communities, and the places of joy in the world. And let us see the potential for new life in everything. Even pancakes. Amen.

If you’d like to read more about Dot’s, check out this article that came out in the New York Times the day after this devotional was published: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/14/us/in-vermont-a-town-that-would-not-let-its-diner-go.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

Hurricanes and Judgement: Thoughts on the One Year Anniversary of Irene

West Dover, Vermont

Tonight I’m watching Hurricane Isaac as it bears down on the Gulf Coast. Seven years after Katrina, Isaac has the potential to re-devastate an area that’s still recovering, and still will be for years.

I’m watching these developments as I read the results of a poll from the Public Religion Research Institute and the Religion News Service which shows that 44% of Americans see an uptick in natural disasters as “evidence of what the Bible calls the ‘end times’.” Narrow that polling body to white Christian evangelicals, and that number increases to 67%.

Right now I’m thinking about those two things as I sit in my living room in southern Vermont. One year ago tonight I sat here and called my congregational leaders and we reviewed the weather forecast and reluctantly decided to cancel church services the next day. By the middle of the next morning, Hurricane Irene had devastated the community where we live.

That night I stood with friends and neighbors and parishioners in a street filled with upended asphalt, twisted metal, and busted glass. I spent two years as a trauma chaplain in a pediatric hospital in Atlanta, but I had never seen devastation like I saw that night. It looked, quite literally, like a bomb had gone off.

The next Sunday I told my congregation that, contrary to what 44% of Americans think, God did not send the flood to our town as a punishment, a warning, or a judgement. I still believe that. Others do not. We’ve had our fair share of bad theology here in Vermont. Missionaries disguised as trauma counselors. Judgmental Christian “leaders” calling us to repent for the sins that caused the flood. Even the Westboro Baptist Church had us in their sights.

What’s sad is that some folks, the ones hardest hit and looking for answers, believe this Gospel of Wrath. Bad theology is often the second wave of trauma. And the Christian leaders who perpetuate these ideas move from natural disaster to natural disaster, tragedy to tragedy, spreading the same rhetoric of judgement. From Vermont to Aurora, Colorado to western wildfires, to Oak Creek, Wisconsin, to midwestern droughts, to every other place you can name where blood was shed or destruction widespread, those voices of warning have followed, jockeying for airtime. They have somehow become the predominant public voices of Christian faith.

It’s really too bad they don’t stay around long in one place. Because if they did, they might actually catch a glimpse of God.

Those of us who stuck around past the news cameras and soundbites saw incredible testaments to the love and grace of God. We saw it as good people took seriously the idea that one should “love their neighbor as themselves” and got to work. Some were Christians. Some weren’t. But all behaved in a way much closer to the way Christ commanded us to live than anyone on TV talking about God’s judgment coming in the form of a hurricane.

The people here wasted little time before rebuilding. The next morning they donned masks and bandanas, picked up cleaning buckets and got to work. They cooked meals for the shelter in the high school cafeteria. They gave hours as volunteer firefighters and rescue personnel. They staffed the food pantry in town every day for weeks. And they gave and gave of every resource they had until it hurt.

They didn’t do it for a day. Or a week. Or a month or season. They kept doing it, day after day, no matter what was happening in their own lives. People I knew who had lost almost everything came asking who had it worse, and what they could do for them.

That’s where I saw God this past year. That’s where I saw grace. And that’s where I saw hope.

Tomorrow we will gather at that same place we did last year, at the same time, as the sun goes down here in southern Vermont. But this year the road is repaved, the glass is swept up, and the river has contained itself to its banks once more. We will light candles, and we will offer our memories. But more that that, we will offer our gratitude. Gratitude for strangers, gratitude for one another, gratitude for grace. And more than all of that, we will offer our hope.

I know God will be there tomorrow, because I know that wherever there is hope, there is God. And while the flood “was”, God “is”, and God will be.

God will be there on the Gulf Coast tomorrow too. And God will be there if that storm makes landfall. Not because God wills our destruction, but because God does not abandon us in the storm. And no matter what happens, God will be there in the aftermath.

My hope is that wherever the news cameras flock to next, whether it’s in the wake of the storm or, God forbid, the aftermath of another act of violence, that we will look for testaments to God’s love and grace, and not the destructive voices of those who would use Christ’s name to spread their own judgements.

You know that old song, “They will know we are Christians by our love?” It’s still true. More than ever, and especially in times of destruction or pain. And if you can’t hold the statements of a Christian talking head on TV up to that standard, then don’t allow them to be the only voice out there that is speaking for God. Lives, and hearts, depend on it.

