Confirmation Rules: Sermon for May 21, 2017

This sermon is available as a podcast at iTunes

John 14:15-21
14:15 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.

14:16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.

14:17 This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

14:18 “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.

14:19 In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live.

14:20 On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.

14:21 They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”

On the first day of confirmation class this year, I asked the students who had gathered to close their eyes. Then I said to them, “raise your hand if you are here today because your parents told you that you had to come”.

I then told them to keep their hands up and open their eyes. Every hand in the room was raised.

We all laughed, and I was neither hurt nor surprised. I remember being a middle schooler and the prospect of spending Friday afternoons after school at church with some pastor I barely knew would not have appealed much to me either. But they were there, and they were open and willing to listen, and so I gave them my two rules of confirmation class:

First, while being here in confirmation class may not be up to you, being confirmed is solely your decision.

In other words, if your parents are requiring you to be here, that’s okay. Come to class as they ask, and keep an open mind. But if at the end of this you do not want to be confirmed, that’s okay too, and that’s your choice.

That’s important, I told them, because your parents brought you to the baptismal font before you were old enough make up your mind about your faith. In doing so they brought you into the community of faith, and we affirmed that you were Christ’s own. But now you are older, and you have the chance to make one of the most important decisions of your adult life. In confirmation we “confirm” what has already been promised for us: we confirm that we accept Christ’s love and grace, and that we will continue to grow in this faith.

So, that’s the first rule. The second is this: your confirmation is not a graduation.

I know what the rule is in some families, spoken or unspoken: get confirmed, and you can choose whether or not you come to church after that. But that’s the exact opposite of what it should be. Because by choosing to be confirmed you are saying that you are committing yourself to being an active part of the community of faith. You are not taking a step back from church. You are taking a step into church. You are saying this matters.

Those are the rules. And I set them out and then tell our youth that if they choose not to be confirmed, that is totally okay. I will not be disappointed in them, and this church will not love them or welcome them any less. The rules are not meant to be restrictive or harsh. If anything they are meant to be loving, and to show where the boundaries are.

But even after all of that, six youth have chosen to be confirmed today. And so I want to hold up to them, and to all of us who would live out our faith, the lectionary Scripture for today. In it, Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” In other words, if you love me, you will follow my rules.

The first question, of course, is which rules?

That’s a question Jesus got asked a lot. In fact, he was once asked, “What is the greatest commandment”, or, what’s the most important rule? And Jesus responded, “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
In other words, that’s what Jesus wants us to do. In fact, Jesus says that if we really love him we will do those things.

But here’s the thing: those things are not easy. First, love the Lord with all your heart, soul, strength and mind. In other words, love God so that you are holding nothing back. Give God all of those things first, before you give them to anything or anyone else.

And then, the even harder piece, love your neighbor as yourself. This is a totally foreign concept to most of us. We are taught to love ourselves first, and those like us second. But Jesus wants more than that. Yes, he wants us to love ourselves, and love ourselves just as deeply as he loves us. But he then wants us to love every other person in this world with the same ferocity and depth. And he wants us to act on that love, and to serve our neighbors first.

So, first, we have to love God with everything that is in us. Then, we have to love ourselves, which is sometimes just as hard. And finally, we have to love the world.

Y’all, that’s not easy. In fact, because we are human, it’s actually impossible to do most of the time. And yet, it’s what Jesus says we have to do if we love him.

And so how do we do it? Well, first, we commit ourselves to it, day after day. And second, we do it together. We do it as people who gather together in a community like this one, and who try, week after week, to get it just a little closer to right.

For those who are being confirmed today, this is the path that you are choosing to take. You are saying you want to try to do these things. And this is too holy, and too hard, a calling for you to embark on alone. And so that’s why I gave you those two rules: first, it has to be your choice. And second, this can’t be the end of your journey…you have to be all in.

The good news is you will have help. You have this church. You have the people who sit in the pews every weeks. You have your families. You have your teachers and youth group leaders and a pastor. And you have a mentor who is going to continue to be there for you.

In the past confirmation mentors have been companions to the confirmands during the year before you were confirmed. But this year we are doing something different. This year your mentors are going to be there for you in the year after confirmation. You’ve already met with them, but you are committing to them, and they are committing to you, to keep this relationship going.