The Dove and the Olive Leaf…a year later: Sermon for the one year anniversary of Hurricane Irene

Genesis 8:6-12

6 At the end of forty days Noah opened the window of the ark that he had made 7 and sent out the raven; and it went to and fro until the waters were dried up from the earth. 8 Then he sent out the dove from him, to see if the waters had subsided from the face of the ground; 9 but the dove found no place to set its foot, and it returned to him to the ark, for the waters were still on the face of the whole earth. So he put out his hand and took it and brought it into the ark with him. 10 He waited another seven days, and again he sent out the dove from the ark; 11 and the dove came back to him in the evening, and there in its beak was a freshly plucked olive leaf; so Noah knew that the waters had subsided from the earth. 12 Then he waited another seven days, and sent out the dove; and it did not return to him any more.

A year ago this week, on Saturday night, I spoke with the leaders of both churches about the hurricane that had been predicted for the next day. We talked about the weather forecast, and about canceling church services, and we agreed that probably nothing out of the ordinary would really happen. But we canceled anyway, just to be safe.

You know what happened next. A year ago, on a Sunday like today, it felt like the whole world had come crashing in. The river crested, and then spilled its banks, and the destruction was beyond what we could have ever imagined.

I remember seeing many of you that day. You were opening the evacuation shelters. You were working with police and fire and rescue. You were here in Dover or up in Wardsboro. Or you were there when we all finally made it down to the middle of Wilmington and saw the way the river had cut through town.

Some of you took big losses. Your businesses. Your homes. Your sense of safety. In many cases you didn’t have electricity or plumbing for days. And that day I think we all wondered whether life would ever be the same again.

The Sunday afterwards, we gathered here at the church and we read this same passage from Genesis. I had already heard by that point people who said the flood was God’s judgement on us. I heard someone say this was just God reminding us what God can do. I told you then, and I’ll tell you again today, I don’t believe that’s true.

The text we read then, and read now, is about the aftermath of a flood too. And while the flood in the Bible is attributed to God, I don’t want anyone to think I’m saying that this one was too. But I like this text, because it reminds us of the promise God makes in the aftermath of a flood. A promise given so long ago, and a promise given to us.

I believe the flood “was”. But I believe even more that God “is”.

Noah sends a dove out after the flood looking for dry land. It searches, and searches, and finds nowhere. And it comes back to him. And for seven days it stays there with Noah. But seven days later he sends it out again. It the world is not yet back to normal, but there is enough of what used to be there that the dove plucks and olive leaf, and brings it back.

Last year we talked about that olive leaf. That first sign that there was life again. That sign that the world could be rebuilt, even if, like the dove, we could not yet put our feet on solid ground again.

We came that day to claim an olive leaf. And we did. We found our signs of hope, and we went out and we did what needed to be done. And now, a year later, we have stories  of all the olive leaves we have found to share.

There are three things I’ve been thinking about this week: remembrance, gratitude, and hope.

First, we remember. We remember what that day was like. We remember how we felt when the full extent of what was happening became clear. We remember all the destruction and all the shock and all the high water marks. We remember the young woman who was killed on Route 100. And we remember all of those whose lives were changed in such unforgettable ways.

But that’s not all we remember. And this is where our memory turns us to gratitude. Because we also remember what happened next.

People tell me that they have never seen a community bounce back the way this one did. In fact, people say Vermont’s recovery as a whole has been spectacular. The day after the flood, bright and early, neighbors started helping neighbors to rebuild. They pumped water out of stores. They hammered things into place. They moved trees and rocks and earth. And they staffed the food pantry everyday. They kept the shelter open at the high school. They brought water to people who didn’t have it.

Our church, our churches at that point, did what they could too. We kept the doors of the churches open for those who needed to pray or rest. We opened our doors to 12 step groups who had been displaced. We gave out water and energy bars. We helped to organize a diaper drive. We drove in health buckets and school kits from Church World Service. We opened the doors of the Wilmington Church to St. Mary’s who had lost their building. And the basement of the Wilmington church even became storage for the food pantry.

The fact so many came out to help their neighbors, and that we got to have some part in that, is a cause for gratitude.

And it doesn’t stop there. Strangers came to help too. They came from all over and they brought water and food and tools. They joined with us and they gave their time and talents over the next weeks to help us rebuild. Likewise, our national denomination, the United Church of Christ, remembered us too. Within days of the flood they had sent grants to both of the churches to help us to help respond to the needs that arose in our area. Over the past year we have used those funds to help out local families and non-profits, and we will continue using them as we begin new ministries here.