They are going to continue to check in with you, and I hope you are going to go to them as well. Together you are going to walk down this road of faith, and you are hopefully going to teach one another a little more about what it means to love God with your heart, soul, strength, and mind, and what it means to be a part of this church.

And this is also where I want to remind this congregation what we are committing to today as well. Upon their confirmation these six youth will become full members of the Congregational Church in Exeter. Their membership does not come with an asterisk next to their name. They are not junior members. Their standing in this church is exactly equal to your own. They now have full voice and vote in all matters of the church.

As one of you reminded me this week, we ask our confirmands to do more to join this church than we do any adult. They prepare for a year, they wrestle with their faith, and they write a faith statement. These youth are not the future of this church. They are the present, and they carry the gift of a perspective that we need. It’s our job to listen to them and take them seriously. We do that because they have taken this process seriously.

And so, as we prepare to confirm them, and as you prepare to be confirmed, hear the rule of life that Christ has given us all: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and soul, and mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. This is how Christ himself said that he would know we truly loved him.

We all need one another in this work. The good news is that today we gain six more voices to encourage us along the way.

“Glorify” for Groups

Update, June 2, 2016. The Glorify group reading guide is now available, free of charge: Glorify Reading Guide

It’s been a few weeks since Glorify: Reclaiming the Heart of Progressive Christianity was released by Pilgrim Press. I’ve been so grateful to hear the initial round of feedback. The book seems to have articulated something many have been feeling for some time.

IMG_6934One of the things I’m hearing the most often is that people want to use this book in a small group setting. My hope has always been that Glorify could be used that way. In fact, I’m working on a reading group study guide now that should be available for download soon. This will contain tips for classes, questions for group discussion, and other resources.

I’m also aware that now is the time in the church year when congregations are looking at summer small-group reads as well as Christian education options for the fall. In that spirit, here are three ways churches can use Glorify in your congregation.

Adult Education Sunday School

Glorify is broken into ten chapters, each of which (10-15 pages each) could easily be read by busy church members during the course of a week. Taking a chapter a week, Glorify would inspire a rich conversation in adult Sunday school classes throughout the fall.

Book Group Discussion

Many churches have book groups that come together to talk about a common read. Glorify could be read all in one sitting, or broken into its three parts for a multi-event group. The three sections (Finding Our Purpose, Being Transformed by God, and Transforming the World with God) provide a structure for shorter-term program of one to three sessions. The book is also a great read for “One Church/One Book” programs in which the entire congregation reads the same book and talks about what it can teach their church.

Confirmation, Youth Groups, or Campus Ministries

Glorify is a down-to-earth, conversational read that is appropriate for youth and young adults. It talks about the real social issues that matter to younger Christians, including LGBTQ inclusion, eradicating racism, and changing the world. It also provides a basic overview of mainline Christian faith and how it shapes our identity. The premise of Glorify is that we are transformed by God’s love for us, and so we in turn transform the world. One of the most amazing things about today’s youth and young adults is that they want to serve, and they want their faith to inform their work in the world. This book will help them to integrate belief and action.

If you want to order Glorify for a small group, you can do so directly from Pilgrim Press here: http://www.uccresources.com/products/glorify-reclaiming-the-heart-of-progressive-christianity-heath

Or, look for the book on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Glorify-Reclaiming-Heart-Progressive-Christianity/dp/0829820299/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1453486699&sr=1-1&keywords=glorify+emily+heath

If possible I am also glad to talk about coming to your church to speak about the book, or connecting with a small group via Skype to answer questions and talk more.

Thanks so much for all the support! May Glorify be a blessing to the ministry of your church.

Stumbling Blocks and Stepping Stones

The following was preached on Sunday, September 27, 2015 at the Congregational Church in Exeter.

Mark 9:38-42
9:38 John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”

9:39 But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.

9:40 Whoever is not against us is for us.

9:41 For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.