And through the year the blessings kept coming. These are just some of the stories I know. But I know you know a hundred more. I know that none of us has been unmoved by what happened here. And I know that God has been good to us. Things may not yet be completely “back to normal”, but we have come so far from those first days. And we have come that far because of the grace that has been given to us. Our gratitude for our neighbors, and for strangers, and for the grace of God can never be buried.

And so now, a year later, we meet in worship again. And we read the same passage. The passage about the dove who brings Noah the olive leaf. And this year we read a little more of it. We read not just about that dove coming back after severn days, but we read about that dove going out again.

This time Noah sends the dove out, but it does not return. The dove goes out and sees that the world is safe again. It is returning to normal. And it finds places where it can land and live and thrive. It doesn’t have to go back to its emergency quarters on the ship. It’s free.

The dove symbolizes peace in the Christian tradition. More importantly, we equate it with the Holy Spirit. And for us, the Holy Spirit means hope. If you think about the dove that way, think about what this story means. First the dove brings back a tangible sign of hope to us, just as we began to receive last year. And then, the dove goes out into the world, unbound by the flood any more, spreading that hope to everyone.

We can do two things now. We can stay in the boat, or we can follow that dove, that symbol of the Holy Spirit, out into the world and in this second year of recovery we can continue to help to bring hope to our community and beyond.

We have done so much in this past year. And it has been good. But there is still so much that needs to be done in our community. And God is equipping us to do it.

Where will the Holy Spirit lead us this year? And are we willing to follow it? I believe we are. And I believe we will. And I believe that a year from now our community will continue to emerge stronger and with more hope than ever.

I’ll close with this. Last summer I baptized the infant daughter of one the families in our community in the Deerfield River. They live on the river, and wanted to baptism to be done with the water that they love. So we waded in, took water from the river, and poured it on her head and welcomed her to the family of faith. It was a beautiful day in a beautiful place.

It was not long after that day that the same river flooded, and changed life as we knew it.

But yesterday I stood in that same river again, this time with their infant son. And again, we baptized him with that water. Baptism is the ultimate sign of new life. And now that river that caused so much destruction can again be a symbol of God’s hope for us. God’s new life. It was a reminder for me that God can turn everything into good again, and God can give us hope in the most unexpected places.

And it was also a reminder that God has more for us to do. This year, what will God transform in our community? What will God transform in you? And what will God find to use to give us all hope. If we keep our eyes, and our hearts, and our hands, open, we won’t miss it when the Holy Spirit decides to use us again.

If we keep our eyes open for those olive leaves that God has offered up for us, if we follow that dove out into the world to the places God is leading us, we will never go wrong. God’s hope is here for the claiming, last year, this year, and for all the years to come. Amen.

Sermon for the Closing of Wilmington Congregational Church

Genesis 12:1-9

12Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

4So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran.5Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan. When they had come to the land of Canaan,

6Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. 7Then the Lordappeared to Abram, and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him. 8From there he moved on to the hill country on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and there he built an altar to the Lord and invoked the name of the Lord. 9And Abram journeyed on by stages toward the Negeb.

If I could only say one thing to the members of Wilmington today, I’d say this: “you did nothing wrong”.

And if I could say a second thing it would be this: “God is not done with you.”

We’ve come today because we are saying goodbye to one particular form of the body of Christ. We are sad. And it is not something we ever wanted to do. And yet, in the end, we felt like this was the most faithful choice we could have made. Which makes today particularly bittersweet.

Over the last year we have engaged in a hard conversation. A conversation that had been a long time coming. It was not easy. It was emotional. And it was something none of us wanted to talk about. And yet we did. And about two months ago we sat in this sanctuary and took a unanimous vote that it was time to close our doors.

Since that time, the biggest regret I have heard from folks. is not about closing the church. It’s about whether we let our ancestors in this place down. Would members of all the generations that came through those doors look at us today and think, “You didn’t do enough. You didn’t honor our legacy.”?

There’s a tendency to beat ourselves up about that. To wonder what we could have done better. But if we are doing that, we are losing sight of the question: Did we honor their legacy?

As I’ve thought about it, I think the answer is “yes”. We have honored the lives and faith of the people who came through that door. And I’ll tell you why.

The earliest founders of this church, back in the 1780’s, were not from here. They came to a new frontier, and they built a church that reflected the needs of the community at that time. They were people of faith. People for whom the will of God was the center of their lives. And they, and the generations that came after them, kept the doors of this church open to respond to the faith needs of not just this community, but the world.