9:42 “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.
In seminary we were taught to never preach a sermon that didn’t give the people who heard it reason to hope. In preaching classes we would preach, and then we would subject ourselves to a sort of “brutal grace” in which our classmates and professors would all tell us what we could have done better. The one question that seemed to come up the most was, “But what hope will people take from that sermon?”

What’s true of young seminarians is also true of just about all of us. We sometimes struggle to find, and talk about, hope. And when people do talk about it, it sometimes sounds a bit disingenuous. It becomes the stuff of commercial sound bites and political campaigns. Buy this and you’ll be a better person, or vote for me and you’ll have a better country.

And so it sometimes sounds naive to talk about hope. We probably talk more about false hope on a daily basis than we do about hope, and that’s sad. But maybe we do that because along the way we have had too many experiences of putting our hope in the wrong places and we are all a little more streetwise for it. We start to believe more in the inevitability of everything going wrong than we do in hope. And gradually, we become people of fear.

Today’s Scripture text puts, quite literally, the fear of God into us. And yet, at it’s heart, I believe it’s one about hope.

Jesus is teaching the disciples and he says something that has always struck me with fear: “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.”

That’s a frightening visual. Have you ever seen a millstone? They are huge and heavy, and no one could help but sink if they had it around their necks. And yet, Jesus tells us that that would be better than what would happen if we put a stumbling block before a child.

Now, it’s never said explicitly that he is talking about children there. In face, he may well have been talking about all believers, but I love the idea that maybe Jesus was talking about children. This was, after all, the same Jesus who told his disciples to let the little children come onto him, something so remarkable for a time when children were treated as little more than property.

And it’s fitting for today too. Because every time we baptize a child in this church it’s a tremendously happy occasion, and our joy today is literally doubled as we baptize twins. Today their parents are making vows to raise them in this faith, but we also once again make the vows as a congregation to help them do just that. They become, in a very real way, our spiritual responsibility.

And so, that line from Jesus might be hitting a little close to home right now. Because the hard truth is this: at some time or another, with these children or with others, we are all going to take our turns at being stumbling blocks.

We won’t mean to, of course. But we will indeed mess up. Every parent does. Every grandparent does. And every loving adult in a child’s life does at one time or another. We use harsher words than we mean to. We make light of something that is important. Or we fail to make time when it’s needed the most.

I remember when I missed up like that once. Earlier in my ministry I was working with a young child who had been through a series of foster homes and had lived through trauma and losses of trust that no child should. And he kept trying to use my computer while we were supposed to be working on something else. I was trying to redirect him but he kept asking me for the password. And finally, without really thinking, I told what I thought was a little white lie, meant to divert his attention away from the computer and back to the task at hand. I said I didn’t know the password.

And that was fine. For a while. Until he saw me log in. And he looked at me, and I could see how upset he was, and he said “you lied to me!” And I knew that he had been lied to so many other times in his life, and I had just become one more adult who did the same to him. And I felt like that millstone that Jesus talked about had landed right on top of me.

He forgave me. But I never forgot that. And I came to understand that messing up was inevitable. We are all going to do it. But in the end, what matters most is that we never destroy a child’s hope. Because when we do that, that’s when Jesus says it would be better for the millstone to be around our necks.

Now, for most of us here, more mainline and progressive Christians, that might be hard to hear. We don’t really talk about any kind of divine punishment or “hell” in our tradition. And when we do it’s not a lake of fire like you may hear about in other churches. Instead, hell is the absence of God. It is the absence of hope. And in in so many ways, that’s the worst sort of hell imaginable. And I often wonder whether hell isn’t as much a place of this world as it is of the next. Because far too many people live without hope. It’s like a millstone around their necks.

And so often that millstone weighs so heavily around us that we can’t help but let it get in the way. And we teach our children that hope is indeed absent. We don’t think that’s what we’re doing. We think we are teaching them to be tough. We talk about the real world. But so often we cross that line, and teach them to be cynical and jaded way too early.

IMG_2511We take their hope away. We become stumbling blocks on their paths. We take away what they think is possible. And in doing so we shape what they believe is possible and impossible in their future, just a little at a time. And we make the world just a little less bright both for them and for us.