They did incredible things in the name of faith. They gave meaning to a growing town, before Vermont was even a state. They baptized and confirmed people who would know Christ. They, in the days before abolition, sent money to support Congregational missionaries working to free slaves. They rallied to keep responding to the needs of Wilmington in the Great Depression, and the World Wars, and they served the people of this town well even into the last few months. Even when we knew where we were heading, when the waters flooded this town, we responded to Wilmington as people of faith, and we opened our doors.

Up until that very last meeting with the vote, we did the things that honored the legacy of  our forebears. And then, at the vote, we did it once more.

You all know there was enough money in our accounts to keep our congregation going for a few more years. But you also knew that this was about more than us. This was about God, and the legacy of this church.

You made a hard choice. You decided to honor the legacy of the people who came before you by giving freely of the gifts we had, so that our sister church down the road could continue to minister to our whole valley. You made a selfless choice. And the choice you made, and the way you made it, said more about who you were as Christians than about anything else. You spoke well for all the generations that no longer could. You told the world what kind of Christians they were, by showing what kind of Christians you are.

But that doesn’t mean we don’t have uncertainty. That doesn’t mean we exactly what happens next. But, I can tell you this: God isn’t done with you yet.

This afternoon I read you a story of old beginnings. Old because they come from one of our oldest ancestors. One who never lived in Vermont, but whom we still know. I read you the story of Abraham, and how God told him to leave the place he knew.

God doesn’t just tell Abraham to go. God tells him that there is a new land waiting. One that will be shown to him. And God tells him that God will bless Abraham’s name and make it great.

You have to wonder what Abraham was thinking. Was he scared? Was he unsure? Did he really believe it? Did some part of him want to hold on to all he knew and stay there in that place?

I’m guessing he did. But I also know that he went. And I know that God did everything that God promised. Because thousands of years later, when the book of Hebrews was written, we are told about what Abraham did. And how he looked to God, “the architect and builder” of a new place. And how this man, who Scripture calls “as good as dead”, produced a legacy. Descendants who were greater in number than the stars, or grains of sand.

But you don’t even have to take Scripture’s word for it. You can take the word of his descendants. I am one of them. And so are you.

And if God would do this for Abraham and Sarah, God will do it for those of us who are his legacy.

You have done nothing wrong. You have done everything possible to honor the legacy of those who come before you. You’ve done it by loving your neighbor. You’ve done it by  being good stewards. You’ve done it by trusting that God never forgets God’s children. And that God sometimes calls us to a new home in order to make us great. And God wants us to be great.

As we leave here today, and ring that bell one last time, may it ring out our commitment to that carrying our legacy with it. May it ring out our intention to be people who serve our God and our neighbors. And may it ring out our hope as we join another community of faith, and seek to serve this whole valley. God has promised us a blessing. And God will meet us on the journey. Amen.

“Speak Lord, for Your servant is listening.” – Sermon for January 15, 2012

1 Samuel 3:1-10, (11-20)
3:1 Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the LORD under Eli. The word of the LORD was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.

3:2 At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room;

3:3 the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the LORD, where the ark of God was.

3:4 Then the LORD called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!”

3:5 and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down.

3:6 The LORD called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.”

3:7 Now Samuel did not yet know the LORD, and the word of the LORD had not yet been revealed to him.

3:8 The LORD called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the LORD was calling the boy.

3:9 Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.'” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.

3:10 Now the LORD came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

On Sunday mornings for decades now the pastor of this church has preached the same sermon, and offered the same service in one church and then driven six miles to the next and done it all again. Today’s the last time the pastor of this church does that. Today’s the last time Alan plays the same hymns at both places. Today’s the last time we make that quick run out of the door of one church and into the door of the other. It’s the last time we worry about making it down the road in time.

 

In many way the two churches are the same, and in worship each Sunday we do the exact same things. But so many times in the past year and a half I have wanted to preach one thing to Wilmington and one to West Dover, because both churches have been in such different places in their lives. And I came to truly believe that God was calling both churches to something new, and that each needed to listen for it. And today, I can tell you that I truly believe that both have.

 

Today’s Scripture reading talks about a young prophet named Samuel. He’s been taken to the temple and his life has been dedicated to serving Eli, one of the priests 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, 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.”

 

In the United Church of Christ, the denomination that both of these churches belong to, we have a saying. We say, “God is still speaking.” That means that God didn’t just speak to people like Samuel thousands of years ago. God speaks to us today. And our job, as God’s people, is to learn to say, “speak God…for your servant is listening.” And then, we have to listen.

 

When I came here twenty months ago, I told the members of Wilmington that I knew the idea of closing the church had been around for some time, but that I didn’t have any agenda one way or another. My only agenda was to help us learn to listen for God’s voice, and to listen for what God was calling us to do next.

 

I’m really proud of the way that the members of Wilmington did just that. They listened to what God was saying to them, both in prayer, and by looking around at their community and asking what God would have them do. They looked at towns that were getting smaller, a society where compulsory church attendance is no longer the norm, and the fact that two like minded ministries were just six miles apart. And unlike back before the early 20th century, we don’t have to saddle up the horses on Sunday mornings to make it to church on snowy, unpaved roads. We just have to make a short trip now.

 

The needs of the people of God have changed. And we are being called to do something new. And we have been provided for by generations that came through those church doors and committed what they had to the ministry of the Wilmington Church. And we might be thinking right now that when we close the doors for the last time we might be betraying that legacy. But we’re not. In fact, we are making sure it lives.

 

The people who founded the Wilmington church back in the 1700’s didn’t come from Wilmington. They came mostly from Massachusetts and their families from England before that. They had gotten onto boats, often because they believed their faith compelled them to do it. They believed they had to leave the only home they knew in order to find the place where God was calling them to go. And it must have been terrifying.

 

And yet they went. They were called Puritans and they believed they were building a “city upon a hill” in Massachusetts. They didn’t always get it right, but they tried. And by the time their children and grandchildren pushed forth into Vermont we called their houses of worship Congregational churches. And then over the years we became the United Church of Christ. And we began to proclaim that “God is still speaking” and that we were ready to listen. And so, we did. And we heard what God was calling us to do next.

 

Our founders, and the good church people who came through the doors for years, wouldn’t be disappointed in us. They’d be proud of us. They were people who understood what it meant to say “here I am, Lord” and to listen for what God said next.

 

The people at West Dover have been listening too. So many people in the congregation have asked how they could welcome the members of Wilmington. So many have expressed gratitude for the fact that Wilmington has made the gracious stewardship gesture to give what they had to West Dover. Wilmington could have spent down to their last dollar keeping the doors open, but they chose instead to invest in West Dover’s ministry. And West Dover responded by saying, “We want you to work from us from the get go. We want to help you preserve the legacy, and the vision, of all those generations from Wilmington. We want to own it with you.” And when the West Dover church council made the decision to welcome new members from Wilmington into leadership, I couldn’t have been more proud. Because it showed that we were listening for what God was doing next. It showed we believe that God, just like one of those Puritan ministers said so long ago, “has more truth and light yet to break forth”.

 

Now that’s not to say that all of things are certain. That’s not to say that we are all hope and no sadness. Or that we have all the answers, and none of the questions. That’s not to say that we know what church will look like for us in a year or five or ten. That’s just to say that God is, indeed, still speaking. God still has more truth and light. And God is going to be there with us wherever our journey takes us, just like God was there in those boats that crossed the Atlantic, and with those early Congregational settlers who came up here. Just like God was with Samuel.

 

There’s a temptation in times of change to panic and to want every question to be answered immediately. And you probably have questions, and ideas, and thoughts about what should happen next. We all do. And I want to hear them. From all of you. Because I believe that God is truly speaking to all of us, just like God spoke to Samuel. I truly believe that God is about to tell us what God wants us to do next. And like Eli sending Samuel back to listen to God’s word, I believe we are being called to stop and listen with prayerful hearts to what God is saying to us. We have to all be willing to say, “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening” and to really mean it.

 

I’d like for us, as members of both churches, to say that together, and then to listen together. I’d like for us to be Samuels, listening for God’s voice in the night. And I’d like for us to be open to the idea that maybe God is going to have words to speak to us from people we might not expect. Maybe even you. Samuel was just a boy when God spoke through him. Surely, God can speak through any one of us.

 

Seneca, the Roman philosopher, said that if a sailor didn’t know which direction he was headed, no wind would seem good. And there’s a tendency, when you’re not sure where you’re going, to thing that there is nothing good coming your way. It’s easy to be negative in situations like that. But when you start to think about where you are truly being called to go, you finally know where to put up your sail and harness the wind to your advantage.

 

It may sound odd to talk about sailing in terms of church, but there’s a long history of representing the church as a boat. It happens in art work and in hymns and in ecumenical circles. We are people who have been gathered together for a journey that is sometimes on choppy seas, but we are held safely together by God’s love, secure in our belief that Christ can calm the waters.

 

Which means we have a choice in our life together now. We could sit out in our boat, in the middle of the ocean, with our sails down just hoping to drift to the right place. Or we could try to see where God wants us to be going, and put those sails up together.