And so I think about those words from seminary; “Never preach a sermon that leaves people without hope”, and I realize that the same could be said for all of us, for the ways each of us preaches the sermon of our lives, especially to the young people around us: never do anything that takes hope away from them.

The biggest mistakes we make are the ones that take hope away from the young. And I don’t just mean in our daily lives, and in our own interactions with young people. I mean in all of our lives.

Look, for instance, at what we are doing to our very planet. Look at the ways generations have used it unwisely, and with thought only for themselves. And look at what we are preparing to hand over to the ones who will follow us. Will they receive this world with gratitude and hope? Or with fear, and resignation?

I hope it’s the former. I hope that they will hope in a better future. And I hope that they will live as people of hope.

But hope is more than just wishful thinking. Hope is a form of action. And we must hope a better future into being for the ones who shall inherit the earth. Because the children of today are the keepers of the promises and possibilities that will shape our lives.

And so we, you and I, must also become people of hope. We must become not stumbling blocks but stepping stones. We must become teachers of hope. Because if we want these children to live in hope, then we must become ever-present examples of hopeful people.

We can become the biggest cheerleaders to our young people. We can become the ones who encourage them to do the things that are hard. We can be consistent in our encouragement, and our prayers for them. We can be loving and honest, even on our hardest days. And we can make this world the sort of place that they will inherit with hope, and not fear. And we can start today.

Because today we are making hopeful promises. We are telling the two children we are baptizing today, by this action that they are too young to understand, that there is hope in Christ. We are telling them that even though they don’t yet know what it will look like, there are lives ahead of them that are worth putting their hopes in, because they will be filled with the hope of Christ and because we cannot yet know how good that will be. And we are telling them, as Christ’s people, as the ones who have been claimed by God, that we will work to build a world for them that is full of hope.

That is what baptism is about. It’s God’s claim of hope on our lives. That is what those waters symbolize today for our newest brother and sister in Christ. And that’s what our baptisms symbolize in all of us.

Before I came here, I lived in the mountains of Vermont. And I learned something watching the rivers there. I learned about how slowly, over hundreds of years, water can wear away stone, carry it out to sea, and form a new landscape.

That’s even true for millstones. As big and cumbersome as they are, in the end they are no match for relentless waters. And what better water to wash them away, then the waters of baptism. The waters of hope. They are washing over me, and they are washing over you. And they are taking away the stumbling blocks, renewing us and giving us hope. And it’s that hope that we can give to the next generation. Amen?

Don’t Say I’m Just a Kid: Sermon for February 3, 2013 (Scout Sunday)

2012 Scout SundayI entered seminary right after I graduated from college, when I was still 21 years old. And that summer I was called to my first meeting with the committee that would later decide whether or not to ordain me as a minster. I was really nervous, because I was sure I would get asked some sort of confusing theological question, or I’d be asked to recite the books of the Bible or something. I had no idea what to expect.

I the end, the meeting went well. No curveball questions. No unfair expectations. But the committee said they had one concern: I was 21 years old. Wasn’t I too young to know that I wanted to devote my life to God?

It was the last thing I expected them to question me on, because I thought a young person who wanted to serve would be greeted with open arms. I had made this decision so carefully, even throwing away my law school applications to apply to seminary. And I left the meeting approved to go forward, but feeling this sense that I wasn’t being taken seriously because I was young. It’s left an impression on me to this day.

It’s no surprise that we sometimes do not value the voices of young people. We all have experiences of being told we are too young, or of not being listened to. And as kids and as young adults we hate it, and we say we will never do it to others once we are in positions of power. And yet, generation after generation it happens.

The prophet Jeremiah must have known what that felt like. Jeremiah was living in a Judah, a place going through some complex changes. As a people they were deciding what they would worship, and what really matters. And God calls to Jeremiah one day and tells him he is going to be a prophet, which is someone who will tell his people what God wants for them in terms of being just, and being faithful, and turning away from the false things that surround them.

We’re not sure exactly how old he was. Probably a teenager. He was young that when the call from God came, Jeremiah’s first reaction was this: I can’t do this. I don’t know how to speak. I am only a boy.

God answers him, “do not say that you are only a boy, because I am with you.” God goes on to tell Jeremiah that he has been chosen to speak to entire nations, and “to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant”.

My guess is that his entire life up until that point Jeremiah had been told he was too young to really matter. He might have ideas and opinions, but he had to get in line and wait his turn. He had to be old enough for them to be listened to. So when God told Jeremiah, “I’ve got a job for you”, it’s little surprise that Jeremiah’s first answer was “oh, no God…not me…I’m too young.”

But you can’t say no to God. At least, not for long. And in the end Jeremiah went on to be one of the greatest prophets of the Bible. So important that he is recognized today by followers of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam for what he had to say, even though he was “just a boy”.

I was thinking about this reading this week and I was thinking about why it was so perfect for this morning. For those who are visiting, I’ll tell you what I’ve told the congregation before, which is that our readings on any given Sunday are not picked by us. Instead we follow a calendar of readings called the lectionary, which is shared by most Catholic and Protestant traditions. And this week’s story is about a child being asked by God to do great things.

And it just so happens that today is Scout Sunday. Today we invite the Boy Scout Troop and the Cub Scout Pack that this church serves as the charter organization for to join us in worship for a blessing. We also invite others who are involved in any Scouting organizations, Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, Brownies, Girl Scouts, to join us as well, and we celebrate them and ask God’s blessing upon them.

We have all of these young people here, as well as their parents and their Scout leaders and the adults who sit on their Scouting committees, and we have this story of God telling a young person that he is being chosen for something big and something important.

Maybe God is trying to tell us something. Maybe God is saying, “you know, I have some big plans for these young people”. And maybe God is telling us that we should listen to them.

The young people who are here today are sooner than we think going to be responsible for the world that we are creating now. They will be the generation to deal with environmental problems. They will wrestle with war, and with peace. They will decide whether or not to work to end discrimination in every form. They will try to find ways to make sure that their neighbors have enough to get by. They will inherit the world that we leave to them.

Which is all the more reason that we who are adults have a job to do. Not only do we have to help to create the best possible world for them to inherit, but we also have to prepare them for their place in it, and for the hard but good work that they are going to be asked to do.

The Cub Scout pack that we sponsor has been having a lot of fun, but they’ve also been learning a lot that will prepare them for the time when they are called to be leaders. They’ve been learning about what it means to be a good citizen. They’ve been learning how to treat others with respect. They’ve been learning, at a very young age, what leadership means and how to be leaders. And we as a church are supporting them in this work because we believe it matters.

My hope is that the boys who are in our Cub Scout pack now will go on to be Boy Scouts. But, more importantly, my hope is that they will go on to be young people who are filled with confidence in their own abilities. My hope is that when later in their life they get some sort of a calling, some sort of a nudge in a particular direction, they will feel ready to accept it, and they will draw upon what they are learning here feel confident.

That’s my hope for all young people, boys and girls, Scouts or not. That we who are adults would be finding ways to empower then to answer their calling with confidence. That we would teach them what matters. That we would give them the skills that they need for a lifetime. And that we would understand that when we hand them something like a pine box derby car, we’re not cut teaching them how to sand wood or put wheels on a car, we’re teaching them that God created them to do the things they never knew they could do before.

In a few minutes we will be saying a blessing for our Scouts, and for their parents, and their leaders. We have Scouts from a variety of religious traditions today, and so we will honor those differences in the blessing. Whatever they believe, today we are going to ask that they will be blessed them and prepared to serve the greater good in their communities.

But if you offer a blessing to someone, that means you have to take part in it too. So for those of us who extend our hand in blessing, we are also making our young people a promise. We are telling them that we will help them to grow. We will provide the resources they need, within our ability. And, most of all, when God calls them to do something new, we will listen to them and we will support them. Not just because they are our Scouts, but, more importantly, because they are children of God. And God calls even the youngest amongst us to do the greatest things. Amen.

10 Things You Can Do to Help Confront Bullying

On this day after Spirit Day, I’m committed to keeping awareness of bullying at the forefront of my mind. I just shared these ten suggestions with my parishioners. What would you add?