 

In the coming months, I’d like us all to talk about how to do that. I’d like us to engage in a visioning process, one where we can talk about our hopes, and our dreams, and our beliefs about what God is asking us to do next. I’d like all of us to be a part of that conversation, West Dover, Wilmington, long-time member, newcomer, church officer, and even those who can’t stand committee meetings. I’d like for us to think as a community about what we believe our mission is; what we believe God is asking us to do in the Deerfield Valley. And I want you all to be a part, because I want you all to be able to come to church on Sunday mornings and say, “This is my church, and we are listening to what God is saying.”

 

And when we start to see what our mission is, when we start to understand what God is calling us to next, together we can put up those sails. Because God is about to take us to good places. As much as I believe anything in my life, I believe that. I hope that you do too. And so I leave you with this:

 

God is still speaking. And God always will be. So may we always be listening. Because listening to God’s voice is our legacy to honor. Amen.

“Making New Paths” – Sermon for 4 December 2011

Most of us have seen a fender bender take place in front of us before. We may have even been asked to be a witness to the accident. A police officer has asked us to remember everything that we saw, leaving nothing out, even if it seemed insignificant. And then he or she has gone and asked everyone else what they saw.
What’s interesting is that if you and I and a few other people were to see a fender bender, get separated, and then get asked what we saw, our stories wouldn’t be the same. I might remember that one driver ran a stop light. You might have seen the other driver texting. Someone might say the car was red. Another might remember where the license plates were from. And some of our stories might even conflict a little, not because any of us are lying, but because we were standing on different sides of the street or because one thing in particular caught our eye and felt so important that we remembered it.
It’s been said that the Gospels aren’t that different. There are four Gospels that we consider canonical, or a part of Holy Scripture. And each serves as a witness to the life of Christ. Each tells the story of what they saw. And they are all different. Some overlap and tell some of the same stories, but often you’ll find that a story one or two Gospels contains isn’t in the others. It’s like the witnesses to a fender bender. The parts of the story I think are most important might not even make it into yours.
Which is why John the Baptist is so interesting. Because he is there in all four Gospels. He is a part of everyone’s story. While some of the Gospel writers leave out this miracle or that parable, no one forgets John. He’s like the car that everyone saw run the red light. You can’t leave him out.
Every Advent we read about John. We read that he was the one who came first to try to tell everyone who was coming after him. He told those Gospel writers who was coming, and they couldn’t forget it.
The writer of Mark in particular didn’t forget. In fact they start the Gospel this way: “the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ.” And the beginning of that good news is that God sent this messenger. This messenger who lived out in the wilderness and wore camel’s hair and ate honey and locusts. He’s the first thing that Mark talks about. Not Mary or Joseph or the manger, but this strange guy who shouts out “prepare the way of the Lord. Make God’s paths straight.
You might think that Jesus could have gotten a better PR guy. Locusts and honey and camel’s hair don’t seem like what you want people to remember about your spokesperson. You want someone polished and dynamic and exciting. Someone with powerpoint and music and a big budget. Someone who Oprah will invite on the show and say that you changed her life. Someone who will write the feel-good best sellers that fly off the shelves. Not someone who tells everyone to “repent” and to get ready for something that is about to change their life.
But God sent John. And every year about this time we remember him in Advent. We remember him as the first person to know who Jesus was and to tell people to get ready.
As a child I thought “John the Baptist” must actually be a Baptist. I figured that there was John the Baptist, Steve the Methodist, Joe the Presbyterian, etc., etc. I didn’t understand why he was called that. A more accurate name for John would be “John the Baptizer”. Because that’s what he did. He called people out to the wilderness, away from the comfort of what they knew, and to a river. And they confessed their sins, all the things that caused them pain and grief and kept them tied to the past, and he baptized them. He helped them to put all of that behind them, and to start over fresh, because someone was coming that was going to need them.
John the Baptist was the original Advent guy. He was, as Mark says, “the beginning of the Good News”. He was the one who told you that Jesus was coming, and everything was about to change. And so, you’d better get ready.
Advent is about waiting. It’s about expecting that something incredible is about to happen, and watching for the signs that are all around you.
And we hear “wait” and we probably think about being patient and passive. You might think about the Advents we knew as children where the most we could really do was shake the presents and count down the days as you opened the doors on the Advent calendar. Advent was something to be endured.
But Advent is more than a kind of calendar. It’s a time of preparation. It’s “the beginning of the good news”. It’s the time where we are called to not just passively wait, but to get ready. John tells us to prepare a path for God. And Advent is the season to do it.
But how do you prepare that path? How do you get ready for what God is about to do next? How do you say, “Come, God. Come”?
To me, Advent is more than just four weeks a year. Advent is a lot like life. If we have faith, on our best days we believe that God is going to do something incredible with God’s people, both in this world and the next. We believe that Christmas, the coming of Christ, was not a one time only event. We affirm that Christ is coming again. And we are waiting.
But God wants us to do more than just sit around and wait. We don’t live our lives just crossing days off calendars the way we might open the doors of an Advent calendar just wanting to get to December 25th. God wants us to get ready. To prepare the way of the Lord, not just during Advent, but every day of our lives.
And so we get ready. Just like we get ready for Christmas by putting up the lights, and cutting down the tree, and buying the presents, we get ready for Christ every day of our lives. Because what is coming is more incredible than anything we have ever hoped for on Christmas morning.
But how do we get ready? We get ready by making this Advent world look like we want it to look like when Christ comes again. We don’t throw up our hands and say, “Let’s wait until God changes everything.” We look around, and we see what we can do to make this world ready for Christ. And then we work together to do it.
It’s not always convenient. It’s not always comfortable. It’s not always what we want to do. Usually it takes us on a path that is nothing we would ever expect. But in the end, if we are preparing the path that we think Christ will need in this world, we will find ourselves more fulfilled than we ever will leading a passive life of faith. That’s not what Advent is all about. That’s not what the life of faith is all about.
The church I attended in college and seminary was not a place of passive people. It was a place where people looked around, saw what they thought Jesus would be doing if he came back today, and did it. They looked around their neighborhood, saw homeless folks all around, and they invited them in and fed them and gave them somewhere to sleep. They were waiting for Christ to come again, but they weren’t content to sit by and cross days off the calendar. They listened to John. They were preparing the way of the Lord right then and there.
I was thinking of them this week, as Wilmington prepares to decide what path to take and how they will prepare the way of the Lord. My little church had slowly lost members until less than fifteen folks came on Sunday. And it became clear to all of us that God was ready to do something new. God was calling us to create a new path.
That church is gone today. At least in any official sense. There are no Sunday services, the members have all gone elsewhere, and the sign out front is gone. But its legacy lives on in the form of a building that has been transformed into a residential center for those who need a hand up. Hundreds of folks in Atlanta have had their lives changed because the people of that church decided that God was calling them to take what they had and create a new path. It wasn’t the end of a church. It was, as Mark says, the beginning of the good news.
Our job in all of our life, is to be a little like John the Baptist. Without the locusts. Prepare the way of the Lord. Make a path for God. In all we do, point not to ourselves, but to the one who is to come. And be the beginning of the Good News. Because if we can be that, God will make sure that there is more Good News to come, and that the Advent, the beginning, we create will give way to the one who is yet to come. Prepare the way of the Lord. This is only the beginning…Amen.

Noah’s Dove and the Olive Leaf – Sermon for September 4, 2011

Genesis 8:6-12

6 After forty days Noah opened a window he had made in the ark 7 and sent out a raven, and it kept flying back and forth until the water had dried up from the earth. 8 Then he sent out a dove to see if the water had receded from the surface of the ground. 9 But the dove could find nowhere to perch because there was water over all the surface of the earth; so it returned to Noah in the ark. He reached out his hand and took the dove and brought it back to himself in the ark.10 He waited seven more days and again sent out the dove from the ark. 11 When the dove returned to him in the evening, there in its beak was a freshly plucked olive leaf! Then Noah knew that the water had receded from the earth. 12 He waited seven more days and sent the dove out again, but this time it did not return to him.

Last Saturday night the leaders of both churches and I made the decision to cancel church the next morning. We weren’t sure whether anything would come out of the weather reports we were hearing, but we thought it was better to be safe than sorry.

Last Sunday morning, when we would have been in church, like many of you I watched the river rise in my front yard, praying it wouldn’t come any closer. Around the time church would have been letting out, the Deerfield River spilled over its banks and changed so much about this place we love.

Last Sunday night I stood in my clergy collar in the middle of the devastation in Wilmington and talked to some people who had been on vacation. We shook our heads in disbelief and one said, “This is God showing us what he can do.”

I’ve never understood that line of thought. My first call out of seminary was as a chaplain at a pediatric hospital in Atlanta. I served in the emergency room and unfortunately saw many children brought in with devastating injuries. As I would sit with the parents, I would hear the comments from well-meaning friends and staff who didn’t know what else to say:

“God meant this for a reason. God doesn’t give you more than you can handle. God has a plan.”