  1. Let the youth in your life know how you feel about bullying. Just like you talk to them about other life choices, talk to them about how you expect them to treat their peers. Encourage them to covenant with others to make their school, team, etc. a bullying-free zone.
  2. Whenever possible, talk about the deeper reasons we do not bully. Make connections for the youth in your life between respect for all of God’s creation and respect for all people. Talk about why your faith teaches you not to bully.
  3. If you were bullied, tell your story. Sometimes youth who are being bullied feel ashamed of the fact. Or, they may not realize that people they love have gone through the same thing, and have come out the other side.
  4. If a young person who is being bullied comes to you for support, encourage open dialogues with them. Do not shame them for being bullied or tell them they need to “get a thicker skin”. Stress that this is not their fault.
  5. Don’t dismiss bullying as “kids will be kids” or say “this has always happened, and it always will…they’ll be fine”. Besides the fact that these statements do nothing to comfort a bullied kid, things are tougher than ever now. Because of Facebook, Twitter, texting, and other forms of communication, today’s bullied youth can now be targeted 24 hours a day, even in their own homes after school. Take bullying seriously, and be aware of how social media might be abused for this purpose.
  6. If a young person in your life is the bully get them the help they need. Bullies are not born. If they are targeting other young people it is often because they are learning the behavior from someone else.
  7. Model non-bullying behavior in your work, church, and home life. Bullying, unfortunately, does not end with high school. Adults are often just as guilty. Show the young people in your life what it means to treat everyone with respect and civility. Confront bullies with love, but firmness.
  8. Help shape anti-bullying programs in your local community. Take a public stand against bullying. Encourage parents and other adults to talk about the issues. Participate in honest dialogue.
  9. Grow your youths’ confidence in their ability to stand up to bullies. Teach them to be strong without being a bully. Praise them when they stand up for more vulnerable classmates. Differentiate “turning the other cheek” from allowing one’s self to be continually abused.
  10. Give them hope. It does get better, and you should make sure they know that, but don’t leave it at that. Give them a reason to find hope now. Remind them of their value. Tell them they are loved. Talk to them about their future. And, if you are worried, talk to them about whether they are considering hurting themselves. It is worth it to have the conversation.

The Mainline Church and Dusty Feet: A sermon for July 8, 2012

When I was younger I used to hear people use the phrase “shake the dust from your feet” and I would have no idea what they were talking about. Someone would leave a job or their relationship would break up and another person would tell them, “just shake the dust from your feet and move on”.

It’s a weird phrase. What dust are they talking about? And what does shaking dust from your feet have to do with moving on from a bad relationship? It wasn’t until much later when I read this passage that I understood where that language even came from and why it made sense.

Jesus is sending out his disciples to the people. He’s sending them out two by two and he’s telling them to be prophets. That means he’s telling them to speak a hard, but liberating, truth to the people they meet. He tells them to leave everything behind. Don’t even take food. Just go.

Jesus tells them to stay in any place that welcomes them for a while, but if they are rejected, if people refuse to hear what they are saying, to leave. And he tells them that as they walk away they should shake the dust off their feet as a sign that they had not been welcomed.

When I think about Jesus I usually don’t think about him like this. I think about the shepherd who leaves the flock behind to find the one missing sheep, the one who never lets us go. But then I remember that there was a time that Jesus faced rejection too. He tells the disciples that a prophet is not without honor, except in their hometown. He knew that from personal experience. He knew what the disciples were going to face.

This is not Jesus rejecting or leaving people behind. Instead this is Jesus telling his disciples that sometimes this is the hard truth: you will be rejected and you will have to move on and hope that the ones who rejected you will later change their minds and follow you. Jesus knew that sometimes it was impossible to get everyone on board, but that sometimes you had to move forward anyway before the train derailed.

Its sort of a Leadership Principles of Jesus 101 class. As much as you want consensus, as much as you want everyone to join you, that won’t always happen. And sometimes you have to just move forward and do the right thing anyway.

I was thinking about this last week. I was watching the webcast of the biannual national meeting of my former denomination, the Presbyterian Church. It’s a church I still love, but I, like many others, had my own moment of shaking the dust from my feet in order to join a church that was truly committed to moving forward and embracing all in their ministry.