It wasn’t the time or place, but I always wanted to challenge them:

“God willed someone who had a few drinks to many to get behind the wheel? God told someone to beat this child? God made this kid find his father’s gun that hadn’t been locked up?”

In the wake of the floods, I hear the same sort of quick theological judgements. It’s not a huge surprise. People want to make sense out of something so horrific that it takes our breath away.

But I remind myself that God does not cause natural disasters to punish us any more than God wills a child to be hit by a drunk driver. God does not flood river banks to show us God’s strength. God does not wreak devastation because “God has a plan” or “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle”. God doesn’t kill people to teach us a lesson.

But I also believe this. No matter what happens, God can work through it to create something good.

We read a passage from Genesis this morning. It’s the story of Noah and the flood, and God’s promise. After the waters from the flood receded, Noah sent a dove out in order to find out whether it was safe again.

The first time the bird came back, finding no safe place to land. For seven days it stayed with Noah.

Seven days. Seven days later he sent out another dove. And the dove found that the world was not back to normal yet. But it was starting to be. And it plucked an olive leaf from a tree and it brought it back to Noah as a I sign of the hope that they could have in a world rebuilt.

Seven days. One week. One week ago we walked down into Wilmington, or East Dover, or Wardsboro to see what had happened, and we were like the dove who couldn’t its our feet down on solid ground. Our entire worlds have been changed.

One week later we come here to claim an olive leaf. We come to see God’s promise starting to come through once again. We look around and we see evidence of God’s grace working through this to create good. God did not send this flood, but God can work through even the worst of situations to transform them, and to transform us.

The olive leaf that the dove brought back was a sign of hope. And this week I have seen a lot of olive leaves. I have seen the grace of God at work in profound ways.

As the high school turned into an evacuation center, the lines between neighbors were crossed in the interest of working together. And time and again, someone who had lost so much came to me and asked who had it worse, and how they could help them. Many of you cleaned out friends’ stores, helped neighbors move, served meals at the shelter, handed out water at the church, stacked shelves at the food pantry, organized diaper delivery, and in so many other ways demonstrated that hope is real.

And the olive leaves, the symbols of hope that we claim a week later, they are not just here in the valley. They are all over. Within hours after the rains came, checks were on the way to the pastor’s discretionary funds of both churches from people across the country. Within days Church World Service, the organization we donated to last spring after the tsunamis in Japan, had sent disaster supplies up here to us.

Later in the week we heard that both churches had been sent funds from the national United Church of Christ so that we can help our neighbors in the coming months. You may remember that in the spring we took up a collection for the UCC’s storm relief fund. And now here we are, just a few months later, finding that what we gave is coming back to us. In addition, throughout the week I’ve received calls from numerous UCC churches throughout New England that wanted to know how to help us. This week I have been reminded more than ever that we are stronger because we do not stand alone. We are all interconnected, and when we think beyond our own needs, we find that we are the ones who are often strengthened the most.

But, as Christians we already knew that. Because as Christians we know that we do not live in isolation from one another, or from our Creator. We know that Christ did not choose one disciple. He chose many, and he taught them to serve not themselves, but one another. This week I saw so many people, both here and in places far away, living into the kind of community Christ wanted us to have. In the coming weeks and months, may we continue to do the same. Even when things look hard.

Two weeks ago I had coffee at Dot’s, walked down to some of your shops, and stopped to look at books at Bartleby’s. It was a warm summer’s day, and everything seemed perfect. Last week the buildings I’d been in were torn apart. They were the first things I saw when I walked into town. There was so much devastation. It took my breath away.

But, like you, I come here every Sunday because I believe in resurrection. I come here because I know someone who was subjected the worst that this world could do to him, who suffered alongside of us, and who the whole world thought had been destroyed.

Except he lived.

When I took that walk around Wilmington last week, I wasn’t in love with the buildings or the businesses. I was in love with the people, even with all of our imperfections. I was in love with who we were, and who we are, and who we will be.

And today I am grabbing hold of that olive leaf. That what made our community special a week ago was not what we had built, but who we were. We are a community that can rebuild, because even as the landscape has changed, who we are has not.

We come here because we believe in our hearts that resurrection is possible. I can’t tell you what that resurrection will look like yet, but I can tell you that God can work through us to make it good. Our hope is in a God who so long ago brought new life after the world was flooded. God still can, and God still will.

May God bless us all in the coming days, and in the coming months, and may God pour out a blessing on this whole Valley. Amen.