What struck me this day, though, had to do with youth and young adults. The Presbyterians stop periodically to worship. They had been in the midst of heavy, contentious debate, so the worship came at the best possible time. And on this day these young people, mostly high school and college students, had planned and were leading a very good service.

Except right before worship started, many of the meeting attendees slipped out. The youth found themselves with a far smaller crowd than they should have had. But that was okay. They moved forward, and they worshipped God anyway, and it was wonderful and prophetic.

In the midst of this, one wise adult quipped: Next time we wonder why young people are not staying in our church, we may want to remember this. They were right. The young people were bringing a prophetic voice, and it was being ignored. It makes perfect sense that they might shake the dust off their feet and move on to a place that hears their message and wants to work with them.

Now, Im not calling out the Presbyterians here, because this is an issue for the larger church. This happens in denominations, and in churches, all over. The younger generations, including my own, don’t want to engage in church arguments. We don’t want to watch lukewarm churches debate endlessly about doing something good, no matter what it is. We want to be in places of justice and action and goodness.

Those youth had just watched their church being torn apart over an issue that in their minds is greatly settled. But then they offered worship, and no one listened. They were so exhausted from the arguing, that they walked away from the balm of Gilead. I think that’s an example of why so many young people, and people of every age, have shaken the dust of organized religion off their feet, and decided to forge their own spiritual path instead. When the church doesn’t receive prophetic voices, those prophetic voices will walk away from us shake the dust off their feet, and walk into the future.

Sometimes I wonder if when Jesus, a person of prophetic action, was talking about not being welcomed in his hometown, he was talking about the church?

But what if it didn’t have to be that way? What if the church, and particularly mainline churches like ours, like the Presbyterians, like the Episcopalians, became places focused on listening to God’s still speaking, prophetic voice, no matter where I came from? What if we were less focused on weighing the pros and cons until the time for action had passed and we had become irrelevant? What if instead we chose to become a people of action, welcoming the prophetic voices that all of us have? A people known more for our good works, than our hesitation.

What if we shook some dust from our own feet, and left the places that were holding us back behind? What if both in our personal lives, and in our lives together, we looked at the places where we felt stuck, where we felt paralyzed with fear or anxiety or inertia, and we decided that we were going to leave those places behind, shake the dust from our feet, and follow Jesus.
If we did that, I believe we could create something that people would take notice of, and want to be a part of. Even the ones who had shaken the dust of organized religion off their feet might come back and join us.

There’s a business book that I’ve been looking at that might have some relevance for those of us in the church. Now generally I’m wary of mingling the corporate and the church worlds, but the reality is that God can speak through anything.

The book is called “Blue Ocean Strategy” and it was published about seven years ago. In it the author talks about two different kinds of oceans. Blue oceans, and red oceans. Red oceans are overcrowded, and contain a glut of organizations that to the outside observer may as well be all the same. They look like, they talk alike, they offer the same thing. Eventually they make one another irrelevant.

But blue oceans are different. They offer a new product. They do it in a different way. They explore the spaces that have never been explored before. And eventually, they stand out and they attract people to them.

The book is about marketing, but I’m not talking about increasing profits. At least not with an “i” I’m talking about increasing prophets, with an “e”.

What is to stop a casual passerby from driving past one more church and thinking that church looks exactly like the last one and the one before that and the one before that and I’ll bet their all the same?

Being a church that blends in doesn’t help to grow prophets. People have rejected “all the same” whether it comes in a white meeting house church with traditional hymns or an auditorium with guitar music. They want something different.

So how do we do that? I don’t ask because I want more people on our roles. The mark of a faithful church is not its membership numbers. I ask because I want us to become a place that welcomes Christ’s voice, and shares it with the world.

Do we offer that free meal? Do we go out of our way to welcome people who may feel unwelcome? Do we finally start that men’s fellowship we’ve been kicking around for years? I can’t answer that. That’s up to you.

But I do know this. Christ has sent us here with a message for the world. One that is important enough that he didn’t want us to waste any time. If we are really going to follow him, everyday we have to look at the places that are holding us back, shake the dust from our feet, and go. If we do that, we will find much more than a blue ocean. We will find the kingdom of God, and we will be welcome there. Amen.